Book Review: CROW-WORK by Eric Pankey

 photo 7d9e1dcb-0b9f-4286-a71d-5ae73962eaf4_zpsjlvu7wbs.jpg Crow-Work
Poems by Eric Pankey
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Pankey’s collection begins with the ominously titled, “Ash.” Ashes are inscrutable remains, something that shows that there was a previous form, but reveals little about that form. “At the threshold of the dive, how to know/but indirectly,” the poem begins, establishing this theme of inscrutability. Pankey hedges, debates which image to use to express his idea, and finally settles on “a Buddha, handmade, / four meters high of compacted ash, the ash / remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.” Of course, this icon would be delicate, as, “With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates. / With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.” The very act of approaching it destroys it. Finally, Pankey gets at the meaning of his non-meaning, “An infant will often turn away as if / Not to see is the same as not being seen. / There was fire, but God was not the fire.”

Opening with such a powerfully, purposefully non-narrative poem sets a clear tone for the collection. Many of Pankey’s poems mirror the themes and images of “Ash.” Buddhist imagery and ideals permeate the collection. Many of the poems settle onto fleeting hints of scenes and images before skittering off, tantalizing the reader with meaning and significance. Pankey has removed the poet’s ego from the poems; he crafts evocative images but rarely assigns his personal emotional stamp to them. Rather, the joie de vivre of observation is his sustaining celebration. In “Spirit Figures,” he writes, “To hew a living flame, I let the pear / dissolve into its own muddy sugars; // I mix powdered bone with seed, / toss it high, / and let each handful fall as a crow upon the snow.” He describes a scene: “A lanky fox noses at a dead hawk: / startles, backs away, circles uncertain.” And, later, returns to the image, “Alive with hunger, wired with fear, the fox, / your envoy, said nothing. / I understood.” To put it simply, Pankey is trying to suss meaning from meaninglessness. In, “When We Meet On that Beautiful Shore,” he begins, “I keep speaking so as not to disappear.” He examines many sources of supposed comfort, in life, “There is no cause, / only correspondence.” and describes, “Pleasure no greater for its deferral.” Finally, the image which hints at what it is to be alive, “The stone rests/as water moves around it.”

The title poem is a meditation on meaningfulness, or meaninglessness. In the first stanza, he describes crows settling onto a field. Then:

There must be an equation for defining
The long odds that Vesuvius would erupt
On Vulcan’s feast day, or that a baby’s birth

Beneath the fall of a comet might result
In the slaughter of a thousand innocents.

Pankey then brings us back to the crows, “The crows scavenge what they can, are efficient. // The crows, in their crow-like way, do their crow-work, / Tidy up the wreckage, the aftermath.”

Though Pankey definitely has a Buddhist bent in his poems, he also has a heavy Christian focus. He references Christian paintings in a series of ekphrastic poems—personal favorites of mine in the collection. There’s also a heart of deeply personal poems, cementing the collection. “My Brother’s Insomnia,” is one of these, immediately followed by “My Brother’s Ghost.” In Insomnia, Pankey describes the interests and fears of a young boy:

He cares little for snakes, but fears spiders more.
The recluse spider is his least favorite.

Some nights in bed, he holds his breath and is dead.
Some nights in bed he holds his breath and listens

To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.

He cannot remember if it is summer
Or winter, if sleet or a wren pecks the window.

There’s a timeless element to Pankey’s descriptions; his brother is forever captured in this moment. In “Rehearsal for an Elegy,” Pankey gets at hard-learned truths with lines like, “After years of use the millstone is a mirror,” and, “If the past were honey / One could scrape it away / With the flat of a knife and be done with sweetness.” When Pankey considers religion, his isn’t a blind faith. As he states in “Fragment,” “What comfort to think that the great beast / Will be thrown into a lake of fire.”

Pankey’s poems remind of meditations. Many of them are titled some variation on the idea of a fragment, and work more as groupings of similar themes than coherent narratives. This isn’t, in any way, a criticism; Pankey links these themes coherently, giving his poems complexity and verve. I’ve read several of Pankey’s collections, and he continues to impress me with his exact language and his ability to get at the stuff of living an intellectual, spiritual life without coming off as didactic or overly vague.


 

Book Review: THE SPIRIT BIRD by Kent Nelson

 photo e4be8c9f-af43-4ffc-9432-3c181c61e91e_zpsqi1bd6o7.jpg The Spirit Bird
by Kent Nelson
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$24.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

The line between reality and imagination is very thin in The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson. This collection of short stories, told from both first and third person point of view, looks at the inner demons within all of us, the beautiful landscapes that reflect the confusion of our minds, and the differences between who we are and who we want to become.

Nelson has a magical way of twisting ordinary descriptions of people and places and making them come alive for the reader. For example in the self titled story, “The Spirit Bird,” a college professor and a student, Eric, venture into the woods to discover more than just a bird. Powerful sentences showcase a tightly wound tension:

I hear splintering, breaking, and I find Eric behind a boulder tearing pieces of wood apart, separating boards nailed poorly together. He’s stacking them in the small clearing. For a moment I think he’s going to build a fire, but the wood is wet and rotten and wouldn’t burn. He’s not piling but throwing it down randomly, throwing it away.

Nelson creates and then quickly destroys the tension between the two central characters in order to reach the dramatic climax. Here the professor understands why she wanted to look for a mysteriously rare bird, and Eric gains a friend despite his past. Also in this story the reader gets a sense of what The Spirit Bird book is all about—an out-of-the-box way of thinking and a desire to transcend the normal.

“Seeing Desirable Things” and “The Path on the Left Hand” are some of the most striking pieces in the book. They set up the main characters, Allen and Myron respectively, to make big life-changing decisions that will reveal more about themselves than what they hope to achieve. Allen will have to decide if another woman, who is not his wife, is able to sexually pleasure him, while Myron will have to choose whether or not to sleep with another man for the first time. As the stories come to a head, the characters’ inner thoughts are often reflected in powerful descriptions of flashbacks and scenery. In certain instances, these descriptions help heighten the tension that pushes the reader further along in the story and creates an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and resolution when completed.

These stories do not just explore a familiar coming out saga or racially charged tale, but instead reach beyond those typical narratives to come up with something even more engaging for the reader to connect with. In “The Beautiful Light,” Glenna works as a car mechanic in a male dominated field. As the pressure from the male workers at her job grows Glenna tries to escape work and the more she ventures farther and farther away from her usual neighborhood. Nelson does a wonderful job of creating the longing and desire for understanding that Glenna so painstakingly needs. Nelson does this through powerful sentences, such as, “Down the street was a boarded-up Blockbuster, the Uptown Florist, Disc-Go-Round, a movie theater. Dozens of wires crossed overhead. Glenna liked being anonymous, but at the same time, she wasn’t invisible. She occupied a place in the world.” Once Glenna meets Helen and starts to break away from her job does she let herself begin to explore her passion for writing and exploration of herself. The story ends with a beautiful description followed by, “Helen stood up, and Glenna did, too, and Helen took her arm.” Here, the reader can interpret the ending in a variety of ways that allows for a closer look at the descriptions, the characters, and the way Nelson paced his narrative that forces the reader to go back through for a second look.

One of the best stories in the collection is “Who is Danny Pendergast?” Here, humor is used as a way to visually represent the desire to be seen as a whole person. In other words, the story starts out with the protagonist, Danny Pendergast, explaining that he sometimes becomes a donkey. He goes from a normal everyday life as the CEO of Darwin Enterprises to being paranoid of becoming a donkey at any moment. Seen by others as a little weird and an outsider, his transformation allows for humorous moments between the woman he’s seeing, Luisa, and his desire to be liked by her. With witty dialogue, scenes of trying to channel his dead parents’ ghosts, and the feelings he begins to associate with his transformation, Danny realizes a pattern has developed. The thrilling climax comes when he sees Luisa again and finally understands why he started to become a donkey. Nelson does a great job of continuing the storyline without being overly sentimental or detracting from the humor of the piece. The raw emotions only help to further a deep connection with the reader and a better understanding of why such an affliction happened to Danny in the first place.

Ultimately, The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson highlights the desire to be whole and a reason to reach for more acceptance from other people and one’s self. Wrapped within many layers of race, religion, and sexual orientation, the book looks at complicated narratives of real life issues and pushes the reader to react to these sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious stories by forming deeper bonds and connections to the characters. Still, at the end of each story the reader will feel a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously trying to puzzle out exactly what happened to each character in the end.


 

Book Review: ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS by Nayomi Munaweera

 photo edab3839-5d51-4b54-91f5-8592586ee0c6_zpscemeg08y.jpg Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
$24.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, has received rave reviews since its initial release in Sri Lanka back in 2012. It’s been published in the United States less than a year, and already its prestige is noted by award-winning authors internationally, as well as stateside critics from Publisher’s Weekly. It won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and short-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. NoViolet Bulawayo, the award-winning author of We Need New Names, said the novel was “…tender, beautiful, and devastating,” a statement I can defend effortlessly.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a fictional work depicting the very real Sri Lankan civil war, which only ended back in 2009. Munaweera’s novel was timely, and provided an intimate look at life in Sri Lanka during this conflict. It focuses on the lives of two young women and their families—Yasodhara, from a Sinhala family, and Saraswathi, from a Tamil family. Two people on the opposite sides of the war, their lives separate and yet connected. Munaweera’s narrative ties them together through tragedy, and shows with fatal accuracy how far-reaching and devastating the consequences of war can be.

Long before the war, Yasodhara tells us of a beautiful island. She describes “beaches [her father] does not know are pristine,” and “an ocean unpolluted by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.” She talks of mango trees, avocados and condensed milk, and the back room where the children gathered and grew up. Munaweera’s prose is poetic, “tender [and] beautiful,” as Bulawayo said; it mimics the intimacy of a memoir beautifully:

                                I am ten and Shiva is at my window, holding an unlit kerosene lamp. “You won’t believe what I’ve found!” he whispers. When I climb out, he pulls me along the side of the house, pushes aside jasmine vines to reveal a dark crevice… I am suddenly blinded, claustrophobia clawing at my throat when he fires up the lamp, and blue walls spring up around us. Such color! Cerulean, turquoise, flashes of emerald, like being swept underwater.

Saraswathi’s tale is not much different. In fact, the lives of the two girls—their families, their dreams, their innocent perspectives on the brewing chaos around them—are almost indistinguishable from one another. Yasodhara, like Saraswathi, is drawn to books and learning. Both are expected to marry well and reproduce, and both have dreams apart from that expectation. And both watch as their home falls apart.

Yasodhara, on the Sinhala side of the conflict, is afforded with the opportunity to flee to America with her sister, Lanka. Saraswathi, on the Tamil side, is not as fortunate. Munaweera tears these women apart, but in completely different ways. Neither is left unscarred by the war, despite the differing paths they take. While Yasodhara is literally torn from her family and place of her birth, Saraswathi’s body is torn apart by soldiers, an event which divides her from her family. Yasodhara enters a loveless, arranged marriage, and Saraswathi enters boot camp to become a Tamil Tiger, a mercenary. Up until this point in the novel, Munaweera does an excellent job keeping the two voices in equal proportion. As Saraswathi slowly slips into madness behind the lines of war; however, readers lose her voice. Her sections become shorter and shorter, like clipped thoughts. This reader wonders why Munaweera would choose to silence Saraswathi in this way, just as she is approaching the end of her life. I wanted to see the terror she had previously experienced as a victim and how that informed her new role as the oppressor. Instead, these sections are mere blips; we see what happens to her, but do not fully experience Saraswathi’s shift from fear, to anger, to total brainwashing and devotion. This change happens very quickly, despite the resilience Saraswathi exhibited earlier in the novel. She says, “I am fearless. I am free. Now, I am the predator,” and suddenly she is murdering people without thought, wishing to take her sister away to become a soldier, and all the while expressing nothing of the woman we grew to know throughout the novel prior. By chapter 11, Saraswathi’s voice is cut to mere sentences beside pages of narrative from Yasodhara; the two are no longer equal, and I am perplexed by Munaweera’s decision to do this.

Indeed, the novel is devastating. As it comes to a close and we see Saraswathi blown apart and Yasodhara’s sister lost in the blast, it is clear that not one soul is left untouched by the war that ravaged the island. The novel’s poetry wears chaos well, and departs to us a haunting experience from a time not soon to be forgotten.


 

Book Review: DAY UNTO DAY by Martha Collins

 photo eabefdb6-8172-4baa-bb09-88a81bda3f9c_zpska7prier.jpg Day Unto Day
Poems by Martha Collins
Milkweed Editions, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

This April, the Internet will be flooded with legions of poets writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month. Whether or not you decide to answer the NaPoWriMo call, you might do well to pick up Martha Collins’s sixth full-length collection, Day Unto Day. Collins invokes an older source than NaPoWriMo—Philip Pain’s Daily Meditations and Quotidian Preparations for Death, said to be the earliest original verse published in America (1666). Pain wrote four six-line verses each day for sixteen days; Collins wrote one poem every day of one month each year (and she is still writing them—Night Unto Night is in the works). The book takes its title from Psalm 19, “Day unto Day uttereth speech, / and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” In this Psalm, David is full of praise for the world God has created, and deems God’s law “perfect.” But don’t let the title fool you: this is not your ordinary poetry of meditation or praise. The law of this book is attention; it is the “eye always open.”

Day Unto Day consists of six sequences of poems, written over the course of six years. Jean Valentine calls these poems “little lights which sometimes sound like prayer.” Each spare, musical poem is indeed a “little light,” which Collins shines on the mundane, the philosophical, the political, and the cosmic. Collins has said that she set up rules for herself as she wrote—some governing the number of lines in each poem, some governing the repeating patterns. One of the most compelling formal choices is the repeating pattern in the first and fourth sequences, “Over Time” and “Moving Still.” The last word of each poem becomes the first word of the following poem. Thus each poem spins into the next one, carrying forward an image, a sound, a word; the repeated word is a hinge that opens onto the landscape of the next poem. Collins plays freely within this structure, crafting a cyclical, layered meaning that echoes throughout the book.

With its focus on loss, mortality, and the natural world, the first sequence, “Over Time,” seems to shift away from the political engagement of her recent books, Blue Front and White Papers. But near the end of the sequence, the “newsy world” enters in poem #22 in the form of the World Series and partisan politics:

God is not a Republican
Democrat Yankee Red
Sox fan of him or her—

But him is whom our bed

is holding, him my one is home
again, oh bless him keep him safe

this little time that is our life.

God becomes entangled with sports, politics, and the recovery of the speaker’s beloved. Collins offers us life as it is lived, the boundaries around experiences inevitably porous.

The final poem of the first section considers mortality as it loops back to the first line of the first poem in the sequence: “not.” The speaker is keenly aware of her own waning time. However, while Collins gives us the language and image of negation, the speaker’s voice remains crisp and strong: “I’m here, much / less less. Not yet not.” “Not,” a staccato metonym for death, signals the way Collins approaches death at intervals:

Over and over again
and again, time

after time, stone
upon hallowed stone.

More than bones, ghost-
thin skin, I’m here, much

less less. Not yet not.

Reading this book demands that you quiet your mind to hear the “hum of words / under words.” These poems model a way to pay attention to the world through a close examination of a particular image, object, or phrase. Within the structure she has set forth, Collins plays with white space, dropped lines, and a variety of voices and tones. Her unexpected syntax continually engages the reader in making meaning. She is never stingy with her sonic pleasures. For instance, take the lines from the third section, “Under Green,” “creeping phlox on an old grave,” or from the third section, “Coming Through,” “Because we are snow, snow / on bones, snow hearts with snow / veins branching out into stick / fingers.” Because of Collins’s linguistic play, we need the moments in which she touches down to give us a more grounded image: “My love checks / his blood now, wet rubies / on his fingers.”

Emerson wrote, “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” We are made aware of this thread connecting all of us, with its potential for good and for terror, perhaps most intensely in this poem:

Centered, surrounded by pines, one
could forget the uncentered world

except for the parallel cables and wires
scratching the landscape, the cloudless sky,

stretching all the way to a vest strapped
to a six-year-old boy who is told that flowers
will spray out if he touches, here, this button.

Collins lets us see her mind at work, attentive to the ebbs and flows of our complicated world, to try to figure out “how to save / what’s been lost oh little world.”

It’s as if each poem in the book is a frame within a series of stop-motion pictures; the overall form stays the same, with slight variations of length, spacing, and structure. Within each poem and sequence, images change and recur, colors weave in and out, speakers lament and praise and question. These poems evoke momentum as much as stillness. They show us how we often are stuck in the same places, while the stuff of our lives recurs, whether it’s ongoing war, the fear of losing one’s parents, or a religious holiday. Isn’t this what we often need, and what drives us to keep a journal, to meditate, or go to therapy—to pay attention enough to see the contours of our quotidian lives so that we might be able to change something? As Collins puts it—“seeing things is changing things.”


 

 

 

Book Review: HABITATION: COLLECTED POEMS by Sam Hamill

 photo 7a97ec38-b442-4e6a-acc8-c2230f2c680d_zps92dlv4bt.jpg Habitation
Collected Poems by Sam Hamill
Lost Horse Press, 2014
$25.00

reviewed by Mike Walker

Sam Hamill has had a long and diverse career as a poet, publisher, editor, and translator—his work as a translator of poetry from ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Greek alone would place him in a rare arena of those who have contributed greatly to expanding our literary sphere over recent decades. As a poet, he has explored the physical and culture landscape of the American Northwest in a way few others have, bringing to his efforts an uncanny eye for not only detail but for what the Japanese in their complex program of traditional aesthetics call “mono no aware,” a concept with no direct analog in English or most European languages, but one centered on the idea that nothing lasts forever. This is a key and intriguing concept for those from any Western tradition: while much of Western religion and culture trumpets the benefit of the eternal, mono no aware is based in the sense of mujo, or the lack of lasting in most things, whether natural or man-made. It is undoubtedly a concept Hamill would be well aware of via his work in Japanese literature, but it is one he seems to locate in the most organic of senses within his explorations of the Pacific Northwest as well. Topical poetry that in the hands of someone else, no matter how gifted, would come across as tragic (in all meanings of the term) becomes something more in Hamill’s approach; he can concern himself with a fire that consumed a skid-row hotel and the effect is completely different from what one would expect, not centered in pathos nor condemnation but in the mujo understanding of how easily things can dissolve—how easily lives, how easily structures, how easily cultures, all may find themselves in ruins, in ashes.

