Book Review: THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie Harnett

 photo 978d90a7-16f8-4d1c-a570-d3e2aa21cd53_zpsuvlradhv.jpg The Hollow Ground
by Natalie Harnett
St. Martin’s Press

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Praise for The Hollow Ground by Natalie Harnett is not in short supply. Some critics have even compared Harnett’s debut novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, claiming that her child protagonist, Brigid, is akin to Scout. While it is certainly true that both novels are told through the eyes of a young girl, there are some fundamental differences that can make a case against such a comparison. Nonetheless, The Hollow Ground should be considered an achievement in its own right.

Set in 1970’s eastern Pennsylvania, The Hollow Ground attempts to characterize its story as one displaced by the Centralia Mine Fires. Brigid and her family are of Irish descent; her father worked in the mines and her mother sews for a factory. Early on, we are introduced to a fair share of family drama and secrecy. Brigid is a mere observer in this and has little to offer the story, which drags for the first half of the novel. We are given ample details surrounding the family’s move to Gram’s house, the distaste between Mother and Gram, and the gloomy atmosphere which is the result of a blue collar town barely surviving after the mine fires began about ten years ago. Every day the very land they live on becomes more and more unstable, a defining metaphor for Brigid’s family.

Yet the ground doesn’t start shaking beneath them until nearly halfway through the novel, and this is a fault in the story. Prior to Brigid’s gruesome discovery in the mines, readers may find themselves wondering where the story is going, what the book is about, or even what Harnett’s intentions are. While exposition and scene-building are certainly appreciated, especially in such a strange place, there is a balance that Harnett didn’t quite level. For as in-depth and well-explained the family secrets are later in the novel, it is unnecessary to have as much exposition as Harnett includes in the first chapters.

Since Brigid’s home is quite literally crumbling under her feet, the land itself is a character in the novel, something that plays a pivotal role in the displacement of Brigid’s family and the ultimate separation of her parents. Brigid’s journey is not the righteous path to knowledge and realization that readers may expect from a novel with a child first-person protagonist. Instead, Brigid displays a malleable nature that shifts with the story’s twists and turns in plot; she is not so much intelligent as reactive to her environment. There is therefore less learning on Brigid’s part and more adapting. The relationship between character, setting, and plot is very tangled and dependent in Harnett’s novel, a characteristic that sets it apart from similar novels, To Kill a Mockingbird included.

In many ways, Brigid is complex, relatable, and very affected by her circumstances. Over time we see her loyalties shift, her opinions develop independently of her mother, and her actions becoming more bold. As her family rapidly falls apart, she learns that she too must move quickly into a new life if she is to survive. Her lessons are not about morals, but survival.  In a scene midway through the novel, Brigid’s mother visits her hated stepmother in search of old belongings. The encounter quickly sours as a hideous secret is revealed, provoking anger from Brigid’s mother. Instead of an emotional response, Brigid is quick to offer her mother an item she came to the house for:

“Ma,” I said, slipping from my pocket the picture of her as a little girl. “You can stop looking. I got want you wanted. Here, Ma.” I handed her the photo. “Here you are.”

After receiving the picture, her mother calms and the chapter ends. We don’t hear about this encounter again until much later in the novel, a span of pages too long even for a delayed emotional reflection, which is not given to readers, either.

Again, however, I have to come back to Harnett’s pacing and plot choices. If the first half of the novel is a bit too slow, the ending is a bit too fast, and I have to question the purpose of the novel’s final scene. With her mother’s abandonment and father’s ensuing depression, neither parent is present. I’m puzzled by Harnett’s decision to lead Brigid’s father to death, even after his role as a father was otherwise compromised. The damage had already been done, but somehow that was not enough loss for Brigid. Readers may be even more jarred after reading the epilogue, which hastily gets to business correcting all the despair Brigid suffers throughout the novel, but not doing so wisely. The epilogue is too short and paced too quick to give reads a feeling of adequate story-telling rather than just a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The epilogue almost feels like Harnett’s way of apologizing for all the wrong done to Brigid, and that’s never a place an author wants to be.

Despite its flaws, The Hollow Ground has a realistic, likeable protagonist who offers a unique perspective on the family drama that unfolds. It was enjoyable, if not difficult to read, and I would recommend the novel to fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as anyone who enjoyed the Irish stream-of-consciousness writing of Frank McCourt. Far from being a beach read, The Hollow Ground will keep readers thinking about it long after they’ve set it down.


Book Review: ALONE ON THE WALL by Alex Honnold

 photo 209eafee-8c03-4c51-85a9-af3f8d590dc1_zpsnl7jxknv.jpg Alone of the Wall
by Alex Honnold
with David Roberts
W.W. Norton, 2015
Hardback: $26.95

Reviewed by Mike Walker

The majority of books I review are poetry, often in translation, because I came to literary criticism via my career in translation. However, I’m also an avid athlete and one of the sports I pursue is rock climbing. While it may not have the household-name superstars of the NFL or NBA, rock climbing nonetheless has its celebrities (I’m not going to take the easy pun of calling them rock stars, but if you like, go ahead with that). No one within the cloistered community of climbing nor to the general public’s view of the sport is a bigger star right now than Alex Honnold, a man who has in a multitude of ways raised the bar on what is even possible in climbing. Along with journalist David Roberts as his co-author, Honnold has penned his autobiography and despite being only thirty years old, it’s an apt time for him to do this: While we can hope this certainly is not the apex of Honnold’s fame or accomplishments, he is at a zenith of sorts currently in his celebrity status and has become one of those people in the public sphere who is written about and spoken of enough that a formal, personal, account of himself is useful. 

Alex Honnold’s story is a compelling one: a shy high school student in California, he took up climbing at the local rock gym as a hobby and realized he was good at it—like, really, really, really good at it. A bright and able kid if something of an introvert, as a freshman at Cal Berkeley he would walk around the lush, beautiful, campus and think of the fact he could at will climb the sheer sides of many university buildings. He was drawn to climbing in the way that very special athletes at times are drawn to their sports, especially to solitary sports such as surfing, skiing, or obviously, climbing. With many great places to climb within the scope of northern California, Honnold couldn’t see the prospects of an engineering degree from Cal outweighing the chance to spend limitless time pursuing climbing, so he dropped out of one of the most-respected of American universities and set off on the road in a old van which would become his home and base of operations as he encountered climbing routes which challenged even the most experienced and hardy of veteran climbers. 

But it wasn’t simply the fact that Honnold was an exceptional climber nor one this dedicated to his sport that has garnered him the praise, the fame, and the awe he now inspires: Honnold engages in free soloing, the act of climbing without ropes to secure oneself against a possible—and often possibly fatal—fall. Those who do not climb probably conjure in their minds a climber with loops of rope in hand, secured to his harness, carefully placing strange equipment here and there to offer safety and protection while scaling great heights. This is, no doubt, a compelling picture, one still capable of making the heart quicken and the blood rush, but with free soloing picture instead the athlete climbing with only his climbing shoes on, using nimble fingers dusted with chalk to cling to the edifice on which his climb is engaged. That’s Honnold, that’s what won him fame at least, because he actually undertakes far more of his climbs commonly with traditional ropes and associated safety gear. Nonetheless, it’s not the frequency of his free solo climbs but the intensity, the difficulty, of those he’s made which have garnered him not simply praise but downright awe both within climbing circles and without. From a college drop-out Honnold has become the singular adventure athlete who is now a household name, sponsored to climb and explore, traveling the world doing such day in and day out.

