Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

 photo 88ca6d79-48be-4bb8-845e-83bb586abd43_zpssx4nev4g.jpg River House
Poems by Sally Keith
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

reviewed by Alison Taverna

In her fourth poetry collection, River House, Sally Keith straddles this world—oriented, logical, with the world of grief—timeless, aimless, consuming. All sixty-three poems are elegies to the speaker’s mother, even though she confesses “I used to like to teach a course on elegy, / But I don’t anymore. / The form no longer interests me.” Each poem fits on a page, clearly numbered as a title, followed with a period. I read this mathematical, clean ordering, first, as a mask. Create order in the chaos, the disillusionment. Too, though, I see this counting as a process, a heavy-footed, day-by-day movement through suffering. As if living doesn’t have a name anymore. Each moment indistinguishable from what follows, and what will follow, for “There isn’t really an order that would be correct.”

Reading, we find ourselves pulled by the river. At times Keith’s stanzas flow in a linear narrative. Other times we chop through lines, spin around quotes and references from authors and artwork. These jumps are intentional as Keith explains,

Forgive me for all these quotations.
I take notes when I read. There can be instances of real clarity.
I always hope I might remember them.

The mother rents herself a house by the harbor, where the land sits on the same level as the water, the house on stilts. What is usually separate, the land and the shore, now exist together. This landscape, these poems, all grief conflates into survival. The speaker finds comfort in this survival, this movement—

…I reread a favorite poem

In which a speaker in mourning sits by a river thinking.
That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me.
In the margin, “grief” was the word I once had written.

The voice in River House strikes me as overtly controlled. The collection opens with thirteen sentences in sixteen lines. The final stanza in the opening poem hints towards this straightforwardness: “Because our mother is gone, we do not need the house. / We tell ourselves this. Soon we will clean out inside.” Directness avoids sentimentality for the poem, and is a method of coping for the speaker.

Still, this direct voice does not limit any emotions, for I’m mourning with the speaker, each poem somehow more shattering than the one previous. In what I consider the most striking moment of the collection, the speaker discusses promises made to the mother during the aging process,

…We would keep

Her nails trimmed, her hair combed. We would keep
The bright lipstick from bleeding up, away from her lips.

As the collection continues, Keith begins to step out of the poem. This happens in 55. The poem discusses the mother’s wooden drawer that only opens via a special code. At the beginning of the fifth stanza a volta occurs. The speaker breaks the wall and acknowledges the poem and audience, a meta-move. More, the speaker doesn’t just step out of the poem, but gives up on the poem, for “By now, you must already have figured the rest, / How the poem will end with the code…” I find this one of the most honest moves in the collection, suggesting that yes, sometimes writing doesn’t ease the constancy of loss. But Keith writes through these moments, forces forward, towards another poem, towards a life where everything can exist as solely itself—

The message in the waves is the waves.
Don’t work harder. Don’t allow me to weep,
Talking about the river. The river exists. The house exists.


Book Review: THAT OUR EYES BE RIGGED by Kristi Maxwell

 photo 8656465d-fa5d-4c3d-ae4d-661cca00f76f_zpsw33fgzs3.jpg That Our Eyes Be Rigged
Poems by Kristi Maxwell
Saturnalia Books, 2014
$15.00

reviewed by Dakota Garilli

I always want to say falsetto to sing it true in falsetto.
– “My Cost”

Following its desire to play with and harness the strange power of words, Kristi Maxwell’s That Our Eyes Be Rigged seems to be a meditation on the nature of memory and moments shared. From its opening poem, “In Which We Ask, Exist,” small fragments come to light piece by piece and allow the speaker to create small worlds:

Light chews on the patio
or could
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
pitiable face

Enter our star player in unpunctuated lines, the breaks and creatively-chosen words of which displace typical language into an ever-shifting quicksand of images and moods. This collection is not for syntactical purists – in fact, it’s frustrating. It begs the reader to give painstaking attention to each new turn while simultaneously allowing whole trains of thought to break down in a manner somewhat akin to a Gertrude Stein poem. But for the reader who sticks around, there are some sweet nuggets. The surprises of the opening poem, “My Cost,” “[When I/ said deliver],” “Mined,” and the “Every Time I Want to Write You…” series may not be enough to sustain us, but they offer treasured moments of understanding amidst a stifling maze of words.

The most disconcerting element of Maxwell’s collection is that we know the meaning of each word it includes, or could at least look them up—and yet these same words, stripped to their bare sounds and played out to the thinnest representations of themselves, quickly become incomprehensible to us. Not surprising, as we come to realize that many of these poems are about a breakdown of communication.

“Of Them,” a retelling of moments shared by a couple no longer together, showcases some of Maxwell’s strongest moments in this linguistic experiment. Her lover’s hands are, unexpectedly, “a flesh chapel hid behind the scaffolding of open-fingered gloves,” and a mirror becomes “a park where light picnics.” Trips to the (actual) park are named by what makes them memorable, like “The First Below Zero Night.” While Maxwell’s plunging into the chill of these splintered memories may not suit her purpose —“To write about parks the way he walks through them” —the poem ambles to a wonderfully poignant close:

Snow erases mud our feet rewrite.

Snow and mud and our feet plunged and our feet plugged into our shoes and snow and mud a feat to plough through and we do.

Slipping, we separate and our separating is a colon between us.

We who number who digital clock and set ourselves for the occasion.

By the poem’s end, any trace of these lovers has already disappeared under fresh snow. Their inevitable separation manifests and, like the numbers on a digital clock, they blink slowly out of our sight.

Not all of Maxwell’s poems are so easy to track. It’s clear she sees language as a series of, as one poem is titled, “Tiny Wires Touching the Right Way.” That poem’s epigraph might be Maxwell’s plea for better readers: “Where is the body that is prepared to receive language?” Answer: Only in the space where one is willing to be lost, to be astonished by the flexibility of words and reminded of the utter meaningless of language when attempting to articulate those emotions and questions that sometimes feel incommunicable.

Her speaker seems to realize the growing futility of this attempt at connection. Her irritation becomes apparent in “[My soul’s in your head],” printed here in its entirety:

My soul’s in your head

if anywhere. The song

said so or something

like it. I fold my voice

to fit your ear. I fold it

more compactly

and store it. Stalled

after all. What horse

is this—that carries us

one at a time?

The horse, of course, is language. Maybe better put, meaning. Because Maxwell’s soul is never truly in our head, no matter how carefully her words are chosen for shape and shade or how compactly they’re folded. We are filtering her words as much as she filters her world, and somewhere in between we either find meaning or don’t. In poetry, an art where so much time is spent perfecting and so little at play, that’s perhaps a useful reminder.


 

Dance Review: CANDESCENCE by Gia T. Presents

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Gia Cacalano has come a long way since her traditional Martha Graham training in New York City. Although she respects choreographed modern dance immensely, performing another artist’s rehearsed movement never felt comfortable to her.

After quitting dance for seven years, Cacalano finally found the style that suits her best—improvisation. Over the last decade, she has made a name for herself creatively in Pittsburgh, despite her shyness and discomfort with the public.

Friday, she performed the first piece of her new season, fully funded by the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative. Her solo, Candescence, took place at the Wood Street Galleries, a studio that has hosted her and her ensembles many times.

Cacalano performed alongside the latest art installation at the gallery. Mirjana Vodopija, originally from Croatia, was one of the artists in residence. Her work, Absence of Self, included three large prints, two of which utilized video animation. Each print pictured desolate, snowy or icy landscapes. In one, a complete white-out, Vodopija stood with her back to the camera. In the others, her image was digitally projected, in intervals, walking away from each scene.

Although Cacalano spent little time with the art, her ideas about the work were strong. The prints inspired her to think of several themes: ridding the ego, being seen or not seen, the loss of self that comes through our age of technology, and the shedding of our various selves.

Cacalano entered the space with an investigative energy common in her improvisations. Her inquisitive nature allows her to relate to the space in which she performs, a quality important in connecting the physical and visual art. Cacalano’s heightened awareness showed from the beginning; she timed a determined walk with Vodopija’s figure on one screen almost immediately.

The choice of costume and props also spoke to the artwork. Cacalano began sheathed in several layers, including a skirt made of bubble wrap and a black hat nearly covering her eyes. The layering of her clothes represented the layers of her self, some of which she shed throughout the piece.

In her hands, she carried several pair of latex gloves, eventually placing them on the floor in a purposeful and careful manner. She later explained the gloves as a representation of the “sterile” and technical way we present our lives online, perhaps the place where we most lack our true selves.

All of this related well to the images on the screens. The movement often mirrored the feeling of seclusion. For example, Cacalano positioned herself behind the screen a few times, leaving only her legs and feet visible to the audience. Still, the dance wasn’t melancholic. Cacalano included a healthy amount of movement simply pleasing to the eye, physically attacking a phrase with lightness on her feet.

The music was recorded by Kagi-Jong Kag Park, an artist out of Amsterdam who will mix live sound for Cacalano’s April ensemble show. Cacalano stayed connected to the electronic beats, seeming to discard a layer of clothing, or “self,” each time a new section began.

She moved from the bigger, released movement at which she excels, to tiny gestures easy to miss, like a foot slowly turning in, or one finger pointing subtly into the distance. Sweeping progressions showed off her technical range, and concluded with deep pliés, lunges, and near splits (with no feeling of flashiness).

The piece ended when she exited with certainty in the direction of one print,   disappearing from our view as did Vodopija’s own shape on the screen. The timing matched up spontaneously but artfully, which is the beauty of improvisation and Cacalano’s skill.


 

Book Review: SHAPE OF THE SKY by Shelagh Connor Shapiro

 photo ca5fbfe0-77c6-4898-bd3c-ee7809d39087_zps9zvyicr3.jpg Shape of the Sky
by Shelagh Connor Shapiro
Wind Ridge Books, 2014
$15.95

reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

There’s music in the air in Shape of the Sky, the novel by Shelagh Connor Shapiro, out now from Wind Ridge Books. Music is central to this story of Resolute, Vermont—a tiny town, population 613. It’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Complete with general stores and the Mom & Pop Diner, it’s a charming place, if a little claustrophobic.

The good people of Resolute are looking to bring some much needed business to their town, and the opportunity presents itself with a Woodstock-esque rock concert from fictional band Perilous Between, the biggest musical act to come out of Vermont in years. It’s a win-win for Resolute’s citizens—the town can open their shops and restaurants to the thousands of concert-goers, while farmers can rent out their land for the plethora of tents, RVs, and drug-addled youth.

There’s a few naysayers to this plan, of course, but for the most part, Resolute stands…well, resolutely. Perilous Between’s fans swarm in and all seems like the concert will go off without a hitch. That is, until a young fan’s body is discovered in the river. From there, the characters investigate, speculate, and meditate on this murder—Resolute has been without a homicide for generations now, after all.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Shape of the Sky. It features an ensemble cast, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character. Oftentimes, these characters’ plot lines interweave and coalesce in surprising ways. The writing style changes from chapter to chapter to give voice to these characters. From the paranoid ramblings of the town gossip Rita Frederick, to the quiet, observant musings of Becca Akyn, paraplegic mother and line cook at the town’s diner.

For instance, here’s how Rita Frederick’s chapter starts: “The dishes have piled up and the mail has piled up and the laundry has piled up and none of it feels like Rita’s fault or job, but somehow she is the only one in this family who’s going to do anything about any of it and sometimes she wonders how it came to be this way, since she’s not a naturally neat person.”

These are the things that fuel and worry Rita. They’re not the academic and musical stresses experienced by Carter, Becca Akyn’s son. They’re not the cultish concerns of Zedekiah, town oddball. They’re the dishes. The state of her home, and in a larger sense, her town itself.

Indeed, many characters have strong voices, which in turn gives Resolute, Vermont a strong sense of place. It’s a tightly knit community, one where a newcomer transplant is regarded with suspicion and eventually begrudging hospitality. I’ve certainly visited this type of town. Shape of the Sky gives life and voice to the interstate towns that are often passed over in literature, in favor of countless novels set in New York, LA, or really any town with a population over 700.