This collection offers something of Hamill’s work that is essential, which is the ability to approach it in a vast anthology. Many of his poems work very well alone or in a multi-author collection, to be sure, but here one is able to get a real feel for the poet, despite Hamill not being an easy man to read in any regard. His poetry is approachable, inviting even, but it can be difficult, it can demand that you read one long poem and then five more to really place that first one where it belongs and garner its full worth. This task is possible with a collection such as Habitation. Poems such as “In the Company of Men” can be approached fully on the beauty of their language or on the separate if connected beauty of their descriptions of natural habitats, but they deserve further inclusion in the scope of work that Hamill seamlessly makes at once autobiographical yet isolated from the poet. Hamill has taught in prisons, an experience that expectedly carries over into his poems, but he doesn’t treat this experience as do many other writers who have taught in prisons, inner-city schools, or other institutions thought to be challenging. In poems such as “The Egg” he is able to write about his father in similar terms, able to talk about memories and experiences in a subdued manner that doesn’t demand attention but instead invites the reader to consider everything on their own terms. However personal his poetry becomes, Hamill retains a deft ability to take a step back at almost all instances, a skill I feel he probably learned as a translator of poetry and perhaps one of the greatest skills we who translate from other languages pick up in our work.

In “Requiem,” one of the longer poems collected here and one dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth (an ambitious and daunting dedication if ever there has been one), Hamill is able to unite much of what we see now and then in his shorter poems, these references to landscape and the muted colors of the Northwest, these inclusions of man’s hand on that landscape in references to things like new houses with their indoor plumbing, this overall stretch to be inclusive yet retain a light hand, as if the words he’s using are only replicas for the meanings of those words—and how acute that truth is when using those words in critical situations. Anyone who knows of the ways in which both Chinese and Japanese replicate meaning in a character, how meaning is built into language like blocks more than in any extant Indo-European language, will see at once where Hamill is coming from, why he knows of the merit in treading lightly.

Nobody knows what love is. Nobody understands the past.

This is from “The Cartographer’s Wedding,” a shorter yet very powerful poem. It’s a line that could just as well be in a torch song or heavy metal rocker from the later 1980s—it’s not exceptional and is in fact expected, trite even, when it stands alone. But in the context of the title, the idea the map-maker is getting married and there is no map for the territory ahead, the idea that folly is basic to love yet the world is vacant without love, that the past is unable to inform despite being the entire reason for a wedding—that tradition cannot serve well the best service it should provide us. All of this puts far more power and depth into this two-page poem than we could even hope, and it carries off its feat with flying colors. Mystics and oracles turn up commonly in Hamill’s poems and they take on the roles they’ve had since their early days in Greek theatre, the roles of soothsayers, of explaining the future, yet no one understands the past, how ironic, considering if there is anything that an oracle actually is good for, it is the legacy it brings forth from its tradition, especially its Greek tradition. The oracle, the mystics who see the planets align, the Three Weird Sisters—all of them really are adept at telling of the past, not the future. The languages Hamill has built his translator’s career around are languages steeped in tradition, ancient and of great value not only for their literary merits but their historical ones. When we come back to the fact that Hamill made so much of his career in the Northwest, we have to contend with another truth: this region of the United States for decades was at once considered under-known, new, removed, remote, but also holding some of the oldest of Native American culture traditions and some of the most-ancient of geological ones. Therefore, the return to mystics, the return to the question of the past, the return to a timeline uncertain, lacking in accurate waypoints, devoid of constant stewardship and predicated on the mythical seems apt.

His joys were neither large nor many.

But they were precise.

In this, in speaking of an old Chinese poet “in the October of his life,” Hamill hones in on something often missing from like-minded poems: that sense of mono no aware, that sense of neither pity nor sorrow but of understanding and gain. A joy precise in a world lacking in certainty and exact joys is a prized thing, even if not great in size, worth, or number.

I have recently started watching an animé called Noragami; I wrote a thesis on architecture in Japanese animé and have long been concerned with the genre as a fan and critic alike, yet Noragami is different.Noragami’s plot tells of a “stray god”—a young god without worshipers or temples—and his regalia, or sword, he uses to slay demons and perform other feats. This sword is not forged of steel, but is the afterlife manifestation of a young teenage boy’s soul—of a soul that departed before its time. So, the animé which for all of its fantasy and cartoon humor actually follows many Shinto and Taoist traditions quite well, is built around the characters of a teenager who is a god without godship and his weapon, which is the soul of an even younger teen. I bring this up in the midst of reviewing Hamill’s poems to make a very clear point: the spiritual conception of Japanese religion and of the place of that religion even today in society is complex and of an outlook very different from Western faiths. While watching this animé and reading Hamill’s poems I kept seeing similar themes appear, often in subtle ways, but certainly present. What is regalia in America or the United Kingdom? It is the formal trappings of a king or university president or bishop. 式服 (Shikifuku) is not regalia, though it translates as such into English. Shikifuku could be a formal scepter of pomp and circumstance but it also, per Shinto beliefs, could be the manifestation of a soul as it is in Noragami with Yukine, the boy transmogrified into a sword. The Chinese in the Taoist tradition speak of the 神器, the fetishes, or holy weapons of the gods, which are of the very same idea. In Hamill’s work, we find though never fully explicated as such, a similar theme: the transient soul becomes etched in the service of others, its flaws their strengths, its immortality the tangible touch of physical world.

But I am dumb. Winter draws in its nets of silver.

The above is as random a line as I could pull out of one of Hamill’s poems, but I wanted it to be this random. I want an appreciation of his language even when separate from its context. This idea—the harmony the Japanese call wabi-sabi—of cohesion found in nature across the board from blade of grass to human life to forged sword (which, again, Noragami reminds us could even be made from an innocent soul) is central to how Hamill writes. It is for him a calling card, an invitation that allows entry into places most of us cannot go, into the response we need to allow at the ready in order to ask if there is evil in the world (this, a question in a poem asked and answered sublimely by Hamill). It is both blessing and curse of Hamill’s writing and his age that he has so many answers ready to his own questions, but overall it is a welcome aspect of his poetry. Also, as I’ve found expectedly with other older poets, there are ample tributes to peers, wishes for the departed, all those issues older people dwell upon that those of us in our youth do not, though as I write this I learned that an airline pilot in his late twenties probably crashed an airliner into a mountainside, taking his life and those of 149 others aboard. Perhaps we all need the somber face Hamill provides at times here, regardless of age.

“life after life after life goes by,” the poet said

When Hamill quotes others, it is oft like this: it is the warrant for his vocation, the reminder that he’s in the right line of business and is one of a long line of distinguished gentlemen plying this trade. He reminds us often, but never in a self-serving nor arrogant manner, of the role of poet in society. He again often turns to Chinese traditions, to places and points in the scope of time where poetry mattered more to society. Hamill is not aloof, but he realizes his own worth. He remarks in a poem of the value in getting poets to translate poetry—not a non-poet translator. He reminds us often, maybe even constantly, of his study of the Orient but he reminds us of such in the best way possible, by showing not saying, by providing a depth of understanding of what he writes. It was when I was watching Noragami and reading his poems and found the Zen aspects most not in those poems that speak of such on surface level, but in the poems that do not when I realized Hamill was, for lack of better term, for real. He was able and adept of bringing the core values we find in writing based in Taoism to life in cases where he was writing of Greece, or of Jesus. As life goes by, Hamill is fixed upon its trajectory. And also, we have to remember, Hamill has translated poetry from Greek—he is very aware of Greece as Greece when he writes of it, but he writes of it nearly as if it isn’t Greece but maybe Honshu as the specter of Asia has followed him to this topic, yet with beautiful, awesome, results.

Overall, Habitation is a greatly impressive collection, though at times due to its sheer volume it can at once overwhelm and depress. Part of my reaction in this manner is probably due to a difference in age and outlook I have from Hamill: I’ve noticed often that collected works by older poets have this effect on me. There’s too much emphasis on departed friends, on other poets they knew, on the wistful in general. It is hard for me, with my interests and approach to life, to connect with some of this though I understand how at their age and station it would be apt. Hamill can pull off tributes better than most though, due to the mono no aware sense you get from his poetry. He can write about loss or passing in a way that retains fully all necessary dignity. That said, many of these poems focus on the past, not the present nor the future, just as I complained of the soothsayers I mentioned when they appear in his work. Everything tells us about the past, and for the past, is not that an unfair share of the attention? When nature is the topic, Hamill is at his best. In “Malbolge: Prince William Sound” he offers us that view of nature we’d hope for in the best of poetry and still a very personal view. In “Blue Monody” he uses the same techniques but due to the personal-historical nature of the foci I find them less compelling, though no less astute and well-crafted.

There is no doubt as to the worth and the scope of the work collected in Habitation. Hamill’s career, despite his many and diverse accomplishments, is still under-known and perhaps this will be the volume to remedy that situation. There is repetition despite the diversity of poems and at times, if you’re reading much of the book at once, that can become tiresome. However, it’s a powerful and very intriguing collection and shines a light on Hamill’s many general talents as a writer, allowing not only an exploration of his poetry but via that poetry also insight into his work as a translator and what a rich background has allowed for these poems in the first place.


 

Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

 photo 88ca6d79-48be-4bb8-845e-83bb586abd43_zpssx4nev4g.jpg River House
Poems by Sally Keith
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

reviewed by Alison Taverna

In her fourth poetry collection, River House, Sally Keith straddles this world—oriented, logical, with the world of grief—timeless, aimless, consuming. All sixty-three poems are elegies to the speaker’s mother, even though she confesses “I used to like to teach a course on elegy, / But I don’t anymore. / The form no longer interests me.” Each poem fits on a page, clearly numbered as a title, followed with a period. I read this mathematical, clean ordering, first, as a mask. Create order in the chaos, the disillusionment. Too, though, I see this counting as a process, a heavy-footed, day-by-day movement through suffering. As if living doesn’t have a name anymore. Each moment indistinguishable from what follows, and what will follow, for “There isn’t really an order that would be correct.”

Reading, we find ourselves pulled by the river. At times Keith’s stanzas flow in a linear narrative. Other times we chop through lines, spin around quotes and references from authors and artwork. These jumps are intentional as Keith explains,

Forgive me for all these quotations.
I take notes when I read. There can be instances of real clarity.
I always hope I might remember them.

The mother rents herself a house by the harbor, where the land sits on the same level as the water, the house on stilts. What is usually separate, the land and the shore, now exist together. This landscape, these poems, all grief conflates into survival. The speaker finds comfort in this survival, this movement—

…I reread a favorite poem

In which a speaker in mourning sits by a river thinking.
That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me.
In the margin, “grief” was the word I once had written.

The voice in River House strikes me as overtly controlled. The collection opens with thirteen sentences in sixteen lines. The final stanza in the opening poem hints towards this straightforwardness: “Because our mother is gone, we do not need the house. / We tell ourselves this. Soon we will clean out inside.” Directness avoids sentimentality for the poem, and is a method of coping for the speaker.

Still, this direct voice does not limit any emotions, for I’m mourning with the speaker, each poem somehow more shattering than the one previous. In what I consider the most striking moment of the collection, the speaker discusses promises made to the mother during the aging process,

…We would keep

Her nails trimmed, her hair combed. We would keep
The bright lipstick from bleeding up, away from her lips.

As the collection continues, Keith begins to step out of the poem. This happens in 55. The poem discusses the mother’s wooden drawer that only opens via a special code. At the beginning of the fifth stanza a volta occurs. The speaker breaks the wall and acknowledges the poem and audience, a meta-move. More, the speaker doesn’t just step out of the poem, but gives up on the poem, for “By now, you must already have figured the rest, / How the poem will end with the code…” I find this one of the most honest moves in the collection, suggesting that yes, sometimes writing doesn’t ease the constancy of loss. But Keith writes through these moments, forces forward, towards another poem, towards a life where everything can exist as solely itself—

The message in the waves is the waves.
Don’t work harder. Don’t allow me to weep,
Talking about the river. The river exists. The house exists.


Book Review: THAT OUR EYES BE RIGGED by Kristi Maxwell

 photo 8656465d-fa5d-4c3d-ae4d-661cca00f76f_zpsw33fgzs3.jpg That Our Eyes Be Rigged
Poems by Kristi Maxwell
Saturnalia Books, 2014
$15.00

reviewed by Dakota Garilli

I always want to say falsetto to sing it true in falsetto.
– “My Cost”

Following its desire to play with and harness the strange power of words, Kristi Maxwell’s That Our Eyes Be Rigged seems to be a meditation on the nature of memory and moments shared. From its opening poem, “In Which We Ask, Exist,” small fragments come to light piece by piece and allow the speaker to create small worlds:

Light chews on the patio
or could
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
pitiable face

Enter our star player in unpunctuated lines, the breaks and creatively-chosen words of which displace typical language into an ever-shifting quicksand of images and moods. This collection is not for syntactical purists – in fact, it’s frustrating. It begs the reader to give painstaking attention to each new turn while simultaneously allowing whole trains of thought to break down in a manner somewhat akin to a Gertrude Stein poem. But for the reader who sticks around, there are some sweet nuggets. The surprises of the opening poem, “My Cost,” “[When I/ said deliver],” “Mined,” and the “Every Time I Want to Write You…” series may not be enough to sustain us, but they offer treasured moments of understanding amidst a stifling maze of words.

The most disconcerting element of Maxwell’s collection is that we know the meaning of each word it includes, or could at least look them up—and yet these same words, stripped to their bare sounds and played out to the thinnest representations of themselves, quickly become incomprehensible to us. Not surprising, as we come to realize that many of these poems are about a breakdown of communication.

“Of Them,” a retelling of moments shared by a couple no longer together, showcases some of Maxwell’s strongest moments in this linguistic experiment. Her lover’s hands are, unexpectedly, “a flesh chapel hid behind the scaffolding of open-fingered gloves,” and a mirror becomes “a park where light picnics.” Trips to the (actual) park are named by what makes them memorable, like “The First Below Zero Night.” While Maxwell’s plunging into the chill of these splintered memories may not suit her purpose —“To write about parks the way he walks through them” —the poem ambles to a wonderfully poignant close:

Snow erases mud our feet rewrite.

Snow and mud and our feet plunged and our feet plugged into our shoes and snow and mud a feat to plough through and we do.

Slipping, we separate and our separating is a colon between us.

We who number who digital clock and set ourselves for the occasion.

By the poem’s end, any trace of these lovers has already disappeared under fresh snow. Their inevitable separation manifests and, like the numbers on a digital clock, they blink slowly out of our sight.

Not all of Maxwell’s poems are so easy to track. It’s clear she sees language as a series of, as one poem is titled, “Tiny Wires Touching the Right Way.” That poem’s epigraph might be Maxwell’s plea for better readers: “Where is the body that is prepared to receive language?” Answer: Only in the space where one is willing to be lost, to be astonished by the flexibility of words and reminded of the utter meaningless of language when attempting to articulate those emotions and questions that sometimes feel incommunicable.

Her speaker seems to realize the growing futility of this attempt at connection. Her irritation becomes apparent in “[My soul’s in your head],” printed here in its entirety:

My soul’s in your head

if anywhere. The song

said so or something

like it. I fold my voice

to fit your ear. I fold it

more compactly

and store it. Stalled

after all. What horse

is this—that carries us

one at a time?

The horse, of course, is language. Maybe better put, meaning. Because Maxwell’s soul is never truly in our head, no matter how carefully her words are chosen for shape and shade or how compactly they’re folded. We are filtering her words as much as she filters her world, and somewhere in between we either find meaning or don’t. In poetry, an art where so much time is spent perfecting and so little at play, that’s perhaps a useful reminder.


 

Book Review: SHAPE OF THE SKY by Shelagh Connor Shapiro

 photo ca5fbfe0-77c6-4898-bd3c-ee7809d39087_zps9zvyicr3.jpg Shape of the Sky
by Shelagh Connor Shapiro
Wind Ridge Books, 2014
$15.95

reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

There’s music in the air in Shape of the Sky, the novel by Shelagh Connor Shapiro, out now from Wind Ridge Books. Music is central to this story of Resolute, Vermont—a tiny town, population 613. It’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Complete with general stores and the Mom & Pop Diner, it’s a charming place, if a little claustrophobic.

The good people of Resolute are looking to bring some much needed business to their town, and the opportunity presents itself with a Woodstock-esque rock concert from fictional band Perilous Between, the biggest musical act to come out of Vermont in years. It’s a win-win for Resolute’s citizens—the town can open their shops and restaurants to the thousands of concert-goers, while farmers can rent out their land for the plethora of tents, RVs, and drug-addled youth.

There’s a few naysayers to this plan, of course, but for the most part, Resolute stands…well, resolutely. Perilous Between’s fans swarm in and all seems like the concert will go off without a hitch. That is, until a young fan’s body is discovered in the river. From there, the characters investigate, speculate, and meditate on this murder—Resolute has been without a homicide for generations now, after all.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Shape of the Sky. It features an ensemble cast, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character. Oftentimes, these characters’ plot lines interweave and coalesce in surprising ways. The writing style changes from chapter to chapter to give voice to these characters. From the paranoid ramblings of the town gossip Rita Frederick, to the quiet, observant musings of Becca Akyn, paraplegic mother and line cook at the town’s diner.

For instance, here’s how Rita Frederick’s chapter starts: “The dishes have piled up and the mail has piled up and the laundry has piled up and none of it feels like Rita’s fault or job, but somehow she is the only one in this family who’s going to do anything about any of it and sometimes she wonders how it came to be this way, since she’s not a naturally neat person.”

These are the things that fuel and worry Rita. They’re not the academic and musical stresses experienced by Carter, Becca Akyn’s son. They’re not the cultish concerns of Zedekiah, town oddball. They’re the dishes. The state of her home, and in a larger sense, her town itself.