What makes such a person?

Not just what provides the courage to climb unprotected, at risk to fall and die at most any moment, but what paved the way for that tremendous development of athleticism? What allowed for Honnold to evolve from humble, shy, kid in the shadows of Yosemite to an athlete who has extended the very thought of possibility in his sport? And what does such a person think about while holding to dear life via a hand firm to the scrappy side of a sheer wall of rock?

If ever there was a person who needed to write a book of nonfiction, it would be Honnold, so I was elated when he decided to commit thoughts to paper. I had long followed Honnold on Facebook and noticed that unlike many pro athletes I follow, he posted not simply stunning photos of himself doing awesome stuff, but lengthy, pithy, musings on the outdoors, environmentalism, and related topics. Many action sports athletes come off like your kid brother in college at best, but Honnold came off on social media like John Brinckerhoff Jackson or R. Edward Grumbine. His Facebook posts are normally upbeat and do (expectedly) promote his activities and his sponsors, sure, but they betray a scope and depth that draws you in to desire to know Alex the person just as much as Honnold the ultra-athlete. Honnold is often described in the media as being “humble”—I’ve used that word already in this piece several times and it’s hard to avoid in any profile on Honnold—but more than anything, he is likable. Youthful and good-looking in a rugged and slightly geeky sense, he comes across as literally a guy next door, the grad student or dude who works at the local outfitter you might pass on the street in a mountain town like Truckee. He doesn’t factor—in looks or words either one—as the person who has accomplished feats beyond what many could even dream possible, and all that is part of his appeal. 

Like many celebrities who have penned autobiographies, Honnold enlisted a co-author, however in his case his co-author, David Roberts, acts as a cross between interviewer and outside observer, allowing him to add in his own comments instead of just wordsmithing Honnold’s prose. I very much like this approach, as it makes clear both what Honnold wrote and also does provide the benefit of someone beside the subject contributing to an autobiography. Too often, the co-author is really a combination of editor and ghostwriter, but here he is a journalist adding additional insight directly to Honnold’s narrative while keeping that narrative Honnold’s own, not truncated nor scrubbed for clarity nor effect. Honnold, as his social media posts suggested, doesn’t really need an editor anyways, as he’s a very strong, honest, and engaging writer on his own. There are people with full-time jobs in print journalism who do not write as well as Honnold does, suggesting that should he ever tire of hanging off outcroppings of rock for a living, Honnold may have another career awaiting him. 

Honnold obviously knew his book would reach a readership beyond hard-core rock climbers. He speaks to them, to his peers, with inclusion of the argot of our sport and detailed specifics on his climbs, but he also defines his jargon and offers an open enough framing of climbing to be inviting to non-climber readers. I did not fully appreciate the challenge of that task until embarking on this review, where I am tempted to laud Honnold with a chronicle of his greatest accomplishments, detail by detail retelling how he took on a free solo and why it was so jaw-droppingly difficult, but I know those reading this review—a review of a nonfiction book with what I would dare consider literary value—are not climbers, or at least most of you are not. I could spend a couple tidy paragraphs explaining trad climbing vs sport climbing or how Honnold goes about his climbs and preparing for some of his most-grueling exploits. However, most readers here probably would rather understand the book and somewhat the man who wrote it than those things. Therefore, writing an entire book that can appeal to both the rock climber who admires Honnold and the casual reader is a daunting task, but Honnold and Roberts have pulled it off as well as anyone could hope.

The question most readers will want to walk away from the book with—especially those who are not climbers and encountered Honnold firstly via a 60 Minutes feature on him or some magazine article—is simply enough, why does he do this? Why take the risk, the great risk, to his own life? Why do something where beyond much question, any wrong move or simple mishap could lead to certain death? Is he a daredevil, does he have a death-wish? Does he seek the thrill of knowing he’s air and sky away from a very short fall down a very serious distance? Is he like the BASE jumpers who become nearly addicted to that thrill? Is that it?

I will give this much away: that’s not it. That’s not the reason in Honnold’s mind, but even more, it’s not the experience, either. It’s not a thrill he seeks nor that he finds up there, ropes or no ropes. It’s not part of the process, according to Honnold, to say it is would be akin to saying you attend a rock concert foremost for the lyrics, or watch a James Bond movie to understand British spycraft. The experience of free soloing is not a rollercoaster-type rush of pure excitement, Honnold tells us. 

And he’s right. I know this not only because he is beyond much debate the best authority to weigh in on the topic, but also because I tried free soloing myself this summer in North Carolina. What I attempted was much less challenging  by far than even the more mundane of Honnold’s efforts, but I found the same state of mind he describes: the experience is one of concentration, of effort, of exerting oneself’s in a deeply physical, tangible, manner. It’s a turtle’s craft, not a hawk’s. It’s more like carving a form from a block of stone than surfing or skydiving. It’s just as much careful and complete calculation as you’d expect when miscalculating could spell disaster. If anything, it’s the opposite of being a daredevil drawn to a rush. There is no doubting Honnold’s vast courage, but the foundation of that courage is one of confidence in his innate skill, not a haughty young adventurer’s bravado. 

David Foster Wallace, himself very accomplished at tennis, once wrote of the problem he found with the vast majority of autobiographies of pro athletes: You pick up such a book hoping the greatest of greats, the person whom you know of for their ability to hit a ball or kick a ball or run faster than you or . . . or whatever, to tell you how they do it, or at least what it’s like to do it as they do. You hope the secret of their super-human athleticism will be shared, that it can be decoded, that the immense joy they have for it or the great skill they have for it will be transcribed in a manner maybe we can put it to use in our own lives. And as Wallace rightly noted, seldom does that happen,if ever. 

On a personal level, to be honest and sincere, what I really have always hoped from athletes’ biographies is to learn if it’s the same for them as for me: I know Lionel Messi and Ryan Giggs play soccer far better than I can dream of myself, but I would at least know if what they feel, what they think, when out there on those hallowed pitches before the adoring fans is the same as what I experience in my own Sunday pick-up games. I think, at least for athletes at all levels, that’s really what we want from a sports biography—not a how-to of becoming a great athlete, but to know the greats really don’t differ from us so much, even if they’re so very much better than us. 

Alex Honnold comes closer to offering this intangible quality than any other sportsman has in any autobiography I’ve yet read. It is still not precise nor complete, but he does give a good idea of his experience. He provides the actuality of things, the fact that climbing—free soloing included therein—is a process that requires concentration and nimble movements but also moves its athlete into a zone of understanding, into a channel where the immediate outweighs all before and after it. I would liken it myself to the movements of a great cargo ship, so easy to steer in the endless ocean, but prone to serious problems in the confines of a foreign harbor where obstacles abound. You know, when a ship enters a harbor passage like that, a harbor pilot who lives there comes out to the ship on a smaller boat and comes aboard to steer it in to whatever mooring will be its destination. The change in mindset while climbing can be much like that harbor pilot coming aboard, removing the scope of focus from the very general to the native, specific, and instant. Honnold via the sketches of his climbs and his wholehearted efforts to answer the question he has admitted he’s quite tired of being ask—do you fear falling and dying while free soloing?—is able to offer very good summary of how climbing at the highest of levels shapes the athlete’s psyche. 

