Book Review: CROW-WORK by Eric Pankey

 photo 7d9e1dcb-0b9f-4286-a71d-5ae73962eaf4_zpsjlvu7wbs.jpg Crow-Work
Poems by Eric Pankey
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Pankey’s collection begins with the ominously titled, “Ash.” Ashes are inscrutable remains, something that shows that there was a previous form, but reveals little about that form. “At the threshold of the dive, how to know/but indirectly,” the poem begins, establishing this theme of inscrutability. Pankey hedges, debates which image to use to express his idea, and finally settles on “a Buddha, handmade, / four meters high of compacted ash, the ash / remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.” Of course, this icon would be delicate, as, “With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates. / With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.” The very act of approaching it destroys it. Finally, Pankey gets at the meaning of his non-meaning, “An infant will often turn away as if / Not to see is the same as not being seen. / There was fire, but God was not the fire.”

Opening with such a powerfully, purposefully non-narrative poem sets a clear tone for the collection. Many of Pankey’s poems mirror the themes and images of “Ash.” Buddhist imagery and ideals permeate the collection. Many of the poems settle onto fleeting hints of scenes and images before skittering off, tantalizing the reader with meaning and significance. Pankey has removed the poet’s ego from the poems; he crafts evocative images but rarely assigns his personal emotional stamp to them. Rather, the joie de vivre of observation is his sustaining celebration. In “Spirit Figures,” he writes, “To hew a living flame, I let the pear / dissolve into its own muddy sugars; // I mix powdered bone with seed, / toss it high, / and let each handful fall as a crow upon the snow.” He describes a scene: “A lanky fox noses at a dead hawk: / startles, backs away, circles uncertain.” And, later, returns to the image, “Alive with hunger, wired with fear, the fox, / your envoy, said nothing. / I understood.” To put it simply, Pankey is trying to suss meaning from meaninglessness. In, “When We Meet On that Beautiful Shore,” he begins, “I keep speaking so as not to disappear.” He examines many sources of supposed comfort, in life, “There is no cause, / only correspondence.” and describes, “Pleasure no greater for its deferral.” Finally, the image which hints at what it is to be alive, “The stone rests/as water moves around it.”

The title poem is a meditation on meaningfulness, or meaninglessness. In the first stanza, he describes crows settling onto a field. Then:

There must be an equation for defining
The long odds that Vesuvius would erupt
On Vulcan’s feast day, or that a baby’s birth

Beneath the fall of a comet might result
In the slaughter of a thousand innocents.

Pankey then brings us back to the crows, “The crows scavenge what they can, are efficient. // The crows, in their crow-like way, do their crow-work, / Tidy up the wreckage, the aftermath.”

Though Pankey definitely has a Buddhist bent in his poems, he also has a heavy Christian focus. He references Christian paintings in a series of ekphrastic poems—personal favorites of mine in the collection. There’s also a heart of deeply personal poems, cementing the collection. “My Brother’s Insomnia,” is one of these, immediately followed by “My Brother’s Ghost.” In Insomnia, Pankey describes the interests and fears of a young boy:

He cares little for snakes, but fears spiders more.
The recluse spider is his least favorite.

Some nights in bed, he holds his breath and is dead.
Some nights in bed he holds his breath and listens

To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.

He cannot remember if it is summer
Or winter, if sleet or a wren pecks the window.

There’s a timeless element to Pankey’s descriptions; his brother is forever captured in this moment. In “Rehearsal for an Elegy,” Pankey gets at hard-learned truths with lines like, “After years of use the millstone is a mirror,” and, “If the past were honey / One could scrape it away / With the flat of a knife and be done with sweetness.” When Pankey considers religion, his isn’t a blind faith. As he states in “Fragment,” “What comfort to think that the great beast / Will be thrown into a lake of fire.”

Pankey’s poems remind of meditations. Many of them are titled some variation on the idea of a fragment, and work more as groupings of similar themes than coherent narratives. This isn’t, in any way, a criticism; Pankey links these themes coherently, giving his poems complexity and verve. I’ve read several of Pankey’s collections, and he continues to impress me with his exact language and his ability to get at the stuff of living an intellectual, spiritual life without coming off as didactic or overly vague.


 

Dance Review: WRITTEN ON WATER and SNOW by Pontus Lidberg Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino 

With only one remaining performance next month, the Pittsburgh Dance Council season is officially winding down. On Saturday night at the Byham Theater, Pontus Lidberg Dance brought uniqueness to an eclectic lineup.

