Book Review: Riceland by C.L. Bledsoe

 photo 3d22af97-93e8-4d69-a85e-1a7ac9ef0a72_zps4b795650.jpg Riceland
Poems by C.L. Bledsoe
Unbound Content, 2013
$15.00

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Immersive travel writer Joseph Hone wrote a million words, but I only remember a handful: ninety percent of love is tact, and ninety percent of writing is tactless. Put another way: reviewing a book I love is one thing; reviewing a book I love written by a man I love is a trickier affair. Not to sound doubly negative, but love isn’t possible without lines that mustn’t be crossed. And yet, how can I write a review without crossing every line?

C. L. Bledsoe’s fourth collection of poems is one of the most difficult acts of love any writer has attempted. In Riceland the author journeys to his youth in the Arkansas delta. These are poems of early first impressions of life, written as conversations clustering around images. Bledsoe wants to bear hug his sorrows—truly, his grief today—but first he must find the bear. His search is a marvel as he returns to a time long before he possessed the rich ironic sensibility Bledsoe is known for in his previous work and in such novels as Last Stand at Zombietown.

Although Bledsoe is quite comfortable using an elastic voice, stepping—or shuffling—into and out of his narrative threads in his previous poems, his voice in Riceland is not so preoccupied with witty touches to hold our attention. Rather, it is a curious voice. It belongs to a speaker almost ready to begin asking smaller questions in order to escape much larger ones that dominate his life such as why his mother is dying of a genetic mutation which is destroying her nervous system. That the child poet could still have wonder at the world is surely what saves him:

When I was a boy       I heard roaches sing.
It only happened at night        after Mom got sick
and went back to St. Louis. Dad worked long hours
and stayed drunk. Every day,
I came in from the rice fields
     too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to
     pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
     because it was cool
and they were in there                        singing.

(from “Roaches)

Even a despondent origin has its beautiful stars and Bledsoe delights in rustic shenanigans, dangerously “surfing” the silo’s grain feeder, hosing out the blood from the catfish butcher shop, identifying with his father over a pelican eating their livelihood, escaping the tub and running naked circles around his brother’s friend Crow as an eight-tracked Jimmy Page whined and wailed, and his sensing of shame when the silent pig farmer came to collect tubs of fish guts to feed his hogs. Everyone and everything around him is searching for words in an obliteration of noise. In “Cry of the Catfish” Bledsoe mutely watches—and learns—as the catfish try to speak while being skinned alive: “Even sober, / my father could skin a catfish faster than it could die. / Their little mouths worked, / but they couldn’t make a sound, / as he snatched one out of the dirty white basin, / hung it like a thief on a cross, / and cut it.” Wouldn’t anyone else have said Jesus? It’s as if Bledsoe’s beginnings aren’t even worthy of a savior, rather, he gets the savior’s crucifixion neighbor.

Hunting squirrels was next.
(…)
They barked at us sometimes;
He’d let one live long enough for that,
and I’d get a shot at it.

The author bonds with his father over many physical and bloody labors. Life here is cheap, and merciless, as we see in another poem where the young artist helps his father chain a dead calf which is stuck inside its desperate mother, then drives the tractor pulling those chains into a tree. The live mother and its dead son correspond with the live son—Bledsoe—and his dead mother. The father wrestling the both of them, the “levees in curves that made no sense to me. / Straight, young spears of rice, green and thick as hair / covered the field’s bone-white dust.” In “Bachelor Club,” Bledsoe offers a rare interpretation of what he describes: “Theirs was not a world in which scrapes / were kissed, forks were placed properly or even / used; theirs was a world in which the soft veal / of youth is eaten, the playful is stewed.”

Transcendence is one of those words that has fallen on hard times. In order to lift out of your own reality you must first have a sense of your own ground zero. The trick to flying is the launch from a sturdy place. After, it’s mostly managing air gusts and a little bit of steering before landing in a soft tumble. Most of us don’t have such a sturdy place to begin, or if we do, we refuse to acknowledge it. This is Bledsoe’s lesson in bravery, that love requires more bravery than war, even an almost tactless bravery which enables you to love the very wounds you spend your whole life cursing.

In a neighboring state which shared the same delta Bledsoe knew, the drunk galloper Faulkner wrote, “We cling to that which robs us.” Most of the time this is what we do. The larceny doesn’t have to be grand. We also cling to what steals only a little of us day by day. Rarely is someone capable of letting go of it. Rarer still to let go through an act of writing. Bledsoe has done this. Riceland is the miracle of his release.


 

Book Review: Discontinued Township Road
by Abby Chew

 photo 19302376-8280-41f1-879a-b20741beaab5_zps3f460283.jpg Discontinued Township Roads
Poems by Abby Chew
Word Poetry, 2013
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

“The Earth doesn’t bleed the way we do. / It’s a different skin. I like knowing — blood flows all ways,” writes Abby Chew in Discontinued Township Roads. Chew’s speaker walks down awestruck, brutal, and unforgiving roads, a country human in its sufferings, but severe in its inexplicability.The community that surrounds such an environment shifts, similarly, between human compassion and rigidness, as if to suggest, eventually, we become what surrounds us.

In “Rooftop,” Sister absorbs the natural world. She learns harmonica for the bats, envious of their movements, their bodies. The speaker watches Sister’s ritual, reveals,

Late in March, late at night,
she crawls out on the porch roof
to sigh and breathe them in.
They fly like flapping black gloves
when she reaches out her left hand
hoping she might become
part of the way the movement
moves.

Here, Chew attributes animalistic qualities to Sister and human qualities to the bats. Sister “crawls” to the porch, while the bats flap like “black gloves.” The image of the gloves sits above “hand” on the following line. This almost physical covering of Sister’s hand by the glove mimics her internal shift.

Sister’s bat experience seems a result of isolation a need for connection, but Chew balances these metaphysical desires with the practical. In “Chicken Coop” the speaker comments on the stupidity of hens and their willingness for Sister to take their eggs. Even though the speaker is addressing the audience, the lines are equally a self reminder, an acknowledgement that in spite of these facts, it’s important to be human.

Of course their brains
are peanuts. Of course. But you
need to know how to frame their house.

Make it warm. Make it tight. Maybe
paint it yellow. Heat the water
in January, when you think your own fingers
may shatter from wind. Don’t tell
them where you’re going when you leave.

Chew’s repetition of “of course,” paired with the compassionate instructions shows the conflict that comes from living in this environment. On one hand, practicality is part of living on the land. On the other hand, there exists a desire for comfort, for giving, one that even a January wind can’t shatter.

The poems in the collection stand direct as corn, bold and seemingly obvious. Chew’s sentences are short, definitive in their breaks and her word choice. Unlike most nature or placed-based poetry, Chew avoids an indulgence in sentimentality, an ode-like explanation of how the natural world invades the psyche. That doesn’t mean there isn’t emotion in the collection. It means that Chew doesn’t overwrite; she lets the Earth have the power.

Arguably the most power comes from “Back Two.” It begins with an address to the audience, “Jog down this road and you won’t see the culvert / once spattered with blood where our dog / killed a ground hog.” The separation between the speaker and the audience, however, makes all the difference in this poem. The following lines read:

You might, if you jog in late fall or winter…
…see the skeletons of three deer—
big bucks, not much antlered—poached and left to rot…

I stepped knee-deep into the belly of one when I jumped…
…The stink and the slap of flesh,
the sudden buzz of flies tapping my half-closed eyes.
That kind of landing can ruin you, I know for sure.

The audience jogs and sees water. The speaker remembers a violent scene. How quick we are to appreciate what is beautiful, to adore a one-sided nature.

As Chew’s collection progresses, the environment’s grittiness yields maturity within the characters. The poems grow into a quiet resolve, a bow to what cannot be controlled. In “Storm” Chew uses weather as a metaphor for a relationship. The Earth becomes a language to the speaker, as she says,

 We salvage what we can.

The sky doesn’t ask if we want our arms
slick with sweat…

July doesn’t ask what we desire.
It only creeps up over the hill each morning,
brings us what we deserve.

Although Chew often creates a distance between the poem and the audience through her use of the second person, there remains a sense of community. Perhaps a “discontinued,” extreme environment renders connection, for “We’re put together inside our bones, and we’re put together with each other, in this place.”


Book Review: The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert

 photo 2fac73fc-2fc7-49e3-ac0b-f6609eddf56b_zps3ddad943.jpg The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert
Riverhead Books, 2014
Hardcover: $27.95

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

A fair, done correctly, fills its visitors with wonder and amusement. A bizarre bazaar should make people’s eyes sparkle and satiate their sense of adventure from darling rides and attractions. The fair is the talk of the town during its stay, and memories of its heyday linger even during its decline. Timothy Schaffert tries to accomplish all this with his novel, The Swan Gondola, and almost succeeds. But the audience can sometimes see through the guise and notice where pieces are pasted together and lines are drawn to add effect. What’s left is a warped mirror reflection that hints at real characters underneath a fluffy presentation.

But then, this novel was never meant to be fluffy. It was meant to dazzle in the beginning before unveiling a stark truth: people are broken and misunderstood; they wear masks even in private. To illustrate, the book steps into wonder almost immediately. Darkness falls over a shaking house, inside of which sit two scared elderly sisters, Emmaline and Hester. When the commotion settles, they discover that a deflated hot air balloon had landed on their roof and brought with it Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist with a troubled past. The novel proceeds to bounce between that past, the present, and letters to a ghost as Ferret explains what brought him to the sisters’ run-down farm, and explores what resulted from his presence in their home. The key to all of it, met at the key-shaped 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, was Cecily. With biased hindsight, Ferrett describes their whirlwind romance, tragic separation, his desperation to get her back, and their sparse stolen moments.

In Cecily and her baby daughter, Doxie, Ferrett finds pieces of himself that he hadn’t realized were missing. He becomes consumed by Cecily’s presence, and lives completely for her. He comments:

Every time her name crosses my mind, I whisper it. I whisper her name. Like a chant, or a prayer. Cecily. I like hearing it, this name of silk and satin. I like feeling the teakettle hiss of it on my tongue. And like a chant, or a prayer, it soothes my soul.

This narration almost suggests obsession. Yet only when Cecily is gone does the narration introduce a skewed perception. Ferrett is surrounded by people—friends and enemies alike—who convey different events during his time with her. They don’t just include different perspectives, but new information—details that are both unbelievable and yet, somehow, true. Because the readers are so close to Ferret’s mind, which is helped by the first person perspective, they can’t trust what the other characters say. Yet, as the novel unfolds, that distrust slowly shifts toward Ferret. In the end, readers may suspect that he has an unhinged sense of reality. Did he register everything as it was, or did he only see things as he wanted them to be and rejected the rest? His final musings of events reveal a slight but wondrous insanity. He narrates:

On the farm, I came to believe in the logic of dreams. I believed in magic, perhaps even a heavenly order. I went up in the balloon so the balloon would come down, so Emmaline would dream, so the cathedral would rise, so Cecily would speak. Not only did I believe it, but it seemed insensible to believe anything else.

The logic of dreams and magic wouldn’t have been there, of course, without the romantic glitter the fair had settled over a dusty livelihood of peddling for laughs on dirty streets and in seasonal theaters. The fair itself warped reality before its gates opened. And because of the novel’s jumping linear timelines that converge into an ultimate outcome, readers will lose track of time and may believe that a few weeks is a few months. Ferrett, certainly, forgets time and lives wholly in the moment. Everything is drawn out to where even the act of smoking is a holy moment. Schaffert writes:

He took smoke in his lungs like it was a breath of bottled air, and it appeared as if he could feel the cigarette healing all the cracks of his bones, working down through him like a vapor.

Of course, the novel isn’t just about Ferrett and Cecily, or the sturdy old biddies Emmaline and Hester. In fact, the main characters are rather dull compared to their friends. All their intrigue is showcased in the beginning chapters as a hook. But the friends appear as spice to thrust the plot forward. August—a gay Native American who dresses in a drag of mismatched clothing and sells “tonics”—and Rosie—a Polish anarchist who sells tastefully artistic nudie pictures from under his coat—are the leading compatriots in Ferrett’s life. They are solid, reliable, scarily creative, and loyal. Even Mrs. Margaret, a crotchety one-eyed hag who hates Ferret immediately, provides intriguing conflict and believable barriers between Ferrett and Cecily.  More believable, in fact, than the pitiable but diabolical antagonist, Billy Wakefield, the millionaire who owns most of the fair and schemes to steal Cecily. He doesn’t become a fully developed person until the end, when Ferrett finally sees weakness and learns his full story. Of course, he is technically a main character.

When everyone finds their places in the world, tension is finally and satisfactorily released. Readers will close the book and see through the bound papers to the shiny interior: wonder, romance, appeal, and an unexpected sparkling of the supernatural. They’ll want to look away from grimy details that eventually overtook the dream, and ignore the process of dismantling as characters returned to reality. They may want to resume the meandering tread through sugar-dusted flights of fancy, when everything was new and special, and damn the rest.


 

Book Review: Blackbird by Caitlin Galway

 photo 62055be0-8901-4d1b-a798-d9aaf2505021_zpsa7ff2455.jpg Blackbird
by Caitlin Galway
Aqueous Books, 2013
$14.00

 

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Blackbird, the debut novel from Toronto-based author Caitlin Galway, is a complex work that displays the writer’s unique and fresh voice. In the book, Galway explores the dark corners of a young girl’s mind, Gwyneth Avery, as she tries to make sense of her world and the many odd characters she meets at Abbot House, an asylum. The story may remind some readers of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; however, Galway is subtler than Plath and instead of traveling down dark hallways to death and despair, we meander through dimly lit rooms filled with often poetic musings about their contents.

The novel opens with Gwyn depicting the disappearance of her home. She does not do this objectively, but in a complicated, hypnotic manner that immediately draws readers into the world Galway has crafted around Gwyn’s mind. Gwyn says of the event, “If only they all had seen it, I could have explained everything. I could have made the world make sense, with cool air ruffling the water, a white country house disappearing.” And in the next paragraph, she is elsewhere, engaging with the girls of Abbot House. This moment offers a peek into the why of the novel. Why is Gwyn at Abbot House? Why is she troubled? Why do we take an interest in this journey? At this early stage, it because Galway creates dense emotions and images with complex meanings, all while using so few words. She writes:

I paid closer attention to an attic curtain blowing through a hole in the roof. I knew its face, of was and had been. That remarkable clean, uncomplicated silence. Then the house disappeared. As though swallowing a tossed stone, the lake closed over it. Yet the film began again, no beat in between, and the house drifted back into view, continuing its grave avenue down the coast. I watched the film until it became terrifying, until I felt it watching back.

This rich paragraph describes Gwyn’s journey through one specific memory, but we as readers are unsure if the sinking house did indeed disappear or if this is a metaphor constructed by Gwyn’s imagination. In either case, this allows us readers a small glimpse into her mind, how she builds her thoughts somewhat abstractly, but in ways that still make sense. It is complex, but not confusing, and I found its intrigue a powerful draw into the rest of the novel.

Gwyn’s path to discovery and recovery is understated and seems to take place between the lines. After seeing Gone with the Wind for the first time, she wants to know why Melanie had to die giving birth. She questions the fairness, asking, “…what had women done? Of course there was the story of Satan’s apple, but I wasn’t so sure about that. There must have been a sin so damnable that it continued on in our collective unconscious, marking its X in our chromosomes.” Here she’s not simply questioning why it’s so common for women to die during childbirth, but the uncertain truth of what she’s learned in Sunday school. She questions what constitutes a sin and why they carry such heavy punishments. In doing so, she is discovering what she believes and ultimately, herself.

Such realizations continue throughout the novel to its end, where Gwyn must cope with the death of a fellow Abbot House girl. She thinks, “I didn’t want to say what I was thinking. I tried to feel otherwise, as it went sagging through my feet, through ground and root, where Eve might have heard it… But she had thrown away her whole stupid life.” Even as she continues to push through drug abuse and daydreams of how she herself would “do it,” she comes to a single thought—to make “[her] own constellation from this collection of broken stars”— an ending readers desperately want for her after coming so far on their walk through her life.

This is Galway’s Blackbird, a headlong trek through Gwyn’s past, present, and future prospects as she sees them. It’s full of questions, uncertainty, poetry, darkness, and enlightenment. As one who enjoyed The Bell Jar, I can safely recommend this to fellow fans as well as those who did not have a taste for Plath’s harsher realities and gothic tone. Galway is subtle and alluring, a brilliant new author for both leisurely and literary readers.


 

Book Review: Little Heretic by Gerry LaFemina

 photo a39964f9-26c8-4266-a137-be56844b36bf_zpsb59de7a0.jpg Little Heretic
Poems by Gerry LaFemina
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

 

Oh how desire can make us feel/ like gods and beasts both…

—“Papyrus”

I think it’s generally true that good poetry is born of obsession: an unavoidable exploration of those subjects, people, and memories that we writers can’t turn away from. If poetry is, at least sometimes, an exploration of the self, then obsession is that concentrated site where the self most exists to be interpreted. In Little Heretic, Gerry LaFemina’s speaker has more than enough obsessions to go around: latent Catholicism, time and history, past lovers, punk rock, New York City. LaFemina plumbs the depths of these essential ingredients to find what’s really lurking underneath—morality, mortality and (just maybe) forgiveness.

What I love most about this collection is that it doesn’t let up. No matter where the reader turns, Catholicism, or religion in general, is waiting. It’s found in all the obvious places: the churchyard, the confessional, a bar called St. Dymphna’s. But LaFemina’s New York City is also one where “the honking taxis cry Ho- / sana! Hosana!” and a booth at the adult video arcade is a “little cubicle… the size of a confessional.” LaFemina’s organic comparisons, his inability to turn from worship as a broader point of reference, highlight this speaker’s obsessive tendencies—in fact, all of our obsessive tendencies. Punk rock gets worshipped, too, (think of the pigeons “like rock kids/ before the stage, [bustling]/ with avian wisdom”) along with youth and old lovers. As a former Catholic, this deifying of the everyday makes total sense to me. Spend your formative years with all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Mass and everything from then on seems instilled with that same gravity.