The setting further forms through Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s often gorgeous writing.

Now she tried to see what the shape of the sky might be, resting atop Mount Witness like so much torn blue paper, glued in place with paste. For a second, for just a blink, she could see it that way. Just like, when she’d happened to glance at the cedars lit from behind at sunset the other night, she’d noticed them as it for the first time: dark feathery tops redefining the world that lay beyond.

Small town, Vermont, on a chilly spring evening—it sounds really nice, no? Imagery is one of the consistent strengths of Shape of the Sky, with words and metaphors that surprised and delighted me.

But as I said, the novel is really propelled by Resolute’s citizens, and their differences from each other. There’s a constant sense of change, or movement, with each turn of the page. Shelagh Connor Shapiro uses flashbacks and cutaways generously, which could have gotten confusing in a less skilled author’s hands. Instead, I often found that they clarified my understanding of the characters—oftentimes, the same events will be experienced by multiple characters, shedding new light on certain mysteries. And for a novel about a murder, it’s a rather intriguing way to learn precisely how and why the victim died. Characters both are and aren’t what they seem in Shape of the Sky.

That’s not to say that this is universal—in fact, some characters came off as a bit one-note. Because the novel features such a large cast, both Resolute natives and concert-goers, there are a few that aren’t as fleshed out. Every now and then, I would question a character’s purpose in terms of the overall plot. It’s not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, but it is something I noticed—most likely because there are so many other memorable characters to which I compared them.

Near the end of the novel, most of their plot lines had resolved, but there were a few threads left dangling. And these threads were tied up in an epilogue of sorts—quick throwaway paragraphs that detail what happened to this specific character, or how these two characters are spending more time together now. Carter and Becca Akyn, neatly tied up with a bow. They’re endings that the book probably could’ve done without—it almost seemed an injustice to describe in a sentence what happened to a character with whom I had spent forty pages or so.

But aside from this, Shape of the Sky was a pleasant read that featured a memorable cast of characters. It’s about a tiny burg rocked by big events: a music festival and a murder. It’s about people who find tragedy and joy in each other’s accomplishments and mistakes. In a way, it’s the classic story about what happens when a stranger comes to town. Well, when a couple thousand strangers come to town.


 

Poetry & Risk

by Gerry LaFemina

Poetry is risky business. All the time, I hear poetry teachers urging their students to take risks, and usually, what they mean, is write about “risky” subject matter. But what makes subject matter risky—writing about the body? Sorry folks, people have been doing that for years. Writing about drug use? Sexual assault? Running away from home? For writers who have avoided confronting the ghosts and shames of their pasts, such “taboo” topics may feel uncharted, might make us uncomfortable even, but after decades of poems on such subjects, I’m not sure how inherently “risky” these topics are for readers. Furthermore, such insistence on risky subject matter can make young writers who haven’t had such experiences feel inadequate in the content of their work.

Of course, risky subject matter can provide us with energy—look at me, Mom, I’m writing about stuff you wouldn’t approve of. And fuck, I’m using language you wouldn’t approve of either. And surely we can imagine subject matter that we’ve observed rather than we’ve had happen to us. For many writers, just imagining another life can be a risk. Writing persona poems stretch our imagination and force us to think beyond our initial impressions of our subject matter. But there are other risks a writer can take, other ways to challenge one’s self, than what we write about.

The tightrope, without stating the obvious, is even risky for the circus performer, but much less so after years of training than for the novice. Subject matter only takes us so far—how many times can we revisit the same stories in the same way?

Risk then, for a poet, has to be considered in different ways. One way to be risky with our content is to reconsider the notions of subject matter itself, to allow yourself to be ambivalent about the topic, to second guess what you believe the poem is about. To have a “but” in the poem. To question one’s own beliefs is always potentially troublesome, but also liberating. How many times can we write about our broken hearts? Try writing a poem that begins I’m glad you left me…

Or think of Phyllis Moore’s “Why I Hate Martin Frobisher,” a catalog of anaphora driven lines:

Because he watches sports on TV
Because he works and I just read books
Because when I’m screaming like an oceanliner, he can answer the phone and say
        “Sure, no problem”
Because my mother thinks he’s the spotty pup and I’m Cruella Deville.
Because he plays with his food, cut curliques in my 4-hour creme brulee

but then, when she breaks the pattern, the speaker admits her attempts at trying to convince herself and us of her hatred.

Because he’s got a heart the size of a chipped acorn, the brains of a squirrel, he’s a jerk,
        a little girl’s blouse,
        a felon but straight-seamed
        a cream-faced, two-penny
        scoundrel and a kitten-kicker,
        a real badass
        and I want him back, oh yeah.

It’s a perilous proposition, of tone, of the anaphoric form overpowering the subject, but, in this case, it’s one that pays off.

Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which inverts the celebration of the beautiful beloved and opens with these lines:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Subverting expectations is a big risk, but it humanizes the beloved, the speaker, and the sonnet form.

Form, obviously, is where the most risks can be taken. Contemporary poetics allows for a variety of formal options—from fractal use of the page to prose poems to fixed forms. I have a student right now who regularly threatens to drop my class if I make her write in fixed forms: so more than ever I want to assign everyone a villanelle or terza rima. She’s afraid of failure in writing in form. Yet failure teaches us more than success.

But nothing prevents us from making up forms, too. Jim Simmerman’s assignment “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” in The Practice of Poetry seems, at first glance, extremely difficult. Students, when presented with it, often complain that it’s “impossible.” Invariably, students write their best poems by rising to the challenge of the form that forces them to put subject matter further down their list of concerns.

For writers, particularly in the early stage of their careers, trained to think about what their poems are about, putting form—putting prosody—before subject matter can feel like dangerous. We want to say something meaningful, and we want our experiences to be validated. But there’s another way of thinking, and that’s like the old woman in E.M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel, who says “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” Byt this logic, then, intelligence is created by the very act of writing.

We’re thinking all the time, most of it unconsciously. We don’t think to get our lungs to breathe; we don’t think to fall in love. Most of us have seen something (a dog running down the street) and made connections to other events, other experiences, other times (an ex who had a similar dog, or a fact about golden retrievers we saw on Animal Planet); suddenly, what had been unconsciously happening is brought to consciousness. Not thinking about subject matter, but thinking about form and prosody, might allow unconscious thoughts to bubble up. It’s a risk of trusting our poetics. And poetics, not subject matter, is truly what writing a poem is about. We must remember: if we’re choosing to write in verse, we have to consider what it is the line gives us. It gives us formal concerns. Taking risks with form can lead to the most rewarding poems.


 

Precarious Music // Book Review: SUGAR RUN ROAD by Ed Ochester

 photo eb351e79-6958-4340-957d-1d413240de94_zpsrfum3aft.jpg Sugar Run Road
Poems by Ed Ochester
Autumn House Press, 2015
$17.95

reviewed by Peter Blair

In his famous essay, “The American Background,” William Carlos Williams writes that America needs to create a “culture of immediate references.” Such a culture relies on direct, unmediated perception and contact with the American continent itself, free of European preconceptions and the “crazy rigidities and imbecilities” of a society ignorant of its own place or ground which then stifles lives and growth.

Reading Ed Ochester’s new book, Sugar Run Road, reminds me of such a poet who in the second poem of the book, “Even As I Write This,” asks readers to keep in mind “the deep grammar and inner mystery of, . . . your native land.” Similarly, in “Sunflowers,” he writes, “you don’t / know where you will be / but you’d better / see where you are,” and in “September Rain”: “So many people don’t know / where they live.” Like the speaker who feels lucky to know where he lives, Ochester’s poems celebrate ordinary, often-forgotten people who respond to their home ground and the natural landscape (mostly rural Western Pennsylvania) of birds, trees, and hills. In a short poem, “At the Farm Store,” the speaker overhears the owner tell a friend: “O the figs / are all gone / from the vine / outside my bedroom. / You have no idea / how wonderful / it was to wake up / and open the window / and eat one.”

This immediacy and connection to the local permeates the book’s three sections which range from biting satires of our current “imbecilities,” short haiku-like pieces, and poems which blend historical figures and immediate personal experiences in to a profound concreteness of emotion. An example of the last kind, the poem “That Time,” is about what the speaker calls his “heart event.” He forges a conversational, self-reflexive voice on the page which riffs on several subjects relating to the speaker’s health, and through turns (“verse” means “to turn”) captures the vagaries of an emergency health experience with wit, grace and associative resonance. It uses word play. He states that calling it an “event” makes “‘attack’ sound[s] / as jubilant as the 4th of July—.” Then, he quotes his doctor who tells him to eat right and stop “acting like an asshole” which the speaker remembers telling himself at 20, and it didn’t do him any good. He moves to a wry ethical truth saying that we build, “preposterous / value systems” early in life and have to deconstruct them later. A final turn counterpoints these abstract thoughts when the poem ends on a true immediate reference, spoken by the speaker’s wife when she looks out the window:

hey, the raccoons
didn’t knock over the birdbath
for once

The poetic structure of the poems, the constant turns, is itself a kind of immediate culture where we experience amazing intuitive connections; these insights based on the locality can change one’s actions because they’re based on those observations. Ignoring them, we will get caught in mental traps and craziness. To illustrate these rigidities, the poems pillory “endless McMansion miles,” Gideon Bibles in motels, the Iraq War, America’s desire for newness and “quickiness” in everything, a poetry scene of inflated resumes, and literary critics who seem to value “challenging” poetry which the speaker says, “often means I think, ‘obscure.’” Against this, the speaker favors “complexity, not confusion” and “plain surface texture.” Another poem celebrates Yogi Berra not “‘theory’ phds” who “poisoned all the books they landed on.” Varied forms such as epistles, letters, tweets, and an email poem between the speaker and another poet, lend a sense of day-to-day focus on the present moment, things, and current ideas.

Another example of immediacy is how the speaker needs to get down on paper a fleeting emotion suggested by his response to the things around him. In “Meyer Country Motel,” he witnesses a diner which reflects our economic class society from Latino busboys up to “the happy fat owner gabbing.” The speaker picks up the Gideon Bible in his room. Has he converted? No. He uses the blank pages at the back so, as he says: “I can write this [poem] down / before I go.” Another poems begins “As I write this it’s raining,” and other titles include personal immediate insights stolen from routine, such as “Even As I Write This,” “Messages,” and “Google It.”

Time and space to catch and record a fleeting truth is important, and in this regard, time emerges as a constant theme. In “The Death of Hemingway,” he writes, “Wherever and whomever you are / time will change it,” and reduce it to nothing. Yet, in a moving poem about baseball and many other things, “Emails from and to Afaa Weaver,” the memories evoked by a Donald Hall poem about the past and the power of memory move him to say: “Time turns pain to silver, garbage to gold,” These poems, wide-ranging, associative, intuitive, do what the speaker quotes Galway Kinnell as saying in another poem (simply called “Poetry”) a homage to various poetic voices from Stern and Gilbert to Cattulus. The Kinnell quote ends the poem: “‘go so deep / into yourself you speak for everyone.’”

Ochester knows intimately the complex, multiform, compartmentalized Chinese box of emotions, memories, and the secrets that we keep to ourselves, and the need to go “deep into” them in a poem. The outer surface of the box, the poem, is merely what houses these emotions (and secrets), (and us) inside, the record of what we have taken to heart, our meager successes and failures. Yet, that same poem grounded in the immediate references of the world, nature, and the heart, rescues us through the sheer joy of being in contact with that world.

“Joy” runs all through these amazing poems, but nowhere more strongly than the final poem, “For Britt.” As the speaker parks the car at home, he observes,

your sparrows in the snow-covered forsythia
greet the weak sun with a matrix of cheeping,
dozens of them, not from gratitude but
perhaps from overflowing joy

These lines stun us with the beauty of their delicate music. To say them is to hear the sparrows’ song (the e sounds repeated at surprising intervals in the second line of the quote) in between the ominous o sounds of the surrounding lines. We see, feel, and hear the birds’ precarious existence and “perhaps” their joy.

