Book Review: PROSTHESIS by Ian Hatcher

prosthesis-682x1024 Prosthesis
by Ian Hatcher
Poor Claudia, 2016
$17.50

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

In The Question Concerning Technology German philosopher Martin Heidegger explains that technology is a framework through which man can access a higher plane of truth and understanding. However, the creation of this framework inherently conceals truth in its attempt to provide a comprehensible platform. It’s a paradoxical relationship, and Heidegger argues that only an artist or poet will be able to navigate the disorientating relationship between man and machine. Ian Hatcher’s 2016 collection of poetry entitled Prosthesis is perhaps the best answer yet to Heidegger’s Question.

A binary in and of itself, the word prosthesis has two distinct uses. First, a prosthesis is a device, whether external or implanted, that supplements or supplants another part. Second, prosthesis is the attachment of a sound or syllable to the beginning of a word or verse, often seen as a result of translation. Hatcher draws on both definitions of the word, breaking away from any traditional, or perhaps programmed, form of poetry. Studded with computer code and Boolean symbols, Prosthesis verges on falling into the multilingual category and functions itself as a hybrid of man and machine.

The text covers an array of topics relating to the interdependence of humanity and technology—from the breakdown of individuality in this copy and paste culture to the binary quality of our true/false society. Hatcher is smart and mindful with his word choice, delivering sharp lines, like “how i i sees itself seeing itself in time” and “time is only measurable in instants of structural interruption.”

The image of the mirror crops up more than once. In the case of the following passage, Hatcher uses the mirror to reflect on self-image, the battle between self and image, and the inevitable breakdown of one at the expense the other:

folding (another) / into (another) / yourself (another) / with that (another) / self in (another) / breathing (another) / it’s not (another) / me it’s (another) / this that (another) / holds me (another) / mirror (another) / me that (another) / i put (another) / in me (another) / u are (anothe) / nothing (anoth) / u are (anot) / just an (ano) / image (an) / deferred (a) / waking () / to find / this just / ticking / down time / steady / from this / til when / we’re no / longer / ticking / down time / into / fusion / into / numbers / what more / than this / could be / going / on

As in this segment Hatcher often uses the repetition of sound throughout his poetry, perhaps to mimic a mechanical feedback echo or maybe the fading beat of a human heart.

One of Hatcher’s most memorable pieces is an observation on the absurd interdependence of our world. His poem “Attachments” spans over three pages with strange associations:

LONELINESS ATTACHED TO MONSTERS ATTACHED TO ALZHEIMER’S ATTACHED TO ARE U THERE ATTACHED TO THE GREAT CORAL REEF ATTACHED TO ALMOST ATTACHED TO ZZZ ATTACHED TO THIS.FIND(\”*\”) ATTACHED TO WIKIPEDIA ATTACHED TO WIRELESS SIGNALS ATTACHED TO MEMORY

Like most everything else in Prosthesis, these attachments could refer to something intensely human, such as an erratic thought process as synapses fire spastically across the brain, or something intensely machine like a search engine’s browsing history.

With an infinite number of messages to decode within the pages of Prosthesis, New York-based text / sound / code artist Ian Hatcher challenges readers to open their minds to a new era of poetry.


 

 

Dance Review: LAWS OF ATTRACTION by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For over two decades, Attack Theatre has transformed otherwise unknown Pittsburgh sites into ultra-creative performance spaces. In their latest work, Laws of Attraction, they took on an old auto body repair shop located in Uptown.

The two-act show was inspired by the study of science. About a year ago, the company taught creative movement classes to elementary students at Winchester Thurston. There, the science teacher asked if the dancers could center their lesson around “the complexity of bridges.” The concept grew from there, culminating in an almost two-hour long show.

Laws of Attraction featured five dancers, including Nile Alicia Ruff who joined the company most recently, and live musician (and painter), Ian Green. Under the direction of co-artistic directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, the performers used scientific concepts like weight transfer, structural supports, and counterbalance to build movement phrases. Like most Attack shows, props were used; however, exploring these themes with their bodies worked equally well.

No Attack show would be complete without the use of witty metaphor. The piece tied elementary classroom concepts to the nature of human relationships. Throughout the show, they played with phrases like, “Why does everything revolve around you?” And, “Nothing can pull us apart.”

The first half brought a healthy dose of partnering phrases that naturally invoked the science of kinesiology. Ashley Williams stood on top of Kaitlin Dann while the narrator (pre-recorded) declared, “I don’t understand why you’re always right on top of me.” Each dancer continued with individual solos in and out of the floor that left them breathless on their backs. The narrator spoke again. “You’re exhausting me; I’m tired of all these ups and downs.”

In another section, Anthony Williams placed magnetic shapes on a large metal door. The dancers then built similar shapes with their legs, arms, and torsos, darting about the space as the music crescendoed.

The women performed a memorable trio, each partnering with a ladder. The three of them took turns climbing it, cartwheeling inside of it, and jumping in and around it. Many duets also stood out. Dane Toney’s and Ruff’s extended lines complimented each other well. Anthony Williams and Dann played two patrons in a neighborhood bar, eyeing each other from across the room. Their short relationship ended with, “I’m sorry; I want to go in another direction.”

The second half brought signature Attack athleticism in the form of child-like play. In one section, the dancers performed on hover boards. Although long, the segment was mesmerizing. The boards waved as the dancers calmly snaked around one another, gesturing and turning the entire time. The choreography never resorted to trickery; rather, the group found ways to turn the obvious into artistic.

They did the same with a giant seesaw. Each took their turn on one side, investigating weight and simple physics. A lovely moment ensued when Dann and Ashley Williams found a counterbalance. To illustrate swing, climbing and falling, the dancers manipulated a dangling rope swing throughout the show. Both Ashley and Anthony Williams impressed the audience by climbing the rope in what felt like five seconds.

Most eloquent was how Attack managed to blend the exploration of relationships with the investigation of science. The ending led us back to the opening relationship, when Ashley Williams needed space from Dann. Their attraction couldn’t keep them apart. The two ended in an embrace. Perhaps our human attractions are mere chemistry.

Laws of Attraction was smart, entertaining, and easily educational for a classroom of students. Attack continues to create well-made dances with clever storytelling that compliments exciting and playful movement. Don’t miss the remainder of this performance run; see details below.

Laws of Attraction continues for one more weekend, April 27th-30th at 8:00 p.m. The shows are located at 300 Gist St., Uptown. Check the website for parking information and ticket costs: www.attacktheatre.com/laws


Book Review: BRETT EASTON ELLIS AND THE OTHER DOGS by Lina Wolff

Bret-Easton-Ellis-a-t-O-D-_-Lina-Wolff-rgb-300x460 Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs
by Lina Wolff
trans by Frank Perry 
And Other Stories, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

Swedish author Lina Wolff’s debut novel is a wonderfully complex and sometimes confusing journey. The plot meanders, the prose balances grittiness with the surreal, and our ideas about gender and love are challenged. While the novel is not linear and the narrative can be difficult to follow, the situations and concepts Wolff puts before us are thought-provoking, yet easy to digest. This balancing act between soft and hard, challenge and ease, and supposed versus real morality is central to the novel’s success.

Araceli Villalobos is a young girl at the beginning of the novel, living with her mother in a small Spanish town. Her life leaves much to be desired, which leads her to compulsively watching Alba Cambo, the writer downstairs. Araceli wonders about Alba’s life, fantasizes about it. Wolff’s prose and near-constant switching of point of view makes it unclear how much Araceli actually knows about Alba. The narrative tends to deviate from Araceli’s story in pivotal moments, such as when Alba’s maid comes to live with them. In this instance, we’re immediately thrown into Blosom’s backstory. If Araceli knows this, comes to know this, or if it is only known to the readers, is hard to discern. The narrative voice clings to Araceli when she is on the page, yet seems to know things she couldn’t know. Wolff’s choice to leave knowledge ambiguous gives the novel its surreal feel, yet manages not to distract from later progressions.

Wolff tackles more than unconventional narration. Her attention fixates on women breaking gender norms, and she challenges her readers to think about the concept of “real” love. Despite having opportunities later in her life, Araceli chooses to pursue sex work. Wolff also takes us inside the complex relationship of her friend, Muriel. Muriel’s ideas about love are materialistic; they include ideas about gifts, wealth, and favors. The transaction of money for sex seems to have seeped into her overall understanding of men and women. We learn that Muriel left her boyfriend, a man we’re to believe actually loved her, for an older, richer man named Paco Parra. Wolff tests us with this relationship. Is it love? Parra captures Muriel’s former boyfriend and offers her the chance to murder him, an act which he sees as a gift to Muriel, a gift of love. Like Muriel, readers are likely disgusted by this. But through Araceli, we’re left to wonder what makes a person so perverse? What makes their version of love so different? Are we correct to assume that people like Parra are beyond any explanation or redemption? Araceli says of him as she and Muriel retreat back to Barcelona, “His good intentions frightened me,” because of the kindness he had shown her. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to forget him, or this trial on our moral conscience.

Wolff’s novel weaves together many stories, each one with a distinct narrator and series of unexpected events. One of the more memorable stories is actually a short story written by Alba Cambo. It features a little girl named Lucifer, Lucy for short. Lucy’s mother named her so because she hated her, hated the thought of giving birth to her, to raising her. This defies conventional thoughts about how mothers should behave, but the story doesn’t just tackle that issue. As Lucy grows up, she forms an innocent attachment to a young priest. Poisoned by ideas that this priest must be molesting Lucy, the town rises up and prosecutes him. To them, a simple love between a man and a child cannot exist. It must lead to perverse actions. But in this story, we see it does not. In the overall novel, Alba is known for writing violent short stories, and so Araceli ponders if that could be the only reason the young priest meets a horrible end. But as readers, we’re able to look beyond Alba’s intentions, and realize that Wolff is making difficult statements about what constitutes love.

The novel’s preference for strong female characters, like Araceli, Muriel, Blosom, and Alba, only exemplifies the naming of the brothel dogs – with famous, male authors. It is clear from the rest of the novel that these dogs are metaphorical, and that perhaps what Wolff is really saying is that the topics she’s so diligently covered in her novel were essentially ignored by male writers, the “dogs” whom she feeds rotten meat when woman are mistreated. Wolff’s debut novel is well-worth the zig-zagging trip it takes through narrative, to end at a place where readers are left with an appreciation for Wolff’s careful craft and protest of conventional norms.


 

My Slant

by Nola Garret

            1129

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
Wit explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson

Three years ago at a coffee shop on Mt. Washington when Mike Simms first asked me to write a monthly blog about anything at any length for coalhillreview.com, I was surprised. I was so depressed about being in the process of being divorced by my husband of 33 years and being diagnosed with a potentially fatal, auto-immune liver disease that I said no, or maybe I could if I wrote under a pen name.  Mike said, “Think about it,” and he handed me an Autumn House review copy of Andrea Hollander’s Landscape with Female Figure: new and selected poems, 1982-2012. Then, Mike gave me a ride home in his pickup truck back to my downtown, fortress of solitude in Gateway Towers. That evening when I settled into reading Andrea’s new poems, tracing her marriage’s long disintegration into divorce, I took heart. I wasn’t the only older woman dealing with a broken marriage. I knew that I not only wanted, but that I also needed to write a review of her book under my own name. When I thought I no longer had a voice, Mike gave me a new prose voice. What a great gift Mike (and Andrea) gave me!

Writing that first blog was made easier because I was assigned a form and subject: a review of Landscape with Female Figure.  However, writing the second blog essay meant that I had to dig deeper into whatever leaky truth trove I might possess to discover not only content, but also a rhetorical form to accommodate the subject and my new point of view. At that time I was still in the midst of the legalities of divorce: not the best of all times to publicly let one’s almost ex-husband know much of anything that might be on one’s mind. I found myself yet again wishing I was writing hidden under a pen name. Essays, even the most informal blog/essays, always involve a lot of trial and error, a sort of trying to figure out what one thinks out loud, so to speak. That’s when I remembered Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” And, that’s pretty much what I did monthly until the divorce became final almost two years later. I discovered I didn’t need to take subjects or even emotions head on, though many of the blogs I wrote were deeply felt. I slowly learned to trust the writing process itself would dissipate, disarm, and soothe me through any essay subject I chose. In many ways writing essays was almost the opposite of writing poems, which often served me as ways to intensify my hidden feelings. My own poems often frighten me. Sometimes after writing a poem I’m  emotionally exhausted for days, but writing an essay seemed to corral me, seemed to give me more emotional control.

Also during a good part of these last three years, I discovered that my two sons didn’t know me. Maybe most sons don’t really know their mothers, but I suspect that in my case, I always tried to protect them by withholding many of the messier parts of my life, especially the time during my first marriage and divorce from their abusive father that happened when they were toddlers. And, because my family—my grand parents, my parents, my uncles, my aunts, my brother, and most of my cousins—died or were murdered either before my sons were born or when my sons were barely in grade school, I wrote about my childhood and family. So, some of the essays I wrote became memoirs, my attempts to pass along a legacy to my sons, even though they may or may not have read these essays. Maybe, some day…maybe, not. That is their choice.

This is my last blog for coalhillreview.com. Mike Simms has retired as the editor of coalhillreview, and the new editor, Christine Stroud, is reshaping her on-line journal into a more formal publication of poetry and reviews. This is as it should be, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially if I were the new editor. But, know that I am thankful to have been given the healing gift of sure and accepting publication for these last three years.

My prosaic closure has come just as I have begun to resume my poetry writing life. July 1, 2016, Mayapple Press will publish my third full-length poetry collection, The Relative Heart & Selected Sestinas, the new poems exploring family, place, and the last of  my pastor’s wife persona poems. I have begun writing a few new poems for yet another book, this one dealing with dusk and other end of life subjects. I don’t know how many more essays I will write, but I do know that I have one more long literary essay that I need to write which will be about the life and style my former poetic persona, the pastor’s wife. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to prepare for that task in such a grace-filled venue.