But Little Heretic isn’t just for lapsed Catholics and those who remember CBGB (I don’t, and I still “got” these poems). LaFemina’s ruminations bridge gaps in content knowledge by employing familiar patterns of thought. “So much of Manhattan/ remains the same despite what’s changed,” the speaker tells us in “Another Blues in E Minor.” Who among us doesn’t live in this dual world of memory and The Now, constantly orienting and re-orienting ourselves against our surroundings both immediate and remembered?

So many mornings I re-entered the world
as sunlight filled the filthy windows, & watched
dust motes swirl
                              like poltergeists of longing.
Nothing will drive them away.

—“On Hearing David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’”

Hearing a Bowie song immediately plunges the speaker into memory, eventually bringing him to this thought of a common past experience. But note the verbs. For four lines we’re situated firmly, or so we think, in the past. Then, suddenly, those dust motes are still in the room before us, choking the air. And are the dust motes the “them,” really, or does “them” refer to the poltergeists of longing? Or memories? Obsessions? For LaFemina, as for most of us, time is one big simultaneous experience—memory is evoked in the present and every moment is already the past. This reality of the nature of time is what allows LaFemina to bring in icons of our collective and his personal history, whether rain dancers from the Reconstruction or high school friends, without jarring his reader.

Alongside memory enters another human constant: guilt. Or, the way LaFemina spins it (which I prefer), the desire for penance. Even LaFemina’s skeptical speaker who often speaks against the idea of penance is aware of some social cost, even one that’s self-inflicted, assigned to bad behavior:

I place a ten dollar bill in the mission box
a homeless friar holds out. Brother, can you ….
Like a pigeon, he rocks his head & bestows
a blessing on me

so I give him another ten bucks, unworthy.
This is the cost to walk with one’s sins
even among the city’s blessed anonymity.

—“Dim Sum”

LaFemina’s speaker isn’t afraid to have complicated feelings about his own self-worth throughout these poems. Some days he wants to be a superhero, others he’s sure he is utterly depraved. But all in all, he’s working toward acceptance. Sound familiar?

One thing that seems to make that acceptance easier is the speaker’s (arguably impossible) striving for objectivity. He almost apologizes in “The Poet at 37,” admitting, “such melodrama was never a strength of mine.” Despite the constant overlay of God and punk, there are moments when this voice tries to articulate its experiences in only the realest way possible.

I wasn’t a new man, not even close,
wasn’t in love, wasn’t anything special—all us pedestrians
trying in vain to shelter ourselves from the gossip wind,
from the tendrils of precipitation, from the inevitable
walk back to apartments that waited like the dull expressions of parents
we’d escaped. She didn’t change my life & I didn’t change hers.
It took only 17 years to figure this out, but it’s one thing I’m certain of.

—“The Inherent Shortcomings of Metaphor”

Such simple declarations, but so much weight. I’d be remiss in not adding that the oomph here is in part due to the fact that LaFemina has planted his flag, in this poem especially, as King of Enjambment. Regardless, in this moment the speaker finally sloughs off that coat of drama his obsessions wear so comfortably for the feeling of skin on skin. The ability to truly appreciate past experience, to really move toward forgiving ourselves, seems to come with the stripping away of nostalgia. The lessons emerge only when we see things as they truly were.

Despite that, LaFemina chooses to end the collection with a quiet poem admitting that even the simplest of our experiences can be interpreted in countless ways. His list poem, “Daybreak,” characterizes light with a shifting series of labels and qualities, all of which seem wholly accurate. Light is sacred, we think, but yes, also, light is quotidian. We are all simultaneously zealots and heretics, concurrently gods and beasts. And maybe we’ll never understand it all. Or maybe we will. But probably all that’s guaranteed is that we’ll keep trying. Maybe all life of life is just “light [we’d] walk into if [we] could.” If that’s the case, I’d hope to have Gerry LaFemina as a companion on that bustling sidewalk.


Book Review: Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

 photo 3c434ab7-0f32-411e-805a-29c21c9013b9_zps383c1206.jpg Sorrow
by Catherine Gammon
Braddock Avenue Books, 2013
$16.00

 

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

For years she had kept herself alive by working out the details. What was left to imagine? She knew everything except which of them it would be. Necessity was what she understood: When? Now. Why? Because. But Who? always eluded her. Choose me, the little voice said.

In Sorrow, by Catherine Gammon, readers are immediately thrown into the mind of Anita Palatino, a seemingly competent woman who works in New York City and lives with her mother. Yet, Anita is secretly haunted by memories of her childhood of sexual abuse; as a result, she creates an outer shell to ensure that she will not suffer again. However, when she reviews the above questions and finally determines whom she will murder, the actually act of killing her mother sends her into a tailspin and she spends the rest of the novel fighting to reconcile.

Told in three separate parts, Gammon explores themes of abuse, guilt, love, repression, faith, and the undeniable desire to be a whole, unified person. Throughout each section, Anita’s walls start to come down, exposing more of her torrid past and a circle of unrepentant abusers. Surrounded by neighbors and a young nun who all believe she’s innocent, Anita struggles to keep her secret from those closest to her and find a way to make peace with her past transgressions. All the while, the reader is left wondering if Anita will ever be exposed for her crime.

Gammon uses third person point of view to examine Cruz Garcia, Tomas, Sister Monica Luz, and Magda Ramirez. These characters allow new insight into Anita and permit Gammon to weave a more complicated narrative filled with pain and uneasiness. In only a sentence or two, Gammon manages to reveal each character’s feelings in a way that resonates with the reader. For example:

When [Sister Monica] proposed to Cruz that Anita should leave with her and make a retreat with the sisters, the look of alarm passed so quickly across his face that Sister Monica must have been unsure whether she had seen it until his eyes began to glisten and he agreed that it was the right place for Anita to go.

Not only are these character shown as complicated individuals and their desires are illuminated to ensure that the reader understands the dynamic relationship between Anita, Sister Monica, and Cruz Garcia. Gammon further illustrates this by detailing small gestures that creates a tension and a desire to find out what else Sister Monica and Cruz Garcia are hiding.

On the other side of the friend spectrum, Tomas — a young man who escapes illegally to the United States — is caught between his own need to work at the grocery store for money, his love for Anita, and a desire to return to El Salvador where his family resides. Then there’s Magda Ramirez who uses Anita’s crime as a way to examine her own tangled past with her husband and a desire to earn more than just a steady paycheck. Together these characters get the chance to really live for the first time in years as they make an irreversible decision to either continue to stand with Anita or allow their own needs for love and desire to come first.

Unfortunately in Anita’s story, she’s forced to encounter one of her past abusers with or without her friends. During these intimate and awkward moments, she becomes even more fragmented. Using long sentences, Gammon exposes Anita’s true thoughts:

Anita in the darkness by herself hears the breathing in the darkness hears the breathing by herself Anita hears her name in the breathing in the darkness her name Anita in the name her life her heart her dying hears the flow of blood and the pulse and in her heart the heart of living[…]

Here, the lack of punctuation continues for four pages, until the end of the chapter. While there are other spots that Gammon uses long, twisting sentences, filled with commas to expose Anita’s rambling mindset, this chapter highlights the darkness within her and the deeply rooted explanation for her crime.

Only when Anita finally defeats her past, lays herself completely bare, and turns to her friends for help does she think, “So much of my life was made up of these moments of mixed knowledge, of delayed recognition, of discovering again what she already knew.” This idea explains Anita’s character transformation and throws the reader directly into the thrilling climax where Anita’s true character is tested.

Once Gammon illustrates the importance of exposure, the reader can see the true effects of abuse and the need for escape that Anita so desires. Sorrow makes one last impression when the book ends with the chilling idea of “love” as a motivator for Anita’s crimes. One that shows that if she had not been so blind to the affection of her friends and neighbors, then she never would have been forced to relive her past, kill her mother, or experience the rippling effects of her crime.


 

Book Review: How Blasphemy Sounds to God by Gary Fincke

 photo c23ff664-77b8-4a9f-8986-e1d7047fc99c_zps4f79e560.jpg How Blasphemy Sounds to God
by Gary Fincke
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014
$16.95

 

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______

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


 

Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

 photo dc599729-b2e7-49a7-8703-e7eb684fea6b_zps9e7455a6.jpg The Holy Ghost People
A Play in Verse
by Joshua Young
Plays Inverse Press, 2013
$12.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The power of drama is that it plays back to us the human condition in a way that, while not always wholly realistic, seems just real enough for us to understand and absorb. Add to that the connotative meaning-making and compression of language found in poetry and you have Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People: A Play in Verse. Equal parts supernatural, ominous, and linguistically beautiful, Young’s play has all the right stuff to help us make sense of a subject—religious disagreements in America—that we might otherwise find incomprehensible in its vastness.

But to boil the book down to that one simple nugget seems unfair to the scope of Young’s project. This is also a wonderfully terrifying god-cult horror movie, a study in metaphysics, a slightly surreal retelling of life in fundamentalist Christian communities—or maybe just everyday American suburbia. Young’s archetypal character names (the Holy Ghost People, the Speakers, etc.), indeterminate setting (a city neighborhood, time: whenever), and his placing us directly in the midst of a situation (“we’ll come in at the half-act & the holy ghost people will be here already”) make this play an allegory with all the potential to stand the test of time. This is 2014’s Vanity Fair, another story without a hero depicting humanity’s inevitable failings of morality and understanding, but Young doesn’t seem to share Thackeray’s desire to promote a specific mode of thought.

From the outset, the Speakers attempt to show how different the Holy Ghost People are from typical humans. Their hair looks like neon, they can conjure a deity known as Sylvia, they wear white cloth and seem to glide when they walk. The list of items they consider blasphemous seems laughable to us:

SPEAKERS   the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, cru-cifixions, dalmatians, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beat-ers, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrids suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in play-grounds, dead pigs…

The Speakers decide that the Holy Ghost People’s religion is nothing but “a story punched together/ with astronomy & pop-astrophysics & [they] do not/ believe [the Holy Ghost People] because there is nothing to believe.” They tell the preachers, “we have learned to recognize cults.” And this attitude seems warranted for most of the play—the Holy Ghost people speak at times in unintelligible nonsense, at other times in unrelenting dogma. At one point they react violently to blasphemers. They deliver to the Speakers a menacing prophecy:

HOLY GHOST PEOPLE    god will come for you in the ether-light of dreams, your throat will be slit in your living room, in your lawn, in the road, in your workplace, in your bed. when there is a dead owl without its feet in your back lawn, you have been judged & god is coming, or he is sending us to finish. you will know in the morning & god will come in the night & the owl will rise & you will be dead flesh. you’ll ask for sylvia then.

Over time, though, it becomes clear that the Speakers are just as dogmatic as the Holy Ghost People. They worry that “the weakness of faith revs.” Their biggest issue with the Holy Ghost People is that they cannot prove that their god is more real than the Speakers’. The two groups are cut from the same cloth and only separated by the names and qualities they give to their gods (jesus, god, sylvia, science). Twice throughout the play they break into a chorus of the repeated line, “we drink from the same water.”

Young shows his smarts with these characterizations. The reader, at first, feels gradually more and more comfortable with the Speakers, until she realizes that they are simply another shade of the Holy Ghost People. Who, then, in the play stands in for your everyday person? We’re given three representatives in the supporting cast: the Barfly, who only drinks; the Policemen, “kind of annoyed with the holy ghost people,” who dismiss both the Holy Ghost People and the Speakers from the scene of a stand-off; and the silent people who sit quietly on barstools or in parking lots. Young’s world, then, is one of high drama created by a passionate fight between two small groups over religious truth—the rest of the population either drinks to deal with the chaos, feebly tries to hold onto order, or entirely surrenders its voice. Sure, the Holy Ghost People are not quite anything we’ve seen before… but this world is ours.

After reading through the play once for the story, I’d encourage you to go back and examine Young’s language more deeply. There are many beautiful lines and stanzas that could inspire or stand as full poems in their own right. At one point the Speakers, presumably speaking to other Speakers about the Holy Ghost People, say, “but you are so right about them./ they are not truthful & you look like your/ mother in the garage shadow.” The Holy Ghost People decree that “all you need to/ make a star is tongue-baths & god’s will.” And the language is not only beautifully lyric—at times it enters a space where meaning is built solely by connotation:

SPEAKERS  give us the good stuff. the black tongue & stomach deep. give us the army jacket & stairwell run. the dresser of good booze. the holy ghost people parade. the holy ghost people preach. sermon-flare. the snake handlers have been bitten, give into the holy ghost people. the tv’s waving lights ruptured in four.

Almost Steinian in its way, Young’s language here is certainly poetic but also suits his subject matter. In conversations like those between the Speakers and the Holy Ghost People, words almost never mean what they seem to on the surface. At one point, Young compresses an entire debate between the two groups as the Holy Ghost People saying “evidence, evidence” and the Speakers replying, “we respond. ok. evidence, evidence.” His language is at its most compressed here, entire opposing dogmas being concentrated into the same two-word phrase.

As a reviewer, it’s always wonderful to come across a work of literature that is simply too well-written to be fully articulated in the span of a single review. Young’s play in verse is certainly one of those works. It’s my hope that the lines above inspire you to seek it out but, as a final motivator, I give you my favorite “poem” from the play, some lines from the speakers which I think very easily stands on their own:

SPEAKERS   transit into the trail—the detour, the hedge, the channel spike—you are so drunk when i pick you up & you want to see the floating bridge, the construction—you say, there’s supposed to be an abandoned piano, abandoned train cars, filled with gravel & chunks of coal. you’re asleep when we get to the bridge. i watch the construction lights from the hood, waiting for you to wake & demand a cigarette.

JOSHUA YOUNG is the author of When the Wolves Quit (Gold Wake Press), To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press), and, with Chas Hoppe, The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press). He is the Associate Director of Poetry and Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his wife, their son, and their dog.


 

Book Review: Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold by Tim Chapman

 photo 229f0a4f-8e18-4bb0-9ad7-9f7f692f687c_zps90461a10.jpg Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold
by Tim Chapman
Allium Press, 2014
$14.99

 

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

Tim Chapman’s Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold is a fresh take on the typical crime thriller. Chapman distances his work from the simple, run-of-the-mill, “who done it,” adding complexity by incorporating historical fiction and knowledge of forensic science. Set in both contemporary and 1930s Chicago, three story lines, centered on mobsters and gold, come crashing together. Chapman’s dynamic characters make us question our own morality and ethical boundaries when it comes to economic concerns and desires.

Right away, in the front matter, Chapman readies the reader to encounter ethical and moral economic quandaries by including a section from Thomas Hood’s poem titled, “Gold!:”

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold
Molten, graven, hammered and rolled,
Heavy to get and light to hold,
Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold,
Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,
Spurned by young, but hung by old
To the verge of a church yard mold;
Price of many a crime untold.
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!

The human desire to acquire gold, a valuable metal that is symbolic of wealth and power, is clear. Not only does the poem highlight the monetary value of gold, but it comments on how gold is acquired: “stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled.”

Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, seemingly written for our attention-deficit-disorder culture, provides quick and entertaining chapters that rotate between three tales destined to coincide. Chapman weaves the stories of Delroy and Lucille, a young and simple-minded couple from Kansas who move to Chicago in the 1930s to start a new life; a desperate criminal named Gilbert Anglin in search of mobster treasure of the Karpis-Barker Gang; and the hero, Sean McKinney, a quirky, forensic scientist (possibly in Chapman’s own image) trying to balance morality and ethics. While the overall plot twist becomes apparent a bit early in the story, the interesting set of characters and subplot developments maintain interest throughout the piece.

It’s hard to tell if Chapman understands where he succeeds most in his story, because of how well it is imbedded into the minutiae. His commentary on economic concerns per different time periods and social levels is very powerful, but it seems lost or at least underplayed in the very nature of the genre and subject matter. McKinney, a single dad, is constantly battling a moral obligation to clear a suspected murderer by breaking the boundaries set for his job, which runs the risk of his termination at the forensics laboratory. After his boss informs him there will be a formal investigation into possible obstruction charges an exasperated McKinney lays out his beliefs:

It’s not that I have a right to interfere, I have an obligation. I became a forensic scientist because it gives me the opportunity to search for truth, truth that can help determine who’s committed a crime, and sometimes, who hasn’t.

McKinney, though he is often portrayed as the “cool fifty-year-old guy,” is redeemable through his heart. He does his job because he believes in it.

Meanwhile, when Lucille and Delroy first arrive in Chicago, most of their possessions are stolen, and despite constant day-long searches for honest work, Delroy is eventually coerced to join a group of gangsters to make due. But the life of crime brings only troubles for him and Lucille. After another robbery, Delroy questions his life of crime:

“What have I come to?” he sobbed. He hooked his elbow over the sill, pulled himself to his feet and raced down the stairs. He intended to run off. Leave the gang there. Somehow get back to Chicago, grab Lucille, and hightail it to Kentucky.

Then there’s Gilbert Anglin. At his very simplest, he is a man on a mission for mobster gold, and nothing and nobody will get in his way. While it is easy to submit to his simple-mindedness and apparent two-dimensional desires, Gilbert’s development is dark, twisted, and dynamic. His progression into desperation narrows his thoughts and his character. He changes from a man to a serial killer before our eyes. After sleeping with a waitress his picks up in a small-town diner, Chapman provides insight into the mind of the serial killer.

While she slept he aimed the little gun at her and imagined what it would feel like to pull the trigger. It would, he thought, be a little sad. Maybe he would enjoy it at first. He would probably enjoy it more than shooting little old ladies.

Gilbert is more than a deranged man. He is a study of desire. He shows control and is able to compartmentalize what he is doing; killing is his business:

He’d known kids who pulled the legs off insects to see them squirm, or thrown rocks at stray cats. Those kids had disgusted him, yet here he was, killing people and enjoying it. He was looking forward to killing Terrell right now, and the excitement of his anticipation was mixed with selfloathing…When decisions were influenced by anything other than business considerations it was time to reevaluate.

While Chapman succeeds in slyly incorporating commentary on the world, he sacrifices realism for plot advancement. Chapman’s treatment of police and law enforcement is the most glaring issue. He adopts the idea, and then expects the reader to follow, that police and law enforcement are and must be stupid. Too often are police ignoring facts and possible leads in regards to open investigations, mostly in order to have McKinney continue on his adventures. Speaking about a recently murdered woman, a cop blatantly ignores connections:

I don’t really have time to look into this now, McKinney. The family’s real upset, and I feel bad for them, but we just don’t have much to go on. Our best bet is if the daughter can give us a description, but she’s in no shape to answer questions and I’m up to my neck in gang shootings. I’m sorry, I just don’t have the time.

