Book Review: BEAUTIFUL ZERO by Jennifer Willoughby

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: TURNING JAPANESE by MariNaomi

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

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

MariNaomi-Turning_Japanese_5_4

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 


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

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love whomever, then return

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

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


 

Book Review: THE REPUBLICS by Nathalie Handal

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

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

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

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

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

The Pattern That Would Fix Him.

The Pattern That Would Fix Me.

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

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

In “Recognizing the Darkness,” Lea Grover writes:

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

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

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


 

Book Review: BRIGHT DEAD THINGS by Ada Limón

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: LOCAL CONDITIONS by Kristofer Collins

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

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Moderated by Philip Brady
Etruscan Press, 2015
$23.95

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: MENDELEEV’S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s such a lovely dark.”


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

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

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie Harnett

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

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Dance Review: REMAINDER NORTHSIDE by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: ALONE ON THE WALL by Alex Honnold

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

Reviewed by Mike Walker

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

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

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

What makes such a person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Now Then

by Nola Garrett

“The FROST performs its secret ministry.”
       from “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Now, that this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball season is finished, what I most recall are the  joyous moments I experienced watching the games on the Roots Sports channel while I sat here in my condo a few hundred yards across the Allegheny River from PNC Park when a Pirate batter was beginning his swing and I was hearing the exploding fireworks indicating he had hit a home run. Don’t bother reminding me about the electronic time lag inherent in those moments. Though I understand the science, I’m not dealing with physics in its most literal sense. I’m talking about my brief experience of joy. Perhaps, akin to Steven Hawking’s ironic title choice for A Brief History of Time.  What I felt was some sort of metaphysical joy. Did I save time? Will I be able to use that saved time later?

During my life I’ve experienced other joyous time-saving events, some involving much longer time periods. When I was eight years old, I remember the joy I felt while I took the short cut most mornings while walking from home across the lots around Walter Wright’s garden, then hopping on stepping stones across the creek behind the filling station that eventually became the Mill Village Post Office, crossing the street, to the sidewalk, then turning uphill to shudder  under the shadowed rail road bridge, then walking the half block to the Mill Village Grade School, thus getting to the place where I was always most happy sooner.

My first year at what was then Clarion State Teachers’ College, where I was even happier than I had been in grade school or high school, I realized my tuition bill was the same if I took 15 credits or even 21 credits each semester. Every semester after that insight, I gobbled 18 to 20 credits, attended summer school, and graduated in three years. By my lights, I saved an entire year.

During my first marriage, because I discovered I enjoyed being pregnant, I chose to become pregnant with my second child less than a year after the birth of my first child, partly for my own pleasure and partly so the two children could be playmates for each other the way I had been a playmate with my brother, Joel, who was a year younger than I. Maybe, I saved time. Certainly, my labor was hours shorter during my second delivery. And, I succeed in creating two sons whose best friends for many, many years.

While saving time, another part of my joy is the mysterious pleasure that for a rare ambiguous moment I feel the semblance of escaping time which in many ways is how I feel when I dream. I’ve always loved dreaming. Going to bed every night for me is like going to the movies. Over the last several months my health has improved, and I’ve been sleeping more soundly. I’m dreaming more often deep dreams involving my past two husbands, my two sons, my childhood, strange houses I seem to be living in. I’m dreaming new sorts of dreams, non-narrative, grand abstract ideas uniting time, reading, banking, computer technology, flowers, music, cooking, teaching, newspapers, game theory, visual art, and of course, writing. Maybe it’s the new buckwheat-filled pillow I bought that the Japanese suggest will keep my body more aligned? Maybe, now retired, living in the midst of a beautiful, interesting city, at last I’m free to use my saved time.