Reading these poems, at once hilarious, engaging, and compassionate, heightens not only our joy, but also our ability to create immediate references to our precarious world and culture.

________
Works Cited
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions Books, 1954. Print


When I have Fears

by Nola Garrett

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
               —John Keats

Once in a while, we all come upon a poem that is so tight and so right that there’s not much left to say, other than agree with it and explain why. Of course, as an English professor teaching Introduction to Poetry, I sometimes pried out of my students why it was an English sonnet rather than an Italian sonnet, but I’m sure that did more harm than good. Luckily, my prying had no effect upon sonnethood, though years later I still hope my students have forgiven me.

Eventually, I learned to approach this poem by first reading it aloud, then asking “What do you notice about this poem?” and then a half hour of poetry conversation ensued. Some students focused on the “fair creature of an hour,” to discuss it as a tragic love poem. Others talked about the first line, and recounted auto accidents, grandparents’ deaths, near drowning. If they knew anything about Keats’ life, they disclosed his early death from TB, and because Keats died at age 26, an age close to theirs, at that point in our discussion we moved deeper into the poem itself. Though they could imagine why Keats would miss his writing, reading, the night sky, and his girlfriend, what was nearly impossible to understand was Keats’ sonnet’s solution. Mostly, all they had to go on was trust in Keats’ words:

then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

That was always acceptable to me, because I knew each one of us who reads this poem would most likely someday come to understand those words within the context of our own lives.

I, too, have had to contemplate those last lines of Keats sonnet for more than two years since I was diagnosed with primary billiary cirrhosis.

Primary billiary cirrhosis is a rare, genetic disease of the liver diagnosed most often in women during their mid-forties or mid-fifties in which the cells that make up the linings of the liver’s bile ducts destroy each other and eventually close off all the bile ducts, leading to liver failure and death unless a liver transplant is available. Given my present age, 74, I would be so far down on the transplant list that I would die before a liver were ever available. And, in some cases even if a transplant takes place, the genetic nature of the disease destroys the transplanted liver. However, a few years ago research liver specialists discovered that thrice daily 300 mg doses of ursolic acid, Ursodiol, can in some cases slow the destruction of the bile ducts, especially if it is administered early enough in the progression of the disease.

These are the questions I’ve been living with for the last two years:

Why has PBC, such a rare disease, pounced upon me so late in my life?

How long have I had PBC?

Is the Ursodiol working well enough to slow down the progression of PBC so I can die of something else?

Meanwhile, I have bought a space for my ashes in First Lutheran Church’s columbarium, and I keep revising (much the same way I revise my poems) my funeral service.

I have published my second book of poetry, and I’m working on my third manuscript of poetry and writing essays.

My husband has divorced me, and now a mortgage company & I own my condo where I still gratefully live.

In many ways Keats’ concluding lines stayed with me as I stood alone thinking through my questions at the high windows of my condo these last two years. Gradually, I came to accept not only my death, but also the end of my husband’s love. Because I never did drink much alcohol, giving up cooking with wine and drinking wine came easy. I found that lemon juice and/or chicken broth were good substitutes for cooking with wine. I learned to allow myself the slightest sip of communion wine, somewhat like Christ’s sipping vinegar while he hung from his cross. Because part of taking Ursodiol is drinking far more water than I have ever drunk on a daily basis, I came to find drinking water at various temperatures seemed to be a pleasant diversion. Besides, another medical recommendation was to drink coffee and to eat lots of citrus. And, because my husband had hated coffee and was indifferent to any citrus other than pulpless orange juice, somehow my drinking coffee and eating lots of oranges and tangerines seemed to congeal the finality of his leaving. Further, I came to accept that the stress of living with a husband who no longer loved me though I loved him may have been what pushed me and my genes past their limits. Like death, divorce has always existed.

During the first year after my husband left, my second book of poems, The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball, was published, received national reviews, and went into a second print run. Mike Simms asked me to write these essays. One of my sestinas from my first book was included in OBSESSION: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century published by the University of New England Press. And, along with several invitations to read, a critical essay was written about my poems for the Mezzo Camin Women Poets Time Line which will be posted within the next few months. This is far more fame than I have ever expected in my wildest dreams, but I’m still just me waiting for my next poem. None of this makes a whit of difference on my Federal Income Tax forms.

What has made a difference to me is the results of several medical tests I’ve had within the last few weeks. Apparently, even though I was so old, my PBC was diagnosed early in its development, and during the two years while I have been taking medication and living alone my liver has not further deteriorated. I may well live to die of something else. Theologically, I suspect this may be wrong: I’ve come think of the cells in my liver bile linings as a game of Pac-Man eating themselves. I’ve just been awarded a single bonus life at 10,000 points, but I believe Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde are still out there. However, now I’m not afraid to sink to nothingness whenever they arrive.


Book Review: GOOD NOISE! Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh

 photo 86ad9bd2-eed1-47d2-83de-f43ad1997b0a_zpsbzo8j3ps.jpg Good Noise!
Poems by Renee Alberts, Jason Baldinger, Stephanie Brea, Kristofer Collins, Jerome Crooks, Angele Ellis, Kevin Finn, John Grochalski, Jason Irwin, Lori Jakiela, Chuck Kinder, John Thomas Menesini, Dave Newman, Bob Pajich, Daniel M. Shapiro, Scott Silsbe, Ed Steck, Don Wentworth
Thrasher Press, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Some of the music I’ve come to appreciate most as a long-time audiophile is themed albums that grew on me over the course of several replays. For example, Acadie, by Daniel Lanois; Good Old Boys, by Randy Newman; Mountain Soul, by Patty Loveless, come immediately to mind. It’s an experience to listen to each song in order, the accompanying lyrics on my lap, and note the common thread: a raw, palpable sense of place evident in the words, further conjured by instruments connected to the musician’s heritage, or the territory they’ve inhabited.

Good Noise!: Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh, a collection published by Thrasher Press, imparts this same admiration. As the book title states, this inspired compilation of verse penned by local writers frequently lingers on music within the heart of the steel city and in addition to its adjacent neighborhoods. The book’s largely free-verse, rhythmic narrative poems are meditations on the Southwestern PA locale’s musical influences (such as the Karl Hendrix Trio) and the impact of internationally known performers, as well as everyday rust belt characters—the folks who serve as commentary on the region’s traditions, the Yinzer populace mindset. In Lori Jakiela’s “Big Fish,” Pittsburgh is contemplated at a Lenten Friday fish fry as a place you can escape, yet your return is inevitable:

The good people of Trafford don’t eat meat on Lenten Fridays.
They give up all hopeful things – chocolate, beer, the lottery…

Everyone I know is tired of waiting and dreaming.

I used to dream of leaving. I did that.
Now I’m back for good…

The kid with the pink hair whacks the fish over and back,
then drops it into the fryer.

He sings “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Dee Snider, Twisted Sister,
and punches the air with his one free hand.

More shared themes in Good Noise! include the Pittsburgh landscape (“looks / like a messy bed” – Bob Pajich)—its bridges and thoroughfares—as well as nights of drink; music at dive bars & pubs; missed opportunities / regrets; and finding one’s self lost then found, literally and figuratively, by music in the more obscure surrounding towns. Take Daniel M. Shapiro’s “How Billy Eckstine Helped Me Find the West Mifflin Wal-Mart,” a poem that also addresses the sacrifice of important culture in the name of urban renewal:

One 21st-century night, his baritone
boomed from my car stereo as I meandered
a few steps south of his hometown.
Scat syllables twisted like ill-formed roads…

On the map, it had looked easy enough.
Perhaps the man who turned Crawford Grill
and Hurricane legendary resented the development,
corporate bottom lines that sliced at hillsides.
So he took his time, imprinting his rhythms
while the gauge tipped toward empty.

Eventually, he got me there, knowing
those former boondocks as metropolises…

Vital to Good Noise! is acknowledgement of Pittsburgh’s historical heritage—the significance and sacrifice of immigrants in the mammoth steel industry that dominated the Monongahela River front through to the 1980s. In “Black Cemetery Wall,” John Thomas Menesini writes:

further down the black cemetery wall
blackened from yesterday soot
a different kind of e pit ap h
to a Pittsburgh
long since
past

a reminder
of bloody black hands
black lungs
broken skin
furnace tans
blistered lips sucked
boilermakers
by the quartful

While the book doesn’t hit a wrong note in its content, its pacing, or poem order, some of the many standout poems include “I Date a Guy Because of the View from His Bedroom Window,” by Stephanie Brea; “Katie Birthday Poem,” by Scott Silsbe; “Allen Ginsberg Comes to Pittsburgh,” by David Newman; “untitled,” by Jerome Crooks; “Here’s to Your Ex-Wife,” by Jason Baldinger; and “Spending Sunday Afternoon Listening to Jim Daniels’ Copy of Hall & Oates’ Abandoned Luncheonette,” by Kristofer Collins.

To call Good Noise! raw, gritty, unapologetic, full of heart—is fitting. It describes “the ‘Burgh”: what you see is what you get. It describes the collected verse—the music—included within it, the pop & crack of a well-worn LP that sings the perpetual song of Pittsburgh.


 

Book Review: BEST BONES by Sarah Rose Nordgren

 photo 98d88d4b-d0d1-4a59-b67a-5ae522d5c5ec_zpsc56si66z.jpg Best Bones
Poems by Sarah Rose Nordgren
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Into the Woods might not have taken home an Oscar, but its recent Disney reboot proves we’re still a culture that values fairy tales. One of my favorite moments from that score comes from the song “Stay With Me,” when the Witch begs her daughter Rapunzel, “Stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child.” Songwriter Stephen Sondheim says of the number, “It’s about parenting children, which of course is what fairy tales are about.”

But we’re not here to talk about Into the Woods. Because, as much humor and nuance as the show brought to our oldest stories, Sarah Rose Nordgren has come to push their lyrical weirdness even further to bring us a uniquely American fairy tale. In these tales, gender, war, religion, and the American South are some of the subjects that children are coming to grips with. When Ed Ochester calls Nordgren’s poems “part Alice in Wonderland,” he gets it just right — their lines remind us that sometimes the kids are in charge, the adults don’t have all the answers, and the moral doesn’t make sense.

“Kids These Days,” a poem whose title sounds like it just jumped from the mouth of any complaining parent, is perhaps at the crux of these conflicts. One of many poems where Nordgren proves she can span centuries in just a few lines, we cut from a list of our long-lost ancestors directly to the present moment:

At some point today it started raining
very hard and there was no shelter.
We all scattered from the schoolyard
in fifty directions, wearing books on our heads.
There are so many ways to go wrong
that we’ve stopped sorting them.
The globe is on its stand in the dusty room,
not spinning or teaching anyone a lesson.
There must be a good reason that the whole
world seems so anxious on our behalf.

There’s innocence here, and ignorance — which is perhaps the same thing said less generously. There’s a sense that these children, like all others before them, will suffer the consequences of not heeding their elders. Yet the situation here seems increasingly dire. In the modern world, there are even more ways to go wrong. These children stumble through rain on the edge of disaster, waiting to find out what’s causing the hubbub. As Nordgren will ask in a later poem, “what good is an illegible message?”

Under Nordgren’s watchful eye, all the accoutrements of childhood become things to be feared. “The Only House in the Neighborhood” brings dollhouses to a new level of creepiness by pairing images of a seemingly perfect family with a growing, uncomfortable quiet. Sure, “there is a birthday party nearly every day, / no fear of death or failure, no mortgage / to pay, no money at all.” Reality, in these ways, may have vanished, but fantasy breeds a different discord. “The stove doesn’t work. The food is painted / on the refrigerator door.” There’s nothing here to sustain life. So “no matter / if Baby bathes with his clothes on, or Mother… spends a week facedown on the laundry room floor.” The silent horror builds to a surprising finish — a child’s hand toppling an undersized rocking horse — where Nordgren reminds us that we both create and destroy the worlds we inhabit.