The treatment of the police reminds me of how the law is often portrayed in film comedies; bumbling and stumbling around, and all the while it makes you wonder where your tax money is being spent.

Nonetheless, Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, provides enough of a new take on the crime thriller that it keeps the reader determined to see what happens (if only involving the subplots). The characters are much more entertaining and dynamic than they appear to be, especially after considering the social, cultural, and economical concerns that Chapman confronts them with. In its simplest, this is Chapman’s ode to the forensic scientist, but if you dig deep there are facets of Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold that will have you questioning what effect greed has on us all.


 

 

 

Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

 photo 291329a6-45dc-4785-991d-c98101d39488_zps76d636a3.png The Earth Avails
Poems by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, 2014
$15.00

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

God appears to be making a comeback. Six months ago Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual journal was unveiled in The New Yorker. The break came on the heels of former child evangelist Terry Lucas’ If They Have Ears to Hear (Southeast Missouri State University Press), and Edward Mullaney’s Figures for an Apocalypse (Publishing Genius Press)—a dark minimalist collage of nouveau romans and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

These works raised a few issues for postmodern reader such as how do we save ourselves from our own subject matter without a place to escape. They also hint that anarchy in poetry—a music of forms—is a critical push back against impenetrable and predictable layers of order in our society. Regrettably, these authors lacked the stamina needed to subdue the answers to questions they provoked. They’re poets for Christ’s sake, not bloodhounds, and poets readily grasp that it’s far easier to question the meaning of life than to actually live it. Still, the authors O’Connor, Lucas, and Mullaney—one from the past, one from the Golden State, and one from Brooklyn—ushered an important vertical dimension, bringing some sorely needed longitudinal thinking to the latitudes of the alt lit poetry community. Not since Saint Ignatius threw down his Consolation of Desolation has there been so much fuss about the up and down escalators between Heaven and Earth. Hang on tight, that handrail is there for a reason.

Mark Wunderlich makes a solid entry into this conversation with his third book, The Earth Avails. The title comes from an Anglo-Saxon charm, or ritual prayer-song, said or sung during the honey harvest to prevent swarming. It also seems to link him in a strange way with those curious bee poems in the last pages of Plath’s Ariel, as if we’re about to read of morbid sadness, a sadness that must nearly overtake us. In The Earth Avails, the poet’s soul seems in a constant state of surrender to an unhappy universe, the seasons, and all the possibilities for destruction—blights, illnesses, infertilities, coyotes. When it’s not shaking the white flag Wunderlich’s rustic soul is in the barnyard bleeding-out a lamb or taking a shotgun to a raccoon, but not before taking the Have A Heart cage trap to a reasonably beautiful and quiet setting at wood’s edge.

The Earth Avails mercifully is not divided into sections. There are no commercials in this drama. Nor does one need to read one poem in order to grasp another. Some of the poems are autobiographical. He visits his youth here and there, and commingles these with some reports from the limestone rich ground in upstate New York where he resides, but the majority of these poems are what Wunderlich calls “house prayers” after the late 18th Century prayer book models written by German immigrants to central and western Pennsylvania. For anyone keeping score, this was the onset of the Enlightenment Era.

Wunderlich’s house prayers are occasional poems. Some address very specific agricultural fiascoes, some are written as simple conversations with God, and so forth. Each prayer also serves as a prompt for the speaker to reveal himself as he loosens his meditation on us. Since many of them are written in second address, written to “you,” these prayers have the added bonus of making the reader feel like God. When he begs God for rain in his poem “Prayer in a Time of Drought,” Wunderlich is also in some way begging the reader to unlock our own shut doors that keep “the skies from opening / and cooling and sending the quenching, / sweet smelling rain.” His closing words, “Father please,” made me ache.

Wunderlich’s God is not necessarily a Christian one. In true Lutheran fashion the Messiah doesn’t even show up the first time, let alone a second coming. This gives the Lord a very Old Testament feel, which in turn imbues the speaker’s misfortunes, and blessings, with a larger proportion. Still, there is a reason that twenty years ago this book would not have been optioned by Hollywood for a film starring Charlton Heston. As William Carlos Williams said, each poem is a small universe. Wunderlich adheres to this wisdom while tackling a much larger universe. In other hands, the scope of these poems might have swallowed the poet, and even metaphor itself, but Wunderlich’s gifted use of language, his familiarity with older syntax and construction, and his ability to find the precise noun during some very imprecise moods alert us that these poems are shaped by someone skilled in the art of the beautiful and the true.

Americans have always had a restless bone (did somebody just say Manifest Destiny?), and we’ve come to associate a spiritual record as a journal of discovery. That usually means going places in a poem. No thank you, Wunderlich seems to be saying, as if he’s perfectly at peace being engaged in labor-intensive routines on his small piece of ground. Rather than write himself outside of the box, to use poetry as a way to leave what Bruce Springsteen calls “his own small town,” Wunderlich climbs deeper into it, lushly revealing its habits and rituals and horrors.

The way some people put bumper stickers on their cars to show where they’ve been to I imagine Wunderlich has a sticker that says “Mail Box” or “Corn Crib.” Maybe going on the road meant something fifty years ago, but Mailor’s American Dream is not quite the same with 7-Elevens dotting the turnpike like punctuation. Wunderlich prefers to stay at home and let the world—and its loving, vengeful God—come to him: “Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side. The willows bent // their pliable necks, tossed green hair hugely. / The hawk cried by the well.” Thus it’s ironic that The Earth Avails begins with a journeying poem, but the discoveries are all within his own midst, his waking up and his gratifying slumber. “Once I Walked Out” concludes with a desperate yoga that might have added ten years to Frost’s life:

I swung my arms, pulled air into my lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew—

bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.

Wunderlich’s deft handling of images in series takes us from a dust mote to the solar system within just a few paces without the reader feeling hurried. He does this again I “prayer for Sunshine During a Time of Rain” when he writes: “The corn, stunted in the fields / presses green tongues to the sky, / desperate for a lick of sun, the garden bloats / and goes to seed, pebbled with slugs.” In those two brief couplets the reader is handed the cosmos, weather, dirt, rocks, time passing, and even ecological French kissing.

Another poem, “Heaven-Letter” also goes back and forth between God—a great force, a blinding light—and the day to day as represented by particularly mundane tasks on the speaker’s farm:

With your sorghum broom you sweetened my path, pulled
the woolen shawl around me while I slept.

That the lightning struck the willow
and did not fall—for this I am grateful.

Help me to work. When I mow or plant,
when I seal the summer fruits in jars,

slaughter or pluck, slit the rabbit’s throat, butcher the fallow hen,
when I mend my rended garments, stitch the blanket top,

it is for you. When I wash or scrub upon my knees,
it is to see you more clearly.

Poetry about subject matter has been frowned upon by some critics, and rightly so. The feeling among Beats that one had to live a poem before writing it was actually a lot closer to Hemingway—who believed one had to die in order to write about death—than to Mark Strand. The problem with subject matter by itself, writing what one knows for example, is that it becomes too difficult to get at the mystery of something. The world of the poem becomes very two-dimensional and it’s not enough to merely rely on Time to add another dimension. The result is a very horizontal condition which we access by reading how the experience or the concept of the experience made the speaker feel or else made the speaker think of something. Wunderlich’s use of poems as prayers acknowledges his subject matter, but shifts the focus onto a seductive, faithful and spiritual realm with which one never tires for its many surprises. And it’s all about the work, the work of writing: “Urge, with your holy claw, the scratching of my pen.” In “A Servant’s Prayer,” Wunderlich prays: “Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry / of tasks and humiliations // is a shining world that must remain hidden / so it may remain unspoiled.”

It is important that we have enough knowledge to more or less get by, but not so much that we lose contact with subtle harmonies. Like strawberries, those harmonies will turn in an instant and we’ll miss them if we’re too smart. It is precisely because those subtle harmonies are the source of mystery in his writing that Wunderlich has created this uniquely traditional and oddly experimental form of collecting them as house prayers. Consider the closing lines of “Driftless Elegy,” a long sad poem—I kept blinking though its middle parts—describing a return to the depressing Wisconsin territory of his youth:

In an early photograph I have, part of the town
goes up in flames—a premonition from the 1880s.

A group of women, corseted, skirts infested with lace,
watch from behind a buckboard as ash flings itself

into the sky. To the right the blur of a girl
rushes away like a ghost. No face. Hardly a form.

Just a hat and a dress, and the news of a fire,
though no one is alive who knows her name.

A hundred years from now would any of us be writing so sweetly and so sharply about the twin towers? The desolation of the postmodern poet is that even in community he feels isolated and alone, lonely, and afraid of death. This is why the focus has to be outside of ourselves completely, just shy of a light year away, and yet we must bring to bear on that outward focus all of the intimate, boring details, all of our clarities, to that aim. Consolation is only possible through empathy and empathy requires some sort of spiritual focus to transcend contradiction. Wunderlich carries this to extraordinary measure. At times, the speaker and God seem like lovers, and yet the God is also an executioner. In “Prayer for a Journey by Sea” he writes: “The day will come for you to draw / the bright sickle of the moon // across my wooly throat. / Do it with love, without regret.” Wunderlich also addresses empathy dead on in “A Husband’s Prayer” when he concludes: “our hands / barely touching as we sleep.” The empathy, making a connection, is more important than romantic love.

It is remarkable to me that as I read these poems, each one reporting an often very foreign context to me, I found myself saying, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say all this time. And yet, I hadn’t really been trying to say those things. It’s just that Wunderlich has such an indirect, even plain spoken way of “controlling the interview” between the poem and the reader. He lets us pray these poems with him.

The phrase that sticks in most readers minds from O’Connor’s spiritual journal was her comment about God being the only true atheist. That line kind of morphed in my head with advice from novelist Bob Bausch to “write what you know,” and poet April Bernard to “write what you don’t know.” The conflicting wisdom says a lot about the difference between genres. In fiction we create stories. In poetry, we create mysteries. But what if you’re not a poet or a novelist? What if you’re a minister; how would you follow this logic? Writing what you believed, I reckoned, was writing what you didn’t believe.

Maybe Christianity has it wrong. Maybe instead of creating us in his image, God destroyed us in his image. No one is afraid of mortality like a ghost. And if we’re not fully engaged in life, in our own autobiographies and the possibilities that defy them, then we’re all ghosts. “Come Lazarus,” Wunderlich seems to be saying. “Step out from behind that boulder. Grab a plow. Glance at the sky. Let me show you what you’ve been missing.”


 

Book Review: The Complete Kobzar by Taras Shevchenko, trans. Peter Fedynsky

 photo 8f1b59d3-2cb2-4361-9e3d-31e1cf82ddf2_zpscf296ed9.jpg The Complete Kobzar: The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko
Translated by Peter Fedynsky
Glagoslav Publications, 2013
€20.90

 

Reviewed by Mike Walker

Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar is perhaps the greatest—or at least best-known—work of Ukrainian literature from the classic period of romantic, independent, native Ukrainian writing. Yet despite that, it has been—in full, and not as a poem or two selected into some anthology of Slavic literatures—an elusive work to locate in translation. Thus a complete translation appearing in English is a grand event: for the first time, a comprehensive version of all the poems included in the original Kobzar—plus some alternate and additional poems the author published elsewhere in his lifetime and supporting, expository materials—is available. Translator Peter Fedynsky is himself Ukrainian-American and long has worked as a translator and journalist in Russia and Ukraine; Fedynsky knew of the Kobzar and saw the need to have this crucial work of Ukrainian literature translated into English so when he retired from journalism, he took it upon himself to produce a robust, complete, translation. The resulting volume is a staggering work of scholarship and devoted translational acumen that places Shevchenko in the realm of Slavic literary greats where he rightfully deserves to be located. 

Since Shevchenko’s work has not been easy to find in English translation prior to this effort, it is probably necessary or at least prudent to provide some background on Shevchenko himself. Taras Shevchenko is known in Ukraine as both a poet and painter, but insofar as he is known at all in Russia and the West, he’s better-known today as a painter than a writer. This is not just by happenstance: Shevchenko became during his lifetime a highly-opposed writer and was considered a dangerous revolutionary by the Imperial Russian government and, as he was well-known as a painter, there was a strategic effort to promote his visual art and downplay his literary efforts. The Valuyevsky Ukaz and later the even more-severe Ems Ukaz were issued during Shevchenko’s time—two imperial edicts that forbid the use of the Ukrainian language in any form of printed publication and, for all intents and purposes, outside the home even as an oral language. Shevchenko and other writers were obviously affected the worst by this, though the expected reaction in the government’s eyes would have been for them to turn towards writing in Russian, a language most knew fluently and one that Shevchenko certainly knew from time spent living in Saint Petersburg. That was not, of course, what happened: Shevchenko wrote in his native Ukrainian and increasingly turned towards themes drawn from Ukrainian folk-tales and legends, the common argot of the people, and pastoral tropes well-loved throughout rural regions. All this was probably based in a true fondness for his native literature and land, but also was a reaction to the forced, systematic, oppression of his people’s language. Like many other dissident writers before him and since, Shevchenko took an official mandate against the type of work he believed in as a catalyst to produce work that in an even more acute sense challenged the government. His actions resulted in imprisonment and efforts to suppress his published works, but even in his own time also resulted in his earning a folk-hero status in Ukraine and the rest of “Little Russia” (portions of what are now Belarus and Poland). 

Given the current political strife in Ukraine, the treatment of Little Russia under the tsars and later the like-minded approach the USSR took towards Ukraine makes Shevchenko’s writing more apt and timely than ever, but also requires further understanding of the greater sociopolitical context at hand. One of the greatest sources of trouble between Russia and Ukraine has always been the issue of language: some may assume the current situation in the Ukrainian East is due to post-Soviet developments in Russian nationalism but it goes all the way back to Shevchenko’s time and indeed, before that. The tsars undertook a constant if varied effort to regulate and mitigate the cultural importance of Ukrainian language and move the people of Little Russia towards an alignment with Imperial Russia’s mainstream views and the Russian language. Similar approaches were taken in Belarus but without as pronounced an articulation in good part because of the parity of Polish, Belarusian and Russia all in Belarus meant that Belarusian did not on a proto-nationalistic level present so articulate a threat. (However, the Soviet Union continued in the Byelorussian SSR a stronger program of mandatory use of Russian in all official capacities than it did with Russian over Ukrainian in the Ukraine; when Belarus became independent after the fall of the USSR, there was a huge push towards restoring Belarusian as the primary language yet this caused expected problems since at least two generations of citizens knew Russian better than Belarusian. See my article in the ATA Chronicle for a nuanced exploration of this situation: Walker, Michael. 1999. “The Restoration of a Language: Belarusian in Medical Discourse”. The ATA Chronicle, 28:58 Nov./Dec, 1999.)

With language a core issue in the extended arguments of polity and society between Little Russia and “Big Russia”, writers found themselves on the front lines of many battles. Shevchenko’s poems chronicle rural Ukrainian life of his time in a way that is both accurate and reflects the real situation of his people but also all the same draws deeply on folk traditions and well-known popular stories and characters. A “kobzar”, it should be mentioned, is a bard who travels the countryside in Ukraine playing the kobza, a lute-like instrument and singing/telling stories via verse and song. Thus, in the Kobzar, Shevchenko presents the historical kobzar’s vision of a collection of essential narrative in verse to be repeated and shared with his countrymen. The kobzars would become much-persecuted under Stalin until their profession was nearly wiped out and, in a type of irony that could only happen in the USSR, replaced by phony (or at least new and less-than-authentic) kobzars schooled in a state-approved variant of folk history. In Shevchenko’s time, the core problem with the kobzars was they were communicators of an especial form of Ukrainian culture that was absent in Russian culture while the goal of policies towards “Little Russia” was to illustrate a “big brother” (Russia) and “little brother” (Ukraine) relationship where Ukraine sought advice and input on all matters from the more-established Russian society. Perhaps more than any other native tradition, the kobzars reminded Ukrainians of the rich legacy of their language and culture and as to a literary representation of the kobzar, well that of course would be ten times worse.

To approach the Kobzar now as a work of protest literature would be, if not exactly incorrect, a very incomplete view. Shevchenko’s primary goal was to produce a compelling collection of poetry capable of entertaining his countrymen while also retaining a sense of historical folk culture. Ways of rural life and occupations are celebrated, such as in poems entitled “The Sexton’s Daughter” or “Maryanne the Nun;” folk characters, too, in poems like “The Witch” make their appearances aplenty. Some poems, “The Witch,” “The Blind Woman” and especially the longform ones of which  “The Great Vault” is a perfect example are akin to epics, stretching into complex narratives. As the titles above suggest, a good portion of the poems feature women in central roles and while not always progressive in his depictions of women, Shevchenko at least gives them featured roles and notes the vast scope of female presence in everyday life—from a princess to a maid, from witches to widows—an approach more encouraging than we find from many male writers in world literatures of the same period. 

The role of politics in these poems is varied, with one poem “Kings” being a powerful critique of tsars and their power while more minor politicians and petty local leaders also do not escape the poet’s critical gaze. However, though poetry, this was truly romantic poetry of the most literal, pastoral, typology—poetry long before the twentieth century conventions towards using poetry as a metaphorical battlefield for large political issues; it is not satire, it is not a matter of casting characters in different guises to simply fashion a point. The language and narratives here are rich and often complex in depth and scope. Shevchenko’s efforts encompass a very full, robust, take on society as he knew it in Ukraine and it should be noted he knew Russian society, also: Shevchenko lived a long time in Saint Petersburg and had travelled in other parts of Russia. Shevchenko seemingly desired to provide a sense of how Ukrainian life had given rise to an especial form of poetic vision, one that was informed by other romantic and proto-romantic currents but less individually organic than the German or British romantics would provide. Again, the basis in folk literature is key, as is the use of Biblical views and references, a search for a tangible bridge between Heaven and Earth. A sense of earlier times and pastoral nostalgia is clear and the language—especially the dialog—is often overly-wrought, beyond even what one might expect for poetic conventions, yet the feel overall is fresh and engaging. Despite the rural settings and pastoral tropes, the focus is mostly on human interaction and this is accomplished via dialog and strong (if at times wandering) narrative trajectories.

