On Writing with Duende

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE GOOD DIVIDE by Kali Vanbaale

TheGoodDivide_Cover300 The Good Divide
by Kali Vanbaale
Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016
$15.00

Reviewed by Victoria Albacete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: A SKY THE COLOR OF CHAOS

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

by M.J. Fièvre
Beating Windward Press, 2014
$20.00

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: RECEIPT by Karen Leona Anderson

receipt-webedit-copy-copy Receipt
Poems by Karen Leona Anderson
Milkweed Editions, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by Shelby Vane 

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

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

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

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

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

If not, start over.

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

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

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

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


 

The Delicacy of the Image

by Gerry LaFemina 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: RADIO SILENCE by Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney

Schaefer_Whitneycw-250x386 Radio Silence
Poems by Philip Schaefer &
Jeff Whitney
Black Lawrence Press, 2016
$8.95

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE BENEDICTINES by Rachel May

00024 The Benedictines 
by Rachel May 
Alleyway Books, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

Anne James is a thirty-year-old Visiting Artist at Saint Christopher’s, a Benedictine Catholic boarding school in rural Maine. Although she had a Catholic upbringing, Anne can’t relate to the monks who run the school: “They are a mystery, even to the dogs.” She sees their long dark robes as both uniform and a distraction from their previous lives as married men with families.

In the first year of her two-year teaching position, she is struggling: struggling to adapt to the strict Catholic culture, struggling to manage the rebellious teenagers, and struggling to leave behind the memories of a failed engagement to a shadow of a man named Danny.

Although she feels that she doesn’t belong there, Anne also knows she has no place to return because her relationship is over. The distance is both emotional and geographic:

It’s too far away. I don’t understand this landscape, I say. Always, the wind. And the ocean with its whitecaps. And the teachers with their buttoned-up shirts and their blazers, their attendance at church, their shiny loafers. I don’t fit here.

For Anne, Saint Christopher’s may as well be on another planet.

The tone and structure of the novel create a sense of distance between the reader and Anne and between Anne and her colleagues at the school. Early on, she doesn’t even use character names and instead gives them nicknames that parody her impressions of them, such as My Devout Roommate, Talking Man, and My One Friend. Instead of chapters, the book is structured using short sections of narrative vignettes intertwined with communications from the school regarding upcoming masses, memorials, notices from the principal about grades, and the campus dress code, creating a sense that judgment is ever-present.

My Devout Roommate dislikes Anne almost immediately, seeing her as a sinner. However, the Roommate has a secret that is alluded to early on, though Annie can’t be sure what it is, as the woman is young—just out of college—and adamantly against sin in any form, including premarital sex. Tensions arise almost immediately with the Roommate and the headmaster as Anne defies a rule about no overnight guests of the opposite sex, first vocally and then in practice.

Anne’s students push the boundaries of the school rules, particularly a student named Kathryn who swears in class and pretends that a rolled up piece of paper is a joint. Students feel betrayed when Anne sends Kathryn to the headmaster’s office, and it’s the guilt of betraying her students’ trust that stays with her the longest rather than the guilt of defying school rules or her growing ambivalence toward the Catholic faith.

The turning point occurs when she realizes that she likes her students. “Strange how I like them. How they make me laugh. They are all kinds of tangled up inside, and they struggle and they yearn and they are honest and silly and good.” It’s not the teaching that is hard for her; rather, it’s the confines and restrictions of the place.

The Benedictines is a fascinating look into the restrictive and hypocritical practices of devout Catholics, the flaws of contemporary religious educational practices, and one woman’s internal struggle between the morals of her past and asserting her identity as a modern, independent woman. Firmly rooted in coastal Maine, the novel confronts the notion of belonging and identity, salvation and redemption. It’s a story that will appeal to any reader who can appreciate intentionally tight and simple writing against the backdrop of complex and seemingly contradictory dogma.


 

Book Review: THE REDEMPTION OF GALEN PIKE by Carys Davies

9781907773716_grande The Redemption of Galen Pike
by Carys Davies
Salt Publishing, 2014 
£9.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Carys Davies’ second short story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, winner of the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, is unique and exquisitely human. It dives deep into the lives of not-so-everyday people in very few words, yet capturing the experience entirely. Davies is a rare talent capable of narrating a plethora of voices with clarity and skillful ease.

