Book Review: THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS by J. Jennifer Espinoza

There Should be Flowers
by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016

Reviewed by Kelly Tiernan

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Be Flowers is an unyielding call for compassion in a world that continuously tries to suppress the voices of marginalized groups. The collection outlines her journey from a young boy whose silence is the only protection to a woman who refuses to let the injustices and hardships faced by the trans community go unspoken. The journey is filled with pain, anger, and utter determination. Life and death, art and politics, identity and community are all perfectly wound into the fabric of this unforgettable narrative.

Life and death take a central position in the collection. The need for survival but also the lack of interest in what the physical world has to offer are at the forefront of the conflict in this narrative. In “My Body a Sieve” she writes, “After long enough it doesn’t feel like anything. / After long enough I forget. / Nothing can be retained if I am to survive.” Survival lies somewhere between life and death. In her version of survival, she does not feel she has the ability to enjoy life nor is she allowed the release of death. The speaker craves an escape from the uncertainty of life but understands the necessity to keep working for the rights of trans people and offering a voice to their experience. The poem “I Imagine All My Cis Friends Laughing at Tranny Jokes” exemplifies the connection of the political to the personal. She says, “I read another comments section of an article / about trans women and I want to die. To not exist. To let / them win. I don’t let them win.”

In the poem “What I am Given,” Espinoza writes, “I’ve never kept a diary / Because I want to forget everything” but it is clear that this book and these poems are a diary, open to anyone willing enough to listen. In an interview, Espinoza says that “I think I was writing this particular book on some subconscious level long before I realized what I was doing.” The fact that the book was not crafted to fit a certain aesthetic makes the collection feel honest without any underlying pretension. The language is accessible and allows for any reader to connect with the work. Regardless of race, sexuality, or gender identity, this is a rallying cry for women to stick together against the society that persistently pits us against each other and against ourselves. She enlightens her audience and creates an open dialogue between poet and reader.

Espinoza reminds us as we get lost in her most intense poems that “there is no such thing as apolitical art.” It is evident that emotion and creativity are not the only contributions to the poems, but rather this is a book is inspired by the ugliest realities in life that we push into the furthest corners of our mind. These stories are a much-needed reminder of our own faults. In my reading, the most striking lines appeared in “Poem (Let Us Live).” She begs the question, “How long can I keep tricking you / into thinking what I’m doing / is poetry / and not me begging you / to let us live?” The shift in tone is unmistakable as Espinoza steps outside of her narrative to address her readers and tell them that this is not just poetry, this is survival. Moments like these are strewn throughout providing obscene clarity in the absurdity of everyday life. Her unforgiving honesty calls out her readers for participating in the choreographed dance that defines reading and responding to trans literature. Espinoza’s narrative screams for her readers to do more for the marginalized and the struggling. Be the change. Let their voices be heard.


Book Review: OBJECTS OF AFFECTION by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough

Objects of Affection 
by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough
Braddock Avenue Books, 2018

Reviewed by Zoe Kovacs

Polish-born Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has made a life out of translating, that fraught, “imperfect art which depends on what Czesław Miłosz called ‘the conscious acceptance of imperfect solutions.’” It’s the leveling of two languages and two cultures on ground foreign to each, at minimum a compromise and at most a deliberate marriage of the two. One might understand her debut collection of essays Objects of Affection as a reckoning or a theory of translation— a translation that extends far beyond the written word and into the realms of identity, memory, and what it means to be an immigrant. Through eighteen essays, the focuses of which span favorite authors, childhood memories, Poland’s history of war and communism, family, transforming nationalities, swimming, and even hairstyles, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough presents the reader with a lovely, complex reflection on what it means to bridge worlds.

One of Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her ability to weave many threads subtly through the varying subjects of each essay. In “Afloat,” for example, which is ostensibly about swimming, the author reflects on the lakes and pools of her childhood in Poland before transitioning to the Massachusetts pond where she now swims. With all the artistry of a poet (which Hryniewicz-Yarbrough repeatedly assures us she is not), she explains that “no other activity makes us enter an alien element the way swimming does,” echoing back her earlier meditations on immigration, on immersing herself in an environment unfamiliar to her and adopting unfamiliar language and customs in the process.

Objects of Affection is salient not only because it represents the oft-demonized perspective of an immigrant at this particular moment in history, but also because Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s biographical essays function simultaneously as an invaluable firsthand account of Polish history. The reader gains so much insight from these pages about what it means to grow up in a country defined by its past of war, one where the threat of future turmoil lingers even during the calm. Echoes of the author’s upbringing among Polish communism and war-paranoia are unavoidably present in each essay. In “My War Zone,” Hryniewicz-Yarbrough recalls childhood games parodying Nazi invasions, and her youthful imaginings of America and Australia as impervious safe-spaces, which later transforms into a reflection on the effects of 9/11. Other essays—“In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden,” “Objects of Affection,” “Our Daily Drink”—utilize a favorite childhood writer, the author’s love of antiques, and a discussion of beverages she used to drink in Poland to analyze her personal experiences of freedom and choice after moving from a communist country to a free market economy.

Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has lived always in the crossroads and the in-betweens of communism and capitalism, of the “old” and “new” Europe divided by the fall of the Iron Curtain, of Poland and America. Interpreting her beloved author Zbigniew Herbert, she writes of “otherness as something positive that allows the traveler to notice what natives can no longer see. … Otherness has two senses: [immigrants/travelers] are obviously ‘the other,’ but the world we encounter is also ‘the other.’” The author credits her “outsider” position—one that never fully goes away, no matter how long she has lived in the United States, no matter how long she has stood at the axis between English and Polish—for rendering her as uniquely external to all of the things about which she writes. This vantage point grants her the ability to evaluate them at a distance that those of more singular identities are unable to. In Objects of Affection, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough transposes that balancing act between seemingly contradictory identities and experiences into the written word, into a collection that is as treasured for its beauty in prose as for its insights. She has achieved, then, a most glorious act of translation, a reconciliation of complexities that speaks many mouths into one voice.


Book Review: PERSONAL SCIENCE by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Personal Science 
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
Tupelo Press, 2017

Reviewed by Zoe Kovacs

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram writes under the premise that all of her writing is essentially a continuation of the same work. As she puts it in an interview with The Rumpus, her work is: “a single life project,” the books are “artifacts that mark points in time. They are discrete objects but my work itself is not discrete.” In a way, Personal Science is an explicit nod to that, a poetic formulation of the author’s method—and difficulty—of apprehending herself.

For all of its strangeness and abstraction, Bertram leaves anchors for the reader sprinkled throughout the book: clues in her titles, or moments of solidity in the form of prose, which remind us of what is at stake, or what she seeks at the end of this exploration. The book opens with an excerpt from John D. Niles’ Homo Narrans, which provides a context and a theme for the following pages:

Homo narrans: that hominid who not only has succeeded in negotiating the world of nature, finding enough food and shelter to survive, but also has learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain to times that are not present and places that are the stuff of dreams. It is through such symbolic mental activities that people have gained the ability to create themselves as human beings and thereby transform the world of nature into shapes not known before.

Bertram is a homo narrans, a being who forges her own world through mental cosmos of words, who straddles the physically inhabitable realm and the one that cannot be touched. She leads us through these worlds, through dreams and absurdity, in this bizarre portrait of existence that is at once detached and immersive.

But Bertram is aware of the confusion of a dream-world to an outsider, and she addresses this via poems like the first, appropriately named “A little tether” before she takes us off the ground: “A self being an object,            I can construct / the object I am trying to get to.”

Arranged in sections, the collection begins with “Legends like these I keep keeping.” The first few in this series are obviously grounded in Bertram’s “real” life (i.e., the physical one), but the reader is quickly plunged in and out of her dream world, such as “when we lie,” which is riddled with repetition and strange language: “with the wolves we cheeks / crimson / in bluedark bluedark       we  / cheeks underfoot / face up underside the princes the princes!” And just like that, the next page takes the shape of a prose poem, the recollection of a conversation with a friend, clearly back on Earth. The style speaks to the sometimes fuzzy barrier between our lived realities and our dreams, particularly in our more confused moments. As the book continues into the following sections, “Homo Narrans” and “Cerebrum corpus monstrum” the division blurs even more.

For me, Bertram’s strongest moment comes mid-read, in the form of a lengthy section of narrative entitled “Forecast,” in which the author details the obsession and anxieties of some third-person “she” surrounding plane crashes and air travel. After so much abstraction, the narrative feels extra crisp, like a photograph over-sharpened. Presumably, since the piece is otherwise set in the autobiographical “I,” the “she” is Bertram herself, but the third-person creates a sense of detachment and distance. The remaining poems after the prose section are by and large even more abstract than those before it, often featuring themes of violence.

The reading experience is almost that of solving a puzzle, similar to the fraught quest of self-understanding. Bertram employs different variations of the same symbol between the chapters, which may denote levels of abstraction in the poems—or not. She riffs on the same titles, staying true to theme while twisting related ideas under the light to give us new perspectives.

Personal Science keeps the reader guessing, on a quest to assemble the pieces Bertram has provided into a means of understanding an undoubtedly complicated portrait. It is a reckoning, a fragmentary way of examining our complex, confusing existences, and an exploration that leaves readers questioning themselves, too.


Book Review: AT THE WATERLINE by Brian K. Friesen

At the Waterline
by Brian K. Friesen
Ooligan Press, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

Inspired by his firsthand experiences while working on the Columbia River, Brian K. Friesen’s debut novel, At the Waterline, is a reflective, multi-faceted story. The book follows Chad, a man with a penchant for the water, through his mission to find himself after his tragic divorce. A student of literature and writing, he lives in his broken-down boat and works in a shop on the marina, spending much of his time examining the people around him, comparing them to himself, and searching for meaning in every interaction.

Upon starting the book, every reader should appreciate the two sketches Friesen included in the front. The first is a guide to the landscape of the novel, and the second offers a diagram of boat anatomy. Both proved helpful along the way. Much like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, being able to follow the characters of At the Waterline around the simple contours of the map added a layer of entertainment. And the boat diagram is something I always felt Moby-Dick lacked, as a book that employs an abundance of nautical terms. It isn’t exhaustive, but as someone unfamiliar with boats, I referenced it frequently.

The novel contains a large cast of characters, and everyone in the story is unique, pulling dread, resonance, and love from the reader in their own corresponding moments. I found the most compelling characters to be Moe, a Native American allegorist, and Barry, a former priest. Moe is only present in the novel for a short time, but his spirit persists through the characters’ thoughts and memories of him for the duration of the story, continuing to influence their lives even when he’s gone. Barry’s story is surprising; as someone who is introduced subtly and initially seems to be a minor character, the layers Friesen continuously adds to enlighten the reader of his fall and return to priesthood are unexpected, yet delightful.

Friesen does a touching job of nudging characters towards realizing the flaws in their present situation and begin tending to their self-fulfillment. He often does so with interpretive metaphors, such as the moment Moe details the fish he found in the bilge of his boat. Nobody (including Moe himself) can fathom how a fish could have gotten there; Moe insists that it isn’t about how it got there, but the significance lies in the very nature of the fish being there at all. This seems to be an implication of Moe’s isolation (or fish-out-of-water-ness) as a Native American adopted into the marina life. For Moe, the fish appears to be a significant component in motivating his departure from this life to one more faithful to his own culture and religion, as he decides to head back into the water and sail upstream.

Chad is clearly the main character, and as a recent college graduate, a divorcee, and a man searching for himself, he’s relatable on many levels. Unfortunately, he’s often lost in the alternating of points-of-view—and with upwards of a dozen characters, this happens a lot. While each character Friesen manipulates is no less interesting than the next, I wanted to hear the major events of the story filtered through Chad, rather than cycle through the eyes of each character. I craved development for Chad, but this took time.