Onward…


 

Book Review: EMBER DAYS by Nick Ripatrazone

00023 Ember Days
by Nick Ripatrazone
Alleyway Books, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

COME BACK HERE. KNOW A GUY WHO CAN HELP YOU FIND THE BOMB.

Ember Days opens almost immediately with this all-caps note—a message from a brother to a brother, a last-ditch effort to reunite, to collect a debt, and to repent for a wrongdoing. This is the core of the collection, slightly rotten and a little sweet. The past in muddied recollections. Characters trying to overcome the tragedies and disappointments of their past, whether it be a deceased daughter, a taped-over VHS, or even a bomb that burned much too brightly.

With sentences that oftentimes blend prose and poetry, Nick Ripatrazone’s Ember Days is a gorgeous read. Eight stories that flow off the page, slithering in your ear and rattling around your skull. The language is beautiful, but can occasionally lose the reader with its generous use of metaphoric imagery. Though when the images land, Ember Days captures ether.

Indeed, the setting is never static—Ripatrazone flies between decades, from the sand-blasted New Mexico desert, to the suburban homes of blue-collar families riddled with dysfunction. No two stories in the collection feel the same; there’s constant momentum. And it helps that the various characters of Ember Days think of themselves in relation to the setting, the inexorable forces of nature that shape their lives—the desert, first and foremost. Ember Days spends a good chunk of its page count in the arid wasteland, and Ripatrazone writes life into an otherwise dead landscape.

The desert appeared so stale and white, as if God had created the vast expanse for one reason: to be blown up.

~

Wind spun through the cracked windows and he moved his mattress to the kitchen. He kept a blanket over his face and wondered if he would ever wake up. He had dreams within dreams and saw the desert in black and white, and imagined peeling off his own skin and touching bone and feeling so real.

Ember Days is swift in its pacing, in that it offers glimpses—quick flashes of human depravity. Cruelty from one brother to another, blistering dialogue between spouses, the occasional hard-handed violence. There’s an especially terrible moment in one short story when the reader suddenly realizes a next-door neighbor isn’t merely a friendly role model to a young boy. The collection allows us to see the worst in its cast of characters, often through the machinations of the surreal landscape—the desert, rearing up with its grit and heat, catching people in its swell and dragging them down and under.

These terrible, human moments consistently surprised me—they come almost out of nowhere. Almost. Once you realize what’s happening and the shock wears off, the stories kind of just…click into place.


 

Book Review: WAKING THE BONES by Elizabeth Kirschner

waking_the_bones_400_2 Waking the Bones
by Elizabeth Kirschner
The Piscataqua Press, 2015
$13.00

Reviewed by Allison Keene

In her memoir Waking the Bones, Elizabeth Kirschner unravels the snarled strings of her life, weaving connections between her childhood traumas, her adult mental illness, and the redemptive power of self-reliance.

Kirschner divides her memoir into clear sections, each of which anchors the short, poetic chapters within to a specific span of years and to a particular location. Despite these confinements, the individual chapters are airy and dynamic, and Kirschner’s language is alight with sensory detail and a feeling of constant, fluttering movement.  Often, this movement is most apparent when Kirschner – called “Little Bits” as a child – escapes the dangers of her domestic life and seeks refuge in nature:

I, Little Bits, dost remain in the vast, blue woods of my childhood from scantest dawn to decanted twilight, rare as the cherry womb of a lady-slipper. Here I scramble onto downed trunks whose roots span the girth of Catherine wheels, trunks whose spongy insides are stuffed with what seems like crimson-brown catkins. I wonder: does the catkin fairy nest in that puffy stuff? Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink with sea-green inchworms?

Kirschner’s poetic prose plays with both speed and sound, starting with low, deep vowels sounds that anchor it (and Little Bits) to the ground – “downed trunks whose roots span the girth.” Then, the narration beings to lilt upwards, building to sharp consonants and tight, light vowels – “Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink.” Though she is weighed down by immense childhood trauma, Little Bits is as bright and airy as her narration, darting and hovering between images like the monarch butterfly whose migrations she traces throughout the book. Kirschner never loses this childlike voice, nor the impression of speed and sensory distraction.  Elizabeth the woman maintains the sporadic wonder of Little Bits the child, attracted to beauty and ephemera, fantasy and poetry.

Even as the memoir moves forward in time – progressing from Little Bits’ chaotic childhood through Elizabeth’s marriage, the birth of her son, Ryan, and her eventual institutionalization and divorce – the story maintains its fluttering narrative style. Kirschner’s chapters continue to resist the temporal order that the section headings ascribe them, often beginning with phrases that destabilize an attempt at ordering the narrative at all:

“After a long death, I started to come back.”

“In time, over time and through time, I continue to cross three bridges and states to see Ryan.”

“Soon after, long after Dad goes to the other side, the seizures start.”

These gestures intentionally unravel time, drawing the reader’s attention to the way that all the moments that Kirschner describes – childhood, marriage, illness, divorce – inform and shape each other. It’s of no consequence if a moment occurs “soon after, long after” another moment in linear time, since all moments occur simultaneously in her memory.  Little Bits/ Kirschner are in constant motion alongside and against each other, colliding into one another and their memories as they try to make sense of their story.

Woven amongst these fragments is a complex question about love and blame. In spite of Kirschner’s painful childhood, suffered at the hands of abusive parents, she chooses not to challenge or condemn them for their transgressions against her. Kirschner knows that her bones are not her own – they belong (at least in part) to the family history that created her, the tangled knot of stories, relationships, and people that produced her damaged (and damaging) parents and her own wounded self.  Her bones are fragile, like the skeleton of a fallen bird that she and her son once found in their garden, and they’re flimsy, like the material of the skeleton costume that she wore while her father abused her as a child. However, fragile and flimsy bones are also her foundation, and they are the tools that she uses to rebuild her life after the unraveling of her marriage.

Kirschner often refers to her Sea Cabin—the home in coastal Main that she rebuilds after her divorce. She calls the process of rebuilding the house “waking the bones,” stressing that, in rehabilitating the house, she is also rehabilitating herself.  Kirschner doesn’t reject her damaged foundation –  her old and wounded bones. She merely accepts that she has been “Kirschnerized,” that her loss expands her, propels her, and is part of her heritage.

At the conclusion of her dynamic and emotive memoir, Kirschner leaves her readers with a sense of hard-won wholeness and peace. Kirschner continues to renovate her Sea Cabin, feeling, as she does so, her damaged mind and body begin to heal:

Because I go after it, through, under and over my healing, I braid it into the plaits of my being. By doing so, I learn that a mad mind can heal, but a mad soul – Mom, Dad’s – can’t. My mind is a lighthouse, greenhouse, moonhouse.  It’s a dream structure built upon a foundation of boulders caulked by starlight and mission figs. It’s not only built to last beyond my own lasting, but out of a fabric transient as tears, a hope that’s not easily undone.


 

Book Review: THE NERVE OF IT by Lynn Emanuel

51+A-OhCOGL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_ The Nerve of It:
Poems New and Selected
by Lynn Emanuel
University of Pittsburgh Pres, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna 

As a younger poet beginning her career, I’m interested in the process seasoned writers undergo when compiling a new and selected. Can the inclusion of older poems be likened to a band playing that first single, ten years later, at the encore of every show? Are the ghosts of who we were, at least as artists, a burden to bear? Or are the words a reassuring reminder that we’ve changed at all? I may never know my own answers to these questions unless I’m one day lucky enough to have a similar project. But here’s what I do know: Lynn Emanuel embraces these disparate spaces of time. Instead of arranging chronologically, The Nerve of It is based on “linkage” and “collision.” Old poems nestle against the spine of new poems, the new poems sparking fresh context and narrative through the words we’ve read and loved. This re-imagining gives a real pulse to this collection, as Emanuel points out “This is the wonderful thing about art / It can bring back the dead.”

Art as a medium of expression, as well as the work of the poet, is a major thread here. From the first page we are met with a poem titled “Out of Metropolis,” which details a train trip into the heart of America. The first stanza lures us with romantic images of the Midwest:

             We want cottages, farmhouses
with peaked roofs leashed by wood smoke to the clouds;
we want the golden broth of sunlight ladled over
ponds and meadows. We’ve never seen a meadow.

But in the second stanza we experience a shift in tone. Our visions are broken. Suddenly, urbanization pops our country bubble with “a Chevy dozing at a ribbon of curb,” and “the street lights on their long stems.” A second train fades into the distance and “there is a name strolling cross the landscape in the crisply voluminous / script of the opening credits, as though it were a signature on the contract, as though / it were the author of this story.” At this point, I wonder if Emanuel is talking about the train anymore or the scene outside the window. That maybe, instead, this is the journey of the poet; we must imagine beauty where it has long ago fled. Or, as writers, we are often disappointed by the real world in comparison to our own creations. Perhaps Emanuel is suggesting both.

Another poem that stands out in this collection is “Frying Trout While Drunk.” Though an older poem, it still remains a bright light in contemporary poetry. Here we are witness to a mother struggling with alcohol and a speaker who locates herself within this addiction. The images have not wilted over the years; “In his Nash Rambler, its dash / where her knees turned green,” “The trout with a belly white as my wrist,” “Buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.” And probably most famously:

She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
In love with a man of lechery so solid
You could build a table on it
And when you did the blues would come to visit.

In these lines we are reminded of why Emanuel has a new and selected. And tomorrow, when I cringe at what I’ve written today, I’ll think of the trout frying and know, eventually, I’ll find the right words, because,

A new planet bloomed above us; in its light
The stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;
We could have anything we wanted.


 

Book Review: WHY IS IT SO HARD TO KILL YOU? by Barrett Warner

warner-book Why Is It So Hard To Kill You?
by Barrett Warner
Somondoco Press, 2015
$14.95

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe 

Warner’s collection opens with, “I Thought Pigeons were Vegetarians,” a meditation on (and critique of) the concept of monogamy as expressed through the image of doves and love birds. Warner challenges preconceptions of married life and normalcy, the sickly-sweet ideas we’re often spoon-fed in childhood, contrasting them with the harsher realities of life. Similarly, Warner challenges preconceptions of nature poetry as pastoral, serene. “Poem with Only a Single Reference to a Shotgun” describes a mercy killing of a deer badly injured by a car. “I’m startled by his surrender, / turning his head to give me a better target,” Warner writes. He hauls the body into the woods and finally, “toss(es) a bucket of lime over the wound / to discourage thieves.” Even with death, the description isn’t peaceful. In fact, Warner’s final act with the deer is one of aggression; he tries to sabotage the primacy of scavengers and decay. It’s a final ‘fuck you’ to death. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty in nature. Surprises still happen. “Sleeping on Sand While Dolphins Swim Past Bethany” describes exactly that, except, of course, the narrator isn’t asleep: “A few shrieks, and an olive-skinned bather says, Look! Look! / He begins counting dolphins in Arabic. // I can tell by the sincere way he’s counting/there are a lot more than five.” The narrator tries to ignore this moment of beauty and return to sleep, but the spirit of the moment sneaks in, “I am dreaming/you are brushing my hair off my eyes, // and I am not trying to bite your hand or anything.”

Warner’s poems describe moments in which the world breaks. Some of these moments are beautiful, some are tragic, and most are a combination of the two that make it impossible to pick a side. “I Thought I’d Stop Having Sex Dreams of Kim after She Broke Her Neck” is one of these latter ones. It describes the narrator’s sub/conscious fixation with “Kim,” listing some examples of dream scenarios, “outdoors, under willows, bodies quilted. / The more she takes, the more she has to hold. / The more I take, the more I let go.” Warner has set a wistful tone. He describes the injury in almost emotionless language: “Kim’s break is two knuckles down/from what they call a hangman’s fracture.” One expects the poem to end in sadness, anger, some wrenching outpouring about lost opportunities. The real accomplishment of this poem, though, comes with the turn at the end:

After lunch, I wheel her outside to the herd.
A gray horse lips and tongues her ball cap
until it finds the peppermint someone put there.
This is the one who fell on me, she says.

A lesser poet might’ve gone too heavy-handed, but Warner leaves it open, somewhat ambiguous. Is she angry? Do they laugh?

“Tanya” is a love-lost poem. The narrator receives a phone call from the titular character, a kerosene drinking hard case down in Florida, “I thumbed an atlas, scanning varicose highways. What could forty years have done to Florida?” he muses. The poem continues, “When my wife asked me for water, I reached for the bottle, drained half, and gave her the rest. I wanted to say, because I’m a mean bastard. But instead of asking why I had done that, she stared at the rain hammering our tin roof. She said, Who’s Tanya?” There’s a lot happening in that interaction. The narrator tries to lash out but his wife doesn’t even notice.

“Immortal One” gives us the book’s title. It begins, “Good morning, angel fish. / Why is it so hard to kill you?” The poem continues with a litany of pets the narrator has owned until they died or neglected until they died. In the context of the book, the fish could represent many things: love, innocence, even depression.

But underneath the darkness of Warner’s world, there’s a joie de vivre. He embraces this darkness for what it is: reality. And to explore that, honestly, means he’s going to bump up against some joy, too, even if he doesn’t want to. Most often in these poems, those things come from art and an appreciation of beauty. In his previous collection, Warner crafted a love letter to the Baltimore poetry scene. He touches on that again in some of these poems, “Thrasher,” for example, which is about novelist and skateboarder Timmy Reed, “His stories make me think of fables. / Instead of ogres and orphans there are shovels and lawnmowers, / and everyday people just trying to sort it out.” “Maine Is Not the Place to Grow Bougainvillea” is a great example of Warner’s joy. He describes a trip to a cabin, abounding with natural beauty. Warner’s great sense of humor pops up:

I imagine her sunning herself
on a chicory mat,
surrounded by Japanese poetry.

