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

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie Harnett

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

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dance Review: REMAINDER NORTHSIDE by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: ALONE ON THE WALL by Alex Honnold

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

Reviewed by Mike Walker

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

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

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

What makes such a person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now Then

by Nola Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: GODDESS WEARS COWBOY BOOTS by Katherine Hoerth

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: IF YOU FIND YOURSELF by Brian Patrick Heston

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you won’t see God, but your voice

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


Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check the Wood Street Galleries website for information on the next four performances:


Book Review: DO NOT RISE by Beth Bachmann

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

everywhere        the narcissus    is narcotic   mother I am…

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

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

Fingers          in the mouth make mud

into a poultice to warn         the dead….

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

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


Book Review: MORE MONEY THAN GOD by Richard Michelson

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: WHITE VESPA by Kevin Oderman

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

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: CRYSTAL EATERS by Shane Jones

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

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cooking for One, Part 2

by Nola Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: THE STUNTMAN by Brian Laidlaw

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: VESSEL by Parneshia Jones

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance Review: LIGHTLAB 9 at The Space Upstairs

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: DANDARIANS by Lee Ann Roripaugh

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

Reviewed by Priscilla Atkins

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

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

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

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


57th High School Class Reunion

by Nola Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had Alice forgotten that horrible wheelbarrow spelling incident?

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

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

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


Book Review: THE KINGDOM AND AFTER by Megan Fernandes

 photo 65800822-251c-4470-97a1-3540ea39b78e_zpsffikbmt6.jpg The Kingdom and After
Poems by Megan Fernandes
Tightrope Books, 2015

Reviewed by Alyse Richmond

Former Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship awardee, Megan Fernandes,is an American-Canadian poet and author of the full-length poetry collection, The Kingdom and After (Tightrope Books, 2015). She serves as poetry editor of the anthology Strangers in Paris and is the author of two chapbooks of poetry: Organ Speech and Some Citrus Makes Me Blue. The Kingdom and After greets us with a mysterious and worldly look inside Fernandes’ personal timeline, from family history to strange heartaches borne out of maturation. Her characters are sentimental, melancholic at times, and ask us to slow down, to absorb into shades of yellow and green, and to befriend unsolicited ghosts.

Often unnerving, Fernandes’ devotion to recounting her relationships is hypnotic. She employs couplets and lone lines with finesse, allowing the reader to carefully envision the rooms she enters, the landscapes she gazes upon, each stanza thriving in its own space, as in “Dig”:

…Inside, spiral of Alpine skies
dissolving into platinum wires,

binding screws and toffee cake teeth, rampant
suds of incandescent heat weave into tub dreams…

Her language is lyrical on the page and when read aloud, yet it maintains a sort of methodical sadness, an old clock that still ticks but somehow loses time—again, as in “Dig”:

…One day,

you will have a wife, and
I will have a daughter and

we won’t meet like this again.

Divided into three sections, The Kingdom and After is thick with a sense of place, whether it’s India, Africa, or nonspecific locations such as “the forest” or “the sea.” Each scene is vividly drawn and filled with animals and seasons, while her telling, unyieldingly honest language acts as a magnet. It pulls hands to our chests over and over again without allotting time to flounder in sorrow. Fernandes instructs us to move forward, keep connecting the dots in her life in poems like “The Baby”:

…when you finally said
you were a wreck and no,

do not touch me and left…

…I need to tell you
that sometimes,

in half-light,
I think about it.

This fresh take on nostalgia never lingers too long, and is balanced with “feel-good” moments, as in “Lung, Cheek, Air,” where she provides a morbid, but welcomed, sort of comic relief:

the vessel began to dive and the two grown men

on either side began to lose their shit,
I thought, “Great. I am going to die between

these two idiots, going to Canada no less,”…

Rather than indulging in the never-ending “whys” of yesterday, Fernandes dives into a world of free association, almost forcing answers to surface. In reading her title poem, “The Kingdom and After,” one can’t help but attempt to pull lines apart from one another like necklace chains balled up in a jewelry box:

…God, we are so poor.
I am so poor that any loud night is decadence.

Any boy on any staircase is Hollywood.

Her tone and use of the second person point of view are both confessional and accusatory, telling us what she feels we need to know in order to understand, to empathize. Fernandes wants her readers to form opinions about her characters, to judge them, in a way. And while blatant omission in poems like “Queens” can be quite alarming, it is implemented thoughtfully, generating flashbulb images and jarring juxtapositions:

…The swamp air is peached and
can be spooned, the animals are calm and low to the dust…


…I know what you make little boys do.