I enjoyed every character’s unique path because Friesen fuels their motivations with authentic fretfulness and surprising reactions, but several of them only directly interact with one or two of the other main characters. Coupled with the shifts in POV, it made for a relatively uneven narrative and lessened the impact of many of the greatest events.

Despite the issues, the book is a success because of the passion behind the prose. Simple moments are turned into religious experiences in the blink of an eye, like Barry’s concerned empty fuel tank turning into a blessed sailing trip that presented him with an abundant river of flying Coho, a fish thought to be endangered.

Even with the waterfall of sound, he felt peace and a great fullness in his chest. There was music in the wind. A song that played in the sails and jib sheets and whatever it was that pulled him upstream. The din of traffic from the highway blended with the crashing of the water, but there was music in that, too. What he could only think of as a violent peace had taken hold of him, as if peace were not silent at all but rather a wild, roaring blessedness.

Even Jack, the ancient aggressor of the Marina, has some poetry to offer with his wisdom in the rare moments he isn’t paroxysmal:

Sometimes a line is all that stands between you and the chaos that the wind and the river can bring. It doesn’t matter how big or fancy your boat is. If you don’t have lines, you’re fucked. You’ve got no way of tying yourself off to anything, and life on the water just isn’t possible unless you’re hanging on to something else, whether it’s a dock or an anchor or your own damn balls. Without the line, you’re just drifting.

Brian K. Friesen’s At the Waterline is pervaded with rot, knots, and rust. It shimmers with history and knowledge from experience and shared tales. It’s about the people at the waterline, how they treat each other, and how they treat themselves. It shows us how the marina life both bolsters and degrades you. Above all, it’s a story of running away, living in stagnation somewhere in between life and death, and finding a way to leave it safely behind you in the wake of foam.


Book Review: I DON’T THINK OF YOU (UNTIL I DO) by Tatiana Ryckman

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)
by Tatiana Ryckman
 Future Tense Books, 2017

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman is a poetic novella about love, heartbreak, and distance. Over a short but powerful 110 pages, Ryckman details a gender ambiguous narrator’s struggles in a long-distance relationship. Striking imagery and metaphors construct the longing the narrator feels when away from their love. They see their partner in every object and conjure an ideal of them to fill the empty place in their heart. Even in the fleeting moments the couple is together, the narrator is unsatisfied because of their struggle to reconcile the idealized version and the real version of their partner. This novella forces the reader to feel the compulsion and allure of a cyclical and often miserable relationship.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the language. It’s a novella, but it almost reads like a poetry collection with a non-linear plot and short blocks of text artfully arranged on each page. In a way, it reminded me of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey; the author strikes strong emotional chords with short blocks of text. To achieve this emotional affect, Ryckman carefully arranges her words to put the reader in the head of the narrator: “Alone in bed, I’d say, I’m dying, over and over again. But nothing happened. My cells rearranged at the same rate.” This line exemplifies the common dilemma of existing despite feeling like reality is crumbling around you. To further connect with the reader, the ambiguity of the characters allows anyone into the story. At one point the narrator speaks of their love: “I hadn’t thought of you as The Other, only as The. As Me.” Without gendered pronouns, this line shows only the reaction one feels when they are deeply connected with someone. Through her language, Ryckman recognizes the complex and deeply human feelings of infatuation.

Along with strong language, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) delivers a powerful message about what it means to love someone. So many times, long distance or not, people find themselves idealizing others, such as when the narrator is laying in their bed at night: “Your turned head faded when I watched my memory too closely, your lips disappearing from my wrist when I thought I had felt them.” It’s passages such as this that depict the construction of a fantasy to fill the holes around a fleeting memory. Because of their tendency to fantasize, we get the sense that the narrator is never truly happy. Ryckman speaks to the complexity of human relationships, which is more nuanced than a traditional love story where the couple lives happily ever after. With this distance and romanticism, comes an accurate depiction of modern love. The narrator mentions many times “the impossibility of a relationship neither of us were willing to give up anything for,” which speaks on how people put their job before love, but at what cost? The narrator doesn’t even seem connected to their job, rarely mentioning it despite that it keeps them from their partner. It’s in the tangle of idealization and unhappiness, that Ryckman successfully depicts the difficulties of a long-distance relationship.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) is a brief but insightful read, perfect for a rainy Saturday or your morning commute. It’s original, written with its own poetic style, working to draw the reader in through emotions rather than plot. The content is relatable, heartfelt, and oozing with intricacy. Ryckman made me reflect on my own love life and the love lives of others. And that’s what a good story should do: force you to look at the hard truths in life through empathy.


Book Review: ALL THE NEWS I NEED by Joan Frank

All the News I Need
by Joan Frank
UMass Press, 2017

Reviewed by Casey Reiland

The fear of aging is a common concern; our society stresses over it and the media highlights it as a negative process. Finding wrinkles and gray hair is a disastrous discovery, and there is always the worry of becoming too static. This cycle of life is natural, so why is growing older perceived as something to be ashamed of?

Joan Franks’ newest novel, All the News I Need, confronts this question by suggesting that these concerns have become too normalized and prevent people from believing fulfillment can be achieved after a certain age. Through the development of conflicting characters and the raw, poetic language, Frank captures the anxieties of aging and prods the issue from every angle until there is a satisfying acceptance, until readers peacefully come to terms with the ever-tugging of time and moves on.

The book centers on Ollie and Fran, two lonely people in their mid-sixties attempting to maintain a friendship while simultaneously engaging with and finally facing their vulnerability. Fran is an outgoing, indiscreet widow, while Ollie is a reserved and self-conscious gay man who has recently lost a lover. The clash of Fran’s and Ollie’s personalities is comical and endearing. The two of them create a list called, “The Rules of Aging,” a set of promises to ensure they will not act bitter towards the youth or allow themselves to grow careless with their looks, Ollie revealing his nervousness about having “strange body odor” and the two of them banning the phrase, You kids get off my lawn! from ever leaving their lips. Their banter is witty and blunt, keeping the reader grounded by the candid voices of the characters.

The language of this novel also forces the reader to be as rooted in the story as the characters themselves. The sentences are short and crisp, yet they are packed with images that heighten the reader’s senses. While Ollie and Fran hike through the mountains near their homes in San Francisco, the narrator illustrates the scene around them, describing, “Afternoon air like cream up here, sky a secret, shy blue as if surprised to find itself naked so soon.” The portrait feels almost like a flowery stanza: gorgeous and concise. Yet, the diction juxtaposes the concealed turmoil of the characters that they fail to vocalize. Frank depicts Ollie and Fran’s interactions to be relaxed and smooth, but there is also a restraint in their conversations, their true desires and terrors only appearing they are alone with their thoughts. The tension builds as each chapter switches between the two different voices of the characters, the shifts unsettling and highlighting anxiousness.

When Fran suggests that they travel to France together as a way to escape their mundane lives and to hopefully boost Ollie’s confidence, the easily identifiable trope of self-discovery begins to raise its head. Yet, Frank veers away from this easy trope by challenging the characters to push up against their flaws and scrutinize their insecurities. Fran admits that she feels isolated and struggles to connect with people, and Ollie can only see his fragility mirrored in the bleakness of the cities they visit. This cumulation of frustrating moments leads to a fight in the middle of a street where Frank is unapologetic with her characters, her words undressing their doubts about sex, self-acceptance, and mortality until they are naked and quivering in front of one another. Even when Ollie and Fran return home there is no promise that they will change, Frank exemplifying the universal struggles that humans face when it comes to admitting mistakes and weaknesses.

The rocks that Frank throws at her characters are large and brutal, but they force Ollie and Fran to reexamine their previous scars and repair themselves. This novel does not coddle its characters. It does not suggest that chasing an Eat Pray Love moment during hardships will bring gratification or happiness, rather, it emphasizes that the only way people can change is if they look internally and analyze their shame and fears. Age does not define our perseverance or stubbornness, it is our thirst for a fulfilling life that does. All the News I Need invites readers and characters alike to not mourn the loss of youth, but to find that sense of joy and juvenescence in others around them, encouraging people to modify their lives for the better and to thrive in their existence no matter the bleakness of circumstances.



A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales
by Josh Emmons
Dzanc Books, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

Josh Emmons’s first collection of short stories follows a man, a woman, an artist, a tiger, an egg, and more through a menagerie of tales consisting of both brand new concepts and classic fables rethought with refreshing imagination. A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales is aptly titled, as it exposes the reader to stories and vignettes that never slacken the reins, slinging eloquent and witty prose from beginning to end, all the while serving the world a measured dish of surprising lessons.

What makes Emmons’s book so successful is how diverse and balanced it is. Nothing about his writing style feels stale. Many writers fall into character and vocabulary patterns, but A Moral Tale consistently feels raw and unexpected with each new story. Every detail he employs is natural and necessary, constructing innovative plot architecture with firm support. Even Emmons’s very short stories are no less impactful than any other entry. “Jane Says,” a mere three pages-long, has a thirteen-year-old male prostitute hired by a different breed of deviants who pay him to do things like study math while the client does her taxes. Brevity does not steal poignancy from Emmons.

While reading the book I was also thrilled by the new bits of mythology and biblical allusions I was introduced to. The most informative or philosophical pieces for me were “Nu,” “Arising,” and “Humphrey Dempsey.” In “Nu,” I learned about Egyptian mythology, specifically Nu, which are “the primordial waters from which all matter originally came.” “Arising” takes us back to the time of the biblical deluge, but does it from the point of view of a tiger who is distracted from looking for his family and finding the ark by the same snake who tempted Eve. It’s one of the most overt moral tales, but it overflows with originality, especially for a story that’s been told a million times. “Humphrey Dempsey” is another case where Emmons takes a new spin on an old, familiar rhyme. He reimagines the story of “Humpty Dumpty” with an older hand, making the popular children’s song into an allegorical story of politics and deception. The moment after the reader realizes how clever Emmons is with these three stories in particular is the moment Emmons feels like a teacher to look up to and wait with hands under seat for the next word he has to offer.

The most classically dramatic selection was “Concord,” which read with a sensation akin to that of watching a romantic drama film. As a stickler for sticking to one point of view, this story drove at me with its three rotating main characters, but eventually showed me how beautifully it can be implemented if executed with skill. Emmons alternates fluidly in a way that brings each character’s path to a meeting point for a kismetic, hopeful effect. And his ardent conclusion is unforgettable:

And some of us were meant to find that one person, that fabled corollary who’d make the inadequacy we feel vanish due to the profusion that would be us, but there was to be no guarantee that the timing would be right or the foreknowledge reciprocated or the luck ours to do anything about it.

Josh Emmons is talented and versatile. Every turn of A Moral Tale’s 152 pages is uncomfortable and surprising in the best, most moving, even inspiring ways, which is why I say with confidence that it easily makes it into my top five books of the year. This isn’t a read that must be “taken on,” but rather a slick collection of episodes to carry with you, to keep on your person and meditate on its immortal messages.



The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down
by Meg Pokrass
Etruscan Press, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

One can only hope that their book review could be as concise and affecting as one of Meg Pokrass’s stories in her collection, The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down. Sporting fifty raw and honest vignettes, this text beckons the reader into explicit glimpses at the frailty of relationships through the powerful recollection of daydreams, failures, and awkward almosts.

Most attractive in this book are Pokrass’s clear, minimalist moves within each compact story, lacing them tight with care. Broken down into their short, flash-fiction form, there’s a sense that there’s more to each moment, yet they feel complete; we have all the information we need to connect with the specific emotions she sprinkles forth. On that note, while being labeled “flash fiction,” all of these read like radiant poetry. Especially at her most concise in cases like “Sit In Here,” all the fixings of the prose poem are at work.

He lives in dreams with me but he wants it to stay that way; a scene in a movie right before the middle when the popcorn is still perfect. I’ll follow him into a deep blue anything.

With a slight detachment from the rest of the story, she mesmerizes the reader with acute metaphors that are exquisitely enigmatic.