This book is worthwhile—not only for rock climbers or those who spend ample time out of doors, but for anyone keen on knowing how someone who has carved out for himself a rather unique . . . career, vocation, whatever we wish to say of someone who became the most famous person in his sport but simply dropped out of school to head for the hills and climb to his heart’s content sees himself and his journey. It is, in a sense, a stations of the cross of climbing but also of Honnold himself. And it’s an utterly fascinating read. 


Book Review: GODDESS WEARS COWBOY BOOTS by Katherine Hoerth

 photo ab8c02d3-6ed7-48e6-926f-561834145fa0_zpsbcjj2f4m.jpg Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots
Poems by Katherine Hoerth
Lamar University Press, 2014

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The deities of ancient Greece are transplanted onto the Texan landscape in Katherine Hoerth’s Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots. Here, love and womanhood bud, flower, and fade on dusty back roads and along the Gulf of Mexico. Hoerth’s new mythology illustrates her speaker’s transformation from inauspicious cowgirl into “a woman even gods cannot resist.”

The strength of this collection lies in pitch-perfect metaphors scaffolded on the most everyday objects. A failing relationship is likened to bugs swept under a rug or a tumbling Jenga tower. Tackle boxes and pickup trucks are elevated out of the mere pastoral. With these props, Hoerth unearths an unexpected harmony between Texas and Olympus. Grocery stores, deserts, and high school football fields provide a perfect backdrop for cosmological dramas – and the rugged men and women Hoerth portrays are indeed a match for gods.

We begin with a series of vivid scenes that present the speaker’s coming-of-age as a woman in the midst of leering men and temptation. Hoerth’s initial comparisons of herself to Artemis, Venus, and other leading ladies come across as fresh and clever. By the middle of the book, though, some repeated tricks become apparent in her lines of blank verse. There’s much ado about the napes of necks, and the taste of Eve’s apple and Persephone’s pomegranate become cloying by the fourth or fifth time they’re referenced. “All timeless myths unfold the same it seems,” Hoerth writes, leaving the reader to wonder if so much space need be spent on some of the collection’s repeated characters.

The poems that stray away from myth have much to offer in terms of glittering surprises. For instance, “Winter” immediately turns the season’s traditional themes of death and decay on their heads.

The trees rejoice the snow’s return,
and leaves of oaks fall to the ground
like satin lingerie. They revel
in the barren twigs that still reach up
for warmth without the crowning green,
the succulence of April fruits.

Hoerth is eager to show us the beauty in grit and the sweetness behind pain. At a flea market in Alamo, she catches “a glimpse of holiness / on the shine of a bruised tomato” and remarks on children, “palms outstretched for dulces … [whose] teeth shine silver.” The sensory overload of the crowd reminds her of Neruda and Whitman, and it’s true that her keen, forgiving attention (here and elsewhere) call to mind those poets’ depictions of the world.

But the collection’s most invigorating poems may be those where Hoerth presents her female speaker alone, embarking on road trips or creating new universes with sugar and seeds. There is a quiet fierceness to these meditations; in these moments, we are aware of the speaker embodying the divine power she calls upon from her reinvented goddesses.

My Venus felt the salt’s sting on her skin
and opened sunray shells with fingertips.
My Venus tasted ocean on her tongue
and licked her lips. My Venus swam through flotsam,
seaweed tangled in her golden hair.
My Venus rocked the ocean, made the waves…

Taking a page from the tornadoes and hurricanes that plague her home state, our speaker rumbles with the power to destroy and create anew. Here among the “smells of sweat / and oil fields,” over the twang of “another song with steel guitar,” she emerges from a youth that’s taught her how to fend for herself. No surprise then “when she opens her front door, steps out / into the world to try again, alone—”


Book Review: IF YOU FIND YOURSELF by Brian Patrick Heston

 photo 4196d00b-7872-4e79-85bf-193f9300ef46_zpsc1pbxhub.jpg If You Find Yourself
Poems by Brian Patrick Heston
Main Street Rag, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One thing Brian Patrick Heston gets right in his collection, If You Find Yourself, is how death creeps into the lives of children. How it changes them. Heston opens on this moment of change—summer around the way, “latchkey kids” in Adidas dodging traffic and abandoned factories, to reach the tracks, “having / heard of a boy who walked without / looking, how they collected him, / in pieces, for days.” The poem, “Tadpoles,” ends with a character named Boo saying “Watch / your back. Can’t never / tell when something’s coming.” And so we enter Heston’s collection looking over our shoulder, conscious that our “asphalt lives” are breaking into a larger, more destructive world.

Set in Philadelphia, we move with the speaker down each city alleyway, past every shot body, and somehow, still, come out in a parking lot watching a peacock. These poems are brutal, consuming, both long and weighted. Yet, I don’t want to leave these poems to themselves. In “Childhood” the speaker talks about the first dead man he’s ever seen, states, “I was nine. The man, about eighteen.” Is the speaker too young to recognize the closeness of their bodies? Or is eighteen truly old in this place, this poem? Can we only survive in this life if we distance ourselves from these moments?

Heston doesn’t provide much in the shape of answers. The collection divides into three sections, yet there is no climax then brevity, no mounting towards softness. Every poem has a monster. This feels realistic to me in a way most collections don’t.

In the face of the monsters, we find distorted beauty. For example, “The Trails” tells of a sixteen-year-old clubbed and hacked to death with a hammer, hatchet, and a rock by his girlfriend and friends. At the moment of impact Heston writes,

…At first Jay was yelling
but he went away, his voice turning
into a bird….
…it pulled me into a world so big,
I could barely keep myself from floating off.

Or during “The Robbery” when “Shahid Seri was shot execution style,” a single star “claws its way from a cloud.”

In the final poem, titled “If You Find Yourself On An Unknown Street” the speaker advises his sister on how to walk through the world safely. He tells her to avoid the man in a golden fedora and the “cindering eyes of rats / will shine your way.” Nothing will be perfect and safe. If is a matter of maybe in the collection’s title If You Find Yourself.  But what Heston does leave us is the possibility for explosive, internal survival—

you won’t see God, but your voice

will continue butterflying until
your mouth is unable to contain it.

Book Review: DO NOT RISE by Beth Bachmann

 photo f9a7b430-e451-467e-9f99-fe3b43aa913e_zpslb2loqlj.jpg Do Not Rise
Poems by Beth Bachmann
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

You be the garden   I leave             my boots in when I walk                  barefoot

after drought. Do to me what no one has done.