Indeed, many characters have strong voices, which in turn gives Resolute, Vermont a strong sense of place. It’s a tightly knit community, one where a newcomer transplant is regarded with suspicion and eventually begrudging hospitality. I’ve certainly visited this type of town. Shape of the Sky gives life and voice to the interstate towns that are often passed over in literature, in favor of countless novels set in New York, LA, or really any town with a population over 700.

The setting further forms through Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s often gorgeous writing.

Now she tried to see what the shape of the sky might be, resting atop Mount Witness like so much torn blue paper, glued in place with paste. For a second, for just a blink, she could see it that way. Just like, when she’d happened to glance at the cedars lit from behind at sunset the other night, she’d noticed them as it for the first time: dark feathery tops redefining the world that lay beyond.

Small town, Vermont, on a chilly spring evening—it sounds really nice, no? Imagery is one of the consistent strengths of Shape of the Sky, with words and metaphors that surprised and delighted me.

But as I said, the novel is really propelled by Resolute’s citizens, and their differences from each other. There’s a constant sense of change, or movement, with each turn of the page. Shelagh Connor Shapiro uses flashbacks and cutaways generously, which could have gotten confusing in a less skilled author’s hands. Instead, I often found that they clarified my understanding of the characters—oftentimes, the same events will be experienced by multiple characters, shedding new light on certain mysteries. And for a novel about a murder, it’s a rather intriguing way to learn precisely how and why the victim died. Characters both are and aren’t what they seem in Shape of the Sky.

That’s not to say that this is universal—in fact, some characters came off as a bit one-note. Because the novel features such a large cast, both Resolute natives and concert-goers, there are a few that aren’t as fleshed out. Every now and then, I would question a character’s purpose in terms of the overall plot. It’s not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, but it is something I noticed—most likely because there are so many other memorable characters to which I compared them.

Near the end of the novel, most of their plot lines had resolved, but there were a few threads left dangling. And these threads were tied up in an epilogue of sorts—quick throwaway paragraphs that detail what happened to this specific character, or how these two characters are spending more time together now. Carter and Becca Akyn, neatly tied up with a bow. They’re endings that the book probably could’ve done without—it almost seemed an injustice to describe in a sentence what happened to a character with whom I had spent forty pages or so.

But aside from this, Shape of the Sky was a pleasant read that featured a memorable cast of characters. It’s about a tiny burg rocked by big events: a music festival and a murder. It’s about people who find tragedy and joy in each other’s accomplishments and mistakes. In a way, it’s the classic story about what happens when a stranger comes to town. Well, when a couple thousand strangers come to town.


 

Precarious Music // Book Review: SUGAR RUN ROAD by Ed Ochester

 photo eb351e79-6958-4340-957d-1d413240de94_zpsrfum3aft.jpg Sugar Run Road
Poems by Ed Ochester
Autumn House Press, 2015
$17.95

reviewed by Peter Blair

In his famous essay, “The American Background,” William Carlos Williams writes that America needs to create a “culture of immediate references.” Such a culture relies on direct, unmediated perception and contact with the American continent itself, free of European preconceptions and the “crazy rigidities and imbecilities” of a society ignorant of its own place or ground which then stifles lives and growth.

Reading Ed Ochester’s new book, Sugar Run Road, reminds me of such a poet who in the second poem of the book, “Even As I Write This,” asks readers to keep in mind “the deep grammar and inner mystery of, . . . your native land.” Similarly, in “Sunflowers,” he writes, “you don’t / know where you will be / but you’d better / see where you are,” and in “September Rain”: “So many people don’t know / where they live.” Like the speaker who feels lucky to know where he lives, Ochester’s poems celebrate ordinary, often-forgotten people who respond to their home ground and the natural landscape (mostly rural Western Pennsylvania) of birds, trees, and hills. In a short poem, “At the Farm Store,” the speaker overhears the owner tell a friend: “O the figs / are all gone / from the vine / outside my bedroom. / You have no idea / how wonderful / it was to wake up / and open the window / and eat one.”

This immediacy and connection to the local permeates the book’s three sections which range from biting satires of our current “imbecilities,” short haiku-like pieces, and poems which blend historical figures and immediate personal experiences in to a profound concreteness of emotion. An example of the last kind, the poem “That Time,” is about what the speaker calls his “heart event.” He forges a conversational, self-reflexive voice on the page which riffs on several subjects relating to the speaker’s health, and through turns (“verse” means “to turn”) captures the vagaries of an emergency health experience with wit, grace and associative resonance. It uses word play. He states that calling it an “event” makes “‘attack’ sound[s] / as jubilant as the 4th of July—.” Then, he quotes his doctor who tells him to eat right and stop “acting like an asshole” which the speaker remembers telling himself at 20, and it didn’t do him any good. He moves to a wry ethical truth saying that we build, “preposterous / value systems” early in life and have to deconstruct them later. A final turn counterpoints these abstract thoughts when the poem ends on a true immediate reference, spoken by the speaker’s wife when she looks out the window:

hey, the raccoons
didn’t knock over the birdbath
for once

The poetic structure of the poems, the constant turns, is itself a kind of immediate culture where we experience amazing intuitive connections; these insights based on the locality can change one’s actions because they’re based on those observations. Ignoring them, we will get caught in mental traps and craziness. To illustrate these rigidities, the poems pillory “endless McMansion miles,” Gideon Bibles in motels, the Iraq War, America’s desire for newness and “quickiness” in everything, a poetry scene of inflated resumes, and literary critics who seem to value “challenging” poetry which the speaker says, “often means I think, ‘obscure.’” Against this, the speaker favors “complexity, not confusion” and “plain surface texture.” Another poem celebrates Yogi Berra not “‘theory’ phds” who “poisoned all the books they landed on.” Varied forms such as epistles, letters, tweets, and an email poem between the speaker and another poet, lend a sense of day-to-day focus on the present moment, things, and current ideas.

Another example of immediacy is how the speaker needs to get down on paper a fleeting emotion suggested by his response to the things around him. In “Meyer Country Motel,” he witnesses a diner which reflects our economic class society from Latino busboys up to “the happy fat owner gabbing.” The speaker picks up the Gideon Bible in his room. Has he converted? No. He uses the blank pages at the back so, as he says: “I can write this [poem] down / before I go.” Another poems begins “As I write this it’s raining,” and other titles include personal immediate insights stolen from routine, such as “Even As I Write This,” “Messages,” and “Google It.”

Time and space to catch and record a fleeting truth is important, and in this regard, time emerges as a constant theme. In “The Death of Hemingway,” he writes, “Wherever and whomever you are / time will change it,” and reduce it to nothing. Yet, in a moving poem about baseball and many other things, “Emails from and to Afaa Weaver,” the memories evoked by a Donald Hall poem about the past and the power of memory move him to say: “Time turns pain to silver, garbage to gold,” These poems, wide-ranging, associative, intuitive, do what the speaker quotes Galway Kinnell as saying in another poem (simply called “Poetry”) a homage to various poetic voices from Stern and Gilbert to Cattulus. The Kinnell quote ends the poem: “‘go so deep / into yourself you speak for everyone.’”

Ochester knows intimately the complex, multiform, compartmentalized Chinese box of emotions, memories, and the secrets that we keep to ourselves, and the need to go “deep into” them in a poem. The outer surface of the box, the poem, is merely what houses these emotions (and secrets), (and us) inside, the record of what we have taken to heart, our meager successes and failures. Yet, that same poem grounded in the immediate references of the world, nature, and the heart, rescues us through the sheer joy of being in contact with that world.

“Joy” runs all through these amazing poems, but nowhere more strongly than the final poem, “For Britt.” As the speaker parks the car at home, he observes,

your sparrows in the snow-covered forsythia
greet the weak sun with a matrix of cheeping,
dozens of them, not from gratitude but
perhaps from overflowing joy

These lines stun us with the beauty of their delicate music. To say them is to hear the sparrows’ song (the e sounds repeated at surprising intervals in the second line of the quote) in between the ominous o sounds of the surrounding lines. We see, feel, and hear the birds’ precarious existence and “perhaps” their joy.

Reading these poems, at once hilarious, engaging, and compassionate, heightens not only our joy, but also our ability to create immediate references to our precarious world and culture.

________
Works Cited
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions Books, 1954. Print


Book Review: GOOD NOISE! Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh

 photo 86ad9bd2-eed1-47d2-83de-f43ad1997b0a_zpsbzo8j3ps.jpg Good Noise!
Poems by Renee Alberts, Jason Baldinger, Stephanie Brea, Kristofer Collins, Jerome Crooks, Angele Ellis, Kevin Finn, John Grochalski, Jason Irwin, Lori Jakiela, Chuck Kinder, John Thomas Menesini, Dave Newman, Bob Pajich, Daniel M. Shapiro, Scott Silsbe, Ed Steck, Don Wentworth
Thrasher Press, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Some of the music I’ve come to appreciate most as a long-time audiophile is themed albums that grew on me over the course of several replays. For example, Acadie, by Daniel Lanois; Good Old Boys, by Randy Newman; Mountain Soul, by Patty Loveless, come immediately to mind. It’s an experience to listen to each song in order, the accompanying lyrics on my lap, and note the common thread: a raw, palpable sense of place evident in the words, further conjured by instruments connected to the musician’s heritage, or the territory they’ve inhabited.

Good Noise!: Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh, a collection published by Thrasher Press, imparts this same admiration. As the book title states, this inspired compilation of verse penned by local writers frequently lingers on music within the heart of the steel city and in addition to its adjacent neighborhoods. The book’s largely free-verse, rhythmic narrative poems are meditations on the Southwestern PA locale’s musical influences (such as the Karl Hendrix Trio) and the impact of internationally known performers, as well as everyday rust belt characters—the folks who serve as commentary on the region’s traditions, the Yinzer populace mindset. In Lori Jakiela’s “Big Fish,” Pittsburgh is contemplated at a Lenten Friday fish fry as a place you can escape, yet your return is inevitable:

The good people of Trafford don’t eat meat on Lenten Fridays.
They give up all hopeful things – chocolate, beer, the lottery…

Everyone I know is tired of waiting and dreaming.

I used to dream of leaving. I did that.
Now I’m back for good…

The kid with the pink hair whacks the fish over and back,
then drops it into the fryer.

He sings “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Dee Snider, Twisted Sister,
and punches the air with his one free hand.

More shared themes in Good Noise! include the Pittsburgh landscape (“looks / like a messy bed” – Bob Pajich)—its bridges and thoroughfares—as well as nights of drink; music at dive bars & pubs; missed opportunities / regrets; and finding one’s self lost then found, literally and figuratively, by music in the more obscure surrounding towns. Take Daniel M. Shapiro’s “How Billy Eckstine Helped Me Find the West Mifflin Wal-Mart,” a poem that also addresses the sacrifice of important culture in the name of urban renewal:

One 21st-century night, his baritone
boomed from my car stereo as I meandered
a few steps south of his hometown.
Scat syllables twisted like ill-formed roads…

On the map, it had looked easy enough.
Perhaps the man who turned Crawford Grill
and Hurricane legendary resented the development,
corporate bottom lines that sliced at hillsides.
So he took his time, imprinting his rhythms
while the gauge tipped toward empty.

Eventually, he got me there, knowing
those former boondocks as metropolises…

Vital to Good Noise! is acknowledgement of Pittsburgh’s historical heritage—the significance and sacrifice of immigrants in the mammoth steel industry that dominated the Monongahela River front through to the 1980s. In “Black Cemetery Wall,” John Thomas Menesini writes:

further down the black cemetery wall
blackened from yesterday soot
a different kind of e pit ap h
to a Pittsburgh
long since
past

a reminder
of bloody black hands
black lungs
broken skin
furnace tans
blistered lips sucked
boilermakers
by the quartful

While the book doesn’t hit a wrong note in its content, its pacing, or poem order, some of the many standout poems include “I Date a Guy Because of the View from His Bedroom Window,” by Stephanie Brea; “Katie Birthday Poem,” by Scott Silsbe; “Allen Ginsberg Comes to Pittsburgh,” by David Newman; “untitled,” by Jerome Crooks; “Here’s to Your Ex-Wife,” by Jason Baldinger; and “Spending Sunday Afternoon Listening to Jim Daniels’ Copy of Hall & Oates’ Abandoned Luncheonette,” by Kristofer Collins.

To call Good Noise! raw, gritty, unapologetic, full of heart—is fitting. It describes “the ‘Burgh”: what you see is what you get. It describes the collected verse—the music—included within it, the pop & crack of a well-worn LP that sings the perpetual song of Pittsburgh.


 

Book Review: BEST BONES by Sarah Rose Nordgren

 photo 98d88d4b-d0d1-4a59-b67a-5ae522d5c5ec_zpsc56si66z.jpg Best Bones
Poems by Sarah Rose Nordgren
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Into the Woods might not have taken home an Oscar, but its recent Disney reboot proves we’re still a culture that values fairy tales. One of my favorite moments from that score comes from the song “Stay With Me,” when the Witch begs her daughter Rapunzel, “Stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child.” Songwriter Stephen Sondheim says of the number, “It’s about parenting children, which of course is what fairy tales are about.”

But we’re not here to talk about Into the Woods. Because, as much humor and nuance as the show brought to our oldest stories, Sarah Rose Nordgren has come to push their lyrical weirdness even further to bring us a uniquely American fairy tale. In these tales, gender, war, religion, and the American South are some of the subjects that children are coming to grips with. When Ed Ochester calls Nordgren’s poems “part Alice in Wonderland,” he gets it just right — their lines remind us that sometimes the kids are in charge, the adults don’t have all the answers, and the moral doesn’t make sense.

“Kids These Days,” a poem whose title sounds like it just jumped from the mouth of any complaining parent, is perhaps at the crux of these conflicts. One of many poems where Nordgren proves she can span centuries in just a few lines, we cut from a list of our long-lost ancestors directly to the present moment:

At some point today it started raining
very hard and there was no shelter.
We all scattered from the schoolyard
in fifty directions, wearing books on our heads.
There are so many ways to go wrong
that we’ve stopped sorting them.
The globe is on its stand in the dusty room,
not spinning or teaching anyone a lesson.
There must be a good reason that the whole
world seems so anxious on our behalf.

There’s innocence here, and ignorance — which is perhaps the same thing said less generously. There’s a sense that these children, like all others before them, will suffer the consequences of not heeding their elders. Yet the situation here seems increasingly dire. In the modern world, there are even more ways to go wrong. These children stumble through rain on the edge of disaster, waiting to find out what’s causing the hubbub. As Nordgren will ask in a later poem, “what good is an illegible message?”

Under Nordgren’s watchful eye, all the accoutrements of childhood become things to be feared. “The Only House in the Neighborhood” brings dollhouses to a new level of creepiness by pairing images of a seemingly perfect family with a growing, uncomfortable quiet. Sure, “there is a birthday party nearly every day, / no fear of death or failure, no mortgage / to pay, no money at all.” Reality, in these ways, may have vanished, but fantasy breeds a different discord. “The stove doesn’t work. The food is painted / on the refrigerator door.” There’s nothing here to sustain life. So “no matter / if Baby bathes with his clothes on, or Mother… spends a week facedown on the laundry room floor.” The silent horror builds to a surprising finish — a child’s hand toppling an undersized rocking horse — where Nordgren reminds us that we both create and destroy the worlds we inhabit.

Throughout this collection, Nordgren proves herself a technician of craft. We get rhythm and rhyme, narrative sequencing, lyric tension, and various uses of form. But her most successful poems are those that blend technique with visceral reality — that join, as Stuart Dischel praises on the book’s back cover, “the cool surface of craft and the human heat of the heart.” At some points the story gets lost in a beautiful image; at others the poet seems unwilling to go far enough in interrogating her subject. This happens most clearly in poems, like “Instructions for Marriage by Service,” which seem to address race. But parsing gender, family, and lessons passed down, Nordgren’s words wield a stunning power. She states complex truths plainly; she says in “The Wife” of marriage, “Stepping to like a mare… I became more creaturely // with each passing year.”

For all their compression, these poems are like the Witch’s world: deep, dark, and wild. They draw readers to the story’s entrance again and again, promising new beauty each time. “Still Birth,” the book’s second poem, reminds us why it’s worth it in the first place:

The introduction was too long, but
the invisible boy had already traveled
for a year and a day… Though you know
the story, I mean to remind you
he will, eventually, return. Not in body,
no, but every time I tell it he becomes
more real. This is one of the stories
we live in against nature—I was trying
to tell you over the wind. If you learn anything
from living in this house, it will be how
to survive a variety of interruptions.

Our worst tragedies and our greatest joys are the interruptions, the realities of life and the morals of stories. Through a series of wondrous, fantastical images, Nordgren conveys unspeakable emotion. We’re transported back to the first time someone stood over us with the offer of only a story, begging us to listen closely.


 

Book Review: NESTUARY by Molly Sutton Kiefer

 photo aff65420-8048-4e89-8868-014d13945735_zpsuym7e7vi.jpg Nestuary
by Molly Sutton Kiefer
Gold Line Press, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Sometimes you read something and wish you would have written it, it strikes a chord so deeply within you. Or, and probably even better, it inspires you to write your own story. For me, as I try to capture in words my voyage into motherhood, Molly Sutton Kiefer’s Nestuary is this book.

Her book-length lyric essay pulls in the sun but only reflects certain, specific light, just like the moon. A myriad of sources appear in these pages such as peer-reviewed scientific articles, hallowed writings of other women and mothers, quotes from bumbling politicians, and monographs on Witchcraft. Sutton Kiefer masterfully braids these texts with her own story of motherhood told in three parts.

All of these pieces absorb the speaker as she tries to find her footing in a world where her body and her spirit are potentially at odds. With language that moves the reader seamlessly through lyric dream-like sequences, references to Diana, Our Lady of La Leche, MacBeth, and other icons, into more direct narratives of her real-life reproductive challenges and successes, Sutton Kiefer has formed a “compelling document” as Arielle Greensburg so aptly calls it.