All of the entries in this collection achieve this poetic success, but “The Light-well” is particularly thoughtful, supported by a strong sense of symmetry. Pokrass opens with an image of a light well in the middle of an apartment complex, where pigeons fly down, make nests, and rarely make it out again. The core of the story lies between the main character and her roommate, Zoe, who was recently mugged and needs to be cared for after breaking her shoulder and suffering from the trauma of the event. The narrator calls the rain-flooded light well “pigeon suicide.” This seems to be paralleled in the lives of the two characters; it’s not clear whether the narrator is male or female, but their same-sex relationship is implicit in one of her final lines:

She nuzzles my neck, and I decide there is nothing more thrilling than calling the conservative parents of my lover, people who voted for Jesus in the last election and wear red, white and blue hats and slippers—people who will end the wonderful times we are having here.

These details enlighten the reader to the couple’s own light well struggle, whether they’re rained out by Zoe’s conservative parents or the more aggressive public, represented in Zoe’s maiming.

“The Light-well” and many others exhibit Pokrass’s ability to write with stripped-down prose. She’s able to open up her often nameless characters into real, bare beings within a limited word count, occasionally using sexuality and sexual encounters. “The Cooling” is a passion-fueled piece. It features Kim and Todd, both still kids in school (although their age isn’t stated), who seek intense and risky ways to spend their summer days together. In one scene, the two spy from a tree as the newlywed neighbors fornicate. Pokrass tackles this young erotic experience with tact:

Watching it makes Kim squeamish, so she watches Todd’s mouth and her face gets hot. To quiet her pulse, she thinks about her brother’s face, her brother’s return. They watch until the end. Then they slide off the tree.

This story is just one of many examples of Pokrass’s dabbling with carnal scenes and passionate characters.

Pokrass’s book makes a hellacious footprint when regarded as a holistic entity. The stories will make a reader feel a thousand different moments all at once. Like walking circles around the Picassos at Centre Pompidou, this collection gives off a multi-angular vision of provocative, real life. It’s a little absurd, sometimes hilarious, and reminiscent of early-twentieth-century cubist delirium.

The quick and potent constituents of The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down feel like racing up a tree and grabbing onto bough after bough, each one cradling a nest of wailing chicks. As you pass them, the chicks make their first jump, but you’ll never see them touch the ground.


Book Review: THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

The Bowl with Gold Seams
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Apprentice House Press, 2016

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, is a touching work of historical fiction which focuses on themes of acceptance, love, and overcoming tragedy. Campbell tells the story of the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania that served as a detainment center for the Japanese ambassador of Berlin, his staff, and their families during the summer of 1945. The narrative is told from the perspective of Hazel Shaw, a Quaker who is employed at the hotel after her husband, Neal, goes missing in action while fighting the war in Japan and her father passes away. The story’s prologue and epilogue show Hazel’s present life in 1985: She’s the headmaster at Clear Spring Friends School faced with the decision to accept the resignation of a black teacher, Jacques Thibeault, who she believes is falsely accused of sexual assault by a troublesome student. If she does not accept, she risks being fired herself. After the prologue, we go back in time to Hazel’s past at the hotel. People are hostile towards the detainees, but Hazel sees them as equals, so she befriends them and gives them books. When the war ends, Hazel is grief stricken to find out her husband is dead, so her friend Takeo Harada leaves her a bowl that has been broken and repaired using gold seaming.

The title, The Bowl with Gold Seams, captures how Hazel’s life (and the lives of others) can be broken and repaired just like the bowl: “This bowl has been broken and mended many times. It has lasted. And so will you.” Hazel lost her husband who fought in Japan, but she is kinder to detainees than anyone. Hazel’s ability to transcend surface-level judgments illustrates how anyone is capable of looking past borders to care for and respect each other. Despite being set over half a century ago, the themes in the book are completely relevant for our contemporary world and the struggles surrounding acceptance. I appreciate how the framing of the story in 1985 demonstrates how past experiences affect the decisions we make in the present. Hazel stood up for minorities in the past and carries her experiences with her to the present, stating, “Jacques is a fine teacher. And I have to say it—he’s one of our only minority teachers, too. We can’t sacrifice him to slander and extortion.”

However, as good as the story is, I must admit there are minor issues with the writing. Some important scenes are glossed over, such as the progression of Hazel and Neal’s relationship and the moment Hazel’s father dies—both are told in compressed time. The book is only 215 pages, perhaps if it were longer and if Campbell had let those moments linger, these scenes would resonate more. Adding to the short length, certain descriptive details are left out, making some passages confusing. The opening paragraph is vague and left me with no sense of location because there was limited description of scene and action. There were several places in the book similar to this that left me wanting for clarification and description.

Despite these issues, The Bowl with Gold Seams emphasizes the importance of standing up for minorities, and it’s hard to criticize a book with such a strong and relevant message. Hazel is flawed like all of us, but she is kind to the detainees even if it risks her safety, and she stands up for Jacques, even if it means getting fired. It is a quick read, but not the easiest read. The reader will be looking to feel a bigger emotional impact in certain sections, but the ones that do resonate will open your eyes to empathy and beauty.


Book Review: KUBRICK RED by Simon Roy

Kubrick Red
by Simon Roy
trns. Jacob Homel
Anvil Press

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

In his memoir Kubrick Red, Simon Roy presents readers with a beautifully honest account of his family history, revealing the past in tandem with facts about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As Roy’s debut memoir, Kubrick Red was translated from French to English by Jacob Homel and received the Independent Publisher Book Award for Best First Book—Nonfiction. The award is only fitting for such a unique and memorable work. Admittedly obsessed with Kubrick’s film because of its eerie relationship to his family’s story, Roy has penned a horde of behind-the-scenes facts about The Shining that complement his memoir. He has perfected a delicate balance between film buff trivia and personal narrative, ensuring readers’ growing emotional investment in the story.

Skillfully echoing The Shining’s unnerving progression, Roy’s story builds its shock value and poignancy with increasing velocity. “My deep examination of this magisterial work is akin to spooling out a thread behind me,” Roy explains of his favorite film. At first, Roy’s efforts to compare his own life to such an infamous thriller seem impossibly dramatic. But as the book continues, movie trivia subtly informs his family history. Roy keeps readers in the dark about his family past just like the film steadily divulges the Overlook hotel’s history. It is not until halfway through the book that readers learn Roy’s mother had a twin sister. Roy then delves into the question: “Does fiction simply mirror an increasingly violent reality, or does it stoke the flames by inspiring increasingly barbaric acts?” He demonstrates how The Shining broaches the theme of mirrored or inspired violence through the use of twins, doubles, and repetition.

Clearly, the idea of cyclical trauma is replicated in Roy’s family narrative. His mother and her twin are only the simplest connection. Roy also explains that his mother’s depression was the result of psychological trauma, causing her to “repeatedly relive the pain [she] underwent,” another representation of cycles similar to The Shining’s plot repeating past events. In this way, the movie facts and Roy’s personal life synergistically construct a complex narrative, each chapter piecing together readers’ understanding of the material. Roy’s choice to include specific film facts prevents family drama from appearing overbearing and cleverly allows the story to intensify, mimicking the film.

Not only did this book make me want to return to The Shining, it also gave me the most original and personal account of mental illness that I have read to date. This was not a generalization of depression and mental instability forced on a character. It was a sincere portrayal of psychological trauma and how it can affect an individual and generations to follow. Dedicated to his mother, Roy’s story chronicles her lifelong depression, reflecting on events from his childhood to more present years with an evolved understanding of the disease. Roy is adept at placing his readers in a scene and subtly shifting the focus to a mature emotional standpoint on the experience. “Above us, on the next floor up, an apathetic woman in her early forties was in her bedroom. My mother slept like the dead, knocked out more than numbed by Ativan. And I, the self-centered virgin, kissed a girl for the first time,” he writes, using simple observations and juxtaposition to portray regret and new found sympathy for his mother’s struggle.

As a work of translation, Kubrick Red seems to stay true to the original manuscript thanks to its translator, Jacob Homel. Homel’s efforts to ensure that the translation is as genuine as possible are evident and honorable, especially considering the profoundly personal content of the book. At times, adjectives and descriptors were noticeably precise, like when Roy described his mother saying, “She was a mix of intuition, desperate solitude, and feminine sensitivity.” The specificity of these adjectives, or phrases like “birthing home,” seemed to be evidence of a very conscious and thoughtful translation. This only served to strengthen readers’ connection to Roy as a narrator.

Obviously, this is a book any fan of The Shining could dive into. But aside from that, it is a truly fresh memoir that should not be missed by readers in general. Kubrick Red is the kind of book that, like its movie inspiration, will leave you thinking for days. In a way, the novel will haunt its readers after they put it down, if not because of the horrific details then certainly because of its originality and ability to connect with its audience.


Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Contents Under Pressure 
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Broadkill River Press, 2016

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

Ellen Prentiss Campbell gives us a taste of several coming-of-age conflicts in her short story collection, Contents Under Pressure. From the metamorphosis of college student to real-world-dweller in “Sea Change,” to the challenges of midlife crises and divorce in “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects,” and even dealing with the denial of life’s bookend in “Dance Lessons,” Campbell grounds us in reality, unearthing the drama in otherwise mundane facets of school, work, love, and family.

The book takes us to relatable places, but one story does so with a surprising twist. “Sea Change” is my favorite story in the collection. Campbell introduces us to Adrienne, a college student studying marine biology. She’s the kind of character many of us identify with: passionate about her major, but wishing the college struggle would lead her to something more fulfilling. We’re full of envy when Adrienne impulsively answers an ad that reads, “Seeking adventurous scientist for underwater exploration. Willingness to relocate a prerequisite.” The tale takes us down a path where Adrienne’s “underwater exploration” has another prerequisite—becoming a mermaid through medication designed for physical alteration.

With this story, Campbell plays with the idea that you should be able to become what you’re passionate about. It reminds me of my friends and me, how we grew up with big dreams and constant distress over potentially using our degrees in writing, fine art, and accounting to manage a Domino’s or push grocery carts. “Sea Change” is at once the epitome of escape from the real world and the ideal post-college destination.

It’s also the only story in the book that takes a science-fiction route to makes its point. Among a series of ordinary narratives which feel drawn from life experiences, it’s surprising how well Campbell performs with more fantastic subject matter. It reminds me of a Vonnegut adventure; it’s moored by concrete issues, but fearlessly wanders into strange territory to achieve a swimmingly impactful metaphor.

Other standouts are the stories that feature previously established characters. “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects” are adjacent in the book, and each follow Meg and her husband, Walker, an older couple who continuously experience the vicissitudes of marriage, teetering on the prospect of divorce.

Campbell’s strength is developing characters over time, which she proves with these two stories. Her ability of splicing together marriage conflicts in a chapter-like design displays endurance with the drama. Specifically, she shows us an uncertain couple trying to regain a sense of youth. They dress up like JFK and Jackie for a Halloween party, where an authentic fortune-telling gypsy warns them that “something is going to happen,” and to “be ready.” In “Entangled Objects,” the uncertainty is prolonged in their home, where the reader is allowed to feel Meg and Walker’s seniority through thoughts of their grown-up children and refusing to forget old affairs.

The book opens with “Depth Perception,” a story that attempts to criticize psychology and adoptive parenting, which Campbell is able to do by the end of the story, albeit with sacrifices to flow and character development. This story emphasizes Campbell’s difficulty with developing characters within the frame of a short story, showcasing a big plot with contrived players.

Despite the issues with the title story, this collection also contains gems like “Bicycle Lessons.” Here, Campbell accomplishes the great feat of manifesting the mind of a child; she acknowledges when something in Lydia’s small world is out of place, but retains the ignorance that keeps her from fully comprehending the reality of a situation. Campbell intentionally withholds information, never explicitly telling us the reason for Lydia’s father’s spotty home presence, aside from the fact that he stays at someplace referred to as the “Lodge.” By the end, there’s a strong implication of her father dealing with depression, accompanied by the metaphor of “learning to ride” that holds up the whole story:

I mounted the bicycle and rode fast toward the Lodge, as though I would be in time to see him, as he stood on the fire escape, stretching up on his toes, preparing to dive, preparing to fly. As though, if I hurried, I could catch him as he fell.