It is, in the context of world literatures, useful nonetheless to realize that Shevchenko was a contemporary of poets such as the Englishman John Clare who wrote pastoral poems of the most sweeping, earthy, agrestic variety one can imagine. Some of that same sense of campestral beauty and wonder does appear in Shevchenko’s work, especially when he is attempting to convey the especial sense of the pride and unity Ukrainians find in their land. Likewise, dialog is often put to use to demonstrate the purpose and import of family and social relationships, such as when a witch queries a gypsy lady of whether she has children or not and upon learning the gypsy is without children wryly illustrates all the points of how children, indeed, are the center of a woman’s world. Whether Shevchenko intended this conversation to come off as satire or not is less than clear, but it reads as if it was written only a year ago: the points of gender roles and how a witch, in the 1830s or thereabouts, might have been one of very few female roles to escape the duties of child-rearing. 

Shevchenko doesn’t limit his settings to Ukraine. Prague, the south of France and, of course, Russia all make appearances now and then. In the poem “The Heretic” we find examples of how Shevchenko has a fairly strong understanding of European polity and Slavic political history. Shevchenko knows that his readership is a literate, educated, yet diverse middle-class—not the nobles of old but a growing part of the population that appreciates literature yet craves the basal aspects of folk-tales, heroes, and settings both exotic and familiar. They were people like himself—not the wealthy, but the intellectual. They yearned for greater understanding of their own cultural past and also of Europe and the history thereof beyond their own immediate territory. Russia’s elite desired literature to be grand, verbose, and most of all, Russian, German, or French and to predicate the very concept of a “literature” on what was marketed as literature’s esteemed and ancient origins in specific cultural traditions. Ukrainian literature, especially folk literature, was by default beyond that scope: Any worthwhile Ukrainian literature would ape the conventions of Russian literature and showcase how Ukrainians could become more like their “big brother” state. That was, in every sense, the trajectory Shevchenko revolted against. And what an advocate he became: His poetry alone would be a powerful plea for his people but his paintings also showcased quite literally how he saw the world, recording Ukrainian life along the same lines of aesthetics as his writing. Numerous drawings and paintings are reproduced in this volume of the Kobzar, adding that visual dynamic of Shevchenko’s creative forces to his literary efforts.

Peter Fedynsky’s translation into English is remarkable in its nuances and its comprehensive, patient, approach to rendering a faithful variant of the original in another language. It is obvious that Fedynsky has invested a great deal of time and effort in producing this translation and it was fully a labor of love all the way. His task was certainly not an easy one: Ukrainian is a very colorful language in any event and the poet at hand made that language even more oral, complex, and yet plain-spoken. It is again the folk cultural influence and also the historical context of the poetry and it doesn’t lend well to translation. Consider translating Wordsworth or Frost into Russian or Ukrainian; consider taking textural material that often tries in great earnest to feel oral and you’re halfway there but still not quite. It is clear that the translator knew what he was up against and he provides footnotes that reveal as much historical context and cultural detail that might otherwise escape the non-Ukrainian reader as possible. Indeed, when “Rejoice, Isaiah” is mentioned in the text, Fedynsky mentions via a footnote that this a hymn by tradition sung at weddings, which is pretty essential to understanding the context. It is a small detail and one many translators or editors might have missed; however, it did not escape the translator here. 

The Ems Ukaz was a crafty, cutting, and very effective measure of political malice and echoes of it resound in the current measures we find in Russian tactics in Eastern Ukraine today. The concept of Russian superiority and cultural elitism—the concept of banning the textural use of another language so the “better” Russian language instead will grow in popular favor—is one we can locate in nearly every culture Russia and/or the Soviet Union touched, from Belarus all the way eastward to Mongolia, where the Soviets did away with the traditional Mongolian script and in a cumbersome, lumbering, manner forced the Mongolian language into Cyrillic for all printed applications. In today’s Ukraine, we still can locate such language wars, but a prime point of historical and sociocultural reference for Ukrainians remains Shevchenko’s classic work. Now, we have that work—in full, not a poem missing and even some additional variants of poems included—in the English language. It is a wonderful, consummate, and notable work of translation and well-deserves international attention. 


 

Book Review: The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff

 photo b8ac9c11-156b-4dab-93e6-3a87ccc3f28d_zps4e4cf5ff.jpg The Heart of June
by Mason Radkoff
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014
$16.95

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff is Pittsburgh, from its industrial laborers to its old money societies. Pittsburghers will enjoy mapping the story through their city, writers will appreciate the painstaking craft, hopeless romantics will cheer for the various couples, and laborers will sympathize with and recognize the main character’s choice of careers and vehicles.

The novel follows Walt, a scholar, carpenter, and handyman who ambles through life without urgency to finish his projects. There is nothing spectacular about him. He is the new Everyman—hard working but lazy, intelligent but unmotivated, and would rather eat at diners and bars instead of fancy restaurants with fellow scholars. His ex-wife, Sam, is as down-to-earth as he is, and her husband, Arthur, is a perfect but ridiculous gentleman. Miss June, an ancient socialite who helped to raise Walt and for whom he works, is strict and manipulative but caring. And Gwen, Walt’s student crush when he taught history, is almost too perfect in her ability to do everything, and happens to be going through a divorce.

These characters are full and complex. However, it seems as if the author wanted to write more about Pittsburgh and needed people to fill it. To do this properly, he created realistic characters and entrenched them in the city and its outskirts. Radkoff takes readers through Fifth Avenue, down Craig Street, up the Allegheny River, and out toward parks like McConnell’s Mill and small towns like Evans City. Local readers can map the characters’ progresses, whereas others will get a unique glance into the faded steel mill industry’s orange skies and the old-fashioned lifestyles surrounded by urban landscapes.

However, despite vast descriptions and references to a beloved city from a working man’s perspective, Pittsburgh ends there. The city itself is represented well, but not its people. Their defining aspect is almost nonexistent: Pittsburghese. Occasionally, Radkoff introduces double negatives in dialogue and colloquialisms such as “slippy,” but not much more. It would be difficult to do Pittsburghese justice without also making it a joke, but Radkoff could’ve tried a little harder linguistically. At the very least, he could have removed conjugations for the verb “to be,” which is a singular Pittsburghese trait. Walt is an educated lazy man who occupies a strange space between his poorly spoken (and thus apparently dumber) hard-working friends and the doctors, teachers, and the rich old biddy with which he spends time. The other friends could have been from anywhere that once had a thriving industrial sprawl. Nothing makes them distinctly Pittsburghers, though Radkoff successfully represents hard working, joking, and hospitable people who look after each other.

Through subtly drawn-out characterization and plot that appears and disappears as the need arises, the book follows a realistic pace. Conflict is stable with realistic reactions, and Radkoff includes moments of insight through hindsight, such as when he mentions Walt’s childhood like an ominous undertow that readers may forget until it randomly pulls them under the steady current of narration. Radkoff essentially telescopes into the lives of a few people in a particular city and presents the story as it would be if it happened in real life. In order to rationalize his writing style, Radkoff occasionally inserts passages that fit scenes but also comment on the book. For example, when Walt and Gwen first spend time together, they have a “moment.” Radkoff writes:

“That’s it?” she said quietly, afraid to break the moment.
Walt nodded in return. “That’s it,” he said softly. They lingered there, together, close.
“What are we doing here?” she whispered after a while.
“Building,” he replied, in a whisper of his own.

Radkoff builds Walt’s character through construction projects that ultimately affect his personality. He builds tension and conflict through minor actions. He builds a world within a well-established setting, and he seems to want readers to recognize that in order to build, things must take time and patience. In case readers didn’t get the hint the first time, Radkoff almost overtly states the novel’s symbolism. He writes:

Walt worried this might be too much activity for the grand dame, but Gwen assured him that they were in no hurry during their excursions, moving at a pace as slow as need be. Through it all, the parlor transformation had begun to take hold. Walt’s progress was undeniable, and to those who didn’t know him, the work would appear to be heading toward completion. And it was all for Miss June, performed against the sound of her ancient ticking clock, a steady but anxious race to fulfill her wish.

In one paragraph, Radkoff clearly summarizes the entire book. Walt is renovating a room for Miss June because she is dying. He works against his own lazy clock and her relentless ancient one in order to fulfill a last wish. It also seems to suggest that if readers continue to be patient and persistent, they will reach the satisfying end along with Walt.
This consistent stream of narration occasionally falters, though. It is difficult to discern the characters’ ages, except for Miss June. And after a pivotal scene, the ending wraps up a little too quickly and readers are denied an eagerly anticipated character’s reaction. And sometimes, Radkoff fails to include details where they’re needed. The narration then becomes quick and sloppy, as if in oversight. For example, when Walt and Gwen go on a date, Radkoff suddenly omits details about which the characters comment. Everything else in the story is fully realized, but he leaves some things for readers’ imaginations when they should have been included. He writes:

“You’re paying for our dinner?” [Walt asked Miss June.]
“For Gwenneth. It’s a reward for her hard work. For you, well, let’s just say I’m hoping that some proper nourishment will help keep you on task. You’re far from finished, you know. I can’t have you keeling over before you’re done, which is a distinct possibility given that you take so many of your meals in establishments of questionable repute.”
“I’m speechless.”
This was an uncharacteristically sweet gesture from his formidable old partner.

“Psst,” Gwen said from the door.
She seemed more beautiful than ever, to have somehow turned up the wick on her glow.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at you.”
“Me? Look at you. The girls are gonna throw rocks at all the other fellas.”
“Well, then,” he said, pleased at the compliment. “Our chariot awaits.”

Radkoff usually explains why characters say certain things, or the history behind a reference. Details are rarely omitted. Yet in the above passage, there are no explanations or descriptions. There is no history behind Miss June “uncharacteristically sweet gesture” to pay. And Gwen and Walt are not described, despite commenting to each other about their appearances. Radkoff may want readers to use their imaginations here, to create their own versions of beauty that would automatically be true, but that decision contradicts his otherwise stable narrative style.

Yet throughout the novel, Radkoff’s decisions concerning character and plot development steadily unfold. His writing allows readers to ease into a comfortable afternoon, say hello to characters that are as real as their neighbors, and, for a time, forget their own concerns. Readers will recognize their own lives in loveable Walt, even down to his insights about procrastination. In this Everyman and his friends, Radkoff represents every one. And maybe, he offers the heart of everyday Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.
______

First-time novelist Mason Radkoff was shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. As a carpenter restoring homes both modest and grand, Radkoff bore witness to the subtle drama residing within the walls that contain our lives, which he then used to create a tale filled with honesty, humor, and love.


Book Review: Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014 by David Mason

 photo 5fa0bad3-dc00-4304-8a22-1ba89fb3e676_zpsa53b96a0.jpg Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014
Poems by David Mason
Red Hen Press, 2014
$18.95


Reviewed by Jason Barry

On a breezy evening in early April, Colorado’s Poet Laureate David Mason gave a reading from his latest collection, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, at Boulder’s Innisfree Bookstore and Café. During a question and answer session after the reading, a member of the audience asked Mason what inspires his writing the most, he responded “So much stands between us and our experience of nature, and one of the reasons I write poems is to discover the texture of the world again.”

Sea Salt is a collection of work devoted to that rediscovery of nature. It’s a lyrical celebration of the earth’s dynamic textures: the crash of an ocean wave on the shore, the calming trickle of an alpine creek at night, that peculiar scent of fescue in the valleys or those gleaming, seductive eyes of a fox beneath the pines. Mason’s poems are earthy, and the best in this collection take the sea or river as their subject matter and setting. Several of the pieces in the volume are written in formal meter—iambic as the preferred metric—and the trapeze repetition is well-suited for Mason’s water motifs and rhythmic investigations. The poems we have in this collection are measured and mature (in both the formal and emotional sense); they are reflective and wise, and they give us a glimpse of a poet who is concerned with the earth and the lessons it has to teach us about living and dying.

In his expansive and beautifully composed sonnet, “Another Thing,” Mason invites us to join him on a trip beneath the sea, to explore the ocean’s dangerous tides and (if we’re lucky) to wash-up, changed but unbroken, upon the sweeping shore.

Like fossil shells embedded in a stone,
you are an absence, rimmed calligraphy,
a mouthing out of silence, a way to see
beyond the bedroom where you lie alone.
So why not be the vast, antipodal cloud
you soloed under, riven by cold gales?
And why not be the song of diving whales,
why not the plosive surf below the road?

The others are one thing. They know they are.
One compass needle. They have found their way
and navigate by perfect cynosure.
Go wreck yourself once more against the day
and wash up like a bottle on the shore,
lucidity and salt in all you say.

What I love about this piece is its call for renewal, and the way it invites us to transform our lives for the better, even if we must act in solitary (‘solo’), unconventional (‘antipodal’) and perhaps even radical ways. In these lines, the author’s voice is both firm and encouraging; it points to—or perhaps reinforces—a course of action that is known to us but might have been forgotten. It’s a call to adventure and bold decision-making, and it invokes the notion that the way toward a flourishing and creative life might require us to wade neck-deep into swift currents, to risk what we are now for what we might become. This poem serves as a reminder (an antipodal compass) to stick to the difficult path if it’s authentic, to not become complacent in living a muted or dull life shaped by the influence of others who cannot see the changing clouds above them.

In his longer poem “Let it Go,” Mason’s lyrical subject is the Earth, and he address it as though he were speaking to a friend or a close (though sometimes difficult) acquaintance. Here is an excerpt toward the end of the piece:

I’m shedding what I own, or trying to,
walking down the path of blooming dryad
and the pitch of pines, until I hear the stream
below me in the canyon, below the road,
below the traffic of ambition and denial,
the unclear water running to the sea,
the stream, dear Earth, between my love and me.

Like “Another Thing,” this poem calls to mind the ideas of navigation, paths, and water both upon and beneath the earth’s surface. Note the lines about the stream below the canyon and the road, its “unclear” and murky qualities. You’ll notice here the imagery that parallels two lines from the preceding poem: “And why not be the song of diving whales, / why not the plosive surf below the road?” Both poems are concerned not only with moving surface water, but also with the depths: the streams and plosive surf suggest the change and transformation that is inherent to all things liquid, while the diving whales lead us to think about psychological, subterranean currents that move the author’s life—along with his lover’s—and keep them grounded to and connected with the earth. There is also a sense here that water shapes and carves, that it leaves canyons and markings on everything it touches.

And in the poem, “River Days,” we are reminded again of the water’s powerful impression:

You stared into the canyoned years,
millions of them, where the water-saw
lowered the river bed so far
that we could only gape, our minds leaping.
We must mean what we say,

the way the gorge reveals its earliest foldings,
the way it waits for us to learn the ground
we walk upon, cousin to the cold and
distant planets, the way it watches us
by being seen and partly understood.

The gorge reveals its many layers to us, shows itself in a lucid and exposed way, unveils the earth’s composite nature even though we don’t fully understand it and, indeed, have not been there to witness its many transformations. In the same way that the lines on the face of an elderly person reveal a history of experience, of difficulty and overcoming, of living, so too does the canyon reveal the struggles of the earth with water, with changes of the seasons and the impact of floods and drought. If we allow the fluidity of water into our lives, Mason has us thinking, then we should be prepared to have its history engrained into our nature as well.

David Mason is a writer who’s preoccupied with water and the lessons it provides to a thoughtful, reflective person. Although there are poems in Sea Salt that take on a different subject matter at the surface, such as the changing relationship between the author and his father, or the lives of the author’s friends, we sense that these poems too are concerned with transformation and aging, with loving and loss, and thus they are fluid and also about water. Sea Salt is a heartfelt and touching collection of exquisitely crafted poems, and Mason succeeds admirably in putting the reader in touch with the textures of the earth and its animals, its elements and raw power, and for this he should be applauded.
______

David Mason is the Poet Laureate of Colorado. His books of poems include The Buried Houses (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), The Country I Remember (winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award), and Arrivals. His verse-novel, Ludlow, won the Colorado Book Award in 2007, and was named Best Poetry Book of the year by the Contemporary Poetry Review and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. It was also featured on the PBS NewsHour. Mason is the author of an essay collection, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, and a memoir, News from the Village, which appeared in 2010. A new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, followed in 2011. He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto. A former Fulbright fellow to Greece, he lives near the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and teaches at Colorado College.


 

Book Review: The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

 photo 31a43176-0499-4db7-9147-29ab68b8308e_zpsce473e38.jpg The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
Poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing,” said Gertrude Stein. Alicia Suskin Ostriker borrows those words for the epigraph of her newest poetry collection The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. They are, in fact, the perfect words to frame a collection that creates for readers an unlikely chorus of three voices searching for identity and examining the world around them. Taken together, these three characters weave a multicolored tapestry of memory, philosophy, and desire to remind us that our perceptions of life are what define our experience.

While reading Ostriker’s poems, the multiplicity of voices and the use of flower as persona struck me as vaguely familiar. About halfway through the book, I realized it is somewhat in conversation with Louise Glück’s collection from 1991, The Wild Iris. In that book, Glück inhabits voices that are natural (in the form of wildflowers), human, and divine to explore the concepts of faith and mortality. While the two collections share some structural similarities, it’s clear that Ostriker’s project is embarking on a new journey. For one, her diction isn’t as formal or somber as Glück’s. As Tony Hoagland writes of the voice in her poems, “Ostriker has devised a style that is offhand-seeming, a voice that is effortlessly concise.” It’s this voice that allows readers to easily engage with Ostriker’s poems and inhabit the minds of her three distinct characters.

Another good word for this voice might be “unassuming.” Ostriker’s characters, even in their starkest pronouncements, never take on the arrogance of certainty. They simply present readers with their perspective on life. All the while, though, their voices retain great power. The best example of this comes in “The Outsiders,” a poem in which each character reflects on her marginalized status:

Actually I am at the epicenter
of your subconscious
I am the witch
the mother
the excreted
the marginal one said the old woman
I’m the damned dark of the moon

Have you noticed
poets don’t write poetry
about flowers
these days
so what said the tulip
lightly tossing her blossom
the bees dig us

The characters own their history here—even the Dog stands among a pack, all of the canines “remembering when we were wolves… every single one of us/ unleashed.” Ostriker uses the Old Woman to recall, like Sexton and Plath before her, various mythologies of women throughout history—the witch, the Madonna, the whore. The Tulip takes a stab at the poetic canon, and the Dog at human civilization. It is out of this tension between one’s unstoppable power and the limits imposed by society that these voices are born.