Part 1 opens with goddesses and moon rituals, a psychoanalyst’s explanation, an incantation, and a list indicated by Roman numerals. We are empowered, if a bit unsure as to why we’re being told all of this.

                        Thessalian witches were believed to control the moon:

  If I command the moon, it will come down; and if I wish to withhold the day, night will linger over my head; and again, if I wish to embark on the sea, I need no ship, and if I wish to fly through the air, I am free from my weight.

Psychoanalyst Mel D. Farber explains this ceremony as linked to the protective-mother fantasy.

[…]

I imagine the night sky properly disrobed, leaving only the chips of light and blackest black. I imagine a woman in white swallowing the bulb of the moon, wearing it at her center.

Several pages later, Sutton Kiefer tells us the clinical, non-magical issue: that she has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

My androgen levels are too high. This leads to these symptoms: weight gain, acne, hirsutism, diabetes (my test came back negative), patches and skin tags (not as far as I know), snoring (poor husband), depression or anxiety, and also trouble ovulating.

She knows how this sounds, she knows what we need: “I can tell you (now): This story has a happy ending.” But not before we learn the grueling routine that fertility treatments impose on this couple:

In the months that we attempted to have a baby, my body arbitrated the following: day one is now the first day of menstruation; days five through nine are for the Clomid doses; then there’s days eleven through eighteen, which are supposed to be fun, […]; day twenty-three is when my blood is drawn to see if the Clomid did its job; twenty-eight is the pregnancy test day […]. No certainly not, not the least bit pregnant.

The language that surrounds a “non-pregnancy, a failed month…” is isolate and bitter. “I am ruined at the repeated instances of no” she tells us “…but the world is full of that half-slash no.” She keeps trying, despite, or in spite of, the devastation it brings, the separation of body and self, “I am wicked to my body. I lean into the mirror sometimes and say, I   hate you I hate you Ihateyou.”

Just when we need it most, Sutton Kiefer gives us white space and on the next page, definitions for [fol-i-kuhl], [met-fȯr-mən], and [sist] that allow for free association and whimsy, even though these words are in her vocabulary because of her PCOS.

Sutton Kiefer’s wish is granted, but as fate would have it, she is “remarkably and unsurprisingly bad at being pregnant.” This includes extreme morning sickness and Restless Leg Syndrome among other things. Given what it has taken to become pregnant, these results don’t tamper the joy. Part 2 of Nestuary focuses on the pregnant woman as an entity, and on Sutton Kiefer’s body and birth plan.

It seems to be a byproduct of pregnancy that the new mother considers mortality and death while anticipating the life growing inside of her. Here, the author asks, “Why are there so many images of the headless pregnant woman?” and takes us through potential scenarios where the act of birth is separate from the woman, either through the disembodying pain of childbirth or some trauma that had removed the mother from conscious being to an incubator. In this eerie and effective way, Sutton Kiefer disturbs the accepted trap of thinking of the pregnant uterus as somehow separate from the woman who houses it.

Unable to have her daughter through vaginal birth, Sutton Kiefer questions, “[D]id I give birth? Isn’t giving active? […] I did no pushing, so then did the doctor birth?” Here she turns to the women writers who have documented this complex emotion before her. Excerpts from Camille Roy, Toi Derricotte, and Naomi Wolf, among others, help to ground, give permission even, to the author’s feelings of failure. It is the language that is used by medical professionals, by other mothers, by well-meaning folks, that permeates mothers’ vocabularies, that dictates the feeling of triumph or failure in her expected ability to bring a child into this world. Sutton Kiefer is given what she has invoked, but not in the way she imagined. Though a Caesarean section was not part of Sutton Kiefer’s birth plan, her body is in tune with the instincts to protect this child, “It beats this way, it knows. But it is told, again and again what a failure it has become.”

If Part 2 is about the reinforcing language of failure, Part 3 is about the triumph despite it. Sutton Keifer is an abundant milk producer. Her body, in a way she can measure, is doing more than she ever expected it to. Her daughter is “magnificent.” Her family thrives. And then, two years after the arrival of her daughter, she has “gotten pregnant. Naturally.” Finally, Sutton Kiefer is able to drown out the noise of opinions on her body:

     Do you want your tubes tied?   No.

         Do you want your tubes

               tied?   No.   Do you want

                        your tubes tied?

Her use of enjambment, the training of a poet, lends even more power to the determination of being heard when those in the medical profession think they know better. Again, on her choice to co-sleep, the language and therefore the power becomes hers again: “Now, there’s four-in-a-bed: him, her, me, him. Bookended, I am. […] When I nap alone, […] I’m unhibernated and growlish. Bring him back, my little pinner-of-souls.”

Sutton Kiefer’s personal story is gripping, but it is the juxtaposition of the varied other sources within her the story that gives it such boundless depth. After reading Nestuary, I understand, in a way I have never fully comprehended, how transformative motherhood always has been, always will be. Through her honest telling of her story and where it situates her within the larger fabric of motherhood, I better understand my own mysterious and curious journey, its powerful language, and how to make it my own.


 

Book Review: JUNKETTE by Sarah Shotland

 photo bf9c3b90-3ff3-4704-9379-2cafaa16148b_zpsa0lehipb.jpg Junkette
by Sarah Shotland
White Gorilla Press, 2014
$11.99

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

Your skin crawls, you feel the craving kick in, and you want more. That’s exactly the experience of reading Sarah Shotland’s Junkette. This candid tale of addiction makes you hunger for more—more love, more drugs, and definitely more for the protagonist, Claire. As a college educated woman, she struggles to gain enough money to leave New Orleans and the addiction that keeps her living in a cramped apartment with her boyfriend, Mack. As Claire fights to find herself, she comes to realize just how hard escaping might be.

The book opens with a quote by William S. Burroughs, “Perhaps all pleasure is only relief,” and a poem by Anne Sexton. Together these epigraphs immediately set the melancholy tone that will only continue to get darker as the book progresses. Told from first person point of view in short scenes and lists, the book moves quickly as the reader sees Claire almost flee her life of drugs, strung-out friends, and bar tending for Boulder, Colorado where she believes she could finally be free.

One of the most notable qualities about Shotland’s book is her metaphors. She writes about bodies and how, “Some of the time you have to die to a place. You don’t die to the people.” The metaphor continues as Chico, a weed dealer and Claire’s friend, remarks:

You gonna get [bodies]. You think I have to die to a place with no regrets? That’s the only reason you have to die to a place…But all that dopey business, that’s the bodies—everything costs you something with that dopey stuff.

Here, Shotland illustrates how Claire doesn’t quite realize how serious her addiction is or how much she’s sacrificing to stay in New Orleans, doing the same thing she’s been doing for years. As the metaphor shifts, the reader gets to see just how many “bodies” Claire will gain.

As the book progresses the reader continues to crave, to want more along with Claire. It’s a need that itches just below the surface and continues to bubble up every time the reader is cramped inside Claire and Mack’s tiny apartment or the Moonlight, the crowded bar where Claire works. Only when she’s out roaming the streets looking for Chip, her friend and drug dealer, or Mumps, the guy who is always willing to loan people money, does the reader get a chance to breathe. This relief is short lived, however, as Claire plunges further into her addiction and gets caught up in even more dangerous situations. It’s a true testament to Shotland’s writing that she manages to create such cramped and desperate atmospheres in only a few short lines:

Mack still isn’t home. I wish I could keep minutes on my phone, wish Mack had a phone, wish we had a house phone, wish someone had a fucking phone. Phone booths are stationary and we are moving. It was a smart person who came up with the cell phone.

Shotland’s continued use of commas only amplifies Claire’s need to get out of her apartment and out of her current life. Instead, she’s trapped inside, waiting for her boyfriend to get back, and waiting to get high.

Moments of true horror, like her failed attempts to stop using and seeing firsthand what a lifetime of drugs does to a person, forces Claire to constantly evaluate her situation. When she tries to quit, she thinks: “I’m still in this fucking bed in this fucking house where I will never be able to leave. But I love it here. I’m lucky to be here. I mean it.” It is in these small moments of heartbreaking honesty that Shotland captures the cyclical nature of addiction. As the chapter ends, Claire gives into her habit again, reveling in it she remarks, “I get to float and sink and I know right here is the place I was meant to love someone.”

Sarah Shotland’s Junkette not only depicts the lives of drug addicts—it embodies all addiction—to food, to love, to the need for escape. As Claire fights to break free, she ends up giving up more than she bargained for as the “bodies” start to pile up. The reader will quickly flip through the pages as the story heads to a unique and powerful ending—one that even Claire won’t be able to escape.


 

Book Review: GUINEVERE IN BALTIMORE by Shelley Puhak

 photo 0c4474d8-2c23-4407-8528-3a86318d81df_zpssib67amr.jpg Guinevere in Baltimore
Poems by Shelley Puhak
The Waywiser Press, 2013
£8.99

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

       “How we are never more alone
            than in love…”

Winter is perhaps the best season to read an ode to failed romance, especially one with a compelling conceit. By engaging clever language alongside Arthurian characters transported to contemporary Baltimore, Shelley Puhak takes a subject often badly written and turns it into poetic gold. Structured as a play told in individual poems, Guinevere in Baltimore builds slowly and quietly as we get to know the characters whose stories will culminate in an explosive ending.

As in any good drama, hints of the final scenes are built into the opening poem. “On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken” presents an unknown female speaker addressing her lover.

I straddle you, sobbing.
I’m stunned our bodies
can still screw
together, the threads
can catch: what has
steeled in you winding
up into my wooden.

This union of wood and steel hardly seems sensual, and it serves as a warning: every passion dies. By the collection’s end, each couple will stand helpless as their love goes lackluster and the decision must be made to flee or stay the course. A later poem, “The Court Troubadour’s Song for the Old Streetcar Track,” echoes these sentiments:

Whatever we have meant—

you and me—before asphalt and machinery
         intervened, the stars are still cross with us…

… I can’t
         slip into your spaces; you will never
fill my dark fissures. I am crossed with you.

The streetcar track: once vibrant, now obsolete. It stands as a powerful metaphor for two lovers whose lives intersect only briefly, crossing paths once with a spark before rushing headlong to separate destinations. Whatever else is at play in this futile affair, the hand of fate is apparent—those stars, still cross, foretelling the inevitable end.

At its heart, the story we’re told is also one of the strength of women. Puhak adorns all her big players with a series of even bigger motifs—destructive flood and fire, expansive forests, outer space—but this play privileges its leading ladies. In the cast list, Guinevere is the queen and Arthur her husband. Elaine of Corbenic, before any of her typical feminine roles, is “alternately, of Chicago.” Even the unnamed Speaker is painted as “neither Maid, Wife nor Widow, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all.” As in the old stories, Guinevere and Elaine vie for Lancelot and all of the men act like playboys. But even with an imperfect cast, the bulk of the story is told with a clear feminine voice.

This is especially apparent in Lancelot and Guinevere’s closing statements. Lancelot writes to his lover from Philadelphia, saying

and I’m tired, Ginny, oh so very tired,
and even here in Clark Park, I see plums

piled in the trough of a housemaid’s apron,
pesticide-free plums bursting into flame

in colors not yet charted, but always the same
shade as the underside of your tongue.

He’s caught, eternally nostalgic, marking time and his surroundings by the ways they remind him of Guinevere. The queen, on the other hand, chooses to address her unborn children. “I carry the gene that makes / one susceptible to rain,” she tells them in apology. Her incisive words make clear that Guinevere is the book’s most aware character. She indicts the patriarchy, proclaiming, “And the wound that won’t heal: women. / The story they keep telling: // that I am waiting to be sought.” But by the poem’s end, she’s redeemed her own voice and the unlived lives of these children, building a world in which women are valiantly recast as the new cartographers. Love lost or otherwise, it’s clear that Guinevere will survive and thrive:

                They say the moon borrows its brilliance,
offers no light of its own. They say my river

runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank,
             my sweets. When I make my own map
         of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled
forms, in ochre and animal blood.


Book Review: THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano

 photo c4fc758b-5805-43f5-ad74-05a5565c9268_zps03a9d4a7.jpg The Amado Women
by Désirée Zamorano
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014
$16.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

“You had to parcel out your secrets, you couldn’t trust any single person with the entire, authentic you,” states Sylvia Amado in Desiree Zamorano’s novel The Amado Women. The book opens with one of Sylvia’s biggest secrets—that she’s in an abusive relationship with her husband. Set in sunny California in the early 2000s, the novel explores the intricate lives of four Latina women—a mother and her three daughters—as they try to piece together who they are and how their secrets affect them. Numerous twists and turns unfold, and any reader will be excited by the dynamic ride.

Told from a third person omniscient point of view, the characters’ thoughts and feelings spring to life as the reader gets impossibly close to the four main characters within just a few pages. From inside Mercy’s head, the matriarch of the family, the reader quickly learns that she believes “happiness is a decision.” Therefore, she has to fight for everything she does—from getting her teaching degree to reconciling a childhood mistake. Mercy’s daughters have their own secrets, too. Celeste, the oldest, lives in San Jose and struggles to remove herself from her past. Sylvia fights to protect her two children from a crumbling marriage. And Nataly attempts to find herself through sleeping with a married man.

One of the remarkable things that Zamorano manages to do is deliver flashbacks in a quick and succulent manner. For example, the author dives into Sylvia’s past right after spending time with Celeste’s thoughts on Sylvia. In the flashback, the reader sees Sylvia struggle as a teacher in just a few sentences:

She didn’t know how to teach spelling. She didn’t know how to teach writing. She didn’t know how to teach math. She threw away her red pencils. Apparently teaching was a lot more difficult than it looked.

The reader grasps Sylvia’s own past dealing with abuse as the flashback continues, which paints her as not as innocent as she seemed in the beginning of the novel. This is something that Zamorano does again and again throughout the story. She takes seemingly innocent ideas and flips them on their head, creating a pattern that reflects each character’s need for acceptance and love.

Zamorano’s biggest accomplishment comes when she writes about Latina struggles. At work Nataly is often asked by customers: “Where are you from?” In these instances, she typically tries to laugh off such questions about her skin color, but sometimes people follow up with, “But you don’t look Mexican?” and she’s forced to play nice in order to receive a tip. Here, Zamorano displays the minor annoyances and offenses experienced in a predominantly white society and the way her culture is seen through outsider eyes.

The only issue in the book comes with the vast amount of secrets that are revealed in the short 234 pages. Each woman harbors multiple secrets that hinder her in some way, but after so many, it begins to feel somewhat unrealistic. Each secret is big, powerful, and at times it seems unbelievable that four women could have so many things happen to them in such a short time span. However, Zamorano makes up for this with her elegant writing style and imagery. For example:

Nataly had spent two months with Peter, months that sparkled gold and white with an undertone of elemental darkness. At work she found herself shuddering with memory and desire. If she had ever known, she had forgotten what it meant to ache in this way.

These colors are shown throughout, especially in Nataly’s passages, as she is an artist, and color reflects her passion. Zamorano also uses these subtle clues to help the reader understand the women’s inner feelings and piece together the complicated novel.

Once all the secrets are revealed in Desiree Zamorano’s The Amado Women, the reader dives head first into a world that is painstakingly real. The Latina voices are genuine and linger in the reader’s mind long after it ends. But the underlining thrill of the book comes from the importance of secret keeping and being able to escape that self-inflicted prison. By simply allowing others to know your secrets and no longer lying to those you love, the reader learns that, “Lying’s good for two things, Celeste. The short term and things you don’t care about…Neither of those apply here.”


 

Book Review: YOU COULD LEARN A LOT by RJ Gibson

 photo 564a2350-3174-49cb-8408-da4ab328ee58_zps3aafe783.jpg You Could Learn a Lot
Poems by RJ Gibson
Seven Kitchens Press, 2014
$9.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In 2006, Alice Smith crooned, “Gimme some new religion, something that I can feel.” Eight years later, RJ Gibson has answered that call. Through a blend of nature, religion, and pop culture, Gibson’s new chapbook You Could Learn a Lot depicts a desperate, sensual faith that has everything to do with our collective desire to be touched.

The chapbook opens with a surprising pastoral that quickly shifts focus when the speaker comes upon the remains of a wild rabbit. “It wasn’t supposed to come to this,” the speaker laments. “I wanted to talk about the light, not what/ it catches on, the mutability of meat.” These lines, which evince the speaker’s disgust with reality and his own worldview, stand as the ethos of the collection. These poems will, again and again, fight between depictions of light and dark, change and stagnation, the sacred and profane. The poem’s final image of fritillary butterflies’ “proboscises:/ drilling, rising, drilling” the rabbit’s body serve to establish a link between sex and death that will resurface in a number of later poems.

The meat of the collection is a central interlude of eight re-envisions of myth. This series, entitled “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” blends Greek myth with cultural references from pornography and cult classic films. These poems are not for the uninformed reader; while each poem might be read and appreciated at face value, only the reader who goes on to research the mermaid show at Aquarena Springs or the mating habits of Pseudacris crucifer will experience the full depth and intelligence of Gibson’s reinventions. While not exactly fables, many of the poems in this section land on a particularly keen line or idea. “Metamorphosis 2012” ends with another line that would make a fitting epigraph for the chapbook: “I rest in this muck. Longing draws me forth.” “Ganymede 1990,” a love poem to Jeffrey Dahmer, has the speaker witness Dahmer’s cryptic revelation:

he gestured pointed
toward that     SHINE
Mine to decide
if he meant life
or light or both

A serial killer deified and we his worshipers. It’s how the media treat these topics, and Gibson deftly shows us what new idols our culture has chiseled from stone. If this all seems ominous, you’re starting to get it. After all, “Dido 1976” ends with the prophecy, “Everything burns. Nothing mortal will remain.”

After foretelling humanity’s violent death, Gibson flips the script on us. The chapbook’s final poems are as consumed by ugliness as those that came before them, but here the poet’s deep attention allows a new beauty to surface. Whereas the collection’s first section is marked by resistance—the speaker in “Meditations on Mortality” begins by saying, “These are the ways I wish not to die…”—the final third of the book is characterized by a sort of acceptance. Starting with the speaker in “Dear Dad,” who consents to his role of “being small in this city and glad of it,” these last poems are sung by a chorus who crave and revel in the difficulty that earlier speakers were reluctant to face.