Lidberg is a Swedish choreographer and filmmaker whose dance work has garnered attention since the company’s debut in 2011. Lidberg’s experience in film translates to the stage, with highly visual and rich movement palettes. His Pittsburgh debut was no exception. In Written on Water and Snow, the choreography evoked lush imagery.

Written on Water opened the show, as a prelude to Snow. Originally, the piece was conceived as a pas de deux for the American Ballet Theater. Since then, it has been expanded and now includes three dancers.

The piece highlighted the partnering skills of the dancers, which Lidberg thinks of as a conversation with the body. Dramatic string music by Stefan Levin set the scene, while bright light came up on Lidberg and Barton Cowperthwaite. The third dancer, Kaitlyn Gilliland, entered sporadically while the men conversed in light leaps and lifts, then deep, grounded pliés.

The pace quickened when Gilliland joined the men in a more definitive manner. Upright, balletic shapes were easily interspersed with undulation through the spine and off-center release that took the dancers to the floor. The movement itself was the high point, intricate and imaginative.

Near the end, a waltzing lilt had the dancers moving through quick, technical phrases with moments of stillness and gestures of touch that showed the vulnerability and uncertainty of human relationships. A dusting of “snow” fell from the rafters, enhancing the feeling of fragility. To finish, the three stood face to face, as if in realization, then turned away from one another as the lights faded.

Snow followed intermission and, in a way, picked up where the trio left off. The piece featured four dancers, adding Christopher Adams to the cast. As a fifth character, a Japanese-style Bunraku puppet also played a large role.

The quartet was originally choreographed to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but has since been reworked to an electronic score by Ryan Francis. During the creation of the piece, Lidberg was interested in the thoughts and desires that animate us, and in contrast, the detached way in which nature occurs without thought.

To begin, three of the dancers, masked and in shadow, manipulated the child-like puppet. The fourth dancer brought a balloon to the stage, which momentarily carried the child/puppet away. Mary Poppins came to mind, swinging from her umbrella with glee.

The performers remained masked throughout, a lighter covering over their faces while they danced, and a darker tone with a heavy hood while they engaged the puppet. Snow fell continuously; as winter can be both wistful and somber, so was the piece.

At times, the dancers skipped playfully into rollicking phrases reminiscent of youth. But an eeriness took over when their unison or partnering broke away, and when the puppet shivered with cold, rubbing his hands together for warmth.

That haunted sense continued when snow pushed forcibly from the wings, pressing the dancers back with indifference. Later, the balloon popped, bursting the astonishment of young life.

Neither the puppet or snowfall detracted from the beauty of the movement. Like the first piece, the choreography stood on its own. Eventually, all four dancers swept through individual motifs that melded into a circular unison mimicking the spiral of seasons.

In closing, the force of movement halted swiftly. Before the dancers shed their masks entirely, the lights went to black. While the unveiling could have been cliché, the result felt genuine. Lidberg succeeded in presenting the universal grace of both art and nature, the unrelenting storm of life experience.


 

Oak Groves

by Nola Garret 

Last week mid-March, at my condominium committee meeting, I became aware that more than half the committee members had no way to discuss landscape planting decisions because they had no nouns to identify even the common names of any trees, bushes, or plants.  What they readily admitted was that as they walk though Gateway Park and on our condo’s property what they see is concrete and green stuff.  In the summer some of the green stuff they see that’s not green may be flowers that cost more money.   At the other extreme were two condo committee members who are Master Gardeners (certified by the US Agricultural Extension Service), and they know the common and the botanical names, the hardiness numbers, the light/water needs, and the difference between annuals and perennials of all that green stuff.  And, there I was a vicarious gardener (book shelves filled with gardening books, including Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1976 edition of Herbal) and a poet analyzing the committee’s language crisis while attempting to explain the time line of planting to the seers of green stuff for the Master Gardeners.

During that committee meeting I did what I could by way of translation and interpretation, but what really was needed was Joseph Wood Krutch’s approach as he explains in his Introduction:

Closely regarded, everyone of the individual plants will be found useful, beautiful, or wonderful—and not infrequently all three.  Perhaps the chief charm of the Herbalists (and certainly the one this book would like especially to suggest) is just that they are more likely than the modern scientist to impart a sense of beauty and wonder—both of which the scientist may feel, but considers it no part of his function to communicate.

What I really love about Krutch’s Herbal is that in that wondrous spirit he includes drawings of both weeds and flowers along with tales of trees that are either food sources or poisonous.  It seems as if he thinks of plants as unheard melodies for which there may be many lyrics for each song.