The collection opens with a story called “The Quiet,” which aptly sets the tone for the stories that follow. “The Quiet” centers on the idea that sometimes strangers have much more in common than they think or want to believe. Protagonist Susan Boyce is wary of her neighbor, Mr. Fowler, because of the way he looks at her and seeks her out. Immediately readers are led to believe that Mr. Fowler’s intentions are less than honorable, but in fact he has seen something in Susan that reminds him of himself, a pain they both suffer, quietly. When their common burden is revealed, the final paragraph expertly shapes the emotion readers are left hanging with:

She took his small brown hand and lifted it to her cheek and closed her eyes like someone who hadn’t known till now how tired they were, and then she asked him, would he help her, please, to dig the hole.

With this final line, readers need no further explanation. Every detail Davies planted along the way created a landscape of vivid feeling that was achieved without once naming the emotions of her characters, and it is brought to a close neatly with Susan’s quiet acceptance of her bond with Mr. Fowler.

Other stories are less complex, such as “Bonnet” or “Myth,” but are no less well-crafted. In “Bonnet,” a woman changes the color of her bonnet lining in the hopes of garnering more attention from the man she secretly loves. In “Myth,” we see the startling perspective of a woman who is losing a breast, willingly, to appease her Amazonian Queen. But even these simpler narratives capture tenderness, in “Bonnet,” Davies writes:

For a moment, he is speechless—all he can do is stand there looking at her and wishing that he could tell her something, the future perhaps… but he knows nothing of her future – nothing that could come now to her rescue or to his… and he says nothing about the bonnet and neither does she but it is the worst imaginable thing for her to sit and feel the bright new silk around her face, like a shout, and see how embarrassed he is, how he can’t look at it.

These moments are staples in Davies’ writing. Her ability to so fully capture complex emotions in very few words is indicative of an award-winning author. The namesake of the collection, “The Redemption of Galen Pike,” is equally extraordinary. A convicted man is due to be hanged, and in the short time before his sentence is carried out, he is visited daily by Miss Haig, who brings him biscuits and talks to him. Their interactions are not inspiring, but rather dark, grounded, capturing the grit of such a time before a man dies, not pulling excessive redeeming qualities to light or shuffling through snapshots of a life wasted, in ways that a lesser story might employ. What Davies does instead is show readers exactly the bad person Galen Pike is, exactly the hopeless case Miss Haig may be. There is no shining light at the end of this tunnel, but that doesn’t mean redemption is out of reach. Life for Miss Haig carries on after the death of Galen Pike, and it is not unchanged. Pike’s redemption didn’t come from a standard good act in his own life, but the lasting effect his character had on the life of Miss Haig.

While the collection lacks a strong coherent thread the stories all explore elements of a shared human experience and the intensity that can exist there. Davies’ voice is unique and present throughout her stories; she often employs long sentences uninterrupted by commas or other punctuation to achieve a rushed effect. In this she is very successful. Her observations of the human condition, well-crafted stories, emotionally powerful sentences, and overall unique experiences on the page reflect an author who shows great promise.


 

Book Review: EACH VAGABOND BY NAME by Margo Orlando Littell

4ebfdb_1e814b9d70ab4fd5bccfe63841c8f4c9 Each Vagabond By Name
by Margo Orlando Littell
University of New Orleans Press, 2016
$15.95

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

From a distance, it seems the people of Shelk—a sleepy, working-class mountain town—live ordinary lives. They have ordinary jobs, ordinary homes, and ordinary families. In Each Vagabond By Name, the characters are content with the ordinary until it is disrupted by a band of gypsies who take up residence in the mountain caves and start breaking into homes to steal cash, jewelry, heirlooms, and anything else of value. No matter the precautions taken by the people of Shelk, the gypsies continue to find a way in, perpetuating the distrust and alienation from the residents.

War veteran Ramsy also knows what it means to be an outsider. Even though he had lived in Shelk for decades, running a small bar that barely brings in enough patrons to break even, he, too, feels like an outsider. His closest companion is Stella, a woman still disturbed by the disappearance of her infant daughter fifteen years prior.

As the gypsies become a more common presence in town, Ramsy and Stella find themselves at odds with the other residents who will stop at nothing to chase away the thieving outsiders. Conversely, Ramsy and Stella are empathetic as they befriend two of the gypsy youth, JT and Adrienne, the latter who has just given birth to a baby, Serena. Meanwhile, Ramsy has reconnected with his estranged daughter Liza who is trying to convince him to move in with her and her family. As the tensions grow in Shelk, Ramsy must decide if he’s going to intervene to protect the vagabonds lead by the heartless Emaline or leave Shelk to settle its conflicts on its own, even if that means leaving Stella behind as well.