Throughout this collection, Nordgren proves herself a technician of craft. We get rhythm and rhyme, narrative sequencing, lyric tension, and various uses of form. But her most successful poems are those that blend technique with visceral reality — that join, as Stuart Dischel praises on the book’s back cover, “the cool surface of craft and the human heat of the heart.” At some points the story gets lost in a beautiful image; at others the poet seems unwilling to go far enough in interrogating her subject. This happens most clearly in poems, like “Instructions for Marriage by Service,” which seem to address race. But parsing gender, family, and lessons passed down, Nordgren’s words wield a stunning power. She states complex truths plainly; she says in “The Wife” of marriage, “Stepping to like a mare… I became more creaturely // with each passing year.”

For all their compression, these poems are like the Witch’s world: deep, dark, and wild. They draw readers to the story’s entrance again and again, promising new beauty each time. “Still Birth,” the book’s second poem, reminds us why it’s worth it in the first place:

The introduction was too long, but
the invisible boy had already traveled
for a year and a day… Though you know
the story, I mean to remind you
he will, eventually, return. Not in body,
no, but every time I tell it he becomes
more real. This is one of the stories
we live in against nature—I was trying
to tell you over the wind. If you learn anything
from living in this house, it will be how
to survive a variety of interruptions.

Our worst tragedies and our greatest joys are the interruptions, the realities of life and the morals of stories. Through a series of wondrous, fantastical images, Nordgren conveys unspeakable emotion. We’re transported back to the first time someone stood over us with the offer of only a story, begging us to listen closely.


 

Book Review: NESTUARY by Molly Sutton Kiefer

 photo aff65420-8048-4e89-8868-014d13945735_zpsuym7e7vi.jpg Nestuary
by Molly Sutton Kiefer
Gold Line Press, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Sometimes you read something and wish you would have written it, it strikes a chord so deeply within you. Or, and probably even better, it inspires you to write your own story. For me, as I try to capture in words my voyage into motherhood, Molly Sutton Kiefer’s Nestuary is this book.

Her book-length lyric essay pulls in the sun but only reflects certain, specific light, just like the moon. A myriad of sources appear in these pages such as peer-reviewed scientific articles, hallowed writings of other women and mothers, quotes from bumbling politicians, and monographs on Witchcraft. Sutton Kiefer masterfully braids these texts with her own story of motherhood told in three parts.

All of these pieces absorb the speaker as she tries to find her footing in a world where her body and her spirit are potentially at odds. With language that moves the reader seamlessly through lyric dream-like sequences, references to Diana, Our Lady of La Leche, MacBeth, and other icons, into more direct narratives of her real-life reproductive challenges and successes, Sutton Kiefer has formed a “compelling document” as Arielle Greensburg so aptly calls it.

Part 1 opens with goddesses and moon rituals, a psychoanalyst’s explanation, an incantation, and a list indicated by Roman numerals. We are empowered, if a bit unsure as to why we’re being told all of this.

                        Thessalian witches were believed to control the moon:

  If I command the moon, it will come down; and if I wish to withhold the day, night will linger over my head; and again, if I wish to embark on the sea, I need no ship, and if I wish to fly through the air, I am free from my weight.

Psychoanalyst Mel D. Farber explains this ceremony as linked to the protective-mother fantasy.

[…]

I imagine the night sky properly disrobed, leaving only the chips of light and blackest black. I imagine a woman in white swallowing the bulb of the moon, wearing it at her center.

Several pages later, Sutton Kiefer tells us the clinical, non-magical issue: that she has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

My androgen levels are too high. This leads to these symptoms: weight gain, acne, hirsutism, diabetes (my test came back negative), patches and skin tags (not as far as I know), snoring (poor husband), depression or anxiety, and also trouble ovulating.

She knows how this sounds, she knows what we need: “I can tell you (now): This story has a happy ending.” But not before we learn the grueling routine that fertility treatments impose on this couple:

In the months that we attempted to have a baby, my body arbitrated the following: day one is now the first day of menstruation; days five through nine are for the Clomid doses; then there’s days eleven through eighteen, which are supposed to be fun, […]; day twenty-three is when my blood is drawn to see if the Clomid did its job; twenty-eight is the pregnancy test day […]. No certainly not, not the least bit pregnant.

The language that surrounds a “non-pregnancy, a failed month…” is isolate and bitter. “I am ruined at the repeated instances of no” she tells us “…but the world is full of that half-slash no.” She keeps trying, despite, or in spite of, the devastation it brings, the separation of body and self, “I am wicked to my body. I lean into the mirror sometimes and say, I   hate you I hate you Ihateyou.”

Just when we need it most, Sutton Kiefer gives us white space and on the next page, definitions for [fol-i-kuhl], [met-fȯr-mən], and [sist] that allow for free association and whimsy, even though these words are in her vocabulary because of her PCOS.

Sutton Kiefer’s wish is granted, but as fate would have it, she is “remarkably and unsurprisingly bad at being pregnant.” This includes extreme morning sickness and Restless Leg Syndrome among other things. Given what it has taken to become pregnant, these results don’t tamper the joy. Part 2 of Nestuary focuses on the pregnant woman as an entity, and on Sutton Kiefer’s body and birth plan.

It seems to be a byproduct of pregnancy that the new mother considers mortality and death while anticipating the life growing inside of her. Here, the author asks, “Why are there so many images of the headless pregnant woman?” and takes us through potential scenarios where the act of birth is separate from the woman, either through the disembodying pain of childbirth or some trauma that had removed the mother from conscious being to an incubator. In this eerie and effective way, Sutton Kiefer disturbs the accepted trap of thinking of the pregnant uterus as somehow separate from the woman who houses it.

Unable to have her daughter through vaginal birth, Sutton Kiefer questions, “[D]id I give birth? Isn’t giving active? […] I did no pushing, so then did the doctor birth?” Here she turns to the women writers who have documented this complex emotion before her. Excerpts from Camille Roy, Toi Derricotte, and Naomi Wolf, among others, help to ground, give permission even, to the author’s feelings of failure. It is the language that is used by medical professionals, by other mothers, by well-meaning folks, that permeates mothers’ vocabularies, that dictates the feeling of triumph or failure in her expected ability to bring a child into this world. Sutton Kiefer is given what she has invoked, but not in the way she imagined. Though a Caesarean section was not part of Sutton Kiefer’s birth plan, her body is in tune with the instincts to protect this child, “It beats this way, it knows. But it is told, again and again what a failure it has become.”

If Part 2 is about the reinforcing language of failure, Part 3 is about the triumph despite it. Sutton Keifer is an abundant milk producer. Her body, in a way she can measure, is doing more than she ever expected it to. Her daughter is “magnificent.” Her family thrives. And then, two years after the arrival of her daughter, she has “gotten pregnant. Naturally.” Finally, Sutton Kiefer is able to drown out the noise of opinions on her body:

     Do you want your tubes tied?   No.

         Do you want your tubes

               tied?   No.   Do you want

                        your tubes tied?

Her use of enjambment, the training of a poet, lends even more power to the determination of being heard when those in the medical profession think they know better. Again, on her choice to co-sleep, the language and therefore the power becomes hers again: “Now, there’s four-in-a-bed: him, her, me, him. Bookended, I am. […] When I nap alone, […] I’m unhibernated and growlish. Bring him back, my little pinner-of-souls.”

Sutton Kiefer’s personal story is gripping, but it is the juxtaposition of the varied other sources within her the story that gives it such boundless depth. After reading Nestuary, I understand, in a way I have never fully comprehended, how transformative motherhood always has been, always will be. Through her honest telling of her story and where it situates her within the larger fabric of motherhood, I better understand my own mysterious and curious journey, its powerful language, and how to make it my own.


 

Dance Review: WAYWARDLAND by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Each season, the New Hazlett Theater chooses a handful of local artists in multiple genres to perform as part of their CSA (Community Supported Art) series. Last Thursday, Jil Stifel and Ben Sota presented WaywardLand, an hour-long quartet also featuring Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

The piece was a collaboration of styles; Stifel’s background is mostly in modern dance, while Sota’s expertise is in contemporary circus. I couldn’t help but think about their work in light of the 2015 Grammy Awards which aired four days earlier. Kristen Wiig and local dancer and reality TV star, Maddie Ziegler, performed a duet to Sia’s “Chandelier.” The audience loved it, and more people were talking about modern dance than ever before.

Like ballet, tap or jazz, modern has its own set of prescribed movements, but is also open to the creation of the artist. The choreography often has no specific storyline and instead offers imagery the audience can interpret however they wish.

Stifel’s work normally falls into this non-narrative category. She does it well, with off-beat innovation. On the other hand, the Wiig/Ziegler performance used movements once considered interesting but now overplayed. Yet, that Grammy performance received accolades other local artists with more innovation might never earn.

Stifel and Sota’s WaywardLand could have easily gone the way of overdone. When people think of the circus, they might envision death-defying stunts like tight-rope walking and trapeze flying. Both were involved in the piece, but not in any dramatic way. Although Sota possesses those sensational skills, he and the performers opted for unpredictability instead.

For example, midway through the dance, the back curtain parted and out rolled a 150-pound German wheel (imagine a human-size hamster wheel with only a few spokes). Rather than using the apparatus in an expected way, the performers highlighted its varied uses. They lay the wheel flat and moved inside it, swaying left and right as if on a boat drifting at sea. Sota and Stifel eventually used the prop in a more traditional way, but they flipped and cartwheeled with playfulness rather than spectacle.

All four dancers utilized stilts. While the device might sometimes be used as a gimmick, the gear enhanced the main image prevalent throughout the piece—the Greek mythological figure of a minotaur, half-human and half-bull. The dancers bucked and growled, stomping their elevated feet like animals poised for a fight.

Even without the stilts, the choreography included creature-like gestures interspersed throughout phrases of larger movement. Their leaps and turns and floor-work, both on and off center, bore no resemblance to the usual ordering of steps we often see in contemporary dance.

The piece cannot be reviewed without mentioning the scenic and music design that contributed greatly to the fantastical feel of the work. Blaine Siegel created the set, which included repurposed doors, minotaur masks, and ropes dressed in various fabrics hanging on the rafters and arranged on the stage. David Bernabo generated the sound, a mix of percussion, accordion, bass, violin, piano, looped wind and more, all of which added to the dreamy atmosphere.

WaywardLand had the quality of a Dali painting, whimsical yet somehow completely sensical. The journey was circuitous, with unusual stops along the way. Unlike the melodrama of a televised dance production, this piece had thought-provoking bells and whistles, stimulating images without the frills.


Book Review: JUNKETTE by Sarah Shotland

 photo bf9c3b90-3ff3-4704-9379-2cafaa16148b_zpsa0lehipb.jpg Junkette
by Sarah Shotland
White Gorilla Press, 2014
$11.99

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

Your skin crawls, you feel the craving kick in, and you want more. That’s exactly the experience of reading Sarah Shotland’s Junkette. This candid tale of addiction makes you hunger for more—more love, more drugs, and definitely more for the protagonist, Claire. As a college educated woman, she struggles to gain enough money to leave New Orleans and the addiction that keeps her living in a cramped apartment with her boyfriend, Mack. As Claire fights to find herself, she comes to realize just how hard escaping might be.

The book opens with a quote by William S. Burroughs, “Perhaps all pleasure is only relief,” and a poem by Anne Sexton. Together these epigraphs immediately set the melancholy tone that will only continue to get darker as the book progresses. Told from first person point of view in short scenes and lists, the book moves quickly as the reader sees Claire almost flee her life of drugs, strung-out friends, and bar tending for Boulder, Colorado where she believes she could finally be free.

One of the most notable qualities about Shotland’s book is her metaphors. She writes about bodies and how, “Some of the time you have to die to a place. You don’t die to the people.” The metaphor continues as Chico, a weed dealer and Claire’s friend, remarks:

You gonna get [bodies]. You think I have to die to a place with no regrets? That’s the only reason you have to die to a place…But all that dopey business, that’s the bodies—everything costs you something with that dopey stuff.