These poems abandon resolution. As the speaker in “Locu$ Amoenu$” remarks:

I want to be dumb
in my body: all hips & thrust & jerk. To be
shallow as these lyrics. To be always in
the middle of one mile, to be in the going. Never
arrival. Never—

This desire to be in-between is essentially queer and situated in contemporary spirituality—live in the moment, be in the now. Longing powers the engine of both sex-positivity and the excess that potentially results from this celebration of our carnal nature. By writing “What We Call the World Is Always the Immediate” in the second person, Gibson characterizes us all with the same yearning:

… You want
the world
soft as a body. You’re always wanting
the softness of bodies…

Abundance, you say, so much…

… of course the earth

so ready to burst

it smells as if everything
is about to happen,

only some of it good.

And though we know that evil, too, is inevitable, we reach the end of the poem eagerly awaiting what happens next. Gibson responds to himself two poems later with “Oh,” echoing the previous title in its opening lines: “Oh, world! Oh, god! Whatever/ I might call you.” The poem seems at first another lament—“I’m almost tired/ of desire and any number of its aliases,” but in that “almost” is a world.

In the span of a few lines, the poem becomes an ode to lust: “I want the body, its flush and stink,/ its urge radiating from the gut.” Though nearly spent by desire, the speaker envisions his next lover, thinking, “Perhaps/ there’ll be another man who becomes/ the embodiment of Oh! for me,” a man “who wants as much as I do./ who lets me do it…” There’s joy in the excess, a certain kind of love or intimacy that’s strengthened by its urgency. We pray in unison with Gibson when he writes

            Dear god, we are hungry. Inside
he is warmer than I hoped.

We shine red.


 

Book Review: FOG ISLAND MOUNTAINS by Michelle Bailat-Jones

 photo 8870e3e1-53e2-4925-8667-4e8842f9862f_zps77bb2c8a.jpg Fog Island Mountains
by Michelle Bailat-Jones
Tantor Media, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

It’s a hushed, delicate world explored in Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains, out now from Tantor Media, Inc. A world that I got to know quite well over the course of the novel, and am truly having a hard time leaving. Or perhaps it’s better to say that the landscape Michelle Bailat-Jones so expertly crafted is refusing to leave me—it’ll take a long, long time for me to forget the profound melancholy and sorrow experienced by her characters. And I’m thankful for that.

As if they were all a part of a painting, one of muted colors and infinite detail, Bailat-Jones brings to life the inhabitants of Komachi, a small town huddled beneath the volcanic Kirishima mountain range in southern Japan. During the onset of the biggest of summer’s typhoons, many of the residents of this community find themselves pulled into the story of one grief-stricken family.

Bailat-Jones’ narrative centers on Alec Chester, a South African expatriate, and his Japanese wife, Kanae Chester. Alec has lived a long, fulfilling life in Japan, yet he still struggles with his identity as a foreigner in this intimate, yet isolated community. Even though he has resided there for decades and fathered three children, Kanae is what truly grounds him in the misty landscape of southern Japan. And when he starts to lose her, his sole support, the village is both figuratively and literally almost blown away.

The novel’s opening scene sets the tone immediately: Alec receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, something he and Kanae are woefully unprepared for. Alec, overwhelmed and frustrated, expects Kanae to be the first person to provide some measure of comfort, only to realize that she is nowhere to be found. She flees Alec and his diagnosis—she flees a future without him. And it takes a typhoon and the reemergence of a dear childhood friend to give Kanae the resolve to face her husband’s imminent death.

Besides the plot, there is the writing itself, and the novel’s narrative style is unlike most fiction I’ve read. It’s written in first person omniscient, meaning that the book is told from one character’s perspective, who has seemingly impossible knowledge and insight into the characters around her. This narrator, Azami, one of the town’s oldest and strangest inhabitants, reports the village residents’ thoughts, their feelings, every word that they say and don’t have the strength to say. She simply knows things she has no business knowing. The typhoon’s strong gusts carry this knowledge to her, she says, and she writes down what she hears.

           “Every story has a seed—a word, an act, an image,” Azami writes. “Grandfather used to tell me that even a gardener cannot remember exactly where and when a seed is planted, but when the first sprouts break through our dark volcanic earth, that is the time to pay attention…to stand guard and help the plant grow taller, and we are always standing guard…”

Azami narrations are poetic as she moves from the macro to the micro, and back again. A passage about the typhoon’s rushing wind effortlessly flows into an analysis of Kanae and her despair. Fog Island Mountains is written in breathless prose, the kind that pull you along constantly, always promising more, always asking for your careful reading, if only to appreciate the beautiful language.

            …And although the wind is still driving down upon us, the storm has shifted its center, it has moved to a higher elevation and the peaks of the Fog Island Mountains are offering their resistance, slicing the wind, carving it up into lesser gusts and flipping it back unto the storm itself, and slowly, starting from now, right now, this storm will leave us.

The storm, the winds, are characters—they too are residents of the Fog Island Mountains. Bailat-Jones focuses on setting and environment in crisp, precise detail. The constantly approaching typhoon instills a sense of foreboding in the reader, an urgency for Alec and Kanae to reconcile before it’s too late. To face a future without each other, together.

Succinctly, Fog Island Mountains is a story told from a storyteller’s perspective—a folktale with a bird’s eye view. Its analysis of human weakness in the face of unexpected tragedy consistently shocks and surprises, but always, always garners empathy for the characters. This is a book full of moments that make you consider how you would react if placed in similar scenarios. It’s a work that encourages deep introspection—perhaps that’s why it still lingers in my mind.


 

Book Review: THE GREENHOUSE by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

 photo c2ee0e04-816b-4093-8d36-b2e3f9f51541_zps15a7ef15.jpg The Greenhouse
Poems by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet
Bull City Press, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s second poetry collection, The Greenhouse, reflects on the complex nature of motherhood. Stonestreet’s narrator, a new mother, lives on the bridge between tenderness and restlessness, magic and restriction. Her body once inseparable from the emerging life inside is now distinct, yet still extremely influenced by this child. A “greenhouse” of nurture and nutrition, the narrator is “a bubble, a greenhouse, a lens…” Deeper, Stonestreet’s metaphor seems to suggest that motherhood is often a suffocatingly warm and isolated space in which both mother and child live. Yes, childbirth is a gift, but equally too, it alters a mother’s life. This sacrifice, as Stonestreet reveals, does not come as selflessly or seamlessly as we often expect.

These poems never rush, but crawl across the page. If I read too quickly, the narrative thread unravels and I’m forced to begin again. Too often we readers storm through poems, half-attentive, but in The Greenhouse we are all mothers who can’t afford to lose focus for even an instant. Stonestreet achieves this necessary attentiveness through her line breaks and white space. Rarely do we experience a one stanza, tight-lined poem. Instead, they stretch across pages, extend far into the right margin, and indent away in frequent jumps. While this slows the pace of the poem, it more importantly demonstrates a mother’s, this narrator’s, nature of time, endless and slipping through consciousness, as Stonestreet writes,

 

It’s only beginning to recede, that time, that milk-

dream

 

of a year

the long hours in the rocker, the occasional calculating, to assuage my restlessness…

 

This pace rocks us away from the fast-moving, overstimulation frequent in the everyday. Here, similarly to the narrator, we’re both made to feel attentive and lulled into timelessness.

The terms “luxury” and “privilege” continuously resurface throughout the collection. In “After Dropping My Son Off at Preschool” the narrator, overwhelmed by free time, begins “The world slowly coming back. The luxury of stepping outside / myself…” A few lines later, when the narrator invents facts about gingkoes, she states “It is a luxury and a privilege to be such an idiot.” While the infrequency of such actions makes them seem luxurious, the narrator attaches guilt to these moments, as if having a life extrinsic to her child is selfish. This is further reiterated through Stonestreet’s use of parenthesis. In “Flowers, Doggies, the Moon”:

 

(and where else would I rather be?)

That’s not to call up the rhetoric of choice, privilege, the drill
        of tussling generations (what we fought for / what we take for granted

and embrace) it’s just
        so difficult to step (back) into the sea…

 

I read the parenthesis as a secret and shameful thought, barely a whisper, which speaks from the part of her that is exhausted and constrained. These hesitations are not singular to the narrator, to any mother, which is perhaps the point of the collection, bringing voice to the collective struggle, for “when it feels like too much, my friend says, I try to remember to look at their hands…” Thus, in The Greenhouse we watch the source of life, and we too are claustrophobic, guilty, and blessed.


Book Review: PRAGUE SUMMER by Jeffrey Condran

 photo 795203e5-8362-48bb-a381-4232db61484a_zpsf23f536c.jpg Prague Summer
by Jeffrey Condran
Counterpoint Press, 2014
Hardback: $26.00

Reviewed by Chris Duerr

I am delighted to write that upon first opening Prague Summer by Jeffrey Condran I had no idea what to expect. I say “delighted” because, having no familiarity with the real life Prague, there was no choice but to surrender myself as a tourist to the narrative voice, and soon found myself enthusiastically embarking on an adventure through the winding streets of the complex and eccentric city.

Prague Summer begins with the uncanny image of a woman falling to her death, painted for the reader in a baroque, melodic style that defines and enriches the entire novel:

The body seemed almost to float as it left the protection of the window casement. Against the dark sky, buoyed on a humid night’s air, its pale green skirt billowed like gossamer around thin hips and legs. The passive face of the woman looked toward the heavens, mouth open, a few strands of dark hair caught in the corner of her colored lips. For a moment, the whole—skirt, legs, hips, hair—paused cinematically before remembering its obligation to fall swiftly to the unforgiving cement below.

“Cinematic” is a term that often came to mind as I roamed Condran’s Prague, meeting his cast of curious and often offbeat characters, most of whom are early on revealed to be expatriates, lending a sort of natural flow to their enthusiastic observations which I was happy to share. The narrator, Henry, is a rare book dealer whose quips and factoids about his trade, and lines such as “It is always with Nabokov in mind that I remember my own first kiss” will no doubt delight each and every bibliophile.

He and his brilliant wife, Stephanie, pass their days immersed in the food, drink, and sights of a city that seems to be inhabited by a swirling global population of writers, artists, and bons vivants, which includes their friends Michael Leo and Anna Nemcova, an unconventional and money-troubled couple out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald daydream.

But the charming routine of cocktails and first editions cannot hold out when a long-time friend of Stephanie’s, Selma Al-Khateeb, comes to visit following the arrest of her husband Mansour by the FBI. In the words of Henry, “Imagine: our friend, a martyr to the War on Terror.” Without knowledge of his crime nor how long he could be detained, the emigrants have no choice but to comfort their friend and ponder life in a world shifting drastically around them, until Selma develops an idea for a justice all her own.

Jeffrey Condran’s Prague Summer is a perfect choice for readers of many stripes: mystery lovers, romantics, book collectors, previous visitors to Prague, would-be travelers, or simply admirers of well-constructed sentences, perfectly conveying time and place. The reader is aware from page one that the ancient city of the title is to be just as intriguing, witty, and sordid as any of the characters within. While visiting the New Town Hall to examine a copy of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, Henry ponders the curious and bloody act of defenestration, once practiced where he stands. “Apparently, throwing people out of windows is a thing here, a fitting metaphor for the city’s political history.” Prague, one gathers, is a place of continuous, glorious upheaval where one cannot help but be swept along by the Vltava.

Truly enjoyable novels of place such as this are not built of landmarks and historical and political anecdotes alone. The essence of the city is captured brick by brick in its minutiae, so poignantly remarked upon by the ever-astute Henry. Early in the novel, Henry and Stephanie venture to a fashionable birthday party at the bookstore owned my Michael and Anna, to be attended by hobnobbing musicians, writers, filmmakers, and students from the world over. Amidst a traffic jam caused by “twentysomethings wearing nothing but jockstraps and curly neon-green wigs,” as his diplomatic wife frets over the arrival of her emotionally distraught friend Selma, Henry focuses on the “decorum” of a Czech beggar outside the car window.  “The man crouches nearly prostrate on the ground, almost like a Muslim at prayer, his forehead resting on the pavement, his hands out before him in supplication. He speaks to no one, silent, his needs absolutely clear.” The chaos of the world does not stop for this man. Just like Henry, he is yet another piece of Prague’s intricate puzzle, but his solemnity in the face of his own desperation shows that buried beneath even the darkest streets of the city, in the depths of life’s unfairness and inequality, are the noblest hearts, attempting to survive.

Na zdraví.


 

Book Review: THE AMERICANS by David Roderick

 photo f85798ac-481b-4be3-ab03-9bc1088e03ea_zpsbd446336.jpg The Americans
Poems by David Roderick
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

We can’t fence in wildness; we can’t fence out the world. It’s an old story of man’s interactions with nature and the global community. But in David Roderick’s The Americans, it’s seen through new, unflinching eyes. Here, Roderick’s strong voice and steady gaze interrogate suburbia, art, and American history to show us the myriad of ways humanity fails to manipulate its surroundings.

The goal is to sterilize, make safe. Roderick opens his collection with the first in a series of “Dear Suburb,” poems. He wastes no time in employing a pitch-perfect image that sets a tone for the rest of the book:

but after I mowed the lawn
and watched the robins chesting
for seeds, I couldn’t resist
what hung in the toolshed
where, with a pair of garden shears,
I cut all the hair from my arms. That need,
that scared need to whiten
or clean a surface: plywood or lawn…

This desire is called a sin “against the fly’s flyness” and is imbued with everything the suburbs have come to mean—control over nature, distance from danger, a uniform whiteness. Underneath this compulsive need to change appearances, something sinister bubbles. Roderick revisits the idea in a later poem, “Target”:

Did we know
we were the last
of the shorn beasts?

Yes.

But dazed in traffic,
our streets’ by-and-by,

we failed to hear
that lion above saying,

You there, in the dark, you.
Job shaved his head,
but still the lice bit him.

We can change appearances all we want, but there’s no escape. Whatever it is we fear, it will always haunt us. In fact, it’s inside of us, as Roderick shows in “California Clouds.” The protagonist of this poem is a man who was “never young,” who meekly submits to “the rules of the coffee house // (only an hour in the socket).” When he hears from a barista about a coyote living in Bernal Hill, he wants “to know how it happened, howling // above some much domestic life, inside it.” This is a man who “never shunned safety,” who once tried saké and thought it “tasted / like oblivion.” By all accounts, the guy is a wimp:

He returned, deleted, returned. Bills
racked up. Women thought he was something
of a limp-fish. He never finished

his masterpiece titled “Self-Portrait
as a Crucible of Style.”

And yet, when this unlikely hero happens upon the coyote’s dead body “with two / holes in its side,” he cries “for its howling, / that creature, his low cortege of clouds.” This is what we get for defying our nature; we render ourselves impotent, mourning our losses and still surrounded by danger.

We’re all implicated. It’s built into the book’s title. But in case we missed it, Roderick has some reminders for us. The poem “In My Name” plays on the phrase’s double meaning: a house clear of mortgage payments is in my name, but so is something done in my stead. Beginning with Necessary Evil and Enola Gay—the B-29s used in the 1945 bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—Roderick reminds us that “smoothly soldered rivets saved the men inside.” Meanwhile, the speaker exits this memory and falls asleep:

I lie in another state, placeless in the air,
with the sound of occasional sirens
or barking dogs. In a magazine
I read about Predators over Pakistan,
our drone with fifty eyes named Gorgon Stare.
The men at Langley, bombing by remote…

We are the men inside, bombing by remote. Separated by magazine pages from the reality of this destruction, we sleep soundly. Roderick is unafraid to indict us, indict himself:

When I signed my mortgage, I also signed
for the peonies and for the shield of my yard’s
tall trees…

…Here’s the price I pay
for sleeping: Reapers circling a far-off village,
my drones. To eyes at a distance, a screen
lies always between a failure and a dream.

This sentiment is echoed from an earlier poem, “Terra Incognita,” which reflects on American torture of foreign citizens. It happens in nameless places like warehouses, recalling the distance and mythology of Guantanamo Bay. The speaker thinks to himself, “While I drank like a lush / it happened. While I washed down // a pastry with a divine swipe of cheese inside.” Being an American, he thinks, “isn’t like being from one of the old nations— / it’s not a gift, exactly, but it’s also // not something to take lightly or give away.” Retaining the privilege of ignoring injustice supposedly crucial to maintaining our way of life—a necessary evil—that’s the dream. With murder as its foundation, the dream is a failure. Try as we might, we can’t stay separate from it.

But when did being an American come to mean this sort of ignorance? Roderick seems to tell us it was always the case. He invokes the Kennedys, visual artists, Spanish conquistadors, and Irish immigrants to show us a timeline of American history whose very bedrock is this sort of violence. We try so hard to quell our fears, to stay, as the husband in “Eros and Dust,” “safe within a moat / that can’t be crossed.” All we succeed in is destruction. Roderick presses us to examine this heritage, to sit with discomfort and at least admit culpability. There’s no solution offered—perhaps that will come in his next collection. But for now, we must listen to these timely words and remember the power of poetry to depict a society, to inspire change.


 

Book Review: LUCKY BONES by Peter Meinke

 photo 4bc9654f-a658-4cd6-972b-4b7f046b3ca5_zpsd3965aaf.jpg Lucky Bones
Poems by Peter Meinke
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

Recently I read an issue of Poetry in which there was an essay titled, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer” by Mary Karr. Karr quotes Auden: “The purpose of poetry is disenchantment.” She continues, “Poetry in the recent past hasn’t allowed us much joy.” In response I’d like to consider a poem by Peter Meinke, “Poem on Your Birthday,” from his new collection, Lucky Bones. Here is a poem that delights. Delights in itself, nonetheless: “Right now I’m so excited / by this very poem.” I’m reminded of William Carlos Williams’ particular syntactic gait, the way he was able to capture the bustling activity of the moment through it. A few more lines later in the poem:

But it’s no use: I love it today
with my primitive heart
wingless as an Apteryx
Hey poem come down to me
Make this day a special day:
the twenty-fifth of March
two thousand and six

This is the kind of poetry that does not blush at joy. And, to be frank, the kind of poetry that we all could use more of. The closest Meinke’s contemporaries get is a joy that is overtly self-aware and ironic, and thus often evaporated. Meinke addresses the difficulty of joy in one of his older poems, “Brief Meditations on a Woodcut by Leonard Baskin”:

Happy poems are the hardest because
you come off like a dog wagging its tail…

And yet should we therefore fail
to see the young so very pleased
to be themselves? I say Praise without pause
a damaged world deserving our applause.