I know you are queens and not gods.

Fernandes engages us in her narratives unapologetically and sometimes without permission, but we walk away unable to keep from mulling over her words, her reasons for wanting us to see the things she has seen. Her reflective voice is present from beginning to end, though she is skilled at camouflaging it with blunt dialogue and lines that seem to trail off into thin air; making The Kingdom and After read as a box of old letters to home, fully immersing us in her unparalleled verse, displayed in “Rising”:

…I was in the center feeding the world
and the other ghosts were making themselves
bodies in the grass, rising
like puppets to come find me.

She closes The Kingdom and After in a beautifully abrupt manner— the way birds take off when startled—with “Jules et Jim, 2005”:

…She called you

chubby once, he had said and I hated you,
but you were dead and how could I, with you

all butchered up, underground in White Plains?

It is impossible for us, as readers, to dismiss the power behind Megan Fernandes’ stories that are strung together like a well-loved sweater— soft, ever thinning, and peppered with tiny holes that enable us to experience the chills of the not-so-sunny days gone by.


Book Review: LOVE MAPS by Eliza Factor

 photo 02a78057-fe1e-48a8-bad3-aabe022bb389_zps7cmcgonp.jpg Love Maps
by Eliza Factor
Akashic Books, 2015

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bingler

Love Maps, published in May by Akashic Books, is Eliza Factor’s second novel. Her first novel, The Mercury Fountain—about a utopian society that mines mercury in order to reap its “magical” benefits—was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice in 2012. Factor considers The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps as the first and third novels, respectively, in a series of three. Although both novels are thematically different—Love Maps, unlike The Mercury Fountain, does not contain any elements of magical realism—they exist in the same world, feature many of the same locations, and have many overlapping characters. Love Maps focuses on a more realistic (albeit often bizarre) portrayal of life: it is about dysfunctional relationships—whether they are romantic, platonic, or familial—and the consequences of unusual or unintended expressions of love.

Love Maps begins in Connecticut in 1997. Sarah Marker, the protagonist, receives a letter from her long-absent husband Philip, informing her that he will be visiting her after nearly eight years. During his absence, Sarah gave birth to a son, Max, of whom Philip knows nothing about. Suddenly, it’s 1981, and Sarah is a thirty-one year old painter living in New York City. She wakes up to a telephone call from her godmother, Tori, informing her that Tori’s husband, Conningsby, has died. And that is how Sarah meets Philip for the first time, at a funeral parlor where they are expected to pick up Conningsby’s ashes. The novel juxtaposes Sarah’s past with her present through chapters alternating in time between the 1980s and 1997, dominantly following her relationships with Philip and her sister, Maya.

The title of the novel comes from a series of paintings Sarah creates, which documents her various romantic relationships throughout time. They mimic a subway map and show different colored dots for locations of breakups and hookups. Factor has described Love Maps as being fueled by the “friction between pride and desire.” This statement is most obviously demonstrated by Sarah in 1997, for it is this friction that causes her to drink and thoroughly examine her past relationship(s), and decide whether or not she should forgive Philip for leaving her. She desires Philip because he is “decent,” but she is too proud to admit this because of how he has treated her (which was the result of how Maya treated him). A subtler version of friction can be seen through the novel’s, or Sarah’s, understanding of time: the 1997 chapters are in the past tense, and the 1980s chapters are in the present tense. This move warps our linear expectation of time, and shows that the past feels like the present to Sarah, and vice versa.

Despite Sarah’s role as the novel’s protagonist, her sister Maya overshadows her throughout the story. Maya is consistently selfish, manipulative, and violent; she ruins Philip’s life and destroys his relationship with Sarah. Her singing career is mildly successful; she makes her fortune by selling real estate. But it is her cruelty and failure that make her an interesting character, combined with the fact that Maya, a middle-aged woman, has never been able to properly imitate her idol, Rita Hayworth, let alone mimic her career arc. Sarah lacks agency as a character, and it is this that makes her less interesting; she responds passively to Maya’s continuous violence towards her and Philip, and she cannot effectively communicate with either of them or reveal to Philip that they have a child. But it is this that makes the novel more “realistic,” for these characters are flawed and confused—they’re not witty, and they often act like they’re still in their twenties. Despite my frustration with the qualities that made them more realistic, the novel was entertaining and suspenseful—mainly because of Maya’s antics—and the drama moved the story forward and kept me reading.