It’s a story that lets your nose leave the page only to sigh and contemplate its binding, final words.

Contents Under Pressure shows us Campbell’s ability to frame poignancy, especially when she takes the time to carefully recollect life’s steepest humps and unfold her characters across stories. While it’s not a perfect book, it’s a successful kicking-off point for establishing her potential in the fiction realm.


Book Review: HEADING HOME: FIELD NOTES by Peter Anderson

Heading Home: Field Notes
by Peter Anderson
Conundrum Press, 2017

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

In Heading Home, field notes are more akin to poignant vignettes, setting Anderson apart as a master of poetic fiction. What is truly remarkable about Peter Anderson’s writing is his ability pull the reader into the experience with him and then leave them deep in thought following the briefest scenes. In simple snapshots, he provides sharp observations of his surroundings. And whether those surroundings are people, places, or things, Anderson always manages to breath life onto the page. Alert and meditative, Heading Home is a book that makes you want to reread every page and share each one with a friend. With every vignette, Anderson colors his writing with wit, contemplation, and care. He will turn the invasion of a killer raccoon into a noir crime scene and simultaneously ask you to appreciate the varying responses from his 8- and 12-year-old daughters. He will piece together a list of Spanish phrases to use at the bar while leading you through an arc of emotion.

From a scripture-citing barista to Barbie dolls, readers can enter each vignette and expect to encounter bold characters and unique imagery because of Anderson’s ability to see significance in the ordinary. “A dust devil whirls up from the south, leaving a thin film of red sand on the windshield. I could wash it all away, but it softens the bright light, so I let it be—this remnant of the wind made visible,” Anderson writes in a piece titled “Espresso in Kayenta.” These minute moments, like sand gathering on his windshield, make Anderson’s work feel genuine, authentically representing one man’s particular experience in the American West. Perhaps he was just stopping for coffee, but Anderson is attentive to the details of that stop that made it a significant memory. And it is with this cognizance that he is able to imprint that memory on his readers as well.

Moreover, Anderson’s awareness extends to writers that came before him. He understands the wilderness writer trope that he might be forced into and shuts it down with “Letter to Jack Kerouac.” Yes, Anderson is a writer inspired by his travels, but his road is not an imitation. Rather, Anderson effortlessly transcends stereotype with double-consciousness. “Some time ago, I drove past the sign that says there is more in the rear view than I will ever see through the windshield,” he writes. The quote, while indicative of Anderson’s age and position as a narrator, also demonstrates his consciousness of something else. That maybe he could have been typecast as a formulaic wanderer once, but he has decidedly continued writing about his travels, now with reflective growth. Unlike Kerouac, Anderson’s field notes hold an underlying search, not for abundant possibilities, but for refuge in the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life in the Midwest. “I’ve given up anywhere for somewhere, which strikes me now as a fair trade,” he explains in his letter. With this mindfulness, Anderson’s travels remain striking and never feel overused.

Equally remarkable is Anderson’s powerful narrative voice, composed of swift wit and outstanding diction. “If the lower elevations called me now and then, it was only until the nightmares came: visions of après ski tights and fur jackets wandering the newly fern-barred streets of this ghost town turned resort,” he states. Before readers can even begin to appreciate his subtle humor, Anderson is on to another vista (in this case, “the old cabin surrounded by an invasion of doublewides”) or piece of quick wisdom. His writing is concise and rapid, keeping readers vigilant. This straightforward but clever voice enables Anderson to capture so much thought in such short passages.

This is the kind of book you pick up and finish reading before you’ve realized. Each field note brings new insights into the importance of little things, forcing readers to dive deeper and deeper into thought as the book continues. Rereading scenes is unavoidable, not because Anderson outwits his readers, but because each piece can be appreciated individually and then as part of a poetic compilation. This book left me feeling refreshed as a reader and covetous of Anderson’s sharp observational eye.


Book Review: AN ACCIDENT OF STARS by Foz Meadows

26225506 An Accident of Stars
by Foz Meadows
Angry Robot Books, 2016

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

An Accident of Stars is the kind of fantasy novel that’s been a long time coming. As more and more articles pour out about bias in science fiction and fantasy, citing lack of diversity—both in the gender and race of the author and main characters— it’s nice to see new stories and voices emerging. Genderqueer author Foz Meadows achieves wonderful diversity in her first novel of the Manifold Worlds, creating characters that are resilient, likeable, and completely original.

The novel opens with Saffron, an average high schooler in the modern era. Wasting no time to make a statement, Meadows plays out a scene many young women are familiar with: casual sexual harassment and the subsequent underwhelming response by those in power. Admittedly, this book does have instances where such statements are a bit heavy-handed. For example, on page 185, Meadows writes:

It required more mental agility than Saffron currently possessed to instantly confer identical status on a fourteen-year-old brown girl who was shorter than she was. Not, she thought hastily, that race has anything to do with it. The thought that it might, even a little, left her feeling deeply uncomfortable… “Not seeing Viya as a queen because she’s not white is racist,” she whispered into the pillow. “I’m being racist. Stop it.” She felt bad because it was true… if she didn’t admit she was doing something wrong in the first place, how could she possibly fix it?

Such bluntness isn’t uncommon in fantasy novels. Terry Goodkind’s novel, Faith of the Fallen, has often been cited for heavy political undertones and outright political messaging. While this heavy-handedness isn’t tiresome, it’s worth noting that Meadows does set out to tackle some uncomfortable conversations in her novel.

It’s significant also that all the major characters, including the main antagonist, are female. The normal setup is reversed. The group of unlikely heroes contains only one male character, who has a support role. It’s fascinating, as an avid reader of fantasy, to see this implemented so seamlessly. Meadows’ characters are vibrant individuals who command attention and authority. There are no one-dimensional characters here. It begs the question; does anything change when the roster is made up almost entirely of women instead of men? Yes and no, which is exactly the brilliance in Meadows’ decision. As readers, we see women (especially women of color) with qualities such as strength, control, and adaptability. Their versatility is both natural and inspiring. Yet, this doesn’t change the traditional narrative much because these characters are still adventurers, facing challenges the way any protagonist might. Their creative solutions and their unique personalities aren’t determined by their gender, but by the merit of their individuality.

The story itself follows a classic “defeat the monster” plotline, but the challenges on that path again draw on Meadows’ aptitude for women, and the metaphors she creates are characteristic of the current feminine climate. When Saffron embarks on a test to join the upper ranks of an all-women council, she’s faced with beasts. To defeat them, she must reach inside herself and find the courage to overcome adversity. In a very literal sense, she embodies a new, strong body and charges forward to victory. This resonates with something many women are familiar with, the forming of a tough hide to navigate the world, to fight for their rightful place, and earn their own way. It was wise of Meadows to utilize such a metaphor, instead of allowing her characters, like so many male versions before them, to run into battle brandishing only a legendary sword.

Finally, we must touch on Meadows’ unique magic system. While not thoroughly explained, the magic of Meadows’ fantasy world seems to rely heavily on the connections characters make with each other, which is different altogether from magic systems which flourish without interaction. This magic performs functions like healing, teaching language, and communicating across vast distances— things for which we have technology in our own world, and yet cannot function without human interaction. The point Meadows makes here is well-appreciated, and the parallels can’t be ignored. She not only comments on controversial topics like race and feminism, but also digs into our dependence on technology. The characters in the novel feel absolute agony when their magic is unavailable to them, and we as readers feel that, too, because it hinders the progress of the story. Stifled progress, whether in a fantasy novel or real life, is a roadblock to be overcome. While her statements about race and gender are sometimes overwrought, this statement is much subtler, which works in the book’s favor.

An Accident of Stars is a courageous, timely novel. Foz Meadows does a remarkable job tackling thought-provoking conversations while weaving together an interesting, full world headed by resilient women. I highly recommend it for any lover of fantasy.


Book Review: BRAWL & JAG by April Bernard

brawl and jag Final.indd Brawl & Jag
by April Bernard
W.W. Norton, 2016

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

Reading April Bernard’s fourth book of poetry, Brawl & Jag, is like staring down the barrel of a gun. She writes about loss, despair, and anger with sharp-tongued wit and humor. Bernard’s language is not soft—her words bristle, pages upturned by grief.

When it comes to relationships, Bernard is not gun-shy. The book begins with “Anger,” a fierce poem that fans the flame of childhood vexation. The poem is unflinching in its recollection of instances of anger in the speaker’s adult life, beginning with her holding a shotgun in a farmhouse kitchen. “I hoisted the shotgun to my shoulder / and aimed but did not fire it at the man / who had just taken my virginity like a snack, / with my collusion, but still—” The speaker may not have fired the shotgun, but her rage in being brutally enacted upon by others rings through these pages.

Anger is described as “dripping hot,”“the heat like a wet brand” in the speaker’s chest when she is fired from work, when she faces the wind instead of an intruder with a butcher knife, when she loses a fellowship, when she throws a pot of hot coffee that just misses a man’s head.

These instances ricochet back to a memory of the speaker’s father spanking her at the age of twelve and she recalls, “my vision went red-black and / I did not forgive.” Instead of forgiveness, the speaker steps over the line to feel the pleasure of wielding power herself.

In Brawl & Jag, Bernard’s weapon is her words which shock and command, delivering a blow of emotions. At times her fight is playful, working the space on the page like a performance stage with persona poems such as “Bloody Mary” in which she claims “They never / loved me enough / It must be said: They were a disappointment.” Bernard uses literary and historical references to dig into the hidden and shadowy parts of the self.

At times these poems are less playful and more like a saw cutting through the center of the speaker’s grief. Her first instinct is to hit back, but tenderness arises from her desire to protect others from pain. In “City-Born,” the speaker considers a newborn “grappling with the cutting away of the veil, / the letting in of the almost-hurt that is light—” as they confront a harsh, new world.

As the book progresses, in poems like “City-Born,” the sour bite we have grown used to as readers sweetens. “In your first evening in this world, / pomegranate fills our mouths. It is a little tart; / let me taste it first for you.” In bittersweet moments such as this, the speaker’s humanity endures. Brawl & Jag is as physical as poetry gets on the page, clawing at intimacy and tonguing the soft marrow of grief and despair to taste the “sluice of sweet delight” running through them.


Book Review: A BLISTER OF STARS by Jason Irwin

317rYWc5OOL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ A Blister of Stars
by Jason Irwin
Low Ghost Press, 2016

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

Winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award for Watering the Dead (Pavement Saw Press, 2008) and author of the chapbooks Where You Are (Night Ballet Press, 2014) and Some Days It’s a Love Story (Slipstream Press, 2005), Jason Irwin’s most recent collection, A Blister of Stars, delights with glimpses of beauty rooted in experiences of illness and survival.

In a hospital room, the ostomy bag is “a translucent pouch / that shimmered like a jellyfish / in the overhead light.” A room where, pages later, the speaker wakes from surgery, “my mouth a desert; / my eyes two stones / sunk in my skull— / some small part of me had died; some small part was reborn.” A stark hospital room transforms into the edges of a dreamscape, where nightmares are pitted against fear. In “Hospital Room,” the speaker asks:

Who am I in this night, soaked with fever?
Whose eyes watch this shadow play
of animals; the skulls of little children
dancing in the green-haloed light?

At times, the grinding needed to stay alive strips the speaker’s identity away. Nightmares and the wildness of nature conjoin at the blurred edges of our speaker’s reality. “I am swallowed by the light / that hangs above me / like giant insect eyes.” The speaker’s struggle and endurance in sickness stretches to contain the animal instinct to survive.