However, I may have already used my saved time when in the Spring of 1996 I took advantage of an early retirement window from my tenured teaching position at Edinboro University of PA to maintain our marriage when my husband accepted a call to a large Lutheran congregation in Spring Hill, Florida. I used those ten years—I would have been happily teaching at EUP—to learn how to write poetry. What I used or gained, depending how much you value poetry, was the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers one needs to master a high level skill. From a money and time standpoint my husband and the congregation were horrified that I was wasting my time. My poetry publications usually paid little more than a journal copy. Besides, who reads poetry anyway? And, when I volunteered to become a Guardian ad Litem for children who were dependants of the 5th Judicial District Court of Florida, because I felt I could be of help using my writing skills for those children at court; there was yet another frosty reaction until the national Lutheran women’s organization selected foster children and their support system as their theme for that year. Then, while none of them actually came out and apologized, including my husband, at least I was left in peace to practice my writing skills.

If time is money, how I’ve chosen to live a major part of my adult life writing essays, foster children’s court reports, and poetry has resulted in my financial failure. But if time saved spent writing, which for me makes time stand still resulting in joy, I’m still willing to pay that price sometimes with cold cash, sometimes with loneliness, sometimes with tears.


 

Book Review: GODDESS WEARS COWBOY BOOTS by Katherine Hoerth

 photo ab8c02d3-6ed7-48e6-926f-561834145fa0_zpsbcjj2f4m.jpg Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots
Poems by Katherine Hoerth
Lamar University Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: IF YOU FIND YOURSELF by Brian Patrick Heston

 photo 4196d00b-7872-4e79-85bf-193f9300ef46_zpsc1pbxhub.jpg If You Find Yourself
Poems by Brian Patrick Heston
Main Street Rag, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No,
you won’t see God, but your voice

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


DANCE REVIEW: MEMORY 4: STATIC by slowdanger

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Last weekend, the creative duo, slowdanger, opened a 5-week performance series at the Wood Street Galleries. The series’ aim is to bring “up and coming local artists” to the third floor of the gallery, in unique and intimate performances.

Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight (the slowdanger artists) fit that description in terms of their individuality. However, they are no longer newcomers on the scene. As the Pittsburgh Brazzy Award winners for the 2014-2015 dance season, they are local favorites rooted in the experimental genre.

Memory 4: STATIC is currently a work-in-progress that will be performed in full next June as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA program. Audience members got a sneak-peak into the early stages of their creative process at Wood Street.

In addition to the movement, visual artist, Celeste Neuhaus, provided the set design. Mike Cooper and Mario Ashkar also created film and visual elements. Slowdanger has been interested in the idea of memory for a long time. In this fourth investigation into that theme, they delved into “static” memories (the ones we hold onto) that inform our present.

Right away, the dancers played with the idea of fixed memories. They began facing the back, slowly revealing smart phones and humorously posing for “selfies.” Knight scrolled through his Instagram feed and posted photos. Thompson appeared to be making a kissing face at her phone. Their purposeful lack of communication with each other showed the loneliness of social networking.

Eventually they stood. Sheer fabric was draped over their faces, obscuring their features. With a few simple gestures, they dropped their phones, keys, and wallets into the middle, bowl-shaped sculpture. And then they took off, performing a traveling phrase with quick jumps, cheeky shoulder-shimmies, and big extensions. The section was satisfying after a slow opening.

Another pleasurable part came when the performers lay next to a larger, more geometric sculpture. Thompson fell into Knight’s lap for a moment of stillness. They then took turns in supportive roles, mimicking the visual art with the sculptural shapes of their bodies. That led into a brief but gratifying floor-phrase. The dancers sat in fourth position, then moved from their hands to their feet to their hips once again, reminding the audience of their physical precision and grace.

The piece continued with the dancers underneath the third piece of art, a feathery hanging work that brought to mind a dream catcher. One at a time, they gestured, spoke, and sang, lighting each other with LED headlamps. Knight spoke in a hushed, almost inaudible tone; Thompson sang lightly, but crescendoed with eerie lyrics. Both appeared to be lost in memory.

To end, the dancers exited the stage, but their images were projected on the back wall. In the video created by Mike Cooper, Thompson and Knight moved with the same physicality we saw earlier in the evening. Cooper played with the size of their images, and projected their bodies in multiple imprints. The result suited the nostalgic style of the choreography.

