Book Review: THE BRENTWOOD ANTHOLOGY


 photo 7fa87b73-000e-4a44-a045-bb3360a3d3e2_zpsttblahhi.jpg
The Brentwood Anthology
Poems by members of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange
edited by Judith R. Robinson and Michael Wurster
LUMMOX Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Since re-locating from Boston to Pittsburgh in 2009, I’ve noticed a commonality among Pittsburghers: they like creating against a rough background. They like growing art out of the soot, finding alternative beauty and ways of expression—damp poems written in the dark corners of bars, but altogether valuable, thoughtful, and hauntingly concise.

When the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange was founded in 1974 by Dieter Weslowski, Lloyd Johnson, Vic Coccimiglio, J.W. Jansen, and Michael Wurster I wouldn’t be born for another 17 years. I wouldn’t step foot on Pittsburgh soil for another 18 after that. I wouldn’t meet one of the Exchange ’s poets who would reach national recognition, Joy Katz, until she became my professor and mentor in 2013. What I’m saying is this: the work that exists in this 100 plus page anthology stretches far beyond what I’ve read and learned and experienced. There is a history that comes across as past and current poetry Exchange members contribute their work—from Joan Bauer to Stephen Pusateri. Together in this collection, we are witness to where the Exchange started and where it’s going.

The Exchange was originally founded to provide community services such as readings, workshops, and a network of information to those outside the university loop. This anthology, in fact, is the first time poetry associated with the Exchange has been published in a single book. About the anthology Wurster, the lone co-founder still involved with the organization, says “It represents the richness of poetry, literature and the arts in Pittsburgh in general, but it also represents, if I may say so, the poetic brilliance of these 22 poets.” While the editors claim there are no overarching themes, I think the most telling, consistent theme is a Pittsburgh mentality, obvious in each poem—the I can create art from dark spaces. I can find worth in the mundane, the deteriorated, the forgotten. Joan Bauer hints at this towards the end of her poem “Duckweed”—

…I’m learning
what grows on backwater ponds & streams.
It’s worth half-wrecking the tires,
driving down this gravel road to find
the smallest flowers in the world.

Similarly, Jolanta Konewka Minor’s “River” discusses the pollution of natural spaces, specifically a river flowing not with rocks and driftwood but disposed appliances and bottles. Yet, there is hope in these discarded places as she ends, “the water flows—still / still beautiful / determined / though it cannot / sustain life / at this / very moment…

Stylistically, these poems are concise, ominous, subtle, and conscious of the simple image bumping up against life’s bigger questions. I read and I’m left, often in the last stanza, by a moment or insight so powerful the poem must end. For example, in Michael Albright’s “In Name Of” the speaker paces the halls at Mass General. The day before he lets “her go” and walks into the chapel, reading the guestbook entries, of which the poem ends on—

And then, in the next box,
a blinking yellow light,
Help me,
with the initials written in,
then inked completely out.

One of my favorite poems in the anthology is Sheila Kelly’s “The Accident.” Fast-paced and microscopic, we rush with the speaker as she hits a woman with her Honda. There is an attention to color, to the musicality of language, the circular panic the mind travels in terrible moments:

in white August sun—my Honda, my blouse,
her headscarf – white, white, white—and
turning left I hit her. And I jumped from
the car, it went something like the song
and the singing—bluesy, bruising—bodies
in amber…

While I pull quotes from Bauer, Konewka, Albright, and Kelly, these are only a few of the talented poets compiled into this anthology. All poets and poems in this collection not only represent a Pittsburgh aesthetic, but a community of artists who have supported and created together for years before my existence, and hopefully for years after.


 

Book Review: PROXY by R. Erica Doyle

 photo ec8f7e8d-c0fa-45b9-819b-be0317652c86_zpskhwdqiwy.jpg proxy
Poems by R. Erica Doyle
Belladonna, 2013
$15.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

For a while now, we’ve been a society fascinated by the use of science as a lens to scrutinize human emotion. The practice dates as far back as The Twilight Zone, but more recently has been taken up by writers like Margaret Atwood and Brenda Shaughnessy. The Nolan brothers’ film Interstellar received critical acclaim in 2014 for its use of theoretical physics as a means of depicting human relationships. Even Broadway threw its hat in the ring with Brian Yorkey’s If/Then telling two tales of one woman’s life, each version a series of choices leading to alternate possibilities and realities.

Erica Doyle’s proxy exists in the realm of these other projects, namely by using a mathematical sensibility to reflect on failed relationships, queer love, and race relations, while bringing a fresh perspective—something aggressive, erotic, precise, and distinctly textual. Through wordplay and an intense poetic gaze, Doyle delves into the extremities of human behavior to render a world that is at once intoxicating and off-putting. “You hope to perform an autopsy,” she writes, and excavate she does. Readers are bound to recognize lust, desperation, discomfort—and to be surprised by the writing at every turn.

Doyle borrows her epigraph from David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus: “Under the mathematician’s hands, the world contracts, / but it becomes more lucid.” The collection is crafted decisively with this concept in mind. Each page offers another contracted, solid, untitled prose block, but each poem—each individual word—has the potential to explode into a thousand various meanings. The section titles (prologue, palimpsest, proxy, phasedown, and petroglyph) are our first cue. Each signifies a person or object at least one layer removed from immediacy, a choice that situates readers at a distance from the work. Doyle’s approach puts us all in the role of scientist, examiner, observer. And yet this rigid, logical tactic creates a verbal tension that allows for some of the most beautiful lyrical leaps I’ve read in poetry lately. For instance, in “palimpsest”: “On the sonogram, your ovaries like asteroids against the tulips of your fallopian tubes.”

Fully depicting the rigor and beauty of proxy would be a futile attempt in such a small space—these condensed poems beg to be read repeatedly, more voraciously and deeply each time. What I love most about Doyle’s collection is its stark honesty. Our speaker, who enters with the book with such bravado, admits later, “When you thought you swallowed, you were consumed.”  One poem finds her in the bathroom:

Everything she’s given you has expired. The lotion
from
Provence. The tangerine bath gel. Empty. Cleaning to see
this gleam. Leave enough filth to make a difference. On a
ledge, cells and cells of hunger.