Factor intends to continue her series with the novel that connects The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps, which will focus on Sarah’s parents and their life in the circus during WWII. Sarah’s parents were intriguing characters in Love Maps, but we learned little about them other than that they were adventurous, secretive, and died in a plane crash. It seems that Factor has left us the best for last: her third novel promises to be much more ambitious, and even more entertaining than her first two novels—after all, she has been mulling over its contents for more than twenty years.


Book Review: ALL NIGHT IN THE NEW COUNTRY by Miriam Bird Greenberg

 photo 492e4d0d-12ce-4aa4-ba83-925acd7a39fb_zpsubqabdms.jpg All night in the new country
by Miriam Bird Greenberg
Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

What do we become when stripped to our barest selves? By delivering us into an apocalypse laden with memory of the world that came before, Miriam Bird Greenberg’s All night in the new country goes a long way toward answering that question. A catalogue of grisly images and bittersweet hope, these poems inhabit a new era that illustrates what could happen were society reclaimed by nature and ruled by caution, panic, fear, and desire – the most basic animal sensibilities.

Greenberg’s strength in this chapbook is her ability to craft sensual images in very few words. Her sweetheart steams “a pot of wild mustard flowers / by the roadside, rain sizzling on the lid.” Ghosts patrol “eagle-eyed / for half-smoked cigarettes.” Each detail adds a perfect note to the nightmarish lullaby she sings, her voice threadbare from “twine-bound tobacco that throat-parched and ember- / spat well enough to do anyone in.”

Among these images, hope and despair are juxtaposed to create a space wherein life is always at its most dire. This is a landscape where


go out to the woods (no – are sent) with shovels.
Fallen fruit sweetening the air, pungent
where saplings will sprout from the stones
in spring; but the pits they are digging
are meant       for a different thing.

More than just a play of birth against death, these lines employ an ominous correction and a dramatic pause to ramp up Greenberg’s creepy atmosphere. Her poems are delicate balances, the entrance of a violin’s soothing moan just before the worst scene in a horror movie. “Remember” introduces a boy who dies in a well; his friends “boil tea from melted snow” to deal with the lack of clean water. Young girls in “Knowing” wear necklaces of feathers “speckled like the guileless / faces of dice loosed / on dim floorboards just before / loss.” A few lines later, the dice become freshly-pulled teeth in a grotesque divination. In this new country, sweet comes always with grit, and smiles with blood.

Yet, for all its misfortune, there is real love here. A clever break ends the first poem’s opening line with a caring address to the reader: “Before the world went to hell my sweetheart…” Despite searchlights and militias, war and devastation, Greenberg’s new world retains compassion, even faith. She suggests

There are many ways to talk about loss;
it is like a body walking next to you in the night, ghost
of the lost one keeping you
company, or only your own grief stumbling
beside you in the darkness.

Later, a girl tells the speaker, “They didn’t say it would be / like this… empty as a smile.” Somehow, we are as comforted by our own melancholy as we are by strangers suffering the same calamities as us. If truly “there are ways to make violence / into an offering,” Greenberg accomplishes that transformation in these poems which remind us of the community we are driven to make even in the most dangerous and desperate of times. It is that natural urge to come together and go forth that saves the people of Greenberg’s new country, that sensibility which steels them to believe in the face of continued struggle:

The lavender fields where we first arrived
were forever symbolic to us, the scent
not somnolent but a promise
of our new future.

“Prayer For Marilyn Monroe”: brief discussion and translation

by John Samuel Tieman

A friend and student of Thomas Merton, Ernesto Cardenal is a Catholic priest in Nicaragua.  A proponent of Liberation Theology, Cardenal served as Minister Of Culture in the Sandinista government. The story goes that Rev. Cardenal wrote this poem right after reading, in an article in Time, of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

For my part, I lived in Mexico City during the 1980s. When I moved home, to St. Louis, I did this translation as a tribute to Cardenal and to Liberation Theology.

Among other considerations, in the broadest sense there is always the attempt, in all translations, to attend to the poetics of the craft, as well as the replication of the original vocabulary. In this case, there is one other consideration, one I feel is perhaps the most important. I hope my translation honors the holiness of this prayer. In our secular world, it is very easy to simply forget, frankly, that Father Cardenal offers a prayer. A prayer. A prayer in which he sees a woman exploited by capitalism in this life, and liberated by God’s love in the next. A prayer in which the poet acts as both priest to this woman and prophet to the rest of us, who closes his poem with our “Amen.”

(In 1993, this translation appeared in River Styx. In 1995, it was published in The Best Of River Styx.)