Thompson and Knight continue to present work considered challenging to a traditional audience. In Memory 4: STATIC, the lack of narrative, unusual costuming, and moments of pedestrian movement allowed the audience to come up with their own ideas. One must be imaginative and willing to let go to enjoy this type of art.

As a work-in-progress, the piece has yet to be fully developed. But in the past, slowdanger has presented many interesting, completed performances. They excel when they use multiple dynamics to break up the hypnotic feel of their choreography which is soothing but can become repetitive. Within that calming style, there is room for moments of higher energy, both in movement and sound.

Check the Wood Street Galleries website for information on the next four performances: http://woodstreetgalleries.org/portfolio-view/5-performances-movement-series-overview/.


 

Book Review: DO NOT RISE by Beth Bachmann

 photo f9a7b430-e451-467e-9f99-fe3b43aa913e_zpslb2loqlj.jpg Do Not Rise
Poems by Beth Bachmann
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

everywhere        the narcissus    is narcotic   mother I am…

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

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

Fingers          in the mouth make mud

into a poultice to warn         the dead….

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

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


 

Book Review: MORE MONEY THAN GOD by Richard Michelson

 photo 4a214628-59bc-48e7-8823-9271c7a25869_zpsqbxxk2sa.jpg More Money Than God
Poems by Richard Michelson
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: WHITE VESPA by Kevin Oderman

 photo 3637620b-b629-4261-bf22-7d44536ae555_zpstjvo5mno.jpg White Vespa
by Kevin Oderman
Etruscan Press, 2012
$16.00

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: CRYSTAL EATERS by Shane Jones

 photo 8a89ebb9-3c9a-418a-8cf4-71a913a6056d_zps7hvner9c.png Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio, 2014
$12.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Cooking for One, Part 2

by Nola Garrett

Last week, I went grocery shopping at Giant Eagle on S. Braddock Avenue in Pittsburgh with my 90-some-year-old friend, Ginger Carlson, who lives by herself in Wilkinsburg. First, though, we sat on her back porch, watched a black and white cat, splayed flat pretend to stalk a pair of red squirrels who plainly knew a great pretender when they saw one. Our conversation ambled along family matters, church, mutual friends, and which local apples are now in season. Of course, I’m delighted to have fresh Macintosh apples, so I can make apple sauce to freeze in small containers for the oncoming winter. By this time the cat, lying in the dappled sun light was sleeping, so we changed our subject to poetry. Ginger mentioned her favorite Robert Frost poem, “Good-by And Keep Cold,” that I had no memory of ever reading. It wasn’t his usual “Apple Picking,” but it was set in a fall apple orchard. The unlikely title alone pricked my curiosity, but we still had to go grocery shopping, so….

Ginger gamely directed me to her Giant Eagle shopping center where I had never been. First Ginger headed for the State Store for a large bottle of discount Chardonnay, which I stashed in my trunk for her. Aloud, I wished I was buying a bottle of medium sherry for me, but I knew preserving my compromised liver was more important than the brief pleasure of a few forbidden sips. We moved my car to the entrance of the grocery store, and Ginger stowed her cane in the shopping cart she pushed past her Citizens Bank branch to the store pharmacy where the pharmacist greeted her by name and gave her a big hug. At that point I knew I was in Gingerland!

While her prescription was being filled, we both found hygiene items and the Maybelline cosmetics we both use because they are the least expensive. Ginger goes for bright reds and black eyeliner while I shrink back into my usual autumnal colors. However, I’m not a former beauty queen and New York City model. Ginger still carries her royal bearing. By that time Ginger’s medication was ready which resulted in another conversation and another big hug, this time from the pharmacy clerk.

At this point in her life Ginger doesn’t do much scratch cooking, so my shopping with her was an education in how one at her age can still eat well and stay healthy. Ginger, like many of us who live alone, sometimes doesn’t feel like eating much or even at all, especially if we’ve had a hard day of medical events or family worries or loneliness. That’s the reality of living alone, but there’s also an upside: independence. Independence allows one the freedom to eat any time, anything, and our favorite foods. The trick, I think, is to be aware of our bodies’ nutritional needs and intake over the course of a day and of each week. During the last year or so, three of my acquaintances have had serious medical problems with salt; two with sodium levels so low they fainted, and one with thyroid problems from using non-iodized salt.  We have to eat a balanced diet, or we’ll be hauled off to a hospital and/or a nursing home where little freedom exists. Besides, we’d have to live on a schedule with a roommate and a bunch of complaining, old people.  That’s the real specter haunting Giant Eagle’s aisles.