These lines come from Bachmann’s poem “garden, and a gun,” a title that brings to light the collection’s most powerful creative device—positioning nature beside the harrowing images of war. At first, this seems like a classic juxtaposition, the delicate punctured by the violent. But in a collection centered on the PTSD of soldiers, we quickly learn nature isn’t delicate—human or environmental. In war everything becomes contaminated, the garden next to the gun, the stars turning into animals, “the snow says, blood  -shed…is tired of fearing where to lie down,” “the flowers feel like sacrifice: opening and opening and / upending the golden light.” In this way, we know the battlefield is as wide and endless as every moment, stretched into a life, where “The reader is not unlike the killer: you could be / anyone. Beauty is futile.”

The repetition of images throughout Do Not Rise hints to the often incessant, haunting, and lonely experience soldiers endure. As readers we can’t escape in this collection the mud, the snow, the ominous you. Even within the poems, each word seems to lead to the next. This is especially obvious in the poem “daffodil,” where Bachmann writes,

bulb in the gut   butt of the gun I am   numb soldier suicide    is

everywhere        the narcissus    is narcotic   mother I am…

The lyrical quality of Do Not Rise only adds to the uncomfortable already present. In a way, these poems are made beautiful because of their sound, yet how can any of this be beautiful? But perhaps this rhythmic quality keeps us reading, and thus, reminding us of what the soldiers can never forget.

Bachmann’s titles sweep vast spaces: “revolution,” “privacy,” “dominance,” “humiliation,” in a Jo McDougall-like boldness, while the interior of her poems breaks down language to its barest of selves. She is calculated, fragmented, and hollows-out each word before placing it on the page. In “shell” she begins,

Fingers          in the mouth make mud

into a poultice to warn         the dead….

but the eyes. The dead we   burn; the living we bury in our faces.

Every word feels heavy and I read with hesitation, careful not to miss the purposeful pauses, the weight it takes to construct an image, a thought. I read as though watching the slow movement of a soldier’s lips, his shifting the physical on his tongue and knowing that each time, whatever he sees, will lead to the same picture, the same conclusions, like a revolving film. In light of Bachmann’s precision, we aren’t given certain specifics, such as individual characters, particular wars, or even a location we can point to on the globe. This isn’t a mistake. By emitting these details, Bachmann reveals the placeless nature of war—how it follows us home, chameleons into our daily struggles, and stays warm long after the guns have cooled.


Book Review: MORE MONEY THAN GOD by Richard Michelson

 photo 4a214628-59bc-48e7-8823-9271c7a25869_zpsqbxxk2sa.jpg More Money Than God
Poems by Richard Michelson
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Balanced on the threshold of misery and comedy, Richard Michelson’s More Money Than God is an examination of the intersections where personal tragedy and global suffering meet. In Michelson’s fourth collection, we find poems that seek resolution but settle for meaninglessness, all the while aiming for a little levity.

The book opens with a comparison between two holiday heavyweights (pun intended) – Santa Claus and the prophet Elijah. The men are sized up quickly. Santa gets the “weight advantage,” but Elijah comes from a storied tradition of “fire-tinged horses… whirlwind / and brimstone.” The two figures duke it out for a young Michelson’s admiration, but this coming-of-age poem ends with the speaker’s plea to his dead father: “Give me

the imagination to climb the fire escape
and look up toward the Godless Heavens
and to marvel at the ordinary sky.

It is in poems like this one that Michelson’s comic sensibility is at its strongest. He can lighten the mood without undercutting his attempts to wonder about big, solemn ideals. These sorts of dualities inhabit many of the images Michelson presents us – the darker side of mass hysteria, a man watching sitcoms the night his father is murdered, children playing loudly in the halls of the Holocaust museum.

This same lightheartedness that allows Michelson to complicate the concepts of genocide, erasure, and his own pained family history rings a bit hollow when turned toward other subjects. His poems on race, in particular, seem more tenuously situated than their counterparts. A vague reference in one poem to “the rotten mulatto” and other racial signifiers (quadroon, octoroon, one sixty-fourth) seems to be Michelson’s hesitant justification – or apology? – for broaching the subject of race relations. We learn a few details about Michelson in this regard: that the man who shot his father was black, that he is offended by the inclusion of a cocktail called the Dead Negro on a bar menu, that he is aware of a history of slave ownership even among Jews in the antebellum South, and that he is “unable / still, to determine the Dixie line dividing ignorance from evil.” In the end, these poems amble toward uncertain interpretation. Is Michelson, in recognition of the Jewish people’s historical exclusion from the category of whiteness, attempting to draw parallels to or even own the experience of blackness? The few poems we are given in this vein don’t venture deep enough to tell us. In a similar way, the poems in the book’s third section, “This Costume’s No Disguise,” all persona poems spoken by Death and his loved ones, wind up more an exercise in flash, bravado, and form than any genuine reflection on mortality.

Admittedly, Michelson takes on subjects in this book that are terribly difficult to address, and he does so unapologetically. These are poems that bring to light concentration camp tourism, poverty, and crime, while still allowing glimpses of beauty to peek through – like the children “who drew / such dazzling yet delicate butterflies at Terezin.” Each poem is a search for meaning, a question as to how we can possibly survive this world, as Michelson sets and resets new weight on the scales of justice. “I never said anybody’s blameless,” he writes, letting us in on the joke. Yes, this world is imperfect. There is everything to be fixed and mourned and commemorated. Still, Michelson reminds us, “the poem ends here // but life continues: yours, of course, and for now, mine.”


Book Review: WHITE VESPA by Kevin Oderman

 photo 3637620b-b629-4261-bf22-7d44536ae555_zpstjvo5mno.jpg White Vespa
by Kevin Oderman
Etruscan Press, 2012

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

Running from one’s problems doesn’t mean they are left behind and oftentimes there are new troubles waiting. In White Vespa, Myles travels to Greece to distance himself from the pain of his disintegrating family only to find himself mired in the complications of two siblings with a dark past.

Kevin Oderman begins his novel by introducing two characters in a state of transition. First, the reader sees main character Myles packing up the life he made for himself on the Greek island Symi. In the next section the story jumps back three months to delve into the thoughts of Anne, a woman crossing on a ferry to Symi, where she intends to face the man responsible for the trauma from her childhood. With the introduction of these two characters, Oderman begins the intertwining of two narratives taking place at different times until they conclude simultaneously.

Myles is a photographer taking pictures on the island as he works on a compilation of photos for a coffee-table book titled The Lesser Dodecanese. His heart isn’t in this work, though; he prefers to work on it lackadaisically as he busies himself with the island and the culture. Myles is trying desperately to forget but he is plagued with the inability to let go, which is why he cherishes his photographs: “Photos rise up out of reality, things forever fixed.” This is clear through his obsession with a photograph of a man on a White Vespa. It was this photograph that spurred his migration to Greece after the disappearance of his son and subsequent failed marriage. But his beliefs are challenged when, after becoming acquainted with Anne, he agrees to take portraits of her. These photos spark a change in Myles. “Even as illusions,” he thinks, “they had the feel of beginnings.”  With this the two begin a relationship. But the love they find together is threatened by the revenge she seeks upon her sadistic brother, Paul, who traumatized Anne by forcing her to watch as he committed an appalling act of violence.