Here, Shotland illustrates how Claire doesn’t quite realize how serious her addiction is or how much she’s sacrificing to stay in New Orleans, doing the same thing she’s been doing for years. As the metaphor shifts, the reader gets to see just how many “bodies” Claire will gain.

As the book progresses the reader continues to crave, to want more along with Claire. It’s a need that itches just below the surface and continues to bubble up every time the reader is cramped inside Claire and Mack’s tiny apartment or the Moonlight, the crowded bar where Claire works. Only when she’s out roaming the streets looking for Chip, her friend and drug dealer, or Mumps, the guy who is always willing to loan people money, does the reader get a chance to breathe. This relief is short lived, however, as Claire plunges further into her addiction and gets caught up in even more dangerous situations. It’s a true testament to Shotland’s writing that she manages to create such cramped and desperate atmospheres in only a few short lines:

Mack still isn’t home. I wish I could keep minutes on my phone, wish Mack had a phone, wish we had a house phone, wish someone had a fucking phone. Phone booths are stationary and we are moving. It was a smart person who came up with the cell phone.

Shotland’s continued use of commas only amplifies Claire’s need to get out of her apartment and out of her current life. Instead, she’s trapped inside, waiting for her boyfriend to get back, and waiting to get high.

Moments of true horror, like her failed attempts to stop using and seeing firsthand what a lifetime of drugs does to a person, forces Claire to constantly evaluate her situation. When she tries to quit, she thinks: “I’m still in this fucking bed in this fucking house where I will never be able to leave. But I love it here. I’m lucky to be here. I mean it.” It is in these small moments of heartbreaking honesty that Shotland captures the cyclical nature of addiction. As the chapter ends, Claire gives into her habit again, reveling in it she remarks, “I get to float and sink and I know right here is the place I was meant to love someone.”

Sarah Shotland’s Junkette not only depicts the lives of drug addicts—it embodies all addiction—to food, to love, to the need for escape. As Claire fights to break free, she ends up giving up more than she bargained for as the “bodies” start to pile up. The reader will quickly flip through the pages as the story heads to a unique and powerful ending—one that even Claire won’t be able to escape.


 

Re-reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover

by Nola Garrett

And dimly she realized one of the great laws of the human soul: that when the emotional soul receives a wounding shock, which does not kill the body, the soul seems to recover as the body recovers. But this is only appearance. It is really only the mechanism of the re-assumed habit. Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible afer-effects have to be encountered at their worst.

                                    Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

 

I surprised myself recently, after a phone conversation with my long time English major friend, Mary Lou, concerning our mutual love of poetry and literary fiction, when I decided to tackle this door-stop sized, formerly banned novel again. This time, 58 years later, I read it on my Kindle. Last time, I skimmed it for the sex scenes, hoping to understand how on earth one manages to get tab A inserted into slot B. And, if there was a plot beyond the details of seduction, I couldn’t figure that out either. Didn’t even try.

I was shocked to realize how contemporary Lawrence’s post World War I novel is with the experiences of our returning wounded soldiers from the United States’ recent wars. Multi-limb amputations. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Long term, medical and therapeutic, home care for the bodies and the souls of both spouses. And, a plot driven by what may happen when the roles of lovers deteriorate into patient and care-giver.

No wonder, I couldn’t understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover that summer of 1956 when I stayed in Painsville, Ohio at my Uncle Jerry’s house and worked as a waitress in his restaurant to earn money for college. I slept on a sleeper sofa in the 8′ by 10′ library that served as a guest room in my uncle’s high-modern architect-designed and furnished house on Euclid Avenue, two blocks west of Jerry & Bert’s 225 seat restaurant. Uncle Jerry, his wife, Alberta, and their daughter, Colleen, four years older than I, ate all their meals at the restaurant, worked at the restaurant all day, and after the dinner rush, came home to change clothes, then adjourned until well past mid-night to the racetrack to bet on the horses. Week days, I worked the 5 to 11 dinner shift. Saturday mornings, I cleaned their house, and then I took the New York Central train back to Erie and home to Mill Village. I returned every Monday afternoon by bus.

Essentially, six days per week that summer, except at work, I lived entirely alone. The only food in that grand house’s refrigerator was a bottle of catsup. The only other food in that house that was not a home was a half filled salt shaker. I signed up for a Painsville Public Library card, and though I was supposed to eat all my meals at the restaurant, I soon bought cereal, milk, bread, butter, and fruit for my breakfast rather than traipse down the street and interrupt my reading. Late afternoons, I ate an early supper with Frances, Jerry & Bert’s 2nd shift head waitress who eventually confided that she and Uncle Jerry were in the midst of a decades long affair. I listened. I read. I learned a lot that summer and also the next summer I worked at Jerry and Bert’s, but nothing, I’m sorry to admit, that helped me to understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Even at age sixteen, I was uncomfortable about the morality of the sex scenes’ adultery. I still am. While the game keeper, Mellors’, lovemaking was titillating, I remain troubled by what I now recognize as his PLAYBOY faux philosophy that all men (and women, perhaps) have a sacrosanct right to good mutual sex. I’m even more uneasy about Mellors’ lack of interest in his daughter by his first wife, his unborn child, and Connie’s pregnancy. I suppose one could make an argument that Mellors, too, was injured morally by his war experience, but Lawrence seems more focused on Mellors’ easy movement though the convolutions of that era’s English class system.

Sometimes while I was rereading Lawrence’s writing, I was nearly drunk on his writing style, his ear for a sentence’s rhythm, his lush, old fashioned word choice—crisis for orgasm or coming—his ability to shift multiple interior narrators with an omnipotent narrator. I’ve always loved Lawrence’s poetry far more than his prose, mostly because he is so skilled at choosing the poetic moment in unlikely places, say from a child’s point of view beneath a grand piano or from a man’s careful encounter with a snake that suddenly leads him to confront himself in the midst of beautifully controlled line breaks. Rereading Lady Chatterly’s Lover drove me back to my bookshelves to Lawrence’s Collected Poems where I rediscovered more poems about people and humanity as a whole than seemed necessary. I preferred his tortoise poems.

I suppose what prompted me to reread Lady Chatterly’s Lover at this point in my life is that in some ways I am now living here in my condo alone, except for the building’s other condo owners and the condo’s employees. I’m still eating breakfast at home, so I don’t have to interrupt my reading.  The difference is that now I understand the mechanics of sex and how to read a literary novel. This time, I wasn’t far into this novel when I surmised I might be living here alone in this condo for some of the same reasons Clifford and Constance Chatterly’s marriage failed, not because I was ever unfaithful, but because I, too, had been unable to successfully bridge the gap between lover and care giver.  I found myself fascinated by the slow, mutual disintegration of Clifford and Connie’s intimacy, even as they both willingly focused on the physical care of all aspects of Clifford’s paralyzed body. In an odd way Clifford was at once too intimate with his wife and not intimate enough, because he refused to speak with her about his emotions concerning his paralysis. I recognized what Lawrence’s narrator was saying about Connie’s care, “He was a hurt thing, and as such Connie stuck to him passionately.” It was that word, “thing,” that made me wince in self recognition. And, it was Clifford’s saying to Connie, “I’m not an invalid!” his eventual angry denial of his paralyzed legs even as he sat in his wheelchair that confirms Connie’s observation in Chapter 5 “that the terrible aftereffects have to be encountered at their worst.” How does one bridge that awful truth? Especially, when health and/or safety are at risk? Some couples manage, but I still don’t know how. I wish I knew.


 

Book Review: GUINEVERE IN BALTIMORE by Shelley Puhak

 photo 0c4474d8-2c23-4407-8528-3a86318d81df_zpssib67amr.jpg Guinevere in Baltimore
Poems by Shelley Puhak
The Waywiser Press, 2013
£8.99

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

       “How we are never more alone
            than in love…”

Winter is perhaps the best season to read an ode to failed romance, especially one with a compelling conceit. By engaging clever language alongside Arthurian characters transported to contemporary Baltimore, Shelley Puhak takes a subject often badly written and turns it into poetic gold. Structured as a play told in individual poems, Guinevere in Baltimore builds slowly and quietly as we get to know the characters whose stories will culminate in an explosive ending.

As in any good drama, hints of the final scenes are built into the opening poem. “On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken” presents an unknown female speaker addressing her lover.

I straddle you, sobbing.
I’m stunned our bodies
can still screw
together, the threads
can catch: what has
steeled in you winding
up into my wooden.

This union of wood and steel hardly seems sensual, and it serves as a warning: every passion dies. By the collection’s end, each couple will stand helpless as their love goes lackluster and the decision must be made to flee or stay the course. A later poem, “The Court Troubadour’s Song for the Old Streetcar Track,” echoes these sentiments:

Whatever we have meant—

you and me—before asphalt and machinery
         intervened, the stars are still cross with us…

… I can’t
         slip into your spaces; you will never
fill my dark fissures. I am crossed with you.

The streetcar track: once vibrant, now obsolete. It stands as a powerful metaphor for two lovers whose lives intersect only briefly, crossing paths once with a spark before rushing headlong to separate destinations. Whatever else is at play in this futile affair, the hand of fate is apparent—those stars, still cross, foretelling the inevitable end.

At its heart, the story we’re told is also one of the strength of women. Puhak adorns all her big players with a series of even bigger motifs—destructive flood and fire, expansive forests, outer space—but this play privileges its leading ladies. In the cast list, Guinevere is the queen and Arthur her husband. Elaine of Corbenic, before any of her typical feminine roles, is “alternately, of Chicago.” Even the unnamed Speaker is painted as “neither Maid, Wife nor Widow, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all.” As in the old stories, Guinevere and Elaine vie for Lancelot and all of the men act like playboys. But even with an imperfect cast, the bulk of the story is told with a clear feminine voice.

This is especially apparent in Lancelot and Guinevere’s closing statements. Lancelot writes to his lover from Philadelphia, saying

and I’m tired, Ginny, oh so very tired,
and even here in Clark Park, I see plums

piled in the trough of a housemaid’s apron,
pesticide-free plums bursting into flame

in colors not yet charted, but always the same
shade as the underside of your tongue.

He’s caught, eternally nostalgic, marking time and his surroundings by the ways they remind him of Guinevere. The queen, on the other hand, chooses to address her unborn children. “I carry the gene that makes / one susceptible to rain,” she tells them in apology. Her incisive words make clear that Guinevere is the book’s most aware character. She indicts the patriarchy, proclaiming, “And the wound that won’t heal: women. / The story they keep telling: // that I am waiting to be sought.” But by the poem’s end, she’s redeemed her own voice and the unlived lives of these children, building a world in which women are valiantly recast as the new cartographers. Love lost or otherwise, it’s clear that Guinevere will survive and thrive:

                They say the moon borrows its brilliance,
offers no light of its own. They say my river

runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank,
             my sweets. When I make my own map
         of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled
forms, in ochre and animal blood.


Brother, Can You Spare A Salinger?

When I travel, I am often struck by who makes it on to the local money. Recently, when I was in the Czech Republic, I saw John Amos Comenius on the 200 crown note. Comenius was an educational theorist and philosopher, someone I have long admired. When I lived in Mexico, the poet Juana Ines De La Cruz was on the 1000 peso note. My wife is in her Carl Nielson phase. That composer is on the Danish 100 kroner bill.

It’s difficult to imagine America honoring artists and intellectuals – and I mean honoring them at all, much less on money. But let’s try. I propose that the following Americans appear on the following denominations.

the penny – Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond
the nickel – Josephine Baker
the dime – J. D. Salinger
the quarter – Leonard Bernstein
the half-dollar – John Steinbeck
the silver dollar coin – Anne Sexton
the golden dollar coin – Phillis Wheatley
the paper dollar – Allen Ginsberg
two dollars – Langston Hughes
five dollars – W. E. B. DuBois
ten dollars – Betty Freidan
twenty dollars – Charles Ives
fifty dollars – Jackson Pollock
one-hundred dollars – Diane Arbus
five-hundred dollars – Louise Nevelson
one thousand dollars – Mark Rothko
five thousand dollars – John Singer Sargent
ten thousand dollars – Margaret Mead
one hundred thousand dollars – John Dewey


Dance Interview: Pittsburgh ballerina, Maria Caruso, premieres her final stage performance

Interviewed by Adrienne Totino

Pittsburgh ballerina, Maria Caruso, has had quite an impressive career as a performer, director, and educator. The path she took as a dancer was more of a circuitous pirouette than a straight arabesque. Now that she has solidified her role in the community, she is ready to step down from the stage.