What I think as I walk under the dappled shadows of Gateway Park’s pin oaks is how good it is that pin oaks have no tap roots, otherwise they wouldn’t have been planted here in soil that’s barely three or four feet deep, hauled in to cover the underground parking garages and the four office buildings’ connecting service tunnels that are the pragmatic reason Gateway Park exists.  Otherwise, fifty years later most trees’ deep tap roots would have long ago broken through a host of BMWs and crawled down into Pittsburgh’s rumored fourth river.  Instead what we in downtown Pittsburgh have is an oak grove that’s pruned twice a year so the pin oaks won’t exceed the garage roofs’ weight-bearing limits.  We also have a squirrel habitat, a pigeon hang-out, a sculpture garden, a pedestrian short cut from Penn Avenue to Fort Duquesne Boulevard a backdrop for selfies and wedding party photographs.

And, an oak grove for a local poet to amble through to remember the Welsh folk tune, “The Ash Grove” that she used to sing during Music Assemblies when she attended the Mill Village Grade School, and the same long-lined tune that’s repurposed for several hymns.  Yes, I know that tune is for ash trees rather than oak trees, but in England and Wales ash groves and oak groves are equally magical and/or scared, therefore, suffice for me.  My knowing the names of the trees and of the under story plants and bushes—azaleas, mountain laurel, roses—enlarges and charges the universe of my condo home.

One of my favorite poems, “Names of Horses,” by Donald Hall recounts life as it was lived on his grandparents’ farm when horses were not only the most common mode of transportation, but also the live machines that made the hard work of New England farming possible.  His poem ends

For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Hall’s list of those proper nouns—the horses’ names—empowers each reader’s imagination, enlarges each reader’s mind, each reader’s soul.


 

Book Review: THE SPIRIT BIRD by Kent Nelson

 photo e4be8c9f-af43-4ffc-9432-3c181c61e91e_zpsqi1bd6o7.jpg The Spirit Bird
by Kent Nelson
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$24.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

The line between reality and imagination is very thin in The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson. This collection of short stories, told from both first and third person point of view, looks at the inner demons within all of us, the beautiful landscapes that reflect the confusion of our minds, and the differences between who we are and who we want to become.

Nelson has a magical way of twisting ordinary descriptions of people and places and making them come alive for the reader. For example in the self titled story, “The Spirit Bird,” a college professor and a student, Eric, venture into the woods to discover more than just a bird. Powerful sentences showcase a tightly wound tension:

I hear splintering, breaking, and I find Eric behind a boulder tearing pieces of wood apart, separating boards nailed poorly together. He’s stacking them in the small clearing. For a moment I think he’s going to build a fire, but the wood is wet and rotten and wouldn’t burn. He’s not piling but throwing it down randomly, throwing it away.

Nelson creates and then quickly destroys the tension between the two central characters in order to reach the dramatic climax. Here the professor understands why she wanted to look for a mysteriously rare bird, and Eric gains a friend despite his past. Also in this story the reader gets a sense of what The Spirit Bird book is all about—an out-of-the-box way of thinking and a desire to transcend the normal.

“Seeing Desirable Things” and “The Path on the Left Hand” are some of the most striking pieces in the book. They set up the main characters, Allen and Myron respectively, to make big life-changing decisions that will reveal more about themselves than what they hope to achieve. Allen will have to decide if another woman, who is not his wife, is able to sexually pleasure him, while Myron will have to choose whether or not to sleep with another man for the first time. As the stories come to a head, the characters’ inner thoughts are often reflected in powerful descriptions of flashbacks and scenery. In certain instances, these descriptions help heighten the tension that pushes the reader further along in the story and creates an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and resolution when completed.

These stories do not just explore a familiar coming out saga or racially charged tale, but instead reach beyond those typical narratives to come up with something even more engaging for the reader to connect with. In “The Beautiful Light,” Glenna works as a car mechanic in a male dominated field. As the pressure from the male workers at her job grows Glenna tries to escape work and the more she ventures farther and farther away from her usual neighborhood. Nelson does a wonderful job of creating the longing and desire for understanding that Glenna so painstakingly needs. Nelson does this through powerful sentences, such as, “Down the street was a boarded-up Blockbuster, the Uptown Florist, Disc-Go-Round, a movie theater. Dozens of wires crossed overhead. Glenna liked being anonymous, but at the same time, she wasn’t invisible. She occupied a place in the world.” Once Glenna meets Helen and starts to break away from her job does she let herself begin to explore her passion for writing and exploration of herself. The story ends with a beautiful description followed by, “Helen stood up, and Glenna did, too, and Helen took her arm.” Here, the reader can interpret the ending in a variety of ways that allows for a closer look at the descriptions, the characters, and the way Nelson paced his narrative that forces the reader to go back through for a second look.