In White Vespa the point of view shifts so the reader can understand the motivations of a broad range of characters, starting with Myles and Anne and then broadening to others, including Paul. From inside Paul’s consciousness, the reader gets to see him prey upon women on the island. Paul is a constant threat to Anne and everyone in the community. Experiencing parts of the narrative from inside of the antagonist is both interesting and disturbing. Aside from the main characters, the book is told from the point of view of characters with much smaller parts, such as two local children that live on the island.

The novel is beautifully subtle. All of the characters are observant and perceptive, absorbing the landscape and culture around them and musing upon it in ways that relate to their own situations. Many of the secret wounds of the characters are not blatantly spilled across the page. Instead they are told through small bits of dialogue that give insight into how much these characters, especially Myles, are hurting:

“Just this much loss,” he said, “and no more.”
Jim looked at him quizzically from where he leaned against a wall, watching.
“Until we turn our backs and go,” Myles whispered.

Another of the striking qualities of White Vespa is how it plunges the reader into the Greek lifestyle, from Myles going through the process of making Greek coffee to the tiniest cultural details, such as a Greek waiter’s hesitation at presenting the bill. This familiarity with Greece paired with the attentive detail to the landscape, from the sea to the caldera, offers the reader full immersion into the characters’ world.

As the story climaxes with a character’s disappearance and then settles upon a quiet yet satisfying ending that doesn’t necessarily grant the characters what they set out to accomplish, the novel shows that when people come to terms with their past, it isn’t always in the way they expected. Towards the beginning of White Vespa, Myles says, “You can only keep a story from getting sad by cutting off the end.” While it may be true that White Vespa is a testament to this, the ending is not without hope.


Book Review: CRYSTAL EATERS by Shane Jones

 photo 8a89ebb9-3c9a-418a-8cf4-71a913a6056d_zps7hvner9c.png Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio, 2014

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

I’ve been told time and time again not to judge a book by its cover. And I’ll come clean—I always do. I’m a sucker for beautiful cover art. It will force me to pick a book off the shelf every time. I grew up with that old adage, as I suspect most of you did: don’t dismiss or praise something solely due to its outward appearance. Dig deeper; find out if that beautiful cover matches the pages inside.

Isn’t it a nice feeling when you realize they do match?

The cover for Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is a vivid sight—a psychedelic wasteland full of fleshy pinks and the greens you see reflected only in the deepest of waters. Something I’d pick off the shelf, in other words.

A tiny cursive script winds along the top of the cover: “Crystal Eaters.” An intriguing title, and one meant quite literally. The characters in Jones’ novel are living on borrowed time—mortal, just like the rest of us. But the difference is that they are constantly reminded of it. These people are born with crystals inside them. One hundred, to be exact. When they’re injured, or when they age, they lose crystals. They are able to see their life physically leak out of them. They can make a tally with how many precious life crystals they have left. Getting older? 76…75…74…etc. Car crash? Let’s deduct 20 crystals from your count.

And when they lose all 100 of their crystals? They die. It’s a simple, elegant rule—almost like a videogame.

It’s a big, fascinating concept. But at its heart, this is a story about Remy, a young girl in the Crystal Village who tries to save her family from destroying itself. Her mother, who’s down to her last few life crystals—coughing up one every other day. Her stubborn father, who refuses to acknowledge the pain and sadness reverberating through their home. And her drug-addled brother, locked away in the nearby prison. Remy is on the hunt for the one thing she believes may save her mother, thereby saving her family. The mythical black crystal—never seen, but rumored to restore someone’s crystal count, to provide a sort of viscous immortality.

I can safely say that I’ve never encountered concepts quite like these in fiction. Remy’s quest is heartfelt and earnest, in a world filled with characters desperately and literally fighting against their own mortality. And the sentences used match the standout plot, for the most part. They each seem so handcrafted and purposeful. For instance:

With lips coated in glittering filth, dressed in red shorts with white trim, Remy mourns…Idle work trucks with their gun metal paneling appear two-dimensional in the evening light glimmer while Remy’s left hand shines wet with blood from the rocks that pinprick her palm.

She imagines her count as a loose pile of yellow in her belly, not a stack of a hundred red. No combination of touching her body helps, it just feels good.

While the language is certainly beautiful, Crystal Eaters occasionally falls victim to its larger concepts. It’s a short novel with a rich world, and Jones’ sentences—while imaginative and elaborate—sometimes confuse the reader instead of providing much-needed clarification. I read slowly and carefully, but still occasionally lost myself in Jones’ metaphor and form, asking basic questions like, “Who’s speaking now? To whom? Is this…even someone speaking?” There’s much loveliness in Crystal Eaters, but its beauty is occasionally muddled by its dense imagery.

Crystal Eaters touches upon addiction, estrangement, innocence, apocalypse, and a monolithic city that dominates the horizon and threatens to overtake Remy’s crystalline world. Though at its center is a tale about a family. Remy’s family, full of love and sorrow over their mother’s inevitable passing, crystals dripping from her one by one.



 photo 4b17c1ca-2ed4-45c7-82b4-0ee134c060ff_zps9a4hynly.jpg Closing the Book: Travles in Life, Loss, and Literature
by Joelle Renstrom
Pelekinesis Books, 2015

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Joelle Renstrom’s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, does not try to explain to the reader how to lose a loved one. This is not a self-help book, at least not in the traditional sense. It is a travel memoir, a coming-of-age story, a tribute, a book of essays where the author wrestles with the fact that our world is not fair or easy. In each essay, Renstrom grapples with the early death of her beloved father, a well-respected political science professor, using the best tools at her disposal: books. She turns to literary works like Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, Camus’ The Stranger, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Obama’s Dreams From My Father, as guides in how to process this tragedy that has befallen her father, a good man by all accounts. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” Renstrom is searching for the right questions.

The authors and books she incorporates into her search for meaning are sometimes the centerpiece, the driving force of the essay, but other times they are part of the background. The essays don’t become homogenous, which would have been an easy pitfall for such a focused endeavor. Renstrom’s prose is smooth and lively and, despite the somber nature of her subject, I found myself rapidly reading through these essays. In addition to her internal turmoil and the books she is reading, she pays close attention to place. In every essay, the concrete details of her surroundings ground the reader as the author travels through time and space: her family home in Kalamazoo, an apartment in New York City, a classroom, her father’s office, Scandinavia, or even a supermarket.

The opening essay, “A Sort of Homecoming,” tells the straightforward story of Renstrom’s world-altering experience of discovering her father is sick, then terminal, then never coming back. “In a strange strangled voice [Mom] says, ‘It’s not pneumonia.’ This is the moment that divides my life into before and after.” Suddenly, human mortality is all that she can think of. DeLillo’s White Noise is a book whose characters are also preoccupied with death. In one of the most powerful scenes in this essay, after a harrowing event in the woods, Renstrom enters the supermarket, struggling to find normalcy in this “after” she has been thrust into. She wanders, like a character in DeLillo’s novel, through the grocery store:

The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating, trying to right the squeaking wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbone sinking, chests caving.

Most of us ignore death until we’re forced to face it. With Renstrom, like DeLillo’s characters, we go right up to it and survive, but not wholly and only for an indeterminate while longer.