But these poems, even in their most powerless, desperate moments, are not shy. “Blistered gums and wet cunts, mustard colored dream eyes” are what our speaker longs for. This is where the collection separates from “love is the fourth dimension” feel-good themes like that of Interstellar. Doyle demands that we account for every degree of human experience. Or, as Berlinski writes, “a critical point / lying between points marking . . . regular behavior.” In proxy, we are always at the critical point.

Having read this collection, one thing is clear: Doyle is a poet who cannot be missed. She takes risks and challenges her readers. Her eye is keen, her tongue sharp. She doesn’t hide from issues of race and sexuality. Her accomplishments are many, and she will surely continue creating visceral, meaningful worlds. In short, these poems need to be read.


 

Book Review: FUGITIVE COLORS by Lisa Barr

 photo 9ded5c00-4ca5-4b5d-95a5-f4be0899ec1b_zps1ivs7cbv.jpg Fugitive Colors
by Lisa Barr
Arcade Publishing, 2014
$24.95

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

Set in Europe on the cusp of World War II, Lisa Barr’s Fugitive Colors is the story of Julian Klein, a boy who breaks free from a culture and lifestyle not conducive to his art by moving across the Atlantic, from Chicago to Paris, to grow as an artist. There he falls in with a group of artists who serve as his teachers and his inspiration. There is the couple Adrienne and Rene, two talented artists, and also Felix, whose inferior skills become apparent as the group gets instruction from famed artists and begin to show their work in galleries and elsewhere. As Julian becomes embedded deeper into their social circle, dissentions within the group threaten to tear the friends apart—jealousies between old friends, new feelings of love and lust. The introduction of a new character, the beautiful and sensual model Charlotte, is the beginning of the end. It finally breaks the tenuous connections between the artists. Then comes the rise of Hitler, the fear of punishment for those in the art world, and the conversion of one of their own into an enemy of the art they create.

Barr’s knowledge of both art and history is present throughout the novel. Her four years of research for this book combined with her compelling characters (whom she calls composites of real artists, real art dealers, and real Nazis) make this book enjoyable for all, even those with little familiarity of the art world. This book will broaden any reader’s comprehension of such a fascinating group of people during the tragedy of Hitler’s tyranny.

Fugitive Colors spans the lifetime of the narrator Julian. As with many worthwhile books Julian does not at first appear to be the most interesting or even the most talented character. Deserving of being called most talented would be Rene, a fact that fuels Felix’s jealousy, although Julian’s art does hold promise. Julian is passive, allowing the other character’s dramas to take precedent over his own talent and feelings. In the end, though, it is arguable as to which of the main characters is most deserving of being recognized as the most dynamic character, which is a testament to Barr’s ability to craft dynamic people within her story.

The novel begins with a thief stealing a book from a library. This event opens up the novel with energy that never slackens. Never once does Barr allow the reader to believe the characters will be safe for even a moment. Tension is braided into each page; even during parts of the book where the character is not in immediate danger, Barr is setting up future complications. For example, upon Julian’s arrival in Paris, as he is meeting his future friends, seemingly small interactions between the characters tempt the reader with the possibility of a love triangle. Julian admires Charlotte and yearns to paint her, attention she returns with a subtle smile despite the presence of her boyfriend. Starting with this instance the book never slows down, from betrayals within the group to threats from others. When it seems as though the characters struggles have been pushed to their limits, loyalties change and the reader knows that no one is to be trusted.

The descriptions of the paintings that the characters create are one of the most compelling parts of the book. The first time Julian witnesses Rene and Felix paint is a whirlwind of color that captivates the reader in their passion for art:

Rene began to caress the wall with midnight blue pigment, lightly dragging his brush across the white plaster, creating an undulated effect. He added in light dabs of orange, and the texture changed completely… He swept from left to right, blending in various shades of yellow, green, and red into the blue. Each stroke, each poetic movement, was mesmerizing.

This loving way of writing about their art is kept up through the very last pages of the book when Julian’s art is viewed through the eyes of a character in particular need of inspiration as the story comes to a touching and hopeful conclusion.

Barr creates dynamic characters that the reader can love and hate while weaving together a complex plot. As Fugitive Colors educates the reader on art history, the book gives the reader a portrait of how far a character can be pushed while under duress, both physically and emotionally. In the end, Fugitive Colors is about resiliency in one’s passion for art as well as resiliency in friendship and love.


 

Book Review: NEIGHBORS by Jay Nebel

 photo 68520020-644a-433c-bfed-a400281c054c_zpshze5wm4t.jpg Neighbors
Poems by Jay Nebel
Saturnalia Books, 2015
$15.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Perhaps what remains most poignant for the reader after studying Jay Nebel’s Neighbors, winner of the 2014 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, is reverence for what many of us may deem mundane: the everyday. The 3-bedroom colonial next door we pass by without a thought. The freshly cut lawn across the street. The quirks and eccentricities of friends and acquaintances who reside on the proverbial block.

Whether observing or questioning, the largely narrative poetry in Neighbors is never without an element of surprise that starts in one location but ends somewhere unexpected, yet no less important than its origins. For example, in “The Cleanliness of Porn Stars,” a piece that by its very title takes one aback, he seems to question the purpose of existence, among other lofty ideas. The fifty-line rant introduces the reader tangentially to an adopted son a third of the way through, then culminates in reflection on that same son:

I want the faith
of the blind hamster who sniffs over the edge
of the kitchen table and pushes off,…
to believe as some of my friends believe,
in jumbo neon crosses and radio stations,…
…in the cleanliness of porn stars,
that when the knife enters the cake
it will exit sans batter and entrails…
…I want to believe that in an hour
my son will walk through the front door
and look at me like I’m his father.

What Nebel has done in his first full-length book is taken close note of the dynamics of the familiar: local families, moms, dads, children, next-door gays and PTAs…up to and including towns and neighboring States…in addition to the personal ponderings of the individual “I.” At times, his insightful meditations are downright nosy; always revealing, but not without empathy. In the ekphrastic poem paying homage to the landmark collection of photographs, “Robert Frank: The Americans,” Nebel writes:

The Jehovah’s Witness grips a pamphlet, back to the wall,
white knuckled, mercurial. Three drag queens boast
fresh manicures. The shoe shiner, bent over
near the urinals, blackens
a pair of scuffed wing tips.
You know us. We’ve always been here.
Our elbows tacked to the diner counter, our hair greased back,
half eaten BLTs and Coke bottles resting
in front of us. We wear Stetsons and lean
against fire hydrants, or we pass by in Cadillacs
and on city buses where we stare forward, hypnotized
by the sound of water slipping from the roof.