One of the best stories in the collection is “Who is Danny Pendergast?” Here, humor is used as a way to visually represent the desire to be seen as a whole person. In other words, the story starts out with the protagonist, Danny Pendergast, explaining that he sometimes becomes a donkey. He goes from a normal everyday life as the CEO of Darwin Enterprises to being paranoid of becoming a donkey at any moment. Seen by others as a little weird and an outsider, his transformation allows for humorous moments between the woman he’s seeing, Luisa, and his desire to be liked by her. With witty dialogue, scenes of trying to channel his dead parents’ ghosts, and the feelings he begins to associate with his transformation, Danny realizes a pattern has developed. The thrilling climax comes when he sees Luisa again and finally understands why he started to become a donkey. Nelson does a great job of continuing the storyline without being overly sentimental or detracting from the humor of the piece. The raw emotions only help to further a deep connection with the reader and a better understanding of why such an affliction happened to Danny in the first place.

Ultimately, The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson highlights the desire to be whole and a reason to reach for more acceptance from other people and one’s self. Wrapped within many layers of race, religion, and sexual orientation, the book looks at complicated narratives of real life issues and pushes the reader to react to these sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious stories by forming deeper bonds and connections to the characters. Still, at the end of each story the reader will feel a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously trying to puzzle out exactly what happened to each character in the end.


 

Book Review: ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS by Nayomi Munaweera

 photo edab3839-5d51-4b54-91f5-8592586ee0c6_zpscemeg08y.jpg Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
$24.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, has received rave reviews since its initial release in Sri Lanka back in 2012. It’s been published in the United States less than a year, and already its prestige is noted by award-winning authors internationally, as well as stateside critics from Publisher’s Weekly. It won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and short-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. NoViolet Bulawayo, the award-winning author of We Need New Names, said the novel was “…tender, beautiful, and devastating,” a statement I can defend effortlessly.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a fictional work depicting the very real Sri Lankan civil war, which only ended back in 2009. Munaweera’s novel was timely, and provided an intimate look at life in Sri Lanka during this conflict. It focuses on the lives of two young women and their families—Yasodhara, from a Sinhala family, and Saraswathi, from a Tamil family. Two people on the opposite sides of the war, their lives separate and yet connected. Munaweera’s narrative ties them together through tragedy, and shows with fatal accuracy how far-reaching and devastating the consequences of war can be.

Long before the war, Yasodhara tells us of a beautiful island. She describes “beaches [her father] does not know are pristine,” and “an ocean unpolluted by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.” She talks of mango trees, avocados and condensed milk, and the back room where the children gathered and grew up. Munaweera’s prose is poetic, “tender [and] beautiful,” as Bulawayo said; it mimics the intimacy of a memoir beautifully:

                                I am ten and Shiva is at my window, holding an unlit kerosene lamp. “You won’t believe what I’ve found!” he whispers. When I climb out, he pulls me along the side of the house, pushes aside jasmine vines to reveal a dark crevice… I am suddenly blinded, claustrophobia clawing at my throat when he fires up the lamp, and blue walls spring up around us. Such color! Cerulean, turquoise, flashes of emerald, like being swept underwater.

Saraswathi’s tale is not much different. In fact, the lives of the two girls—their families, their dreams, their innocent perspectives on the brewing chaos around them—are almost indistinguishable from one another. Yasodhara, like Saraswathi, is drawn to books and learning. Both are expected to marry well and reproduce, and both have dreams apart from that expectation. And both watch as their home falls apart.

Yasodhara, on the Sinhala side of the conflict, is afforded with the opportunity to flee to America with her sister, Lanka. Saraswathi, on the Tamil side, is not as fortunate. Munaweera tears these women apart, but in completely different ways. Neither is left unscarred by the war, despite the differing paths they take. While Yasodhara is literally torn from her family and place of her birth, Saraswathi’s body is torn apart by soldiers, an event which divides her from her family. Yasodhara enters a loveless, arranged marriage, and Saraswathi enters boot camp to become a Tamil Tiger, a mercenary. Up until this point in the novel, Munaweera does an excellent job keeping the two voices in equal proportion. As Saraswathi slowly slips into madness behind the lines of war; however, readers lose her voice. Her sections become shorter and shorter, like clipped thoughts. This reader wonders why Munaweera would choose to silence Saraswathi in this way, just as she is approaching the end of her life. I wanted to see the terror she had previously experienced as a victim and how that informed her new role as the oppressor. Instead, these sections are mere blips; we see what happens to her, but do not fully experience Saraswathi’s shift from fear, to anger, to total brainwashing and devotion. This change happens very quickly, despite the resilience Saraswathi exhibited earlier in the novel. She says, “I am fearless. I am free. Now, I am the predator,” and suddenly she is murdering people without thought, wishing to take her sister away to become a soldier, and all the while expressing nothing of the woman we grew to know throughout the novel prior. By chapter 11, Saraswathi’s voice is cut to mere sentences beside pages of narrative from Yasodhara; the two are no longer equal, and I am perplexed by Munaweera’s decision to do this.