Here one can see Meinke yoke youth with happiness, a theme heavily addressed in his new book. The poem above is guilty of a type of nostalgia, as are many poems in Lucky Bones. Meinke masterfully weaves memory into his poems, using it as a tool for his craft. The very first poem in the collection, “Old Houses,” is a concrete poem in the shape of an abode. Meinke spends many of its lines romanticizing old residencies, and ends with the ominous: “…even the garage / long ago burned down was an object of affection.” Meinke then launches into two more poems of destruction: “Drive-by Shootings,” with its surreal vaccination scene, and “The Firebug,” another arson poem. From the beginning, the reader enters a hostile space in which the past is suspect.

The first section of Lucky Bones titled “The Molecule of Life” is motivated by both memory and worldview. Many of the Latin-titled poems are overtly political, such as “Habemus Papum,” Habeus Corpus,” and “Five Landays with a Latin Phrase,” so that lines like “O goodum! Habemus Papam / who’ll soon intone / the usual crapam” may be heard. There are also poems of nostalgia, such as “The Family Megashelter Song, 1961” and “The Lover.” And there are poems that are somewhere between memory and worldview, such as “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” and “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.” Sprinkled throughout are carpe diem poems like “Cassandra in the Library,” “The Activist,” and “The Molecule of Life”—“The Molecule of Life” being the title poem of the first section, a poem that celebrates life, art, and perception. The poem “The Storm” is emblematic of the tone of the first section, especially the lines “that in a world so easy to slip / from we remain.” One begins to discern a backward-facing narrative not so thrilled to turn around.

Which makes “Poem on Your Birthday” such a standout poem: it unironically delights in becoming older. And also the poem “Floaters,” which ribs at the aging body. There is also the strikingly honest and melancholy title poem “Lucky Bones,” in which the speaker turns to toss his keys “that flashed through light / like lucky bones” to his wife who is no longer there to catch them. The aforementioned moment sneaks up on the reader like grief so often does, and takes what’s conventional and arresting in a poem—its final lines—in a surprising direction. This candidness is strikingly reminiscent of poems from Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, poems written after love. One might not be surprised to find lines like, “Now I come to look at love / in a new way” in a poem like “Lucky Bones” or “Hymn 2014,” which speaks to their honesty—honest moments cushioned by humor and wordplay.

The second section of Lucky Bones titled “Skipping Stones” marks a movement toward persona and sympathy poems. There’s the comical “Emily Dickinson Thinks about Buying a Ribbon,” a sort of surface level feminist poem, the light-hearted “Belgian Truffles (A Tart’s Love Song),” the racially charged “Winter in Detroit,” and the whimsical “Mountain Man.” “Skipping Stones” implies both solitude and companionship, both inwardness and outwardness. Those that pass Meinke’s pond enter his bubble-thoughts and pass through a little disoriented, a little dazed.

I would be remiss not to mention the center justification of the vast majority of poems in the collection. I liken this stylistic choice to a provocative pose. You’d be hard pressed to find other published poems written in 2014 that are center-justified. This choice requires a bit of bravado. There is confidence in it, and a bit of posturing. Meinke is an oddity of a poet, not ashamed to delight, not afraid to do a little peacocking. Lucky Bones takes a close look at what it means to start growing old, then walks off laughing.


 

Book Review: THE ROOMS ARE FILLED by Jessica Null Vealitzek

 photo 931f81f9-b99a-4cb0-a1bb-56661dd6e09a_zpsb2bd7bfe.png The Rooms are Filled
Jessica Null Vealitzek
She Writes Press, 2014
$16.95

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

There are two versions of a small town. In one, everyone knows each other and offers support when something goes wrong. In another, people are used to traditional mindsets and lifestyles, and either welcome change or destroy it. The main characters—a young widow, Anna, and her nine-year-old son, Michael, along with his fourth-grade teacher, Julia—experience each of these “small town” reactions in Jessica Null Vealitzek’s debut novel The Rooms are Filled.

The first chapter branches between what is and what was. Now, Michael watches paramedics try to resuscitate his father, who had suffered a massive heart attack. Just days earlier, Michael and his father wade through knee-deep snow to track a local wolf pack and ensure that inhumane traps are sprung without harm. In Michael’s mind, both timeframes happen simultaneously as he tries to register his father’s sudden absence. Eventually, Michael and his mother move from Minnesota to Ackerman, Ill.—from small-town country where a kid can drive a truck at nine years old and jump naked into a lake, to small-town suburbs where difference is ostracized and Michael must pay to use the community pool. And somewhere in all this, Vealitzek introduces Julia and Rose, who are learning to cope with their newly realized sexuality in 1983. Steady Rose is confident with her identity, whereas Julia is stuck on others’ opinions. She flees, leaving Rose behind, to take a teaching job Ackerman.

After all this, the story doesn’t actually begin until page 71, when Michael arrives at Julia’s fourth grade class. On this page, the main characters’ arcs merge and the story can finally and continually progress. Up until that point, it had stalled. Although the frantic first chapter immediately garners sympathy for Anna and Michael, the rest of the beginning is filled with extensive backstory. This causes the well-crafted prose to dull, until page 71.

After the introduction to each other, the story exists for Michael and Julia, and Michael’s sections provide the most fascination. He is intriguing but simple, connected to nature, open-minded, sensitive, and intuitive. He is “small and quiet,” as his compulsive neighbor Tina notes. His attention is always placed on forgotten elements, and noticing them adds a touch of complexity to his personality. For example, “He loved the smell of pencils, the shiny smooth pages of books, and the lit classroom on dark, stormy mornings.” And he is very smart—“last year he was elected president of his elementary student council, and he was only a third grader.”

However, his intelligence creates trouble for Vealitzek. She uses limited third person to remain close to certain characters, and making a child intelligent beyond his years gives her the freedom to write more maturely than she does for the other kids. This results in descriptions that don’t quite fit. For example, “When she was angry, she developed a brogue,” Michael recollects about a previous teacher. Although it’s his thoughts, there’s that word: brogue. Most kids aren’t smart enough to know that the word exists, much less what it means, and there’s nothing in Michael’s history that would explain his knowledge of it. This is one of the very few slips in Vealitzek’s writing craft. She gets lost in her own language and occasionally forgets that not everyone can speak like she does, which causes a momentary hiccup in the narration flow.

Julia—kind, selfless, compassionate—is tied to Michael’s life the moment he steps through her door. Consequences surrounding her decisions and sexuality provide the other half of conflict in the novel. The two characters are victims of bullying throughout most of the story. Michael admits a secret about himself, and his classmates call him “retard” and declare that he has AIDS. Julia is dogged and assaulted by Tina’s father due to her sexuality. And when Julia steps in to protect Michael from his classmates, people whisper about her being a softy, parents retaliate for the wrong child, and the principal’s blasé attitude is almost callous. Of the interaction between the principal and Julia, Vealitzek writes:

“I’m confident he and the other boys just need time to adjust.” He smiled.
“I think we need a policy on bullying.”

“A policy on bullying?” Ludlow laughed. “What would that be, exactly? That kids shouldn’t be kids? No jokes? No teasing?”
Julia started to answer, but he picked up his blinking telephone to signal the meeting was over.

The people, it seems, who are most able to detect bullying are those who have been or are being bullied themselves. For everyone else, it doesn’t happen around them and can’t possibly be occurring if they can’t fathom its existence. For example, that same principal turns his attention onto Julia when her secret is out. And people who see bullying happening in front of them simply turn away.

All of this, though, is predictable. Elements of conflict are introduced—like positioned dominoes—and readers know what to expect when they fall. Readers can already determine the consequences of Julia’s sexuality becoming known, and they can anticipate the reaction when Michael proclaims a secret about himself. Each character receives what we’ve known was coming for them, whether they deserved it or not. Although we know what’s coming, we still don’t want it to. And if any readers are uncomfortable with continuous conflict, then the set-up and climax for each main character will make them squirm.

Yet there is one element to Vealitzek’s writing that shines above all else. She has a way of remembering the quiet but profound moments of childhood. The counting rhyme that most kids used growing up: “My mother and your mother were hanging up clothes. My mother punched your mother right in the nose. What color was the blood?”And she pinpoints moments of intense emotion that recall the precise feeling of largeness around an ignored or belittled person. For example, when Michael hides in bathroom, she writes:

He felt very alone, as if the rest of the world danced in happiness around him, oblivious to the child curled up in a ball in the center.

She takes Michael’s experiences and uses them to wrench out her readers’ memories and hold them up for inspection. “Remember this?” she seems to be saying. “You weren’t so different, were you?” That seems to be the point of the entire story. No matter who you are, where you come from, or who you love, you’re no different from anyone else. There should be no “apples and oranges” discussion required about relationships, there should be no tetherball game to determine dominance, and there should be no reason to crawl brokenly into bedrooms or bathrooms. Yet these events happen, and as Vealitzek’s dominoes must pick themselves up and survive, so must her readers after they finish the last page and nurse their own old wounds.


 

Book Review: ACCEPTING THE DISASTER by Joshua Mehigan

 photo aa4d89ff-c79e-4630-b322-533b6f9da43e_zpsba0c522e.jpg Accepting the Disaster
Poems by Joshua Mehigan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Hardcover: $23.00

Reviewed by Jason Barry

Accepting the Disaster is a brilliant new book of verse from one of our finest poets, Joshua Mehigan. This is Mehigan’s second collection, and it’s a formally crafted volume that has the sparkle and shine of a master at work, a poet at the top of his game. Mehigan’s attention to metrical detail is evident at every turn—from dazzling sonnets and rhymed stanzas, to philosophical psalms and minimalist triolets, this book has it all. Let’s begin by considering the opening sonnet, “Here”:

Nothing has changed. They have a welcome sign,
a hill with cows and a white house on top,
a mall and grocery store where people shop,
a diner where some people go to dine.
It is the same no matter where you go,
and downtown you will find no big surprises.
Each fall the dew point falls until it rises.
White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow.

This is all right. This is their hope. And yet,
though what you see is never what you get,
it does feel somehow changed from what it was.
Is it the people? Houses? Fields? The weather?
Is it the streets? Is it these things together?
Nothing here ever changes, till it does.

This poem calls to mind suburban streets or the rural countryside, and it evokes a sense of lackluster routine and drab mediocrity, where things are never more than “all right.” We can see the downtown streets where seasons come and go as they always do, bringing nothing unexpected with them. It’s the quintessential American image of strip malls, billboards, and folks who wish for nothing more than for things to remain the same. Where is this place? Mehigan leaves the question open, but uses ambiguity in the fifth line (“it’s the same no matter where you go”) to suggest that this town could be one of thousands: it’s the one you encounter in New Jersey and Nevada, the place you drive through in Utah that looks identical to the one you passed in Colorado. We have a sense that despite one’s personal efforts, style, and individuality, one’s coming and going has no causal effect on the nature of this place.

Yet we know that we haven’t seen it all, that there’s more to the picture than can we can glean on first impression. When Mehigan writes “though what you see is never what you get,” he suggests that his poetic image is not a definitive representation of the truth. Even an unnamed town can change. We cannot, however, detect its transformations at hand with our faculty of sight, but only with what we feel (see line eleven). There is nothing tangible to perceive or latch onto here—no epistemological evidence of sight or sound to confirm our impressions of change. All we have to go with is our feeling, and we leave the poem with a sense of impending emotional disaster.

In his triolet, “The Crossroads,” Mehigan gives us another glimpse of the ordinary gone wrong, of a scene so common we hardly seem to notice it at all:

This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.
All day the cars blow past and disappear.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
Look at the sparkling dust, the oily smear.
Look at the highway marker, still askew.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.

We are invited, of course, to observe the aftermath of an automobile accident on the highway, at the crossroads, as it were. And yet, all day the cars “blow past and disappear” as if nothing important happened, as if the spot has no special significance whatsoever; most people go about their lives as usual, and it’s only those who are “in the know” that know the real horror of this place.

What’s terrible is how often we—those of us who continually drive away—fail to register the full weight the crossroads has for others. What I love about this triolet is the stripped down quality, the way it appeals to all of us and also registers individually, the way it renders an everyday situation both personal and powerful. The first line (the one that repeats in the fourth and seventh), “This is the place it happened. It was here” brings us back again and again to the spot, and we depart with an image of car dust, oil, and whatever else our imagination brings to the wreckage. Alas, how soon we’ll forget and move on with things: the sparkling dust will blow away, a new sign will be put in place, and the oil stain will be painted over.

The two poems we explored above exhibit Mehigan’s talent for general description and universal depiction of place. The town in the poem “Here” could be anywhere in America—as could the dust and damaged highway marker. But Mehigan doesn’t limit himself to such a barebones aesthetic. Consider, for example, his gritty sonnet entitled “Heard at the Men’s Mission,” where a cast of unsavory characters populate the foreground:

How many sons-of-bitches no one loves,
with long coats on in June and beards like nests—
guys no one touches without latex gloves,
squirming with lice, themselves a bunch of pests,
their cheeks and noses pocked like grapefruit rind—
fellas with permanent shits and yellowish eyes
who, if they came to in the flowers to find
Raphael there, could not be otherwise—

have had to sit there listening to some twat
behind a plywood podium in the chapel
in a loose doorman suit the color of snot,
stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple,
telling them how much Jesus loves the poor,
before they got their bread and piece of floor?

What wonderfully grotesque imagery! We can feel the presence of the homeless as if they were all around us—their pockmarked faces, filthy coats, and body odors permeate the scene, though we finish the poem feeling sympathetic and thinking twice about their situation (and also questioning the imbalance of power and the condescending, religious rhetoric of the man behind the podium).

The beautiful turn in this sonnet marks a shift in our perspective: we begin by having the preacher’s (or outsider’s) point of view, yet by line nine we’ve turned the corner and can envision the world as if we, too, were one of the unfortunate sons-of-bitches in the soup kitchen line, subjected to the preacher’s gilded talk and hypocritical banter. This is the kind of description that comes with having spent significant time among the poor, and we gather that the author has a keen understanding of the lives of outcast, downtrodden, and itinerant members of our society.

Each poem in this collection invites patient, multiple readings. Mehigan takes us on a journey from the countryside to the city center, and we roam with him through bum-infested cathedrals and insane asylums, machine shops and polling stations, and even mythological woodlands where girls dance feverishly under shimmering moonlight. The work in this collection is perfectly executed, philosophically rich, and emotionally intense. Accepting the Disaster is sure to be a landmark cherished by lovers of formal poetry, and one of the best books you’ll read for years to come.


Book Review: CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING by Afaa Michael Weaver

 photo 8adbdc87-e490-4f66-9a16-8426d3d20ebb_zps8e7d06b3.jpg City of Eternal Spring
Poems by Afaa Michael Weaver
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Mike Walker

City of Eternal Spring is a difficult, demanding book from the onset: however wrongly, we often tend to look for central themes and backgrounding for poets and their poetry, being too accustomed to a Chinese-American poet writing about her ethnic experience or a black poet about his, and losing sight, I feel, commonly of the role of good poetry, period, in contemporary literature. Afaa Michael Weaver, a highly-accomplished yet under-known poet who also happens to be black and happens to be a scholar and explorer of Asia therefore shatters the assumptions that some of even the most well-meaning or educated readers may bring to a book prior to opening its cover. His work here, in the third volume of an ambitious three-volume collection, does concern his ethnicity, it does concern his travels in Asia, but it concerns much beyond. It concerns narrative language and form in a manner often lost today in poetry; it concerns his efforts to make peace with abuse he suffered as a child. It is, as serious poetry ought to be, a challenge in all the best ways.

I know there are readers who will take issue with what I noted above about how we approach a writer of any minority status, they will say we’re beyond this, we no longer see a “black writer” or a “gay writer” but I will contend we still, alas, too often do just this. We find in college courses that writers, especially contemporary poets, often organized in such a fashion where we want for a token someone to represent every facet of diversity. The problem is, the lesbian poet has to then be, foremost, a lesbian. The black male poet is expected to contribute something on racial injustice, the Asian-American something on her struggle as such—as an Asian, as a woman, but what about as a writer or a teacher or whatever else she is? We set expectations of poetry to tell about the person that sometimes are at ill odds with the trajectory the poet wants and desires to take. I don’t want that mistake made with Weaver’s fine book: for its emphasis on Asia alone and its quality of writing, it could stand as a one of the best and most-crucial volumes of original poetry of the year thus far, but the aspects of the poet dealing with childhood abuse also contribute a whole separate though united dimension to the book and the poems it contains.

Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which this book concludes, takes on a huge project—the reflection of personal history and the human body via Asian, in most instances Daoist, metaphorical explorations. Thus, many poems in this final book are quite personal, but they also are wide-ranging, focused in places on several topics, such as one concerned with the poet’s reaction to learning Michael Jackson died while he, the poet, is in Asia. Effortlessly, Weaver fuses his impressions of the famed singer’s death with his first-hand take on small visual details before him. Something noteworthy for America, for pop culture, has happened, something surprising, something nearly wanton, and yet life goes on and in many ways, in this place where he walks and records what he sees, hears, and smells, it happens in a way life could have progressed centuries ago, with the same daily tasks at hand. It is not how many poets, even our greatest ones, would have approached Jackson’s death. It is more: it is about how a person is displaced‚ either by death, or by the media reaction to death for one of great fame, or by actual removal—by travel and by immersion in another culture. Likewise, when Weaver writes about the earthquakes in Taiwan, he speaks as someone close to the topic but with a feeling of removal still—closer than us, but not native, perhaps near-native given his dedication to learning the language and culture, but still coming as a traveler to the scene.