The poet’s pervasive thoughts—wonderings of belief & doubt, ponderings on significance vs. insignificance in his immediate microcosm as well as the world at large—are prevalent throughout the book. Nebel seems, also, to pose unspoken questions of whether the I’s thoughts are unique, or those of every individual. For example, in “A Blessing for the Neighborhood” he says:

A working fan can make anyone religious
and when I feel religious I say things:

Bless my mighty neighborhood,
bless the morning glory, and God bless
the fucking PTA…

…I’m writing a letter…To anyone
who will listen, in the kingdom
where I am little more than a mosquito
dropping its landing gear
on the forearm of the beloved.

While one may garner a too-close-for-comfort sense about some of the free verse included in Neighbors, it is intentional; a welcome intrusion for the reader, like warm apple pie given on a front stoop, right in the middle of your afternoon nap.


 

Book Review: ALL THAT YELLOW by Chuck Kinder

 photo download_zpse8alxwye.png All That Yellow
Poems by Chuck Kinder
Low Ghost Press, 2014
$8.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Kinder’s debut poetry collection All That Yellow studies the “last spoke of yellowish, old-timey photograph light alone.” These poems remind me of the saying the more we remember something, the more we forget. Kinder preserves memories, crafts poems that travel wide spaces of time in a matter of lines. The grandness of this collection suggests a real necessity for each poem, as if the potential for forgetting, or miss-remembering, is right on the following page.

The beginning poem, “The Secret Life of Memory,” holds three sections: “Poem Full of Past,” “Poem with Wings,” and “Long Distance Poem.” The first section begins “The poem full of past has grown extreme like a baggie with too many memories …” and continues later with “The memories may appear to grow smaller through the / Membranes. Don’t believe it. It may be that you aren’t / Looking closely enough. Concentrate / Like the hedges, can you honestly say you see some buds?” As Kinder calls for our attention, his craft demonstrates the tangential nature of both poetry and memory. Each line begins with a traditional capital letter and there are few end stops or punctuation. The lines often fall away as they stretch the page, break off, and jump to a new image entirely on the following line. While this causes a start and halt effect, it speaks towards the disjointed flashes we experience from reflection. For example, “Poem with Wings” keeps short, brisk lines, reads,

Into a winter field
If you could just
Get yourself together
The white exhaust idles over a fresh snow
So far from the old love poems of the past
You can move anywhere alone now
Just now you follow the little cloud
Toward a single leafless tree…

As much as these concise lines reflect bits of memory, it also feels as though the speaker is short of breath. Again, this calls on the necessity of the poem, for the speaker runs out of breath trying to convey all that is relevant. In All That Yellow the voice sounds from a place of wisdom, as if the speaker has gathered and taken notes through the years in order to communicate his findings. Yet, often the second person address is less directed towards the audience, but back at the speaker. This provides the sense that an older, more critical version of the speaker is looking back on himself, on these moments, to shed some insight. The physical bodies of Kinder’s poems attest to this—“The Unbearable Mass and Beauty of Absence” is an expansive eight page poem. “The Secret Meaning of Old Movies as Seen on Late Night Television in Those Star Caves We Call Cheap, Lonely Motel Rooms” has a part a, b, and c, with part c also containing number sections. The entire poem spans fifteen pages. It’s safe to say Kinder has a range, and both the out-of-breath lines and the fifteen page poems show just how much Kinder has to say.


 

Book Review: PICTOGRAPH by Melissa Kwasny

photo 2cf430db-864c-4600-bee7-a2975236942e_zpsmjasuqto.jpg Pictograph
Poems by Melissa Kwasny
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

While reading the prose poems in Melissa Kwasny’s Pictograph, I was often reminded of Andrew Grace’s most recent effort, Sancta, another book of prose poems set in a specific natural place. Whereas Sancta sticks to a strict word count of seventy words, Pictograph’s poems tend to hover closer to around two hundred words. In this way, Pictograph sacrifices some terseness for narrative and imagistic depth. I’ll be honest, I found it hard to settle into a method of reading the poems in Pictograph at first. Because the titles of the pieces often begin with the same word, the images are sometimes stacked upon each other, and the poems look so similar page to page, it is easy to enter into a sort of trance wherein the work begins to lose its magic. I found that reading and savoring one poem at a time in a quiet space was the preferred method for enjoying Kwansy. This says something about the importance of ritual in this book—that the poems require the reader to enter into a meditation with Kwasny, to focus on a now in which we are simultaneously “Always interfering with something sacred still going on” and a now in which we are tracing “A fading language that might be bridge to our existence here.” Pictograph required me to pause, to consider the rhetoric of the natural world and contemplate the sometimes vast and sometimes diminishing space between humanity and the earth.

It was during my break at work today that I revisited the poem “The Sentience of Rocks.” This poem from the first section of Pictograph captures what I most enjoyed about Kwasny’s book—both the intimate personal details addressed from speaker to reader, and the larger meditations on place and our transient relationship with it. She writes, “As we age, we drape less…Suddenly, we have microscopes for eyes.” The humor is disarming and welcomed. “Surely, we will be given time to explore the diverticula of the heart,” she continues. A lesser poet would not be able to write a line like this and have it stick, but the wisdom and effortlessness of the poetry—specifically the word “diverticula”—somehow sheds new insight into a tired concept. Rhetorical questions like “What is form but the reigning in of desire?” and then later, “Do our dreams prepare us for our eventual deaths?” also run a risk—that of pretension or philosophical meandering—but the space of the poem is perfectly crafted for meditation, and the questions are expansive there. I looked up after disappearing within the poem, and I had overshot my break time by fifteen minutes.

What is masterful about Kwasny’s book is that it consistently surprises. The prose poem form suits her style perfectly; peppered through the stone of the text are seams of coal, diamond. Polished images, philosophical questions, and personal quips, wind together in descriptive passages and narrative stretches. There is also compressed emotion coupled with compressed syntax. The poem “Counting the Senses,” which I believe to be the strongest poem in the collection, illustrates this well. I want to transcribe the whole poem here, but these lines will suffice:

To sense in ever-refined levels the dissipating cloud-layers of oneself, what Ezra Pound named an “aristocracy of emotion.” In the spruce copse near the confluence, you left your hair. Last night, we played Scrabble. My first word was divine. You added an s to it, doubling your score. In this very room, fourteen years ago, you turned over and found the lump. Your hand rose to it, as if guided by a sense of love.