Caruso’s decision to stop performing came after the premiere of her 2014 ballet, Left Leg, Right Brain. She says she had been waiting for the moment when her company, Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, was in the right place. “I realized there is a great deal of leadership in the company, and they are ready to keep catapulting forward.”

To describe Caruso’s work, one must understand her history. Like many ballerinas, she was enrolled in dance by the age of 2. Her teachers recognized her passion and drive right away. But, Caruso didn’t just love movement; she thrived academically as well. At age 16, she had already taken college courses and graduated from high school. Although one of her longtime dreams was to go to medical school, she chose to continue with dance at the collegiate level.

After graduating from Florida State, she moved to NYC in hopes of building a career. She quickly realized that, despite her high level of technical ability, her curvy body type wasn’t desirable in the classical ballet world. Hence, Bodiography was born out of Caruso’s eagerness to use dancers of varying shapes and sizes. Two years later, the company had their first professional season in Pittsburgh, her hometown.

For many years, Caruso mostly choreographed rock ballets. In 2009, she presented Something About Nothing, a show set to the music of Pink Floyd. After one of the performances, Dr. Dennis McNamara of the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute, approached Caruso about her choreography. The two spoke about his work in heart disease and Caruso’s interest in the medical field, and how the two might be combined. Not long after, she choreographed the first of many medical themed shows, Heart: Function vs. Emotion.

Caruso took a major step from musically driven material to science-based and therapeutic choreography. In Heart, as well as her 3 other medical ballets, Caruso did heavy research into each health condition (even observing a transplant surgery), and involved patients of various diseases in the actual shows.

Heart brought awareness to transplant and PAH patients, while 108 Minutes dove into limb, organ, and tissue replacement. Whispers of Light had a more psychological angle, raising awareness for Highmark’s Caring Place and focusing on children who had lost a family member or loved one. Left Leg, Right Brain highlighted the story of local artist and filmmaker, Frank Ferraro. The piece shed light on Parkinson’s, through Ferraro’s personal experience with the disease.

The non-dancers who have performed in these ballets have had a range of feelings about the choreographic and performance process, ranging from deep gratitude to Caruso for sharing their stories, to cathartic experiences that have helped them with self-acceptance.

Caruso will continue her work in this way, but also has a desire to get back to the musically-inspired choreography that initially gained her a following in 2002.

Next month, on February 20th and 21st, Bodiography will present a 50-minute long ballet set to the music of Coldplay. Before that, an 8-minute pas de deux will open the show. And to close, Caruso will perform a 35-minute solo to end her performance career.

The solo will highlight Caruso’s work as an artist and entrepreneur. The stage will hold many of the props Caruso has used in different pieces over the years. A mirror, a bed, and a desk are just a few. The backdrop will be set with a clothesline holding Caruso’s old costumes. Through movement vignettes with voiceover sound of Caruso telling her story, the audience will witness the trajectory of her career over the past 14 years. (Show details and ticket information below.)

Although choreographing the solo has brought her to tears, Caruso is ready to move forward. She will still direct and make work for Bodiography. In the future, she hopes to offer a sampling of both medically and musically motivated work. For 2016, she would like to focus on raising awareness and support for children with cancer. In addition, she is considering a rock ballet featuring famed music duos.

As always, Caruso has other projects keeping her busy. After the premiere of Whispers of Light (2013), one cast member’s mother reached out to her wondering if there was a way for Caruso to codify her choreographic process into a dance therapy system. Caruso jumped at the idea, and has since written a book, Bodiography Dance Movement Therapy System: The Healing Power of Dance and Movement for EveryBODY. And she now has trained facilitators working in various health and healing organizations.

At Vincentian (a rehabilitation center), Caruso and her teachers will work with patients for a full year, a program fully supported by Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield. After only 16 weeks of being there, Caruso says the participants are moving better, and three students who normally use a wheelchair were able to stand on their own.

There is no doubt that Caruso’s life changed the moment she began work on Heart. She has found a way to combine her love of science and movement, and she has grown tremendously in the process. The Pittsburgh dance audience will miss seeing her on stage, but the community at large will benefit from her work outside the studio.

To see Caruso in her final stage performance, check out the following show details.

What: My Journey (Reflections, Perceptions, and Misconceptions)
When: February 20th and 21st at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Downtown
Cost: Tickets start at $26.75.
Visit http://trustarts.culturaldistrict.org/production/43541


Nicole Bartley’s Top Ten Fiction Recommendations

1) Helen Wrecker – The Golem and the Jinni
This is the debut novel many authors dream of writing. It is clever, beautifully written, enthralling, and unique. It brings fantasy to a realistic level without removing its magic, and creates a portrait of a famous time and city in a new way.

2) Suzanne Rindell – The Other Typist
How stable are you in your ways? Are you crazy? Are you really who you think you are? Are you sure? Rindell makes readers wonder all this in her novel about the roaring 20s, snazzy parties, and prohibition from the center of a police station.

3) Ann Hood – The Obituary Writer
This novel is lovely in its melancholy and loss. The writing is strong and evoking, and the other-woman character is a sympathetic heroine. A good book to curl up to with a soothing cup of tea, and maybe some toast.

4) Matthew Dicks – Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
Imaginary friends are real, and following one while his autistic boy is kidnapped is both engaging and oddly harrowing. Readers may even be compelled to resurrect their imaginary friends just to say hi and see them again.

5) Mason Radkoff – The Heart of June
This book is Pittsburgh from a working man’s perspective. Emotional, intellectual, hand’s-on, with in-depth descriptions of Pittsburgh and what it is to be from there. It’s easy to fall into this story and care for the characters, as if they’re real neighbors.

6) Anthony Marra – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
The writing in this novel is so strong and it’ll keep readers enthralled. Although the events are depressing, the book’s overall impression is strangely bright.

7) Rysa Walker – Timebound
Here is time travel that is complex but sound. Events happen in tangents, and readers get a glimpse of one timeline that has been altered but still exists, is altered and doesn’t exist, and is fixed and exists…among many other possibilities. The story is on the older range of young adult titles, and the characters and situations are intriguing.

8) Therese Ann Fowler – Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
If you think you know something about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, think again. The novel explores the concept of being mentally unstable, and the perceptions of independence and insanity.

9) Gail Carriger – Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School)
This young adult steampunk novel occurs a handful of decades before Carriger’s paranormal romance series, The Parasol Protectorate. A girl, unsuitable for common society, is sent to a finishing school that turns out to train girls in the art of social etiquette and secret espionage. It is so much fun and incredibly adventurous, and it’s great to learn where familiar characters from the later series started.

10) Michael J. Sullivan – The Crown Tower (Riyria Chronicles)
The series explains the beginning of a partnership between a well-meaning, likable mercenary, a hardened assassin, and a woman who helps them. This partnership, rocky at first, is highly entertaining and a wonderful explanation for the Riyria Revelations, which is later in their timeline but the first series to be published. Anyone looking for high fantasy from an non-magical perspective should read this series.


 

Book Review: THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano

 photo c4fc758b-5805-43f5-ad74-05a5565c9268_zps03a9d4a7.jpg The Amado Women
by Désirée Zamorano
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014
$16.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

“You had to parcel out your secrets, you couldn’t trust any single person with the entire, authentic you,” states Sylvia Amado in Desiree Zamorano’s novel The Amado Women. The book opens with one of Sylvia’s biggest secrets—that she’s in an abusive relationship with her husband. Set in sunny California in the early 2000s, the novel explores the intricate lives of four Latina women—a mother and her three daughters—as they try to piece together who they are and how their secrets affect them. Numerous twists and turns unfold, and any reader will be excited by the dynamic ride.

Told from a third person omniscient point of view, the characters’ thoughts and feelings spring to life as the reader gets impossibly close to the four main characters within just a few pages. From inside Mercy’s head, the matriarch of the family, the reader quickly learns that she believes “happiness is a decision.” Therefore, she has to fight for everything she does—from getting her teaching degree to reconciling a childhood mistake. Mercy’s daughters have their own secrets, too. Celeste, the oldest, lives in San Jose and struggles to remove herself from her past. Sylvia fights to protect her two children from a crumbling marriage. And Nataly attempts to find herself through sleeping with a married man.

One of the remarkable things that Zamorano manages to do is deliver flashbacks in a quick and succulent manner. For example, the author dives into Sylvia’s past right after spending time with Celeste’s thoughts on Sylvia. In the flashback, the reader sees Sylvia struggle as a teacher in just a few sentences:

She didn’t know how to teach spelling. She didn’t know how to teach writing. She didn’t know how to teach math. She threw away her red pencils. Apparently teaching was a lot more difficult than it looked.

The reader grasps Sylvia’s own past dealing with abuse as the flashback continues, which paints her as not as innocent as she seemed in the beginning of the novel. This is something that Zamorano does again and again throughout the story. She takes seemingly innocent ideas and flips them on their head, creating a pattern that reflects each character’s need for acceptance and love.

Zamorano’s biggest accomplishment comes when she writes about Latina struggles. At work Nataly is often asked by customers: “Where are you from?” In these instances, she typically tries to laugh off such questions about her skin color, but sometimes people follow up with, “But you don’t look Mexican?” and she’s forced to play nice in order to receive a tip. Here, Zamorano displays the minor annoyances and offenses experienced in a predominantly white society and the way her culture is seen through outsider eyes.

The only issue in the book comes with the vast amount of secrets that are revealed in the short 234 pages. Each woman harbors multiple secrets that hinder her in some way, but after so many, it begins to feel somewhat unrealistic. Each secret is big, powerful, and at times it seems unbelievable that four women could have so many things happen to them in such a short time span. However, Zamorano makes up for this with her elegant writing style and imagery. For example:

Nataly had spent two months with Peter, months that sparkled gold and white with an undertone of elemental darkness. At work she found herself shuddering with memory and desire. If she had ever known, she had forgotten what it meant to ache in this way.

These colors are shown throughout, especially in Nataly’s passages, as she is an artist, and color reflects her passion. Zamorano also uses these subtle clues to help the reader understand the women’s inner feelings and piece together the complicated novel.

Once all the secrets are revealed in Desiree Zamorano’s The Amado Women, the reader dives head first into a world that is painstakingly real. The Latina voices are genuine and linger in the reader’s mind long after it ends. But the underlining thrill of the book comes from the importance of secret keeping and being able to escape that self-inflicted prison. By simply allowing others to know your secrets and no longer lying to those you love, the reader learns that, “Lying’s good for two things, Celeste. The short term and things you don’t care about…Neither of those apply here.”


 

Book Review: YOU COULD LEARN A LOT by RJ Gibson

 photo 564a2350-3174-49cb-8408-da4ab328ee58_zps3aafe783.jpg You Could Learn a Lot
Poems by RJ Gibson
Seven Kitchens Press, 2014
$9.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In 2006, Alice Smith crooned, “Gimme some new religion, something that I can feel.” Eight years later, RJ Gibson has answered that call. Through a blend of nature, religion, and pop culture, Gibson’s new chapbook You Could Learn a Lot depicts a desperate, sensual faith that has everything to do with our collective desire to be touched.

The chapbook opens with a surprising pastoral that quickly shifts focus when the speaker comes upon the remains of a wild rabbit. “It wasn’t supposed to come to this,” the speaker laments. “I wanted to talk about the light, not what/ it catches on, the mutability of meat.” These lines, which evince the speaker’s disgust with reality and his own worldview, stand as the ethos of the collection. These poems will, again and again, fight between depictions of light and dark, change and stagnation, the sacred and profane. The poem’s final image of fritillary butterflies’ “proboscises:/ drilling, rising, drilling” the rabbit’s body serve to establish a link between sex and death that will resurface in a number of later poems.