Irwin ensures that his readers are conscious of how closely we live our days alongside the possibility of death and how quickly time slips away from our grasp. In the collection’s opening poem, “Ouija Board,” our speaker asks when and how he will die. “After that I waited, counting down the days and weeks. The years.” What starts off as pretend-play, his cousin asking the “usual questions” about “boys and marriage” and “toys under the Christmas tree,” soon lights on more sinister questions about death:

I lay on the couch with a towel over my face
and instructed my cousin to pretend it was my funeral.

It would be on a Tuesday.
Would it hurt? Would there be blood?

The book pivots around these questions, the speaker sometimes falling into despair, and at other times, wonder, but always with a tender vulnerability. In “Reborn,” the toll of sickness on the body is compared to a ritual that marks the passage of time as growth, in inches. “I can mark time by the surgeries; / the way my grandmother / marked my growth / with pencil slashes / on her kitchen door frame.” Here, we find an aching for normalcy and celebration in the everyday, for what Irwin describes as “making our way one step at a time.”

In this collection, time passes quickly and our speaker ages at what feels like a brisk pace. A new awareness of our human fragility and a deepened appreciation of our day-to-day existence arise when the nights spent in hospital rooms end. Towards the close of the book, the strongest impression we are left with, however, is a sense of waiting—still—to begin living. In “The Place You Once Belonged,” this hesitation is evident:

the morning aromas of burnt
toast, coffee, cigarettes,
and the view from the living-
room window, where you watched
the seasons, waiting for your life to begin.

Even in his improved health, the speaker seems to hold back, disengaged from the outside world’s intense experience of living. In his careful eye for moments of beauty and risk, we can sense his yearning for a more intrepid existence. “Outside a boy is standing in the street jumping up and down / on each crack in the pavement, fearless.” We begin to wonder if our speaker will also challenge the stories he is told about death.

A Blister of Stars begs the reader to do more than survive, to hold onto any sliver of innocence still present in our lives, and to mine our day-to-day existence for moments of fearlessness and wonder. In a poem titled “One Day,” he warns:

One day we’ll be gone from this earth,
our bodies eaten by the very ground
we tread, turned over, shovelful by shovelful,
but until then we’ll continue to search
for that one moment in our lives
when we can say with confidence: “I am. I am.”

Like the severed bird’s head our speaker finds and carries in his hand in “The House Sparrow,” Irwin asks us to scoop up moments “with no thought of time” and carry them “like a coin, or talisman,” reminding us that we, too, can be as fearless as the boy jumping on every crack in our street until the moment arrives where we are able to finally say “There’s nothing more I want or need.”


Book Review: THE CANOPY by Patricia Clark

clarkcanopy The Canopy
by Patricia Clark
Terrapin Books, 2017

Reviewed by Marie Orttenburger 

I often found myself without breath while reading Patricia Clark’s new collection of poetry, The Canopy.

The poems quietly knocked the wind out of me.

The collection dwells in loss and the ways death can take things from us, both slowly and all at once. It characterizes the incremental erosion of memory, the whiplash of unexpected loss and what enduring both feels like.

The poems in The Canopy are incisive, and Clark’s calm delivery is stealthy. It deals blows to the gut not unlike the kind felt in grief. The speaker endures them as unflinchingly as Clark delivers them, “letting the knife settle where it will, blade nestled between a rib and a rib.”

Clark possesses a talent for capturing stillness–accessing revelations through meditations on nature. The speaker walks through forested landscapes, alive with movement and wildlife. The natural environments are usually introduced as a refuge but inevitably reflect the reality of death. Such is the way of grief, who visits whether or not you greet her at the threshold.

Still, there is solace to be found in nature’s frank disposition. The poem “Double Vision” begins “Nine long years ago I had a mother . . . I walked in rain, in sun, not thinking of her then not knowing as I do now in bones, fiber, skin, what a body takes, then leaves.” It ends with the sight of a red fox, mid-stride, “a live gray thing struggling from its mouth to get away.” Death pangs in an emotional context–the speaker’s anniversary of becoming orphaned, her reflection on life before that day. But in nature, death is truth: quotidian and essential. We are not so separate from nature.

The poem from which the collection gets its title compares life’s brevity to the window in which forest wildflowers grow and bloom in spring, before the trees’ canopy closes above them. The canopy is the end for the spring ephemerals, but the forest will continue to grow, “up and up / to white oak, American beech.”

While death and grief are certainly central focuses in this collection, it has other gifts to offer. Clark’s poetry is also playful and joyous. As it mourns loss, it celebrates steadfast love. In “This is for the Snow Drifting Down,” Clark deftly uses language to float the reader, like a snowflake on the wind, through a harsh winter scene, landing safely into a bed with “S”:  “Twining vines, that’s what we are, holding on like English ivy, this is for that fasthold, tentacle, grip.”

For all the pain in The Canopy, the poems are a delight to read. Clark is truly a painter of words, efficiently dropping the reader in a scene and a feeling with a turn of phrase.


Book Review: RUST BELT BOY by Paul Hertneky

RustBeltBoy_Cover-194x300 Rust Belt Boy: 
Stories of An American Childhood
by Paul Hertneky
Bauhan Publishing, 2016

Reviewed by Kelly Kepner

Paul Hertneky exemplifies Western Pennsylvanian familiarity in his new essay collection, Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood. Hailing from a place known for its bullshitting, a gift explored in the essay, “Humility and Its Opposite,” Hertneky masters the craft to tell his stories like a true Pittsburgher. The tone of the book feels conversational, and each essay flows together like a chat between friends, or like rivers winding, collecting bits of the shore, and converging gloriously at the point.

Rust Belt Boy includes twenty-six essays that vary in content from early Springsteen concerts, to Priesthood, pipe manufacturing, and football. Throughout the collection, Hertneky balances flawless prose, and humorous personal narrative with historical research, to describe Western Pennsylvania with an energy that rivals that of the 19th century industrial boom, which put Pittsburgh on the world map as a manufacturing epicenter—a reputation that still colors the shores of its rivers today.

As a baby boomer growing up in Pittsburgh, regional history never made it onto Hertneky’s class syllabi. In his essay, “A Turning Tide,” he writes, “We were taught to look ahead, not back. Conquer nature, explore the frontier, exploit the resources, manifest destiny; if anything truly important had happened here it would have been included in the textbooks that came from Boston.” This collection gives voice to the unspoken past. The pages glow with flecks of historical context that leave readers wondering how they had never heard any of this before.

Of the collapse of the steel industry, he writes:

 The steel industry alone lost nearly 300,000 jobs in the blink of an eye, setting off a widespread exodus, one that equaled the largest internal migration in US history. Ironically, roughly six million African Americans fled into the north when the industrial revolution began, and the same number of industrial workers moved out when the era ended a hundred years later. But the Great Migration north took fifty years to unfold, whereas the emptying of the Rust Belt took place in only twenty years.

Readers are reminded that Pittsburgh left its thumbprint on thousands of structures and bridges, first drafting, then manufacturing, and shipping the pieces far beyond the reach of its own murky rivers. The manufacturing company where Hertneky’s father worked, American Bridge, drafted plans for the Astrodome, the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Woolworth Building, the Sears Tower, Hancock Towers, Varrazano Narrows Bridge, and San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.

“The Nation’s First Economy,” the eighth essay in the collection, reveals the unique origins of Harmony and Economy, small towns upriver from Pittsburgh that were founded by George Rapp, a self-proclaimed prophet from Germany. It is an essay devoted entirely to historical research, but Hertneky manages to detail a century of information with efficient prose and lively pacing. Reflecting on Rapp’s decision to plant his community north of the city, he writes, “How could he resist this magnificent stretch of land, rimmed by gentle slopes and ridges, blessed with virgin forests and riverbed soil, perfect for vineyards and orchards?”

The language in Rust Belt Boy never falters or falls short of vivid. Hertneky demonstrates an ability to make anything sound luxurious. In “Sanctuary,” he writes beautifully about millworkers: “The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner…” In the same essay, readers experience the Laughlin Memorial Library of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The childhood recollection feels familiar, yet deliciously unique:

Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds—I remember it as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?

Hertneky repeatedly pulls readers through time and space with his use of sensory details. In the essay, “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” readers are whisked into the basement of Divine Redeemer church, thankful for the Catholic doctrine that no meat be eaten on a Friday. Hertneky proves that the language of food bridges cultural and spiritual differences, and whether it’s spelled “pirohi, pierogi, or pirozhki” the experience remains the same:

With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

The exemplary writing in Rust Belt Boy is undeniable, but one gets the sense while reading the essays, that the descriptions come from a deep love of the subject, not just a professional understanding of language.

Hertneky divulges his intentions to honor the characters that kept Pittsburgh alive in his opening essay, “A Turning Tide.” Neighborhood mothers, former lovers, and millworkers saunter as fully and confidently across the pages as if they came from our own memories.

In “A Flame That Water Fed,” Charlie, the uncle who drank seawater from bottles he kept in his closet, is often seen “…standing at the kitchen sink, absentmindedly catching and caressing the stream running from the faucet.” Hertneky’s boss at Armco Steel, Rocky Marschuk, had a “…sullen nastiness [that] repelled anyone who dared approach, and he went through helpers like a weasel in a warren of bunnies.” Then in “Itching All Over,” we see another boss, Jonesy who “weighed about 260, torched fifty smokes on a slow day, bit his nails to the quick and lay under a spigot of vodka every night.” Hertneky’s profiles are dynamic and complex as he reminisces, reflects, and challenges what it means to be from the American Rust Belt. “Light and Nature,” an essay about an ex-girlfriend, showcases a broad range of descriptive ability as we move from the grit and clamor of industrial Pittsburgh to matters of the heart:

 When I visited Liz in Athens, we spent most of our time outdoors, where she seemed propelled by breezes and softened by sun. Natural elements took possession of her and, within the reach of music, she seemed to rise straight out of the pitiless world.

Rust Belt Boy offers an honest glimpse through the windows of mid-century Pittsburgh duplexes; from immigration, corruption, complacency, and resiliency, Hertneky lays the scaffolding of the city’s past and leaves readers feeling optimistic about the next wave of innovation. For “like tempered steel, the locals have been made sharper and stronger through extreme stress” and there is always “rescue among the ruins.” But the collection is sure to move beyond Western Pennsylvania, to incite meditations on, and conversations about readers’ own coming-of-age. About where we come from and where we’re going, and how to accomplish it all together.


Book Review: THE LOSS OF ALL LOST THINGS by Amina Gautier

31FD2h4bvTL The Loss of All Lost Things
by Amina Gautier
Elixir Press, 2016

Reviewed by Shelby Vane

Not all loss is created equal. As I read Amina Gautier’s third collection of short stories, The Loss of All Lost Things (Elixir Press 2015), I tried to imagine the extent of loss I could endure. The loss of a child or partner was the pinnacle. The loss of myself—mind and body control—floated selfishly somewhere in the ranks. Consider all the ways we as a collective choose to respond, or not respond, to pain and loss in everyday living. This is what Gautier does so powerfully, wherein the reader is left vulnerable and dependent on any echo of hope these stories, and loss, may unearth. The Loss of All Lost Things is populated with characters, spanning race, class, and culture, battling varying degrees of loss and its effects. Gautier creates a space where the reader can experience emotion alongside the stories’ characters, instead of simply reading about it. This collection serves to demystify any preconceived beliefs of loss and pain, to “let out a breath you hadn’t known you’d been holding,” as a way to remind us how human we really are.

The collection’s opener, “Lost and Found,” is told from the point of view of a kidnapped boy and is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the stories. The boy, abducted by a man known as “Thisman,” refuses to see his abduction as the end, referring to himself as lost instead of taken: “Lost is much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found.” This first story is mirrored by the title story, “The Loss of all Lost Things,” in which we experience the effects of the boy’s kidnapping from the parent’s perspective, who “hate each other for their weakness, for the living that muscles through.” Both point of views renders the process of loss as ongoing; the loss is all that is left, and to let go of it would mean losing the lost thing in its entirety.