Giant Eagle knows Ginger and me through our Advantage Cards and welcomes us with a huge variety of merchandise and price points. Ginger and I buy quarter pounds of liver pate, half barbeque chickens, single pork chops, single lamb-leg slices, marinated artichokes, store-brand butter, whole grain English muffins, graham crackers, plastic & paper products, Triscuts, loose fruits & vegetables, Greek olives, hot peppers, cut squash chunks, and (God help me!) Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese. We both keep an eye on our protein intake. Ginger buys an occasional steak. I splurge on a half pint of fresh oysters, sea scallops, and individually frozen fish fillets. We’re both fans of eggs and canned salmon. I often make marinated bean salads with canned beans or black eyed peas that keep well, refrigerated for more than a week, so I don’t have to eat the same thing day after day. And, unlike Ginger I use a gallon of fat-free milk every week that I hope off-sets my fear of a broken hip.

We hit the Deli section last and head for the gourmet cheese counter where again Ginger is greeted by name. The clerk asks Ginger if she likes goat cheese, and Ginger says, “Not so much,” but I chime in with “I do!”

Then, the clerk shows us a 15 inch, half wheel of red-paper wrapped cheese that she says has finely ground potato chips mixed within. Hmmm. I’m curious, and she cuts us generous samples. And, wow! Who knew that potato chips could make such a difference in goat cheese? The addition of the potatoes and salt near the end of the cheese making must absorb enough the goat cheese’s usual sloppy texture to firm it up and smooth the flavor. We both left the counter smiling as we clutched our quarter pounds of Dorthea Goat Potato Chip Cheese.

The next morning, I got out my copy of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems and found “Good-by And Keep Cold” which was included in Frost’s fourth full-length book, New Hampshire, published in 1923. I ended up that morning reading all those poems in that book. What fascinated me was the unity of that book’s theme—paradox in all its manifestations, not only in subject and speaker, but also within each poem’s words and lines.  “Good-by And Keep Cold” begins

This saying goodby on the edge of the dark
And the cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard…

Then, Frost goes on in heroic couplets discussing all the threats both live and weather-related that can befall the young orchard he has recently planted on the far north side hill of his farm as he leaves it to winter. He is of the opinion that an early spring, quick thaw-freeze cycle is a fruit tree’s most dangerous threat, thus he bids his orchard farewell:

I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.


 

Book Review: CLOSING THE BOOK: TRAVELS IN LIFE, LOSS, AND LITERATURE by Joelle Renstrom

 photo 4b17c1ca-2ed4-45c7-82b4-0ee134c060ff_zps9a4hynly.jpg Closing the Book: Travles in Life, Loss, and Literature
by Joelle Renstrom
Pelekinesis Books, 2015
$20.00

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Dance Review: THE WINTER’S TALE by Quantum Theatre in collaboration with Chatham Baroque and Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A little known fact in the Pittsburgh dance community is that Michele de la Reza, co-director of Attack Theatre, performed mime as her first stage experience. She eventually went on to receive a degree in dance from the renowned Juilliard School, but her original training never left her.

Her partner, Peter Kope, also has dramatic experience. At age eight, his first role was as an actor. Together, Kope and de la Reza are entering into their 21st season of choreographing contemporary dance. But they have also spent their careers creating movement for close to twenty different operas.

Their latest collaboration, with Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque, was unique in that the show included all four Attack members: Kaitlin Dann, Dane Toney, Anthony Williams, and Ashley Williams. The dancers made up a large part of the production. Most impressive was their ability to change characters throughout the two and a half hour show. At times, they provided background, abstracting emotions or landscape. In other scenes, they took on literal roles.