Every sentence here contains a left turn, a brilliant shock. Not listed here are the previous infinitive phrases that further detail the senses, but the final one listed here is a succinct and powerful image, one that truly honors Pound’s belief that writers should treat their subjects directly and use no superfluous word. The next sentence introduces a new player in the narrative—one who leaves behind their hair in the spruce copse. Then, the commonplace game of Scrabble sears to life with the word divine and divines. And finally the hand rising to meet the lump “as if guided by a sense of love.” There is something so powerful about this, about the love extended to this seemingly awful thing—the uncertainty and curiosity of that first touch—that reaches out far beyond the page.

Pictograph captures the poetry of Annie Dillard’s masterwork, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is truly the highest praise I know how to give. This is a deeply spiritual book of well-crafted poetry. When the speaker asks in “Past Life with Wooly Mammoth,” “How can the soul’s memory remember this?,” I want to answer, “Because it’s such enduring, damn good poetry.” I will remember these life-affirming poems for some time, and any reader of poetry would do well to commit these poems to memory as well.


 

Book Review: I ATE THE COSMOS FOR BREAKFAST by Melissa Studdard

 photo 66fc6125-e74e-405f-b95e-595fedfbe885_zpsmnwjv9nw.jpg I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast
Poems by Melissa Studdard
Saint Julian Press, 2014
$12.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

There is a universe inside each instant—if ever a writer has taken that statement to heart, it’s Melissa Studdard. Her fourth book, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, turns a keen eye on life’s smallest moments to pay homage to the astronomical range of human experience and emotion.

Studdard opens the collection with one grand overture before the small moments, “Creation Myth.” Here, her deft hand paints a new world in broad strokes:

So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
birthing the screaming world

from her red velvet cleft, her thighs
cut holy with love

for all things. both big and small,
that crept from her womb like an army…

A few simple word choices—her, screaming, velvet, army—and we’ve got a radical poem that sets the tone for its counterparts to come. Studdard shows us the beauty in ugly things, a God “in love with her own making, infatuated // with all corners of the blemished universe.” This God is a prescient predecessor for Studdard’s other speakers.

“In Another Dimension, We Are Making Love” reminds us that our human capacity for understanding is limited while illustrating alternate possibilities and emotions that can change on a dime:

Like you, I believe most in what
I cannot see or hear. Anger: a wounded steam
rising from the cauldron of your throat.
Alchemy: the steam dissipates, and you reach
across the table for my hand.

Studdard’s mastery over metaphor collapses the most immense of concepts—humanity, the universe—into understandable images. She plays at shifting sizes and shapes, using the canvas of available objects as a screen onto which she projects the human drama. “What you mistook for a person / is really a country,” her speaker informs us; yet all the necessary things to remember “can fit on a scrap of paper / smaller than your hand.”

Perhaps the simplest of Studdard’s extended metaphors, “If I Saw the Airports in Your Eyes,” is exemplar of how sometimes only comparison can make emotion decipherable. The lover is an airport, departing planes, packed luggage, a trolley. The speaker: a city, a building, brown sugar packed tight. Then, a pause in the images—“I’d say Don’t remind me / Please don’t remind me.” This flash of concentrated feeling fleshes out the rest of the metaphor so that, when the lover’s “exhaust…punches through my sky / like a fist,” we all feel it.

These pained poems of love are the jewels of Studdard’s collection. Her incinerating diction and expert craft elevate the love poem, so long made shameful by clumsiness and cliché, into a series of glittering surprises. Two favorites include “A Prayer” and “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists.” No, Studdard doesn’t shy from love, religion, or politics—gasp!—yet still creates successful poems. I’d argue it’s due to her talent for making a thing comprehensible. Reformed conversion therapists, like us, are people whose “atoms have come to worship / and rejoice at the temple of the familiar.”

Close readers will note that I Ate the Cosmos, from its very first poem, is a galaxy of a collection constantly collapsing in on itself. Ideas are compressed into more accessible, digestible chunks as new emotions and concepts become part of the reader’s known universe.  And so, the final poem, a diminuendo. “The Soul is Swaddled in Body” doesn’t try at anything other than reminding us how the littlest moment can be immeasurable. For this, and all its other poems, I am grateful.

If I could do it all over again,
I wouldn’t write a damn word. I’d
just make love to you in the meadow
with the cows watching, and the cats
chasing mice through the straw.

 


Book Review: DOMESTIC GARDEN by John Hoppenthaler

 photo 67ba9653-a6e2-423a-8686-187125df83aa_zpsqpjfjbx5.jpg Domestic Garden
Poems by John Hoppenthaler
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

John Hoppenthaler’s Domestic Garden begins with a ghost switching the names of roses in a garden, and ends with a speaker at a Chinese buffet who’s “given in…to desire so that [he] might die fat in your arms.” In between, we encounter boy scouts, a traveling circus, an immigrant uncle, a modern Lazarus, Pekin ducks, and even Jesus.

Here we have poems spoken in real voices set to a lyric of domestic life. But the epigraph from Keetje Kuipers gives us a clue that what Hoppenthaler is up to is anything but ordinary: “If the garden / is not a garden, and if its tiny lamps illuminate only / their own darknesses, we must hold ourselves inside / forever.” This book complicates the domestic, asking us to think again about what we consider “intimate, familiar, at home.”

Hoppenthaler is at his best in a poem like “Home Movie,” in which the narrative and lyric impulses work together with their different energies to lead us somewhere new. Clipped sentences set the scene of the poem: “I watch a Super 8 saved from the attic / when Mom moved to Florida.” Structured in neat quatrains, the form attempts to contain the chaos of the central subject: a beloved uncle who died suddenly while chainsawing trees. The speaker encounters his still-alive Uncle Eddie through a home movie shot by his Dad’s “shaking” hand: “Uncle Eddie clamps five / lead split shots to line’s end. I’m casting / into the road. One month later he was dead.” He tells us what he remembers beyond the frames, the figure of his “grieving mother / almost losing her grip” but lingers in the film, focusing on a place where the film catches:

There’s a point, a splice
more than halfway in, where the film
catches a little. I’ve watched the movie
six times through — and lost, each time,
those images back to where the end slides

out, slaps like a razor strop.

