Book Review: PRAGUE SUMMER by Jeffrey Condran

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

Reviewed by Chris Duerr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na zdraví.


 

Book Review: THE AMERICANS by David Roderick

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

we failed to hear
that lion above saying,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: LUCKY BONES by Peter Meinke

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

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE ROOMS ARE FILLED by Jessica Null Vealitzek

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

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: ACCEPTING THE DISASTER by Joshua Mehigan

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

Reviewed by Jason Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING by Afaa Michael Weaver

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

Reviewed by Mike Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wind and air have forgotten magicians,

who can fly beyond the range of the compass”

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distance Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: Nevers by Megan Martin

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

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Late Lights by Kara Weiss

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

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Deathbed Dime$ by Naomi Elana Zener

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

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

 photo 0ae29e21-7c9c-4fd5-a883-936dfe2d93cc_zps60e566b9.jpg Interrobang
Poems by Jessica Piazza
Red Hen Press
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Jessica Piazza’s debut collection, Interrobang, begins with fear—specifically melophobia, the fear of music. But from the poem’s first few lines, it’s clear that this fear isn’t of just any music:

They’ll tell you there are only two ways: flawed
windpipes that knock like water mains behind

thin walls or else a lovely sound like wood-
winds sanded smooth—no middle ground…

The speaker is afraid of her own voice, of “Them” telling her she’s singing badly. Their critiques are endless and contradictory: “begin // again, again, again, now overwrought, / now under-sung; not done.” How apt a conflict to incite this particular collection, a series of poems exploring personal longing through the common lenses of love and fear. (What if readers think she explored these subjects “wrongly?”) But by the end of the poem the speaker seems to shrug off these ethereal naysayers, telling us: “Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” She keeps singing and her voice, once she trusts it, transcends her body and becomes a natural element. We breathe a sigh of relief; we’re being led by a strong, sure voice.

More than just someone of firm conviction, Piazza proves herself in this collection to be a master of form. From sonnets to pantoums to poems that create their own rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, the powder kegs Piazza offers us here have clearly been painstakingly arranged. In “Clithrophilia: love of being enclosed,” she longs for “wonders, harbored,” writing:

And I’ve ached for it all: a closet; a stall;
the crevice between your flesh and the wall.
A way to forsake this freedom I’ve heeded
too often…

Under pressure, forced to be economical with her words, Piazza employs bold images and makes riveting connections and conclusions. Each poem contains harbored wonders. The speaker in “Xenoglossophobia: fear of foreign languages,” like so many of Piazza’s speakers, directs the reader in how to process something she’s seeing. From her first description—“The background’s Brighton Beach”—to her last—“gray sea, white house, red slash that is her heart”—Piazza fleshes out a painting from sketches into full detail, shocking us by landing on the only vivid color mentioned.

We enter Piazza’s collection with the assumption that love and fear are separate entities, possible endpoints on a spectrum of human emotion. But by the book’s midpoint we reach “Phobophilia: love of fear,” a dystopia of grisly images. Piazza handles these atrocities with a surprisingly gentle touch:

The censors will reveal the body, but
black out the eyes…
                        Tomorrow, paradise.
Tomorrow, trucks idling at yellow lights
will dash, will crush the thousand hands that wave
unvoiced applause. And then: mass graves…
            Tomorrow, circuses
will drop the safety mesh, disaster checked
for falling flyers with brute prayer alone.
Though some will slip, we know the system will
be wholly good…

Here, fear and love converge like the interrobang, simultaneous interrogation and exclamation. For Piazza, they’re sometimes one and the same. And in case we miss the memo, she gives us “Eisoptrophilia” and “Eisoptrophobia”—the love and fear of mirrors—a few pages later. Fear mirrors love, and often we love the things we fear.