Bougainvillea
is almost
one-fourth of a haiku.

The “she” in the poem scolds him about how unrealistic it is to have a tropical plant in Maine’s climate, “That plant will die in a few/weeks, she says, and then we’ll all/have to deal with your grieving.” Finally, she relents and asks, “Where do you want to put it? / Over here, I say, by the banana tree.”

But it’s not all bad between them. “Bath” is a tender, loving poem, “Julia comes midday to the hospital/to smear lunch on my lip and to wash my hair and back.” Warner describes the simple acts of her feeding him, adding ice to the soup so he doesn’t burn his lips. “I swallow three sips and go back to sleep. / When I wake she’s gone, and my hair is beautiful.”

“Wow,” gets at the heart of things. “The Yellow Pages of everything / I might have been is slimmer over time.” it begins. The poem cycles through foiled dreams, “At forty, I tear out all the Surgeon listings / when I notice the fluttering in my hand.” Finally, “I’m looking for a single listing:/Walking Around with an uncertain look on my face, / exclaiming, Wow, at frost on the turnips, / at the red smile of blood as I slice open a finger…”  And in this collection, Warner has shared his true talent for cataloguing the wonders of the world as he sees them; dead horses, disappointed lovers, missed opportunities, his dead or dying hand, but also the wonder of crows grieving their own dead, a grandmother’s wisdom, the way a heart can still catch fire.


 

Book Review: ROCHESTER KNOCKINGS by Hubert Haddad

Rochester_Knockings-front Rochester Knockings:
A Novel of the Fox Sisters

by Hubert Haddad
Trans. by Jennifer Grotz
Open Letter Books, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

In Rochester Knockings Tunisian author Hubert Haddad brings to life with exquisite historical detail the theater and sensation of the Fox sisters, spiritual mediums who captivated the world in the mid-nineteenth century. Haddad travels through time and space and spiritual plane to bring us this tale, channeling both the voices and the spirit of this turbulent time in history when abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage were forefront on the political stage.

The novel opens in the small town of Hydesville just outside of Rochester, New York, where sisters Maggie and Kate begin to witness strange phenomena in their farmhouse home. In the dead of night, doors slam, furniture scrapes across the floorboards, and unexplained rapping comes erratically from underfoot. Instead of treating the farmhouse as the innocuous setting for these bizarre events, Haddad introduces it as another character in the story of the Fox sisters with complexity and agency of its own: “Certain long-poisonous houses seem indifferent, bored with human lives, and then one eye half-opens suddenly from the depths of their comatose sleep.”

Maggie and Kate become convinced that a spirit from the beyond is attempting to make contact, so the sisters perform their first séance before a crowd of Hydesville neighbors. As the spirit knocks in response to their questions, they learn that a man named Charles Haynes had been murdered and his body buried beneath the farmhouse. This shocking information is regarded with both fear and skepticism, but their unnerving ability to communicate with the other side launches the Fox sisters’ career throughout North America and across the Atlantic. It was the first of hundreds of séances the sisters would conduct over the course of their forty-odd years spearheading the Spiritualist Movement.

Haddad works hard to place the Fox sisters within their proper historical context, resurrecting the uncertainty toward rapidly evolving science as well as a general dissatisfaction toward conventional religion. In the wake of this societal unrest, spiritual mediums pierced the veil, providing much sought-after answers about death and the afterlife. Furthermore, Haddad ties together the power of spiritualism with the rising demand for equal opportunity: “[As mediums] American women finally held a new way to take their turn speaking without being booed at like those feminists in municipal assemblies advocating the right to vote.”

While Haddad’s extensive research no doubt provided the framework of this intricate story, it is truly the prose that sends readers spinning through time. For this artfully crafted narrative, Jennifer Grotz’s translation retains all the fluidity and precise word choice of the original French. At times, the writing might feel stuffy and cumbersome, not unlike the nineteenth century, and this technique speaks to the expertise of the author and translator in mimicking and recreating the formal air of the time. It’s one of a few tricks that serves to further engulf readers within the realm and world of the Fox sisters. Masterfully written, Rochester Knockings is a haunting tale you won’t be quick to forget.


 

Lucifer Morningstar

by Nola Garrett

Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he Stood and call’d
His legions, angel forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbor’r; or scatter’d sedge
Afloat, when fierce Winds Orion arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o’rthrew
Buriris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
from the safe shore thir floating Carcasses
And broken Chariot Wheels; so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hallow Deep
Of Hell resounded.

ll. 301—315, Book I, Paradise Lost
John Milton

It’s Lent, and during this year’s Ash Wednesday service while I was reciting The Great Litany of ills that beset us humans, I was pressed yet again into thinking about the nature of good and evil. So, later when I noticed Fox Network’s new dramedy, Lucifer, I watched the pilot show. It had everything a Lutheran, English professor turned poet-blogger could possibly find in a television series: comedy, evil, sex, odd justice, a jazz-piano playing Lucifer, set in Los Angeles (oh the glory of puns!), laid over a police procedural; derived from a comic book series, a graphic novel; a handful of verses from Genesis, Isaiah, Job, Matthew, Mark, Revelation; and, most specifically, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which echos in form and content most of the great epic writers of Greece and Rome.

Don’t bother to phone me on Monday nights between 9 and 10 p.m. I’m not picking up. I’m taking notes for further research, and later rummaging around in various Bible translations, Paradise Lost, Google Search, and my O. E. D. Don’t you just love Milton’s word, “nathless!”

Fox’s Lucifer is based on the premise that Lucifer after all these eons has decided to take a vacation from Hell. Though he has retained his immortality, he has removed his wings the better to show off his beautifully tailored black suits. He has bought a nightclub in L.A. which is managed by one of his female dark angels. To help him understand his life on Earth, he has acquired a mid-life, blonde therapist whom he appears to pay with sexual favors. Every now and then God (Dad) sends down from Heaven Lucifer’s brother angel to check up on His disobedient son. Sibling rivalry ensues.

At a crime scene Lucifer meets Chloe, a Los Angeles Police Detective, who like him deeply believes in justice, but seems to be one of the few humans, other than her young daughter Trixie, who is immune to his wiles. Her immunity and her shared sense of justice interests him so much that he sets out to help her solve crimes by becoming a consultant to the LAPD.  What Lucifer and Chloe both insist upon in every situation and with each other, is that everyone must take responsibility for their actions. Chloe is content to let the law mete out punishment, but Lucifer sees himself as the one who punishes. After all, punishment always has been his hellbent job.

However, as the series proceeds, we find that Lucifer’s time on earth among the mortals is beginning to change him. He starts to feel pain. He bleeds. He’s surprised, yet curious. He does retain his ability to persuade everyone, except for Chloe and Trixie to admit their deepest desires which they often then act out, even though he cannot make them take action. In other words, the Devil doesn’t make them do it.

Nathless, Milton’s spoken version of nevertheless, a sort of transitional, reality check accounting for the Universe’s only constant: change—always involving some loss along with some gain—may be the most powerful force at work in Lucifer’s televised vacation. After Lucifer’s long fall from Heaven he didn’t just lie there. Milton reports that Lucifer and the other fallen angels built the Palace of Pandemonium and organized punishments for the hoards of Earth’s sinners who keep arriving. Lucifer’s vacation appears not to be time off from work, but rather merely a change of place. And, just as when God created the earth and its inhabitants, His interactions with the inhabitants, caused God to change his mind several times, to change his covenants with His people, and to reincarnate as Jesus. I suspect that Lucifer’s interactions with the inhabitants of Los Angeles will change Lucifer, too. Never mind Fox’s Trump and the Republicans. Lucifer Morningstar’s forthcoming changes as portrayed on the Fox TV Network are what so terribly intrigue me.


 

Book Review: THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli, Trans. by Christina MacSweeny

StoryOfMyTeeth-Web-356x535 The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli
Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bingler

In 2013 Galería Jumex, a contemporary art gallery outside of Mexico City, commissioned Valeria Luiselli to write a fictional story about their exhibition, The Hunter and the Factory. Her resulting work, The Story of My Teeth, explores the connection between the gallery’s collection and its source of funding—Jumex, a juice factory. Luiselli was inspired by nineteenth century Cuban tobacco readers—who read serial novels to tobacco factory workers—to write the novel in installments for the juice factory workers. The workers read and critiqued her installments, contributed photographs of the neighborhood, and offered stories and opinions on the art collections that their labor funded. The final, collaborative product is ultimately about the love of storytelling, from the process of creation to its power as a shared experience. It becomes so layered and complex through experimentation with perspective and form that ultimately it transcends genre. It is literary fiction, but with elements of memoir, biography, metafiction, tragicomedy, and magic realism woven in.

The novel is about Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, nicknamed Highway, a collector of objects, like teeth, his father’s fingernails, jewels, and contemporary art. He works at a juice factory in Ecatepec (a neighborhood outside of Mexico City) for more than nineteen years, before becoming an auctioneer. He desires to someday write his autobiography, and have a surgery to fix his teeth. As a temporary solution, he purchases Marilyn Monroe’s teeth at an auction and has an operation to replace his with hers. The confidence Highway gains from his Monroe teeth does not depend on their authenticity. Fake or genuine, they contain not only the weight of Monroe’s name, but also her history and impact on the world. In replacing his teeth with her teeth, he merges their histories and evolves his identity—he is as much a part of the teeth’s story as the teeth are a part of his story.

And this is, more or less, the “story of his teeth”: they are crooked, then removed (and replaced with dentures), and then sold at an auction. He auctions them as the teeth of Virginia Woolf, Plato, Rousseau, and more. The stories he tells are entertaining, humorous, and often complex. They derive humor from their two-line simplicity, or long and unrelated anecdotes, or violent endings. His stories indirectly question why we value what we value—whether that is art, or straight teeth. He believes that he can “restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’” Its authenticity doesn’t necessarily matter, only the story and faith he has for the object. In buying an object at an auction, one is buying the story that sold it. Consider a certain portrait hanging in the Louvre that increased in value from being stolen and vandalized. Like auctioneering, art—whether in the form of literature or a painting—must be bought and sold, both figuratively and literally.

Highway’s story is “sold” to us from three different perspectives: Highway’s, his friend (and transcriber of his autobiography), Voragine’s, and Christina MacSweeney’s, the actual novel’s translator.  Luiselli “sells” us The Story of My Teeth by appealing to our inherent need for storytelling. The novel is, overwhelmingly so, a writer’s novel: it is (continuously) aware of its origin—a fictional collaborations with an art exhibition. This is exemplified by the novel’s setting in Ecatepec, Highway’s initial career at Jumex, and the most climactic scene, which takes place at Galería Jumex. These examples serve as the novel’s “constraints”: the novel’s plot cannot stray too far from its origin as a commissioned project.

In consequence for straying, Highway is punished: he is kidnapped, most likely drugged, and taken to a clown exhibition at the art gallery. There he is forced to confront some of his biggest fears, such as clowns and being perceived as a clown. This section is absurd, and seemingly fantastical. It is not until Voragine’s chapter that we learn what exactly happened to Highway when he was kidnapped. On its own, this chapter would not have worked; it would have felt too contrived. But combined with Voragine’s chapter, it works because Voragine grounds both Highway and the story of his kidnapping, and presents him as a more sympathetic character. Voragine’s chapter is a necessary companion, and contrast, to Highway’s story for this reason. He presents himself as a more reliable narrator than Highway, and avoids Highway’s hyperbolic and boastful language, instead favoring straightforward facts and prose. Voragine admits to Highway’s flaws, but still hopes that the reader will see Highway as he does: as an entertaining and enthusiastic storyteller.

Like Voragine, I choose to see Highway as an entertaining, albeit flawed, storyteller. It is his exaggerated sense of self, and his stories, that make the novel enjoyable. But the novel becomes successful, as a whole, with its structure: Voragine’s chapter, MacSweeney’s chapter, and Luiselli’s “Afterward” revealing the novel’s origin, help to immerse the reader not only in the world she created, but in the process of its creation. Luiselli proves that collaborative fiction, or even a fiction exercise, can yield a successful and cohesive novel—and that if this is where the future of contemporary literature may be heading, we should embrace it.

In addition to The Story of My Teeth, Christina MacSweeney translated Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and her collection of essays, Sidewalks. Luiselli’s first novel won a Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and in 2014 she received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. The Story of My Teeth was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015.


 

Book Review: WAITRESS AT THE RED MOON PIZZERIA by Eleanor Levine

s224039681740579826_p92_i1_w2560 Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria 
by Eleanor Levine
Unsolicited Press, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

I’ve known Eleanor Levine primarily as a fiction writer. Her stories are usually funny, high energy jaunts that read like bursts of insane joie de vivre, though they can be quite dark as well. I’ve also seen her read fiction, and it was just what I’d have expected; Levine is one of those writers who can command attention without even, I think, meaning to. Everyone knows she’s in the room, and they tend to like her. So, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from her poetry. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Levine’s poems have surreal elements, but at their core, they are love poems, and there’s nothing more surreal than real life. The Red Moon Pizzeria, itself, is mentioned in several poems as a neighborhood landmark. The title poem is a touching reminiscence, “When I first met you, you were a waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria.” It continues, “I wanted to kiss your cheek, feel your fury for a minute, but / couldn’t drive my bike near your German Shepherd on Sycamore Avenue.” The waitress marries a man named Hank and doesn’t respond to the narrator’s letters. Intermittently, over the years, she reaches out to the former waitress without success until finally they reconnect, years later. Of course, things have changed, and though that fantasy attraction is still strong, it can’t compete with reality. Aside from the pathos of the poem, one thing that really stands out is the way Levine casually drops what would seem to be life-altering occurrences. She describes the former waitress as “in ‘the program’ with boys who drowned me.” This casual reference to abuse is never explained. Similarly, “It took months / weeks after my mom died for you to write.” The casual mention of the narrator’s mother’s death is overshadowed by the humorous description of the conversation:

Thought you were nuts/speaking forever on the phone/the jittering sensation of your mind
on the moon/the matters that lilted in your brain on cocaine but were now
quite sober, thank you Jesus and members of AA.
Wanted off the fucking phone, but you kept talking talking talking.
Other women I could date didn’t divulge heroin addictions in thirty seconds;
could walk in profoundly safe conversations along country roads;
why not date normal fifty-year-olds with inferior orthodontic work,

These details, though tragic, are commonplace. Everyone’s mother dies. Everyone has difficulties in life. The truly profound moments, like love, are the ones worth focusing on, Levine seems to be saying.