He keeps threading the film through again each time it catches, to these moments just before Uncle Eddie died, a recursive resurrection bringing him back each time: “I’ll slowly reel it in again, sinkers / stealing through the uncut grass.”

In “Side Porch of the Elizabeth Bishop House,” Hoppenthaler explores how the death of Uncle Eddie ravaged his mother, altering the universe of his childhood: “When policemen came to the door and she began to scream, // real horror shivered my eight-year-old back…and it seemed suddenly / that the world was ending, some vital part of it.” Hoppenthaler holds us in the horrible grief, moving us deliberately along with his long couplets:

my mother whimpered as they let him down.
I tossed a fistful of cut flowers in the hole

while an aunt and uncle held up my mother,
muscled her back to the gray limousine.

Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood memories color the speaker’s memories, as the scream becomes disembodied, emanating from an unknown patient in a distant hallway of the nursing home. The speaker is with his mother, suffering from dementia, “wheeled up / to a dayroom table, spinning wild narratives / and taking no prisoners.” This poem haunts the collection, showing what Hoppenthaler can do with the longer, more associational narrative. As the speaker in the poem tells us, “Everyone else / is someone, too, but never quite themselves.” That slippery sense of identity delivered in a direct voice is key to this collection, to its sense of play and authority.

A buoyant spirit runs throughout Domestic Garden, despite the loneliness, mortality, and darkness it often tells. The third section is comprised of love poems. The strongest poem, “The Weather Down Here,” is grounded in a particular place, Washington, North Carolina, and uses sharp local details, “a quick stop at Food Lion for beer & whole wheat buns, / then Hog Heaven for pints of barbecue, baked beans, / & slaw.” We learn “In Beaufort County, storms are upon us in minutes; roiling / cells shear through the skillet-flat fields of tobacco & cotton.” A storm could strike at any time, the speaker tells us, “they startle me like you do, dear,” as the poem moves to its “To His Coy Mistress” moment:

Come gather after; slip
your hand into my pocket & kiss my sunburned neck.

Recite with me again the capricious
                                                 nature of our Carolina weather.

Hoppenthaler woos us with his easy, conversational rhythms and sounds, as the speaker revels in the unpredictable.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a male poet using the title Domestic Garden, one so clearly associated with the feminine, would explore masculinity directly at some point in the collection. In “Some Men,” we meet a variety of men, some pitiable, some lonely, some just trying to make a living: “Men who’ve been barbers / of the dead and were happy for the work, // men who’ve become what they’ve microwaved, / who overvalue the quality of their erections // and fawn over them as they do the town’s new Walmart.” This poem tells a narrative but elliptically, lending an eerie power to this cadre of men “who’ll trim their nose hair // at your sink.” Hoppenthaler implicates the male perspective, creating an anthem of sad, sneaky characters who complicate the other male speakers in the collection.

Hoppenthaler’s garden is lush, straightforward, and slippery. It leaps unexpectedly from voice to voice and place to place. Hoppenthaler’s poems, like the subject of “Anna’s Garden,” “enable the garden’s / growth in all directions and ask no pardon.”


 

Book Review: EASIEST IF I HAD A GUN by Michael Gerhard Martin

 photo download_zpswa3mxpcb.png Easiest If I Had A Gun
by Michael Gerhard Martin
Alleyway Books, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

If I’ve ever encountered a title that instantly sets the tone for a story collection, it’s “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The first tale in Easiest If I Had a Gun is an angry, bitter story of self-loathing from the mouth of a bullied high school nerd. Cheery stuff.

But he’s not the only one who’s mad. Michael Gerhard Martin’s stories are an anthology of brokenness—of characters who lash out and fight back against their surroundings and the people that abuse them. Oftentimes, their abusers are their loved ones, and that only made each tale resonate deeper with me. I felt their sadness. Their “otherness.” Indeed, each story details a life—the unspoken lives of the ones who oftentimes can’t speak for themselves. The outsiders, the misfits, and the discontent.

Seemingly standard fare when it comes to literary fiction, right? But Martin’s characters consistently haunt with all their detail and personality. They’re frighteningly real. From the bullied nerd Josh in “Shit Weasel,” to the discontented craftswoman Elsa, who deals with her Alzheimer’s rattled father in “The Strange Ways People Are,” and petty theft in “Made Just for Ewe!” The final story, “Dreamland,” introduces Emilie, a high school girl who tries to find solace in her artwork, after a lifetime of caring for an alcoholic mother.

Let’s get back to that first story though. You know, “Shit Weasel is Late for Class,” which, as I’ve alluded to, is one of my favorite titles I’ve read in years. The first painfully descriptive sentences: “After fifth period theology, Brian McVey backs me up against a painting of the Virgin Mary and smacks me around while his toady, Billy Moyer, calls color. I think it’s because I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”

In stark detail, Michael Gerhard Martin creates a high school scenario that’s all too real—the thoroughly unpopular kid, driven to suicidal despair by his harassers, brings a gun to school. Thankfully, he never uses it. Instead, the reader watches as something much more subtle occurs—a slow, creeping transformation that hardens the protagonist into the contemptuous bully he’d always hated. It’s a brutal high school reality—the oppressed become the oppressors, if given the opportunity. But really, it’s just a human reality. The fact that it takes place in a high school setting is almost incidental.

These are characters that know longing inside and out. For instance, the protagonist in “Seventy-Two-Pound Fish Story” is a hyperactive, kind of annoying kid that wants more than anything to go fishing with his dad. When his distant father pawns him off on another father-and-son fishing trip, the boy finds himself simultaneously obsessed and repulsed by his new surrogate fishing family. “I wanted to crawl up on Lute’s lap and bury my face in his shirt, and I was disgusted by him.”

In terms of setting, Easiest If I Had a Gun takes place around Pittsburgh. The city, the suburbs, the dusty pits and valleys of the Alleghenies. There’s one instance in “Bridgeville” where Jack, the protagonist, attempts a surprise visit up to Indiana University of Pennsylvania—a last-ditch attempt to salvage his relationship with his emotionally distant girlfriend. Because it’s Halloween in Western Pennsylvania, however, a snowstorm predictably strikes out of nowhere, nearly running him off the road several times. How many times has that happened to me on the turnpike? Too many. It’s one of the myriad details that allow these stories to hit close to home.