Prayer For Marilyn Monroe

by Ernesto Cardenal
trans. John Samuel Tieman

accept this girl known over the world by the name of
          Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name, the name of the orphan
          raped at age nine
and the name of the shopgirl who first tried
          suicide at sixteen)
and who now presents herself before You without her makeup
without her press agent
without photographs and without signing autographs
alone as an astronaut facing the dark night of deep space

While still a girl, she dreamed she was nude in a church
          (according to copy filed by Time)
before a prostrate multitude with their heads on the ground
and she had to tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the heads.
You know our dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, house, den, all are the security of the maternal womb
but also something more…
The heads are the admirers, clearly
(the mass of heads in the darkness beneath the beam of light).
But the temple is not the studio of 20th Century Fox.
The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands with His whip in His hand
driving out the money changers of 20th Century Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

in this world contaminated by sin and radioactivity
You do not only blame a shopgirl alone
who like any shopgirl dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was reality (Technicolor reality).
She could not but act according to the script we gave her
–the story of our life–the script was absurd.
Forgive her Lord and forgive all of us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production in which we all had a hand.
She hungered for love and we offer her tranquilizers.
For the sin of not being a saint
                                                       we recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember her growing hatred of the camera
and the hatred of make-up – she insisted on make-up for each scene –
and how her terror grew
and how her tardiness grew.

Like any shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was unreal as a dream a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
that when the eyes were opened
were uncovered by the spotlight
                                                       then the spotlight was turned off!
and the crew struck the two room walls (it was a set)
while the Director walked off with the script
          this scene now a take.
Or like a voyage of a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception in the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
          viewed from some slum tenement.
The movie ended without the final kiss.
They found her dead in bed, hand on the phone.
And the detectives never discovered who she was going to call.
It was
like someone who dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and hears a tape saying:  WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who is wounded by gangsters
who stretches out her hand for a disconnected phone.

whoever it is she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one at all
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles Directory)
          You answer that call.


 photo 7fa87b73-000e-4a44-a045-bb3360a3d3e2_zpsttblahhi.jpg
The Brentwood Anthology
Poems by members of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange
edited by Judith R. Robinson and Michael Wurster
LUMMOX Press, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Since re-locating from Boston to Pittsburgh in 2009, I’ve noticed a commonality among Pittsburghers: they like creating against a rough background. They like growing art out of the soot, finding alternative beauty and ways of expression—damp poems written in the dark corners of bars, but altogether valuable, thoughtful, and hauntingly concise.

When the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange was founded in 1974 by Dieter Weslowski, Lloyd Johnson, Vic Coccimiglio, J.W. Jansen, and Michael Wurster I wouldn’t be born for another 17 years. I wouldn’t step foot on Pittsburgh soil for another 18 after that. I wouldn’t meet one of the Exchange ’s poets who would reach national recognition, Joy Katz, until she became my professor and mentor in 2013. What I’m saying is this: the work that exists in this 100 plus page anthology stretches far beyond what I’ve read and learned and experienced. There is a history that comes across as past and current poetry Exchange members contribute their work—from Joan Bauer to Stephen Pusateri. Together in this collection, we are witness to where the Exchange started and where it’s going.

The Exchange was originally founded to provide community services such as readings, workshops, and a network of information to those outside the university loop. This anthology, in fact, is the first time poetry associated with the Exchange has been published in a single book. About the anthology Wurster, the lone co-founder still involved with the organization, says “It represents the richness of poetry, literature and the arts in Pittsburgh in general, but it also represents, if I may say so, the poetic brilliance of these 22 poets.” While the editors claim there are no overarching themes, I think the most telling, consistent theme is a Pittsburgh mentality, obvious in each poem—the I can create art from dark spaces. I can find worth in the mundane, the deteriorated, the forgotten. Joan Bauer hints at this towards the end of her poem “Duckweed”—

…I’m learning
what grows on backwater ponds & streams.
It’s worth half-wrecking the tires,
driving down this gravel road to find
the smallest flowers in the world.

Similarly, Jolanta Konewka Minor’s “River” discusses the pollution of natural spaces, specifically a river flowing not with rocks and driftwood but disposed appliances and bottles. Yet, there is hope in these discarded places as she ends, “the water flows—still / still beautiful / determined / though it cannot / sustain life / at this / very moment…

Stylistically, these poems are concise, ominous, subtle, and conscious of the simple image bumping up against life’s bigger questions. I read and I’m left, often in the last stanza, by a moment or insight so powerful the poem must end. For example, in Michael Albright’s “In Name Of” the speaker paces the halls at Mass General. The day before he lets “her go” and walks into the chapel, reading the guestbook entries, of which the poem ends on—

And then, in the next box,
a blinking yellow light,
Help me,
with the initials written in,
then inked completely out.