“The Outsiders” might very well speak directly to the ideas that Ostriker only nods at throughout the rest of the collection. Structurally, we’re always aware that no one voice is more important than the others. Each poem is broken into three stanzas—one for each character—and each stanza is comprised of the same number of lines. The lack of punctuation allows each voice to flow smoothly into the next, exposing to readers a constant stream of thought as well as multi-layered language. Sometimes a poem passes by in a moment, sometimes the stanzas stretch across pages, but in each case the trio is given an equal opportunity to explore various subjects and impart their wisdom. These poems don’t shy away from heavy subject matter—God, family, death, and politics are all considered, among other topics. By each poem’s end, the reader finds herself unconsciously absorbing the words each speaker orates. This, Ostriker seems to say, is how identity and ideas are created. We all are an accumulation of the stories we hear and the lessons we’re taught.

That accumulation is what allows for the many-ness in Stein’s epigraph. Or, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Throughout the book, the Old Woman is described as impure, proletarian, literary, a mother, a drunk, and naked. The Tulip is red, purple, dark, throaty, Biblical, and naturally selected. The Dog is philosophical, frightened, nostalgic, a mongrel, vain, and imbued with divinity. As each poem begins, the reader is unaware what new facets of identity will be held, sparkling, against the light. But by the end, each new layer makes perfect sense. “Yes,” we think as we read, “I, too, contain multitudes.”

So it’s true that this is not a book of poetry suited to a reader asking for answers. But, then again, what good book of poetry is? Ostriker is content to dive into a messy excavation of life, comfortable to question even her own conclusions. Take, for example, these lines from “Many Lives:”

Many lives said the old woman
the grains of sand add up
I have been a housefly and a queen

Do you even know what love is
said the dog and are you sure
the grains of sand add up

We open with a claim and end with a question that surely exists in the reader’s mind—Do those grains of sand add up? These voices aren’t here to grant us a final answer. Due to the book’s unpunctuated style, we get that line “the grains of sand add up” twice without embellishment. No period, no question mark. How will we choose to read it? The question at the end is nearly unavoidable, but the reader might elect to make it a declarative statement. Or she might side with the Dog, deciding to leave the whole discussion open-ended. Inevitably, the reader’s interaction with the poem is as necessary an ingredient to meaning as the words on the page. She is as much a free agent as each of the three characters.

This existential freedom, I’d argue, is what Ostriker celebrates. Our ability to simultaneously inhabit our many selves, to pursue the immediate desire. It’s on that note that the collection ends, though without a strong sense of finality. The quest for understanding will extend, for characters and reader alike, beyond these pages. Even so, Ostriker gives the Dog a final say in “Summertime,” an exultation of revelry:

Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls

______

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of America’s premier poets and critics. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979–2011; The Book of Seventy; The Mother/Child Papers; No Heaven; the volcano sequence; and The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998, as well as several books on the Bible. She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Ostriker is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.


 

 

Book Review: Bloom in Reverse by Teresa Leo

 photo 7766eaff-4e13-4cef-9af6-27e93f71bc2e_zps099c2122.jpg Bloom in Reverse
Poems by Teresa Leo
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical musings stands as such: it is not how we bring ourselves to understand the world, but how the world comes to be understood by us. In the aftermath of a friend’s suicide, Teresa Leo’s speaker mourns, while attempting, out of forced necessity, to find life within death. The poems move like children led by an unknown hand through a dark hallway—trusting, yet questioning. In Bloom in Reverse, Leo reveals that healing comes from the world pulling forward, matched with our ability to follow, to receive a hand, regardless of our understanding.

Broken into four sections, Bloom in Reverse begins at an end. While Leo chronicles the death of a friend’s suicide, she simultaneously chronicles the life of her speaker, recovering from this suicide. In the first section, titled “No,” the speaker grapples with the full-body consumption of loss. Each poem tunnels a hole, the small ring of light fading, in order to get closer to what’s gone. Through this cave-in, we learn of both the friend and speaker’s “troubled room,” synonymous, it seems, for ‘troubled lives.’ The friend’s room is described as

collapsed,
taking with them the floor, the staircase,
and finally the house; every last thing
that she wanted to say was gone

Yet, the speaker, too, collapses. She internalizes her friend’s death, for “The troubled room is now my head…” The final poem in the section, “After Twelve Months, Someone Tells Me It’s Time To Join The Living,” moves towards recovery. The pace of the poem quickens, Leo’s doesn’t use a period until the fourteenth stanza. It’s as if the sheer thought of moving on causes anxiety. After the period comes a shift in pace, the rush leveling. The poem ends on a realization, one that speaks towards the entire section:

because maybe it’s exactly the thing

we can’t release that keeps us
on this side, among the living.

Leo treats nature as a separate entity, a character within the collection. The speaker calls upon the natural world in an attempt to understand death. In “I Have Drinks With My Dead Friend’s Ex-Boyfriend,” both search for their lost friend in natural images:

a bird that veers off, breaks formation

from the flock, a branch heavy with ice
that can no longer hold

and snaps from the tree…

When these signs fail to ebb their missing, they find comfort in “what can be conjured between us.” Healing comes from intimate interactions, instead of searching for symbols. This concept is echoed in one of the strongest poems:“Your Rose Bush,” which comes from the second section, “Wolves in Shells.” The speaker kills her friend’s roses, for “these particular roses always bloomed/and died the same day…”. Instead of finding her friend re-incarnated within nature, the speaker finds her own grief:

and so your rose bush is not—
not here to invoke or provoke,

not here to dismember the mind,
no false hope, a bloom in reverse,

just another way to say
I disremember you.

Here is the Kantian moment; the speaker finally rejects nature as a symbol. The realization: “I disremember you.” The heavy reliance on nature limits the speaker’s ability to heal, for she is filled with “false hope.” The end of the rose bushes symbolizes the end of denial. Now, the speaker is able to face the terrible concreteness of death. Leo’s title, Bloom in Reverse, references this acceptance. From here on out, the speaker chronicles her own “bloom in reverse.” Through the thorns, a second life begins.

The final two sections, “Hidden Wings” and “Passenger” depict the speaker’s metaphorical journey back from the dead. The speaker reaches her most content, healed moment by the final piece, “Advice For A Dying Fern.” The poem describes the treatment of a dying fern plant,
“ripped from pots,/ stuffed in garbage bags,/left to decompose/in corners of the house…” An “advice poem,” Leo urges,

…but check—

under the dying leaves,
among dirt and bound-up roots,

there still may be fiddleheads…

Here, the couplets represent the two lives: the speaker and her lost friend. Further, Leo reaches out, asks her readers to be made aware of those struggling with depression and self-harm, to remember, even still, “the living ready to burst/through the dead.”
______

Teresa Leo is the author of the poetry collection The Halo Rule, which won the Elixir Press Editors’ Prize. She is the recipient of a Pew fellowship, a Leeway Foundation grant, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowships, and the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She serves on the board of Musehouse, a center for the literary arts in Philadelphia, and works at the University of Pennsylvania.


 

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

 photo 7f980b7a-e276-4c33-8874-612ba6d3a1c0_zpse21c3dc3.jpg The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by Andrew Sean Greer
HarperCollins, 2013
Hardback: $26.99

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Many people have thought: What would my life be like if I were born in a different era? Andrew Sean Greer answers that question and takes it a step further in his recent novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. The piece itself is an exploration of possibility, covering not only the side effects of electroshock therapy, but also the repositioning of the main character’s entire life throughout time. It asks existential questions about a person’s place in life, the concepts of security and happiness, and presents an opportunity for readers to answer for themselves.

Greta Wells is a middle-aged woman from New York City in 1985 who experiences hardships in her life from which she wanted to flee or fix. Her brother, Felix, dies of AIDS and her longtime boyfriend, Nathan, leaves her for another woman. But she is also a woman from New York in 1918 and 1941. In those eras, her husband is off at war and she takes a younger lover, and her eccentric and beloved aunt dies in a car accident that causes Greta to suffer a broken arm. Because of her depression from these events, she tries electroshock therapy as a last resort, which results in travels through time and space.

The novel begins with a reminder about how magic works. Not the stage show kind that’s flashy and fake, but the quiet kind that slips through the cracks of everyday life. Greer writes:

“Who would ever guess? Behind the gates, the doors, the ivy. Where only a child would look. As you know: That is how magic works. It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing. It makes a thimblerig of time. And this is exactly how, one Thursday morning, I woke up in another world.”

Greer’s novel doesn’t just take Greta and plop her in a different time. Everyone in her immediate life also exists, and she must relearn who they are and who they remain. The historical thread is the same in each world, though, and she follows events to the best of her memory. However, once she figures out how she’s traveling, most references to psychological breaks, sadness, or her procedure disappear. The whole reason for the novel disappears, and only its causes remain—causes that must be fixed. Her brother is in denial about his gay lifestyle in both earlier eras, she cannot reconcile her lover while she’s married in 1918, and her husband is cheating on her in 1941 before he must be deployed in WWII. Eventually, Greta desires treatments only to travel, rather than fixing her depression.

The problem with Greer’s novel is its incomplete exploration of Greta’s eras. Usually in stories about time travel, characters are warned not to change anything because it could massively affect the entire world and its future. But in Greer’s novel, there are no butterfly effects; her actions and the presence of her immediate family and friends do not change the overall outcome of historical events. Her personal world is small enough in the grand scheme of things to go unnoticed; which is normal for everyday people who are not important enough to change the world—only immediately surrounding lives. Thus, the book suggests that the only significance in someone’s life is the people included in it, and world events are only tools for setting.

But setting is still important. Setting is what drives the problems for Greta, her brother, and her husband. Setting is what introduces conflict that the characters must react to, and setting is what they all go into in the end. New York is a demanding and lively city that bother caters to “deviant” activity and condemns it. Greta finds herself exploring streets she once knew well, and finding treasures in each era that no one else realizes is there, like a key in an archway. Her apartment exists in each era as a focal point, and everything else radiates from there. Nathan is abroad in WWI as a medical officer and, upon his return, Greta doesn’t want to be married to him anymore; Felix experiences prejudice and incarceration because of his and Greta’s German descent; Felix is jailed because he’s caught at a homosexual sex party at a time when homosexuality was taboo, and Felix cannot reconcile his orientation with having a fiancé in 1918 and a wife and child in 1941. These troubles both occur in her home and return to it for sanctuary. Yet Greta cannot find any for herself. For example, in 1918, she struggles to find her place in life, as well as her 1918 self’s place. Greer writes:

“And what do I mean by free? … A shrew, a wife, or a whore. Those seemed to be my choices. I ask any man reading this, how could you decide whether to be a villain, a worker, a plaything? A man would refuse to choose; a man would have that right. But I had only three worlds to choose from, and which of them was happiness? … So tell me, gentlemen, tell me the time and place where it is easy to be a woman?”

This introduces a gap in storytelling. Greta is strong and independent, despite her current slump. She uses that independence to “fix” her other lives, without remembering the context of setting. In 1918, the women’s suffrage movement has yet to culminate. She doesn’t register this cultural importance, and there should have been consequences to her actions throughout the novel, conflicts that should have reminded her about a woman’s place back then. Readers only witness an example of this when 1918 Nathan, her husband, returns from the war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though that is hidden beneath vague references of previous abuse. Her eventual punishment is indicative of PTSD mixed with abuse, but she never realizes where Nathan’s actions originate. Her mind is so fixated on traveling and “correcting” each life that she doesn’t consider why things are the way they are, only that they are “wrong.”

But this book isn’t just about women. Here Greer bypasses the storytelling gap and introduces a tangent path. He turns around Greta’s questions about security and self-assertion and applies them to more than just women. Felix, Greta’s gay twin brother, suffers similar moments of doubt. “When is it all going to be all right? For someone like me?” he asks. This question aligns him, and thus gay men, with Greta’s feminine plight of choices and placement. In the main character’s time of 1985, during the AIDS epidemic, the world isn’t yet “all right.” Although Greer reveals a generational relationship progression—what is deemed acceptable—between 1918, 1941, and 1985, he also makes readers think: What about our time? In 2014, people have greater rates of acceptance, but still haven’t reached a time “when it is going to be all right.”

This may be the novel’s main point: What is considered to be “all right”? Is a story with gaps still “all right,” though it suggests the need for more maturation before publication? If people could change situations by time traveling, would they be better off? And while Greer waxes poetic about love, death, and goodbyes, he also points readers’ gazes toward the future. In another thirty years, will it finally be “all right” for people to choose love, happiness, and placement without judgment? Greer doesn’t answer that question. But perhaps that’s all right.
______

Andrew Sean Greer is the author of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He studied writing as Brown University before moving to Missoula, Montana, to receive a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana. He later wrote for Nintendo, taught at a community college, published in literary magazines, and then published a collection of stories before releasing his novels. He has taught at universities, has won a number of awards. He lives in San Francisco with his husband in a house adjoining that of his twin brother.


 

Book Review: Starlight Taxi by Roy Bentley

 photo 01454a03-d9f2-4180-a748-542dd1e34316_zps2440d756.jpg Starlight Taxi
Poems by Roy Bentley
Lynx House Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Jason Barry

“The hardest part is when someone tells you
about America and defines promise as hope,
and a love for the truth pushes you to give
the raised middle finger to what you hear.
The hardest part is living without hope.”

- Roy Bentley, from the poem “Converters”

It’s easy to see why Bentley’s work has gained such traction in contemporary poetry outlets: his poems are technically proficient but never pedantic; they are hard-hitting and serious, subtle and philosophical. As William Heyen has written in the jacket blurb, “I know of no other poet this percussive, this relentless, this unswerving . . . His [Bentley’s] dedication to even debilitating truth will not allow him to flinch.”

Like the recent work of Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine, Roy Bentley’s Starlight Taxi moves the reader—by way of skilled metaphor and storytelling—to the grittier, more difficult aspects of American living: a career that didn’t work out as planned, the charcoal-filled lungs of coal miners, the seared fingertips of steel workers, various dropping offs and burning outs, alcoholism, and child abuse. Each of these themes and subjects in Bentley’s latest book could warrant pages of critical discussion, but I’d like to focus here on only three of them—the ones I take to be most pivotal to the core of his book, and indeed most central to getting at the heart of the author’s poetic story: memory, violence, and acceptance.

Memory is perhaps the most important recurrent theme in Starlight Taxi, and several of the poems are grounded explicitly in it. These are reflections of an earlier time: Dayton Ohio in 1960, for example, or Christmas in the late fifties. They tell of the author’s life in the Midwest (and in Florida and Appalachia) and they are concerned primarily with history, both personal and public, and how narrative shapes the course of what’s remembered and what’s forgotten.

In “Zombie Apocalypse,” Bentley describes a scene in a nursing home. His mother and her friend, Dorothy, are residents of the home. When Bentley gives his mother a box of chocolates during a visit, the following exchange occurs:

I hand her a box she opens with help. Chocolates.

When she finishes, she closes the box, hands it back.
asks, Why are you here, Billy? I’m not Billy. A nurse
says she’s been striking attendants. Kicking, hitting
other residents. Around every exhausted official word
a wheel of better times spins, though it’s slowing down.
I say, I’m sorry to hear that and take my mother’s arm.
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—

but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Dorothy is beside us, telling my mother the world
is ending. For them, it is. And the three of us walk.
Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother
changes the subject. There is always that to do.

This poem is illuminating in its treatment of not only memory, but also violence and acceptance, the subjects we’ll turn to shortly. Let’s start with a focus on memory. Memory in “Zombie Apocalypse” is mostly a private matter—i.e. the inner workings of the author’s subjective mind (as opposed to group memory or public historical narrative), and yet the last lines of the poem hint at a question that extends above and beyond that of the individual.

When Bentley writes, “Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother / changes the subject. There is always that to do” he invites the reader to consider the connection between the questions we ask, the conversations we have, and the states of affairs in the world. How many events––wars, famines, the loss of family and loved ones—seem to disappear because we change the subject? How many arguments and heated discussions are ended with a plea to “drop it,” as if doing so would itself alleviate or solve the problem(s) at hand?

Bentley is not a poet who changes the subject from the pressing and difficult questions, and he tends to follow the thread of his poetic inquiry wherever it may go—even if it’s heading into dangerous or difficult terrain. Note the lines about the prospect of killing his mother:

And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—

but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.

Bentley does not offer us an inflated image of his mother, nor does he tell us why life is still beautiful when one is old, etc. He decides against the killing (presumably by way of stabbing) of his mother not for the sake of her life, but for his own wellbeing; it’s the thought of her fear in his memory that persuades him to reconsider. It would be awful to clean up all that blood and to think of Mother’s Day and roses for the rest of one’s life, wouldn’t it?

There is also a sense of acceptance here, an understanding that life isn’t always beautiful. Dementia and death are all around us. When faced with difficult questions and circumstances, we have four options: we can look away from or change the subject, we can argue or complain about things, we can accept reality as it is (or at least how we perceive it to be), or we can slip into the oblivion of apathy and stop acting/asking altogether.

For me, this poem not only accepts the horror of aging and forgetting, but it also dares to bring the subject up in a violent way— in a knife and blood sort of way. It’s a bold poem, and one that doesn’t shy away from the awful qualities of life or the motivations to end it should things get dirty.

But Bentley does not always reveal his hand so quickly or expresses violence with such explicit, “movie-butchery” type imagery. In perhaps my favorite of the batch in Starlight Taxi, the poem “My Father Dressing Me as Zorro,” Bentley addresses our themes of memory, violence, and acceptance:

Outside the store with the circling Lionel train,
he ties cape strings, loops twin black ends,
making a bow at the front of my throat.
Now he relaxes back, into the bucket seat
of his ‘63 T-Bird. Says he’s gotten remarried.
He tells me it was sudden, no guests. Says
he’s sorry, too, he wasn’t around on my birthday.
He fingers a shirt pocket for a pack of L & Ms.

Now I’ve lowered a mask over my face.
The eye-slits don’t fit, and I can’t see.
I scent the smoke of his cigarette. I tell him
they turned off the electricity, the gas and phone,
that neighbors fed us after he left. I’m feeling
in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave
between us. He tells me to stop horsing around:
this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.