Aside from all this, the writing itself is beautiful. I’m a sucker for great imagery: “The boat stank of fish and men and diesel fuel. Paint peeled from its sides in long strips. Rainbows hung in water so full of trash there wasn’t room for fish to swim.” Gross, but a fantastic sentence.

The book’s not just gorgeous writing and darkness and gloom, though. There are nuggets of humor speckled throughout that had me cackling. And the final story ends on an unexpectedly sweet note—one that had me smiling, rather than furrowing my eyebrows in concern, like I had for much of the rest of the collection. A strange meeting of two of the most heart-wrenching stories that brought the collection’s world into full focus, and made it seem that much more real.

For a shorter collection of fiction, Easiest If I Had a Gun consumes the reader—every page draws you deeper into the broken world of our backyards and our steel mills. With all their faults and their anger and their hurt, these characters mattered to me.


 

Book Review: WANTING IT by Diana Whitney

 photo download_zpseq3gvkra.png Wanting It
Poems by Diana Whitney
Harbor Mountain Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Whitney ends the second section of her four-section collection, Wanting It, with these lines:

My fear?

…that the room keeps me safe
and boils me down, makes me an offer
of soup-bone, ash.

That I’ll never leave here.
That I’ll leave.

As someone who concerns herself with place and the necessity of constant exploration, I find Whitney’s fear at the base of my own existence. How we can need a place and simultaneously push against it. How we mistake needing for contentment. Wanting It speaks towards the intangibility of desire—we travel through seasons, our faces pressed to the window, watchful, but of what exactly it is we’re wanting, can’t be so easily named.

These poems are expansive, and as we move through the seasons in each section, we are also moving lengths within each poem. I read Whitney’s eye like a kaleidoscope, pulling details from all directions, bringing scraps together to create a complete picture. In “Hindsight,” the first stanza is solely dedicated to describing the night, which gets compared to syrup, damp cloth, steam & ginger, cash crop.  In “Making Babies,” halfway down the page Whitney begins “It’s the color of my morning glories finally blooming now that the days are cool…” and takes off for eight lines, without a full pause. While in other collections I would jot in the margins words like “mixed metaphor” and “run-on” I don’t here. The natural world becomes a force in these poems, a character in itself, leading the narration on winding sweeps at times, burrowing into the center cavities of the speaker’s body. I don’t dare try and contain it.

With that said, I wonder if at times the descriptions hold the place of honesty. If Whitney writes herself into the poem. For example, “First Super Bowl At My House” is a thick, three stanza poem. It begins with a trip to the General Store, notices a woman eating pizza in her minivan. In the store we switch to a thought of a man, which descriptions travel through the store and back to the house. But I’m more interested in the final lines:

…and I know
how she feels, the minivan woman, alone with her bundled-up,
red-faced hunger, an engine running that’s not her own
though it keeps her warm, it gets her home. I don’t know
football but I know weather.

I worry that in places we’re wanting these moments of simple clarity amidst eloquent description.

The strongest poem “Wanting It” begins the themes of womanhood, the violence of desire, and the contradictions between what the world wants from us and what we can give.  Whitney’s repetition of  “wanting it” sends a cold wave through the stanzas. He language is different here—direct, focused, tight. Her images punch us. The verbs are physical and wet, like “tongued the wheel,” “Those boys / who juiced the halls with slouch,” and “They wanted to kill me / back against a locker. I could feel my body jammed up on metal…” The craft of this poem should be the envy of writers, as should be Whitney’s masterful, subtle, complicated depiction of a woman. It’s in these moments that I find myself most in the middle, for “A girl can’t stand it, / all this beauty— / it makes her want to scream or hold perfectly still…”


 

Book Review: MY FRIEND KEN HARVEY by Barrett Warner

 photo 21b3d45a-d2dd-456d-b58a-ebf1a44627e6_zpsz5ggpyzr.png My Friend Ken Harvey
Poems by Barrett Warner
Publishing Genius Press, 2014
$7.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Nostalgia and sentiment were dirty words in poetry until Barret Warner’s My Friend Ken Harvey came on the scene. Here we have a chapbook that shows us the many forms of love, how relationships can be measured as “not enough war or too much war in someone’s life,” and how the simplest moments can be transcendent, all while dipping in and out of the sepia tint of memory.

Warner’s epigraph for the chapbook is borrowed from Jack Spicer’s “A Poem without a Single Bird in it”—there are no birds here, either, but we are surrounded by all the recognizable accoutrements of life. Bluebonnets and plumbers, cabins and raked leaves, these are the objects that populate a world where “bodies fall asleep against anything that doesn’t move— / floors, speakers, boxes, furniture.” These poems are much like the stories Warner’s friend Timmy Reed tells, where “instead of ogres and orphans there are shovels and lawnmowers, / and everyday people just trying to sort it out.”

And after a life spent among countless people, there’s a lot to sort out. What is a friend, for instance? A man like Bomba, who appears again and again in Warner’s reflective lines, or childhood acquaintances like Zenaida and Barbara Carmody who flash before our eyes only once? One small ode starts “My friend Tracy Dimond probably doesn’t call me a friend. / More like, someone she knows.” Yet each person illustrated here is drawn with the tenderest touch and the deepest respect. Though some poems linger almost long enough to be cloying, Warner always returns to the tangible to show us how deeply a moment can affect us.

“My Friend Julia Wendell” transports us to a brief interlude in a hospital bed, just long enough to sip briefly from a bowl of bullion before heading back to sleep. But when the speaker awakens from his rest, he finds himself immeasurably cared for—“When I wake up she’s gone and my hair is beautiful.” The things we do for the ones we love, these are the actions that add up to a life.

Warner spends much of the chapbook remarking on his own shortcomings—he doesn’t visit often enough, he isn’t as admirable as all his many friends. He laments about

The things [he’s] bashed. The cars. The lives. The dogs.
The sweat that flew off [his] brow. The wasted muscle.

The things [he] learned… The things [he] never learned.

