Book Review: KUBRICK RED by Simon Roy

Kubrick Red
by Simon Roy
trns. Jacob Homel
Anvil Press

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leaps of Faith

by Gerry LaFemina

In the opening chapter of The Triggering Town, aptly titled “Writing off Subject,” Richard Hugo writes that a “poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean.”  Further he says, “The triggering subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem.” More it should trigger the imagination of both the poet and the reader, and it does so through it use of language and image, tempo and tone.

I often tell my students, don’t tell me what you want to write about—subjects can be a handcuff. Write the story of the time the police pulled you over for speeding, and you might have a funny or scary or sad story to tell, and you might then leap to the expected indignations of police overreach, the threat of police violence (or lack thereof, and thus emphasize a notion of privilege), or the boredom of small town cops, none of which is surprising because those are the inherent subjects of the story. Such poems don’t thrill the writer in the end, particularly if they’re stories told before, and they offer little to no surprise, no discovery, for the reader. We nod our heads, say to ourselves, damn cops.  Which is to say nothing new for the writer, nothing new for the reader.

A poet might make such poems funny, might read them in such a way that it performs well, but it won’t ever transcend itself. Why? Because the poem makes no leap from its triggering subject, it makes no leap into the creative imagination, that subconscious zone in which the best poetry comes from. In Leaping Poetry, Bly describes the poetic leap as “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again” and notes that the “real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.”

I would say that more than it being the real joy of the poem, it’s the real essence of our best poems. Consider how one of the words for poet in Latin, is vates which also means soothsayer or seer; ditto, kavi, in many Indian languages. The poet is someone who sees beyond the triggering subject and into the connectivity of the world, hence the importance of metaphor. This is why I tell my students to ignore what they want to write about and instead write about what in the world catches their attention, and then explore, through the act of writing, why it catches them. Such images are often inherently metaphoric.

Still, some ask me, often more than once, how do they make leaps? There is no easy answer to this inquiry, but the inquiry itself leads us to metaphor: the leap in the end is itself metaphoric.

Leaping is an act of childhood, other than the lords in The Twelve Days of Christmas and some track stars, adults rarely leap. But kids—they leap. They leap over puddles and from hay lofts; they leap over each other each other and leap into swimming holes. And they learn the distance they can manage with a leap. Who hasn’t tried leaping over a puddle, only to land in the middle, spraying ourselves and those around us with water? Only by leaping do we know how far we can leap. Only by leaping do we discover what’s possible and what isn’t. Only by practice do we extend our range.

Thus, when writing we have to return to a sense of play, to a sense of possibility, to a sense of exploration. We have to revel in what the language gives us beyond what we can consciously conceive from our triggering desire to write about X. Perhaps that’s why Bly goes back to one of his poetic fathers: “To write well, you must ‘become like little children.’ Blake, discussing ‘experience,’ declared that to be afraid of a leap into the unconscious is actually to be in a state of ‘experience.’”

Consider the urge to publish, the urge to make a career of poetry: this makes poetry an adult preoccupation, and therefore we might feel sometimes a need to make it safe. By that I mean fit into a school, satisfy some audience, and move linearly rather than laterally. We avoid associations that might seem like a stretch for the obvious, the easy, the step as opposed to leap.

Stephen Dunn says a good love poem must have a “but” in it, which is a type of leap. Mark Doty in his poem “This Is Your Home Now” writes:

                                      …Then (I hear my friend Marie
laughing over my shoulder, saying In your poems

there’s always a then, and I think, Is it a poem
without a then.).

“Then” and “but” are easy ways to establish a leap. Whatever follows “then” can be anything. It allows for radical changes in direction, whereas “but” allows us to double back, leap away from our own declarations, avoid being pinned down in our thinking.

Sometimes leaping means taking out the narrative context, and allowing for the language and scenario to do the work. For instance, last night I began a draft of a new poem with this line: “Earlier the sun turned around, began its long walk southward.” It’s a line I liked. I followed it up with this line, “& so the calendar made summer official,” which was crossed out almost immediately because 1. It’s explaining the metaphor, and therefore, 2. It’s obvious. So I started writing a few potential second lines, some of which never got finished:

so finally after dark…
No, too narrative.

the asphalt releasing steam all afternoon
     That’s just repeating the notion that it’s hot.

now that I’ve waited till after dark…

now I walk the town’s streets all the neighborhood dogs dreaming

“Now” could be a leap, a movement away from “Earlier” that opened the draft. However, cutting some more of the narrative away I came up with this for a second line: “Now all the neighborhood dogs dream of filet mignon & belly rubs.” This is a leap of a second line. There’s no cause and effect, there’s no connection, only possibility in the gap between the two. Here the poem as a discovery zone has opened up for me as a writer, and I hope for the reader as well.

Once a student was writing a poem about the county fair, and the poem was filled with all the things that we know are at a county fair: midway games, cotton candy, a fun house, carnies. The poem went to all the expected places and that was its key problem. The poem was vivid, its language, at times, delightful. But unlike the very reason we go to the county fair (to be taken out of our humdrum days), the poem failed to surprise or delight. Finally, I suggested she start listing all the things at the county fair: step away from the hall of mirrors and perhaps the ticket booth— with its connotations of buying “escape,” or the demolition derby, or the adolescents making out in the Ferris Wheel carriage, or the parents at home who didn’t want to cramp a child’s style, or the fairgrounds a week later when everything is gone.

Jumping time, jumping place, jumping frog contest at the county fair, and how I didn’t win despite the bullfrog “ringer” I was given when I was eight, summer vacation in upstate New York. My frog came in second place, and then I set it free.

Of course I don’t have to tell you that last bit isn’t true. It just illustrates the way language and time and place can all lead to a cognitive and imaginative leap. The best leaps are both risky and inevitable.

The British Underground reminds us to “mind the gap,” by which they are imploring us to be safe, to step over the space between the station platform and train car. Whether we are readers or writers, poems beg us to take some chances, the leap as much a leap of faith as a leap between modes of cognitive thinking, between conscious and unconscious experience, the little electrochemical charge of a thought surging across the space between axon and dendrite some thousands of times. Leaping, in the end, is how we think.


Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

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

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: HEADING HOME: FIELD NOTES by Peter Anderson

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

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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


On Ekphrastics

by Gerry LaFemina

For the last few years, I’ve been working with the Italian photographer Leila Myftija, writing poems in dialogue with her photographs. The photos are varied: one depicts a group of children at the beach, another is a close up of a section of an industrial grate, another a wicker ball. Some conjure my imagination immediately, others less so. One, a photograph of some Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast, is both one of Leila’s favorites and one that has given me fits and starts.

This is an experiment, in the end, of ekphrastics, and so much of my work has engaged art, though never quite like this. A number of the prose poems in Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist are ekphrastics, tackling (often) early twentieth century modernist paintings like those of Joan Miró; I’ve co-edited two anthologies of poets “covering” albums for the Lo-fi Poetry Series; and I got an early start publishing by writing freelance art reviews in the mid-1980s. I love visual art and music, and writing poems can be a way of entering a dialogue with work that excites us.

This photograph didn’t excite me. It’s lovely: it’s framed nicely; the froth of the water is lit up and almost tactile. One small boat comes in, another rests on shore with its fisherman waiting. Time and again I’ve started the poem. Failed. Started again.

I’m reminded of the reaction my students have when I give them one particular writing prompt. Often, when I’m out in a new city, I make sure to go to art museums and after a walk through of the galleries I always stop in the gift shop and sort through the postcards featuring selections from their collection. I like the abstracts, the funky, the non-representational… I buy them in bulk and then bring them to my office. At a certain point in the semester I present them to my class fanned out, face down, tell my students to pick a card but not look at it. It’s a magic trick after all, the ability to make something appear from nothingness. I also hand out 4×6 index cards. Then they turn the postcards over.

The goal: to write a poem that is informed by the picture on the front of the postcard that would fit on the back of it. The 4×6 index cards become the “backs” to assure that nobody complains that one student’s postcard is bigger than someone else’s. Inevitably the questions arise: do I want them to describe the picture? Maybe. Can it use the title of the painting? Sure, but it doesn’t have to. Can I trade for a picture I like better? No.

I received similar questions from those submitting to Clash by Night (covering the Clash’s London Calling) and the forthcoming Poet Sounds (covering the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds). What does it mean to cover a record? I don’t know.