Renstrom taught high school and her class makes an appearance in a few of the most formally interesting and imaginative essays. In “Letters to Ray Bradbury,” Renstrom introduces her students to the genre of science fiction through his work, and documents the opening of their minds. In this series of epistles she is raw with her father’s passing and credits Bradbury for helping her find a way through the normal routine of life, “A thousand times a day I dissolved into pieces and, with your help, a thousand times a day I attempted my own resurrection.” The format of this essay allows for an intimate conversation, though one-sided, with the only person she called a hero besides her father. It is also a vehicle for proving the positive impact ideas in science fiction can have on otherwise disengaged high school students. In “Fighting the Sunday Blues with Camus,” Renstrom has a conversation with Camus as well as her students. This essay reads a bit like a lesson plan in absurdism, which turns out to be a fun read. In “How I Spent My Free Will,” the author flexes her comparative literature muscle and continues her dialogue with Camus, folding in Kazuo Ishiguro’s alternate views:

Never Let Me Go trades blow philosophical blow with The Stranger. I picture Camus sitting on my right shoulder. “We’re all going to die some day,” he says, breezy as autumn. “It doesn’t matter if or how much we hurt.”

Ishiguro sits on my left shoulder. “Yes, we’re all going to die someday,” he says mildly. “Thus, how we hurt is the only thing that matters.”

These essays underline the importance of debate, a skill her father, a political science scholar, no doubt taught her. Done well, a creative argument can be a balm and an inspiration, as well as a successful form for an essay.

In some ways, this is a selfish book, just as death is selfish. Renstrom rarely mentions her other family members and does not try to assign emotions to their experiences. She focuses intently on her experience with anguish and loss, her relationship with her father. This creates a sort of tunnel vision for the reader, enveloping them in the desire to know the unknowable. Though there is a sense of closure in the final essay, “The Stars Are Not For Man,” it is one of learning to live without a loved one. It is not about how it gets easier, or everything happens for a reason, or any of the other well-meant but useless things people who are grieving are told. Rather, with the help of the imaginative minds she admires, Renstrom comes to a place where she can bear to live, be happy even, though she always misses her father, wherever he is.


Book Review: THE STUNTMAN by Brian Laidlaw

 photo 3acff49d-3b31-48f3-8929-07bd853b261f_zpss1xujivf.jpg The Stuntman
Poems by Brian Laidlaw
Milkweed Editions, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Brian Laidlaw’s proves himself a fearless, acrobatic poet in The Stuntman. Bold and unapologetic, the poems weave layers of lyrical images amidst logic. Described as a literary miner, Laidlaw is both playful and somber. Realistic inside the imaginary. This complexity, so fluid throughout the collection, is accurately depicted through the cover artwork—a map folded into a bird. An object normally rectangular, straightforward, and directional, is now creased in ways that creates a new purpose, a new image. This is the work Laidlaw embarks on in his poems, investigating new ways in which language can function and thus, new ways we read language. If we find ourselves ever lost, it’s because we are still looking at these poems as a map.

The formal series, “[Telegram]” opens the collection: “THE EARTH BROKE OPEN CAUSE WE BROKE IT OPEN, FIRE CAME OUT IN THE FORM OF AIR.” Although we are unsure if these telegrams are being sent or are being received, the structure of the telegram evokes necessity and urgency. The capitalization reiterates this. Yet, the information inside the telegram, on the surface, describes a cause and effect, a statement with little surprise. On closer inspection, these lines dispel a misconception: the earth isn’t just broken, it is broken because we broke it. Further, with the fire as air, Laidlaw suggests what we see is not what is true, or more, that what we see is malleable.

Laidlaw’s reasoning continues, and in the second installation of “[Telegram]” he writes, “IF YOU’RE BLEEDING YOU’RE BLEEDING, THAT’S HOW CAUSALITY WORKS IN AN ENVIORNMENT” While this logic is relatively sound, he continues with “WAR MUST BE FUNNY BECAUSE PEOPLE STILL CAN LAUGH.” Here, there is a shift in the poem. We move from statements to deductions. The purpose of these deductions is no clearer than in the above line, for Laidlaw shows the darkness that exists when we look on the surface of most things.

While reading, I get the sense there is the general belief that the world and people outside the poems are unaware, often senselessly moving, relatively un-intelligent, or simply lazy. At times I reject this, but for the most part Laidlaw cautions against a “calling-out” or distancing. Instead, he shoulders half the responsibility by using the collective “we.” In “[Altitude Sickness]” the speaker describes the need to witness what is uniquely beautiful, forcing himself to notice the miniscule, how “the pinecone flowers/ like a rose & is beautiful, / but not the way a rose is…” The speaker acknowledges he is part of the problem, writing “today the dummies ripple around me, / I am part of the collective / idiocy…” Harsh, but at least we’re all in this together.

One of the strongest poems in the collection, “Terrarium Letter #3” balances Laidlaw’s whimsical logic with a central, grounding location. While the speaker in the poem feels lost, I don’t. We get concrete details about Minnesota and a character named Mr. Pocket, along with the speaker’s intentions as he begins, “I should keep a record of poetry’s death in my dumb-dumb heart…” It’s a sad and snarky poem, hinting towards our world’s inability to express emotions. The poem ends on this note, as the speaker asks, “Tell me what the billboards say in Wyoming, I’ve driven thru but I couldn’t read back then.” We’re left with the speaker reaching for clarity, yet clarity in a superficial and materialistic art form. It’s a modest victory, and one I doubt The Stuntman would even categorize as a victory. Which is perhaps the entire point—we’re always only halfway towards the goal, believing we’ve understood the entire picture, when in truth we’re just beginning to unfold.


Book Review: DANDARIANS by Lee Ann Roripaugh

 photo c27e7af5-b1d6-4dc8-9aaa-ac8448f50390_zpslr5fsgjl.jpg Dandarians
Poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh
Milkweed Editions, 2014

Reviewed by Priscilla Atkins

If the titular term “dandarians” is unfamiliar to you, don’t fret––it is not in the dictionary. “Dandarians” represents the way poet Lee Ann Roripaugh, as a young child, hears her Japanese-born mother pronounce the word “dandelion.” Verbal miscues may seem a neutral––even, a lighthearted––point of departure, but, on the contrary, it serves as the gateway to a radical example of a person, wounded deeply, young, finding her way to voice (and to life), by way of slow-motion, un-romanticized observation of nature: from rain, to rivers, to insects, to the human body, and more. Perspectives of speaker-as-child and speaker-as-adult are interwoven in this powerful collection that enacts the process of survival in writing truth to power. In this case “power” being the lessons (from adults) that directly negate or shut down the body-truths of the young child as she experiences her world. Reading these poems taught me and continues to teach me long after I closed the back cover.