But I’d argue he’s learned a little more than he gives himself credit for. Surely this is the best way to honor people, immortalizing their genuine graciousness to remind us of the goodness this world can hold. Even after years spent apart, he reminds us, our old friends and lovers can be just as immediate as ever through memory. Whether we keep up with each other doesn’t take away all that they’ve meant to us, their omnipresence in our minds—as Warner says, “I like not knowing / I like looking in every direction and wondering where [they] could be.”


 

The phony cry for poetry that speaks to our time

by Djelloul Marbrook 

Give us poems that speak to today’s issues.

How often have you heard editors and critics dine out on that rhetoric? That false rhetoric exposes a fundamental flaw in their understanding of poetry. Poetry, like all art, is the news of the day. It is the cutting edge of our sensibility, whether it talks about Ted Cruz’s latest loony tune or the horrors of moneyed suburbs.

The problem is not with poets who fail to rise to the grandiloquent challenge. The problem is with the intellectual lassitude of the bogus challenge, a challenge suspiciously similar to complaints about inaccessibility and opacity in poems. What a son-of-a-bitch you are for trying to make me think harder, probe deeper—that’s what these highfalutin complaints are about. They are admissions of torpor.

The poetry volumes discussed here are examined in light of this premise.

download(Zen and the Art of Poetry Maintenance, Non-Sutras, Seb Doubinsky, Leaky Boot Press, UK, 120pp, 2015, $14.95)

In confronting the grand and ferocious limitations of poetry Doubinsky defines its grandeur. “Poetry is positive catastrophe,” he writes on page 27. That’s all, one line, one poem. Could you say it of a newspaper, a broadcast, an industry, a state? No, and therein is poetry’s grandeur, in its tragic confines.

These terse, unpunctuated, uncapitalized poems have a Stoic’s austerity—the unflinching mind of Marcus Aurelius comes to mind—but not the asperity. They’re elegant, instantly classic, and more than any news story or analysis, they stare our lies in the face:

banks do their laundry
democracy shrinks
kids laugh in the garden

Even on the rare occasion when the pronoun appears it exhibits the dervish’s yearning to disappear.

I erase the words about to be
I erase the images about to be
I erase the rhymes and lines
I am Shiva the Destroyer

Doubinsky doesn’t rise to editorial demands for contemporary relevance, he exceeds them, and in so doing he diminishes them to their rightful place among the bogus and pretentious pronouncements of our time.

* * *

The problem with demanding poems that address contemporary issues is that it presumes editors know what those issues are, but it is the function of poetry and art to define our issues, not to allow the press, with its canned and authorized versions of everything, to define them for us. Such editors are acting out of an omniscience that is not theirs to claim. It’s an adolescent trait that later wisdom should dispel. They’re laying down a spread of assumptions that belong more properly to the newsprint world with its addiction to punditry and didacticism than to art. For example, the press persists in talking about conflict in geopolitical terms, somehow managing the stupendous feat of doing so without context, but refusing to address the issue of who profits, which tells us everything about conflict. A poet is far more likely to do the latter, which is one of the several reasons the press is always writing poetry’s obituary, because it so often embarrasses the press.

* * *download (1)

(Paradise Drive, Rebecca Foust, Press 53, 94pp, 2015, $12.92)

John Wayne is forever associated with the word “pilgrim,” which he used in the films McLintock and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Will Geer used it speaking to Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. The word derives from peregrine and means someone from outside your country. Wayne, a right-wing icon, was predictably concerned with belonging and unbelonging. But when Rebecca Foust uses it in Paradise Drive, her prize-winning book of sonnets, Pilgrim might be herself, her outsider self looking in on her own life with the stark succinctness that only the sonnet could achieve.

At first glance it’s another book about savage privilege in the suburbs, a book that would satisfy an editor’s demand for with-it relevance, but once you stop glancing and start reading you’re enmeshed in a pitiless, ruthless and at the same time profoundly compassionate autopsy of a life not willing to end with the mistakes it has made, not willing to blink. Foust goes back into the burning house and brings out the frightened child.

In her hands the sonnet is a scalpel. Everything that is familiar, our preconceptions and her names for them, is turned inside out and upside down, weighed, measured. It is as if she woke up one morning, found nothing familiar, not even her own face, and wrote this all down in a tsunami of finely cadenced prosody, and we are reading it aloud as the flotsam and jetsam of her new vision ebbs out to the horizon. It is a stunning feat, executed with a mathematician’s focus.

Well, what the hell is there to do
besides sling words like arrows back
into Fortune’s outrageous face?

It’s page 47 when she asks this. It’s what she has been doing, and she wants to know if you have a better idea. It’s the poet’s classic question, and all criticism falls short of answering it. Notice that this is not the iambic pentameter of the Elizabethan sonnet. The line is spondaic, the words are sprung, but in the midst of this modernist tack she capitalizes Fortune, because she wants us to remember we have a boatload of hack ideas to deep-six, all of us.

Foust reminds us there are no used-up subjects, just hack approaches to them. “I miss your tongue /on my spine,” she writes in “Bourbon Elegy,” “the crack of your fist / on my jaw.” 

The press that claims to tell us how we live doesn’t. The press tells us, like standardized tests, what to think. Poetry helps us think. Poetry is witness; the press recounts, redacts and omits. Poetry is happening; what we read in the press happened, or perhaps not, and rarely the way it’s described. Here’s what I mean:

The Swede to her left leaned in
to discuss Pilgrim’s “Asparagus” son,
worried, it seemed, that his own son
might be part green vegetable too.

These four lines in “Elocution” convey the sense of still going on. The Swede is still leaning in, and although he is technically the foreigner, Pilgrim is more so, because she’s describing in. She’s here and she’s there, and we’re with her. This is the shape-shifting quality of poetry that the press cannot faintly resemble. Poetry is always about what is happening. The press is about what somebody has decided happened. Foust is with it in a way the editors demanding with-it-ness fail to understand.

* * *

One reason editors and critics go unchallenged when they demand political poems, poems about the injustices and inequalities of society, is that they have settled for definitions imposed by the so-called news media. American society, stem to stern, defines news according to the principles of 19th-century press lords and their minions, men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The latter was an exception, but most of these press lords were arch conservatives. They defined news not in terms of how we relate to each other, not in terms of how ordinary people think and feel, but in terms of geopolitics. And they defined politics in terms of hierarchies. In the 21st century we should challenge these narrow and misdirecting definitions of news. News is not what trained journalists and their corporate bosses say it is, it is what we feel, what we experience, and what we do. The press as we know it is reporting a chosen microcosm and claiming it to be “the news” of the hour. We should be fit to be tied by the claim of The New York Times that it prints all the news that’s fit to print. The news ought to be about the limits of human perceptivity, the frontiers of the mind and imagination, not what one damned fool after another says to a microphone.