One of my favorite poems in the anthology is Sheila Kelly’s “The Accident.” Fast-paced and microscopic, we rush with the speaker as she hits a woman with her Honda. There is an attention to color, to the musicality of language, the circular panic the mind travels in terrible moments:

in white August sun—my Honda, my blouse,
her headscarf – white, white, white—and
turning left I hit her. And I jumped from
the car, it went something like the song
and the singing—bluesy, bruising—bodies
in amber…

While I pull quotes from Bauer, Konewka, Albright, and Kelly, these are only a few of the talented poets compiled into this anthology. All poets and poems in this collection not only represent a Pittsburgh aesthetic, but a community of artists who have supported and created together for years before my existence, and hopefully for years after.


Dance Review: DANCE AFRICA PITTSBURGH at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Friday evening kicked off a weekend of events that honored African music and dance, and African diaspora. Presented by The Legacy Arts Project and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Dance Africa returned to Pittsburgh for its fourth year.

Founder of Dance Africa, Dr. “Baba” Chuck Davis, started the show with a tribute to the “elders” in the audience. Davis asked those over 55 to stand, as a way to honor the life experience and knowledge they possess.

At that moment, a single drumbeat from behind the curtain began the official performance. Dancers, musicians and community members proceeded down the aisle and onto the stage singing traditional songs, sometimes in a call-and-response fashion with the audience.

With a theme of “healing,” there was a therapeutic feel from the beginning. As the group processed off stage, local dancer, Anthony Williams, walked on. A list of names was read as Williams moved, acknowledging prominent blacks who have kept African art and culture alive in this country. Williams used slow, deliberate movements that gave him a regal look, leaping and turning with clarity and grace.

Act One featured the Balafon West African Dance Ensemble of Pittsburgh and Washington, DC (including their youth group), and Legacy Arts of Pittsburgh. “Foko” opened the show with ten kids playing infectious and intricate rhythms on the djembe drums lining the stage. Their music and intermittent movement had passion and precision.

The second piece, “OYA,” was dedicated to the women of African diaspora. Six women joined the youth in movement alternating between slow undulations through the spine and arms to fast-paced and rhythmic foot patterns. Similarly, “The Forest” celebrated the coming of age for women, and utilized both children and adults. The dancers’ energy was contagious; the audience cheered and clapped throughout.

The first half concluded with an interlude from the drummers that led into a high-energy section of dance. The movement began with cartwheels and somersaults from two young girls, and ended with ten women performing individual solos that highlighted their skills. Most impressive was the stamina and athleticism required to get through the section, and the performers’ ability to maintain their energy with absolute joy.

Act Two featured the Kulu Mele Dance and Drum ensemble from Philadelphia. “Yemaya,” their first work, was based on the goddess of the living ocean who is said to cure infertility in women. The performers wore dresses of blue and white to mimic the waves of the ocean. As it is at sea, there wasn’t a true moment of stillness in the piece. The movement was circular and hypnotic, and the dancers rippled across the stage as if entranced by the power of the goddess.

“Ogun” was inspired by the divine warrior of the same name who is believed to make the planet a better place. The trio of men were clad in bright green, and carried swords in a show of tenacity. Each of the dancers maintained a fluidity in their strength, power and dexterity.

The show crescendoed into a series of shorter works. “N’gri” featured three women in complex rhythms and exciting jumps inspired by a gazelle. “Soboninkun” was a short solo piece with the dancer masked and costumed as an antelope. The dance itself is traditionally performed following a harvest.

“Manjani” is a dance to traditionally “test the skills of the dancers” and was performed by three women who exhibited community more than competition. Another trio, “Hip-Hop to African Rhythms,” fused old and new styles. The men took turns showing off their best moves, competing in good humor with big jumps and gymnastic handstands.

The last piece, “Fula Fare,” brought the men and women together in a dynamic group section that celebrated the Fula people of Guinea. The work demonstrated the spirited nature of African dance, a community feeling sometimes lacking in modern day arts.

Erin Perry, Executive Director of Dance Africa, said in her program note, “We can all attest to the necessity for more healing energy worldwide…Such is the work that we are called to do, to utilize our gifts and share them for the betterment of humanity.” The unique program worked to uplift us and remind us of our oneness.