Writing ekphrastics means engaging someone else’s vision with your own, interpreting an art form from one medium to another mediated by your interpretation, taste, feelings. It helps to have strong feelings for the piece, but sometimes, that’s not always an option. Writing about such art becomes a way to develop one’s feelings and one’s interpretation of the piece, much as writing about a love relationship hones and sharpens the feeling toward the beloved. The less one “likes” a particular piece also allows for the imagination to run wild, divorces the writerly vision from the admiration of the artwork (and perhaps wanting to describe it in such a way as to show one’s love for it).

There is something third world about the photograph of these fishermen, something I found vaguely off-putting. I didn’t want to appropriate their culture. I hadn’t been there—the photographer had! I tried connecting them with the old guys who used to fish and crab off of South Beach on Staten Island, but that seemed obvious and trite. I wanted to avoid blank description. I wanted to create a connection where I found none. This is the ekphrastic challenge, made more challenging because the connection in the poem has to also connect readers to the art object even if they haven’t seen the work, heard the song…. What we’re doing as writers in the end is making a separate and equal artwork that pays homage to the original without requiring that the reader know the original, or like it as much as we do.

The other challenge, of course, is to not write the same type of poem over and over again, to not enter each ekphrastic poem the same way. Different strategies ensure different poems. Having different reactions to the originals means that I have different attitudes inherently involved in the writing of each poem. For “Fishermen,” I finally just asked questions of the photo itself, presented those as the first line, giving some voice to my concerns about the composition. Details from the photograph itself emerged, not enough for the reader to imagine the photograph, but the goal of ekphrasia is not to recreate the photograph in text, but to create new art. There’s enough to stimulate a picture in the reader’s mind, and I think I found a meta-purpose for the poem, some emotional depth to make it linger. That lingering, like the heat of the sun onus long after we’ve come in from the beach: that’s what I want from all the art I love.


photo by Leila Myftija; poem by Gerry LaFemina


Book Review: AN ACCIDENT OF STARS by Foz Meadows

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

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For Future Reference: Notes on a Writer’s Desk

by Gerry LaFemina

Like a lot of people these days, my students have a stated conviction that the internet is better than print materials for research. It’s easy to think so. If you know what you’re looking for it may even be true. Need to know what a grackle eats? You can find out. Want to know the history of coffee or the cost of it at your local grocery? You can find both out. More often than not, as a poet, I’m looking for stuff that will catch my attention, give me information, images, language that I don’t already have. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I can’t type Things that might interest Gerry into Google and believe that it will come up with something to engage the poetic imagination.

That’s where my reference books come in. If you’re a writer, it’s good to consider what’s on your desk (and neighboring book case!). I believe it’s important to have a good library of reference books that are both helpful and deeply personal. By reference books I don’t mean only dictionaries and thesauri and encyclopedias; I mean, also, those books that can provide information I didn’t know I’d needed to know.

Right here’s where my students complain—I can look up any word on or Yes, you can. But the reference books provide more than just definitions, synonyms and antonyms, and etymologies. What I love about the dictionary is not its ability to give me a definition (or multiple definitions) and/or word origin, but also the field of the page of words with definitions. What I mean by this, is that by looking up a word I get a two pages worth of others that are phonically close to it: I find this particularly useful when drafting poems. Let’s say I want to emphasize the word conspicuous. I might look it up in the same American Heritage Dictionary I’ve had since grad school, and find conspirito–“with spirit and gusto”; or I might look up words which start with spic and find spicule–“a small, needlelike structure.” (I particularly like how needlelike is one word in the dictionary, but my autocorrect doesn’t like it spelled that way.) To get such words into a new draft help shape and change the thinking of the poem itself and broaden the field of language that I have open to me.

Or I might use the Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary. Dating to 1957, it has 4800 columns of facts and pictures. It suggests spikenard, “a perennial herbaceous plant…being the source of the ointment referred to in scripture…. It has a short, thick, carrot-like root, spatulate leaves, and small red or purple flowers in dense heads.” Now we’re talking! What I like about the encyclopedic dictionary is that it includes names of famous people in history in alphabetical order, too. This allows for history to come into the poem.

I keep a Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, too, for quick information about literature, a rhyming dictionary, a style guide. At one time I kept a Bartlett’s Famous Quotations close at hand. More recently, I keep a Schott’s Miscellany close by to rummage for random facts that engage my poetic imagination. For instance, beyond giving me the names of “Some Palmistry Lines” it also lets me know that the area between the Line of Head and the Via Lasciva is the Mount of the Moon. Surely, there’s a poem in there. If not, perhaps the book’s list of “Some Notable Belgians” (none have made it into any of my poems) or “The Hierarchy of Falconry” (itself a potential title for a poem) could provide inspiration.

Because I grew up in New York City and know few birds beyond the common pigeon and starling, I keep a bird book at my desk. I bought it on the remainder table at a chain bookstore years ago. I buy a lot of my miscellaneous reference books on the cheapie rack. A $3.99 guide to mythology may come in handy. More likely though a book called 50 Physics Ideas. Physics fascinates me, and although the math is beyond my ken, the concepts of physics get me thinking. Beside that is Reg McKnight’s Wisdom of the African World, which reminds me, always, to not think solely in my white Western thinking. For a while there was other philosophy (The Art of War, an assortment of Platonic dialogues), a book on tarot cards, a bartenders’ guide, and a Depression-era guide to putting on a pretend circus in your backyard called The Big Time Circus Book. Various books of folklore from all over the world show up. It’s good to shake up the list: bring in an I Ching or a cookbook or a book of common phrases in Portuguese. Of course, I keep the books I walked away from in my adolescence, a Bible and a book of Roman Catholic Catechism close by to make sure I get the details right.

None of these books have anything to do with poetic craft: those books spill off the book case next to my desk. Those books help with my essays and my thinking about poetry but they don’t help with the crafting of poems. The books at my desk, on the other hand, have the potential to help change the direction of a poem-in-progress, can give me language I didn’t know I was looking for, metaphors I didn’t know I needed. Like my own poems, these books reflect my obsessions, but they also provide scope beyond my own go-to knowledge: an important tool. Yes, the internet gives me an avenue to find what I’m looking for; surely, I could look up “fun physics facts” in a search engine and it might provide me with something similar from the books, but I can’t say sometimes where the fact I need is, and the books provide me a way of looking things up without the interruption of emails and IMs showing up. There’s a joy to referring to the reference books, a kind of guided randomness that help shape my poems.


Book Review: BRAWL & JAG by April Bernard

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

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Skill Set: Notes on Tom Lux, Poetry, and Teaching

by Gerry LaFemina

In the two months or so since Tom Lux died, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to have been his student, which in turn has led me to thinking about what it means to be a teacher of poetry. Much, of course, has been written on this topic, and much has been written about Lux as a teacher these last few weeks. He was a poet of rules about poetry, and a man passionate about teaching, poetry, baseball, among other things. He never asked his students to write poetry like his, which is a good thing because I never did. What he asked from his students is that we love poetry, that we challenge ourselves, and that we stick to our rules about poems. He taught me to read voraciously and widely.

When asked once what Robert Lowell taught her, Anne Sexton said he’d taught her taste. I think surely Tom taught me taste. He taught me to read, carefully, often aloud, to listen to the sounds of the words, the feel of syllables in the mouth and in the ear. Tom never demanded I share his taste, but like a culinary master teaches an apprentice chef, he taught me to develop my palette.

And he taught me discipline and craft. Mostly by demanding that I revise a poem, letting me know when lines didn’t work (“That’s a terrible line, Ger. Read it aloud.”), knowing I would go back and revise and revise and revise. I wanted to please him, wanted his acceptance. Many of us did, in those mid-eighties Sarah Lawrence classes, and through that wanting, we worked our poems—draft after draft on a beat up Brother typewriter.  He didn’t like Wite-Out. He wanted us to care to make the poems perfect. He wanted us to be disciplined.

Sometimes I get frustrated when my own students are sloppy. (“No typos. No dummy mistakes.”) I’m not sure if it’s something I’ve done, I wonder if I’ve failed them in some regard that they don’t work harder (but really, did all of Tom’s students feel the way I felt, I know better, now, to know they didn’t). It’s difficult to teach discipline, the discipline to draft, to push beyond the first sense of the poem, but it happens, slowly over the course of semesters, that students fall in love not with poems but with the work of poetry. And I try to teach my students to love poetry, to teach taste by giving them books from my personal collection, by having “library days” during a class session in which we discover books of poetry (and I order 20-30 titles, mostly from small presses, every year).