Indeed, the novel is devastating. As it comes to a close and we see Saraswathi blown apart and Yasodhara’s sister lost in the blast, it is clear that not one soul is left untouched by the war that ravaged the island. The novel’s poetry wears chaos well, and departs to us a haunting experience from a time not soon to be forgotten.


 

Book Review: DAY UNTO DAY by Martha Collins

 photo eabefdb6-8172-4baa-bb09-88a81bda3f9c_zpska7prier.jpg Day Unto Day
Poems by Martha Collins
Milkweed Editions, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

This April, the Internet will be flooded with legions of poets writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month. Whether or not you decide to answer the NaPoWriMo call, you might do well to pick up Martha Collins’s sixth full-length collection, Day Unto Day. Collins invokes an older source than NaPoWriMo—Philip Pain’s Daily Meditations and Quotidian Preparations for Death, said to be the earliest original verse published in America (1666). Pain wrote four six-line verses each day for sixteen days; Collins wrote one poem every day of one month each year (and she is still writing them—Night Unto Night is in the works). The book takes its title from Psalm 19, “Day unto Day uttereth speech, / and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” In this Psalm, David is full of praise for the world God has created, and deems God’s law “perfect.” But don’t let the title fool you: this is not your ordinary poetry of meditation or praise. The law of this book is attention; it is the “eye always open.”

Day Unto Day consists of six sequences of poems, written over the course of six years. Jean Valentine calls these poems “little lights which sometimes sound like prayer.” Each spare, musical poem is indeed a “little light,” which Collins shines on the mundane, the philosophical, the political, and the cosmic. Collins has said that she set up rules for herself as she wrote—some governing the number of lines in each poem, some governing the repeating patterns. One of the most compelling formal choices is the repeating pattern in the first and fourth sequences, “Over Time” and “Moving Still.” The last word of each poem becomes the first word of the following poem. Thus each poem spins into the next one, carrying forward an image, a sound, a word; the repeated word is a hinge that opens onto the landscape of the next poem. Collins plays freely within this structure, crafting a cyclical, layered meaning that echoes throughout the book.

With its focus on loss, mortality, and the natural world, the first sequence, “Over Time,” seems to shift away from the political engagement of her recent books, Blue Front and White Papers. But near the end of the sequence, the “newsy world” enters in poem #22 in the form of the World Series and partisan politics:

God is not a Republican
Democrat Yankee Red
Sox fan of him or her—

But him is whom our bed

is holding, him my one is home
again, oh bless him keep him safe

this little time that is our life.

God becomes entangled with sports, politics, and the recovery of the speaker’s beloved. Collins offers us life as it is lived, the boundaries around experiences inevitably porous.

The final poem of the first section considers mortality as it loops back to the first line of the first poem in the sequence: “not.” The speaker is keenly aware of her own waning time. However, while Collins gives us the language and image of negation, the speaker’s voice remains crisp and strong: “I’m here, much / less less. Not yet not.” “Not,” a staccato metonym for death, signals the way Collins approaches death at intervals:

Over and over again
and again, time

after time, stone
upon hallowed stone.

More than bones, ghost-
thin skin, I’m here, much

less less. Not yet not.

Reading this book demands that you quiet your mind to hear the “hum of words / under words.” These poems model a way to pay attention to the world through a close examination of a particular image, object, or phrase. Within the structure she has set forth, Collins plays with white space, dropped lines, and a variety of voices and tones. Her unexpected syntax continually engages the reader in making meaning. She is never stingy with her sonic pleasures. For instance, take the lines from the third section, “Under Green,” “creeping phlox on an old grave,” or from the third section, “Coming Through,” “Because we are snow, snow / on bones, snow hearts with snow / veins branching out into stick / fingers.” Because of Collins’s linguistic play, we need the moments in which she touches down to give us a more grounded image: “My love checks / his blood now, wet rubies / on his fingers.”

Emerson wrote, “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” We are made aware of this thread connecting all of us, with its potential for good and for terror, perhaps most intensely in this poem:

Centered, surrounded by pines, one
could forget the uncentered world

except for the parallel cables and wires
scratching the landscape, the cloudless sky,

stretching all the way to a vest strapped
to a six-year-old boy who is told that flowers
will spray out if he touches, here, this button.