The Winter’s Tale was written by Shakespeare in his late career, and provides both humor and tragedy in its ultimate story of love. Quantum’s artistic director, Karla Boos, collaborated with Andres Cladera and Chatham Baroque to transform the play into what is known as a “pasticcio.” The term refers to a style of opera that uses different composers to adapt an existing work. Included were musical works by Bach, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, and others.

The story moved from dark to hopeful. King Leontes imprisoned his pregnant wife, Hermione, whom he accused of infidelity with his best friend, Polixenes. When Hermione ultimately died, Leontes fell apart, filled with regret and sorrow. Only after sixteen years did the family find peace and happiness.

In addition to the remarkable singing and acting, the dancing showed exquisite range. Modern dancers are often trained to tone down their facial expressions and emote with their bodies. On the other hand, stage acting calls for a wide breadth when it comes to use of the face. The dancers slipped in and out of this easily, depending on the scene. De la Reza and Kope coached them on finding authenticity within the exaggeration.

There were many standout moments in terms of the movement. In one scene, Leontes ordered Antigonus, his steward, to abandon his newborn baby. Antigonus obliged, taking the infant to a forest. While video projection showed the sinister image of vines intertwining and rising up, the dancers wove their own limbs in and around each other. Their movement brought life to the forest.

Another rich phrase came when the dancers turned difficult partnering into a fight scene. The movement reflected the anger of Leontes, and added a layer of emotion to the production.

The dancers were skilled with their humor as well. To signify the famous (or perhaps infamous) Shakespeare scene when Antigonus is eaten by a bear, all four of them staged their own deaths. They convulsed on the floor in jest until their bodies contracted and then flopped dramatically into stillness.

It’s always a challenge for an adult to play the part of a child. Dann took on the role of Mamilius, the king’s son whose death is brought on by grief. She and the other three dancers brought out their inner children without mimicry. The movement was wisely choreographed as light and playful.

Sometimes the choreography simply matched the mood. In a bleak moment, the dancers paired off in the two balconies and performed slow partnering phrases under low light. Near the end, the dancers used the entirety of the stage in big, technical movement that matched the period well, although not literally. De la Reza and Kope chose balletic movement, regal in nature and reminiscent of a stately court processional.

The show succeeded in many ways. The caliber of each artistic genre was unmatched. Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque continue into their 25th anniversary seasons with quality and creative performances. And Attack Theatre proved, once again, their flair for the dramatic and a mastery in choreographing and performing opera.

The Winter’s Tale runs through October 3rd at the 19th-century music hall in The Union Trust Building downtown. Visit quantumtheatre.com for show details and ticket purchasing.


Book Review: THE STUNTMAN by Brian Laidlaw

 photo 3acff49d-3b31-48f3-8929-07bd853b261f_zpss1xujivf.jpg The Stuntman
Poems by Brian Laidlaw
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: VESSEL by Parneshia Jones

 photo 8e6e90e0-1b35-41fd-8a1a-a373c328de59_zpstlqiaws1.jpg Vessel
Poems by Parneshia Jones
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

the keeper of ash and memory,
curtsies and curiosity,
Easter poems, skinned knees,
polyester, silk, and calamity
– “Girl”

Parneshia Jones’s debut poetry collection begins with a girl who grows before our eyes into a woman who serves as a singular vessel for family, racial, and cultural histories. In fact, women are the stars and influences across these poems; “Lesson Plan” serves as a sort of ars poetica for the collection when Jones writes:

You are meant to have a daughter.
You are meant to pass on all your women.
Speak all the women of you loudly—speak them with purpose.

Perhaps due to these intentions, the most successful poems of this collection are those where Jones tackles moments of historical importance. In one haunting poem, “Georgia on My Mind,” Jones memorializes the child victims of the 1979-1982 Atlanta murders. The children’s voices comprise a Greek chorus begging the reader, “Remember us” before the poem culminates in the explosive image of “the sounds of [their] fathers’ hearts on fire,/ and [their] mother’s wombs bursting.” Her ode to the Affrilachian Poets, “Legend of the Buffalo Poets” stampedes toward the startling visual of “a trail buffaloed black.” She writes to Marvin Gaye in the poem “Milk and Honey,” “some parts of you couldn’t be saved/ by your mama or the music,” attempting to heal the wounds of a grieving public in redeeming the tragedies he lived. Jones’s voice in these poems is clear and strong, ready to ensure Black lives and stories of Black culture are a vibrant, prominent part of American poetry.