More and more, though, I’m interested in what I can’t teach, those essential skills of being an artist, those intangibles. Patience, for example. Patience is the skill Lux couldn’t teach me. I was 19, 20, 21. I didn’t want to wait for any of it. I wanted to rush poems into existence, to fight with them quickly, draft after draft. I didn’t give them an opportunity to breathe, to grow, to challenge me. Patience, though, is surely a skill chefs know: you can’t make something cook faster. As I get older, I’m more patient with poems (though, ironically enough, less patient with some of my students’ proclivities for “dummy mistakes.”)

Furthermore, I can’t teach courage. Most novice writers have some courage, they must, if they’re going to write poems, to put themselves out there, to share their verses in workshop. But there’s more to it: the courage to challenge their own beliefs about poetry is important and to challenge their teachers’ beliefs is crucial to developing their own rules and their own aesthetic. The challenge to write in form if they are a free verse poet or vice versa, growth requires change and change is a challenge. There’s also the courage to challenge their peers and the cultural dynamic of the workshop/writers’ group: I’ve seen some writers groups get into a tizzy when a member brings something radically different to a meeting.

Here, then, we find the third thing no teacher can teach that every artist needs: receptivity. The receptivity of criticism, surely, is necessary. One needs not to be defensive when their work is being critiqued, but that’s not the kind of receptivity I’m talking about. I’m talking about being open to possibility about a poem, to listen to it, to exist in the world where poetry might happen easily, readily, where language in all its quotidian vibrancy is happening, and then when it catches our attention, it’s trying to touch something in us, in our capacity for language. We have to be receptive to the possibility a poem is underneath it.

This is after all, the art of paying attention, and that is surely the most important skill any artist needs, and one that can’t be taught. Don’t pay attention in the kitchen and you might burn the dish, or worse, end up with the fire department stopping in. Don’t pay attention to the poem, and it comes off as half-baked. Tom Lux taught me to pay attention to the craft of a poem, but it took years for me to realize that there were other situations I needed to pay attention to, and those required receptivity, patience and courage. I needed to pay attention to the poem, to what is hiding beneath those early drafts, to have the courage to explore what’s not yet in the poem, and the courage to discard some things that are in the poem (be patient with me, I know you’ve heard it before: kill your darlings). I needed to be receptive to the possibility that I didn’t always (still don’t) know what a poem might be doing. I had to trust my capacity as an artist.

And perhaps that’s what Tom did: he taught me enough about poetry and the process of writing that I could trust myself to figure the rest out. Surely that’s what I try to do in the classroom or with the private students I work with. I try to demonstrate a way to think about the poem, and to think about poetry, I try to give them the skills to engage the work, and I try to help them trust their own ability to make their own rules about poetry. To pay attention and have patience with themselves. And courage to continue.


Book Review: A BLISTER OF STARS by Jason Irwin

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

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: THE CANOPY by Patricia Clark

clarkcanopy The Canopy
by Patricia Clark
Terrapin Books, 2017

Reviewed by Marie Orttenburger 

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

The poems quietly knocked the wind out of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

Sometime in the late nineties a writer friend of mine said that if you ever wanted to write a Charles Simic poem all you needed was the moon, an alley, a young child, a woman in a babushka, and perhaps a chicken. I thought of this recently after finishing up a first draft of a new poem. Some first drafts make me feel like there are miles to go before the poem gets to sleep, some make me want to throw it away, and a few, like this one, make me feel excited about poetry. Then I reread it, and it felt like it hit a few of the check boxes of some of my poems: a bit of physics? Check. A train? Check. Nostalgia–often in the form of adolescent love? Check. Catholicism? Check. The moon (ala Simic above)? Check.

Fortunately, somehow, I managed to stay away from snow or rain. And birds of any sort. And New York, punk rock, and fire (this last is an image that permeates my forthcoming collection The Story of Ash).

My friend Joseph Fasano writes about horses. His books could run all the races in an afternoon at Belmont. The first section of Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid is filled with poems working similar themes, using similar phrasing, form, and imagery in new and different ways. Poems work not by rejecting previous convention but by taking conventions—even those of our own design—and turning them in new ways. By establishing patterns, we can establish reader expectations and then subvert them.

Make it new, the Modernists implored. And we try to. We really do. Our obsessions may evolve, but perhaps not so much our metaphoric objects. And let’s face it, no one ever said to Monet, Claude, perhaps we should talk about your haystack obsession. Or to O’Keefe, Georgia, another flower? No one ever says to a math professor, X again? Can’t we mix up the variable? The fact is that I can write rules for myself (and I do), telling me to avoid certain imagery, but that doesn’t mean my variables for understanding the questions of the universe differ. The go-to catalogue of images are ways of defining and understanding the world of the poem, and through that, understanding the world around us. They are hallmarks of a style just as much as form, voice, or perspective might be.

And the fact is, after recognizing that the poem in question shared some imagistic and thematic hallmarks with my other poems, I thought to make some changes. Could the trains be trucks? Could the middle school students in the poem be senior citizens in an assisted living facility? Variations of the poem answered that perhaps these changes could be made, and the poem’s outcomes would ditto be radically different: If you alter the numbers, the equation at the end will be different, and where this poem wound up surprised me and seemed right. So I made the choice to keep the majority of these “familiar” images. If the poem’s conclusions felt like I’d seen them before, the poem would have required the major re-workings above. Instead, to use the math analogy again, one can do different equations with the same numbers, just by changing the functions (addition and subtraction, multiplication and division…). Ditto, we can draw new conclusions by how we choose to work with those returning tropes.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra talks about the eternal return of the same. Things repeat. Time is a circle (is it any wonder the face of a clock is round). Or to stick with physics, I might mention the oscillating universe theory: the universe ends in a big crunch which is then followed by a big bang, and so on.

Or let’s think of it this way: our obsessions are our obsessions and our sensual stimuli— surely a potential basis for many of our go-to images—are often things we see every day. The world of things is where the ideas lie, and it’s where we live. Is it any wonder writers love to travel? New places provide an opportunity to restock the image warehouse, to provide us with new rhythms, to break us from the familiar. Remember familiar shares an etymology with family. Eventually, we do have to return home. For the poet, that means a return to our home images, our home subjects. Our alleyways and chickens. Our subways and pigeons.

In this way, I am no different than many contemporary artists in general and poets in particular. The goal isn’t to always come up with fresh images so much as we have to come up with ways to make those images seem new. Chefs, in the end, only have a limited number of entree options. The goal for them is to re-imagine what one does with a filet, more so than it is to get a different protein to work with each night. Ditto, my “physics” wasn’t the Big Bang or String Theory (both of which have appeared often) but Dark Matter. Just as a writer of a villanelle has to make the repeating lines not seem the same (and now, it’s become common practice for those repeating lines to only sort of repeat), so, too, do we have to write our familiar images and themes in new ways. They’re familiarity ought to provide comfort for experimentation and function as a leaping off point for us to explore new potentialities. The goal is for them to repeat but not be redundant.


Book Review: RUST BELT BOY by Paul Hertneky

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

Reviewed by Kelly Kepner

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

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

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

Of the collapse of the steel industry, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by Shelby Vane

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: A CONTRIVED WORLD by Jung Young-Moon

A-Contrived-World A Contrived World
by Jung Young Moon
Trans. by Jeffrey Karvonen & Mah Eunji
Dalkey Archives Press, 2016

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

Constructing A Contrived World, Korean writer and translator Jung Young Moon layers thoughtful vignettes, pulled from his narrator’s vivid imagination, to weave fiction and reality together. Set in the streets of a fictitious San Francisco, the narrator’s world projects beyond the boundaries of his reality and into the multiverse of possibilities for the people he encounters and observes. Moon’s readers follow a wandering train of thought as observation melts into digression that leads to an aside that then bleeds into a dream and spirals off either into further delusion or into some sort of symbolic lesson from the narrator.

Exploring the streets of Moon’s fictional city, the narrator reflects that “San Francisco seems a decent place for the deranged” and wonders if that’s not why he’s there:

Sometimes I think about the possibility of losing my mind. Of course, no amount of effort might be sufficient to attain derangement, and derangement might not be attained by effort alone. Nothing seems to be keeping me from becoming deranged, considering that I have always lived in a world of distorted reality, that I’m often trapped in uncontrollable emotions from which I cannot easily escape or absorbed in my ideas (especially nonsensical or morbid ideas, because thinking only seems meaningful when excessive), that I seek refuge in those ideas, that I’m writing a novel that reeks of a deranged person’s memoir, and that I sometimes talk to myself.