In addition to love poems, Levine also writes about her family and friends. “Daddy and the Cicadas” is another standout. It begins with a spare, almost terse description:

When Daddy was dying
he watched the Mets
“Been there, done that,” he said
like the kids in school

The poem is restrained, avoiding melodrama with what could easily be a dangerous topic. Levine manages emotion, though. One of the more compelling details, for me, is the simple statement:

I worry about Daddy
stuck in the ground
with no Worcester sauce
to put in his tomato juice

It’s such a specific, odd detail, and it evokes a speaker who is familiar with tragedy. “Daddy” is a beautiful, heartbreaking poem about loss. It begins, “he was a thin man/ with lips tighter than Nebraska dirt/ and bristles on his chin.” The image is one of restraint, possibly forced restraint. She continues:

I wanted to touch his face
but instead felt the stomach
and kissed him there
and asked, “Why are you
taking my Daddy?”

Of course, there’s nothing to be done, and Levine continues with an almost surreal detail, “The people politely didn’t /  know what to say, but/ wrapped him in a big / sack.” The image of the sack is a perfect counterpoint to the bare emotion of her reaction to his death. There are a handful of poems about Levine’s father, and all of them are outstanding.

Being Jewish and from New York are recurring details in Levine’s poems, though she avoids the clichés often associated with these things. She doesn’t wax poetic about any of the boroughs or make parochial references meant to show how well she knows New York and you don’t; instead, her references are to (often dead) family and places that no longer exist, much of the time. Neighborhood kids threw rocks at her family’s door, and the peculiar quirks the family and friends exhibit are neither praised or ridiculed; they simply are. There’s a vibrancy to the New York Levine paints, not of cultural significance, but of bodies; these places exist as backdrops to the scenes of heartbreak and past joys. And, Levine does seem to move around.

“First Girlfriend” is a bittersweet reminiscence. It begins with solid characterization:

instead of Rilke,
she hums the Garden State Parkway Blues
reads a Pisces horoscope
plays guitar at the nursing home
and meets her husband

Right away, Levine has established the liminal quality of so many of the relationships she describes. “Meningitis” is another love poem. The narrator describes encountering and being intrigued by a woman with meningitis. She researches the disease and then flirts with the woman:

I knew at any moment,
in those big vinyl chairs,
with ice clicking in my Coke,
she’d stare at me

Levine sets the poem up beautifully. The narrator is obsessed:

across from the golf course,
as rain poured along the highway
and cars went to the amusement park,
past the blue-shingled house,
I decided to write her biography.

I phoned to read the introduction,
but she hung up.

That moment, at its heart, captures the appeal of Levine’s poems. The thrill of meeting and becoming intrigued with someone is vivid and real, and the sting of rejection is also real, but is tempered with Levine’s great sense of humor. It’s so absurd, of course, that someone would just decide to write a biography of a near stranger, but haven’t we all felt that way, for a moment, when meeting a certain someone? There’s a great wisdom and equal parts stupidity to the human heart, and Levine excels at capturing both with a manic but real energy.


 

Book Review: DRONE STRING by Sherry Cook Stanforth

 photo 12c71526-9610-486f-9d95-d61af4fe36aa_zpscwpduakb.jpg Drone Strings
by Sherry Cook Stanforth
Bottom Dog Press, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Anthony Otten

Anyone who has seen Diane Sawyer’s documentary A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains will understand that Appalachian culture presents some excruciating paradoxes. Sherry Cook Stanforth’s new poetry collection Drone String actually rejoices in the themes of this region’s people, their fatalism and determination, their despair and humor. These poems vary their tunes as skillfully as a dulcimer in a trained hand, focusing on the lives of rural women who are at once proud and cornered by circumstance. Through the collection runs the biography of a woman with a fierce but tender self-consciousness of her heritage.

In an early poem, Stanforth launches a biting defense against prejudice: “My twang too educated for you? And my education / just doesn’t jive at all with your portrait of Rocky Top / You’ll Always Be a barefoot pregnant hilljack daughter…” The book provides a contradictory delight in the way it assails convention and humanizes its subjects even as it revels in confirming some of our cornpone assumptions about Appalachians—celebrating, for instance, the “chicken-chopping mama” whose daughter earns a doctorate.

Stanforth demonstrates an unwillingness to let the reader settle for a monochromatic picture of the futility or comedy of Appalachian life. With a bitter wink of defiance, she relays the story of a mother who kills a crow in her kitchen for fear of its deadly omen, and later tells a young girl to “set your mind to lose whatever you got/in this world.” Yet we find laughter in the same family. A gossipy aunt recounts “that wicked recurring dream / about her gynecologist” while a young daughter, frustrated with ironing, swears she “will buy / permanent press or nothing.”

The later poems display a refreshing boldness to force language past its usual contours, to speak of a storm that “sprayed us blind” or time “pooling into minutes.” These verses have a welcomed sobriety to them, which a few of the exuberant, breathless pieces earlier in the book are lacking; they also descend into the darker pockets of Appalachian life. The misery of an abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend resolves shockingly with the slash of a “lucky slice / of glass.” The “keenings” of coal miners echo in the hills where they perished, “reminding folks that / losing repeats itself stone by stone / acre by acre.”

A common thread among Stanforth’s works is their comfort with earthier realities—in particular, death—and their eagerness to challenge readers who shun them. The collection’s opening poem, about a woman discovering the shards of a skull “rippled gray / by water’s slick tongue” in a creek, foreshadows this concern. A little girl encounters the life cycle by watching a cicada struggle in a spider’s web. “Worms and wildflowers,” we hear, would make a better fate for a corpse than being “sealed up / neatly” in a coffin, “no hint / of decay.” The collection’s finest piece traces the history of a knife from its discovery near a murder scene to the moment it was first given as a gift, a play on chronology that achieves a deep pathos.

Stanforth writes at her best in spare narrative poems like the latter. The occasional nostalgic ode to tough grandmothers, whether they are decapitating poultry or beating raccoons with a hoe, could have benefitted from a lighter dose of sentiment. Altogether, though, the collection steers away from romanticizing these hardscrabble lives.

In Drone String the reader will find a seasoned and sassy personality, assertive of her roots yet unencumbered by illusion. “Go ahead and roll your eyes,” she dares, “at the way I wrap my / mountain identity around me like a crazy quilt forged / stitch by stich by some withered up sooth-saying holler / witch.” At the same time we meet a writer willing to uncover “everything you refuse to see” about a culture plagued with social problems and endowed with a generous heart.


 

Book Review: DOUBLE JINX by Nancy Reddy

 photo 0782e9b0-e225-4554-8b33-1938167d404e_zpsxjxovbbu.jpg Double Jinx
by Nancy Reddy
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

What if Eve told the story? That’s a question raised by Nancy Reddy’s poem, “Inventing the Body.” Exploring the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus, the earliest known hominid, Reddy asks, “Did she feel / the tender humming jumplily, catfish, / the rapid flare as she lit / on the precise right name?” Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer; this daughter of Eve is never allowed Adam’s powers of signification.

That glory is left to the team of male paleontologists who stumble upon her remains. “Her bones become a body / in their hands. Touched, / she breathes again.” In Reddy’s debut poetry collection, selected by Alex Lemon for Milkweed Editions’ National Poetry Series, even the ancestral mother of women is subjected to the Double Jinx all women face while living in a man’s world. Or, as Lemon writes, “her poems… unravel and embody the seething mystery, the metamorphosis, the inherent violence in womanhood,” “the brutality of being the girl not chosen by the boy, as well as the cruelty of being the girl who is chosen.”

Boys are not quite the center of Reddy’s collection—that honor is reserved for her fellow women—but they keep coming up. The girls are defined by them, seen by them, pursued and spurned by them, and ultimately contorted into paper doll versions of themselves. The sources Reddy returns to—American history, popular literature, science, fairy tales and folklore—allow her to turn the traditional narratives of womanhood on their heads. Here, women are wholly women again, trying their best to escape the restrictions of marriage, their family’s expectations, the space cut out for them in society.

Reddy’s reinventions of famous female characters always force her readers to see these stories in a new way. What if Little Red were abandoned by her mother? What if the prince never again came looking for Cinderella? But for all their strength of craft, these poems seem to exist uncomfortably within their predecessors’ old parameters. The poems that don’t rely on familiar stories and outright moralizing, those that seem to come from Reddy’s personal history, are the strongest of the collection. In these, she is able to take to task the damaging aspects of femininity, and, for that matter, masculinity, with greater specificity.

“Why the McKean County Lifeguards Left Town” revisits the mire of adolescence at an inland swimming hole. “When a girl went out into the water there, you / couldn’t say for certain / what would seize her.” Taught by their mothers all the joys of swimming, the young women quickly tire of Heimlich practice and recreated beaches. “We gassed up our cars and hightailed it for the coast. / Before our mothers / could call us to our dinner tables, we sped off / down the forest highway— / its logging trucks, its bait and beer shops, already / going out of season.”

This fear of expiration carries throughout the collection. The beauty queen deposed by middle age, the spinster, the other woman who overstays her welcome—Reddy writes an elegy for each of them and the ways they are not allowed to overcome their stories. As she shows, everyone loses in this culture… even the men. Fathers prone to violence, husbands ignoring their wives to gaze dumbly at unattainable women—the confines of femininity, masculinity, monogamy, heterosexuality.

In the end, the freedom Reddy’s speaker finds is to be complicated and unapologetic. She masturbates to depictions of Christ, “hung there / an object lesson in desire.” To a gone-away husband, she laments, “I was good for you. I was on / my best behavior.” She waits in the window for a strange man outside and “when he lifts her nightdress— / she won’t say no, won’t be sorry.” This voice rings dissonant to everything its parents ever taught. Woman, finally reinvested with creative power, begins her own imperfect story and waits to see the ending.

“My Love, / my Frankenstein, I made you up. I built a model lover,” she declares.

When you loved me
you called me on the telephone. Now I stitch a voice box
from cable and string. When I can figure out this radio,
its glitchy dials and rusted-out switches, I’ll make you sing.


Book Review: LANDSCAPE WITH FEMALE FIGURE by Andrea Hollander

 photo 3ef2523a-7c76-452b-8fa3-8bdb90d1e7df_zpsjnqhjbpz.jpg Landscape with Female Figure: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2012
Poems by Andrea Hollander
Autumn House Press, 2013
$17.95

Reviewed by Bill R. Scalia

Andrea Hollander’s book Landscape with Female Figure is comprised of 27 new poems and selections from three previous books (Women in the Painting, 2006; The Other Life, 2001; and House Without a Dreamer, 1993).  Given the breadth and scope of Hollander’s work, the selections are notable; the consonant themes are duplicity, betrayal, and the reconstitution of belief: in love, self, and language.  Hollander works these themes not as cause and effect, but as aspects of one another: duplicity (of desire, of language) leads to betrayal; as well, betrayal is worked by duplicity (a violation of trust).

In Hollander’s anthropology, humans are essentially constituted of language and desire.  She suggests that thought (desire) precedes language, and that language names desire.  However, language, due to its nature, is always in the process of unsaying itself as it says what it qualifies; for example, language unsays desire (qualifies the subject as subject), as opposed to unqualified desire existing for itself, in absolute relation to its subject.  Because a word is not the thing it names (the relationship is associative, not indicative), language shifts perception, identity, subject, and object.

Desire necessitates relationship, which in turn necessitates language.  Meaningful relationships are qualified by trust; in a marital relationship, for example, the benefit of giving yourself wholly to another person, making yourself wholly available, is also a surrender of your self-protection.  The trust is that a partner who has the means to hurt you will choose not to do so, and vice versa.  Nothing less than human society is built on this kind of trust.  Hollander writes, in “Woman and Husband,”

When I first conceived him in my life
I craved the softness of his voice, his eyes
that penetrated mine.  Disease
is made of less.

The break in the third line is crucial; with that choice Hollander associates sex with disease by isolating the terms in a single line.  This is typical of Hollander’s craft; she is attentive to the shifting semantic fields of her terms and allows them to flow into each other (as in the example of penetrated and disease, above).

Similarly, in the poem “Black”:

What little she has known of passion.  It takes in
everything, seduces the most innocent.
Only road kill seemed to own that road: skunk, skunk,
armadillo, possum, possum, possum. Passion

travels in the dark — the animal
we do not truly know, the one
we never pet . . .

Hollander’s tally of victims in the fourth line includes, both alliteratively and symbolically, passion as a death on that road.  But if passion is a kind of death (in terms of seduction of the innocent), it is also fundamental to life, as she indicates in “When She Named Fire”:

It was a sound
she uttered, not a considered thing, nothing
her mind did.  It was a sound
that burned her throat to come out
and announce itself for the thing
burning outside her
where the trees had been down for years . . .