One of the collection’s many strengths is Gautier’s ability to create full-bodied characters. These characters are widows, single mothers, and divorced husbands. They work as librarians, academics, or secretaries. They live in whole or fractured families. They spend their time learning to process the world they inhabit. In “A Brief Pause” we see loss through the lens of a narrator who works in a college admission’s office. She holds the power of rejecting students; she is the bearer of their failed admittance. She does not experience the loss herself, but rather witnesses the loss occurring outside of her. She confesses:

If I listen closely, I can hear the rejected applicants when they cry. During that pause, while they are waiting for me to undo what I have done, I can hear them pull themselves together…They clear their throats, struggling to make themselves unaffected, but if you listen, you can hear how hard it is to let go.

Each character in this collection seems hand drawn, with realistic personalities and situations that make for an engaging read. There’s Bernice in “What’s Best for You”—a librarian who is attracted to a soulful and compassionate janitor who rejects her due to class discrepancies. Or there’s Ray in “Resident Lover” who ventures to a writing retreat to cope with his wife’s affair, and eventual departure. Most, if not all, of Gautier’s characters are recognizable. What makes this collection worth reading, though, is the evident pulse that still exists within the characters, despite the pain and loss they experience.


Book Review: THE SILVER GHOST by Chuck Kinder

410xMiGufnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ The Silver Ghost
by Chuck Kinder
Braddock Avenue Books, 2016

Reviewed by Tori Bovalino

It is the late 1950s and America is a lush, electric, song-filled garden for teenage truelove, and Jimbo and Judy fully expect that their own truelove will grow and grow until the end of time, until the twelfth of never.

Jimbo Stark lives in a place somewhere between reality and fiction, where the events of his life trickle into movie scenes in his head. The reprint of Chuck Kinder’s forgotten novel, The Silver Ghost, marries the nostalgia of Hollywood golden era movies with the bittersweet experience of growing up. Kinder’s coming-of-age novel showcases his easy style of writing and evolving voice as he follows Jimbo on the most important adventures of his young life.

The Silver Ghost begins with Jimbo’s exile to his grandmother’s house in the middle of nowhere. This sentence is inflicted by his father after he sells his father’s prized collection of war figurines to buy a ring for his girlfriend. Jimbo loses both his family and girlfriend in one fell swoop after his girlfriend, the fickle Judy, decides she would rather be going out with somebody else. He struggles with his feelings for Judy throughout the story, but is never really able to overcome his love for her – even after Judy decides to marry another man.

Jimbo’s troubles don’t end with his personal relationships. While running away from home and Judy, he tangles himself with a criminal who goes by the name Jake Barnes. Kinder captures the dark, charming character of Barnes and models him into a cool-guy role model that Jimbo looks up to by framing Barnes as a movie star himself— Barnes is the Humphrey Bogart to Jimbo’s James Dean.

The scenes in this novel are like fish underwater. They are shimmery and blurred but every few moments, one surfaces and sparkles in the sun, fully exposed. For instance, Kinder fleshes out the character of Jake Barnes by first alluding to his exciting life, then giving specific details about his adventures:

Jake Barnes had been about everyone and done about everything all right. As they drove south that night and the following day, taking turns behind the wheel, Jake told one story after another about his wild youth. When they passed a chain gang chopping brush beside the road in the early morning, Jake told about the six months he had once spent on just such a chain gang before finally escaping…

Kinder’s style frames his mysterious, foggy characters in the terms of Hollywood actors and actresses of the period. Jimbo’s internal struggles are described in vignettes of James Dean smoking cigarettes and tangling with boys from school, then disappearing into the dust in his silver Porsche. The narration blurs reality with the perfection of misunderstood youth that could only be conveyed by the silver screen. Jimbo Stark is not just a troubled teenager – he is “old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road, steely eyed, grinning tightly, his soul whopeeing.”

Kinder’s protagonist captures the weighty confusion of growing up mixed with a movie-styled implosion. Jimbo is not intended for some sort of wholesome redemption or solution to his familial troubles. In fact, his only chance for happiness means running away from everything that he has ever known, or else he faces a depressing future of unsatisfying late-night drinks at the bar by himself. Like James Dean, Jimbo ends the narrative in the car, “as he pushes the pedal relentlessly down, as he tries with all of his heart to hit 110, escape velocity: as he tries with all of his heart to become perfectly himself: as he tries with all of his heart to blast off that great starfield in the sky.”


Book Review: ICONOSCOPE by Peter Oresick

9780822963806 Iconoscope: New and Selected Poems 
by Peter Oresick
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli 

It’s rare to find a poet with such a laser focus on creating a lifelong legacy. From Definitions in 1990 to Warhol-o-rama (2008) and anthologies like For a Living (1995), Oresick devoted his life’s work to making, fostering, inspiring, and highlighting art for, by, and about the working class. To read the sequence of his latest collection is to appreciate and be captivated by a project more than 25 years in the making: the democratization of poetry and a true, beautiful expression of the working class experience in America.

No other poem in the collection so perfectly captures Oresick’s essence as “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair,” from Definitions. Covering a sweeping chunk of history from the 1300s to the late 20th century, the poem betrays the immense depth of research and intent Oresick brought to his craft. With pitch-perfect imagery, he transports us into a childhood of “the Kwik-Mart on the corner… mother’s footsteps, / the tonk of bottles, / the scraping of plates,” where grandfathers and machinery sputter simultaneously. As its narrative threads come together, the poem’s core rises, gleaming, into sight. For the children of immigrants and tradesmen, the inborn need to build something of meaning—something that will outlast us—is inescapable.

Oresick, of course, built worlds with words. And, from his explorations of a blue-collar upbringing to meditations on his “Rusyn brother” Andy Warhol, there has always been a commitment to keeping things intelligible. His poems glitter like ornate glass drinking bottles—beautiful, yes, but equally aware of their utility. Difficult emotions must be expressed simply; images must be reliably understandable to readers of all backgrounds. These poems defy the canonical tendency toward opaqueness and ethereality. Take, for instance, these lines from “Morning, Allegheny River.”

Silence. No moon in the heavens.
Stars that spin and pivot, nuanced,

never resting. Again a longing—
forget it. Suddenly, everything is dimly

visible, not yet flushed by dawn.
The bushes dewy, the cinders slick,

the train rails glow light & cold
& bluish. I piss & spit. A breeze

flutters; my body responds with a
shudder of delight. The dog smiles.

Twice the poem seems to catch itself becoming too lofty. That longing is inexpressible? Forget it. We’re lingering on the color of train rails? Enter piss. But the eye still catches the beauty we can all recognize in a quiet morning; our bodies all respond with a shudder of delight.

This seems to be Oresick’s great message, and I am grateful for it: that we all live a life that is capable of rising to the status of art. My father has been a delivery man all his life, my mother a secretary and a bartender and a government employee. The people in Oresick’s poems are my people, too, and their lives do have beauty and meaning and lessons to teach. Which is not to say they’re idyllic—there’s still piss and spit and layoffs and drinking. But isn’t that the point? We take it all together and wake up in the morning to do it again, forever, as our parents did and our children will as well. And hopefully, when we’re gone, we’ve left something to remember us by. Or, as Oresick says, in lines that ring true of his own legacy—

No endings. The pure
notes of a car horn ascending.

Book Review: BRUJA by Wendy C. Ortiz

Bruja Bruja
by Wendy C. Ortiz
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

Wendy C. Ortiz’s Bruja is a collection of dream vignettes that pull us into a moment of life that is often unseen, and even more so, unspoken.

Each dream scene is written in language that is sharp, but not simple, as it shakes us awake to consider the implications of our own dreams. Is there more to life that what we know? What are the possibilities beyond our immediate awareness? Is there potential for hope, even in the darkest moments? When we can stave off the fears of the real world, we can journey to new places within ourselves in the dream world, awakening desire, valiance, and certainty of self.

The word “bruja” means “witch” in Spanish, and this new “dreamoir” is certainly bewitching as it delves into the darkest corners of the mind to investigate what lurks there. People are mostly unnamed and given first initials only to make room for Ortiz’s self to emerge from her unconscious as unaffected archetypes:  the sexualized lover, the caring mother, the old crone, and—of course—the bruja who can shapeshift into all of them.

The book ultimately explores who or what is in control and presents a number of dream sequences in which Ortiz’s character is in a position of subordination to another. She’s trapped in a house with grating hosts. She’s escaping dynamite tossed onto the rooftop of her apartment. She’s wishing, longing, for a different place or people who fill in the spaces in her mind.

“After the car went down the side of a short cliff, I said with extra calm in my voice, Do you want me to drive?” … “On the side of the road in the dust, we switched positions. I became the driver.”

There are other moments like this one in which Ortiz maintains a centered and calm persona while confronted with risk and uncertainty. Repeatedly, she is the hero of her own dreams, rescuing children and animals and jumping into the metaphorical driver’s seat to steer the dream, and ultimately one’s life, toward resolution.

Symbols are ever-present in Ortiz’s dreams, some subtle and others obvious. She writes, “The enormous ‘lucky 13’ tattoo on my left forearm was exquisitely detailed. The black was rich, and there were subtle flames and careful shading that made it jump off my skin. Still, I wasn’t certain I wanted to have that on me for life.”

Like all of us, Ortiz’s dream persona questions and doubts decisions and is full of wonderment at what desire and the self will be in the future. The story reads as though it is on loop: there is no beginning and no ending, only a series of isolated moments of existence that simultaneously trap us and shape us into who we will be in our waking lives.


Book Review: THE GOOD DIVIDE by Kali Vanbaale

TheGoodDivide_Cover300 The Good Divide
by Kali Vanbaale
Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016

Reviewed by Victoria Albacete

“A farm is like a mistress,” she muses, “a passively tolerated extramarital distraction.”

On the surface, Jean Krenshaw is—in a word—reliable. A mother, a housewife, a farmhand, she is seemingly content to look after her husband and sons and play second fiddle to the dairy farm that has been the mistress of her husband’s family for decades. Yet, while Jean strives to be the ideal farm wife, dark secrets lurk in her past and deeply influence her present. Told through alternating flashbacks between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s, The Good Divide explores the corrupting influences of jealousy, passivity, and blind idolization as a deceptively ordinary Midwestern teenage girl becomes a woman.

The narrative begins in an unknown year, with an unknown elderly farm wife narrating the conditions of her life. She lives with and cares for her disabled sister-in-law. Reminiscing on their shared history, she takes the reader back to the day that the two women first met: In the summer of 1963 in Chickering, Wisconsin, reliable Jean Krenshaw is introduced to the free-spirited Liz Belardi, a student from Madison dating Jean’s brother-in-law Tommy, and instantly dislikes her.

Of course, it’s not just that Liz is exotic and modern while Jean feels plain and old-fashioned—Jean is secretly obsessed with Tommy, and she hints at a tragedy the last time that Tommy called any woman his girlfriend. The reader is then drawn back to 1952, when Jean first moves to Chickering as a teenager and meets Tommy, her future husband Jim, and the girl who would eventually become her best friend: Sandy Weaver.

Again in the mid-60s, Liz and Tommy marry and Jean’s life begins to fall apart as she obsesses over the life she will never have with her brother-in-law. Concurrently, the events of the 1950s unfold and expose the reasons behind her intense jealousy and fixation with Tommy, as well as the truth behind Jean’s involvement in Sandy’s mysterious death. Here writer Kali Vanbaale is at her best, fluidly weaving Jean’s intricate history and methodically revealing the twisted state of her mind, especially through her struggles with self-harm and growing awareness of her discontentment with the ordinary life she lives. Vanbaale’s down-to-earth and realistic dialogue in particular brings each character to vivid life through Jean’s eyes.