The collision of the narrator’s feverish rambling and chilling realizations leave him in a constant fog. Fog, in its own right, is almost always present in the novel. Always looming, always creeping in slowly and seductively to draw in its victim, a disorienting daze manifests itself as an alcoholic haze or drowsy reverie—and, of course, as the ever-present mist that lurks in San Francisco’s atmosphere. The narrator repeatedly falls into a poet’s laze, pondering life and language as if in a Parisian salon. But so often, this behavior leads him to depression, isolation and suicidal thought.

A Contrived World exists at the corner of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and a sociological study of The Sims. Moon successfully deconstructs the creative process by crafting characters to watch and follow within the confines of an imagined life. The narrator’s recurrent encounters with bridges, alcohol and suicide seemingly allude to Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz in Big Sur. The text is smart and savvy—and absolutely worth a second read.

Originally published in 2011 in Jung Young Moon’s native Korean, A Contrived World was published in English for the first time in 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press. For their work, translators Mah Eunji and Jeffrey Karvonen received two grants from the Literature Translation Institute of Korean and a grant from the Daesan Cultural Foundation. Fortunately, Eunji and Karvonen had the patience and the insight to beautifully reconstruct Moon’s dreamlike novel for his English readers. I hope there is more to come from the author and his translators.


Ten New Year’s Resolutions for American Poetry, 2017

by Gerry LaFemina

These are resolutions for poetry. For readers. For writers. For what’s possible. For some, they may seem curmudgeonly. So be it. For some, they might seem frivolous. So what? We live in a time when there are more poems being written, being published in journals, published in anthologies and books, and yet, as someone who’s been reading poetry seriously for thirty years, I find myself often looking for poems that satisfy me beyond a first reading, and those seem harder to find. So here’s a list of resolutions for 2017 for American Poetry. They’re meant, in part, tongue in cheek, of course. But only in part.

    1. No more hyperbolic blurbs, particularly with comparisons to other poets. No, I don’t believe someone’s first book is as groundbreaking as Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium. I don’t want to hear that we haven’t seen an original voice like this since Dickinson. I’d rather see blurbs written like they were discussing coffee blends: ‘These are rich, earthy poems with a robust line and a bitter but strong aftertaste.”
    1. Stop confusing content with poetry. I understand the importance of what’s being said. But poetry is about how it’s being said. When we celebrate a book of poems, can we talk more about what writing about this subject as poems does for the subject? And what the subject does for the poems?
    1. And speaking of subject matter. Poems about writing poetry: please, stop. The subject has become cliché. I get it. We write poems. Writing poems is a magical, remarkable, inspiring, frustrating, aggravating thing. Yes. And since the audience for poetry is often mostly writers of poems, we get it. We really do. Nothing feeds into the popular criticisms of poetry more than poems about writing poetry.
    1. Of course, we write about our experiences (including our writing of poems). But does the I (or its most noble of stand-ins “you”) have to always be involved from jump. Poets, let’s forgo the openings that announce ourselves. “I’m sitting by the window staring at the windblown leaves…” What’s wrong with “Out the window, windblown leaves…”?  The I is implicit. When the I finally does show up in the poem, I promise (see what I did there?), its subjective power will be that much more effective.
    1. The I, though, is a powerful thing. Let’s continue our commitment to diversity. One of the joys of being a lover of poetry (and a poet who teaches) is the capacity to have people from all walks of life, with all sorts of voices, of all backgrounds, religions, and sexualities speaking. Part of the reason I wrote this list is to encourage them to be challenging and to challenge themselves.
    1. And let’s challenge authority, too. The biggest concern about the Trump election in terms of poetry for me is the rush to write poems about the election, about Trump. The easy poems are already present: “Grab them by the pussy” and “nasty woman” and “bad hombre” and “huge” are going to be in a lot of them. Poetry has to be more than just reactions; let’s write challenging, beautiful mediated responses. Let our challenges be complicated and powerful, not familiar, not political cliché. Trump’s hair is bad. His skin is Dorito colored. Surprise me.
    1. We can learn a lot about what surprises readers by reading the great poets of the previous few generations. Right now, it seems like most readers of poetry are reading their peers, and maybe the peers of their teachers. The twentieth century is rich with poets whose work should be celebrated, names that are slowly being forgotten: reclaim the poets of the sixties and seventies. The thirties and forties.
    1. And yes, yes. These are a great time for poetry. Let’s all subscribe to at least one or two (more) literary journals. Let’s support the editors and publishers who allow us to keep doing what we do, who keep insuring we have an audience. Ditto, let’s all buy several more collections of poetry than we did last year.
    1. Let’s read those journals and books with our most demanding selves. Let’s not settle as readers. Let’s not settle as writers.
    1. Bring poems to the streets, to the pulpit, to the classroom, to the bar…. For poetry to remain a living art, it is up to us. Give books of poems as presents to those who don’t normally read poems. Be excited about poems, and not with just other poets. Celebrate the poem, not just your own.

As for myself, I have my own resolutions as a poet. They are: 1. Read more (I already read a lot, but still), Facebook less. 2. Toughen the standards for my own work. 3. Correspond more with writers I admire—let them know I’m thinking of them and their work. 4. Order more books for the University library; why wouldn’t I spend their money to support presses and poets I’m grateful for. 5. No more pigeons, subways, or punk music in my poems (whoa, nelly!). 6. Write more in fixed forms—I used to write in forms a great deal, but recently, the desire to write in forms has vanished, but form teaches us so much about free verse. 7/ Say no to people’s requests more often (I don’t have to write every blurb I’m asked to write) so I can give more time to the writing and editing of poems. 8. Keep being grateful, patient, and attentive; those are three attributes every artist needs, which can’t be taught. 9. Experiment with new poetic strategies, while keeping in mind that experimentation doesn’t have to mean white space, language poetry lite, or other postmodern trappings of the avant-garde. 10. Teach, write, revise, live, repeat.


Confessions of a Could-be Confessional Poet

by Gerry LaFemina

A recent collection of essays, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, raises some issues about confessionalism, autobiography, and the role of the lyric I. Confessionalism, that moniker lodged against Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal that was then owned by an entire school of poetry, has of course led to numerous classroom discussions in which students declared that anything they wrote in lines that expressed their feelings was poetry: I’m just confessing how I feel. The more melodramatic, the better.

Of course, that’s where many of us start, and I want to say that most of my poetry still “expresses my feelings,” insofar as my obsessions–emotional, spiritual, psychological—are my obsessions. These are my truths, and they are the cornerstone for the lyric I of my poems. I am less bound to the notion of fact: adherence to details for the sake of documenting what happened is the place for journals or diaries. The poem is about the reader as much as the writer, it’s an exchange in the marketplace of the line, in which the poem has to have relevance for both. The sordid details that we’ve played over and over again in our heads may offer a cheap thrill (though in this age of Facebook posts and selfies, of Instagram photos and Yelp reviews, I think not). The fact is, we’re already bombarded with the tabloid details of people’s lives on a regular basis: what does poetry offer as a place of confession? As a place for autobiography?

In my college yearbook, I have a quote from Simic: “I can imagine many lives in which I could be perfectly happy or perfectly miserable.” It was my understanding of being an artist, something akin to what Kinnell says in “Poetry, Personality, and Death”: “We move toward a poetry in which the poet seeks an inner liberation by going so deeply within himself… that he suddenly finds he is everyone.” What must we be liberated from if not the ego that begs for the facts of our lives to be told beyond the small cadre of confidants we would normally share those facts with.

Fact is, I’m less concerned with my life stories. I’ve told them. They hold no secret for me to get something more. When I tell a story about my son’s birth or my father, and someone says to me (as happens regularly), “You should write a poem about that,” my reaction is always the same: “No!”  A good anecdote does not necessarily make a good poem, in part because so many poets tend to write the poem as if the anecdote were more important than the poetry.

My mother tells a story about giving a group of cousins one of my books because in the poem “The Barely Visible” my great aunt Sophie appears in factual glory, she who “survived/ two husbands, a daughter/a granddaughter and a great grandson.’ As a matter of fact, another person who appears in the poem, a boy I knew in grammar school, appears in hyperbolized detail. And the historical figure Amos Stiles, a shipwreck survivor whom I read about in the shipwreck museum on Lake Superior also appears in the poem. Though they appear, the poem is about none of them, but rather about an obsession of mine then: how our species survives adversity and tragedy.

More to the point, though, a couple of these cousins called my mother asking about the “facts” of some of the book’s other poems. And my mother told them what she’d come to understand: the poem’s facts are the facts of some alternate reality, one that looks a lot like ours but isn’t ours.