When she named the sun, she didn’t think
of fire at all.  Sun, she claimed,
because it was big and unexplainable,
a oneness that she loved
for its ability to command
the whole sky and the earth too — . . .

She didn’t name the moon at all.
That was the name it gave itself.
At night she heard it call.

She thought she gave love’s name
to love, that beating thing she could not
still. She might have called it bird.  Or fire again
for fire inside that gives no light
but burns and burns and does not
stop until she touches
what she loves, and then it only burns
again and makes her want
to name it something more.

Hollander’s strategy is to reimagine a common creation myth to highlight on the eternal presence of desire.  In Genesis 2:20 Adam gives names to the animals, but Hollander grants Eve a more difficult task.  When an animal is named, it remains in itself unchanged; naming an animal doesn’t change its essence.  But Eve names fire, and Eve’s fire (as we know from the correlations in Hollander’s other poems) is desire.  Eve knows, fundamentally, that when desire is named it becomes a subjective totality that affects everything it touches; when desire is embodied, it becomes seductive (which in Hollander’s equivocation is always duplicitous).  Desire is contagious, and according to Hollander’s mythos is not sated until fixed on an object — but only to burn again.  Her pitch-perfect closing lines — makes her want / to name it something more — is also a condition of Hollander’s semantically overdetermined terms that fail to qualify (or better, fail in the fact of qualification).  As well, the lines set up a repeating condition, the motivating consumption that is desire; or at least, a desire that is named and therefore fixed on an object.  This naming, an ongoing concern in Hollander’s work, is perhaps best expressed in her important poem “Longing”:

I say this: if words could be laid down,
If they could be held,

my longing would end.
But words are not what they say.

They echo the sound
of a voice, a remnant, itself

an echo.

Such is the poet’s despair:  that which is fundamental to human life and society, that which names what we most want, and need is, at best, only nearby, an echo of an echo.

In the poem “Anniversary,” from the new group of poems, Hollander writes:

Last night I set the dining room table
he’s never seen.  He’s never seen
this apartment or the street where I live.

The duplication contained in the second line accentuates the absent mate.  Likewise, the end stopped stanza asserts a matter of fact statement of loneliness.  However,

The river light brightened as the moon rose.
I watched that.  Breathed in the fruity redolence
of the chardonnay.  Sipped.  I ate a chicken breast

marinated in champagne and limes.  I ate white rice
and fresh green beans from my neighbor’s garden.
I ate alone and wanted nothing.

The brightening moon (the feminine image of the moon recurs frequently in this collection), the reportorial list of the dinner menu, the introduction of neighbors, and even the frothy lightness of the expression fruity redolence suggests a woman far from despair.  But, as is typical of Hollander’s craft, even the assertive images may be read two (or more) ways.  The speaker may want nothing because she is restored to herself.  Or, she may in fact want nothing, that is, no / thing.  Or, she may want nothing because the desire to want has deserted her.  This last idea is perhaps reinforced by the poem’s last line, another of Hollander’s fatalistic declarations:

Whatever comes next will happen anyway.

Again, while this sounds like Hollander’s fatalism at work, it might also be a mature resignation not to the inevitable (loss, betrayal) but to the flow of human life that, finally, has not assured her despair but sharpened her sense of self.  In any case, the only assurance of her resignation in the line is that language, and her orientation to the world made of language, is always uncertain.

Hollander approaches this concern from the perspective of the writer in “Writing Studio,” one of the strongest poems of the new work. She begins by comparing writing poetry to planting a newly plowed field, watching crows feeding on seeds.  Then:

Do not fool yourself.
Do not think yourself
some all-powerful god
free to invent the world
according to your whims.
You are a watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
are done.

This is the most clearly wrought statement of her methodology.  The poet doesn’t create the world, but observes it and feeds on its leavings.  Hollander articulates a sort of poetic deism here.  As well, in terms of the dominant themes of the book, and particularly the restructuring of the self after the loss of innocence, this is the poet’s most mature vision: it is a fatalism that does not necessarily invoke despair.

Art is, fundamentally, the expression of the essential nature (and, in the case of poetry, ontology) of its materials, wrought by the artist.  Hollander’s poems are crafted such that at times her mechanisms are clearly on display; with the poems she has selected for this book, her material is the duplicitous essence of language — the ability to say more than one thing at once (for example, in “Wood Thrush,” It doesn’t surprise me that the male can sing / two notes at once; or, in “Delta Flight 1152,” It’s so easy, all you must do / is answer this man’s questions with truths / you’ve just invented), or the ability of language to not say anything at all.  Consider her poem “Wander”:

What we don’t know we don’t know,
so accept it.  If your mother wandered

when your father was stationed in France
during the war before you were born,
before you were even conceived, so be it.

The tautology of the opening lines betrays a casual fatalism, too generally stated to be of much use to the speaker other than mere pacification.  The next stanza localizes the information behind the tautology, but note that Hollander does not use this information to change the endless cycle of the tautological structure.  That is, specific information is contrary to the un-provability of the tautology; but for Hollander, the tautological condition is necessary, keeping with the ongoing theme in her work that what is necessary is not always what is true (and vice versa).  Later in the poem she writes:

Your job is to be the daughter,
to stay open to where you are,

your ear toward the glistening insects
that draw your eye to the wild azaleas

The pronoun indicates the speaker and her role in her relationship with her mother, as well as her understanding of herself.  She conflates the “I” with “eye,” centralizing her perception of her role; she exists insider a relationship and outside of it as well (a situation that is echoed in the opening tautology).

These insects must be honeybees heavying
with nectar — so many lifting in and out

of the wild azaleas you can almost smell their
desire.  Wild like your mother’s may have been.

Like your husband’s was.  But you don’t know
anything.

In clarifying the sexual imagery as well as her perception of it, Hollander comments on both aspects of her condition.  And later:

You sit on the porch

of this emptying house and think
whatever you think. . . .

Your job was to be the wife and mother,

the daughter.  To be whatever you are now.
The moon has its own job.  The house

will fill again.  Perhaps you are tired
of watching the bees.  Of noticing how

the petals of the azaleas strain upward
to right themselves after the bees

have finished with them.  Tired
of the questions that repeat themselves

like the fat predictable moon, and the doubt
that manages, no matter what the truth is,

to never run out.

Hollander determines — better, she allows full determination to occur — of the companion terms heavying and emptying (sexual imagery; family / children / domesticity; relational fulfillment and expectation) and creates dualities that again echo the tautology in the opening stanza.  The doubt of the last line is a counterbalance to truth, to knowing; this poem, like many in her section of new poems, does not resolve because it cannot resolve.  Hollander explores the ephemeral nature of language to inscribe the ephemeral nature of desire / sexual complication / social instability / the ineffability of language.  The tautological condition, then, is best suited to describe the ineluctable fact in Hollander’s poetry:  that language cannot qualify the truth of our roles and desires, a fact we either endlessly combat or reluctantly accept.  But the final resolution is that language is all we have — which is, of course, no resolution at all.

Hollander resigns herself, in “The Other Life,” to the acceptance of unfilled desire: in this case the desire for a more exotic, more fulfilling life than the speaker has lead: The Other of the title is Levinas’ “Other,” the recognition of the personhood (we might say the soul) in another human, but Hollander takes the idea a step further: in a woman separated from her sense of trust (indeed, her sense of self), she sees the “other” in herself.  Even as the poet qualifies life with the image of a scarf, and then further removes the scarf image by qualifying that as perfume, the poet is herself two removes from who she once was, or perhaps once wished to be:

The life you wish you had lived
inhabits the lavender scarf
you lift now and then

from the dresser drawer.
Like perfume, it invades

every room in your house

with possibilities
until your body is filled —

that body
anyone can touch.

The availability of the body is as well the poet’s desire for the availability of herself to herself.  The “Other Life” is thus necessary, and is, as she writes,

. . . the life you covet and protect,
the one you invent and invent

because it invents you back.

The manifold life in this poem is part of Hollander’s anthropology, at least as it describes a person separated traumatically from herself.

“The Other Life” appears roughly at the midpoint of the book, and given the repetitions in the last stanza, we might despair of the poet ever finding grounds for a reintegration of her sense of trust with her experience of the world.  But by the end of the book that process seems to have, in a sense, begun.  At the end of the book Hollander’s work becomes more focused on a summation of what she’s learned in poems with the revealing titles “What I Want,” “Advice,” and “Dawn.”  In “What I Want,” she writes,

. . . I want

to change this longing if I can.
I want to stop discounting
what I am.  I want whatever’s out there —
perhaps a word, perhaps a man — to part
that silence,

to clear the road ahead,
to signal dogs and rabbits,
to want oncoming traffic
that someone mean and tired of longing
is speeding down this forlorn
road . . .

The closing poem, “Dawn,” is a poem of liminality, a poem of transition states, the poet’s reawakened desire to be between absolutes, between (we might say) the present and future tense of existence:

I want to know the precise moment
today becomes yesterday —
tomorrow, today. . . .

I need to know so urgently exactly how
the woman who lies awake at night
becomes the sleeper, then the dreamer,

then the dream.  I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else. . . .

I have to know what it’s like
the moment that ice is not ice anymore
but isn’t yet water.

In seeking the answers to these questions the poet seeks, as she writes, not scientifically / but with my whole body.  The speaker has reentered the world of transitional states, of spaces between words, feelings that cannot be scribed without being unfairly qualified.  Hollander alludes to distinctions between kinds of loss and species (though not degrees) of pain, specifically pain which betrays all of our illusions, even that of the signification of truth in language.  But I would contend that, particularly in the poems centered on betrayal, the distinction doesn’t matter.  When trust is violated, the pain reaches to the core of what and who we are.  When this violation is evoked in language the assumptions we carry about language — that it says what it means — reveals itself as the eggshell veneer upon which human society rests.  (None of us live our daily lives at the semiotic level.)  At the level of pain (which is also the failure of identity) the poet describes, the niceties of qualification and analytic assessment is simply irrelevant.  A drowning woman doesn’t need a lecture on hydrodynamic theory (or semiotics); she needs a life preserver. Only then can she begin to learn to swim.


 

Upheavals

by Nola Garrett

 Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
….
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Matthew Arnold, 1851

Since the attacks in Paris, I’ve been watching too much television and enduring too many condo repairs and heat failures. None of which are conducive to writing. I’m attempting with this essay to forgive myself for the long silence.

Except for a change of planes, I’ve been to Paris only once for one day during a 2007 14-day summer cruise around the British Isles for me and my last husband’s 25thanniversary. Our side trip to Paris was the last stop before our ship’s final docking. Because of my husband’s left temporal lobe dementia, he had recently taken early retirement, and we had carefully chosen each side trip so that he would not become overwhelmed with its length and complexity. We both knew the full day Paris excursion would stretch his stamina, but thought that because so much of the trip would be bus ride time from the ship to Paris and back that he could rest on the bus. We were wrong.

The bus ride began early that morning with his discovering that he had forgot to bring his camera. I offered to let him use mine, which was the same brand as his though not nearly as hi-tech. Though he had given me that camera as a gift, he refused to use such a lowly piece of machinery. He wouldn’t even look out the bus window as we made the two hour drive from the French coast to the city of light. Thinking he would recover, I let him be. Let him rest. I was amazed how different from England everything in France was from the electric transmission lines to the farm lay outs that were less than 30 miles away.

Our first stop in Paris was a downtown department store, about the size of Pittsburgh’s currently empty Macy’s store, only larger because Paris blocks were at least three times larger than Pittsburgh’s. We had an hour and a half to shop, and I shopped while my husband glumly followed me. When it was time to go back to the bus, I couldn’t remember which door we had come in which is almost always a problem for me because I have no sense of direction. My husband had an excellent directional sense that I trusted, so I was not alarmed. But this time he was even more lost than I. Of course, the French clerks refused to speak English to us or give us directions, which didn’t surprise me, but enraged my husband. I decided to just go outside and circle the huge store until we found the waiting bus; we were the last people to board. And, when we came to our next tour stop at the Eifel Tower, my husband refused to leave the bus for fear of getting lost again and missing the bus. I could see that he was so upset, that to reassure him I stayed with him on the bus. I was able to see a few iron girders and a souvenir stand, not the storied Paris view.

Our next and last stop was a 90 minute, dinner barge trip down the Seine. This time my husband left the bus. We made our way to our assigned seats at one of the tables for 12, arranged along both side of the barge. My husband’s seat was on the aisle at the head of the table facing the river, mine to his right on the side.  Even before the barge left the dock, our tour guide’s loud speaker spiel began, and we were served wine. Because of his medications, my husband refused wine, but somehow wordlessly conveyed how insulted he was to be offered wine. I chose a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, the noise level of multiple table conversations rose to drown out the tour guide’s information. At some point the barge’s photographer snapped our individual portraits. We were served a three course meal, including the best chicken breast that I have ever tasted, but because my husband does not like chicken, he took this as a further French insult. Then, came one of those moments when while dining, an entire room quiets.

My husband arose from his chair to shout, “I hate Paris!”

Quickly, the woman sitting next to me smiled while whispering to me, “Sometimes, I find it more enjoyable to travel alone.”

I looked around. Everyone kept eating and resumed their conversations. I assessed that my husband was safe, that there was nothing further at that moment I could do to help him; so I emotionally stepped aside, and on this last and only day I would ever be in Paris, I chose to enjoy Paris—the colorful houseboats, the huge cathedrals, lovers walking along the river, picnickers, women simply dressed, yet beautiful, and bridges leading over the Seine to a future none of us could ever guess.

A half hour later, the photographer returned to sell us our photos, and with my own money I bought both photographs. My husband’s was that of a horribly frightened and angry man, and mine was of the happiest picture of me that I had ever seen, the author photo I eventually used for my second book of poems—The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball.