“I have a terrible secret,” the child-speaker says in the middle of the poem “Animoany” (“animoany” is the mother’s pronunciation of “anemone”). And though the full shudder of “terrible secret[s]” is not revealed until close to the end of the book, this talisman, which here refers to a lump the child has discovered and fears cancerous, gets to the core of what informs this speaker’s perspective. Life treats us in nonsensical ways. For the young child, Life is most frequently encompassed in the family, especially in interactions and communications between parent-and-child, or amongst parents and children. In the nuclear family, lessons of grave impact occur, as it were, in passing. What might feel like a gift for the child-giver (“you have to say dandy, then say lion”) can be received as altogether other by the receiver: “her slap flares a stung handprint on my cheek like alien handprints in the TV show Roswell.” The Roswell image in the previous example makes tangible the soul-alienating, surreal-world-making lessons this child is taught about her sense of her existence. Lessons that take a lifetime to “un-learn”: Who am I? Is the world bad? Does nature mean harm? Am I bad? Is my voice, my experience, honored? Am I safe here? Can I feel safe anywhere?

At first glance, the pages in Dandarians appear dense with words, but the paragraph-like stanzas read with lyric energy and flow. Perhaps some would call these poems essays. “Poem” seems accurate for this reader for several reasons. Poetry collections generally do not work like chronologies, and this book is not chronological. Taking in each piece the way it is visually presented, as a singular event, encourages pauses in the open space between works, as well as between stanzas, some of which are only one-line long. Each piece stands alone but also multiplies in meaning as it mixes with its poem-neighbors in the rest of the book.

The thirty poems, falling into five sections, greatly reward the reader who journeys through them in the order in which they are presented. Early on, violent verbs (chip, chipped, chips, needled, grind, scalpels, scald, etc.) accumulate over the course of the poems, having the effect of initially stimulating and eventually lulling the reader. Part V, especially the poem “Feminint” (“feminine”), renders everything––both struggles and comforts––in the poems previous, not only as sensical, but necessary. In Roripaugh’s poems, I see flashes of myself as the parent unable to stay with the pain of my child (because I never learned how to stay with and honor my own). Dandarians reminds me how important a single story is. How many stories coexist, even collide, within one childhood. And how important the body is to our understanding of ourselves and the world, especially vis-à-vis reading the body back to its (and our) initial points of frisson. We have to return to the scene of the crime, to pick up the pieces. Roripaugh’s courage and persistence show us how to do just that. Although it is never named in this way, shame and shaming are subjects, here. Our bodies hold our histories, our her-stories (what did we push down, cut away?). If we honor their murmurings, our bodies can teach us how to go forward in peace, and whole; we need to put down our sticks and listen, for our lives.


Book Review: THE KINGDOM AND AFTER by Megan Fernandes

 photo 65800822-251c-4470-97a1-3540ea39b78e_zpsffikbmt6.jpg The Kingdom and After
Poems by Megan Fernandes
Tightrope Books, 2015

Reviewed by Alyse Richmond

Former Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship awardee, Megan Fernandes,is an American-Canadian poet and author of the full-length poetry collection, The Kingdom and After (Tightrope Books, 2015). She serves as poetry editor of the anthology Strangers in Paris and is the author of two chapbooks of poetry: Organ Speech and Some Citrus Makes Me Blue. The Kingdom and After greets us with a mysterious and worldly look inside Fernandes’ personal timeline, from family history to strange heartaches borne out of maturation. Her characters are sentimental, melancholic at times, and ask us to slow down, to absorb into shades of yellow and green, and to befriend unsolicited ghosts.

Often unnerving, Fernandes’ devotion to recounting her relationships is hypnotic. She employs couplets and lone lines with finesse, allowing the reader to carefully envision the rooms she enters, the landscapes she gazes upon, each stanza thriving in its own space, as in “Dig”:

…Inside, spiral of Alpine skies
dissolving into platinum wires,

binding screws and toffee cake teeth, rampant
suds of incandescent heat weave into tub dreams…

Her language is lyrical on the page and when read aloud, yet it maintains a sort of methodical sadness, an old clock that still ticks but somehow loses time—again, as in “Dig”:

…One day,

you will have a wife, and
I will have a daughter and

we won’t meet like this again.

Divided into three sections, The Kingdom and After is thick with a sense of place, whether it’s India, Africa, or nonspecific locations such as “the forest” or “the sea.” Each scene is vividly drawn and filled with animals and seasons, while her telling, unyieldingly honest language acts as a magnet. It pulls hands to our chests over and over again without allotting time to flounder in sorrow. Fernandes instructs us to move forward, keep connecting the dots in her life in poems like “The Baby”:

…when you finally said
you were a wreck and no,

do not touch me and left…

…I need to tell you
that sometimes,

in half-light,
I think about it.

This fresh take on nostalgia never lingers too long, and is balanced with “feel-good” moments, as in “Lung, Cheek, Air,” where she provides a morbid, but welcomed, sort of comic relief:

the vessel began to dive and the two grown men

on either side began to lose their shit,
I thought, “Great. I am going to die between

these two idiots, going to Canada no less,”…

Rather than indulging in the never-ending “whys” of yesterday, Fernandes dives into a world of free association, almost forcing answers to surface. In reading her title poem, “The Kingdom and After,” one can’t help but attempt to pull lines apart from one another like necklace chains balled up in a jewelry box:

…God, we are so poor.
I am so poor that any loud night is decadence.

Any boy on any staircase is Hollywood.

Her tone and use of the second person point of view are both confessional and accusatory, telling us what she feels we need to know in order to understand, to empathize. Fernandes wants her readers to form opinions about her characters, to judge them, in a way. And while blatant omission in poems like “Queens” can be quite alarming, it is implemented thoughtfully, generating flashbulb images and jarring juxtapositions:

…The swamp air is peached and
can be spooned, the animals are calm and low to the dust…


…I know what you make little boys do.

I know you are queens and not gods.

Fernandes engages us in her narratives unapologetically and sometimes without permission, but we walk away unable to keep from mulling over her words, her reasons for wanting us to see the things she has seen. Her reflective voice is present from beginning to end, though she is skilled at camouflaging it with blunt dialogue and lines that seem to trail off into thin air; making The Kingdom and After read as a box of old letters to home, fully immersing us in her unparalleled verse, displayed in “Rising”:

…I was in the center feeding the world
and the other ghosts were making themselves
bodies in the grass, rising
like puppets to come find me.

She closes The Kingdom and After in a beautifully abrupt manner— the way birds take off when startled—with “Jules et Jim, 2005”:

…She called you

chubby once, he had said and I hated you,
but you were dead and how could I, with you

all butchered up, underground in White Plains?

It is impossible for us, as readers, to dismiss the power behind Megan Fernandes’ stories that are strung together like a well-loved sweater— soft, ever thinning, and peppered with tiny holes that enable us to experience the chills of the not-so-sunny days gone by.


Book Review: LOVE MAPS by Eliza Factor

 photo 02a78057-fe1e-48a8-bad3-aabe022bb389_zps7cmcgonp.jpg Love Maps
by Eliza Factor
Akashic Books, 2015

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bingler

Love Maps, published in May by Akashic Books, is Eliza Factor’s second novel. Her first novel, The Mercury Fountain—about a utopian society that mines mercury in order to reap its “magical” benefits—was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice in 2012. Factor considers The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps as the first and third novels, respectively, in a series of three. Although both novels are thematically different—Love Maps, unlike The Mercury Fountain, does not contain any elements of magical realism—they exist in the same world, feature many of the same locations, and have many overlapping characters. Love Maps focuses on a more realistic (albeit often bizarre) portrayal of life: it is about dysfunctional relationships—whether they are romantic, platonic, or familial—and the consequences of unusual or unintended expressions of love.