There’s no real equivalent “fear of love” poem (though we do get an entry on “fear of sexual love.”) Arguably, that’s because the whole book addresses a fear of love. Every poem stands as a testament to this anxiety surrounding intimacy, especially those that flesh out the romantic through-line of the collection. “People Like Us,” the first of three series of sonnets, tells the story of a failed love affair from the moment of attraction to the aftermath of separation. The speaker appeals in these poems to herself and her lover, but also to society at large:

People like us, we’re dust, we’re everywhere. We lie
in spaces between places praying madly for
each other, staying mad at one another…
                        Chasing careless fathers or
neglectful mothers…

For Piazza’s speaker, love is a series of failures repeated time and time again with new subjects for our affection. It’s a futile search to fill an emptiness that has always existed, tied up in a fear of our inheritance—we get “Patroiophobia” later. To explore the depths of love and loss, she depicts tragic characters like the mother in “Pediophilia: love of dolls.” Loss is marked immediately: “The week her daughter died, the room her girl / had occupied became a home for dolls. / The first an angel… It looked like her.” There’s unspeakable pain here, a frightening illustration of the lengths we’ll go to memorialize love in our lives.

But life isn’t always lived in these extreme moments, and Piazza chooses to end her collection with a return to unadorned reality. “What I Hold” begins with its own answer: “a glint—an intimation of what gleams.” The speaker resorts again to a description of her surroundings, but this time her words are almost clinical:

The birds I hear don’t sound like opera, not
like flutes or piccolos at play. They sound
like birds. Sometimes the birds are all I’ve got.

We wind through these sonnets past attempts at forging meaning from moments that “amount / to nothing but a blink over the lifetime of the eye.” “I’m not a girl who has epiphanies,” the speaker tells us before launching into a story of her meeting of a tired woman who begs for a ride home. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say that Piazza comes again to that eternal conflict—choose love, or choose fear? An impossible question, perhaps, but one that winds up central to her self-perception. Beneath its possibilities exists a clue toward the things we hold inside us:

And maybe to this day that choice still seems
like a hint, a minute’s inkling of what gleams.


Book Review: Riceland by C.L. Bledsoe

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

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

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

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

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

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

(from “Roaches)

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Discontinued Township Road
by Abby Chew

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

 

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We salvage what we can.

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

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

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


Book Review: The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert

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

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Blackbird by Caitlin Galway

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

 

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Little Heretic by Gerry LaFemina

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

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

 

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

—“Papyrus”

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

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

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

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

—“On Hearing David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’”

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

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

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

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

—“Dim Sum”

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

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

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

—“The Inherent Shortcomings of Metaphor”

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

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


Book Review: Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

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

 

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: How Blasphemy Sounds to God by Gary Fincke

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

 

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______

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


 

Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

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

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

 

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

 

Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

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

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

 

Reviewed by Mike Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff

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

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Reviewed by Jason Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______

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


 

 

Book Review: Bloom in Reverse by Teresa Leo

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

because maybe it’s exactly the thing

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

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

a bird that veers off, breaks formation

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

and snaps from the tree…

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

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

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

just another way to say
I disremember you.

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

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

…but check—

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

there still may be fiddleheads…

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

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


 

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

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

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Starlight Taxi by Roy Bentley

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



Reviewed by Jason Barry

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

– Roy Bentley, from the poem “Converters”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starlight Taxi is for those who want to journey with an unsettling companion on sketchy roads; for those who don’t mind a pinch of salt in their wounds, or the possibility of shaking their modus operandi with violence. Read Bentley if you can handle the songs of an experienced bluesman—a traveler of dark alleyways, a frequenter of factories and barrooms—and read him if you have guts enough to accept the facts on the ground, even if they’re ugly.
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Starlight Taxi is Roy Bentley’s fourth book of poems, released in 2013 by Lynx House Press (a non-profit and independent publisher based in Spokane, Washington) and is the winner of the 2012 Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Bentley, an Ohio based writer and poet, has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Council. His poems have appeared in prestigious literary magazines and journals, including the Southern Review, North America Review, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and many others.
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