At times, her more personal poems are bogged down in narrative or delivered in an obvious way. For instance, “Bra Shopping” sounds as though it was written out in prose and then simply had line breaks inserted. One wonders if some of these stories might come across more successfully and with more complexity as essays rather than poems – with more space to make connections and build on threads of image and metaphor. Even in these poems, though, Jones is plainspoken and sure. She lives by the call from Kwame Dawes and other poets that we should use only the most natural language to create our poems.

Sixteen: I am a jeans a T-shirt wearing tomboy
who could think a few million more places to be
instead of in the department store, with my mother,
bra shopping.

Due to its line breaks and use of commas, the poem comes across to us in the natural cadence of Jones’s voice – we can almost hear her speaking the words to us.

On the whole, though, this collection is built of poems that wholeheartedly inhabit their metaphors and music. “For the Basement Parties at the YMCA” seems the love child of Marie Howe’s “Practicing” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” – a nearly wistful recollection told over the rhythmic bump of Lenny Kravitz. Parneshia Jones has gifted us a new anthem, stories of Black lives that aren’t commonly given space in literature. Her “Litany: Chicago Summers” offers a detailed portrayal of growing up in Chicago.

We are hallways of crying babies,
simmering neck-bones, sirens
across the ceiling’s midnight…

We play in our shadows.
We are the televised, Technicolor,
inside-out dreams.

The refrain of “We” returns later in “Auto-Correcting History” when Jones offers – no, demands – a bright future for Black children everywhere. Speaking her stories loudly, she is ready to walk forward.

We are real and breathing.
We are hungry and rewriting dictionaries.
We are poets and presidents.
We have made it known that his name,
our names, every black letter birthed
from the blinking cursor is permanent
and correct.


Dance Review: LIGHTLAB 9 at The Space Upstairs

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A few years ago, local artists, David Bernabo and Taylor Knight, created the LightLab Performance Series in an effort to give voice to the experimental movement. Bernabo’s background is largely in music and visual art, while Knight received a degree in dance from Point Park University. Their styles and interests mesh, though. Bernabo developed his own untrained movement style over the years. And Knight solidified a reputation as a musician under the moniker, slowdanger, with his partner, Anna Thompson.

LightLab shows are often stripped down and low-key, without major lighting or costuming. The works happen in site-specific locations, most locally, but some out of town. Friday night, The Space Upstairs in Point Breeze (home to The Pillow Project) hosted the 9th event. In addition to the featured performance, five-minute slots were filled with other dancers, musicians, and writers in an open-mic fashion.

Connor Hestdalen, a poet with Persian Pittsburgh, collaborated with ukulele player, Jeremy Mikush, in a short reading and musical improvisation. Roberto Guido also shared poetry, humorous and poignant with a feminist perspective. Hannah Barnard performed a movement improvisation alongside Flux (Darnell Weaver) on live viola; the two communicated with artistic grace.

Jean-Paul Weaver also danced, moving lightly with his signature long lines and ethereal quality. Bernabo performed a short piece that had a running motif. He used various objects, like bells and containers of grains, to create contagious and uplifting rhythms. Shiloh Hodges impressed the audience with seamless fluidity and a candor about her performance.

The featured work was choreographed by S+Vois (Shantelle Jackson) from New York City. Knight and Thompson met Jackson years ago when she danced in Pittsburgh, and have stayed connected ever since. The three of them performed at Dixon Place this past spring and discussed a possible Pittsburgh show then.

Acts was the result, a 3-section group piece shown intermittently throughout the evening. These snippets were choreographed in a short, four-day residency and included Jackson, Thompson, Knight, Hodges, Flux, and Morgan Hawkins.