Travelers, versus tourists, are a rare breed these days: We either go places on business where we are too often cloistered from the acute aspects of a foreign land via our business hotels, meetings in English, and other efforts made to make the experience as smooth as possible or else we are tourists, literally, as we are on holiday tours. Cruises, package deals to see a lot of Europe in a very short time, efforts at eco-tourism that while often well-meaning are tours nonetheless and meant for tourists all the same. The traveler, whether a man in the 1880s making his way through western Texas or a man in the 2010s making his way through Taiwan and elsewhere in vast Asia, are another thing altogether. These are people who are in the midst of a strange land, strangers fully, strangers trying to learn the local ways half via personal interest and half via great imperative to do what one must to survive and to make the experience as much a quality one as possible. That duty is upon our traveler: with the tourist, the surety of quality of course is in the hands and promises of the tour operator—so the responsibilities are rather different.

Weaver is very aware of his position as a traveler and what it means. In his poem “Buying a History of the Language,” which is one of my favorites in this book, he makes it clear that he’s doing things that are the domain of a traveler alone, encountering the origins of a language in a native bookstore, yes, learning about China from the book’s page but buying the book in the first place within China. Weaver entitled the second section of this book “Exile” because he is simultaneously a traveler and an exile: beyond where he came from, where he established via legacy and nationality and education and all else a sense of self versus one of somewhere else. He writes in one poem of walking into a bookstore and seeing a book in a language he did not understand and while he interplays Chinese here and there in his poems and clearly understands not only the language in the sense of being able to communicate in it but also the concept of its vast depth, scope, and history, he in addition knows what he doesn’t know. He realizes his position of removal, his position of not being where he started nor where he wishes to finish nor exactly in transit—as he’s dedicated a lot of time both in actual days and the efforts of these poems to being in situ—so he is, in many ways, in exile.

Despite—or perhaps indeed because of—his self-imposed exile, Weaver writes of his own history in poems such as “Tea Plantations and Women in Black” where the concept of a plantation expectedly returns him to the plight of African-Americans in the United States. It is in poems such as this one, especially given how short, tight, and compressed it is, that there would be an ease in the poet producing something too coy, too earnest, but Weaver avoids this pitfall. His poem is quick, both in its length and its ability to arrive at its core points, yet it leaves the reader wanting more in the very best way. These poems are highly narrative and what they truncate or outwardly leave out is nearly always non-essential and despite how brief they can be, their narrative powers and sheer ability to put together a whole story in a few lines is staggering in scope. I normally like to quote from poems when I review books, but here it is rather tough to do so with much meaning: Weaver’s poems, while often beautiful, are built of uncomplicated language and a couple borrowed lines will do little to convince anyone of their real gravity. Weaver notes, in example, the difficult, nearly-impossible, mission of learning the Chinese characters, he says: “if there are not enough stars in the sky to count the years it will take to learn these characters, do not tell” strikes me as less poetic than it is simply honest.

The role of metaphor here is not to explain the simple, but the complex; Weaver’s metaphors are much larger affairs than one typically expects and he is not interested in metaphors where he can plainly explain, as narrative, what is at hand. He can tell us, in example, about how he marvels at the sense of cohesion and duty in Chinese society and he can tell us, simply, how he notices old couples talking together—huddled together—and provide us with a picture in our minds of such grandmas and grandpas in close conversation that requires no metaphor whatsoever. However, metaphor in larger measure and of more robust, complex construction is merited when speaking of his personal history and childhood abuse. How do we seek solace and remedy for things that are both awful and long ago? Things able to remain with us not years but decades? English itself lacks very sound or sure terms for such a mission—the French “cherchant du réconfort” is more noble and also more accurate. For his part, Weaver turns to the Chinese language but even more the landscape and human geography of it, via Daoist teachings, he has mapped out. He is also very adept at finding in rural Chinese farm life—a life much unchanged for decades despite the boiling rise of Chinese urbanity over the past twenty or so years—likenesses to his own black heritage in America. Again, in less-able hands such efforts could feel forced, but Weaver is restrained and skilled enough to only provide honest, vivid, and necessary examples of how his culture and the one he is visiting reflect each other in often nearly mirror-like gloss. Peanuts, a crop of great actual and cultural import to both Black Americans and to rural Chinese, become a focal point in a poem, in example, and the depth Weaver produces is powerful: not just the surface values of the peanut in terms of a crop with meaning to the ethnicities at hand, but the pragmatic and economic values therein of a humble yet hardy crop, a rich crop of the impoverished, a crop of various broad uses and high nutritional content. His metaphor here is not metaphor: it is what Susan Sontag desired, a removal from metaphor and it is devoid of tropes—it is not about Black people raising peanuts or Chinese farmers raising peanuts, but about encountering a foodstuff valued by two cultures and appreciating it as the wonder of agriculture it is incarnate.

“Wind and air have forgotten magicians,

who can fly beyond the range of the compass”

This, quoted above, now this is worth quoting: lines that are in rare instance for our poet as these so removed from direct narrative, yet all the more beautiful and fully keeping of their strengths of narrative language and simple explicatus intact. Weaver’s expert ability to employ exactly the best words at the exact most-apt moment is something I suspect not only to be the profit of a lifetime of quality writing, but also of coming to the third book in a trilogy where he can draw from themes and items he has considered for two other books’ worth of writing. It’s a rare and very special situation for a poet and one that can only be earned via the sheer amount of grand effort Weaver’s invested in his writing.

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of Weaver’s poetry here however is his cohesive application of Daoist images and concepts to explore the abuse he suffered as a child and also to explore his position currently in the world around him. He is steadfastly careful to not preach Daoist views as a key that unlocks any door but simply as a vantage point that has allowed him necessary distance from himself and his own personal history. While some people might turn to psychoanalysis for such a mechanism, in his Daoist approach Weaver is able to place very core human emotions within the unique geography of a combined landscape, portraying his journey through time as a man akin to a journey across a territory charted out on a map. His poems are perfect for this approach, too, as they are short and compact yet, again, very narrative in nature and brimming with visual cues to larger themes taking place. They function as a collected corpus in this book much as a map rolled out over a table could: showing various locations and the major roads and paths nearly lost to time which lead between one place and another.

Clearly, Weaver’s book is a triumph and a graceful, powerful conclusion to his trilogy as well. Weaver offers up poems that accomplish the rare feat of describing both a foreign land—the whole spectra of people, places, traditions insofar as such can be bottled up in poems and transmitted to a reader. However, he does much more: he flawlessly incorporates his own personal history and personal struggles with his explorations of Asia and in doing so, makes his poetry all the richer instead of truncating or lessening either his autobiographical approach nor his geographical journey. This book therefore is rich, deep, and yet accessible to the reader who is willing to approach it; we need more poetry of this tenor, more poetry that is able to interrogate cultural traditions but without the normal tropes of a poet pigeon-holed into a certain ethnic, national, or other tradition: a poet, as Weaver proves himself, who is truly a traveler.


 

Book Review: THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS by Rachel Mennies Goodmanson

 photo e2331f31-5ee1-4b9c-892c-521f018b5b24_zps181382cc.jpg The Glad Hand of God
Points Backwards

Poems by
Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
Texas Tech University Press, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Faith is a lineage: cultural, familial, political, a heritage in some ways inescapable. This is by no means a new idea, but that doesn’t stop Rachel Mennies Goodmanson from exploring it in active, surprising ways in her debut collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. These poems arrest with their images, leading readers through unexpected turns that take us from 1930s Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, Goodmanson paints and repaints the history of Judaism from her place as woman in the world. This is not self-indulgence, but a calling from Torahic mothers like Sara, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, who, Goodmanson writes, “had the hearts of the bodies we stand on tall as arks / had the shawl to wrap around my bare and sloping shoulders / had the soil to force into my fists and turn my body west.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this early admission that faith is an imperative thrust upon her by the matriarchs, many of Goodmanson’s poems explore the difficulties of faith. The morning after Kristallnacht, her great-grandfather’s Jewishness becomes an impossible garment: “A glass overcoat waits, open / on the sidewalk: sleeves of debris / for his cold arms to slide inside.” This poem, like many in the collection, thrives on the unsaid. “Today, he learns how clothes betray,” the speaker tells us, and then later, “old customers pass / kicking aside findings with a steely toe.” The tiniest details are employed to depict the vulnerability of being Jewish in Germany during the second World War; we know who these old customers are. “The Glass Overcoat” shifts from its central metaphor to the speaker, who tells us, “From him, I learned to mend.” But even she, mending in contemporary America, cannot always find comfort in her coat—her hands kept from warmth by a pocket mistakenly sewn shut.

Goodmanson follows this poem with one about her grandmother, “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York.” The poem opens with a list of all the belongings Goodmanson’s matriarchs had to give up to pay the price: “One by one her mother sold her silver spoons / and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear, / silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves…” At first it seems that Goodmanson is simply reinvesting immigrants like her grandmother with power, reminding us of lives led before they came to America with nothing to their name. But then there’s a stanza break and objects take a sinister turn as Goodmanson bids goodbye to

the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.

Stated in its simplest terms, this list leaves readers to realize the meaning behind Goodmanson’s words—the grisly origins of this latter set of objects. Again, faith is made to bear an impossible price.

But faith isn’t all horror for Goodmanson. “The Jewish Woman in America, 1941,” a member of the diaspora, reminds us that the love for one’s culture and home can be retained in spite of past pain. Goodmanson allows the woman in the poem to make a fantastic nightly escape:

… alive with immigrant sweat. The scrubwoman
dreams at night in German, she flies over oceans,
first a bomb, then a boat. Das Glas covers her body,
shards glint like small stars.

The glass of Schönwetter’s overcoat becomes this woman’s dazzling dress, supernatural bauble to decorate the complexity of her homecoming. In “Grandfather Onion,” Goodmanson hints that Jewish faith is like Jewish food, “its complicated / briny odors.” Indeed, food metaphors seem to be one of the ways she can best articulate this concurrent grief and love. As she asks the reader in “Huevos for Seder,”

Who’s to say dirt never
made a meal better, some sour
blackness against the yellow sun, grit
in the gift of sustenance?

If the first four sections of Goodmanson’s book set out to depict the complicated nature of Jewish heritage, then the final section, “The Jewish Woman in America,” articulates her celebration of those complexities. We get a hint of what’s to come here in the fourth poem of the collection, “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010,” when Goodmanson writes, “My God accepts // the muddle of our lives.” This last section is all muddle—mixing of history with the present, heritage with new perspectives, and especially body with body. For the first time in the collection, female sexuality becomes a major theme. Like the speaker in “To Those Still Godless,” the Jewish woman in America is called upon to revise mythology: “you shutter your parents’ house of lessons, you write your myths / on the backs of your lusts…”

Love and sex, in this world, aren’t always beautiful, but they are a reclamation of the body. They are ways to control the unappeasable appetite from “Eating Animals Without Faces,” where “what we seek / alone at night stays hungry, always hungry” and “My Sister the Diviner,” where love is eaten along with food, “that closed mouth, / fit always, despite ourselves, to bursting.”

And so, 65 pages after her list poem “Matriarch,” Goodmanson gives us two final lists that turn all the old rules on their heads. “Rapture” meditates on peaches to give us a new idea of perfection:

                  …Peach God, rapt for carrion,
turning above us in the heavens, waiting for
us, ripening, to satisfy ourselves;
come to him pitted, come to him
finished, made rotten by
your sweet time in his sun.

Here, as with fruit, our wasting away can be a sweet thing; “the very taste / of sin” rewritten as rapture. The final poem continues to muddle the sacred and profane, telling the reader, “Our bodies // naked before men are God” and “The lungs expand with our God, God / in the scream, also the moan.” Then we zoom out, back again to the original pains and gains of faith and heritage: “The broken limb // and its setting right. God in / the remembering and the forgetting.” In the way we write and rewrite our worlds.


Book Review: The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard

 photo 734107db-ed2e-4909-8ae3-9a43952d414c_zps39550200.jpg The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard
Coffee House Press, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

At first glance, former urban anthropologist Josh Ostergaard has written a love story. There’s nostalgia, great passion, cheating, impenetrable beauty, and remorse. There’s reunion, resignation, and heroic angels. And lots of hot dogs. Ostergaard comfortably puts down six in a nine inning span. And so, reluctantly, I had to accept the book for what it was, a compendium of thrilling baseball anecdotes.

This drew my attention. I am frequently stopped by the Subject Matter police for driving over the lyric. Ostergaard spent ten years proving some kind of point about baseball and American history. Didn’t anyone tell him subject matter was boring? That good writing was all about seductive language? Thankfully no one did, for while Ostergaard goes down a rabbit hole he finds mysteries and shouting and wicked ways. I read it and saw how politics hoodwink the masses. I saw our need to reaffirm our hierarchical society without blaming ourselves for doing so. I saw the romance of defeat.

The Devil’s Snake Curve is also one of the most interesting “alternative history books” I’ve read, somewhere between Churchill’s two volume Duke of Marlboro and Charles Lowery’s James Barbour, A Jeffersonian Republican. The history is alternative because it doesn’t settle on one actor or a few specific events in time. Rather, in an era when Presidents feel compelled to declare war on emotion, Ostergaard is compelled to give us the history of an emotion. And he does so without Googling anything. His is a grim business of old newsreels, paper stubs, and countless visits to sporting museums.

If you look past the conspiracies linking the Yankees to World War II internment camps and rest homes in Arizona, The Devil’s Snake Curve is also a crystalline metaphor for the self-persecuted post-modern poet jammed between the art and the job of it. It’s a book that could have just as easily been about small presses in Kansas City and the larger ones in New York which always seem to win. Between alt-lit and academic literature, the have-nots and the haves in today’s conversation about writing. Ostergaard’s mastery of baseball portraiture—in excruciating detail—is what lets us imagine the whole world in a catcher’s expectant return of a pitcher’s menacing glare.

What better place to begin this kind of baseball book than an epigraph from the controversial sports figure Mary Robison: “Now he and I are watching some men with a ball. No matter the shape or size of the ball, what team or for what country the men fight. The TV is showing men with a ball so we’re watching.”

In his chapter “Origins,” Ostergaard tries to understand with mathematics and beer and song why the sport has such an obsessive hold on its fanatics. There is the dual drama of our subjugated compartmentalizing behavior braided with hero worship and the mysteries of chance. “What began as a pitcher’s duel may end with a home run.” In a masterful stroke of meta-almanac baseball writing, Ostergaard even writes a capsule review of his own book: Its stories are the murmurs between innings. They are the pitches that make up a game. They careen off the wall and roll into dark corners. The game is played in fragments. Meanings accrue. Memories interrupt history. Each of us should be an umpire.

On a baseball diamond there are five sides to every story. Ostergaard dulled his scissors cutting into his arguments and pasting them into each section of his book which include: Origins, Machines, War, Animals, and Nationalism. But this book is also part memoir, if just barely so. Probably no more than thirty pages of memoir. We get the part of growing up in a culture of defeat. That his Kansas City Royals are a Podunk team in a Podunk part of the world. We see Ostergaard change the seasons, listening to summer games in the dead of winter that he recorded on a trusty cassette tape recorder. We see him drawing bored circles in the outfield dirt. Later we see him rage and still later we see old regrets wash out the color in his face. The other team has uniforms and a soundtrack. His team has a pitcher with a cigarette bobbing on his lip.

Why does nothing mean so much? Ostergaard seems to be asking. Nothing is more linear than a game of baseball. And yet the process and the outcome—the journey for those of you keeping score—is so elastic. One scene which conveys this occurs as his family returns from vacation. Ostergaard writes:

Distance Factors

My sisters and I were in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, rambling south through Iowa in the summer of 1983. We were on our way back to Kansas from our annual trip to Minnesota. We had spent a week in a tiny cabin on Pelican Lake, where every night we had campfires on the beach. By day I had stalked the weed lines with a butterfly net, looking for schools of bullhead fry. Now in the car we scanned the fields, counting horses to pass the time. My dad drove and listened to the radio. We had just entered the range of the Royals AM broadcast. I could hear the static fizz, and my dad fiddled with the dial. The Royals were playing the Yankees in New York.

In such a simple paragraph, Ostergaard combines Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and New York, and lakes and fields, and horses and fish, and Time. In the scene, there is triumph when George Brett hits a go-ahead top of the ninth homerun, then curses when Yankee manager Billy Martin has it disqualified on a pine tar technicality. It’s heartbreaking how the observant and curious boy nonetheless “didn’t understand” why his father was so jubilant, then crushed.

It’s almost as if the father’s been programmed, and that all of us have been hard wired to wage the fight of our lives for the sake of mediocrity. Not all of us can be Yankees. Not all of us can be one percenters. “How would you make a Yankees sandwich? In Kansas, we believed the only ingredients were arrogance and money.”

For Ostergaard, our very existence is based on inspiring ourselves to participate in a fight we cannot ever win. The Yankees’ job is to inspire us to risk losing to them by thinking we have a shot. Guess what? We don’t have a shot. Dreams are not enough. Joy is not enough. To make dreams come true you need money, arrogance, charisma, and at the very least, a low-residency MFA. Shaving the hair off your face is also a plus.

Even the belief in language and the hope of writing is its own kind of failure. The best we can do is walk away. Ostergaard traded his anthropology career for a job writing grant proposals at Graywolf Press. He gave up on his hometown Royals ever doing anything, and he walked away from this book a number of times. For five years The Devil’s Snake Curve was a novel about a father and a son. When he finally finished it he decided to send it to 100 small press publishers. If no one took it then he’d just toss it over a fence. Two days later he signed a contract with Coffee House Press. Jesus, how does that happen with a book about everything to do with nothing?

Quite simply, The Devil’s Snake Curve is that good. It reads well, either a paragraph at a time or in seventy page clips. When moments become too literal, Ostergaard spits on the metaphysic, weaving memory and sunlight and static A.M. radio. Before he’s carried away he’s back on message with another entertaining gem. Read him slowly and you’ll be outwitted. Read him quickly and you’ll be bombarded.