This sophisticated poem about pain and protection has more nuance to it than we might think on first glance. First, the imagery of protection. Note the store with the “circling Lionel train,” the bucket seat that surrounds the father’s body (we feel relaxed when we’re safe, when we’re protected) inside of the car—itself a type of shelter from the world outside. Notice the mask and the hiding behind it, and the presumed notion of feeling safe and indestructible when wearing it. Observe, too, the cigarette smoke and the shield that it provides for the boy (he doesn’t address his father until the mask is on and the smoke is rising).

Violence is also at hand; the bow being tied at the front of the child’s throat calls to mind the image of a noose and the procedure of being hanged. There is the violence of living in a home where the basic necessities have not been met or provided for. And in the last few lines, the poem suggests an implicit or past violence: “I’m feeling / in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave / between us. He tells me to stop horsing around: / this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.”

Surely there has been a previous instance of someone getting hurt, and we wonder how many times the father has told his son to stop horsing around. We have a sense in these lines that violence is just around the corner, is just outside of the old T-Bird. The hard discussions between father and son need protection to get off the ground, and this protection (as mentioned above) is found in the Zorro mask, the car, the smoke, and the seats. The mask, of course, is the key physical and psychological barrier between the father and son. Note that the young Bentley cannot see from behind it, and presumably his father cannot see him either, or at least not see his eyes.

This fleeting exchange is the closest to vulnerability that these two get, and when the son reaches toward the rapier (a toy, no less!) we sense the barrier between the two— and their precarious emotional balance—is threatened. Although one might accuse the author of hiding behind his Zorro mask and thus avoiding danger, it’s clear that the poem does what it needs to do: it reveals a seesawed history of violence and abuse (of power and protection) though we must read carefully to discover it.

Yet some readers might feel that Bentley leaves them hanging; that things still need resolving, unpacking. But we are not offered an exit into the rosy or sentimental in this poem, nor are we given a quick resolution to a lifetime’s worth of problems. True, we will never be able to take the mask off the boy or glimpse his saber in its shiny, deadly glow, nor will we know the full conversation between father and son. But we know the score well enough, and the skilled withholding and covering-up in this piece is just what makes it successful.

Starlight Taxi is for those who want to journey with an unsettling companion on sketchy roads; for those who don’t mind a pinch of salt in their wounds, or the possibility of shaking their modus operandi with violence. Read Bentley if you can handle the songs of an experienced bluesman—a traveler of dark alleyways, a frequenter of factories and barrooms—and read him if you have guts enough to accept the facts on the ground, even if they’re ugly.
______

Starlight Taxi is Roy Bentley’s fourth book of poems, released in 2013 by Lynx House Press (a non-profit and independent publisher based in Spokane, Washington) and is the winner of the 2012 Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Bentley, an Ohio based writer and poet, has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Council. His poems have appeared in prestigious literary magazines and journals, including the Southern Review, North America Review, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and many others.
______

Book Review: Talisman by Lisa C. Krueger

 photo talisman_zps46906e70.jpg
Talisman
Poems by Lisa C. Krueger
Red Hen Press, 2014
$17.95



Reviewed by Barrett Warner

A few summers ago, the Saratoga Racing Tip Sheet on Lisa Krueger noted: “Goes a few places. Moves away from the obvious. Sometimes needs to look back over her shoulder to make sure the reader is following.” Big bettors may wish to read Krueger’s newest volume, Talisman, and put this Golden State poet into their combinations. The new Krueger is sleeker, has a convertible soul and gets plenty of air into lungs. In Talisman, she writes to heal all of us, especially her grieving, implicated, rapturous self. Here, the flower child reminds us that landscape, and ocean, and sky—all of these elements occur in some wonderful dream when experience is sleeping.

Krueger’s poems are what happens when experience is suddenly woken by life. Although her Beat cousins liked to start with a car and a highway, Krueger begins with a crash in “What She Felt:”

In L.A. my sister’s car wrapped like foil
around a pole as the sun sank,

offering illusions of a softened world,
the other car careening, reversing,

screeching off into the almost dark.

That’s plenty of clarity, except for one huge detail—Krueger doesn’t have a sister. I mean, of course she does, but try to forget that right now. Krueger is writing about herself as her sister, having a secret self through her, a wilder one, a nearly dead one, a patched up self: “They lay her on pavement, / forced rods into her skull. / They called what they did a halo.”

Don’t many of us have a secret sharing soul like this one? A sister, or a brother—one who leaps from windows dressed like Superman? These secret selves become our heroic angels. Krueger’s poem nicely ends without ending: “What she felt, they said, / wasn’t what we felt. // My sister surfed every sunset. / Her hair was wet.”

Krueger keeps the reader close to her by making good use of internal logic and related images. The sun sank, wrapped like foil, surfing, metal clasping flesh, Jaws of Life, breathing machine…the logic keeps us focused without giving us tunnel vision while the poem’s energy goes upward, outward. It’s a call for each of us to wax our boards, jog into the tumult, make our hair wet, go where she’s going, risk our lives, risk our secrets.

In “Girl, I’ll House You” Krueger writes: “says my sister, / my only sister, my / best kept secret, // disabled sect of self.” The sisters—psychic twins—one a poet and one a muse, do all sorts of things: visit each other in asylums, bicker, go to Labyrinth parties where “we walk woodchip paths / that spiral in nautilus design…the universe listens to people / who wander in circles / then offers a response.”

Krueger’s “Pre-measured” differs from the other sister poems where the tension is between active and passive sides. Here, the two are just being together in the kitchen. The effects of an accident linger in one, but this visit is more about baking a pie. The crash survivor has lost her sense of nuance and the only world for her is a literal one. The speaker, however, seems to exist in a realm that is nuanced to the point of abstraction. Conflict produces an inevitable Lady Macbeth moment. The nurturing sister tells the victim sister that creation requires cleanliness, and the soap “turns around and / round in her hands:”

How pure is this? she says,
holding her hands above her head.

Sometimes the secret sister is an herbivore. In “Prodigal,” a deer who eats flowers and who mangles fences suggests the image of metal mangling limbs in “What She Felt.” The deer, like the wounded surfer, is also a swimmer, and begins to swim in the backyard pool:

I no longer feared she would drown.
I began to talk, not knowing if she heard.
Once I called her Mother.

She swam to me, animal face dispassionate,
fierce, a glint of silvery down
echoing the flash of my heart.

You are old I said to her.
I listened to the patterns of her breath,
the animal vowels, the voice.

Thank goodness Krueger loves a stanza break. The patterns of her breath, her vowels, and her voice make me think of Pilates, all that exhaling, and all that taking in of everything…it’s nice to have genuine pauses that a break offers just to wipe our foreheads. I could have used a couple in “Guest Farm Pardon,” a poem about caressing that urgently trucks eighteen lines. The caressing—tender, almost sexual—is between the speaker and a sleeping wild boar. The boar “assumes the possibilities of night” and has a “vigilant carnal scent.” Again, Krueger connects personal peril to evolving her spirit, but the connection isn’t rattlesnake Pentecostal, it’s more a process of connecting our frailty to the sweetly impossible. The poet also puts the ending of this poem in its middle as if to say, there’s no such thing as an ending when you’re rubbing a beast with tusks. Her lines “Most nights she yearns for sleep / but feels afraid, as though / she must fix her life” would ordinarily conclude a poem like this but Krueger goes on until she achieves an unguarded, feral complexity.

In section II of Talisman Krueger migrates from the duality themes of the first section to poems where we trust in the one-ness. Because of that trust, Krueger is now able to offer non sequitor images which might have given us trouble if she hadn’t already used the order of her poems to coach us how to read her. Unexpected pairings emerge, such as the lines “She notices the odor of ripeness from bananas / wondering why some people need to be kind” and “My daughter got ill the year / they tore out eucalyptus // along the 101.” There is a seamless ecological synthesis at work in poems such as “The Old Story Follows Us” (“I want to run my hand / across the ridge”) and “Opening to Light” where a husband’s birthday becomes claustrophobic; he feels trapped by time in the space of his marriage:

He wanted to open everything,
he wanted to rip off the roof.
Wildness would offer shelter.
That would be Heaven.

In order to deal with emotional trauma we must strengthen our spirit. In order to strengthen our spirit we must put ourselves in some sort of physical peril or risk. It helps to have a few magic powers to aid us. The marvel of Krueger’s poetry is how she shows us how to be one of Rilke’s mysterious heroic angels as if it were the only way to cope with human emotional catastrophes such as grief, abuse, or even love. It’s a wise and sustaining message, but Krueger’s elastic gift to us is her abstract confessional lyric. Personal experience is a metaphor first and foremost. Krueger lives her images just enough to help draw us to the essence. It’s the first step towards transcendence from lives of generally slight impressions to lives of vision.
______

Book Review: Imperial by George Bilgere

 photo bilgereimperial_zpsde794649.jpg
Imperial
Poems by George Bilgere
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95



Reviewed by Alison Taverna

The world George Bilgere represents in his sixth collection, Imperial, tight-ropes the simple with the complex. Bilgere’s voice—casual, matter-of-fact, and vaguely amused—edges at the last second with anxiety and denial. His poems, an empire of “Yard Sale,” “Fly Balls,” “Prostate Exam,” simultaneously mix with the metaphysics and mythology of what Bilgere attributes to the “beautiful ordinariness.” Among these pages occurs a combustion of universes. The stars collide on the heels of our feet, galaxy light-years rush us slowly through the decades, away from the youth of yo-yo’s and the Cold War, into the final battle with old age. This proves fitting, for even among the grandiose “It would be normal life, / which threatens at all times to overwhelm us.”

The convergence of universes is found most prominently in “Scorcher.” The setting: an after-dinner walk during summer twilight. The heat of day folds into the damp cloth of night, the birds asleep, the lightning bugs aglow. The poem’s action is close to motionless, the neighbors “mystical and obscure,” and the walkers awed by the brilliant strangeness of humanity amidst the vastness. Bilgere narrates the scene with a slow affection, ends the poem on a bird’s-eye view:

“for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.”

Here, Bilgere shows that the world of our planet is only an arm on a child galaxy. Throughout the collection, Bilgere constantly reminds us of our place, and while his tone never veers towards anger, there appears an air of pointedness, as if Bilgere himself has uttered with his pencil tip, we need perspective.

This happens in “Mexican Town.” The poem is quick in comparison, especially against the pace of “Scorcher.” No time to appreciate, to dive into the culture, and here craft matches intent: to reveal America’s under- appreciation of an extrinsic, natural world, free from the technology that consumes our current age. The final stanza sums it up, the brevity obvious,

“The boys go down to the beach
and play futbol in the sand.
At sunset they race each other
into the surf. It’s sad.”

Perhaps due to the sadness that comes with the loss of connectedness in our modern world, Bilgere’s speaker is reluctant to move forward. In “Jane,” the speaker witnesses the old woman across the street pack in preparation for “a home of some sort. A facility.” While the speaker talks with Jane, the only real information provided in regards to her is the fact that she is old and must move to accommodate such aging. The word facility repeats five times within six stanzas. A white-knuckle denial lives inside the speaker,

“…I have no intention of doing so.
What Jane is doing—growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility…”

Instead, Bilgere circles the past around his tongue, writes about youth in the 1950’s with Stan Musial and Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo’s, the horrors of war and the atom bomb through the lens of new toy technology. This way the past, barely, looks better than the future.

In “Traverse City,” the speaker reflects on the days spent with family by the lake, “The tiny cottages on the shore are still there.” The appearance of the lake and beach, and even the children playing on the shore is cyclical. This physical preservation of the past fogs the speaker’s ability to solidify the procession of time. In one of the more moving stanzas in Bilgere’s collection he demonstrates the bewilderment of time passing, of growing old:

“My sisters are middle-aged women,
children and divorces behind them.
I am older than my father ever was.
Yet there are the cottages and the beach
where we played with our buckets and shovels,
as the children on the sand are playing now.

No one can explain this.”

In addition to the individual loss Bilgere’s speaker experiences, a cultural loss brims to the surface. The art of language fails in this new America. “Yard Sale” finds volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica soaking on a card table in the rain. Bilgere writes, “It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old./ That’s because it was only used a couple of times.” The days of needing physical books to discover information are long gone.

“Attic Shapes,” also hints towards the loss of language when the speaker stores his dissertation, for the second time, in the attic. The hours spent studying Keats, and the years living a lifestyle that would make the Romantics proud, become boxes collecting with dust. The language that fueled the past has given way to the “beautiful ordinariness,” a world in perspective. Maybe, though, reason backs the evolution of days, the future not entirely lost, because on second look we’ll find

“a time too painful with hopeless yearning,
and too beautiful with poetic self-pity,
and generally too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,
either to hear again or ever throw away.”

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Book Review: The River Underneath the City by Scott Silsbe

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The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
Low Ghost Press, 2013
$10.00



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.

Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.

Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.

But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.

Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”

Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.

Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is

such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.

We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”

In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”

Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:

Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.

The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”

This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.

And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
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Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

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The Bookman’s Tale
by Charlie Lovett
Viking, 2013
Hardcover: $27.95



Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

What would you do if you found the Holy Grail of books? In Charlie Lovett’s, The Bookman’s Tale, such a book is called Pandosto. On its title page is the name of W. Shakespeare from Stratford, and in its margins are notes linking this man and this book to one of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Winter’s Tale.” It is the only document proving that the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare actually wrote history’s renowned plays. But, like a bad mystery novel, nothing is as it seems.

Lovett’s story follows Peter Byerly, a collector, restorer, and seller of antique books. He lives a reclusive life in England, personally imprisoned after the death of his wife, Amanda. During an attempt to reclaim his life, he discovers a hundred-year-old watercolor portrait that looks strikingly like Amanda in a book about Shakespearean forgeries. This launches him down an obsessive journey toward the Pandosto, and uncovering the identity of the artist B.B. Mingling with the main plot involving Pandosto‘s authorship and authenticity, and resulting murder mystery, readers learn about Peter and Amanda’s collegiate courtship.

The novel’s beginning caters to sentimentalists with a penchant for nostalgia, people who would find book restoration to be fascinating and who would want to know how the Pandosto could survive for centuries hidden from history. The latter part of the novel is for adventure enthusiasts who like a good murder mystery—if it were a good murder mystery. The two plots don’t mesh well, and the immaturity of the end clashes with the mature portrayal of Peter’s work. Because Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, the sections involving Peter’s craft are polished and authoritative. The murder mystery, however, seems slapdash. It’s as if Lovett assumed that book restoration alone wouldn’t be enough to engage his readers, so he added a couple dangerous love affairs.

The danger isn’t the only thing that seems to be immature. Multiple facets of the ending—including character growth, the villain’s “big reveal,” and resolution of events—are predictable and stereotypical. Lovett also uses many instances of meta-writing—molding events and details to fit the author’s needs instead of the story’s. It’s as if Lovett didn’t trust his readers to comprehend the story’s overall purpose. He even writes, “Let it be a monument to foolishness… an empty tribute to what happens to a man who places money over love, rivalry over integrity, forgery over reality” (321)—just in case the readers didn’t already understand.

In fact, Lovett’s meta-writing hinders characterization. When Peter first meets Liz, she is brazen and immediately trustworthy without any evidence supporting her reactions to Peter. She says, “You’re a man of mystery and you don’t look much like a serial killer, so I ask again—how about some dinner” (43)? This may result from Lovett’s history of writing children’s plays, wherein details need to be obvious. For example, when Peter is hunting for the identity of a woman in the watercolor painting, Liz asks him the point of knowing, Lovett writes:

“Peter pondered the question for a moment. It was one he had been careful not to ask himself so far—it was easier simply to be swept along by the mystery—but he knew Liz had gotten right to the heart of the matter. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been trying to say good-bye for so long,’ he said, picking his words carefully, ‘that I need this not to be her. I need to find out who it is so it won’t be her anymore. And then maybe she really will be gone’” (45).

Over time, readers will have realized this fact, but Lovett just presents it openly. He doesn’t know how to write realistic interactions. Most of the dialogue between characters seems to fit in romantic comedies or campy mysteries—things children would expect and understand.

Because meta-writing provides everything necessary, there is no depth to Lovett’s characters, including his protagonist. Peter has social anxiety disorder, which Lovett reiterates constantly, but he has no follow-through. Readers do not see little scenarios in Peter’s head before he goes out or meets someone new, he doesn’t devise ways to avoid close interactions. His anxiety is simply acknowledged as an excuse to be quiet and withdrawn. Lovett may describe Peter’s thoughts, but he doesn’t meander along Peter’s emotional concerns.

Additionally, Amanda’s mother is caring and understanding. Her father shows affection by clapping Peter on the back and talking about sports, but nothing else. No matter how emotional or tense a situation becomes, it is solved by a smile, hand holding, a kiss on the cheek, and a clap on the back. They serve as tropes and nothing more. Because readers cannot feel what Peter feels or connect with the secondary characters, it creates distance and makes it hard to care about what happens to them. In fact, readers may care more about the Pandosto’s journey through history.

However, once they get past the incomplete characterization and dialogue, they will recognize the novel’s key conflict: a longstanding controversy surrounding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Although Lovett doesn’t necessarily offer a personal stance in the Stratfordian/Oxfordian controversy—which states that Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works—he does provide a “what if?” scenario. What if a document surfaced that conclusively proved the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s authenticity? How might such a discovery occur, and what is the procedure to validate originality? Lovett does attempt to be objective by volleying between originality and forgery, hope and defeat, but ultimately he picks a side.

Readers may have a tougher time picking a side regarding this book. Each positive aspect is counteracted by faulty craft. The result is ignoring the dialogue and mystery in favor of the mastery—the book restoration and controversy. Without that, it’s just another romantic suspense story with a dash of nerdiness.
______

Charlie Lovett is a writer, a teacher, and a playwright. His plays for children have been seen in over three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as Writer-in-Residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.
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Book Review: Pennsylvania Welcomes You by Kristofer Collins

Pennsylvania Welcomes You
Poems by Kristofer Collins
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013
$12.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

As a Boston native living in Pittsburgh for the past five years, I’m sympathetic to the belief that a city produces hypnotic powers on the psyche, charms us, provides a geographical ‘tribe’ that continues, no matter where we’ve been, to call us to our home streets. Kristofer Collins’ most recent collection, Pennsylvania Welcomes You, is a tribute to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to those city dwellers who stand like bookmarks against its populated streets. The poems address particular local hotspots, poems titled “BBT” for Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, like publicized love letters. Yet, Collins is steadfast in welcoming his readers into the intimate as he writes, “We can read it together/Exhausted under the sheets, the city spread wide & waiting for our feet.”