The concept of blind idolization is prevalent in the book, especially in the relationship of Jean and her deceased mother Marjorie. Vanbaale explores the consequences of how Jean’s idolization of her dead mother as she grows up in her father’s abusive home establishes a damagingly passive, take-it-on-the-chin mindset. “‘You cut your coat according to your cloth,’ my mother used to say.” By adhering to her mother’s wisdom of passivity, Jean fails to fight for anything she wants in her life that might require a struggle, and tries to force contentment by taking what she can get. Her illusion of contentment, however, is a thin veneer and fosters an intense buried jealousy and possessiveness towards the life Jean thinks she deserves with Tommy.

Ultimately, however, as the narration concludes with a return to the elderly farm wife, The Good Divide balances the darker aspects of the story with the idea of atonement. Vanbaale suggests that despite jealousy and corruption, forgiveness can hold true and recompense is possible. A true Midwestern gothic, The Good Divide is an intriguing and engaging novel that presents and examines the possibilities of both beauty and ugliness within a person.



sky_color_chaos_med A Sky the Color of Chaos:
Based on the True Story
of My Haitian Childhood 

by M.J. Fièvre
Beating Windward Press, 2014

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

“Memory is mutable,” M.J. Fièvre writes of her wealthy childhood outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during the President Duvalier’s regime. While Jessica (the name she goes by in the memoir) and her sister, Soeur, are somewhat shielded from the abject poverty in Haiti, they are not protected from the violence caused by the Macoutes, Duvalier’s private militia. At night, she can hear gunfire, bombings, and the screams of the Haitian people as the streets are stained with the blood and bodies of civilians who dare to speak out against the government.

Inside their home that is maintained by maids and gardeners, Jessica, her sister, and her mother confront a different kind of violence that they cannot escape: The unpredictable temper of and abuse from her father.

“I had grown skillful at reading the many browns of Papa’s eyes, and the slight changes of his voice. One moment, my father was normal, composed, in control, reliable; the next he was unglued—a wild-eyed stranger, screaming so loud that my ears stung,” Fièvre writes. As a child, Jessica teeters between unconditional love for her father and undying hatred of a man who brings as much fear to her home as the Macoutes bring to the streets. There is no escaping either regime of terror.

As Jessica grows up, the focus becomes less on the violence outside her walls and more on how she can escape her situation at home. She begins studying harder, reading more, and making plans to go to medical school in the Dominican Republic, and later decides to go to college in the United States.

She seeks comfort in others, first in her friend Junior, and later in the arms of dangerous man named Ben. Although firm in her convictions and plans for the future, Jessica is haunted by the inherent meanness in people, particularly herself: “I never knew that kind of meanness in me. Things inside me moved toward something I didn’t know, and couldn’t come back from,” Fièvre writes. It’s through the recognition of her own primordial tendencies toward anger that she understands the influence her father’s childhood had on him and how he turned his rage against his own family.

Written in lyrical prose that brings vivid beauty to the ugliest of situations, “A Sky the Color of Chaos” closely and flagrantly examines the complexities of the human condition, the thorny and dark side of love, and the power of forgiveness and redemption. More than just a coming-of-age memoir, the backdrop of the social and political unrest of Haiti’s corrupt leadership complicates Jessica’s patriotism to her homeland. It’s a book that shatters western images of Haitian life and leaves the reader with an unfettered empathy for the unabashed spirit of the oppressed.


Book Review: RECEIPT by Karen Leona Anderson

receipt-webedit-copy-copy Receipt
Poems by Karen Leona Anderson
Milkweed Editions, 2016

Reviewed by Shelby Vane 

Karen Leona Anderson’s second poetry collection, Receipt, is a reexamination of the daily duties of our modern American culture, particularly regarding feminine expressions of identity and womanhood. Anderson unearths the power behind receipts and recipes, transactions and documentation of the many roles women stretch to fit: mother, wife, cook, sexual being. With a precise and often cheeky voice, Anderson illuminates daily things—a CVS receipt, a Nordstrom dress, a cookbook—documentation of domesticity that beckons the reader to adapt a critical lens for the mundane and ordinary.

Receipt is sectioned into three parts: “Recipe,” “Receipt,” and “Re.” Anderson begins her collection with vintage cookbooks as inspiration. As a culturally identifying marker of domesticity, the aesthetic of 20th and 21st century cookbooks formulate women as recipes themselves: commercialized instructions to be followed and consumed. The parallel Anderson makes is eye-opening, albeit witty. In “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air,” the caricatured homemaker is representative of ingredients for the picturesque wife— “So slow, the directions on how to stay newly wed: / marshmallow, movie, coconut, marriage, whip cream, // baby, mayonnaise, baby.” In most of the “Recipe” poems, Anderson notes the playful vintage cookbook as the poems’ backdrops; however, it’s poems like “Asparagus,” or “Pizza Night” that imply a much darker side associated with domestic roles. In “Asparagus,” the speaker struggles to accept the disillusioned confines of her environment, “how I / love how I hate this place we’ve made.” And in “Pizza Night,” she needs “to feel / full of the worst thing you can / without meaning anything.” In “Holy Face Community Cookbook,” Anderson unveils the brokenness of the speaker’s relationship to her children through recipe-like instructions:

These recipes tell us Mix Well. Or Bake
till done. Some dumb sun blighted this land,
no, you did; no, you. The receipt

for repairing damage…
careful not to overdo it;
you’re overdoing it; exactly; I am;
kneading hand over hand

over hand; now, Fight well,
you two, as the kids watch the world
burn down. Did you fight to save it?

If not, start over.

It’s moments like these where I felt the draw of Anderson’s larger message: there are distortions everywhere regarding female identity, continually perpetuated through ordinary objects that represent our consumeristic culture.

As the collection moves from “Recipes” to “Receipts,” the consumerist nature of American identity is offered in forms of paper receipts. Anderson evokes within the reader the stark realization of the products and services women buy, why they buy them, and their cultural weight—financially, emotionally, and physically. The purchased items are clearly angled towards women and their perceived social roles in the following poems: “Beauty Nails ($39.95),” “David’s Bridal ($0.00),” “ClearBlue Easy ($49.99 CVS),” “Epidural ($25.00 copay).” Anderson reflects these receipts—a dialogue between the speaker and the object—back on the reader as a way to reveal the underlying distortions. In “Shirt ($29.69 T.J. Maxx),” the speaker confronts the frustration between the menstruating female body and the unrealistic expectations of how female bodies should carry clothing, “I can’t / pin up a whole half / of the species. I can’t stop. / I guess a good skirt / would help; I guess I’m bleeding.” In “Paid ($3,678.53 Capital One),” the speaker is in conversation with her accrued debt, “an existence built on dinners out and clothes, men, / and the management of myself. That’s my kind / of work.” Here, Anderson positions the reader to question how and where money is allocated, and how much money women spend to meet unrealistic standards of beauty and femininity.

The third and final section, “Re,” seemingly merges the old and the new, the manufactured with the natural world, as a kind of rebirthing or reconstruction. Anderson blurs the line between our culture and outside environment. In “Free Minutes,” the speaker hears “Frogs call all-network: / across the marsh’s mall,” and in “First House” the speaker finds “Bees have restored the holes they left in the porch.” In a sense, Anderson allows man-made objects and natural objects to coexist in women’s lives. This conveys a re-representation of domesticity—a recalibration of the various female identities that are either embraced or rejected by society.

Karen Leona Anderson succeeds in Receipt by giving the reader documentation of the domestic. By doing this, the reader has the power to reexamine female-identifying roles in our patriarchal culture. The importance of these physical documents is the reminder of what is problematic in the everyday domestic practices of women. Anderson gives agency to these distortions—a voice that grants the reader context for questioning the “ordinary.”


Book Review: RADIO SILENCE by Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney

Schaefer_Whitneycw-250x386 Radio Silence
Poems by Philip Schaefer &
Jeff Whitney
Black Lawrence Press, 2016

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

Winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney’s collaborative effort, Radio Silence, is as much an urgent call to arms against cyber immersion as it is a nostalgic ode to human connectivity and curiosity. The voices of Schaefer and Whitney intricately—and intimately—entwine as one in their fearless exploration of our world. Navigating us away from the noise and the chaos, Radio Silence urges us to see, hear, and smell the things that are happening right in front of us.

So as to sever the connection to our ubiquitous devices, Schaefer and Whitney draw us back into an era before widespread internet or instant communication. “Imagine this is still the late nineties,” they write. “We’re still young. / Shaped by summer and its legions.” They harken back to the simplicity of their own childhoods, painting a portrait of innocence and make-believe:

Children holding nothing but the burnt ends
of their kites. Old Folgers, rusted through,
cupped string conversations. Winds inside
these winds spiral cigarette butts around
the yard. Fool’s gold. In the forgetting
dark, we take off our names.

In these precious moments, Schaefer and Whitney gift the reader with the ability to see through a child’s eyes; they allow us to relive a time when the world was misunderstood and magical.

Schaefer and Whitney twist and turn their words to draw soft eloquence from sharp observation. Not unlike a surrealist collage, the power of their work stems from startling juxtapositions: “There is the robe / his mother wore, pink with one yellow flower, / ribboning like the flag of a ruined country.” They layer the benign and familiar beside the unexpected and peculiar to create stunning and dynamic imagery. Some of these unconventional matches help us to deconstruct the tragedy and the chaos that we have come to expect from everyday life: “A man shoots through / another man, his chest / a black sky of star holes.” Others capture singular moments of childlike power and awe: “I took a mason jar of fireflies / and shook them / like a snow globe. So much death / Lighting up. / Manhattan / in my hands.” In this world of overstimulation, it’s clear that Schaefer and Whitney impose radio silence not for our safety or security, but for our sanity and, perhaps, our very humanity.


Book Review: THE REDEMPTION OF GALEN PIKE by Carys Davies

9781907773716_grande The Redemption of Galen Pike
by Carys Davies
Salt Publishing, 2014 

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Carys Davies’ second short story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, winner of the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, is unique and exquisitely human. It dives deep into the lives of not-so-everyday people in very few words, yet capturing the experience entirely. Davies is a rare talent capable of narrating a plethora of voices with clarity and skillful ease.

The collection opens with a story called “The Quiet,” which aptly sets the tone for the stories that follow. “The Quiet” centers on the idea that sometimes strangers have much more in common than they think or want to believe. Protagonist Susan Boyce is wary of her neighbor, Mr. Fowler, because of the way he looks at her and seeks her out. Immediately readers are led to believe that Mr. Fowler’s intentions are less than honorable, but in fact he has seen something in Susan that reminds him of himself, a pain they both suffer, quietly. When their common burden is revealed, the final paragraph expertly shapes the emotion readers are left hanging with:

She took his small brown hand and lifted it to her cheek and closed her eyes like someone who hadn’t known till now how tired they were, and then she asked him, would he help her, please, to dig the hole.

With this final line, readers need no further explanation. Every detail Davies planted along the way created a landscape of vivid feeling that was achieved without once naming the emotions of her characters, and it is brought to a close neatly with Susan’s quiet acceptance of her bond with Mr. Fowler.

Other stories are less complex, such as “Bonnet” or “Myth,” but are no less well-crafted. In “Bonnet,” a woman changes the color of her bonnet lining in the hopes of garnering more attention from the man she secretly loves. In “Myth,” we see the startling perspective of a woman who is losing a breast, willingly, to appease her Amazonian Queen. But even these simpler narratives capture tenderness, in “Bonnet,” Davies writes:

For a moment, he is speechless—all he can do is stand there looking at her and wishing that he could tell her something, the future perhaps… but he knows nothing of her future – nothing that could come now to her rescue or to his… and he says nothing about the bonnet and neither does she but it is the worst imaginable thing for her to sit and feel the bright new silk around her face, like a shout, and see how embarrassed he is, how he can’t look at it.