Book Review: PROXY by R. Erica Doyle

 photo ec8f7e8d-c0fa-45b9-819b-be0317652c86_zpskhwdqiwy.jpg proxy
Poems by R. Erica Doyle
Belladonna, 2013

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

For a while now, we’ve been a society fascinated by the use of science as a lens to scrutinize human emotion. The practice dates as far back as The Twilight Zone, but more recently has been taken up by writers like Margaret Atwood and Brenda Shaughnessy. The Nolan brothers’ film Interstellar received critical acclaim in 2014 for its use of theoretical physics as a means of depicting human relationships. Even Broadway threw its hat in the ring with Brian Yorkey’s If/Then telling two tales of one woman’s life, each version a series of choices leading to alternate possibilities and realities.

Erica Doyle’s proxy exists in the realm of these other projects, namely by using a mathematical sensibility to reflect on failed relationships, queer love, and race relations, while bringing a fresh perspective—something aggressive, erotic, precise, and distinctly textual. Through wordplay and an intense poetic gaze, Doyle delves into the extremities of human behavior to render a world that is at once intoxicating and off-putting. “You hope to perform an autopsy,” she writes, and excavate she does. Readers are bound to recognize lust, desperation, discomfort—and to be surprised by the writing at every turn.

Doyle borrows her epigraph from David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus: “Under the mathematician’s hands, the world contracts, / but it becomes more lucid.” The collection is crafted decisively with this concept in mind. Each page offers another contracted, solid, untitled prose block, but each poem—each individual word—has the potential to explode into a thousand various meanings. The section titles (prologue, palimpsest, proxy, phasedown, and petroglyph) are our first cue. Each signifies a person or object at least one layer removed from immediacy, a choice that situates readers at a distance from the work. Doyle’s approach puts us all in the role of scientist, examiner, observer. And yet this rigid, logical tactic creates a verbal tension that allows for some of the most beautiful lyrical leaps I’ve read in poetry lately. For instance, in “palimpsest”: “On the sonogram, your ovaries like asteroids against the tulips of your fallopian tubes.”

Fully depicting the rigor and beauty of proxy would be a futile attempt in such a small space—these condensed poems beg to be read repeatedly, more voraciously and deeply each time. What I love most about Doyle’s collection is its stark honesty. Our speaker, who enters with the book with such bravado, admits later, “When you thought you swallowed, you were consumed.”  One poem finds her in the bathroom:

Everything she’s given you has expired. The lotion
Provence. The tangerine bath gel. Empty. Cleaning to see
this gleam. Leave enough filth to make a difference. On a
ledge, cells and cells of hunger.

But these poems, even in their most powerless, desperate moments, are not shy. “Blistered gums and wet cunts, mustard colored dream eyes” are what our speaker longs for. This is where the collection separates from “love is the fourth dimension” feel-good themes like that of Interstellar. Doyle demands that we account for every degree of human experience. Or, as Berlinski writes, “a critical point / lying between points marking . . . regular behavior.” In proxy, we are always at the critical point.

Having read this collection, one thing is clear: Doyle is a poet who cannot be missed. She takes risks and challenges her readers. Her eye is keen, her tongue sharp. She doesn’t hide from issues of race and sexuality. Her accomplishments are many, and she will surely continue creating visceral, meaningful worlds. In short, these poems need to be read.


Dance Preview: CHARETTE at PearlArts Studios

Previewed by Adrienne Totino

Many professional dancers studied their craft in a college or university setting where students are often expected to create their own work in choreography and composition classes. The environment is supportive and helpful, with feedback from professors and peers.

But as in all art forms, we improve with practice. Some choreographic skill is honed in those four years of study, but one’s craft is far from perfected at graduation. By then, the competitive world of professional dance can be overwhelming. Joining a company is an option for only an elite few; many end up making their own work, simply to have an opportunity to perform.

For Staycee Pearl, director of Staycee Pearl dance project, it is important that choreographers continue to receive feedback on their work. She says, “We all get stuck in our creative bubbles and we get other people stuck with us…we fall in love with our own processes.”

Pearl goes on to say that she normally receives constructive criticism before presenting a new piece, and that it can be equally helpful to have someone outside the dance genre offer their assessment.

After this year’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Pearl spoke with many artists who were craving commentary on the works-in-progress they had just presented. She says, “People were asking for it, people who don’t have the resources to get it.”

As a leader in the Pittsburgh dance network, Pearl thought she might be able to help.  Not by offering her own advice, but by holding an event that would allow dancers to showcase their choreography, giving them an opportunity to perform, but to also receive feedback from members of the arts community.