Actually, my saying that’s what my mother said is me making up another detail to support the truth of this essay, my current obsession, while simultaneously being disinterested in the facts. Rather, my mother said something like “Gerry isn’t writing an autobiography.”

That’s not to say there aren’t autobiographical details in my poems, there are, but more often than not they are diving boards from which I leap into an imagined life. As I said some twenty years ago when interviewed by a student newspaper, “The guy speaking in my poems is everything I hope I am and everything I’m glad I’m not. We’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, but the ‘I’ of my poems isn’t me exactly.” I’m imagining those lives that Simic mentioned. My goal is not to tell my stories, but to enter an experience of discovery, one that I hope generates a feeling (and, I hope, empathy) when the poem is read.

In my poem “After Reading Rexroth I Step Outside,” the speaker recounts finding the bones of a dead child while morel mushroom hunting. The poem’s title is counterfactual: I had not been reading Rexroth, nor have I ever found the bones of any creature. The point of autobiography that I led to the poem was seeing mushrooms in the grass at work:

Low moon tonight & nearly full.
See how it illuminates the alien bodies of mushrooms
colonizing the weedy lawn.  They’re a surprise after six weeks
of near drought, delivered, no doubt,
                                                                      by the drizzle that followed—

their fibrous necks lifting up their heads so they seem to look
in wonder.

Everything else is imagined not to trick the reader about my life experience, but rather to engage the reader in the same experience of discovery I had in writing the poem. In this way I’m expressing what Adrienne Rich called “our desire [for] a poetry in which the ‘I’ has become all of us, not simply a specific suffering personality, and not an abstraction which is also an evasion of the poet’s own specificities.” That said, once, after a reading, a woman came up to me and asked, “What happened with the dead child?” I said I didn’t know because the poem ended: I wasn’t interested in a moment beyond the lyric experience explored in the poem. She was very upset and felt that she had been manipulated.

My argument—both with her and in this essay—is that I’m an imaginative writer. If I wanted to write my autobiographical experience, I’d be writing memoir (and we know there have been numerous debates about the license some memoirists take with fact). I write poems because their lyric intensity and compression, their language and structure, allow for a more powerful affect. I write poems because my favorite poems had such an effect on me: reading them led me to imagining those lives detailed in them.

Even in my love poems (and I’ve written a number of love poems), the poem is an attempt to metaphorize and understand the feeling. Love, at its best, is one of the most transcendental of feelings: we become part of the other. As Kinnell notes, “As with poetry, so with love: it is necessary to go through the personality to reach beyond it.” The details about the relationship, about the beloved, are secondary to the poem’s attempt to capture the insights and feelings of being “in love.”

Of course, this is my way of thinking about the poem. This is not meant as a complaint against those whose lyric selves are closer to their personal biographies. Many of my favorite writers write a much more autobiographical poem. It’s a large table, and we all can sit at it. And whether we metaphorize our lives or explore them in their autobiographical details, the importance of mediating those experiences via poetry—those aspects of craft that the art form offers–is key. In its discussion of confessionalism, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that it “should be considered not as a prescriptive formula held by one group but as a general permission felt by most poets…to treat personal experience in its most intimate and painful aspects,” and dare I say its most pleasurable and joyous aspects, too. Although I’m sure the quote is using “treat” for its third American Heritage definition, “to deal with in writing or speech,” I prefer to think it actually is using the sixth definition, “To subject to a process, action, or change, especially to a chemical or physical process or application.” Writing a poem about experience ought to change the event(s) in question; it must find its truths if it is going to not just entertain our readers, but engross them, make them participants in the poem itself—in its language and breath and imagining; the discoveries in it become part of their experiences.


Excerpts from PARIS SCRATCH by bart plantenga

Paris Scratch: The Children Snapshots

[Les enfants instantanés]


excerpts from Paris Scratch by bart plantenga
(Sensitive Skin, June 2016)

Walking, like writing, leads from an oft-known destination to an unknown one. From the familiar to the unfamiliar. While living in Paris I fell from natural fascination into rote routine & so I decided to attain a more wide-eyed approach during my walks both utilitarian [buying food] & those categorized as aimless or dreamy. I consciously pushed my awareness of the hidden/forgotten details of everyday life. At a rate of about one per day.

  1. Nez de la Gare [Train Station’s Nose]

The kid faces the men at the bar, wearing a mask with a big nose. Suddenly everyone is still as a photo in a frame. Even the cigarette smoke hangs there like a scratch etched into a carafe of thick air. The boy thinks it is his mask. While each of the bar’s patrons think s/he is the only 1 who has ever felt that odd rumble in the gut when the trains pull out of Gare de Lyon. & then the fat-fingered man reaches out past his drink into an area where he has not been for some time & grabs the big nose. Just like that. Just for the hell of it.

  1. La Boit Subliminal [The Subliminal Box]

The box at the curb simply said:




& the kids de la Côte d’Ivoire take this box of secret messages & launch it into the gurgling water rolling down along the curb of rue André Antoine & as the sewer ate the box 1 hears the gleeful cries of triumph. They dance around the signpost on slender legs that seem to grow by several centimeters over night. It was 11 PM on a warm night.

  1. Une Chatte Enscenté [The Scented & Enchanted Crotch]

The morning is host to school children running with bright packs on their gleeful backs. The petite écoliére in pink slicker runs up the deserted early cobblestone street by the gutted television with her blue rucksack bouncing on her back, late for school. As if there is no end to the running. As if more pleasure is always just around the next corner where, looking somewhere else, she runs into the hooker who laughs, as the little schoolgirl’s nose nuzzles right into her perfumed chatte d’amoure. & she caresses the girl’s head. Runs her hand through her hair with a forlorn & tender wisp.

  1. À suivre de la Seine Urine [Following the Seine of Urine]

The petite fille squatted in the corner of where the pharmacy meets the cabaret along the northern edge of the 9th. She pees with her panties down at her ankles & watches with utter satisfaction as it runs down the sidewalk. She points proudly down at her etching as if the sidewalk is France & her urine is the Seine cutting through it. She begs maman to “Voir maman! Voir!” As if volition, art & cause & effect had suddenly become so clear for her. But maman is late for something, somewhere else & she’d seen it all before & takes forceful hold of her daughter’s wrist as if to emphasize that dreaming & movement were indeed inversely related.

  1. Le Sourire Synchronizé [Synchronized Smile]

The 4-year-old girl sits absorbed in the luxurious radiance of her own smile, suspended in the thick air on the #1 Line. These are the moments that the tick of writing or other arachnids & disease vectors try without fruit to burrow into. & as she chews her Brooklyn gum, I chew mine & with each chew we fall more & more in synch. & this secret knowledge of our giddy reconnaissance makes her smile which makes me smile into the rest of the day.

  1. Kids Sont Toujours Kids [Kids Will Be Kids]

The kids are too young to be smoking but are smoking nonetheless & precisely because of that very fact. Near their school along the Qaui des Celestins, they affect the stance & expressions & drag & puff styles of cinematic heroes like Vincent Cassel or Jean Louis Trintignant or Kevin Bacon or Richard Widmark. Periodically they give the finger to the woman (peut être the mother of 1 of their schoolmates) in a blue suit with white piping, directing traffic. & they run & run away until they’re out of breath & there is nowhere else to run & they are falling all over themselves with laughter & triumphant smiles dripping off their faces. A rolled-up Asterix comic book falls out of the back pocket of 1 of the écoliers.

  1. Vélo, How Are You? [Bicycle, How Are You?]

The boy skidded to a halt on the shiny vélo, a bike still too big for him. He likes the noise & the dust he leaves behind in the Parc Monceau. He looks at me & smiles a smile I haven’t been able to wear for at least 20 years. What wears the smile out the most? His voice suddenly transforms into the roar of a motorcycle & he is off again, just within view of his maman, sitting on a bench, acting like she is not keeping an eye on him—close but not too close—& that is the orbital relationship he craves. When I get home that evening I try his smile on for size in our salle de bain mirror.

  1. Nausée de Rire [Nausea of Laughter]

The petit garçon takes aim from behind the door barely cracked open in the fire station. His green water pistol emerges from the crack &—squeeze, squeeze—gleeful laughter as he dashes off, gazing over his shoulder to make sure the pompiers are giving chase & indeed they are until they find him doubled up, totally immobilized by his own laughter out back. He can’t move another inch & the threat of the firemen tickling him makes him even more nauseous de rire.