These moments are staples in Davies’ writing. Her ability to so fully capture complex emotions in very few words is indicative of an award-winning author. The namesake of the collection, “The Redemption of Galen Pike,” is equally extraordinary. A convicted man is due to be hanged, and in the short time before his sentence is carried out, he is visited daily by Miss Haig, who brings him biscuits and talks to him. Their interactions are not inspiring, but rather dark, grounded, capturing the grit of such a time before a man dies, not pulling excessive redeeming qualities to light or shuffling through snapshots of a life wasted, in ways that a lesser story might employ. What Davies does instead is show readers exactly the bad person Galen Pike is, exactly the hopeless case Miss Haig may be. There is no shining light at the end of this tunnel, but that doesn’t mean redemption is out of reach. Life for Miss Haig carries on after the death of Galen Pike, and it is not unchanged. Pike’s redemption didn’t come from a standard good act in his own life, but the lasting effect his character had on the life of Miss Haig.

While the collection lacks a strong coherent thread the stories all explore elements of a shared human experience and the intensity that can exist there. Davies’ voice is unique and present throughout her stories; she often employs long sentences uninterrupted by commas or other punctuation to achieve a rushed effect. In this she is very successful. Her observations of the human condition, well-crafted stories, emotionally powerful sentences, and overall unique experiences on the page reflect an author who shows great promise.


Book Review: EACH VAGABOND BY NAME by Margo Orlando Littell

4ebfdb_1e814b9d70ab4fd5bccfe63841c8f4c9 Each Vagabond By Name
by Margo Orlando Littell
University of New Orleans Press, 2016

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

From a distance, it seems the people of Shelk—a sleepy, working-class mountain town—live ordinary lives. They have ordinary jobs, ordinary homes, and ordinary families. In Each Vagabond By Name, the characters are content with the ordinary until it is disrupted by a band of gypsies who take up residence in the mountain caves and start breaking into homes to steal cash, jewelry, heirlooms, and anything else of value. No matter the precautions taken by the people of Shelk, the gypsies continue to find a way in, perpetuating the distrust and alienation from the residents.

War veteran Ramsy also knows what it means to be an outsider. Even though he had lived in Shelk for decades, running a small bar that barely brings in enough patrons to break even, he, too, feels like an outsider. His closest companion is Stella, a woman still disturbed by the disappearance of her infant daughter fifteen years prior.

As the gypsies become a more common presence in town, Ramsy and Stella find themselves at odds with the other residents who will stop at nothing to chase away the thieving outsiders. Conversely, Ramsy and Stella are empathetic as they befriend two of the gypsy youth, JT and Adrienne, the latter who has just given birth to a baby, Serena. Meanwhile, Ramsy has reconnected with his estranged daughter Liza who is trying to convince him to move in with her and her family. As the tensions grow in Shelk, Ramsy must decide if he’s going to intervene to protect the vagabonds lead by the heartless Emaline or leave Shelk to settle its conflicts on its own, even if that means leaving Stella behind as well.

The narrative begins in the fall and ends in the spring, the darkness and chill of the winter months providing a context for the growing tensions as well as the gloom that seems to be a consistent component of everyone’s past. It taps into the reader’s sense of humanity, breaks it open, and cautiously invites it to the surface.

Each Vagabond By Name is an intriguing story of belonging, sense of self, xenophobia, and overcoming loss through empathy and outreach to the underdog. Each chapter begins with a brief narration of a home invasion and continues with the town’s reaction to the theft. For brief moments, we have insight into the gypsy’s mind as they infiltrate people’s homes. It pokes at the sense of security we all have about our homes as well as appealing to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. The characters of Ramsy, Stella, Emaline, JT, Adrienne, and the bar regulars all embody a small-town resident archetype without relying on stereotypes or assumptions.

Ultimately, we’re left with a startling rediscovery of what love, loyalty, and redemption can look like for characters who appear to have little perspective of the future beyond their ordinary lives. Even the concept of “ordinary” is redefined as it becomes clear that characters with such tragic histories could never fall into a pattern of simple daily life. Nevertheless, we’re left with a renewed sense of hope and wonder as the seasons transition to spring and the town at once begins to feel like a community.



Book Review: KARANKAWA by Iliana Rocha

9780822963844 Karankawa
Poems by Iliana Rocha
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The most striking element of Iliana Rocha’s debut poetry collection Karankawa—in addition to its lavish Día de los Muertos-inspired Betty Boop cover by sculptor Michael Brown—is that it perfectly articulates the disorienting strangeness of grief. “I hear you died as beautifully / as a yellow cloud chalked onto sidewalk, & the / grief-dog starts gnawing on the black rain boot / stuffed deep inside me,” Rocha writes in “Departure/Aperture.” This and other poems in the collection are full of those out-of-body moments we experience in the throes of our most extreme emotions.

So it seems especially appropriate that Rocha would see the story of the Karankawa Indians as indicative of these poems. She borrows the book’s epigraph from R. Edward Moore, who writes that “much of the history of the Karankawa is lost…. Making things worse, the Karankawa were favorite targets of many false myths and made up stories.” As a guiding metaphor for the collection, the Karankawa are perfect; Rocha writes these poems to memorialize bygone people and half-forgotten recollections through beautiful stories and images that don’t quite make sense. From the pop-camp tragedy “La Llorona as Andrea Yates,” with its amplification of Mexican folklore alongside American justice and images of birth arising from death, to elegiac representations of Texan cities and the poet’s dead grandmother, this collection seems a fitting tribute to the simultaneous grief, erasure, and pride that come with being Native American in the contemporary United States. In this way, it’s perhaps as much an anthem to those Native American tribes who have been expunged from history as it is to queerness, the state of Texas, and Central American culture.

Rocha also succeeds at illustrating the interstitial experiences of our lives, from puberty to coming out to living through grief, and illuminates their repetitious, cyclical, unending nature. For instance, she lets time go slack in “Coming Out” and defies our ideas of chronology when she writes:

They say, said, will surely say, they do
not, does not understand this time, sequence of
events, but who ever will, does. For a while, this
pause, pausing, much like guilt is a pause, does
not, will not, did not go anywhere, but planted,
is planting, itself into intestines, golden leaves
emerging, flirt with the wind, will flirt with other
branches, hands, will always be is, is, was.

And it’s not just time that can exist in the in-between, but people too. Rocha alludes to this when she discusses sexuality in general, but eventually chooses a drag queen to be the emblem of this threshold between realities. Her “Sonnet for Jinkx Monsoon” brings us the quip:

       I bet you fuck in
pentameter, pink-corseted confusion…
       but I cannot say
I ever wonder you as lady-naked:
I know what you’ve got going on under there.

Whether grieving, forgetting, or mixing up realities, Rocha still finds space for liberation—from empowering her ghosts to creating her own saints. Much like the Texan landscape ravaged by a hurricane, she finds herself broken and exhausted, but also transformed. “I leave & think of you leaving,” she writes, “somewhere now in the sky with me, glowing with / the earth’s invisible halo.”

The Karankawa’s enemies, not to mention the general march of American colonization, have done much to obliterate indigenous history. This is the plight, on some level, of many marginalized groups. But, as Rocha shows, some of our proudest and most powerful stories can be the ones we tell about ourselves—especially those that blend our fantasies with a vow never to go unheard.


Book Review: INTERSTATE by Chard deNiord

9780822963899 Interstate
Poems by Chard deNiord
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

The word interstate can be defined as involving, existing between, or connecting two or more separate states. Often this links to the physical—a road we travel in our beat-up 87 Volkswagen, windows down, crossing state boarders in summer skin. But in Chard deNiord’s newest poetry collection, Interstate, I find myself at the intersection of the metaphysical, crossing not spaces on a map, but the wanderings and wonderings of the mind: “If I look at the stars and see anything but stars— / pinpricks, diamonds—then so be it. /  I have another eye that sees the rebus in things.”

Yet, to say this collection involves a speaker solely located in the mind would be to neglect one of the main threads carried throughout these poems. The natural world is as present as our hands on the wheel, turning with every poem. Interstate is divided into four sections, with poems titled “In the Grass,” “Confession of a Bird Watcher,” “Under the Sun,” and “Head of the Meadow.” deNiord uses nature as a way for his speaker to access emotion. The reoccurring image of a window, for example, is a symbol of this processing. In “Confession of a Bird Watcher,” the speaker admits how, for years, he has watched birds fly into the window and break their necks, and continues to because, “how else to live among them and keep my view.” While this addresses the literal action of the poem, the speaker then shifts to a metaphorical thought, ending the poem here: “With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants: / the sight of you, the sight of you.”

The true emotions, brought to light through the natural world are often feelings of fear, loss, and pain. Multiple poems are dedicated or in conversation with a woman named Ruth, who died in 2011. The fourth section specifically brings these themes to a head. The poems are brief and compact, as if the speaker has lost words, or at least the desire to communicate. One of my favorites in this section is titled “At the River View Café.” Though nature is still at play, the language is more direct. The complexity found in deNiord’s writing is ever-present: both light and dark simultaneously exist, the metaphysical matched with reality:

The wind blew all summer after you died.
A friend asked what I was feeling now
that you were gone. I said, ‘A great emptiness
and fullness at the same time….’
I sat at my table above the river and listened
to the wind flap the umbrellas like a tattered name.

Although the collection addresses heavy, often-painful topics, deNiord doesn’t overstate or override his collection with such. It’s not until the fourth section, really, that we thrust open the window and sit amid the pain. This feels realistic, our minds and words cloaking our ability to process until the pain we’ve imagined has happened. Then, and only then, are we struck with how we must deal in the face of the whole, beautiful world.


Book Review: BOY WITH THORN by Ricky Laurentiis

9780822963813 Boy with Thorn
Poems by Rickey Laurentiis
Pitt Press, 2015

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“There are eyes, glasses even, but still he can’t see / what the world sees seeing him.”

In Rickey Laurentiis’ stunning debut collection, Boy with Thorn (winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize), readers are presented with an America where the questions are always of perception, discovery, and transformation. In these pages, Laurentiis explores what it means to be black and gay in contemporary America, to be a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and a particular American South; and, in doing so, he plumbs the depths of questions many of us ask of our bodies and minds as we develop a sense of being in the world.

This collection begins with a desire for magic, for transformation in all its multiple guises. In “Conditions for a Black Southern Gothic,” the speaker has a wish “to think stranger stuff,” and then becomes a decapitated, singing head in the middle of a field. In “One Country,” he sheds his body like the shell of a hermit crab, its disparate parts becoming doors to new worlds. “Black Iris” dreams the desire of heteronormativity—“And here runs the message in the blood: / This is it—fuck her fag like you’re supposed to”—as the speaker’s voice shakes like a young calf, “out of fear? / out of duty?… Because a voice outside him makes him.”

It seems to be this making that the speaker would like to escape: from the decapitated head wishing to be separate of its body and, as a mind, to understand, to the body shed and so becoming otherworldly. But even in the shedding of a body named and seen by others on their terms, the speaker seems unable to expunge or transcend their overarching ideas of correctness—the “fuck her fag like you’re supposed to.” This futility arises again in “Mood Indigo” when the speaker asks his beloved, during a storm he hopes will change the world, “They are still trees, right, slamming the roof tiles? / They are trees—the world not yet totally remade?” There is a tension between this inability to change the world (and perhaps the way one is perceived by it) and the speaker’s desire in “Carnal Knowledge” to “for once [be] the thing that looks at” and does some naming of its own.

It is, in fact, through the looking at, candidly and without much figurative language, that the speaker is able to bear, even celebrate, embodiment as a gay black man in a hostile society. This mission is taken up in “Do You Feel Me?”—“I need to find myself, I told myself / To live the limits of this body.” Then, the waters of Katrina envelop the city of New Orleans and “each becomes the revelation / of what the other can do.” The boundaries here are more concrete, dictated not by society and its mores but by the literal capacity of our environments, even our bodies, to survive. In this way, Laurentiis engages the full scope of being (especially being on the margins); to exist both in honor and in spite of, to perceive as a mind but also to act as a physical body, to be marked and to leave a mark of one’s own, to “shut the thorn up in [our] foot,” whatever it is, “and [say] / Walk.”