Mark Taylor immediately came to Pearl’s mind as someone to moderate the event. Taylor is the former director of the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and currently runs the Center for BodyMindMovement. He has had a relationship with Pearl since her early career, and she has always valued his opinions and advice.

In addition to Taylor’s longtime experience, Pearl notes his genuine quality. “He’s open-minded and gentle…he’s not going to tell you what to do, but he will give you things to think about.”

Taylor came up with the name of the event, charrette. He and Pearl have been using the  following definition for the word: a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.

Each event will follow the same basic structure. Taylor will begin by interviewing a choreographer, so the viewers might gain insight into their style and process. Then, the artist will present ten to fifteen minutes worth of material. To follow, 2 or 3 skilled professionals in varying genres will give their reactions to the work. Some of the professionals include Lenore Thomas, a printmaker and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Aaron Henderson, a videography also at Pitt (and former STREB dancer), and a few local dance makers.

After the initial feedback, Pearl hopes to have discussion between the choreographers and responders; the performers might ask questions and receive more direct feedback if they need or want it. The audience may also have a chance to comment. This is something Pearl is still considering.

On Thursday, July 16th, presenters include Anthony Williams, Moriah Ella Mason, Pearlann Porter, and the Slowdanger duo. For the Thursday, August 20th showing, we will see Darcinda Louise Shaffner, Shana Simmons, Jamie Murphy, Joan Wagner, Alexandra Bodnarchuk, and Ariel Stanton-Penkert with Marissa Guthrie. One of the choreographers will receive free studio time at PearlArts Studios to continue the development of their piece. They will then present their updated work at a later date.

Pearl cares deeply about the craft of movement, and explains that although choreographers often see their own creation thoroughly, it still might not translate to the audience. The “charrette” process will help to elevate the choreography representing Pittsburgh today.

Event Details:

Where: PearlArts Studios: 201 North Braddock Avenue, 6th Floor, in Point Breeze

When: July 16th and August 20th, 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30)

Cost: Suggested donation of $5, at the door

Book Review: FUGITIVE COLORS by Lisa Barr

 photo 9ded5c00-4ca5-4b5d-95a5-f4be0899ec1b_zps1ivs7cbv.jpg Fugitive Colors
by Lisa Barr
Arcade Publishing, 2014

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

Set in Europe on the cusp of World War II, Lisa Barr’s Fugitive Colors is the story of Julian Klein, a boy who breaks free from a culture and lifestyle not conducive to his art by moving across the Atlantic, from Chicago to Paris, to grow as an artist. There he falls in with a group of artists who serve as his teachers and his inspiration. There is the couple Adrienne and Rene, two talented artists, and also Felix, whose inferior skills become apparent as the group gets instruction from famed artists and begin to show their work in galleries and elsewhere. As Julian becomes embedded deeper into their social circle, dissentions within the group threaten to tear the friends apart—jealousies between old friends, new feelings of love and lust. The introduction of a new character, the beautiful and sensual model Charlotte, is the beginning of the end. It finally breaks the tenuous connections between the artists. Then comes the rise of Hitler, the fear of punishment for those in the art world, and the conversion of one of their own into an enemy of the art they create.

Barr’s knowledge of both art and history is present throughout the novel. Her four years of research for this book combined with her compelling characters (whom she calls composites of real artists, real art dealers, and real Nazis) make this book enjoyable for all, even those with little familiarity of the art world. This book will broaden any reader’s comprehension of such a fascinating group of people during the tragedy of Hitler’s tyranny.

Fugitive Colors spans the lifetime of the narrator Julian. As with many worthwhile books Julian does not at first appear to be the most interesting or even the most talented character. Deserving of being called most talented would be Rene, a fact that fuels Felix’s jealousy, although Julian’s art does hold promise. Julian is passive, allowing the other character’s dramas to take precedent over his own talent and feelings. In the end, though, it is arguable as to which of the main characters is most deserving of being recognized as the most dynamic character, which is a testament to Barr’s ability to craft dynamic people within her story.

The novel begins with a thief stealing a book from a library. This event opens up the novel with energy that never slackens. Never once does Barr allow the reader to believe the characters will be safe for even a moment. Tension is braided into each page; even during parts of the book where the character is not in immediate danger, Barr is setting up future complications. For example, upon Julian’s arrival in Paris, as he is meeting his future friends, seemingly small interactions between the characters tempt the reader with the possibility of a love triangle. Julian admires Charlotte and yearns to paint her, attention she returns with a subtle smile despite the presence of her boyfriend. Starting with this instance the book never slows down, from betrayals within the group to threats from others. When it seems as though the characters struggles have been pushed to their limits, loyalties change and the reader knows that no one is to be trusted.