What does the empire fear most? It fears passion. It fears the George Brett in each of us who can burn a double into a triple. It fears our faith in our ability to turn the game. Last June, when Ostergaard was interviewed in HTMLgiant, correspondent Adam Robinson asked him about the Royals, who’d just completed an improbable ten-game winning streak. Ostergaard said he didn’t deserve to celebrate because he’d grown so frustrated with the team’s owners. Kansas City was the smallest media market in big league ball. Its owners were misers, only developing talent for the sake of selling its talent to other teams.

Last week when the Royals upended the Orioles in the American League Championship Series in four straight games, The Devil’s Snake Curve added a whole new chapter in invisible ink. It’s a chapter about slipping in and out of irony; it’s about how one man’s blues is another man’s scripture, and the razor thin margin between hunch and prophecy.

Our problem is that we yearn to believe the defeated outcome is in doubt. We’re talking about devils and going down swinging or caught looking. Now that the Royals are in the World Series, isn’t that proof of something?


 

Book Review: The Insomniac’s Weather Report
by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 191aa37b-6ade-4a8f-9854-e4c1f323fc71_zps775efc45.jpg The Insomniac’s Weather Report
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Isobar Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Jessica Goodfellow’s book The Insomniac’s Weather Report tumbles into a world of water, semi-consciousness, and circular logic. The collection is divided into four sections and these divisions seem to offer the only real stability in the work. To hold onto anything here is illogical, for anything is nothing, and then everything, all at once. I read as if tiptoeing; I don’t trust that the poem will state without taking back, without it, somehow, claiming it’s not a poem, not not a poem, either. And when the narration does spin, I follow it without question, as if obviously, it’s foolish to think anything is definite.

The first section, “Uses of Water,” lays the foundation for the circular narration that carries throughout the collection. Water moves each poem, as it’s positioned as the central image. This works well as a beginning, for water is the source of all things living. It’s necessary for existence, yet it’s constantly shifting form and location. This shifting property of water extends to a larger discussion on instability. The poems are titled “What You Measure If You Use Water As A Clock” or “What You Lose If You Use Water As A Preservative.” Water is never simply water, but a tool. In “What You Dampen If You Use Water As A Boomerang,” the speaker talks of the body as fact, then shifts in the fourth stanza, she writes,

…The sea
is not a boomerang, returning
unchanged—who boldly inked this
edge of continent on map? As if

blue roofs of ocean
shift and slap in maneuvers—
familiar and chaotic—the body
and its households recognize.

The speaker rejects water as stagnant and firm. Yet, the word “water” can be replaced with the word “body,” so the title reads “What You Dampen If You Use Body As A Boomerang.” Again, water seems to be a tool, simply a means towards what’s spoken about.

The other sections continue to focus on the theme of instability. Section two introduces an insomniac who

…longs to transliterate
rain into a human alphabet—
French, maybe. A lullaby, a chanson,
a hymn. A baptism of sleep
as unstable as water.

Section three, titled “Flotsam and Jetsam,” rinses tension on the poems’ shores. The speaker sounds the most disillusioned, circular, questioning. The poems match this in both form and content; they refrain multiple lines or build on a singular statement. For example, in “The Geometry of Being,” the first stanza begins with 3.1, then the second 3.14, then the third 3.141 until the poem ends with 27 lines of pi blocked against the page. Here, the speaker is called irrational, which becomes the link between the mathematical and the human condition. The poem draws its logic and language from both worlds:

they never reach an end, never reveal any patterns, never repeat.
I think of the ancient Greeks, how their words for irrational
number
meant measureless number.

3.141
When you call me irrational, I hear that I am measureless…

Still, the poem ends with a moment of uncertainty, a desire towards a definitive: “Tell me, is it hopeful or hopeless, / this confluence of spirit and flesh.”

The final section, “Alphabet Fugue” is the longest of the four. The poems build on one another, the end title word beginning the following title. In “Roof: Fugue:” Goodfellow defines “fugue,” as the act of fleeing, a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated, a disturbed state of consciousness, a “loss of memory coupled with disappearance from one’s usual environments,” among others. While these definitions mark the section, they also represent the collection as a whole. Our world, our bodies, these poems, are fugues. Goodfellow puts it best when she writes,

Here we are then: in a world where logic doesn’t function,
or else emotions can’t be trusted. Maybe both.
All known tools of navigation require an origin.

Otherwise, there is only endless relativity and then
what’s the point of navigation, in a space where
it’s hard to be lost, and even harder not to be?


Book Review: Nevers by Megan Martin

 photo 527f4239-0350-48cf-b6b2-8fd083ff3b0e_zps3c361cbd.jpg Nevers
by Megan Martin
Caketrain Press, 2014
$9.00

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

From the title I expected Megan Martin’s book, Nevers, to be a book about being unfulfilled, a book of false starts. However, it is much more complicated than that. The ambitious author/narrator is more interested in deconstructing love and finding her true self through her aspirations as a writer. She also attempts to come to terms with her ideas about gender roles, marriage, and society’s concept of beauty. As she struggles with these matters, Martin often forgoes the traditional narrative style in favor of a metafictional one. She remarks on the process of writing the book and invites the reader yet another step closer into the brilliant and complicated mind of Megan Martin.

Martin uses short two page vignettes to capture the angst, jealousy, and hidden passions within the narrator. In the section titled, “A Bride Outdoes Me,” she writes about her best friend—a once hardcore feminist, like herself, who has suddenly become a stereotypical middle class woman that has lost her radical edge. During her friend’s wedding, she internally bashes her friend for leaving behind their shared values, while also picturing her own future wedding. Still Martin manages to “pat [her]self on the ass for remaining ‘real’ and ‘unchanging’ all these years, for continuing to believe so goddamned ferociously in art.” This hypocritical thought alienates the narrator from the rest of the wedding guests. Yet, this angst is short lived as she ends the passage with, “I let the ants in through the zipper-door in order to feel them, not to understand.” Here, I found myself rooting for Martin to discover a perfect balance between her past ideals and her present self, but as the book continues this struggle only seems to get more complicated, as more dichotomies are introduced.

Another remarkable thing is how Martin’s use of metafiction does not restrict her voice, character development, or imagery. Instead, she shows her vulnerability and courage as she talks about the process of writing this book. While poking fun at herself, she writes, “Shit. I hate when the narrator is a writer” and “I only write because I want to talk about myself all the time.” By using self-depreciating humor, she presents her opinions in a way that keeps the average reader reading and the radical feminist happy—a balance, which could have been difficult to maintain, since the book is constantly tipping the scale one way or the other.

If Martin had used longer passages or even a more traditional style for her stories, then some of the strong language and metaphors would have been lost. In this case, the sparse language reinforces Martin’s metaphors and creates lasting images. For example, she remarks on two foxes that she sees outside:

I can see how one fox’s life doesn’t need clarification, while the other’s does, supremely. The foxes appear otherwise equal, but that second fox is fucked and will have to find religion pronto. The first is satisfied with her mediocrity, but I can’t tell whether she is about to murder, seduce or abandon the second.

These dark themes creep into Martin’s writing and capture the real struggle between her past self and the ever-evolving one. She also takes great pleasure in pointing out what other people are afraid to acknowledge: “babies are not inventions. People just think they are because they are incapable of actual inventions.” Again, Martin’s desire to be creative, but also the inner turmoil is brought to the forefront just begging to be scrutinized.

Perhaps Martin’s most important point comes with the apology for the book in, “Warning Label.” Here, she talks about the psychological torture that is undertaken when writing the book and the process it takes to truly understand one’s self. Like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and many other great writers before her, she wishes to show that she does not know everything. More importantly her opinions on feminist issues and writing are limited and cannot be fully encompassed within the book. She does not want the reader to take these ideas and directly apply them; rather she wants the reader to think. She writes:

A poem should flop and writhe in its own gruesome mystery, very near to dying! A poem should be the moment prior to dying that never tells what happens next! A poem should be vomited forth and gravied onto a weekly prickly lawn!

Martin is suggesting that there aren’t clear lines between poetry and prose, and that she wishes for people to reexamine yet another dichotomy. Martin’s fictional vignettes are examples of that non-distinct line.

Ultimately, nothing about Megan Martin’s book Nevers is easy to define and that is the brilliance of the work. Her search for herself, her need to create and tangle with society’s outdated notions, help fuel the book. The reader is then left with lasting images of foxes, writing, and love as ever-evolving concepts. While I originally thought this book could not easily be defined, I did discover that “never” is not always an absolute concept, but a constantly changing one.


 

Book Review: Late Lights by Kara Weiss

 photo 490d6af3-3862-4a38-8209-b3d388800f3c_zps1aff98ad.jpg Late Lights
by Kara Weiss
Colony Collapse Press
$14.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

It’s Monty’s fourth stint in juvenile detention, and in three weeks he’ll be free. He’s almost sixteen. And he’s decided: this time is the last. He watches the shadows shake and bend. He imagines the sweet smell of autumn. Other nights these shadows would be a riot, an explosion, stifled anger uncorked. But not tonight. Tonight, they’re just shadows on the wall.

Kara Weiss’ Late Lights, out now from Colony Collapse Press, guides the reader through glimpses: snapshots of lives, interwoven by feuding and occasional understanding. Reuniting, but rarely resolving.

Late Lights is a novel-in-stories, or more accurately, a novella-in-stories. At 123 short pages, Weiss manages to do what a good number of authors cannot—create a long-lasting world, one whose characters linger in the reader’s consciousness. The questions raised by the characters render the reader unable to consider anything else.

The story is certainly a quick read—a smallish, almost square book, like something you’d find on a coffee table. It’s an afternoon spent with children and adults, and children who grow into adults. Characters like Monty, whose flirtation with juvenile detention has marked him as “damaged goods” in the eyes of his father. Or BJ, whose “body was lean, but it was the leanness of childhood that she’d managed to hang on to, and it was well overdue.” She quietly watches her childhood crumble around her and actively seeks to stop her growth through self-mutilation. Erin consistently tries to balance her love of her friends with the disapproval of a broken family. When it comes to Monty, Erin actively rebels against her mother, whose wealth has seemingly robbed her of empathy.

Childhood friends, Monty, Erin, and BJ, share recollections of leaping into crisp piles of autumn leaves and had a naive certainty that they would never grow apart. But the relationships fade, as many things from childhood do. The memories from that time hold fast, though. They build and break the teenage protagonists. Throughout his adolescent years in juvenile detention, Monty’s mind wanders through his past with Erin and BJ, and what his future might hold. Erin’s affluent life is what Monty has always dreamt for himself, simple order and apparent ease: “The house was clean. There was always lox, and orange juice, and fresh mozzarella in the fridge, and fresh bagels on the counter. Someone was always reading the paper.” Despite their disapproval of him, Monty admires Erin’s parents, and wants to make their lives his own.

Monty desires this stability more than anything, but throughout Late Lights, Weiss details the barriers preventing this. Monty is a victim of the justice system, a churning machine that fails so many which it purports to help. Turned out of juvenile detention shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he moves in with his father, who “welcomes” him home by providing him with no house key, a small place on the moldy couch on which to sleep, and the imposing promise of domestic abuse. Not the future he imagined for himself. Forced out onto the streets in the midst of a freezing Boston winter, Monty turns to the only respite he has left—Erin’s family.

It is these events that bring these characters back together in their late adolescence. Teenage years spent apart—Erin at boarding school, Monty in detainment, and BJ in self-imposed isolation. They have grown apart, and Weiss details their newfound differences through startlingly intimate glimpses into their psyches. This is one of the reasons why Late Lights is so powerful—there is nothing withheld in these characters’ portrayals.

Weiss transitions between each characters’ voice throughout Late Lights. Erin’s story, “What’s Personal,” is written in strong first person, while Monty and BJ are detailed in the quieter, more detached third person. These deviations made perfect sense as I got to know these characters. It’s almost as though that’s how they’d want to be portrayed.

These stories are about growing up, and being thrust into a gritty, cracked world that no one is really prepared for. In one of the more striking scenes of the collection, Monty sits in Erin’s father’s car, shortly after running away from home. He’s freezing, and having long outgrown his shoes, his feet are bloody and torn. Erin’s father wraps his feet up, gives him a pair of his old shoes, and studies him carefully. He tries to reconcile an image of a broken young man with the boy who played at his home nearly every day during his daughter’s youth:

His old sneakers seemed to dangle from Monty’s feet as if not fully attached. The shoes bulged over toes and bones where the gauze padded raw wounds. He looked so small in those big shoes. Like a kid.

The characters in Late Lights grow worlds away from each other, but are always interwoven. They are united in their imperfection, their incompleteness, and their longing for a lost childhood.


 

Book Review: Deathbed Dime$ by Naomi Elana Zener

 photo 131e1c09-1655-48bd-b581-a1720b0fdb67_zpsd173ce25.jpg Deathbed Dime$
by Naomi Elana Zener
Iguana Books, 2014
$25.99

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

Deathbed Dime$ tells the story of thirty-two-year-old Joely Zeller, an estates attorney,  who tries to distance herself from her privileged upbringing and earn success on her own terms and through her own work. Born to a Hollywood director and actress, she finds her calling in the courtroom as opposed to on the movie set. Upon graduation from law school, she finds work with a well-established New York law firm and leaves behind her family and friends in California. She tries her best to become partner at the firm, only to be passed over for a less qualified colleague. After the career disappointment, further tragedy strikes as her love life crumbles and she is left to reinvent and discover her true self by embracing the family and friends she left behind. This is where the fun begins, so to speak.

Naomi Elana Zener takes us through Joley’s attempt to gain control of her life by overcoming discrimination in work, love, and life. Deathbed Dime$ reads like simple light comedic fare through the detailing of the super-heroine’s trials and errors while establishing herself as the premier estates attorney in California (if not the world) as well as accepting the love she truly deserves (a wildly successful, handsome, smart lawyer like herself, Ethan Berg, who she happens to have been friends with for years and has loved her for about just as long even though she constantly ignores his attempts to foster that love with her). On the other hand, Deathbed also ends up dealing with cultural, sexual, and racial stereotypes.

The story is set around a bunch of white people with few flaws (other than having lots of sex at work and shopping too much) and doing whatever they please. In fact, the only characters of color are relegated to service roles as limousine drivers and as lesser personnel in the workplace. Though this at first appears offensive, it could be interpreted as commentary for the actual lack of racial diversity in law and entertainment. Zener does place an Asian-American woman in a prominent role, Coco Hirohito, as Joley’s best girlfriend and colleague, but a prominent black judge/congressman/businessman could still have been incorporated.

Though racially Zener misses, her commentary on cultural stereotypes proves more interesting. Joely is of Jewish heritage. Her profession is law and her parents are both in the entertainment business, both particulars fulfilling stereotypes. In one instance in the story, Joely is ignoring a fellow flight passenger until she realizes she could earn a fortune off of the young woman’s case and jumpstart her career. Remembering the girl’s name from files she had seen, Joely remembers the case’s potential:

I knew why her name was familiar. Esty was the long lost niece of Ivana Iretzki, the dead woman at the heart of my former firm’s new estate case. She was the heiress no one could locate. I tuned out of Esty’s rambling and tried to recall the details of the Iretzki file…

Later, in an odd blend of the law and Hollywood, Joely and other members of Joely’s new jumpstart law firm are walking down the red carpet for a Hollywood premiere. Her nemesis, the “Lazy, entitled , super WASPy and Mein Kampf-totting” Chip Hancock, the same person who was picked for partner over her by her former employees, also is on the red carpet. He refers to her through a racial slur and she subsequently punches him in the face. Zener deals with these themes unclearly. Nowhere in the story does it become clear that Chip is a Nazi other than when Joely needs him to be because he is her nemesis. It is unclear if Joely is a victim of discrimination or part of the perpetuation of it. Referring to her status in her former firm she claims, “I’m a Jewish woman ticking off diversity quotas for their boys’ club.” Yet, she uses discrimination as well.  It appears she is less the protector of the Jewish culture and more a creation from its stereotypes.

Of most importance to this story is the commentary offered on women and their sexuality. It is a constant battle between giving in to sex and remaining focused on a career. Her relation with Ethan exemplifies this as an employee at their jumpstart law firm points out:

“Joely, you walk around here like the Queen of Sheba. You have Ethan twirled around your little finger and even though you don’t want him, you won’t let him be happy with anyone else.”

Joely is constantly at odds with her desire for love and need for a successful career. Throughout much of her life and the story she is pushing away love to ensure her success as an individual. She is able to turn down sexual advances on a number of occasions in order to keep focused on her new law firm. On the other hand, she has had a sexual relationship with her law professor that ended in heartbreak. Her Asian side kick sleeps with partners at her former firm and ends up trying to use it to her advantage:

“I’ll still be offered partner. But I had to blackmail the managing partner after I dumped him. Unfortunately, ex-wife number three was his former secretary and still friends with all of the firm’s support staff. Needless to say, the word of our affair spread through the firm faster than a California wildfire. So now I’m a triple threat: female Asian attorney who sleeps her way to the top.”

Even with all of the tools for a career or job, the stigma of sexual promiscuity can interrupt a woman’s career according to Deathbed.

Though Joely is for the most part infallible, which destroys any aspect of suspense in Deathbed, only stereotypes can hold her back. But Joely is so smart and attractive nothing can stand in her way except for her own inhibitions, but Zener doesn’t let Joely ever fail enough for the reader to think that something actually might not work out for the character. Zener created a superwoman whose kryptonite is wanting the best for herself. Who can relate to this kind of character? Who wants to? In the end, Joely is feels like a brunette version of a Barbie doll with an I.Q of 190. I found myself rooting against her.

Deathbed Dime$ reads really easily, and it is obvious Zener did her research for the content of the story. Zener’s message remains unclear for the stereotypes she addresses; it appears that she does recognize many issues, but if she could have championed them better. In the end, Joely is not a good representative of women; in fact, she is the type of image that causes unrealistic ideals.