  1. Poubelle et la Puberté [Garbage & Puberty]

Les petites filles in their full after-school gaieté, their weird beaded braids & open jackets are dancing a jig or more like a French gigue, which requires some ballet, which it seemed the group of girls all wanted to some degree affect. & suddenly, just for a second, because fortuity sometimes allows a peek into a hidden part of truth, you could see exactly what these girls were going to look like in 20 years. Meanwhile, the old woman in white go-go boots & orange plush housecoat rakes leaves under the bare elm. It is early in the morning & the girls help the woman pick up the leaves & stuff them into a public poubelle near Buttes Chaumont before they run off in a direction the old woman remembers well.

  1. La Perceuse Mystificateur Too Early [The Too-Early Mystifying Drill]

The 5 jeunes étudiants in their school outfits of some color & little leather shoes were standing very still, holding hands, fixated, mystified by the huge drill that is pecking into the pavement of rue St. André des Arts at a time many will consider much too early. Then 1 let go, breaking the circuit, breaking the spell & holds his hands cupped over his ears. He wants to go. School is just around the corner.

  1. The Voice Sans Souci [The Unsuspecting Voice]

Le petit garçon is in the Luxembourg Gardens, behind a hedge where his maman cannot really keep an eye on him & so how long will this idyll last? He is poking around the leaves & dirt with a stick & singing, humming, la-la-ing a tune. It is a happy song with a lilt he cannot quite reach. It is a tune no 1 has ever sung before & so it is his. He really did not seem to have many cares yet. & then I hear his maman raising her voice: “Mon Petit! Mon petit! Où es-tu?!” But there are plenty of us impatient to introduce these cares to him. Although I now know where he got his nice voice from.

  1. Flipper King de Perdre du Temps [Flipper King Of Wasting Time]

The écolier was playing flipper (pinball) in the café with the floor already littered with sugar cube wrappers because he is way too early for school & he is enjoying it, winning free balls, wasting the time of the world like a little king. Until the proprietor, not his father, calls out “Jean,” & nods toward the clock to let Jean know that his time as the king of wasting time is running out.


bart plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic (Autonomedia, 2017), the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & the novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. He’s currently working on the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills with his daughter, Paloma. He is also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & now Amsterdam since 1986. He has written about working with refugees in Amsterdam for Truthdig & Vox Populi: The Refugee Center & Guarded Hope. He lives in Amsterdam.

  • Read the review of Paris Scratch in Coal Hill Review
  • Listen to the Paris Scratch soundtrack as you read
  • Also Read: The 2nd part of the diptych: NY Sin Phoney In Face Flat Minor, Sensitive Skin, November 2016.

Book Review: THE SILVER GHOST by Chuck Kinder

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

Reviewed by Tori Bovalino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: ICONOSCOPE by Peter Oresick

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specs of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

One might think the title is a typo, that I meant “Specks of Dust.”  Speck, from the Middle English “specke” and deeper still to Old English, “specca,” meaning “a small spot, mark, or discolorization” (American Heritage Dictionary).  But it’s no typo. In this case I’m referencing the Latinate “specere”—to look at, to see. As poets, our job is to see but also to present in such a way so that others can see.

I’ve put my spectacles on for this. I’m near sighted with an astigmatism, so they help me see. Seeing (along with the other four senses) is one of the most powerful tools for a writer; furthermore, the poem itself functions as a presentation of those images—literally they help readers imagine. In this way the poem itself functions as a kind of pair of spectacles to help the reader see what the writer saw—literally or in the imagination. What we see then, what we ask others to see with us, must be vibrant and vital, must be endowed with life.  We are asked then to pay attention.  As writers watching, it’s not what’s familiar that catches our eye, but what’s unfamiliar. As the City of New York used to say in its ads after 9/11: “if you see something, say something.”

In that regard then, the poet is spectator, a kind of witness. The spectators at a baseball game spend a lot of time watching nothing happen waiting for a homerun or a dramatic diving catch or a play at the plate. Ditto, the spectator of the world watches the mundane waiting for the world to deliver something worth reporting on. If we’re distracted, we might not notice something, might find ourselves not bringing it to life in a way that captures the imagination.  More importantly, what we see needs to be something that captures our imagination, it needs to find its language within us so that we can bring it to life for the reader.

In this regard, then, we become speculators in both senses of the word.  First off, in our writing, we are making new thoughts. We are considering the importance of our images, and thus we are speculating, and by that I mean “to engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or theorize.” The best poems think through images, engage the material in creative ways. The best poems provide the reader with this new thinking. In that way, the poem is an act of commerce, an exchange of time and energy for the linguistic experience found in the poem. In this regards, the poet is a speculator in another way, too, “engag[ing] in the buying or selling of a commodity with an element of risk on the chance of profit.” Each image chosen, each word chosen to bring this image to life, is a commodity brought into the poem, and with it comes the possibility of a successful poem. Ditto, the possibility of failure.

All writing in some way is about what’s on our spectrum, in this case meaning the “band of colors produced when the wavelengths making up white light are separated, as when light passes through a prism or strikes drops of water”—in other words, what’s visible to the eye. We train our writer’s eye to see things, but often what we see says more about what our filters, our unconscious thinking, our obsessions, than the world as it actually is. Consider the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies of the seeing self. Ask a group of spectators what they saw in a particular moment, and they’ll give you an equal number of narratives because what they see says as much about their interior world as it does about our shared exterior world.

We are asked, then, to speculate, to wonder. To ask questions not only about what we see, but to also ask why we see it.

For those of who find in our present world the nostalgia for the lost world, the past that is gone and yet remains, for those of us who, as Stanley Kunitz put it “Anyone who has lived to the age of five has enough for a life time of poetry” we are dealing constantly with specters, those “ghostly apparition[s]” of a life we can’t shed. Memories are a kind of thinking. Ditto the imagination. By working with both, we create specters for our readers, the best poems become part of their memories if we get the language right, the music right.

Because the poem reflects its writer’s obsessions for the reader, because if reflects the world seen by the poet and not the world as such, the poem functions, then, as a kind of speculum.

Our language exists on a spectrum; the more we read and write, the more we experiment with the elasticity of the language, the more we go searching for Coleridge’s “best word” the broader our spectrum of possible words get. Ditto our craft skills exist in a spectrum. We grow as poets engaging in what’s possible and needing to expand that field of possibility we broaden the spectrum of our prosody.

Spectacle is the name of the quarterly journal of the circus arts, from the second American Heritage definition: “A public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale.” I like to think of the poem as spectacle, too, though more akin to the first definition: “Something that can be seen or viewed, especially something of a remarkable or impressive nature.” At least, a poem should. Each line crafted from the best words, the images, the musicality of the language.

The poem should be spectacular.


Book Review: BRUJA by Wendy C. Ortiz

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

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dance Review: ANALOGY/DORA: TRAMONTANE by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For over 30 years, renowned choreographer, Bill T. Jones, has built a prolific repertoire of dance works. Throughout his career he has received a number of accolades, including a MacArthur Genius Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and two Tony Awards for Best Choreography. Jones has tackled difficult topics in his work, including the AIDS epidemic and the sex trade. This piece was equally challenging in subject matter.

ANALOGY/DORA…is based on the life of Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who worked as a nurse in detention camps in southern France. The piece was choreographed last year, and was presented at the August Wilson Center this past weekend.

The company members took turns telling Amelan’s story. As movement swirled around them, one dancer at a time spoke into a hand-held microphone. The text relayed Amelan’s own words in a harrowing account of her bravery and what she sometimes described as “luck.”

Nick Hallett and Emily Manzo performed live music from the open wings, a mix of classical French songs and present-day electronica. The sound worked well to support the emotion of the spoken word.

Though Amelan’s story was one of survival, it was not without tragic loss. Early on, the dancers rolled a cot onto the stage as a portrayal of her mother’s death. Here, the accompanying movement was technical and clean. Despite the dancers’ exceptional execution of the movement, the choreography did not fully reveal the despair of the moment.

At times, the piece did a better job conveying the horrors of the war. Portable walls (created by Bjorn Amelan) served various purposes throughout the show. In one vivid section, Amelan’s story recounted her father’s illegal travel to France. Antonio Brown performed a solo in which he struggled against one of the structures falling on him. The movement was simple, the image impactful.

Another section that worked well came near the end, when the dancers depicted Amelan’s sister’s death. From one corner, I-Ling Liu performed a solo of minimal gestures. Eventually, Rena Butler picked up on the movement from across the stage. And Jenna Riegel eventually began the same phrase. In that moment, there was a trace of solidarity between them, despite heavy grief.