When we came back to our Florida home, my husband, who had always been forthright about discussing his left temporal dementia, refused to speak of our Paris incident. For the first time he began attempting to hide his dementia, and he refused to go for his yearly dementia assessment with his psycho-neurologist. Gradually, he quit talking with me. Out of fear and frustration, I enrolled in care-giver therapy in the hope that I could learn how to better care for him and for myself which further enraged him. One of the first things I learned in care-giver therapy was the name for what had happened to my husband and ultimately to our marriage that day in Paris—catastrophic reaction—perhaps, also an accurate term to describe what happened in Paris in November of 2015.


 

Book Review: BEAUTIFUL ZERO by Jennifer Willoughby

 photo 4042b9ef-b604-49c9-9f58-b60394dff9ae_zpsbacgrk0u.jpg Beautiful Zero
by Jennifer Willoughby
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Today, late January, the sky opened up and let the sun break onto the snow. On top of a mountain in Claysburg, Pennsylvania, I watched as skiers peeled their clothes off; their bare skin blushed against the slopes. This moment matters, and maybe only because I let it, which is something the poet Jennifer Willoughby understands and explores. She writes: “If January is two trains / traveling in opposite directions, I am not / on either train. Maybe if I go away, I’ll / embrace what it means to be here.”

Willoughby’s collection, Beautiful Zero, won the 2015 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions and the award is well deserved. Her poems are compact, independent little worlds, all equally weird and bright. It’s almost impossible to pick the lines apart, for each letter is carefully chosen. These poems are cosmos, bursting inward: “Life is / my new enemy but life / vibrates. Sometimes you / can’t take your hands off it.”

I struggle with language poetry. Frequently I feel that these poems sacrifice meaning for the sake of sound. When I’m lost in Beautiful Zero I’m never truly lost, for Willoughby interrupts her claustrophobic stanzas with lines that echo throughout the collection, like “Just because you know me doesn’t mean I am real” or “In the lemony heat, love brings love to whomever / refuses to fall to her knees,” and then, “There’s / nothing we can’t replace with something else.” Too, Willoughby plays with words in fresh ways, creating verbs as “we pass out cigarettes and horray our / way home” and “boys jellyfish our alley on their way to oblivion.” Because of these linguistic choices, I remain in whatever twisty, self-interrupting moment Willoughby brings me to.

Dark isn’t the correct adjective, but heavy seems appropriate to describe Beautiful Zero’s overall tone. The narrator is simultaneously direct and convoluted, her sentences abrupt yet her thoughts never completely over. I don’t feel comfortable in any of these poems, but sometimes we have to stop being comfortable. This collection reflects the wackiness, the hollowness and dimensions of our world, and perhaps more, of those who exist in it. Often the narrator turns to the trees, who “treat me like fire,” and “The trees don’t know if / this will ever get better.” Even nature gets caught by the strange, which is somehow both isolating and comforting.

The title, Beautiful Zero, reflects this—the idea that nothingness can be beautiful, that the lowest point of our lives or the lowest part of this world can still be worthwhile. The sun can appear in January and we can reveal our summer skins. And we can dream and “Because I dreamed, I was allowed my wounds. / Maybe we found a way to survive.”


 

Book Review: FROM SORROW’S WELL: THE POETRY OF HAYDEN CARRUTH

 photo 9780472036325 1_zpsnurrz3m0.jpg From Sorrow’s Well:
The Poetry of Hayden Carruth

edited by Shaun T. Griffin
University of Michigan Press, 2015
$27.95

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

From Sorrow’s Well: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth edited by Shaun T. Griffin offers an interesting and fresh approach to literary criticism. Griffin defines four main personas of Hayden Carruth’s collected work—that is, Carruth as the Realist, the Jazzman, the Survivor, and the Innovator. The book is divided into four sections that are each devoted to one of these characteristics and which all work to expand upon them through a number of different mediums, including interviews with Carruth, critical analyses of his work, reviews of his poetry, and even poems written about and for him. In the introductory interview (conducted by David Weiss), Carruth remarks that “the Great American Novel is never going to be written, or it’s going to be a compendium of a hundred novels written by a hundred different people.” This compendium is precisely what Griffin tries to capture within the collection, offering the reader a number of different voices which all attempt to define the qualities that have made Carruth such a canonical yet overlooked figure in poetry.

In the first section of the book Griffin includes Douglas Unger’s essay “On Hayden Carruth: The Poetics of Social Utility.” In his essay, Unger discusses Carruth’s ideas of “poetry of use” and the reception of this idea among his contemporaries. He writes:

[Carruth] insisted poetry should be of use [sic], that, above all, poetry should make sense [sic], both common and uncommon sense . . . writers should make use of each other and be available to other writers . . . together, we can find strength against a world that in the main is hostile to poets and writers and seeks our destruction.

He then elaborates on this poetic idea, saying that “Carruth struggled to balance this sense of social utility against the distressing cultural vacuity of American culture and its marketplace disenfranchisement of poets and literary writers from playing impactful roles in society.” While Unger’s essay at times borders on being polemical, he nonetheless effectively commemorates Carruth’s sense of political utility and community, going so far as to include personal anecdotes of his time spent with Carruth.

Later, in the section devoted to Carruth as the Jazzman, Griffin expands on Unger’s ideas of Carruth as a poet of utility by including Matt Miller’s essay “A Love Supreme: Jazz and the Poetry of Hayden Carruth.” Miller focuses on Carruth’s understanding of jazz and improvisation, calling his work a “jazz-inspired poetic vision.” His focus in this essay moves past Carruth’s ideology, bringing into account the specific variations of form found throughout his work. For example, Miller analyzes specific sections of collections such as Asphalt Georgics, pointing out how fluidly Carruth’s poems move between strict, formal syllabics and informal colloquialisms that he overheard in the rural settings he spent so much time in. He argues that “Carruth is able to marshal all of the powers he has developed—his mastery of multiple forms, his spontaneity, his precise lyricism—and set them free in service of a poetic vision.” This same formal approach to understanding Carruth’s musical influences is developed in a later interview between Carruth and Sascha Feinstein in which Feinstein asks Carruth about who his jazz idols have been and how they have specifically impacted his writing.  And so we see how Griffin structures this collection, showing us a number of different aspects of what went into Carruth’s work and a number of different voices expanding on how those aspects operate within, and interact with, his poetry.

Early in the collection, in a review of Brothers, I Loved You All, Geoffrey Gardner comments that when reading Carruth’s poetry he “sometimes become[s] furious that for years and years and years, longer than [he] can remember, our poetry has been read by virtually no one but poets and college students and their teachers.” Griffin’s assembly of prose and poetics works to push against this idea of Carruth’s placement. Not only do these essays point to Carruth’s many intellectual triumphs as a writer, but also to the way in which his work can be read and interpreted through a number of different lenses, begging us to appreciate and access his style in a wholly new and stimulating way. This collection is not just an examination of Carruth’s poetry, but an examination of how poetry has changed, how critics have responded to rapidly evolving collections, and, above all, how Carruth situated himself within these changing aesthetics and responded to them.


 

Book Review: TURNING JAPANESE by MariNaomi

 photo TurningJapanese_zps3mqogw2v.jpg Turning Japanese
Graphic Memoir by MariNaomi
2D Cloud, 2016
$24.95

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

“The year was 1995 and I was twenty-two years old.”

MariNaomi’s Turning Japanese begins with a breakup and ends with a homecoming. It’s a memoir that chronicles the protagonist’s personal evolution from job to job, from hemisphere to hemisphere. It’s a story that details MariNaomi’s reunion with a culture she thought she left behind. A fascinating visual insight into the mind of a torn-up twenty-something, desperate for some sort of solace in the country she barely remembers from childhood: Japan.

The graphic novel format was a bit jarring at first, but I very easily adjusted to the irreverent, very nearly goofy artwork that filled page after page. After finishing it, I can’t picture Turning Japanese in any other format—it is simply necessary that it be a graphic memoir. The illustrated form allows the reader to focus on the strong dialogue, while the scene spills out around the speech balloons. MariNaomi talks family, sex, cultural divide, all while lighting a cigarette, preparing snacks, or gauging a client’s behavior. Emotions are represented by emoticons and Cathy-esque sweat droplets and “Ack!”s. Characters’ faces are exaggerated and cartoonish, and oftentimes directly compliment the humor of the situations in which MariNaomi finds herself.

MariNaomi-Turning_Japanese_5_4

And there are many, many humorous situations. As often occurs in cases of extreme culture shock, there are misunderstandings that come about, whether through botched language, missed cues, or alien gestures. MariNaomi hits them all with the curiosity and wit of a wide-eyed young traveler. She’s on a quest for understanding. She’s put herself on an adventure hoping for an ending.

After a breakup, MariNaomi finds work in the illegal hostess bars of San Jose, which eventually whisks her and a new lover away to the hostess bars of Tokyo. It is here she forces herself to change according to the culture around her: she learns the language; she visits with long-lost family. In their strange ways, her fellow hostesses and regular clients help her to adapt and survive.

Clocking in at 216 pages of emotive illustrations and unflinching, smartly crafted dialogue, Turning Japanese chronicles MariNaomi’s bizarre journey of retouching old lineage. At its core, it is a compelling tale of a traveling youth, seeking to find something meaningful on the other side of the Earth.

MariNaomi-Turning_Japanese_3_8

 

 

 

Turning Japanese will be out from 2D Cloud on May 16, 2016.

 

 

 

 


Book Review: DON’T GO BACK TO SLEEP by Timothy Liu

 photo 15b7535b-208f-49bd-b253-cfca597443ce_zpsufct1y9b.jpg Don’t Go Back to Sleep
Poems by Timothy Liu
Saturnalia, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Robert Pinsky, in his essay “Responsibilities of the Poet” says we must answer for what we see. What about what we can’t see? How do we answer for such things? In Don’t Go Back to Sleep we see Timothy Liu grapple with lasting affects of the Nanking Massacre: a mass murder and mass rape by Japanese troops against the capital of the Republic of China, beginning in December, 1937. Since then, most documents detailing the massacre have been destroyed and many claim the events have been exaggerated or fabricated. Yet, Liu’s personal history, his family, and his Chinese heritage are intrinsically linked with this disaster. So we enter pages filled with historical questions, an obsessive and circular wondering of love, and a subtle despair for the death of his mother. Translation: the attempt to understand identity within a forgetful, uncertain world.

The collection opens with a poem that extends the length of the first section, a rough eighteen pages, titled “A Requiem For The Homeless Spirits.” It begins with the speaker looking at an image of a Chinese soldier’s head, and we quickly learn the decapitation is a result of a contest (the first to kill 100 Chinese), for which the winners received their picture on the front page of a newspaper. Liu documents the violence of the massacre, repeating the phrases “This is not how anyone would want to be remembered” and “Photos exist.” While the documentation is important, especially in spite of so many records being destroyed, Liu’s poem reads more like newspaper highlights and a fragmented narrative. As a reader, I’m searching for the language that takes these events beyond the page, that makes them transform from a research paper to an event I can feel sharp under my skin and mourn. Perhaps I’m not given that because, in a sense, the speaker has not been given that. Still, the moments I most connect to are when the speaker breaks into the stanzas and self-reflects on the magnitude of such as massacre:

Few of the survivors remain alive.
Few of the perpetrators remain alive.

Some of their stories have been recorded.
Many of their stories will never get told.

What should any of us do while they are still alive?

After the first section, we are thrust into a series of obsessive love poems, sexually charged, somehow both slow and frantic. Though at times the subject, whether the husband or the beloved or someone else entirely, is not consistently clear, Liu fills these poems with raw, physical images and a gritty vulnerability. I’m often surprised by such tenderness amidst the roughness, with lines like, “There are places in our bodies / no one has ever reached” or “not knowing if / I have a name, not unless / he calls.”

In one of my favorites, “Without You,” Liu experiences the absence of a romance, his own body now foreign and slow for “Without you I’m a tray of coffee mugs / the waitress spills in slow motion / on the night she got fired.” The poem is filled with these metaphors, repeating the title “without you” at the beginning of multiple stanzas. At the end, I find the most powerful moment among all the love poems:

Love whomever, then return

For without you, I’d have forgotten
the many doors through which
the world disappears

This disappearing world is the motivation behind Don’t Go Back to Sleep. The speaker in Liu’s collection is driven to find himself; his own family origin story under threat by those who wish to bury the Nanking Massacre. Liu does the work necessary to fight this erasure, navigating facts and molding them into an art form, of which he is able to share and memorialize with many.


 

Book Review: THE REPUBLICS by Nathalie Handal

 photo e089317b-6e09-4e80-a48b-24d024d2fb07_zpsv5bo8nla.jpg The Republics
Poems by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

After the Haitian earthquake of 2008, the poet Nathalie Handal revisited the country of her birth and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Faced with two vibrant cultures learning how to resituate themselves after this latest tragedy, Handal began to write a series of “flash reportages” based on the people she met and the stories they told. As much a love letter to her homeland as to its residents, The Republics is immediately successful as a collection that humanizes the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic to her readers elsewhere. Using the weight and lyricism afforded to her by the prose poem form, Handal is able to address these subjects with the urgency and gravity they deserve.