The descriptions of the paintings that the characters create are one of the most compelling parts of the book. The first time Julian witnesses Rene and Felix paint is a whirlwind of color that captivates the reader in their passion for art:

Rene began to caress the wall with midnight blue pigment, lightly dragging his brush across the white plaster, creating an undulated effect. He added in light dabs of orange, and the texture changed completely… He swept from left to right, blending in various shades of yellow, green, and red into the blue. Each stroke, each poetic movement, was mesmerizing.

This loving way of writing about their art is kept up through the very last pages of the book when Julian’s art is viewed through the eyes of a character in particular need of inspiration as the story comes to a touching and hopeful conclusion.

Barr creates dynamic characters that the reader can love and hate while weaving together a complex plot. As Fugitive Colors educates the reader on art history, the book gives the reader a portrait of how far a character can be pushed while under duress, both physically and emotionally. In the end, Fugitive Colors is about resiliency in one’s passion for art as well as resiliency in friendship and love.



by Nola Garrett

     I first learned about treachery when my family moved the 3 miles from our small house and farm on U. S. # 19 to a sixteen room house in Mill Village the summer I turned eight. I don’t exactly remember reading that word, treachery, or hearing the word, treachery, used by my parents, but somehow I knew the word meant some kind of deep betrayal, theft and/or trickery by a blood relative or a spouse.

When we moved to Mill Village, I discovered that Mr. Rowe, who used to be the hired man for a widow, Mrs. Whitaker, who lived on a small farm on Camp Mystic Road, a mile or so from our small house, had moved alone to a cottage at the dead end of our Mill Village street. He had sided his new home with square, green shingles. Mr. Rowe kept busy with a few chickens, odd jobs for neighbors, and his garden so meticulous it reminded me of Mr. McGregor’s garden of Peter Rabbit fame. A few months later I overheard my parents saying that Mrs. Whitaker had moved in with Mr. Rowe, though they weren’t married. Seems that Mrs. Whitaker’s son arrived back home and had fired Mr. Rowe. The son then persuaded her sign over her farm to him with the promise that he’d take care of her for the rest of her life. After the deed was transferred, her son started to make plans to put her to the County Home. Just in the nick of time Mrs. Whitaker escaped, moved in with Mr. Rowe. My parents and the rest of our community seemed to approve of Mr. Rowe and Mrs. Whitaker’s living arrangements, and went on calling them Mr. Rowe and Mrs. Whitaker.

However, around the same time I accompanied my parents to a New Ireland Evangelical United Brethren Church council meeting and overheard their discussion and decision to deny a young married couple’s request for membership because both of them had been divorced.  Both my parents voted with the council’s majority. I was puzzled and almost outraged. If I had been a teenager, I’m sure I would have questioned their judgment, especially on a New Testament basis. What I took from those two approaches to marriage was that divorce was shameful, unforgivable; but somehow “living in sin” was acceptable if the couple was old.

It’s taken me decades to intellectually and emotionally sort through those treacheries.

So, recently when I read a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, I immediately downloaded his novel and read it straight through in a day, partly because the main characters were my age and partly because it began with 70 year old, widowed Addie Moore walking a block to her widower neighbor’s home to say to Louis Waters:

I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Frankly, sex was the least of their arrangement.  Foremost was their conversation. And her grandson. And her grandson’s dog. And baseball. A two night camping trip, complete with roasted marshmallows instructions. Mid-western town folk. Addie’s son. And, Kent Haruf’s clean prose, stripped down so far, he eschews quotation marks. Last Saturday, when I read Our Souls at Night, I felt as if I were eight years old reading easily and quickly for the pure joy of moving along through a story. Nothing else mattered, except for Addie and Louis, and treacheries.

Later after I finished reading, I took my bath, slept deeply, dreamlessly.  However, ever since I woke Sunday morning I’ve been thinking about that story. I’ve thought about why 40 years ago after my first divorce from an abuser that I so gladly left behind the stern United Brethren to join the grace-filled Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I am thankful for my education and my career as an English professor and now as a poet. And, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am that last June, Pennsylvania’s updated divorce laws kept my second husband from draining my savings and enabled me to keep living here in my downtown Pittsburgh condo. Though I do not share my bed, I do have long time women friends who love to write detailed emails and to talk sometimes hours on the telephone.