That section turned to a unison phrase of big jumps in and out of the floor. The choreography was neatly arranged. One would have imagined disorder or dread even amongst a coming together. The choreography could have been bolder.

The piece continued in that same manner. While some sections revealed deep sorrow, others fell short. Amelan’s description of the deplorable conditions of the barracks was haunting. But the movement didn’t portray the same ghastly quality. Later, though, a series of slow motion partnering duets showed the care and support each of the survivors gave one another.

To close, peace was declared. The dancers attended a party where Marcel Marceau and his brother performed. Marceau’s character made appearances throughout the show. Like the rest of the cast, Carlo Antonio Villanueva performed his role well. His movement was precise and subtle, just as mime should be.

The dancers joined hands in the end and formed a line, weaving around the moveable walls. This had a folk-dance effect, communal and complete with exuberant smiles. The lights went down on the dancers’ silhouettes. The joy in their conclusion felt abrupt.

Continuing to share Holocaust stories is incredibly important. Jones’s depiction of Amelan’s personal story was a touching tribute and a necessity in keeping the devastation of the time well documented. Though the movement was worthy of a more stirring depiction, the heart of the piece was clear.


Book Review: PARIS SCRATCH by bart plantenga

ParisScratchFrontCover-600-390x600 Paris Scratch
by bart plantenga 
Sensitive Skin, 2016

Reviewed by Kevin Riordan

This volume comprises a tidy collection of 365 ‘meta-factual’ verbal snapshots of Paris, city of light and low-lifes. It will be joined by a forthcoming companion piece, NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor, set in New York City, out later this year. The author bart plantenga is currently based in Amsterdam and has been an avid participant in international subversive subculture for several decades, whose writing is half of his double barreled approach to making the world more interesting; the other barrel is his career as a disc jockey in an incredibly long running pirate radio program, Wreck this Mess. While the book is not set up as either a novel or a journal, it functions as both, by portraying the misadventures and lives of many Parisians in an observant, mordant prose that finds the rhythm of an epic barroom ballad.

With a fairly even mix of anecdotes of his friends and speculations about strangers, the reader is submerged in a very real place and time lit by a unique point of view. In entry 79, we find his claim that “Every corner, rooftop, fruit wrapped in colorful tissue, every rendered knee exposed is a source of aesthetic arousal. Yes, even the smokestack just out of Gare du Nord had its beauty.” Similarly every small chapter of Paris Scratch is a source of aesthetic contemplation. In all it is a frank attempt to translate the wonders of Parisian street photography into prose, each entry tantalizingly brief yet encapsulating a whole scenario.

The most remarkable thing about plantenga’s writing here is the way it is informed by a life-long embrace of the little giants of bohemian expostulation, from Breton, Bukowski and Baudelaire to his contemporaries in the slamming poetic culture fracas of today. He imbues the everyday sights and sounds of the city with a dignifying appreciation of their cultural significance, as when he says “graffiti is a language that emanates from the belly of the un-empowered, serving simultaneously as wailing wall & publishing house of the dissident neglected.”

As the most surreal of the loose cadre of writers known as the Unbearables, plantenga has been aligned with the push toward more earthy reality in the depiction of the insanity of the modern world, and in this volume he has crystallized a year’s worth of closely watched madness into a smooth elemental piece of poetic journalism.


On Writing with Duende

by Gerry LaFemina

The question becomes, in the end, why should I care about your subject matter? Think about it: why should anybody care about the subject matter of your poems? This isn’t meant to be harsh—just a reality check. If your poem is solely about content, solely about things you’ve already known and thought, what insight does it offer someone who doesn’t know you? You’ve asked the reader to spend time with your poem, you owe him or her something for the effort.  The question, therefore, becomes twofold: how much time have you spent with your poem?  How have you rewarded the reader for giving his/her time to your work?

Federico Garcia Lorca used the term duende from the Spanish “duen de casa, ‘master of the house,’” and by that he meant something akin to soul. I think of it as the master of the house that is us, the unconscious, the transcendental. Maurer in his introduction to In Search of Duende says Lorca’s vision of duende had four elements: “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” Not all art has it, but the most resonant work should have duende, something that makes it compelling, something that makes it “deep,” as Lorca puts it.

But what makes a poem compelling? I think it goes back to the notion of writing to discover something deep within us; I’m not talking about emotionally deep necessarily, but something found when we refuse to stick to the surface level of subject matter or conscious notions of what we’re writing “about.” The more we allow ourselves to discover what’s beneath our poem, what surprises us, what is new for us, the more likely we are to explore a moment in which we bring duende into the poem.  We find it in the writing of a poem when we don’t know what we want to say, but through the work, through using the poem as a way of thinking, we clarify and refine a new thought. That’s when we are making something (as opposed to transposing our thoughts into lines). This is a kind of magic or alchemy—when words in lines become more than just words in lines, but shape a new thought. As William Stafford put it, a “writer isn’t so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is he does not draw on a reservoir; instead he engages in an activity that brings him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays…” It is in this manufacturing of a new idea that we go beyond ourselves.

As Longinus said, “In literature … we look for something transcending the human.” Easier said than done. One might say this transcendence stems from the intersection of vision, craft, and process that allows us to “go deep” as it were; Horace says, “It is not enough for poems to have beauty; if they are to carry the audience they must have charm as well …. If you want to move me to tears you must feel grief yourself.” Poems can function as a charm in this sense: “An action or formula thought to have magical power.” (American Heritage Dictionary). They can move a reader to tears, but only if, in the writing, the poet felt grief.

That’s all well and good, but how do we write with duende?  “[T]he duende is force not a labour, a struggle not a thought …. it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning it’s in the veins” says Lorca. Cryptic enough, I know, but I think when we find a poem we’re writing is too easy, when it skips on the surface of our thinking, when we are more concerned (the way the new formalists were) with meter and rhyme (with the poem’s surface, as it were), we are removed from the duende. The duende isn’t in what we write about (or don’t write about) but about why we write or avoid certain topics. “[E]very artist called Nietzsche or Cézanne, every step he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende, not with an angel, as is often said, nor with his Muse.” Duende comes from within, Lorca claims, not from outside the self.

Still, we see it reflected in the world outside of us. Our imagery, how we engage the world and put it into language is a way of acknowledging that struggle. More, perhaps it’s a way of acknowledging the struggle we have of being human–to be singular and communal, to be temporary and transcendental. Craft, by the way, helps us articulate and shape that with which we struggle, giving it a form that allows it to be shared. That’s the importance of poetry. Lorca claims that the duende comes from the acknowledgment of death, but perhaps it’s not a literal death, but the death of the ego, the self, the fear of being lost/consumed by society. The poet, the singer, the artist says “I’m here” but being here is only important insofar as there’s something necessary for us to hear.  Something’s at stake, the self, and the reader recognizes that gamble. This is the importance of craft, of expression. One can have duende—raw and screaming—without artistry or artistry without duende, but neither is satisfying. “[T]he duende loves the edge, the wounds, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.”

We have all heard guitarists who are technically adept but have no soul. Lorca would say they have no duende. Talking about Andalusian songs, he writes “[T]he transcendence of deep song, and how rightly our people called it ‘deep.’ … It comes from remote races and crosses threw graveyard of the years and the fronds of parched winds. It comes from the first sob and the first kiss.” The depth is the stuff below the initial draft, below our “subject matter,” below the story we want to tell, the emotion we want to express. It is the reason we want to express it, someplace we often don’t go. Adrienne Rich says, “The unconscious wants truth … The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious trying to struggle with that desire. The complexity and fecundity of poetry comes from the same struggle.” Duende is perhaps a force of truth, even the truths we withhold from ourselves.

I remember Marie Howe once saying to a group of my students something to the effect that the mind won’t allow us to tackle subject matter we’re not ready to handle, and she may be right. But that doesn’t mean we choose to look at it: when we consider the poetries of glibness and irony, of anecdote and post-modern fragmentation that are popular today, we see a chronic avoidance of depth, of the darkness, of duende.

Still, though, we talk about it, and bewail its absence on the literary landscape. For those of us who want more from the poems we read and the poems we write, we might wonder if there are surefire ways to make duende happen? Rich says this: “If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite.” By starting here, we “kill” the reality of experience and in this death allow for the imagination to find truths devoid of biographical facts.