Without intending to, not consciously anyway, Michael T. Young’s handsomely produced volume of poetry, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, addresses just this predicament.

* * *

23593548(The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, Michael T. Young, Poets Wear Prada, 76pp, 2015, $1.40)

Titles of volumes of poetry in their striving to connect often mislead or turn out to be irrelevant, but this title is key to understanding what the poet is doing. By being lost in the moment we adore it, we respect it, and, above all, we do not forfeit our lives to remorse and anxiety about what comes next. By becoming lost in these poems one finds one’s life.

With some poets, even the most acknowledged, you sometimes get the sense of a striving for elegance, but Michael Young conveys that incomparable sense of having an elegant mind—

I like to think of Lot’s wife not looking back,
but going on to another city with her husband,
Hebron maybe, or Gaza, even a small unknown town,
where she gives birth to two daughters and a son,
lives in a house with vineyard and a view of the sea.

—not just an elegant mind, but a gracious one.

The poet, while seeming to speak casually, is metrically painstaking, aware always of the pervading melody of his impulse.

His work is the apotheosis of the disquieting contention that poetry is the news of our time, not the strings of events, the blather, the dissonance of what we call news. Here, live in this moment, join its molecular structure, and you will be the news, not merely its partaker, its observer, but its interactive maker, the poet seems to say. Otherwise you are mute and passive, a couch potato. But in poetry you live the moment and therefore are a more active builder of tomorrow than if you had just voted.

Crossing the Hudson River on a ferryboat
I’m distracted by the sensation that the river
appears as if it should be draining, spilling
over some remote and unseen rim.

The news media, as we know them, can’t impart this sense of presence, this immediacy, this conviction that something is happening. They are always about what has happened and what may happen. They leap over the moment while pretending to be up-to-the-minute. But their irrelevance to the very thing to which they claim to be all-important is even greater, because, unlike the poet, they omit, they disdain context and history, whereas the poem is all about connecting the dots.

In some ways a collection of poems is like jackstraws. Too many editors look for overt and obvious themes, but the poems drawn from a certain period or experience in a poet’s life have their own themes. They fall in their own pattern, like jackstraws. And trying to impose an overlay is like pulling out a straw and subverting the natural whole. Perhaps the situation is not unlike comparing classical to natural geometry. The theme that emerges in The Beautiful Moment of Being is that only by exploring the moment can we fathom the momentous.

This poetry deserves the production values Poets Wear Prada have bestowed on it. We can’t hear enough of this poet.

* * *

(The Cave, Tom Holmes, The Bitter Oleander Press, 73pp, 2014, $11.40 )download (2)

Tom Holmes in The Cave undertakes the ambitious project of searching the present with Paleolithic light. Just as starlight takes millennia to arrive, so understanding of the past arrives with its own light slowly through the labors of time travelers like the poet.

The poem “Fireside” gives a hint. It begins:

A time revives,
I gather those embers

and give them away—
presents of what may arrive,
an horizon suggesting light.

The Cave provides just what the 21st century, operating in the vast chambers of cyberspace, ought to and so spectacularly fails to provide: historicity, context. Take the poem, “Paleolithic Person Explains Her Footprints”:

I needed something to burn,
something to light this hollow of the cave,
something to warm me against the wind,
I was sucking marrow from a bone.

This one amazing stanza could be employed as a metaphor for our times, for any time. And it could be read in many different ways. We need something to burn, don’t we?

And that tells us something we need to know about Tom Holmes. There is all too often about contemporary poems a there!—take that! quality, a can-you-top-this? exulting that comes through in spite of the poet’s attempts at modesty. But doing what this poet is doing, using the poetic sensibility to search the cave—it doesn’t matter if it’s Plato’s or a cavewoman’s—requires a great soul. It’s something like a mother’s compulsion to nurture, a scholar’s quest to instill. It requires a generosity rooted not in a quest for recognition but an obsession with shedding light.

“Hearing from other worlds is rhapsodic,” the poet says in “Paleolithic Person Explains Hand Art.”  Hart Crane would applaud.

Rarely has any poet explained so well and succinctly what he is up to as Holmes does in the poem “The Invention of Inspiration”:

Down here, the sun is a deep pond,
and I’m a diaphanous shadow—
the air tastes good to my palate
and the slow colors rise in me.

Beasts leap from my hand.
I may never return.

We don’t know if Tom Holmes has returned. We’ll know by his next poems. But we know he is a light bringer, while a pretentious commentariat today brings us gewgaws and gimcracks. We know that he has journeyed, not like a conquistador in quest of riches, not like Columbus, but like Thucydides and Abd al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, to tell us where we ourselves have been when we wore other faces in other times.

The Cave is a book of beasts leaping from the hand. They have been set free and will not readily return to the book. Of how many books of poetry today can we say such a thing?

Bitter Oleander Press has honored this memorable adventure with high and handsome production values.

* * *

To borrow from Giordano Bruno, the heretic priest and magus burned at the stake in 1600, the poem is a star beast whose favor is sought by the reader in order for collaboration to begin. Celestial figures are drawn by connecting the dots, exactly what the press fails to do, which may explain the obscene eagerness of the press to write poetry’s obituary. Poetry is a collection of the dots, and it is up to the reader and the instrument, the beast, to operate in the heavens to generate light and influence events. Orion is a clutch of stars until it is discerned by connecting the stars, the dots.

Another way of putting this idea of the poem as living instrument is via Aristotle’s idea of the common sense being the aggregate of the five senses. News as a mess of incidents is not a fit idea for the 21st century and the accommodations of cyberspace. Poets make common sense of the incidents and thereby push the limits of human sensibility. Contrarily, news as we now define it fragments, polarizes, divides, and conspires against the idea of oneness, against ideas like the Chaos Theory.

These four poets—Doubinsky, Foust, Young, and Holmes—affirm this distinction between what we regressively call news and the real news in which we are all swept up and are invited to influence.


 

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.