The work was dark, both literally and figuratively. The performers wore all black and danced under low light. S+Vois entered first. She moved toward the audience in a stumbling way, her boots weaving a pattern of heavy footfall. The rest of the cast crept in behind her in an equally eerie walk forward. They encircled S+Vois and helped ease her fall to the floor. From hands and knees, the performers eventually rose up, creature-like, and lightly stomped their feet as the lights faded.

In the next section, four performers faced the back wall, shaking and gasping in a startling, yet moving moment. They eventually moved as a clump, collapsing in on on each other with struggle. This led into a beautiful unison floor phrase that continued as a solo by Hodges. The section lent itself to the description S+Vois provided of the work – “…an experiment in undoing duality, an opening of space and an allowing of self-riddance.” The somewhat volatile nature of the opening contrasted the expansiveness of the ending.

In the final section, Thompson danced a solo of simple and clear shapes. Her arabesque crumbled then morphed, sleepily. She accompanied herself by singing about the malleability of memory. Knight then joined her. The two shared weight in sparse partnering phrases that showed their interdependency.

A quartet of wavy arm gestures followed. The dancers then pressed seamlessly into handstands that melted into the floor. Flux entered, playing the viola. Individual solos crescendoed with his music. The dancers left the stage while Flux continued to play, and the lights went out.

Acts worked well as vignettes, but would also succeed as a fully developed show of its own. S+Vois’s choices were certainly compelling, and worthy of more material. LightLab continues to be a vehicle for noteworthy artists.

Correction: The piece near the end of the review, with Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson, was their own choreography, not S+Vois’s choreography.


 

Book Review: DANDARIANS by Lee Ann Roripaugh

 photo c27e7af5-b1d6-4dc8-9aaa-ac8448f50390_zpslr5fsgjl.jpg Dandarians
Poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh
Milkweed Editions, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Priscilla Atkins

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

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

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

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


 

57th High School Class Reunion

by Nola Garrett

Since our 50th reunion we’ve met every year on the east bank of French Creek, not in Waterford, PA where our high school, Fort LeBouef still stands six miles north, but a hundred yards from the intersection of U.S. Route 19 and U.S. Route 6N just across Polick’s Bridge on the site of what used to be Mitchell’s farm machine shed. We are the guests of our classmate Marvin Cross, who has worked hard and prospered well enough, I suspect, to buy out the rest of lock, stock and barrel.  However, you’d never get Marvin to own up to my suspicions. Marvin bought this abandoned farm from the many Mitchells who could never get around to settling the family estate. Too many Mitchells. Too much work to farm, even though these fields hold some of the best soil in the entire state, courtesy of French Creek’s yearly flood deposits on the glacial moraine that make up these hundreds of flat acres, a couple of miles from Mill Village. Marvin tore down the main house, a couple of hired-man houses, other outbuildings, and uses the restored main barn for winter storage for some of his road construction company equipment.  Marvin has planted these fields with soybeans, the most lush bean fields I’ve ever seen, and he’s renovated the machine shed into a summer cabin and picnic space that holds in comfort what’s left of the Class of ’58 and their spouses.

At 2:00 p.m. the second Saturday of August, Marvin’s wife greets us at the door. Marvin provides the beverages, strolls, jokes constantly among us while pouring good quality red wine and soft drinks for those us who can no longer drink alcohol. We pay ten dollars apiece for a simple catered supper delivered at 4:00 p.m., and Marvin patrols, garbage bag in hand gathering our wine glasses, plastic, and paperware. We talk. We use the bathroom a lot. We keep talking, looking at class photos, newspaper obituaries, remembering, wondering what happened….

I’ve attended our 5th, 15th, 20th, and the most recent three reunions. This year for me was different, or rather this year for two reasons I felt different. First, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve accepted the reality of my second husband’s divorcing me and embraced living and writing alone here in what has become my condo. And, my classmate and long time friend, Susan Duran Heide, flew from Naples, FL to stay with me for a few days before we drove to our reunion. Susan was our class Valedictorian (I ranked fifth), and she, like me, married a Lutheran pastor. I was the maid of honor in her wedding. She was widowed in her mid thirties, returned to college, earned an English education degree, taught high school English in the Upper St. Clair schools for many years, then returned to Pitt for her doctorate and taught at the University of Wisconsin until she retired to Florida.