The island of Hispaniola, where so much is screaming crickets and broken motorcars and “Ten Drumbeats from God”—it is in these desperate spaces that Handal finds the people to whom she will give voice throughout the collection. Typically these are people living on the margins of society, such as the black Haitians speaking in “Noir, une lumière.” Even (and today, especially) in the United States we can recognize their particular cry for freedom: “Take everything but my blackness.” Spurned by a society that would rather erase them than face its issue of racism, they beg to be liberated from poverty, tragedy, and inequality while still being recognized for who they are. “They hated our black,” the speaker explains. “What they didn’t understand is that it illuminates their world.” By amplifying the voice of blackness in Haiti, she places the issue of racism starkly before us to be considered both as a Haitian problem and one here in our own backyard. By the poem’s end, readers are forced to face how demoralizing it is to be told, “You are in the wrong land even if the roosters recognize you.”

Despite some poems being written from what seems to be Handal’s viewpoint, nearly the entire collection is devoted to speaking on behalf of others. The series “Salt on the Tongue” introduces us to nine Haitians and their stories. “Amor in la Zona Colonial,” set in the Dominican Republic (and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World), doesn’t give name to its characters. Instead, it visits five bedrooms, perhaps in an apartment building or a hotel, to find unique voices and perspectives on romance. Some of Handal’s most beautiful lines are found here:

The hour changes time into other forms of desire. A woman needs no bra in summer. A kiss after a fuck. A way to depart.

We are a riot waiting to be broken and dispersed. I have no idea what it means to be beautiful but I try to survive what you don’t say.

I couldn’t tell if we were dancing or screaming or maybe it was a way to meditate la pobreza away…

Desire, loneliness, regret, and desperation make frequent returns throughout the collection. In “Milagro’s Recollections,” we meet a mother whose son, Frankie, died unexpectedly at the age of 19. The speaker remembers a time when the woman lived vibrantly before turning to examine her in the present moment. “All I saw was the way life moved faded leaves on her face. The way Frankie stayed handsome forever. She disappeared… But I was told, on some days when she is lucid, she says my name with a faint smile.”

The curse of the remembered dead seems to follow all the people Handal meets throughout The Republics, and each person lives with this burden in his own way. For her part, Handal first has to come to understand the rootlessness of this feeling.

I look at the mother looking at her child eating—why isn’t she smiling? I look at my lover looking at me naked beside him—why isn’t he smiling? I look at the ex-slave growing mangoes, and his daughters drinking water from a well—why aren’t they smiling?  I always believed that everything was black and white. But what’s closed inside me isn’t black or white.

Then there are those who run from what’s closed inside them—if only for a moment—such as the Haitians Handal observes celebrating Carnaval. “A parade of wild colors… Masks glittering. Every meter a dream.” Overtaken by beauty and joy, the people admire the “illusion” of the ocean while some cosmic camera pans over the entirety of the country. We’re told, in Haitian and French, that “coal is burning. The crowd is ready.” “Quelle belle nuit,” the partygoers agree. “Carnaval is a country made of secret crimson skies—why know everything.”

And yet, Handal’s voice throughout does ring as rather omniscient. There is no letting up from overwhelming reality; the presence of grief and injustice are never far. But, as she shows us in “La Carta del Capitán,” there are a few moments where we can locate the beauty in devastation. Sometimes, to survive, we must force ourselves to look at blessings as well as pain:

Love, your lips circling my chest, the shape of your mouth on my neck, I know now that distance isn’t a broken letter; it’s a dazzled heart, elegies turning into comets.


 

Book Review: MOTHERING THROUGH THE DARKNESS Edited by Jessica Smock & Stephanie Sprenger

 photo 7be5b3ba-0f07-401a-8b6a-f7a00db9f988_zpsi80e646q.jpg Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience
Edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger
She Writes Press, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Postpartum depression is the most common pregnancy-related complication with at least 1 in 7 new mothers mired in its dark water for months or even years, if left untreated. At least 1 in 7. But the nature of the disorder, the way depression, as Nina Gaby describes it, is like “Vaseline over the camera lens—the view is distorted but the object hasn’t changed,” paired with a new mother’s fear of being stigmatized as a “bad mom” or worse, an “unfit mother,” keeps many women wading alone through the murk of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, OCD, and other postpartum disorders. They never report it. They never ask for or receive help. They suffer through feelings of inadequacy and guilt, an inability to connect with their newborn, severe panic attacks, obsessive worry, and even thoughts of harming themselves or their baby. But this is an illness, no less controllable or the fault of the person suffering, or less deserving of treatment than brain cancer. But it is the trait of mental trickery, this hormonal deceit that locks mothers into silence, that makes Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, a collection of 35 beautifully crafted, highly personal essays, necessary reading for anyone who plans to become a mother or is close to a woman who is considering motherhood.

This anthology opens with poet Maggie Smith’s essay, “Here Comes the Sun.” Smith artfully drops the reader into the obsessive, redundant thinking that ushers itself into Smith’s world as a new mother, turning her into a person who is overcome by the need to “find The Pattern.” While heightened protectiveness, awareness, and focus on a new baby is part of the biology of new motherhood, the reader is quickly made aware that the intensity with which Smith experiences these inclinations was anything but normal:

With my son I wrote everything down: every feeding, what time he started, what time he finished, when he burped, when he spit up, what the spit up looked like, when he peed, when he pooped, what the poop looked like, when he cried, what his cry sounded like, when he slept, what position he slept in, when he woke.

If I wrote everything down, I would see The Pattern. The Pattern That Would Make Him Happy. The Pattern That Would Make Him Sleep.

The Pattern That Would Fix Him.

The Pattern That Would Fix Me.

Postpartum disorders associated with new motherhood do not only affect the biological mother. As Jill Robbins describes in her essay, “A Different Side of the Baby Blues,” adoptive mothers can experience post-adoption depression and are even more at risk of having their depression symptoms misunderstood and ignored by those they reach out to. The partners of new mothers, as well as family and friends, also need to be made aware of the symptoms of pregnancy-related mental disorders because, as this collection makes clear, the afflicted new mom will more than likely not be willing or able to ask for help, believing the lies of the postpartum disorder which tells her the problem is her failing as a mother and it is untreatable.

Although each of these essays is as different as the women writing them, there are striking similarities between them. Most notably, the realization that outside help is not only needed but vital is slow and takes the suffering mother, even those who are health care professionals, months, even years, to seek help. The new mothers think the lack of joy and contentment is their fault. Quite a few of these authors write that in their darkest times a glance in the mirror yielded in an unrecognizable, disheveled, miserable person looking back. But sadly, it is the recurring thoughts that their family would be better off without them, the vivid picturing of fatal accidents involving themselves or their babies that forces them to break their silence, to do what they most fear and tell someone about what is torturing them. And all, after getting the help they need and deserve, only wish they had been able to ask for it sooner. In essay after essay, the reader is faced with how common it is for women to want to lie about having postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, OCD, perinatal depression, or any other overwhelming feelings besides joy at being pregnant or having brought a new child into the world. And in every essay in this collection, talking about what is happening in the new mother’s mind does not lead to her child(ren) being taken away as she fears, but to her getting into therapy, sometimes taking medication, but most importantly getting her life and sense of joy back.

In “Recognizing the Darkness,” Lea Grover writes:

We’re learning more about postpartum depression all the time. We’re learning how a flood of ante- and postpartum hormones can trigger latent bipolar disorders, anxiety, all manner of mental illnesses that we already has susceptibilities for. Like an infection in an old, not-quite-healed scar…

We like think that our brains are above the petty illnesses that plague the rest of our bodies, but it’s not true. Our brains are as susceptible to fatigue and disease as our bladders, our lungs, our livers.

More and more, these postpartum complications are becoming part of the broader conversation about motherhood. This anthology is proof of the need to shatter the stigmas and allow women the freedom to open up about their true, myriad experiences with motherhood.


 

Book Review: BRIGHT DEAD THINGS by Ada Limón

 photo d33cd3af-b947-490f-8bc1-27101e7cc62f_zpsiynsh6o3.jpg Bright Dead Things
Poems by Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions
$16.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

In 2010 a classmate handed me Limón’s first collection, lucky wreck, published by Autumn House Press, in the college dining hall. The classmate thumbed through the thin pages and pointed to her underline, the beginning of “First Lunch With Relative Stranger Mister You” which begins, “We solved the problem of the wind / with an orange.  / Now we’ve got the problem / of the orange.” Because I had just come into poetry and because it was a sad year and because this classmate, who was schizophrenic, wrote the most beautifully unrealistic images in her own poems, I saved Limón’s words. I now work for Autumn House and haven’t heard from that classmate in over four years, but I still think of our orange moment. Of how answers are fleeting, how we are thrust next to people who are equally broken and bright. Now, I hold Limón’s newest collection, Bright Dead Things, and it feels inevitable—these poems solving our impossible need for answers.

The collection is divided into four sections and we follow the speaker as she defines her place during a move from New York City to Kentucky, the loss of her stepmother, nostalgia, and falling into love. Each transition awakens new problems, but we’re reminded that within each problem we persist—we are still willing to whisper in the darkest of rooms, to still exist.

In the first poems of the collection, I watch the speaker fight against gender constraints, questions of “the roll of the woman” suddenly sparked by a move into a more conservative, southern state. These lines are heated with a power struggle, a defense against silence, a kinship with the forceful and fearless parts of nature. Most obvious in “How To Triumph Like A Girl” the collection opener, where the speaker details her affection for female horses. She writes,

…As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,…
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see…

The need to be animalistic stretches beyond the Kentucky landscape. In “I Remember the Carrots” the speaker remembers herself as a child, how she would rip carrots out of the ground, breaking their roots, ruining her father’s crop. She called them her “bright dead things.” Now, she tries to be “nice” but resents this desire, ending the poem on this line: “What I mean is: there are days / I still want to kill the carrots because I can.” Sometimes, we want to act without hesitation, to be an animal, to not be quiet and polite and it’s this tension—this wanting without action—that creates the friction within Limón’s poems.

We trek through the complicated mourning of death, in which the speaker navigates her sorrow with survival, writes,

But love is impossible and it goes on
despite the impossible. You’re the muscle
I cut from the bone and still the bone
remembers, still it wants (so much, it wants)
the flesh back, the real thing,
if only to rail against it….

In these moments nature serves as a reflection of our own human impulses. In a poem about silence, about paying respect for those bullied by hate crimes, Limón ends with a peacock “screaming, at first harmless, / then like some far-off siren.” Even nature, usually described as delicate and beautiful, can be a warning, a “bright dead thing.” Oddly, I’m reassured by this, for no single moment is entirely one thing—no brightness is ever endlessly light, no death forever dark. We will move on to the next moment and it will be equally complex, as Limón utters “I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.”


 

Book Review: LOCAL CONDITIONS by Kristofer Collins

 photo 3160b442-1394-4f64-8ee2-35852b477692_zps3rofd9f9.jpg Local Conditions
Poems by Kristofer Collins
Coleridge Street Books, 2015
$8.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Kristofer Collins’ Local Conditions, published by Coleridge Street Books, is a chapbook rich with candid, often tender reflections on family; specifically conventional family roles of son, husband, and father depicted unconventionally. It also continues the poet’s penchant for composing meditations on place, particularly Pittsburgh—its neighborhoods and neighbors uniquely its own—as he did in his previous collection of verse, Pennsylvania Welcomes You (CreateSpace Independent Publishing).

Whether reading all twenty-five of the poems included silently to oneself or aloud, there’s a breathless quality to Collins’ book; the product of several single run-on sentence-single stanza poems; among them: “Fix Bayonets,” “The Truth About Abstract Expressionism,” “Ants,” and “Spending Sunday Afternoon Listening to Jim Daniels’ Copy of Hall & Oates’ Abandoned Luncheonette.” In fact, only five of the book’s poems contain stanza breaks, with no poem exceeding twenty-four lines. The writer’s controlled, quiet rants have an effective stream-of-consciousness feel, and as reader (aloud or silently to oneself), one may need to remind himself/herself to breathe. In “Some Days Are Like This,” for example, he writes:

The crying baby on the afternoon bus angry
At his own insignificance and the mother’s
Intransigence, and the old man this morning
Who said to me, You’re full of shit, you’re bullshit
Like all the others
, hissing one last fatal fuck you
As he exits the shop, and the whole wide white sky
That pushes down on your head as if to say, Dammit,
I told you to stay put
, and really every time
A phone rings and the voice on the other end is not human
But still really wants you to buy something,…

While this poetry collection dips into an affection for Pittsburgh as its famously blue collar self, the writer renders it in a new light with mentions of landmarks and the norms of life in the region still referred to as the steel city, as in his “31st Street Bridge Poem”:

How much longer will 28 be closed?
And when will I walk across the 31st
Street Bridge again and visit Kristina
At the magazine offices and leave
With a bag of books written by the same
Drunks I see in the bars at night when it’s
Hard to come by a cab…

At times, Local Conditions is a journey from bar to pub, where each venue also serves as character. In “Heaven,” Collins writes of a town watering hole and its accompanying cast of regulars:

…Here you can still find foamy pints for $2.50, here
We still call one another friend. Out there are the wives,
The children & debt. Why would we ever go out there?
I can see the whole world perched on this stool and I gotta
Tell you I want no part of it. Some days someone walks in
With the paper or asks to change the channel to the news.
He is not-so-politely told to leave. There is no time here.
Nothing happens by design. It is wonderful.

It is always an achievement in poetry and writing in general to render a familial piece effectively without becoming too melancholic, melodramatic or pathetic, all of which can weaken impact. Collins deftly accomplishes deep feeling and resonance with the reader while avoiding any of the aforementioned traps in poems such as “Anger.” In it, he writes:

He was right to leave. It just wouldn’t do
Watching his son fall apart in the same bars
Where pieces of his own tattered being
Adorned every smoke-fouled surface. We must
Applaud his courage, if only quietly when alone.
And wish ourselves that same fortitude
To refuse this life and go searching for some other…

Though no word is wasted and no poetry misplaced in Collins’ collection, other strong works include opener “I Am Not Kahlil Gibran,” “Marriage,” “My Wife Goes to War With The Deer,” “City Forge,” “Molina,” “Ruth,” “When My Daughter Is Born,” and “Identifying Trees.”