Collins lets us see her mind at work, attentive to the ebbs and flows of our complicated world, to try to figure out “how to save / what’s been lost oh little world.”

It’s as if each poem in the book is a frame within a series of stop-motion pictures; the overall form stays the same, with slight variations of length, spacing, and structure. Within each poem and sequence, images change and recur, colors weave in and out, speakers lament and praise and question. These poems evoke momentum as much as stillness. They show us how we often are stuck in the same places, while the stuff of our lives recurs, whether it’s ongoing war, the fear of losing one’s parents, or a religious holiday. Isn’t this what we often need, and what drives us to keep a journal, to meditate, or go to therapy—to pay attention enough to see the contours of our quotidian lives so that we might be able to change something? As Collins puts it—“seeing things is changing things.”


 

 

 

Book Review: HABITATION: COLLECTED POEMS by Sam Hamill

 photo 7a97ec38-b442-4e6a-acc8-c2230f2c680d_zps92dlv4bt.jpg Habitation
Collected Poems by Sam Hamill
Lost Horse Press, 2014
$25.00

reviewed by Mike Walker

Sam Hamill has had a long and diverse career as a poet, publisher, editor, and translator—his work as a translator of poetry from ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Greek alone would place him in a rare arena of those who have contributed greatly to expanding our literary sphere over recent decades. As a poet, he has explored the physical and culture landscape of the American Northwest in a way few others have, bringing to his efforts an uncanny eye for not only detail but for what the Japanese in their complex program of traditional aesthetics call “mono no aware,” a concept with no direct analog in English or most European languages, but one centered on the idea that nothing lasts forever. This is a key and intriguing concept for those from any Western tradition: while much of Western religion and culture trumpets the benefit of the eternal, mono no aware is based in the sense of mujo, or the lack of lasting in most things, whether natural or man-made. It is undoubtedly a concept Hamill would be well aware of via his work in Japanese literature, but it is one he seems to locate in the most organic of senses within his explorations of the Pacific Northwest as well. Topical poetry that in the hands of someone else, no matter how gifted, would come across as tragic (in all meanings of the term) becomes something more in Hamill’s approach; he can concern himself with a fire that consumed a skid-row hotel and the effect is completely different from what one would expect, not centered in pathos nor condemnation but in the mujo understanding of how easily things can dissolve—how easily lives, how easily structures, how easily cultures, all may find themselves in ruins, in ashes.

This collection offers something of Hamill’s work that is essential, which is the ability to approach it in a vast anthology. Many of his poems work very well alone or in a multi-author collection, to be sure, but here one is able to get a real feel for the poet, despite Hamill not being an easy man to read in any regard. His poetry is approachable, inviting even, but it can be difficult, it can demand that you read one long poem and then five more to really place that first one where it belongs and garner its full worth. This task is possible with a collection such as Habitation. Poems such as “In the Company of Men” can be approached fully on the beauty of their language or on the separate if connected beauty of their descriptions of natural habitats, but they deserve further inclusion in the scope of work that Hamill seamlessly makes at once autobiographical yet isolated from the poet. Hamill has taught in prisons, an experience that expectedly carries over into his poems, but he doesn’t treat this experience as do many other writers who have taught in prisons, inner-city schools, or other institutions thought to be challenging. In poems such as “The Egg” he is able to write about his father in similar terms, able to talk about memories and experiences in a subdued manner that doesn’t demand attention but instead invites the reader to consider everything on their own terms. However personal his poetry becomes, Hamill retains a deft ability to take a step back at almost all instances, a skill I feel he probably learned as a translator of poetry and perhaps one of the greatest skills we who translate from other languages pick up in our work.

In “Requiem,” one of the longer poems collected here and one dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth (an ambitious and daunting dedication if ever there has been one), Hamill is able to unite much of what we see now and then in his shorter poems, these references to landscape and the muted colors of the Northwest, these inclusions of man’s hand on that landscape in references to things like new houses with their indoor plumbing, this overall stretch to be inclusive yet retain a light hand, as if the words he’s using are only replicas for the meanings of those words—and how acute that truth is when using those words in critical situations. Anyone who knows of the ways in which both Chinese and Japanese replicate meaning in a character, how meaning is built into language like blocks more than in any extant Indo-European language, will see at once where Hamill is coming from, why he knows of the merit in treading lightly.

Nobody knows what love is. Nobody understands the past.