The meat of the collection is a central interlude of eight re-envisions of myth. This series, entitled “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” blends Greek myth with cultural references from pornography and cult classic films. These poems are not for the uninformed reader; while each poem might be read and appreciated at face value, only the reader who goes on to research the mermaid show at Aquarena Springs or the mating habits of Pseudacris crucifer will experience the full depth and intelligence of Gibson’s reinventions. While not exactly fables, many of the poems in this section land on a particularly keen line or idea. “Metamorphosis 2012” ends with another line that would make a fitting epigraph for the chapbook: “I rest in this muck. Longing draws me forth.” “Ganymede 1990,” a love poem to Jeffrey Dahmer, has the speaker witness Dahmer’s cryptic revelation:

he gestured pointed
toward that     SHINE
Mine to decide
if he meant life
or light or both

A serial killer deified and we his worshipers. It’s how the media treat these topics, and Gibson deftly shows us what new idols our culture has chiseled from stone. If this all seems ominous, you’re starting to get it. After all, “Dido 1976” ends with the prophecy, “Everything burns. Nothing mortal will remain.”

After foretelling humanity’s violent death, Gibson flips the script on us. The chapbook’s final poems are as consumed by ugliness as those that came before them, but here the poet’s deep attention allows a new beauty to surface. Whereas the collection’s first section is marked by resistance—the speaker in “Meditations on Mortality” begins by saying, “These are the ways I wish not to die…”—the final third of the book is characterized by a sort of acceptance. Starting with the speaker in “Dear Dad,” who consents to his role of “being small in this city and glad of it,” these last poems are sung by a chorus who crave and revel in the difficulty that earlier speakers were reluctant to face.

These poems abandon resolution. As the speaker in “Locu$ Amoenu$” remarks:

I want to be dumb
in my body: all hips & thrust & jerk. To be
shallow as these lyrics. To be always in
the middle of one mile, to be in the going. Never
arrival. Never—

This desire to be in-between is essentially queer and situated in contemporary spirituality—live in the moment, be in the now. Longing powers the engine of both sex-positivity and the excess that potentially results from this celebration of our carnal nature. By writing “What We Call the World Is Always the Immediate” in the second person, Gibson characterizes us all with the same yearning:

… You want
the world
soft as a body. You’re always wanting
the softness of bodies…

Abundance, you say, so much…

… of course the earth

so ready to burst

it smells as if everything
is about to happen,

only some of it good.

And though we know that evil, too, is inevitable, we reach the end of the poem eagerly awaiting what happens next. Gibson responds to himself two poems later with “Oh,” echoing the previous title in its opening lines: “Oh, world! Oh, god! Whatever/ I might call you.” The poem seems at first another lament—“I’m almost tired/ of desire and any number of its aliases,” but in that “almost” is a world.

In the span of a few lines, the poem becomes an ode to lust: “I want the body, its flush and stink,/ its urge radiating from the gut.” Though nearly spent by desire, the speaker envisions his next lover, thinking, “Perhaps/ there’ll be another man who becomes/ the embodiment of Oh! for me,” a man “who wants as much as I do./ who lets me do it…” There’s joy in the excess, a certain kind of love or intimacy that’s strengthened by its urgency. We pray in unison with Gibson when he writes

            Dear god, we are hungry. Inside
he is warmer than I hoped.

We shine red.


 

Book Review: FOG ISLAND MOUNTAINS by Michelle Bailat-Jones

 photo 8870e3e1-53e2-4925-8667-4e8842f9862f_zps77bb2c8a.jpg Fog Island Mountains
by Michelle Bailat-Jones
Tantor Media, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

It’s a hushed, delicate world explored in Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains, out now from Tantor Media, Inc. A world that I got to know quite well over the course of the novel, and am truly having a hard time leaving. Or perhaps it’s better to say that the landscape Michelle Bailat-Jones so expertly crafted is refusing to leave me—it’ll take a long, long time for me to forget the profound melancholy and sorrow experienced by her characters. And I’m thankful for that.

As if they were all a part of a painting, one of muted colors and infinite detail, Bailat-Jones brings to life the inhabitants of Komachi, a small town huddled beneath the volcanic Kirishima mountain range in southern Japan. During the onset of the biggest of summer’s typhoons, many of the residents of this community find themselves pulled into the story of one grief-stricken family.

Bailat-Jones’ narrative centers on Alec Chester, a South African expatriate, and his Japanese wife, Kanae Chester. Alec has lived a long, fulfilling life in Japan, yet he still struggles with his identity as a foreigner in this intimate, yet isolated community. Even though he has resided there for decades and fathered three children, Kanae is what truly grounds him in the misty landscape of southern Japan. And when he starts to lose her, his sole support, the village is both figuratively and literally almost blown away.

The novel’s opening scene sets the tone immediately: Alec receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, something he and Kanae are woefully unprepared for. Alec, overwhelmed and frustrated, expects Kanae to be the first person to provide some measure of comfort, only to realize that she is nowhere to be found. She flees Alec and his diagnosis—she flees a future without him. And it takes a typhoon and the reemergence of a dear childhood friend to give Kanae the resolve to face her husband’s imminent death.

Besides the plot, there is the writing itself, and the novel’s narrative style is unlike most fiction I’ve read. It’s written in first person omniscient, meaning that the book is told from one character’s perspective, who has seemingly impossible knowledge and insight into the characters around her. This narrator, Azami, one of the town’s oldest and strangest inhabitants, reports the village residents’ thoughts, their feelings, every word that they say and don’t have the strength to say. She simply knows things she has no business knowing. The typhoon’s strong gusts carry this knowledge to her, she says, and she writes down what she hears.

           “Every story has a seed—a word, an act, an image,” Azami writes. “Grandfather used to tell me that even a gardener cannot remember exactly where and when a seed is planted, but when the first sprouts break through our dark volcanic earth, that is the time to pay attention…to stand guard and help the plant grow taller, and we are always standing guard…”

Azami narrations are poetic as she moves from the macro to the micro, and back again. A passage about the typhoon’s rushing wind effortlessly flows into an analysis of Kanae and her despair. Fog Island Mountains is written in breathless prose, the kind that pull you along constantly, always promising more, always asking for your careful reading, if only to appreciate the beautiful language.

            …And although the wind is still driving down upon us, the storm has shifted its center, it has moved to a higher elevation and the peaks of the Fog Island Mountains are offering their resistance, slicing the wind, carving it up into lesser gusts and flipping it back unto the storm itself, and slowly, starting from now, right now, this storm will leave us.

The storm, the winds, are characters—they too are residents of the Fog Island Mountains. Bailat-Jones focuses on setting and environment in crisp, precise detail. The constantly approaching typhoon instills a sense of foreboding in the reader, an urgency for Alec and Kanae to reconcile before it’s too late. To face a future without each other, together.

Succinctly, Fog Island Mountains is a story told from a storyteller’s perspective—a folktale with a bird’s eye view. Its analysis of human weakness in the face of unexpected tragedy consistently shocks and surprises, but always, always garners empathy for the characters. This is a book full of moments that make you consider how you would react if placed in similar scenarios. It’s a work that encourages deep introspection—perhaps that’s why it still lingers in my mind.


 

Book Review: THE GREENHOUSE by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

 photo c2ee0e04-816b-4093-8d36-b2e3f9f51541_zps15a7ef15.jpg The Greenhouse
Poems by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet
Bull City Press, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s second poetry collection, The Greenhouse, reflects on the complex nature of motherhood. Stonestreet’s narrator, a new mother, lives on the bridge between tenderness and restlessness, magic and restriction. Her body once inseparable from the emerging life inside is now distinct, yet still extremely influenced by this child. A “greenhouse” of nurture and nutrition, the narrator is “a bubble, a greenhouse, a lens…” Deeper, Stonestreet’s metaphor seems to suggest that motherhood is often a suffocatingly warm and isolated space in which both mother and child live. Yes, childbirth is a gift, but equally too, it alters a mother’s life. This sacrifice, as Stonestreet reveals, does not come as selflessly or seamlessly as we often expect.

These poems never rush, but crawl across the page. If I read too quickly, the narrative thread unravels and I’m forced to begin again. Too often we readers storm through poems, half-attentive, but in The Greenhouse we are all mothers who can’t afford to lose focus for even an instant. Stonestreet achieves this necessary attentiveness through her line breaks and white space. Rarely do we experience a one stanza, tight-lined poem. Instead, they stretch across pages, extend far into the right margin, and indent away in frequent jumps. While this slows the pace of the poem, it more importantly demonstrates a mother’s, this narrator’s, nature of time, endless and slipping through consciousness, as Stonestreet writes,

 

It’s only beginning to recede, that time, that milk-

dream

 

of a year

the long hours in the rocker, the occasional calculating, to assuage my restlessness…

 

This pace rocks us away from the fast-moving, overstimulation frequent in the everyday. Here, similarly to the narrator, we’re both made to feel attentive and lulled into timelessness.

The terms “luxury” and “privilege” continuously resurface throughout the collection. In “After Dropping My Son Off at Preschool” the narrator, overwhelmed by free time, begins “The world slowly coming back. The luxury of stepping outside / myself…” A few lines later, when the narrator invents facts about gingkoes, she states “It is a luxury and a privilege to be such an idiot.” While the infrequency of such actions makes them seem luxurious, the narrator attaches guilt to these moments, as if having a life extrinsic to her child is selfish. This is further reiterated through Stonestreet’s use of parenthesis. In “Flowers, Doggies, the Moon”:

 

(and where else would I rather be?)

That’s not to call up the rhetoric of choice, privilege, the drill
        of tussling generations (what we fought for / what we take for granted

and embrace) it’s just
        so difficult to step (back) into the sea…

 

I read the parenthesis as a secret and shameful thought, barely a whisper, which speaks from the part of her that is exhausted and constrained. These hesitations are not singular to the narrator, to any mother, which is perhaps the point of the collection, bringing voice to the collective struggle, for “when it feels like too much, my friend says, I try to remember to look at their hands…” Thus, in The Greenhouse we watch the source of life, and we too are claustrophobic, guilty, and blessed.


A Brief Essay on Love, Art, and Staring at a Woman’s Breast

by John Samuel Tieman

There is a level in which we all stare, but it’s usually done surreptitiously. I know that I am perfectly capable of “checking-out” a woman at great length. I’ve even developed techniques to aid my endeavor. Scratch my forehead to cover my eyes. Hold the menu just high enough, so that it comes between her eyes and mine, but not between her breasts and my eyes. That said, the success of these techniques is not even. I’ve sometimes even embarrassed myself in this endeavor. Like just the other day, when this woman discovers I’m looking at her breasts, which were lovely. But it is unusual to have such permission to stare from a stranger. It’s not like she said, “Oh, it’s okay. Please, stare at my breasts.” But a portrait does, in fact, say just that – “It’s okay to stare.”

In some sense, however, I wonder if this isn’t what all art does. The novel or the poem, the sculpture or the portrait, the opera or the TV show, all these allow us to stare at someone’s most intimate moments. We watch the first kiss of Romeo and Juliet. We watch the Stooge slip on a banana peal. We watch Michael Corleone kill his own brother. And we do so without blinking.

I remember being at Madame Trousseau’s wax museum in Times Square. I went right up to Gena Davis, as it were, and stared at length at her. I was surprised at how tall she is.

unnamedWe, my beloved and I, are also truly quite taken by this idea of a portrait allowing us to stare. It’s a compelling idea. We wonder if maybe this is also a great part of love, saying to the lover, “It’s okay to stare at me.”