Susan and I always have a lot to talk about. This visit was especially warm and talk-filled. It was good to have a buddy while getting dressed to figure out if there is any suitable attire for a 57th high school reunion. Because she still has good legs, she opted for Bermuda shorts. Given my veiny legs, still punctuated with the scars from my recent shingles bout, I wore footless, black leggings under a knee-length, hand-dyed, batik cotton dress that I had bought at last year’s Arts Festival. However, it turned out that there is a suitable women’s uniform for a 57th reunion—long polyester pants topped with a print cotton blouse.

As I chatted with classmates, I kept hearing that Alice Robinson, who had become a registered nurse, was quietly sitting in a far corner, and had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Although Alice and I had both attended Mill Village grade school and Fort LeBoeuf high school, I never knew her very well. She was a big-boned girl with dark wavy hair who pretty much kept to herself. I was a small boned, skinny girl with brown straight hair who read a lot. Both of us always wore dresses sewn by our mothers. She lived at the other end of the diagonal of Mill Village’s single square mile from my house. We never seemed to encounter each other in town.

My most vivid memory of Alice happened in Mrs. Clark’s 5th grade class where I was the teacher’s pet, so I was assigned a seat nearly touching Mrs’s Clark’s desk. Alice was assigned a seat in the last row near the coats. One Friday when a weekly spelling test was returned, Mrs. Clark was so angry Alice had misspelled every word that she yanked Alice out of her seat on to the floor, grabbed her legs as if she were a wheelbarrow, pushed Alice, weeping silently, around the entire perimeter of our class room. I was appalled. I was shocked Mrs. Clark could be so mean. Somehow it made it even worse that Alice was wearing a dress. I didn’t know what to do, but I never felt the same about Mrs. Clark again, and I was a little ashamed to be her pet. What I didn’t do was say anything to Alice, something that has drifted in and out of my mind ever since. Sixty-seven years later, I still didn’t know what to say to Alice, but now I knew that if I was ever going to do the right thing for Alice, today would have to be that day.

I gradually made my way through my name-tagged classmates to Alice, who had brought with her a scrap book holding all of our Mill Village grade school class photos from first grade though sixth grade. As soon as I sat down with Alice, she urgently asked me to identify the names of the students in our first grade photo taken on the side steps of our school. I was surprised at myself that I could name almost everyone, except for a couple of boys in the back row, including Johnny Spencer who always had a runny nose that he wiped on his sleeve. Alice was standing beside Johnny.

Alice and I bent puzzling over each of the class photos until we came to Mrs. Clark’s class. At that moment I looked up at Alice and said, “Mrs. Clark was mean to you.”

Alice said, “I could never get math very well in her class.”

Had Alice forgotten that horrible wheelbarrow spelling incident?

Immediately, Alice began telling me about how mean her father had been to her, how he had whipped her with his belt. And, I told Alice how my father had done the same thing to me. And, Alice told me how mean her father had been to her mother, how her mother had attempted to protect her from him and paid the price of also being whipped and beaten by him. And, how sometimes boys threw stones down on her from the railroad bridge, but the stones never hit her and how they would call her father Daddy Long Legs, which Alice commented was because her father was so tall. All the while I was remembering the two Kermeyer girls who lived across the street from me showing me the black and blue marks on their buttocks where their father had beaten them with the stiff-bristled milk brushes used to clean his farm’s milk house. And, Alice was then telling me how her father had kept her from doing her schoolwork and kept her up late on a school night to start painting a bedroom yellow at 9 p.m.

Alice didn’t tell me about her cancer diagnosis. I never did get to tell Alice of my silent shame back in Mrs. Clark’s class, but we did get to talk about how our mothers had saved each of us from our fathers and how thankful we both were that we were blessed with good mothers.

It may be that next year Alice won’t be at the 58th class reunion and/or neither will I, but this year we were held safe in our memories of our hand sewn dresses, and I was shriven.