 

Book Review: POEMS AND THEIR MAKING: A CONVERSATION Moderated by Philip Brady

 photo f538c001-2258-4192-ad0a-14944652bcaf_zpse78heuaz.jpg Poems and Their Making:
A Conversation

Moderated by Philip Brady
Etruscan Press, 2015
$23.95

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Poems and Their Making: A Conversation isn’t the kind of book that you read through once and put away.  In specific and individual ways, it is a peek inside the writing process of 31 accomplished poets. Whether a writer, reader, or both, we all want to know the secret to the mystifying process of writing poetry. While there is no definitive answer here or anywhere as to exactly how a poem comes to be, it is an endlessly fascinating process to talk about and this anthology creates a way for this conversation to be revisited.

Inspired by beloved and revered poet/professor, John Wheatcroft, “moderator” Philip Brady writes in his introduction, “No pronouncements here, just a conversation—a continuation of the dialogue Jack Wheatcroft nurtured for so many years [at Bucknell University].” And so Brady kicks off the conversation with a poem and essay written by Wheatcroft. This is basic model for each contribution, though sometimes the essay precedes the poem, or the lines of the poem are within the body of the essay. The poem and essay lengths vary, as well.  Just as it can be an insightful experience to hear a poet read their own work, a poet writing about how their poem came to be, all the backstory, the edits, the time they spent away from it, the moment when it fell into place, is illuminating. Writing is hard work. But what does that work look like? This accessible collection gives its reader 31 personalized, concise approaches to writing poems from their inception, revisions, and completion.

This collection will give the reader a unique insight into the work of the writers they are already familiar with as well as poets they may not recognize or only know by name. In almost every instance, the reader is quickly invited into the poet’s life. The contributors divulge personal details about what was happening when they wrote and revised a particular poem, as Betsy Sholl does in her essay about writing “Redbud” which begins:

More often a poem’s original impulse seems mysterious and then just dogged revision takes over: try this, try that, turn it on its head, turn myself on my head, etc. With this one, however, there was a specific incident that got it going, then a long process of finding its real concerns, and having to wait until I experienced something else, a counter-story to play against it.

Others take a more philosophical view, not only recounting how this exact poem came to be but how they engaged in their own writing framework to create this particular piece. In Paula Closson Buck’s lively essay, “On “Elegy for My Novel,” she identifies and explains:

The Principle of Unforeseen Collapse—the first of several tendencies or inclinations governing poetic practice (mine at least) that, were they not so uncannily responsible for creation, would surely be the destruction of the poet.

There are in fact ten of these “tendencies or inclinations” and the rest are just as excellently named.

I did find my wishing the collection included citations or a reading list. Many of the poets refer to other poets they admire, they quote or summarize favorite morsels they use to keep going with their poetic practice. This would be a great way to continue the conversation, the lineage and legacy of writing, but it is sadly missing.

While some may want to read this book straight through, it’s so delicious, so fortifying, it’s also a manual, a source of inspiration when your writing life is drawing shallow breaths. When this collection is read in the intended sequence, elements from one essay echo in the next. But each voice in this conversation is unique, each offers wisdom worthy of close study as well as practical approaches to revision. I look forward to picking this book up again in a couple of months to see what insights speak to me next.

Book Review: MENDELEEV’S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 845c6028-9b52-4cf4-b74d-eef21d2102e0_zpsigjihztv.jpg Mendeleev’s Mandala
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Mayapple Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

mandala: from the Sanskrit for “circle,” a schematized representation of the cosmos chiefly characterized by a concentric configuration of geometric shapes; in common use, mandala has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe

Jessica Goodfellow couldn’t have picked a more apt symbol as the face of her second full-length poetry collection, Mendeleev’s Mandala, out this past February from Mayapple Press. Cleverly represented by a diatom on the book’s cover, the mandala captures perfectly some of the lofty questions Goodfellow sets out to answer from the book’s first page.

How to revisit centuries’ worth of scientific, religious, and cultural development? How to do so in a new, unexpected way? How to accurately represent scientific, logical and linguistic concepts on the page? How to do so intelligibly?

By adopting the mandala as a guide, Goodfellow is able to show how each moment can be a microcosm of the entire human experience and, in turn, how the macrocosms of science, religion, language, and logic can be applied to each moment. Poems like “The Bargain,” “Night View from the Back of a Taxi,” and “Other People’s Lives” do so directly by examining the idea of fractals—curves or geometric figures, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole—but each section of the collection takes on the charge in its own way.

The first section sees Goodfellow applying scientific and logical concepts to everything from the myths of Isaac and Iphigenia to the story of her father’s hometown succumbing to a copper mine. These stories, along with that of her father’s eventual death, use physics and logic to test the limits of our capacity for understanding. The second section focuses on various types of measurement and perception—time, space, distance, and sight—and how they restrict. The third section is a delicious exploration of color’s effect on sensory perception, where we’re treated to the characters of The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau (“the color seen by the eye in perfect darkness… perceived as lighter than a black object in normal lighting conditions”) and her blind husband. The fourth section seems primarily to be an examination of language—its limits and its (in)ability to represent abstract concepts. Finally, the fifth section exists as an amalgamation of the various ideas explored in the previous poems.

As in Dmitri Mendeleev’s version of the periodic table, what is most interesting about this collection is what isn’t present. Like Mendeleev, who noted the absence of certain elements in his table and attempted to predict ways of filling those gaps, Goodfellow often meditates on absence and emptiness in an attempt to reunify the self.

For instance, she considers the idea of nothingness as Sarai, the Torahic heroine, in “The Mother of Nations Waits.”

In the time before zeros,
merchants marked nothing with nothing,
leaving space to show where something was missing.
But what shape was the space?
Sarai wanted to know, pressing on her midriff,
hoping that containing the emptiness was a possibility.

The poem continues with the Babylonian invention of zero—“All losses were made equal / which was a relief to Sarai / and which wasn’t”—and the language of zeros and ones in binary code. By the poem’s end, Sarai comes to understand that “while the opposite of being fertile is being barren, / the opposite of being barren is still being barren.”

Absence also proves a rich lens through which Goodfellow can examine her own father. “How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There” contains a pitch-perfect pun that succinctly sets the scene. “Mine, my father joked, pointing into the gaping hole. / Not mine, he waved his arms in large gestures / in no particular direction.” Not only is the father associated with emptiness here, but he comes to own it (semantically and geographically) as a central part of himself. Later, in “The Factory,” Goodfellow writes, “Kilroy was here means he’s not anymore—a kind of geometry nobody / cannot configure.” An emblematic American symbol, Kilroy, and a universal human loss, the death of a parent, are touchingly intertwined to expand our understanding of grief.

The collection is rife with other examples of absence. “Knot Sonnet” represents the space between two people in a relationship as the growing distance between geese flying in vee formation. “Night View from the Back of a Taxi” makes note of a verb tense in Ojibwe that conjugates “what was going to happen / but didn’t.”

But perhaps the most beautiful and interesting portion of the collection is its final poem, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland.” Written in six sections, the poem begins to give way to chaos in its sixth line as random numbers begin to invade the words on the page. Is this an invisible science behind the scenes becoming visible? A visual representation of the randomness we all exist within? An attempt to fill the emptiness? In any case, it’s a wild experience to watch as spaces and the insides of words are consumed by a rush of numbers. As the final page fills with a block of arbitrarily sequenced numbers, the reader realizes she must agree with Goodfellow and her son on their opinion of night, and of life:

“It’s such a lovely dark.”


Book Review: THE INVENTION OF MONSTERS / PLAYS FOR THE THEATRE by C. Dylan Bassett

 photo 0a19ae8f-fdee-4b6a-a5a3-5d0f884706c1_zpsbkpcydqv.jpg The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre
Poems by C. Dylan Bassett
Plays Inverse, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

It’s a businessman’s sadness . . . it’s getting lost on purpose.

This is how I moved through C. Dylan Bassett’s collection The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre; as if I’ve chosen to walk into a corn maze, knowing it will take some time for me to crawl out. Bassett’s model is interesting and concise, but it works to keep the reader wanting more. He writes: “it’s a bad habit, wanting to understand,” and the collection follows this ideology, offering up conflicting and often recursive images.

Bassett’s work is not a play in any traditional sense (though it is divided into four separate “acts”), but rather a series of compact prose poems all entitled “[scene].” Though what he accomplishes in these short poems is, in fact, a play, told through sporadic, brief moments that begin to piece together what it means to the narrator to be “the man the man declined to be.” In this vein, the collection desperately tries to find a certain sense of identity but repeatedly comes up short. We are not left with one clearly defined hero or heroine, but rather a series of images all working to coalesce into a being. With a style that has evolved past Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, Bassett leads us through the progression of a human life while describing to us how he is doing so. As he says, “the plot does not occur in sequence but in various sampled geographies.” And so we move from images of “a boy at a certain age [who] is mistaken for a girl” to images of “the carcass of a dog left on the highway beneath whose skin another child is born.” Bassett guides us through these identities shamelessly, as if each “mask” is as legitimate as the one before it.

We see these masks in segments, all the while being told that certain information is not being given to us. Through his constant manipulation of mise-en-scene, Bassett works to deconstruct the stage he has built. Take, for instance, his poem which begins: “the woman, the baby, the bedroom . . . in certain social settings, one defers casually to ready-made hierarchies.” He allows us brief glimpses into what one would expect in a theater and then casually plunges us deeper, showing us the bones of the stage rather than the stage itself. Bassett says that “one would like to know the context of this story,” and he’s right. But in this admission he shows us how deftly he is able to withhold information, forcing us to look harder. And this is where the genius of the work begins to come through. Each poem works to coalesce into one cogent piece, much like the individual is made up of scattered, often conflicting parts.

In the final poem of his collection, Bassett tells us that “totally self-contained is what we call beautiful,” and it is in this pursuit of self-containment that he both succeeds and fails. Bassett does not pretend to leave us with a perfect image of a being or situation, but rather he openly leaves us a collection of images that we must puzzle together. His in an incomprehensible work that begs time and again to be understood. Overtly sexual with no room for the pornographic, corporeal with an eye on the mechanical, Bassett’s often self-referencing collection is one we should look to in an effort to define contemporary poetry.


 

Book Review: THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie Harnett

 photo 978d90a7-16f8-4d1c-a570-d3e2aa21cd53_zpsuvlradhv.jpg The Hollow Ground
by Natalie Harnett
St. Martin’s Press
$15.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Dance Review: REMAINDER NORTHSIDE by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Attack Theatre spent eighteen months working on their latest piece, Remainder Northside. For that year and a half, they taught creative movement at various Northside schools, after-school, and summer programs. In getting to know the youth of the neighborhood, they created an hour-long group dance that loosely shared the kids’ thoughts and experiences.

Before the show began, the company gave the audience a taste of their creative process. The directors and dancers spoke about how they turned the stories they’d heard into movement. One child had spoken of a gym teacher who swung his whistle— that became a circle of the dancers’ lower arm. Another remembered a trip to Cedar Point—that manifested as a “pointed” gesture with straight elbows.

In classic Attack fashion, co-directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, had the audience try the movement from our seats. Rather than reading a program note, we understood the through-line of the show by doing the choreography ourselves.

To open the piece, the dancers entered as if arriving at school. They placed their belongings in lockers and took their seats on a bench. De la Reza performed slow movements behind a see-through scrim while the dancers followed along; the section was reminiscent of a game of Simon Says.

One by one, the dancers broke from the bench to perform individual solos. Anthony Williams moved between spotlights, sometimes with an inquisitive feel, but sometimes tentative, with fear behind his eyes. Kaitlin Dann’s solo had a similar tone, emotionally back and forth. Both dancers moved swiftly in and out of the floor. Dann moved with precision down to her fingers, and Williams with sleek elongation of his limbs. Dane Toney finished the section, covering the space with long lines and lightness on his feet.

The musicians (Dave Eggar, Chuck Palmer, and Domenica Fossati) set the tone for each section, moving from atmospheric to rhythmic to experimental. At one point, they switched instruments with one another. And a few times, they danced right alongside the company members.

Remainder utilized a sparse set, and the choreography centered on highly physical movement. Anyone who has followed Attack over the years knows their stage design can be complex and their theatrics can drive a show. Here, the dancing reigned supreme.

Ashley Williams and Dann performed a unique duet where they tossed themselves to the floor with athleticism. Later, the men performed an equally impressive duo. Both pairs partnered with fluidity and strength. The four company members came together in a group section while de la Reza matched their movement from the rafters. A sense of wonderment filled the theater.

In another section, the dancers used their own bodies to create rhythms that turned into a dance party of sorts. Although the celebratory nature was a nice change of pace, the movement felt novice.

Later, there was a moment when the piece seemed to be ending. The dancers sat, childlike with awe, watching de la Reza solo as if a mother figure. The group joined her in a hopeful phrase, laying footsteps in a pathway while de la Reza lit the space with a lantern. The image was touching and would have made for a lovely and subtle close.

Instead the group came together in one last phrase. The musicians picked up the pace singing “I’ll go wherever you go, wherever our footsteps lead the way.” Each dancer showed optimism and community in group partnering interspersed with solos. Although their technique shined, the choreography was a bit sentimental.

In Remainder, Attack reminded us of their capability to pare down humor and theatrics, highlighting instead their remarkable partnering and technical abilities. Even more, the piece gave voice to an important Pittsburgh community and showed the universality of children’s experiences everywhere.


 

Book Review: ALONE ON THE WALL by Alex Honnold

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

Reviewed by Mike Walker

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

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

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

What makes such a person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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