My wife and I not long ago saw the original “La Fornarina” by Raphael, and were so taken by it that we have a framed replica of it in our bedroom. It is thought that she was the lover of Raphael. The half naked pose, of course, suggests something she would do for a lover. Phoebe and I think she is saying, “It’s okay to stare at my breasts.” We think of this as the moment just before she says, “It’s okay to watch me caress myself.”


 

Book Review: PRAGUE SUMMER by Jeffrey Condran

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

Reviewed by Chris Duerr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na zdraví.


 

Advent in #7-L

By Nola Garrett

Advent is a penitential season.  It’s a dark time for getting ready, a time for repair.  It’s that last, slow, ungainly month of pregnancy.  Daylight is brief, especially this year in downtown Pittsburgh when it’s been cloud-ridden and drizzly nearly every day.  My immediate family is in such disarray of various sorts that other than attending a Christmas morning church service, I’m spending the day blessedly alone in my condo.  I’ve been assembling a new poetry manuscript and letting myself read kindle novels with little redeeming social or literary worth.  Pretty much, I’m in the midst of doing as little as I can to steel myself for yet another Christmas.  I know all this sounds bleak, but it’s not.

Last Saturday, I visited my son who a few weeks ago has finally chosen to enter a six month residential alcohol rehab facility.  I’m filled with guarded hope.

It’s been more than a year since my last pair of new glasses, and lately I’ve noticed that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been diluting its ink again….  Yesterday, I walked to Visionworks for an eye exam where I was warmly greeted by the young woman technician whom I had worked with last year.  Already, she’d chosen some frames that she thought I might like, and she was right.  But, even more interesting was that the Visionworks folks have a new, eyeball-shaped machine that photographs retinas, which means I didn’t have to deal with the after effects of those eye drops that blur one’s sight for hours afterward.

While I was assembling my manuscript, I discovered/noticed three poems that didn’t fit, but could form the nucleus of another collection.  Perhaps a chapbook?

This morning I measured the height of the first blossom on my red amaryllis: twenty and one half inches.  All this growth and beauty with so little sun!

Later this week or next, I am going to Home Depot to choose pale pink paint for the eight by eight foot walk-in closet that used to be my former husband’s.  I’ve already bought a small oval chandelier to replace the pull chain, porcelain, work light currently lurking in there.  And, I’ve ordered a small, faux oriental rug for the floor.

Lastly, I’ve pulled from the bookshelf my autographed copy of Nancy Willard’s Water Walker to reread one of my all time favorite poems: “A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”   As Robert Frost would say, You come, too…

I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,

and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.

In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands they can work wonders.

In the midst of so much glorious repair, how could Nancy Willard have left out the transforming power of fresh paint?


 

Book Review: THE AMERICANS by David Roderick

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

we failed to hear
that lion above saying,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: LUCKY BONES by Peter Meinke

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

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE ROOMS ARE FILLED by Jessica Null Vealitzek

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

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Non-Compulsory Chapel

by Nola Garrett

A few weeks ago, from Pittsburgh I drove north on I-79 through the deepening autumn to Edinboro, PA to attend an Edinboro University retired faculty luncheon. There was a hearty turn out of all us old profs, and as usual, I was grateful we were all wearing name tags. Every time I go to these sorts of events I can hardly believe how mightily age has edited our appearance. However, the food was good, and we all seem to have kept our sense of humor. What made this gathering a bit different was that the new president of EUP, Dr. Julie E. Woolman, was there to thank us for helping Edinboro U be ranked in top 10 list of colleges that nurture students. There EUP was up among several Ivy Leagues! Made me think of Pittsburgh’s myriad high rankings as “Most Livable City.”

Later that afternoon, I drove to the EUP police station to pick up a parking hang-tag, so I could park on campus while I visited the library’s archives. I was pleasantly surprised to be issued faculty parking decals that were good for a year, just like my car bumpers used to sport before I took early retirement during 1996. Made me and perhaps my Honda Fit, feel years younger!

From 1977 through 1980 I used to be the editor of EUP’s faculty-administrator newsletter, The Edinboro Review. I out of sheer curiosity had decided to take a look in the University Archives at how and what I had written during that time. A few days earlier, I had called David Obringer, the library’s archivist to dig out all the back copies, and he handed them to me the minute I approached him at The Reference Desk. How did he know me? Maybe it was my age, because he was still in junior high when I retired. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel reading my stuff from so long ago. I found an obscure carrel and hoped no one who might recognize me would notice.

Soon, I was flooded with what I had thought were lost memories of those four years when I was taking notes for many faculty and administrator interviews, researching campus places, and even moments when I was writing and laying out the pages—cutting & pasting. A few hours later, I decided to scan some of my interviews and editorials. No problem. That was the 70s, now it’s the 21st Century where there’s the odor of the University’s Starbucks in the air.

As I drove south down I-79, one of my essay/editorials kept wandering through my mind. Something about it reminded me of Pittsburgh. So I’d miss Pittsburgh’s rush hour, I stopped at the Grove City Outlets for dinner. While I waited for my order, I checked my email. That got me firmly back into now and even thinking about how The Steelers might do Sunday. And, that’s when I knew I’ve become a true, believing Pittsburgher and when I understood the connection between Pittsburgh’s livability and my 1978 Edinboro Review Editorial.

Editorial

Last semester I failed Art 257 Communications Graphics II. It wasn’t because I was dumb—I got an A on the first exam—or because the prof wasn’t any good—Mr. Mullen is marvel of patience, good humor, practical experience and encouragement—or because the course content was dull or shallow—note the new design of The Edinboro Review. I did it myself from what I learned in class. I flunked for the same reason that probably 85% of our students fail: I quit going to class. So, if all of the above is true, how come I quit?

I quit for the same reasons that I have heard dozens, no scores, of students sit or stand uncomfortably in my office and try to explain to me. First, I got sick and the class went on without me while I visited St. Vincent’s emergency room. Then my mother was hospitalized for ten days for a series of painful and frightening tests. And finally, I graded mid-term exams rather than take them. By that time I had missed nearly three weeks of Graphics class. Though Mr. Mullen assured me that I could make up the class, I couldn’t seem to find the time to do it nor a time to meet with him that did not conflict with his or my class time. It was inconvenient, and so I failed.

I wouldn’t have thought much more about this ordinary story except that it was so ordinary, such a commonplace occurrence on the Edinboro State College campus. I got to wondering why it was so ordinary in spite of good teaching, reasonably bright students, regularly scheduled office hours, and much exhortation toward warm and human advising. I came back to time.

I thought of how often my students and I could not find a mutually free time except at night or on Saturday. I thought or all the freshman advisee meetings for which there was no possible day time meeting, so they were grudgingly and/or poorly attended at night or on Saturday. I thought of the difficulty of scheduling department meetings with our majors: no time. Yet, over and over I hear about our student retention problems, the need for student-teacher contact outside the classroom, and the need for regular unhurried student advising.

If time is money, then why don’t we put our money where our mouth is? Why is there no time within the master schedule, say an hour or an hour and a half once a week, to be used for student advising? All profs could schedule one of our regular office hours at that time. It’s not a very new idea. Many successful church-related colleges have it on a daily basis. It’s called non-compulsory Chapel. Surely, it shouldn’t be a problem of logistics, considering the capabilities of our computer. Perhaps, once or twice a year it would be possible during that time to hold a student faculty convocation so that our students would experience some the tradition and pageantry of the academic world before graduation (when it’s probably too late.) Let us hope we are not so busy producing credit hours that we don’t have time to meet with our students.

Pittsburgh has its own version of non-compulsory chapel—Steelers’ NFL games that most citizens attend, watch on television, or work in support of the games. During Steelers games traffic diminishes. Stores empty. Even the city sewer and water pressure fluctuate at the end of each Steelers’ quarter. Though RB LeGarrette Blount recently discovered the entire game’s attendance was compulsory, the rest of Pittsburgh’s citizens are free to use Steelers game time any way they please, even if it means not having much to talk about the next day.

I do watch most of the Steelers’ games on TV, but I’ve also discovered the pleasures of shopping in nearly empty stores with clerks so bored they are grateful to serve me. During Sunday afternoon games, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert seats are easy to come by. I know young, working mothers who use game time to take their children to the zoo, museums, or libraries. It’s a good time to score a meal in what is usually an over-booked restaurant. And, during Steelers’ games, I’ve come to understand, various sorts of Pittsburgh alliances, both personal and political, are strengthened.  It’s a good thing for Pittsburgh to have a non-compulsory, regularly scheduled time for community building and/or reflection. Go Steelers!


 

In principio erat Verbum

by John Samuel Tieman

There’s a blaze of light
In every word,
It doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken – Hallelujah!

-Leonard Cohen

Not long ago, a student asked, “Dr. Tieman, when you were a kid, which poet influenced you the most?” I was surprised by my own answer: St. Thomas Aquinas.

I’ve heard a lot of great poets in my day, and heard them read some of the greatest poems of our era. I heard Allen Ginsberg do the whole of “Howl” from memory. I heard Yevgeny Yevtushanko recite “Babi Yar”. Yehuda Amachai and his “Seven Laments”. Richard Eberhart’s “The Groundhog”. John Okai’s “Aayalolo Concerto”, and his words which will stay with me for the rest of my life –

Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive

I’ve heard a lot of great poets and their poetry. This is a list that can fill pages. And I haven’t even gotten into that distinct yet related topic, great lyrics. I heard Leonard Cohen sing “Suzanne”. But about that student’s question.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. We used to brag that we were “The Rome Of The New World.” Meaning it’s very Catholic. It is, after all, a city named after a saint. For readers who know St. Louis, I was raised in University City, the Jewish enclave. I attended a Catholic grade school and high school. In grade school, we attended Mass every day – Every day! – before school. That’s weekdays. Then there was Sunday. The occasional Holy Day, which fell on a Saturday, was considered a real rip-off. Ours was a small church, Christ The King. Very art deco. But very small. In my travels, I’ve seen larger chapels.

The design was all that was modern. I once asked my mother about a hymn I didn’t recognize. “Oh, that’s one of those new hymns,” she said. I then noticed that it was written around 1750.

It never occurred to me, until decades later, that there’s something exotic about the notion that there’s the language in which you converse, and the language in which you pray. My Jewish buddies prayed in Hebrew, and I prayed in Latin. (It also never occurred to me that there’s also something odd about a little Catholic kid kvetching the whole time he schleps a ton of books to school. But the Yiddish influence is another essay.) In this pre-Vatican II world, I don’t remember anyone who really had understanding of Latin. Understand in the sense of effortless. Or understand in the sense that many understand a second language. I used to live in Mexico City, but, when I speak Spanish, I frequently have to pause, search my mental dictionary. But Latin, with maybe the exception of a priest or a nun, Latin we knew by rote. In our missals, the Latin was on the left, and the English translation was immediately to the right. The recurring bits of the Mass, these we simply memorized. To this day, I can recite the “Credo”, “Gloria”, the “Sanctus”, all from memory. My point being that, while we didn’t own the words, we did own the poetry.

But about St. Thomas Aquinas. Last Sunday, I saw “60 Minutes”. In the opening segment, Pope Benedict was consecrating, as a basilica, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The choir sang the “Panis Angelicus” by Thomas Aquinas.

That was our Communion hymn when I was a boy. “Panis angelicus / fit panis hominum”. Angelic bread / becomes the bread of humanity. For a few seconds, I was back in that little church, Christ The King. And there they all were, my mother, Uncle Earl, Aunt Helen, my brother, my sister. Gramps. My grandmother. My neighbors both sinner and saint. My playmates. All at the Communion rail. Monsignor Ryan, Father MacCarthy, Sister Mary Amabilis, Sister Mary Rita, Sister Mary Rosella. There they all were. Fifty-five years wiped away by words of a medieval poet.

And that’s what I learned from Thomas Aquinas. That the words matter. That the words can last. But more than that. More than even their ability to transport us through time and space. Once, in a small church in the Midwest, we sang a poem, a poem beautiful, pure and holy. And that poem was us.


 

Book Review: ACCEPTING THE DISASTER by Joshua Mehigan

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

Reviewed by Jason Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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