This is from “The Cartographer’s Wedding,” a shorter yet very powerful poem. It’s a line that could just as well be in a torch song or heavy metal rocker from the later 1980s—it’s not exceptional and is in fact expected, trite even, when it stands alone. But in the context of the title, the idea the map-maker is getting married and there is no map for the territory ahead, the idea that folly is basic to love yet the world is vacant without love, that the past is unable to inform despite being the entire reason for a wedding—that tradition cannot serve well the best service it should provide us. All of this puts far more power and depth into this two-page poem than we could even hope, and it carries off its feat with flying colors. Mystics and oracles turn up commonly in Hamill’s poems and they take on the roles they’ve had since their early days in Greek theatre, the roles of soothsayers, of explaining the future, yet no one understands the past, how ironic, considering if there is anything that an oracle actually is good for, it is the legacy it brings forth from its tradition, especially its Greek tradition. The oracle, the mystics who see the planets align, the Three Weird Sisters—all of them really are adept at telling of the past, not the future. The languages Hamill has built his translator’s career around are languages steeped in tradition, ancient and of great value not only for their literary merits but their historical ones. When we come back to the fact that Hamill made so much of his career in the Northwest, we have to contend with another truth: this region of the United States for decades was at once considered under-known, new, removed, remote, but also holding some of the oldest of Native American culture traditions and some of the most-ancient of geological ones. Therefore, the return to mystics, the return to the question of the past, the return to a timeline uncertain, lacking in accurate waypoints, devoid of constant stewardship and predicated on the mythical seems apt.

His joys were neither large nor many.

But they were precise.

In this, in speaking of an old Chinese poet “in the October of his life,” Hamill hones in on something often missing from like-minded poems: that sense of mono no aware, that sense of neither pity nor sorrow but of understanding and gain. A joy precise in a world lacking in certainty and exact joys is a prized thing, even if not great in size, worth, or number.

I have recently started watching an animé called Noragami; I wrote a thesis on architecture in Japanese animé and have long been concerned with the genre as a fan and critic alike, yet Noragami is different.Noragami’s plot tells of a “stray god”—a young god without worshipers or temples—and his regalia, or sword, he uses to slay demons and perform other feats. This sword is not forged of steel, but is the afterlife manifestation of a young teenage boy’s soul—of a soul that departed before its time. So, the animé which for all of its fantasy and cartoon humor actually follows many Shinto and Taoist traditions quite well, is built around the characters of a teenager who is a god without godship and his weapon, which is the soul of an even younger teen. I bring this up in the midst of reviewing Hamill’s poems to make a very clear point: the spiritual conception of Japanese religion and of the place of that religion even today in society is complex and of an outlook very different from Western faiths. While watching this animé and reading Hamill’s poems I kept seeing similar themes appear, often in subtle ways, but certainly present. What is regalia in America or the United Kingdom? It is the formal trappings of a king or university president or bishop. 式服 (Shikifuku) is not regalia, though it translates as such into English. Shikifuku could be a formal scepter of pomp and circumstance but it also, per Shinto beliefs, could be the manifestation of a soul as it is in Noragami with Yukine, the boy transmogrified into a sword. The Chinese in the Taoist tradition speak of the 神器, the fetishes, or holy weapons of the gods, which are of the very same idea. In Hamill’s work, we find though never fully explicated as such, a similar theme: the transient soul becomes etched in the service of others, its flaws their strengths, its immortality the tangible touch of physical world.

But I am dumb. Winter draws in its nets of silver.

The above is as random a line as I could pull out of one of Hamill’s poems, but I wanted it to be this random. I want an appreciation of his language even when separate from its context. This idea—the harmony the Japanese call wabi-sabi—of cohesion found in nature across the board from blade of grass to human life to forged sword (which, again, Noragami reminds us could even be made from an innocent soul) is central to how Hamill writes. It is for him a calling card, an invitation that allows entry into places most of us cannot go, into the response we need to allow at the ready in order to ask if there is evil in the world (this, a question in a poem asked and answered sublimely by Hamill). It is both blessing and curse of Hamill’s writing and his age that he has so many answers ready to his own questions, but overall it is a welcome aspect of his poetry. Also, as I’ve found expectedly with other older poets, there are ample tributes to peers, wishes for the departed, all those issues older people dwell upon that those of us in our youth do not, though as I write this I learned that an airline pilot in his late twenties probably crashed an airliner into a mountainside, taking his life and those of 149 others aboard. Perhaps we all need the somber face Hamill provides at times here, regardless of age.