Before we reach the poems, the table of contents stands: a column, single-spaced, without page numbers. The titles stack down the page like a skyscraper, tight and together. At times the lack of page numbers causes confusion when searching for a particular poem, but Collins’ artistic choice here seems intentional. Within the collection, each poem is a new street corner, a side-alley window into a different district, a neighboring bar, and so while a lack of direction appears disorienting, it’s not, for we are never truly lost. For the duration of the collection, at least, this is our city too.

Collins’ speaker appears equally content and discontent, which makes it difficult to peg down a tone for the collection, but feels truer to real human emotions. For example, in “Poem Addressed to Jaquelyn Seigle” Collins writes,
“…I’ve spent many
Good days writing poems outside bars
Watching the old neighborhood & the girls
Who live there now.”

There is a wistfulness to these lines, yet not quite a full-faced-nostalgia, for the speaker never claims to regret the way the neighborhood has changed. It’s more a head nod, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and the speaker, regardless, will continue to sit in the same spot and write poems.

There is direct nostalgia in a later poem, titled “The Book of Names”:

“And admittedly I don’t think of you as often as I should
But when I do there is such an ache so much good talk I miss
In our booth at Nico’s splitting pitchers precisely as atoms…”

Here, the speaker is nostalgic for the times of the past, but only when he consciously reflects. This balance teeters throughout the collection, each poem nostalgic, while simultaneously content with the present.

Similar to the balance between contentment and discontentment, there is a balance between localized and common knowledge that rears its head more frequently when intimately discussing a home location. Personally, I assume everyone knows the Boss, Whitey Bulger, and the battle between the Italian North End and the Irish South. After one graduate workshop class, I’ve concluded, this is Bostonian knowledge, with the exception of a few history buffs. Overall, Collins walks this line carefully, successfully, because the emotion of his work is never sacrificed based on location. Still, there are moments where cue words would benefit the outside reader to eliminate possible alienation, especially when it occurs in the first poem of the collection as Collins ends,

“Behind K & L Gates, stroking the Roberto Clemente, fingers
Facile as Anton Karas’ upon this golden zither, I brush the hair
From your eyes at PPG Place and check my teeth for cervelat”

In one breath we are overloaded with Pittsburgh, which five years earlier, would have felt exclusive.

Collins loses me in places, true, like in “Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX,” when after the second stanza there is a sudden spark of violence, “How nervy taking a razor to a stranger’s wrist, drawing/ My heart into that mix. A thief of names is that what I am?” The poems, in places, seem more for those they are dedicated to, for ‘Anna’ and ‘Jonathan Moody’ and ‘Don Wentworth’ and ‘Robert Frank’ to name a few, instead of a wider audience. With these poems there is the distinct sense that I’ve walked into the middle of a conversation on Forbes between old college roommates. On some level, though, there remains a charm to this degree of intimacy, and it’s Collins unflinching dedication to these streets and individuals that keeps me invested.

One of the main elements in Pennsylvania Welcomes You that I found fitting was Collins decision to leave each poem open, lacking end punctuation. It’s a D.A. Powell move, and the way it works in Chronic it works here: the individual flows into a collective. Each moment blends into the next as if the speaker has one foot on each page, balances between times that never truly feel distinct enough to name.

My one hesitation is the amount of exclamation points found throughout the collection. It’s a form of punctuation that, within poetry, always tastes forced.

Even among the exclamation points, it’s hard to overlook Collins’ moments of brilliance, his control of language, with lines such as “Nostalgia creeps up on us like a housecat/Let loose in the yard” “I am tattooing the tatters of your memory into this soggy napkin we call ‘poem’” and “the black sky has got its hat On.” These are the lines that stand like road signs, welcome us into Collins’ world, and make us trust we are among a skilled tour guide.
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Book Review: Gospel of Dust by Joseph Ross

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Gospel of Dust
Poems by Joseph Ross
Main Street Rag, 2013
$15



Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

There are a lot of people out there writing poetry, and most of it will be forgotten tomorrow, or maybe even later today. But just a handful of poets might be remembered. Joseph Ross should be one of those poets. Ross writes the poetry of witness. His debut, Meeting Bone Man, is a powerful meditation on mortality and humanity. Ross’ follow up, Gospel of Dust, continues Ross’ investigations while shifting to a humanistic examination of Christian values and beliefs.

“In a Summer of Snipers,” is one of several poems dealing with the Civil Rights movement, and not only the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the fact that many of them knew that they were probably going to be murdered for their actions. Ross shifts to Brazil for “Mothers of the Disappeared” in which he describes the aftermath of political dissidence. Later, Ross considers the murder of David Kato, a Ugandan Gay Rights Activist, and Matthew Shephard:

Though you died
in crisp hospital sheets,

no one believes you
felt them touch your skin.

The last touch your
skin knew was wooden:

a prairie fence, whose wood
was nearly as splintered

as you.

These poems appear in a section called “The Human Gospel,” and it’s difficult not to see the connection Ross draws between martyrdom and holiness. These people often carry certain qualities of sainthood, sacrifice being the most obvious, but also the effect they, or their deaths, have had on the zeitgeist. But not enough effect, obviously; something Ross is trying to remedy.

The second section in the book is called “The Pieta Gospel,” though many of the poems in the book could be described as pietas of a sort. Ross begins with Fritz Eichenberg’s “Pieta” and shifts to “American Pieta,” a poem about the photograph of Mary Vecchio kneeling beside Jeffrey Miller who’d been killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. One of the more well-known poems in this section is Ross’s excellent “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God:”

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.

No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field

would be burned in praise
of fourteen

year-old boys
and their teeth.

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

every river would be still
so nothing thrown in

could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be

worn as a necklace
by senators.

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see

how baptisms are done
in Mississippi.

Ross’ closing image is especially keen; he’s captured a violent, uncaring world where even God seems oblivious, unaware of just how brutal His world has become.

“The Written Gospel” is Ross’ third section, in which he examines specific biblical instances such as the washing of feet. “The Ritual Gospel” closes out the book with some of Ross’ most powerful poems. Ross established a style of series poems in his first book, and he continues it in this section with poems about Tupac Shakur, for example, in which Shakur is considered as a martyr and even prophet. Cool Disco Dan, the graffiti artist, returns as the subject of a series of poems, as does J. Alfred Prufrock.

What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter. So much of modern arts—from visual arts to writing to music—is nihilistic in its approach, and nihilism simply cannot maintain an audience’s interest because it’s incapable of progress and change. If nothing matters, why should I even pay attention? It’s a masturbatory trap, at best, and something quite sinister (though unintentionally so) at worst. Ross is an antidote to this nihilism, which may seem ironic since his work so often deals with death and suffering.
______

Joseph Ross is the author of two collections of poetry, Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013). His poetry has earned multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and the 2012 Pratt Library – Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. His poems appear in many anthologies and journals including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Tidal Basin Review, Drumvoices Revue, Poet Lore, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. In 2007, he co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He teaches in the Department of English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at JosephRoss.net
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Book Review: Now, Now by Jennifer Maier

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Now, Now
Poems by Jennifer Maier
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Alison Taverna

If Jennifer Maier’s second full-length collection, Now, Now, was likened to a type of candy it would be a Hershey’s Special Dark. I say this based on accurate metaphor, not hunger. On first chew, Maier’s poems are delicate, quiet, deliberately fond with a spark of bitter, subtle destruction, as if what is sweet is temporary. It’s a world of the everyday—of Dave the Electrician, paper men cut-outs, and Edith Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome. Yet, in Maier’s collection the tender hand of memory is tainted by the fleeting nature of time, the past relative to the past of this exact moment, suddenly gone, as she writes, “the past,/ once yours, you wouldn’t trade for any other,/ ringed by the past you’re living now—here…” Everything, it appears, ends while it begins.

I once read in my high school journalism textbook each bar of chocolate contains eight insect legs. I imagine the grasshoppers in their sugar comas, ripped apart in sleep by the dessert miners, their tiny spindle bodies not surprised because it happened to their brothers and sisters. A result of their environment, our lives are a balance as Maier explains, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Now, Now is a woman’s middle-aged awakening, the romantics of youth manifest only in nostalgia and time “a collapsible cup.”

The first poem in the three-section collection, “Hangman” brims with tension, foreshadows the fallible future, which carries into each poem of Maier’s. On the surface, a daughter rides shotgun to her father as they drive into town, play hangman on a pad of paper. It seems innocent enough—the word Volcano—the daughter excited to stump, unaware of the real danger as Maier writes, “he can still get it you know he can if he just concentrates,/ so you hand him the bottle, taking the wheel as he leans back, eyes closed, thinking.” The speaker of the poem seems to be positioned outside their car, this moment, as if it has already been lived and in remembering, years later, the speaker sees the warning signs to come. This is achieved, and appears subtle and effortless, through Maier’s balance between the interior and exterior of the vehicle. She weaves, “Then seven spaces underneath,/ like the broken centerline the father will cross when he feels/ under the seat for the bottle…” The speaker is omniscient here, unveils the inevitability of death hanging, in wait, like the penciled circle of the hangman’s head. Her language is suggestive of violence in, “the headlights that slice through the cab like a quick and painless incision” and “the road a running scar through the dense woods…” Maier likens the hangman to the father, a childhood game to the reality of death. This is the poem that begins her collection, and so, we understand within the following pages that memories will be re-visited and re-examined in an attempt to locate what always existed: imperfection.

While the first section seems the most concentrated to a particular past, the second and third section appear current, moments fresh from happening with titles “The Wind Blows My Dictionary Open To ‘Man’” and “Sharing A Bath.” Yet, what carries throughout all sections is Maier’s wrestle with love—what should it look like, how should it resonate, does it alter with the passing of time and the loss of youth? Should it?

Two of my favorite poems, “Jane” and “Heat and Light” examine the wild, uninhibited love. While the speaker in “Jane” believes with few doubts the relationship between Jane and Tarzan existed, she questions the reality of a woman giving herself entirely to a man:

“Jane was pure make believe: the good,
A-student girl who gives up everything for sex…

And if you were like her, dipped in the waters
of her nature, how could you find your way
home to that lost continent? How could
you ever return?”

To the speaker, the question is not why Jane loves Tarzan, but how. The sacrifice too large to conceive and hidden among the social constructs, for “a woman shapes/ a man, haft and point, into the thing she needs…”

“Heat and Light” echoes the desire to discourage the Jane and Tarzan love, through the novel Ethan Frome. The speaker reminisces on Sister Bertrand’s sophomore English class, thinks,

“She must have thought the subject
of doomed, illicit love
would slow the downward slide
she’d marked in faces streaked
with rouge, in pleated skirts,
rolled at the waist.”

Here, she pushes against Sister’s Bertrand’s opinion of Ethan and Mattie’s love, claims a tight hold, for “Love,/ our true religion, would save them/ in the end.” Wharton though, does not save Ethan and Mattie, and so the ideal, sacrificial love is broken and the students, broken, are left copying “More heat than light” down for their test. Maier is conscious of the past and its ability to curb the future, the speaker’s ideas of womanhood shifted by the literature of her childhood. The past is never the past, but fluid in its influence on the present and future.

Now, Now does not seem to reach a climax or spiral towards a particular finish. For Maier, there is no end, but only the interconnectedness of time and our memory’s desire to look backwards. Maier’s title to her collection represents this idea. On one level, Now, Now sounds like words cooed with a gentle pat after receiving bad news. On a deeper level, the title speaks to Maier’s main focus: time is never stagnant. The now that exists before the first comma is over in an instant, followed by another now. Memory aids in our remembering, but it fails to slow down this process. It’s bittersweet, this life, but Maier accepts this, as should we, as she reminds,

“And if it all passed in an instant,
a comfort now to know you had your life of ordinary good,
of love’s tart fruits, its showery blossoms.”
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Jennifer Maier is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and associate editor of the arts quarterly IMAGE. Her other poetry collection Dark Alphabet won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets. Maier’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, New Letters, Smartish Pace, American Poetry Review, and has been featured on Public Radio International’s The Writer’s Almanac.
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Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist
by Suzanne Rindell
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2013
$16.00



Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Unreliable narrators cause readers to question their own methods of perceptions, particularly when recognizing logical cause and effect. As if to prove this, in Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, The Other Typist, she takes a character with untapped potential for mental instability and places her in a unique and extreme situation. The book is fascinating, sensual, and sensational. It takes a prudish, conceited, and hypocritical nobody and plunges her into the chaotic world of speakeasies and bootlegged liquor—in the middle of a downtown New York City police precinct.

Rose is drab and predictable. She begins the story in 1923 as a New York City precinct’s typist who lives in a boarding house with other young women. She is intellectual but not social and often silently derides her roommate’s actions as silly, rehearsed, and selfish. As far as readers know, Rose was raised in an orphanage. Because of this, she follows rules, schedules, manners, and etiquette to the letter. Through Rose, Rindell writes:

“In the absence of flesh-and-blood equivalents, over the years I’ve taken a series of rules to serve as my mother, my father, my siblings, even my lovers…. Rules kept me safe. In keeping the rules dear to me, I could always be certain the nuns would clothe and feed me, the typing school would place in me in a job, and the precinct would employ me…. The thing about rules is that when you break one, it is only a matter of time before you break more, and the severe architecture that once protected you is destined to come crashing down about your ears.”

That governing foundation crumbles when Odalie appears. If this name makes readers whistle “Oodalalee” from Disney’s Robin Hood or “Vol der ee, vol der rah” from a post-World War II German song “The Happy Wanderer,” it isn’t a coincidence. Even Rindell writes through Rose’s perspective, “…the name of that latter individual play[ed] musically in my head, tripping along to the pace of my own steps like a child’s song: Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee…

On the first day Odalie is in the precinct, she drops a jeweled broach, which Rose claims to have been a purposeful act to catch her attention and pull her into Odalie’s persuasive schemes. As the story continues, Rose becomes obsessed with the enchanting new girl whom everyone adores. Eventually, the two become friends and Rose moves into Odalie’s extravagant hotel room. Odalie then takes Rose on a late-night adventure to a wig shop, where a secret door opens to invite them into the glitzy, dazzling world of speakeasies. Rindell, during her acknowledgements, claims that she drew inspiration of this era from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it is here readers first see similarities between the two stories: a quiet neighbor commingles with a mysterious personage who follows a grand but ultimately unstable lifestyle.

Astute readers will also recognize that the writing bears a strong resemblance to a legal confession, as if Rose were typing her own story for the court to read. Rindell reveals the truth in teasing snippets: “I can only say I did it for the love of her, though the doctor I am seeing now hardly accepts that answer. Of course, ever since the incident, the newspapers have painted Odalie as the victim…but of course, if I am to tell it all in order, as I keep promising to do, there are other things I must tell first,” and “I’ve already mentioned my doctor’s encouragement that I explain my actions with an emphasis on chronology.” It is only after a devastating climax that readers are finally given the full account of events.

Here, then, is a second similarity to The Great Gatsby: the overall arc of the plot, but with a twist. Rose doesn’t just represent neighborly Nick Carraway from Gatsby; she represents Jay Gatsby as well because she adopts his glamorous but questionable lifestyle. Readers watch, helpless, as Rose is taken along a dubious but extravagant ride with many events that make her suspect her own safety and Odalie’s authenticity. But she remains faithfully by Odalie’s side and learns from her until Rose’s life and memories are turned upside down. Through Rose, Rindell writes, “The advantage of hindsight, of course, is that one finally sees the sequence of things, the little turning points that add up to a final resultant direction.”

The novel’s first-person narration locks readers in Rose’s mind and personality. Toward the final chapters, when her world no longer makes sense, the readers’ perceptions also become suspect. Up until that point, they agreed with each of her experiences. Her progression and attempts to understand are both well-paced and fascinating. Readers will not only want to know what happened to her, but how she went from a quiet, stuffy prude to a committed woman. And like a bad batch of absinthe or bathtub gin, they may not emerge unchanged from the blinding and disorienting story.
______

Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel.
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Book Review: The Old Priest: Stories by Anthony Wallace

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The Old Priest: Stories
by Anthony Wallace
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Hardback: $24.95



Reviewed by Mike Walker

The work of a critic—be it one of literature, visual art, dance, or music or anything creative—is vexing in the sense that you have to so often set aside to a degree personal opinion while fully retaining your command of everything that opinion has ever taught you. I was speaking with a friend who is a graduate student in historical keyboards (he plays the clavichord, mainly) and was awestruck by how many very well-regarded, canonical, classical composers he totally dislikes and avoids insofar as possible. Most are Russian romantics so thankfully for him, he will never have to play their works since they post-date his own instrument. I started thinking though, what composers do I most dislike? Or for that matter, what authors? Which playwrights? And what if my friend had to review a concert of Medtner’s piano works or I had to write about a poet whom I simply do not care for at all? What then? Can it be done, can we really set aside what we “like” and instead focus on what we know about the genre at hand, the technique and the craft?

Anthony Wallace’s book of short stories, The Old Priest, allowed me to test this question out first-hand. It is not the type of literature I enjoy: I have seen much of this before in contemporary American writers of fiction, especially those in the MFA-centric circles. You find stories like those collected here in each and every literary journal every single month—stories of regret, stories of love gone wrong and characters either haunted forever by it or not able to set it right somehow—these stories of sex, drink, and loss. Stories of people who have a lot less to complain about than they think, so complain they certainly do, and how. Stories that are, I suppose, supposed to reflect the real and now of America? Moreover, I’m not big on New Jersey, or casinos, or people in bars being sad or lost as my bar experience is more one of watching some football (soccer, that is) or a good NBA game and having some fun—yes, wonder of wonders, you can have fun when you hang out with and drink with people! You can even have fun going to church, I suppose. But people don’t do that in the type of short stories we encounter far too often: they just have to have problems and those problems, beyond being simply sources of conflict to further the plot, often are very problematic in and of themselves.