Love Maps begins in Connecticut in 1997. Sarah Marker, the protagonist, receives a letter from her long-absent husband Philip, informing her that he will be visiting her after nearly eight years. During his absence, Sarah gave birth to a son, Max, of whom Philip knows nothing about. Suddenly, it’s 1981, and Sarah is a thirty-one year old painter living in New York City. She wakes up to a telephone call from her godmother, Tori, informing her that Tori’s husband, Conningsby, has died. And that is how Sarah meets Philip for the first time, at a funeral parlor where they are expected to pick up Conningsby’s ashes. The novel juxtaposes Sarah’s past with her present through chapters alternating in time between the 1980s and 1997, dominantly following her relationships with Philip and her sister, Maya.

The title of the novel comes from a series of paintings Sarah creates, which documents her various romantic relationships throughout time. They mimic a subway map and show different colored dots for locations of breakups and hookups. Factor has described Love Maps as being fueled by the “friction between pride and desire.” This statement is most obviously demonstrated by Sarah in 1997, for it is this friction that causes her to drink and thoroughly examine her past relationship(s), and decide whether or not she should forgive Philip for leaving her. She desires Philip because he is “decent,” but she is too proud to admit this because of how he has treated her (which was the result of how Maya treated him). A subtler version of friction can be seen through the novel’s, or Sarah’s, understanding of time: the 1997 chapters are in the past tense, and the 1980s chapters are in the present tense. This move warps our linear expectation of time, and shows that the past feels like the present to Sarah, and vice versa.

Despite Sarah’s role as the novel’s protagonist, her sister Maya overshadows her throughout the story. Maya is consistently selfish, manipulative, and violent; she ruins Philip’s life and destroys his relationship with Sarah. Her singing career is mildly successful; she makes her fortune by selling real estate. But it is her cruelty and failure that make her an interesting character, combined with the fact that Maya, a middle-aged woman, has never been able to properly imitate her idol, Rita Hayworth, let alone mimic her career arc. Sarah lacks agency as a character, and it is this that makes her less interesting; she responds passively to Maya’s continuous violence towards her and Philip, and she cannot effectively communicate with either of them or reveal to Philip that they have a child. But it is this that makes the novel more “realistic,” for these characters are flawed and confused—they’re not witty, and they often act like they’re still in their twenties. Despite my frustration with the qualities that made them more realistic, the novel was entertaining and suspenseful—mainly because of Maya’s antics—and the drama moved the story forward and kept me reading.

Factor intends to continue her series with the novel that connects The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps, which will focus on Sarah’s parents and their life in the circus during WWII. Sarah’s parents were intriguing characters in Love Maps, but we learned little about them other than that they were adventurous, secretive, and died in a plane crash. It seems that Factor has left us the best for last: her third novel promises to be much more ambitious, and even more entertaining than her first two novels—after all, she has been mulling over its contents for more than twenty years.


Book Review: ALL NIGHT IN THE NEW COUNTRY by Miriam Bird Greenberg

 photo 492e4d0d-12ce-4aa4-ba83-925acd7a39fb_zpsubqabdms.jpg All night in the new country
by Miriam Bird Greenberg
Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

What do we become when stripped to our barest selves? By delivering us into an apocalypse laden with memory of the world that came before, Miriam Bird Greenberg’s All night in the new country goes a long way toward answering that question. A catalogue of grisly images and bittersweet hope, these poems inhabit a new era that illustrates what could happen were society reclaimed by nature and ruled by caution, panic, fear, and desire – the most basic animal sensibilities.

Greenberg’s strength in this chapbook is her ability to craft sensual images in very few words. Her sweetheart steams “a pot of wild mustard flowers / by the roadside, rain sizzling on the lid.” Ghosts patrol “eagle-eyed / for half-smoked cigarettes.” Each detail adds a perfect note to the nightmarish lullaby she sings, her voice threadbare from “twine-bound tobacco that throat-parched and ember- / spat well enough to do anyone in.”

Among these images, hope and despair are juxtaposed to create a space wherein life is always at its most dire. This is a landscape where


go out to the woods (no – are sent) with shovels.
Fallen fruit sweetening the air, pungent
where saplings will sprout from the stones
in spring; but the pits they are digging
are meant       for a different thing.

More than just a play of birth against death, these lines employ an ominous correction and a dramatic pause to ramp up Greenberg’s creepy atmosphere. Her poems are delicate balances, the entrance of a violin’s soothing moan just before the worst scene in a horror movie. “Remember” introduces a boy who dies in a well; his friends “boil tea from melted snow” to deal with the lack of clean water. Young girls in “Knowing” wear necklaces of feathers “speckled like the guileless / faces of dice loosed / on dim floorboards just before / loss.” A few lines later, the dice become freshly-pulled teeth in a grotesque divination. In this new country, sweet comes always with grit, and smiles with blood.

Yet, for all its misfortune, there is real love here. A clever break ends the first poem’s opening line with a caring address to the reader: “Before the world went to hell my sweetheart…” Despite searchlights and militias, war and devastation, Greenberg’s new world retains compassion, even faith. She suggests

There are many ways to talk about loss;
it is like a body walking next to you in the night, ghost
of the lost one keeping you
company, or only your own grief stumbling
beside you in the darkness.

Later, a girl tells the speaker, “They didn’t say it would be / like this… empty as a smile.” Somehow, we are as comforted by our own melancholy as we are by strangers suffering the same calamities as us. If truly “there are ways to make violence / into an offering,” Greenberg accomplishes that transformation in these poems which remind us of the community we are driven to make even in the most dangerous and desperate of times. It is that natural urge to come together and go forth that saves the people of Greenberg’s new country, that sensibility which steels them to believe in the face of continued struggle:

The lavender fields where we first arrived
were forever symbolic to us, the scent
not somnolent but a promise
of our new future.


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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: PROXY by R. Erica Doyle

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: FUGITIVE COLORS by Lisa Barr

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

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: NEIGHBORS by Jay Nebel

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

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: ALL THAT YELLOW by Chuck Kinder

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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


Book Review: PICTOGRAPH by Melissa Kwasny

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

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: DOMESTIC GARDEN by John Hoppenthaler

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

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

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

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

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

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

out, slaps like a razor strop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: WANTING IT by Diana Whitney

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

My fear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: MY FRIEND KEN HARVEY by Barrett Warner

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The phony cry for poetry that speaks to our time

by Djelloul Marbrook 

Give us poems that speak to today’s issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

banks do their laundry
democracy shrinks
kids laugh in the garden

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A time revives,
I gather those embers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts leap from my hand.
I may never return.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


Book Review: CROW-WORK by Eric Pankey

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

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: THE SPIRIT BIRD by Kent Nelson

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

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS by Nayomi Munaweera

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

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: DAY UNTO DAY by Martha Collins

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

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

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

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

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

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

But him is whom our bed

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

this little time that is our life.

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

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

Over and over again
and again, time

after time, stone
upon hallowed stone.

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

less less. Not yet not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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