“life after life after life goes by,” the poet said

When Hamill quotes others, it is oft like this: it is the warrant for his vocation, the reminder that he’s in the right line of business and is one of a long line of distinguished gentlemen plying this trade. He reminds us often, but never in a self-serving nor arrogant manner, of the role of poet in society. He again often turns to Chinese traditions, to places and points in the scope of time where poetry mattered more to society. Hamill is not aloof, but he realizes his own worth. He remarks in a poem of the value in getting poets to translate poetry—not a non-poet translator. He reminds us often, maybe even constantly, of his study of the Orient but he reminds us of such in the best way possible, by showing not saying, by providing a depth of understanding of what he writes. It was when I was watching Noragami and reading his poems and found the Zen aspects most not in those poems that speak of such on surface level, but in the poems that do not when I realized Hamill was, for lack of better term, for real. He was able and adept of bringing the core values we find in writing based in Taoism to life in cases where he was writing of Greece, or of Jesus. As life goes by, Hamill is fixed upon its trajectory. And also, we have to remember, Hamill has translated poetry from Greek—he is very aware of Greece as Greece when he writes of it, but he writes of it nearly as if it isn’t Greece but maybe Honshu as the specter of Asia has followed him to this topic, yet with beautiful, awesome, results.

Overall, Habitation is a greatly impressive collection, though at times due to its sheer volume it can at once overwhelm and depress. Part of my reaction in this manner is probably due to a difference in age and outlook I have from Hamill: I’ve noticed often that collected works by older poets have this effect on me. There’s too much emphasis on departed friends, on other poets they knew, on the wistful in general. It is hard for me, with my interests and approach to life, to connect with some of this though I understand how at their age and station it would be apt. Hamill can pull off tributes better than most though, due to the mono no aware sense you get from his poetry. He can write about loss or passing in a way that retains fully all necessary dignity. That said, many of these poems focus on the past, not the present nor the future, just as I complained of the soothsayers I mentioned when they appear in his work. Everything tells us about the past, and for the past, is not that an unfair share of the attention? When nature is the topic, Hamill is at his best. In “Malbolge: Prince William Sound” he offers us that view of nature we’d hope for in the best of poetry and still a very personal view. In “Blue Monody” he uses the same techniques but due to the personal-historical nature of the foci I find them less compelling, though no less astute and well-crafted.

There is no doubt as to the worth and the scope of the work collected in Habitation. Hamill’s career, despite his many and diverse accomplishments, is still under-known and perhaps this will be the volume to remedy that situation. There is repetition despite the diversity of poems and at times, if you’re reading much of the book at once, that can become tiresome. However, it’s a powerful and very intriguing collection and shines a light on Hamill’s many general talents as a writer, allowing not only an exploration of his poetry but via that poetry also insight into his work as a translator and what a rich background has allowed for these poems in the first place.


 

Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

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

reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

…I reread a favorite poem

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

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

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

…We would keep

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

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

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


Book Review: THAT OUR EYES BE RIGGED by Kristi Maxwell

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

reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow erases mud our feet rewrite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My soul’s in your head

if anywhere. The song

said so or something

like it. I fold my voice

to fit your ear. I fold it

more compactly

and store it. Stalled

after all. What horse

is this—that carries us

one at a time?

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


 

Dance Review: CANDESCENCE by Gia T. Presents

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: SHAPE OF THE SKY by Shelagh Connor Shapiro

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

reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Poetry & Risk

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

reviewed by Peter Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When I have Fears

by Nola Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long have I had PBC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: GOOD NOISE! Poetry, Music & Pittsburgh

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

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

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

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

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

Everyone I know is tired of waiting and dreaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: BEST BONES by Sarah Rose Nordgren

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: NESTUARY by Molly Sutton Kiefer

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

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

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

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

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

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

                        Thessalian witches were believed to control the moon:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Do you want your tubes tied?   No.

         Do you want your tubes

               tied?   No.   Do you want

                        your tubes tied?

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

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


 

Dance Review: WAYWARDLAND by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: JUNKETTE by Sarah Shotland

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

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Re-reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover

by Nola Garrett

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

                                    Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: GUINEVERE IN BALTIMORE by Shelley Puhak

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever we have meant—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brother, Can You Spare A Salinger?

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

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

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


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

Interviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nicole Bartley’s Top Ten Fiction Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano

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

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: YOU COULD LEARN A LOT by RJ Gibson

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abundance, you say, so much…

… of course the earth

so ready to burst

it smells as if everything
is about to happen,

only some of it good.

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

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

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

We shine red.


 

Book Review: FOG ISLAND MOUNTAINS by Michelle Bailat-Jones

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

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE GREENHOUSE by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

 

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

dream

 

of a year

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

 

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

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

 

(and where else would I rather be?)

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

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

 

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


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

by John Samuel Tieman

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: PRAGUE SUMMER by Jeffrey Condran

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

Reviewed by Chris Duerr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na zdraví.