So this isn’t my type of fiction. It’s painted in muted colors, it doesn’t take you away but instead locks you into a world where you, yeah, feel somewhat sorry for the sad saps who dwell within it, but you’ve met their cousins before in other stories and it seems quite much a matter just of more of the same. As I state all this, though, I realize it’s my view, it’s my personal feelings and it extends into other areas—how I dislike Vegas because of how fake it is, how it tries to broker fun, scandal, and an all-inclusive experience to ho-hum middle-aged folks who after the party go back to being tax accountants in some small town or simple suburb. I’m someone who would rather be skateboarding or BASE jumping than in Vegas; I’d rather have the world writ large and real than seeing the world writ small and covered with glitter. (I don’t like Disney much, either, in case you wondered.) So, when I encounter a book like The Old Priest, it’s not a book I would put first in the pile of those I really want to read. It just isn’t me. But is it good, even if it’s not what appeals to me? I don’t like a lot of hip-hop, either, but I can tell you what’s “good” regardless and probably be pretty much on the same trajectory as someone who loves hip-hop and knows it well. I’ll try to do that for Wallace’s book.

The title story, which opens this short collection, actually really shines. There is, of course, an “old priest” but the twists and turns taken from there on out are exceptional. There’s no shortage of magical realism—which isn’t an easy ploy to place in a short story, but really one where you have to know exactly what you’re up to for it to work, yet here it works fluently. The problem is, the opening story is probably the best of the lot, and yet it has exactly what it needs to keep you interested whereas much of what follows are long on grit, spite, and sorrow but lack the compelling magic (in every sense) of the opening tale. Wallace is skilled, to be sure—very skilled: great sense of dialog, the ability to craft characters who seem as seriously flawed as he wants us to see them (no easy trick, that) and the ability to put together some plots that are highly innovative. The problem for me too often though in these stories is that the characters have arrived at their lot in life mainly through their own very unwise (and oft-repeated) actions. You cannot feel sorry very long for adults who repeat their mistakes as if trying to make a cross-stitch of them. When you look at the greatest writers the world over who provided us with characters deeply flawed and long-suffering, and I mean writers like Mario Vargas Llosa or Roger Martin du Gard, you find that the characters themselves—no matter their problems—are enriched in some manner, filled in some manner with color, with emotion that draws you into their world and even probably their plights. When you have the type of characters that often Wallace offers—such as a couple on vacation in New Mexico despite their bitter, seemingly set-to-end, relationship—they read like second-rate versions of Bret Easton Ellis characters, right down to the cocaine and legacy of over-the-top 80s parties. They’re not easy to care about, and it serves them right to be listening to a hotel flamenco guitarist in an expectedly touristy variant of a New Mexico experience. There just seems to be a lot of missed opportunities here to better develop the characters and really explore their settings, but that probably was not what the author wanted to express: it appears his main intent is to show how inner turmoil predicated on past experiences haunts people—or can haunt people, if they only let it. He meets that task well enough, but it’s just not something as a reader that has much gravity for me: despite the magical realism, despite the efforts to illustrate characters overcoming obstacles, it all seems so basic and expected most of the time.

But then, I must confess again I’m not a fan of Jersey—at least not this stereotype of Jersey, and no matter the detail, the skill Wallace has to mention the sound of the oil furnace cutting on and so forth, I still feel like he’s dealing cards from a pack of stereotypes too often. I have a friend from Jersey and his tales of urban blight, corruption, and portly wannabe Sinatras in Atlantic City bore me, too. Wallace may concern himself with subjects I don’t care for, and that’s fine—I’m sure there is an ample readership for his fiction, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed at all in the quality of what he offers. I noted that the story “The Old Priest” itself was one of the best, certainly probably my personal favorite. Perhaps reading it first was also an issue for me as it set me up for certain expectations in the rest of the stories in the book. Alas, most of those other stories just didn’t measure up in terms of plot nor the really fascinating narrative elements the author provides in “The Old Priest” (which, in the interest of not giving too much away, I will not elaborate upon, except to say that so many good and bad stereotypes and concepts of Catholicism and priesthood come to a very surprising . . . if not “end”, at least “transformation” here). Wallace has his hand on the pulse of the aspects of New Jersey life (and by extension, aspects of American life that seem connected to the Garden State somehow) and he is able to make these connections shine in places, but there is a recurrent issue of him either seeming to try a bit too hard (the example above of rehashing the torrid times of someone’s former lover comes to mind—why? It’s not germane to the story at hand, seems trashy, tabloid, and just distracts) or else he doesn’t turn the story into what it could be—often a fault of a lack of length rather than his writing.

In his story “The Unexamined Life”, much like “The Old Priest” before it, Wallace finally comes close to winning me over. I’ve already at this point in the book resigned myself to the fact the story will concern either sex, drugs, or errr, blackjack, and not with beautiful people, not with a hint of gloss and diamond sheen, but with a dinge of dross. You know when James Joyce described that green-black color, that faded color, that combination of Irish coal dust and simple grit in “The Sisters” in Dubliners? Yeah, that color seems to seep through the lines in much of Wallace’s prose, but it’s there by clear design. Wallace has his topics he wants to address, he has settings and characters that inspire him even if as one reader in a vast spectrum of readers, they often fail to interest me all that much. So, in “The Unexamined Life” we do have a porn shop, we do have . . . how can I say this? We have lives that are based around the basics that on some level form the everyday foundations of most of our lives. We have the desires that motivate the human race and these are well-rendered; in this story, and I mean this as the highest of praise, Wallace reminds me of one of my all-time favorite short-story authors, the great Maeve Brennan. The shadow of Joyce is also here and the influences of many other authors turn up in places. Once again, Wallace is a craftsman of the very highest order, but throughout most of this collection can’t seem to draw me—or I cannot seem to allow myself to walk through the door. Again, the first story of the collection set my expectations high and in a certain direction so perhaps I’m looking West when I should be East or something, but I expected more of the Angela Carter type of magic that we have at the onset to be carried forward, and I didn’t locate that in most of the other stories.

I would recommend this book to someone who scans this review and finds mention of subjects, of types of characters, that reader finds of interest. I do not mean to be unkind—not because I fear such for I don’t and as a reviewer know I will encounter books where I will feel fully justified in being very critical—but because I do believe in and admire Wallace’s work. I find it frustrating that at points his characters are not likeable, for as human as they are, as flawed, I don’t pity them or cheer them on as I would, say, a Dawn Powell or Carson McCuller’s character. The is my greatest criticism here, but there is no doubt the man can write and that also he is keenly able to construct worlds—cut from the fresh, damp, unkind cloth of reality—that seem very life-like, very able in his descriptions to come to life. It’s just not a place I wish to explore further in most of the stories. For some readers, I have no doubt it will be though and that this may be one of their favorite books of the year.
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Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.

The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.

Reviewed by Nola Garrett

Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.

While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.

Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.

I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.

So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.

Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.

I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:

SHOTETSU

Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.

He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.

This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:

We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.

We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.

Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends

…. Was it much worse than any place

we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.

“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins

Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.

and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:

Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald

fact cast in bronze….

These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.

Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.

This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.

Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980′s and 90′s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.
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Book Review: Chapel of Inadvertent Joy by Jeffrey McDaniel

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The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.

My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.

The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”

Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.

Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.

In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:

“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”

The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.

“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.

But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.

Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.

And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.

In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.

It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,

“a bucket
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”

As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…

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Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
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Book Review: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

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The Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers
The Viking Press, 2013
Hardcover: $26.95



Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Everyone has a story. For The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers chose the one belonging to a quiet cleaner in Notre Dame, the famous cathedral in Chartres, France. Vickers’s problem with this choice, however, is the style with which she began the tale.

The use of a prologue has become such a stigma in contemporary literature that authors have resorted to explaining setting and history in the first chapter. In The Cleaner of Chartres, readers are greeted with the history of Notre Dame’s fires and descriptions of the main character’s obscurity instead of an intriguing opening line. Because of this, the first chapter is dry and factual, and readers may not become interested until the second chapter—one that should have started the whole book with the words “Agnes Morel was born neither Agnes nor Morel” (9).

The novel follows Agnes both as a teenager and an adult while she struggles to find a quiet place in life. Fate seems to conspire against her, and half the time she simply waits until it’s safe to move again. Readers meet Agnes as an adult who is appointed as the official cleaner for Notre Dame and various townsfolk. Readers are then introduced to baby Agnes, who is found in a basket by a farmer and brought to a convent. From there, teenager Agnes is raped, accused of being a whore, and shipped off to a psychiatric ward when her baby is adopted and she falls into severe postpartum depression, catatonia, and psychosis. The rest of the book is a juxtaposition of the crazed teenager and the somber, isolated cleaner; it weaves two timelines together until readers have a complete understanding of this unfortunate woman.

Compared with Agnes’s childhood, middle chapters in present-setting Chartres are dull. Agnes is often in the background of events and only becomes pivotal when she is falsely accused of a couple of crimes. Otherwise, she never stands up for herself. During her whole life, she allows others to dictate where she should live, what to think, and how to act. She perseveres with almost profound insight about others and abstract concepts, but she relies on truth and friends to save her. It is hard to care for a weak character; pity and morbid fascination should not be the only driving factors of a story.

Vickers’s fixation on the wrong elements extends further to backstory and architectural facts, so much so that the main plot is buried underneath a massive amount of unnecessary detail. For example, early in the novel, Professor Jones hires Agnes to organize his notes and photographs. He then inspects her work and gleefully relives memories, even in his dreams. Vickers writes,

“Professor Jones had dropped into a morning doze. He was five years old again, sitting beneath the keys of an upright piano at his mother’s feet, as she sang in the Welsh tongue that had long since left his waking mind. If he sat there long enough she would scoop him up in her soft white arms and carry him to bed. Nestling against his mother’s warm bosom – made slightly uncomfortable by the spikes of Sunday brooches of jet, bought during her parents’ honeymoon at Whitby – Professor Jones on his bench sighed in a peaceful contentment that he was unlikely to ever know again” (16).

Readers don’t need to know where Jones’s mother got the brooch or that it existed. In fact, the whole passage could be condensed into a few sentences about a mother singing a Welsh song to her son before bedtime. Short, endearing, and just as efficient as all the tiny details above. But with Professor Jones in particular, some of Vickers’s passages read like a free writing experiment, as if she donned memories and rambled just to see what emerged. Instead of determining what she could keep to provide depth to characterization, she kept it all, including breaks in speech patterns. She is adept at showing personality through dialogue, certainly, but the detail becomes cumbersome.

This detail is key to the whole story, though. It constructs the very thing that the novel presents as vile: gossip. Old biddies, Madams Beck and Picot, fill their days with speculation, prejudice, and judgment, and whispers and misconceptions surround Agnes. The narrator gives every possible piece of information—no matter how innocuous—about everyone in Agnes’s world just to appear “in the know” like certain characters. The result is a book that reads as if it is one long gossip session.

Luckily, Vickers occasionally inserts gems of description to counter an overabundance of detail. For example, when Agnes is marveling the cathedral’s ceiling, Vickers writes,

“The tremendous height of the ceilings, the noble lofty columns – like lichen-covered trees – the succession of roaring arches, affected her profoundly and the jeweled brilliance of the stained glass, re-created in the ephemeral butterflies of light which played over the grey stone, lifted and brightened her darker thoughts” (56).

Most people can imagine the splays of color along gray stone walls of ancient churches. It’s part of their lure. This visual talent, as well as speculation about Agnes—both her past and the resolution of her troubles—will pull readers to the last page. But it is a tough journey. Perhaps if Vickers chose to reorder her chapters, she might hold readers’ attentions better—hook them into Agnes’s childhood from the start and make them curious… instead of rambling about the church and secondary characters.

But, hidden much like the plot, The Cleaner of Chartres answers a question that most people have asked at least once: If I disappeared, would anyone notice or come find me? This reveals another gem in the book; The Cleaner of Chartres isn’t just about stories, self-worth, and truth… it’s about how one person can affect the lives of many, and the discovery and selection of family.

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Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girl’s School (something which caused her father some anxiety because of his dislike of public schools and for a while he felt that she should not attend the school) and went on to read English at Newnham College Cambridge, with which she recently renewed working ties. She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.
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Book Review: Girl at the Watershed by Nicola Waldron

Girl at the Watershed
Poems by Nicola Waldron
Stepping Stone Press
$12

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

You’d expect a little vertigo from a poet who migrated from the berries and cream at Cambridge to the red eye gravy of South Carolina. The speaker in Nicola Waldron’s poems in Girl at the Watershed is ever on the move, but even at 30,000 feet, or on bicycle, or dogging it, she has an uncanny ability to find her middle in spite of the contrary motions she engages. Sometimes it’s a moment, or else a rock, but feeling or thing, it’s always a magic lamp of a noun kicked up in the flourish of action.

Waldron’s finding of her middle is often represented by holding the stillness of it in her hand. Stillness in spite of the heavy forehand pace. The result is that Waldron’s most profound lines have nothing to do with the obviousness I associate with light and dark subject matter. Sure, there’s some grief in here, but these are not poems about how the speaker lost a leg or had a parent die or sometimes considered suicide or noticed how an incident along the coast bore a resemblance to Greek mythology.

There’s plenty of Voice, and Tone, but these don’t steer the lines either. Instead, Waldron’s poems are crocheted with a kind of fantastic internal logic. Her words are marionettes, yet we seldom notice the strings. The drama is that dazzling.

Some readers will want a clue as to how a patriotic Brit would have found herself in a state known for hounds traveling in pick-up beds or which was the only state to carry Bush One in the 1992 Presidential election. About the only thing South Carolina and England have in common is a love for breakfast. England is one of those countries which have specialized dishes for coddled eggs. The state flower of South Carolina, on the other hand, is the Waffle House billboard that blooms at every highway interchange where one can have grits and pancakes for 24 hours every eight miles.

I was looking for those clues in Girl at the Watershed because I know Waldron as a memoirist who has made great work of tugging back the curtain and dressing, but not undressing, in front of the reader. The tone in her prose is so direct it’s as if you’re listening to her chapters instead of reading them. Her poetry however, is quite a different beast. The mystery is in the revelation. Every second, every small square inch, seems to have a story to tell.

Waldron’s poem “In the Capay Hills” involves a trek through old French fur trader country along the Cache Creek in Northeastern California where the speaker and her partner have gone to find “something more than fields / blank with winter; pages waiting to be turned.” Her partner has “purple rings around his eyes” much like the sediment that she cannot name that “splits the red stone.” The waters “rage with life” but a “quail sits dead on the trail like a defeated dancer.” The couple are lost and must become each other’s compass: “The bridge to the trail’s been washed away. / Without direction, what are we to do…?”

I pick out stones and when he calls,
I bring him the sandstone treasure in my hands,
and he takes my face in his hands,
because there’s no one like me who loves him.

The logic here transforms her face into his sandstone treasure, and “In these hills, / we cannot get enough of touching: we reach out / like prophets, making the streambeds run.” The couple have to pass the dead quail twice, once heading out, once heading in. On the second pass, the speaker gets “down on my knees, press my two fingers inside the crescent footprint of a deer, to show him I am true.” It’s a graceful stroke: the two lovers, the two fingers, the raging with life, the passing by death, the touching, the kneeling, the Sufi crescent, her lover’s washed out bridge of his faith, her belief in everything, and her trueness which becomes their direction.

“Red Barn” is a conditional poem. It’s premise is not what the speaker would do if she had a million dollars, rather, what she would do if she were a farmer: “I’d weave the dubious contours / of my land into some kind of dream…I’d kneel in the valley / and wash my face in the sand, / in the lines the sky made before falling…We could lie on our backs and look at clouds— / call it work, I would have reasons / for the folding of the mountains.”

Like Elizabeth Robinson has sometimes done, Waldron is more apt to dwell on her birth than her death, as if her own birthing, her becoming, were something that never stopped happening. It’s a process where we move from blindness to vision so that sense of self and sense of place are linked. Most poets start thinking a lot about death when their parents die and there aren’t any more doors between themselves and nothing. Waldron in her true and believing way looks for ways to add doors between herself and the fear. “New World” is a symphony of this thinking about existence.

If I chose to travel here,
how then did I come to exile?

If I can sort the broadness of new sound
like pebbles on sand, but make no sense

of a hand raised, a soft hello;
if I, afraid of voices jangling in midair,

feel color now but distantly,
translating marigolds as sun,

should I stay
to make my history happen here?

Will what was England in me
be swept down strange waters?

I do not recognize the bird you call robin:
to me, the hated blue-jay is miracle;

here, springtime is not carried in
on swallows’ feet, but comes to earth

as fury. How is it summer will follow
without lawns of daisies, ladies’ slipper, chamomile?

Can an alien lie down, feel April on her skin?
and what does her child hear

at the moment of birth?

Waldron’s syntax lets her connections and associates occur without any awkward self conscious feelings or edgy juxtaposition. Her poem “At 30,000 Feet” is a marvel of symmetry as she butts up against some issues: “While the movie runs eight inches from your face, / I lift the window shade and scan the screen.” In the first line, we’ve moved from 30,000 feet to eight inches, and soon we go from a movie running to the world running outside the window. The couple are flying and the first information we get is where they are not flying to: “the ice below that frills and parts like first love / is from Iqaluit: a place we’ll never go.” Waldron then smears her brush into the birthing and existence bucket: “It’s been six hours now since London, my body / lifted by my father from the gritty newborn earth. / Outside it’s 70 below and if we fall out here / we’ll freeze and die before we can say I—

Your hand falls loose against my thigh,
I squeeze the belt across my lap,

which makes me want you.
The sun behind us races to keep up.

When I turn my head, I’m looking
at the left side of your face, where

they cut the skin to take the cancer out.
I wonder about the science of flight,

and if we’ll understand each other
when we land breathing in America.

My favorite poem in this short collection is “Stalker” where again there’s a suggestion of sky and flying, and again, the speaker focuses on one small mystery: “I pick out a rock and / pretend it is my father: / it is a big rock, and cowardly. / When I grasp it in my fist / it cringes, and will not / look me in the eye. / Perhaps it is / the altitude.”

Girl at the Watershed is all too-brief a book from a writer who has lived and seen so much and publishes so seldom. Waldron surely has more to come—she’s previously been a winner of the prestigious United Kingdom Bridport Prize—and it will be fascinating to learn which press will have the honor of putting out her long anticipated debut collection.
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