What leads this quest for truth? n his book Leaping Poetry, which explores non English poetry and celebrates much of it for its duende, Robert Bly would say that the associative leap will help us create linguist experiences (poems) that generate emotions, and these emotions are “true” for reader and writer. He says, “To write well, you must ‘become like little children.’ Blake discussing ‘experience,’ declared that to be afraid of a leap into the unconscious is actually to be in a state of ‘experience.’ (We are all experienced in that fear.) The state of ‘experience’ is characterized by blocked love-energy, boredom, envy, and joylessness.” One might characterize it as the wound where we might find the duende.

If we think of the unconscious as one of those deep sea trenches in the Pacific, duende is the lava pouring out between the tectonic plates. We rarely see it, its easy to ignore, but it’s the source of enough heat and light to help species of shrimp and fish to evolve.

Bly believes that a “poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” An attentive reader feels that psychic connection between object and idea/emotion. As Dickinson has been quoted as saying: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” She is talking about duende. We want a poem that makes us feel.

There is no formula for generating duende; if there were, it would be commonplace. That said, by writing associatively, by allowing our imagination (that unconscious associator) to lead the poem away from conscious facts and into the realm of truths, we begin to get close. We should be more concerned with the experience we’re making via the writing of the poem than some experience we’re trying to transpose. Beneath that urge to tell our stories is something more, something deeper. By not flinching from the hurtful and frightening but swimming toward it (the way undersea explorers to dive toward the lava flow) do we begin to face the possible sources of duende.


Book Review: THE GOOD DIVIDE by Kali Vanbaale

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

Reviewed by Victoria Albacete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

by M.J. Fièvre
Beating Windward Press, 2014

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: RECEIPT by Karen Leona Anderson

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

Reviewed by Shelby Vane 

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

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

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

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

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

If not, start over.

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

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

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

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


The Delicacy of the Image

by Gerry LaFemina 

Much has been said about the importance of the image to the poem. Images function as touchstones in poetry, they help create the landscape of the poem, provide a means by which the reader imagines the world and context of the poem’s thinking. They are the things that embody ideas, as it were, but they are also the things that shape the ideas for the reader. It’s no wonder that two of the twentieth century’s most important schools of poetry included the word image (Imagism and the Deep Image movement) or that Aristotle thought of metaphor as the most important skill a poet could have: metaphor allows image to stand in for an idea. As Stephen Dobyns puts it “the image half of the metaphor has the greatest possibility of touching the reader” (and thus work symbolically). A poem, in the end, is a formal assemblage of words—of sounds and meanings and images—and as such, the image cannot be isolated but has to be considered, too, as part of a whole. The overall effect of a poem, then, is the power of the images to bring about some understanding via the pleasures of language; one of our jobs as poets is to maximize both the pleasures and the effect for the reader.

Although many of the decisions we make in composing a poem may be unconscious, they are never arbitrary; and later in our process, as we edit poems, we are deliberately making choices to improve not only how we say what we’re saying but also clarifying for ourselves what we’re saying. We are strengthening the metaphorical relationship between images and ideas. Jane Bennett in Vibrant Manner talks about “the vitality of the material that constitute” an assemblage and mentions the Chinese notion of shi, which helps to

…illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that … results from the very disposition of things. Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or élan inherent to the specific arrangement of things.

There we have it again: Best words. Best order. As Mary Kinzie puts it in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry: “When metaphor is used well, the vehicle is seldom flat or single-valued; the images belonging to it have physical qualities that suggest a tenor of feeling or idea with more than one component.”

What does it mean to assemble our images? What does it mean to use a metaphor well?

It helps to remember the delicacy of our material. Because we work in words and not gauzy materials, we may think any word might do, and that if a noun alone doesn’t do the work, a modifier can add clarity. The computer allows us to move words easily, to see them in different places and different combinations so rapidly that we may forget the material power of language as we first experienced it when we fell in love with poetry, with the possibilities of words. Yes, our material is flexible and malleable and can perform many different functions, but we also have array of words that mean similar things for a reason. Language has the potential for amazing precision. As Carver notes, “It’s possible…to write about commonplace things and objects and using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—chair, a window-curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling, power.” He goes on to quote an Isaac Babel story in which we’re reminded that “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.”

Such use of precision is an example of delicacy as established by the fifth definition of the word on “extreme sensitivity; precision of action or operation; minute accuracy.” The image, and how we present it, requires delicacy. In talking about Whitman, James Wright (that wily, deep imagist!) praised the poet’s “delicacy of music, of diction, and of form” and then offered this caveat: “The word ‘delicacy’ can do without formally rhetorical definitions; but I mean it to suggest powers of restraint, clarity, and wholeness.” The imagistic powers of words are limited or enhanced, Wright reminds us, by how we use them; that’s why it helps to be wary of adjectives and adverbs.

That said, I do think we need to consider the “formally rhetorical definitions” of delicacy here, because I think there’s much to be considered by the poet when thinking of the poetic image as a delicacy. For instance,’s first definition of the word I’ve already touched upon, and that is a “fineness of texture, quality, etc.; softness; daintiness.” Language, when used well, is delicate.  It may be simultaneously harsh, loud, and durable, but we should always consider the fineness of each word, too.

The second definition of the word is also important to keep in mind. This definition is more akin to what many of us think when we think of delicacies (particularly from delicatessens): “something delightful or pleasing, especially a choice food considered with regard to its rarity, costliness, or the like.” Remember, images spark the imagination, and because we associate this word with taste, delicacy reminds us that images are embodied in language that engages any of the five senses. By “delightful” I mean something different than pretty, but rather they must engage the senses in ways that are surprising, that literally are full of light in that they illuminate the thinking of the poem. When we encounter a poem such as “Piñata” by Christine Garren, we understand how images delight in this way:

Brief yet amaranthine,
what’s left is this
wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches where we went, those programs
left. And now, next door, the neighbor’s daughter
has a party every August
as her mother did. This year the strung-up animal is a donkey
being beaten
in the elms.

The opening line is abstracted and yet relates to a piñata. Then the metaphor surfaces: this is about a divorce/break up even though those words are never mentioned. Instead, the images tell us this:

… torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches we went, those programs…

What we see though, too, is not just the second definition of delicacy in play, but also the fifth in the way line breaks shape individual lines to make meaning so that implicitly “the churches” have been shoved “into a landfill,” representing the failure of a sacred trust.

This is all followed by the actual piñata, this one of a donkey, which is a deliberate choice (Does the speaker feel like an ass for believing in her marriage? Does she feel like a beast of burden?). And of course the speaker feels “strung-up” and “beaten.” Through their delicacy, the images do the work of illuminating the feelings of the speaker and allowing the reader to experience that illumination.

The crafting of this poem, though, also represents another definition of the images’ delicacy;’s third definition calls this “the quality of being easily broken or damaged; fragility.” In its only unique definition of the word, the American Heritage Dictionary notes “Fineness of appearance, construction, or execution; elegance” as a definition for delicacy (AHD’s fourth definition correlates with’s third). Both of these definitions are related, particularly when discussing poetry. It’s been said that a poem can’t be paraphrased. The way the images are structured in the lines as they are suggest any other reworking of the poem would damage its capacity of maximum effectiveness for the reader. Line three is powerful because we are set up for an actual piñata and thus “wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries” shocks us. What “torn valves and surgeries”? These images announce the metaphor, their delicate placement adds surprise and intrigue to the poem.

Definition four of delicacy is also an important aspect to how we think of the image’s function in a poem. “[T]he quality of requiring or involving great care or tact” is an important role. Metaphors must be precise; they must be apt. To go back to Dobyns “When someone accuses a poem of being vague, this often means that the object of a metaphor is unclear or that the relationship between object and image is imprecise. Vagueness is withheld information and usually no amount of thought will supply what is missing….” A poem’s images must—without being heavy-handed or too vague—carefully bring to light the relationship between object and idea.

In order to do this, then, the image and how it’s employed must be keen to the last definitions of delicacy, which are variants on the same theme: “fineness of perception or feeling; sensitiveness” and “fineness of feeling with regard to what is fitting, proper, etc.” The specific image allows us to perceive through its “fineness” a feeling, and this feeling is proper and fitting to what the poet is trying to express.

Poems themselves, in the end, are metaphors for experience, and as such they become experiences for both writer and reader. The images employed in the poem are delicate gears in the “machine made of words,” as Williams put it—the wrong gear, and the cogs don’t turn, or they do but at the wrong speed, or they wear out easily. It’s keeping in mind the sheer potential strength and weakness of the image in the assembled whole of the poem that makes us understand their delicacies, their strengths and weaknesses, their deliciousness.


Book Review: RADIO SILENCE by Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney

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

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

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

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

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

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

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