The narrative begins in the fall and ends in the spring, the darkness and chill of the winter months providing a context for the growing tensions as well as the gloom that seems to be a consistent component of everyone’s past. It taps into the reader’s sense of humanity, breaks it open, and cautiously invites it to the surface.

Each Vagabond By Name is an intriguing story of belonging, sense of self, xenophobia, and overcoming loss through empathy and outreach to the underdog. Each chapter begins with a brief narration of a home invasion and continues with the town’s reaction to the theft. For brief moments, we have insight into the gypsy’s mind as they infiltrate people’s homes. It pokes at the sense of security we all have about our homes as well as appealing to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. The characters of Ramsy, Stella, Emaline, JT, Adrienne, and the bar regulars all embody a small-town resident archetype without relying on stereotypes or assumptions.

Ultimately, we’re left with a startling rediscovery of what love, loyalty, and redemption can look like for characters who appear to have little perspective of the future beyond their ordinary lives. Even the concept of “ordinary” is redefined as it becomes clear that characters with such tragic histories could never fall into a pattern of simple daily life. Nevertheless, we’re left with a renewed sense of hope and wonder as the seasons transition to spring and the town at once begins to feel like a community.


 

 

Book Review: KARANKAWA by Iliana Rocha

9780822963844 Karankawa
Poems by Iliana Rocha
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The most striking element of Iliana Rocha’s debut poetry collection Karankawa—in addition to its lavish Día de los Muertos-inspired Betty Boop cover by sculptor Michael Brown—is that it perfectly articulates the disorienting strangeness of grief. “I hear you died as beautifully / as a yellow cloud chalked onto sidewalk, & the / grief-dog starts gnawing on the black rain boot / stuffed deep inside me,” Rocha writes in “Departure/Aperture.” This and other poems in the collection are full of those out-of-body moments we experience in the throes of our most extreme emotions.

So it seems especially appropriate that Rocha would see the story of the Karankawa Indians as indicative of these poems. She borrows the book’s epigraph from R. Edward Moore, who writes that “much of the history of the Karankawa is lost…. Making things worse, the Karankawa were favorite targets of many false myths and made up stories.” As a guiding metaphor for the collection, the Karankawa are perfect; Rocha writes these poems to memorialize bygone people and half-forgotten recollections through beautiful stories and images that don’t quite make sense. From the pop-camp tragedy “La Llorona as Andrea Yates,” with its amplification of Mexican folklore alongside American justice and images of birth arising from death, to elegiac representations of Texan cities and the poet’s dead grandmother, this collection seems a fitting tribute to the simultaneous grief, erasure, and pride that come with being Native American in the contemporary United States. In this way, it’s perhaps as much an anthem to those Native American tribes who have been expunged from history as it is to queerness, the state of Texas, and Central American culture.

Rocha also succeeds at illustrating the interstitial experiences of our lives, from puberty to coming out to living through grief, and illuminates their repetitious, cyclical, unending nature. For instance, she lets time go slack in “Coming Out” and defies our ideas of chronology when she writes:

They say, said, will surely say, they do
not, does not understand this time, sequence of
events, but who ever will, does. For a while, this
pause, pausing, much like guilt is a pause, does
not, will not, did not go anywhere, but planted,
is planting, itself into intestines, golden leaves
emerging, flirt with the wind, will flirt with other
branches, hands, will always be is, is, was.

And it’s not just time that can exist in the in-between, but people too. Rocha alludes to this when she discusses sexuality in general, but eventually chooses a drag queen to be the emblem of this threshold between realities. Her “Sonnet for Jinkx Monsoon” brings us the quip:

       I bet you fuck in
pentameter, pink-corseted confusion…
       but I cannot say
I ever wonder you as lady-naked:
I know what you’ve got going on under there.

Whether grieving, forgetting, or mixing up realities, Rocha still finds space for liberation—from empowering her ghosts to creating her own saints. Much like the Texan landscape ravaged by a hurricane, she finds herself broken and exhausted, but also transformed. “I leave & think of you leaving,” she writes, “somewhere now in the sky with me, glowing with / the earth’s invisible halo.”

The Karankawa’s enemies, not to mention the general march of American colonization, have done much to obliterate indigenous history. This is the plight, on some level, of many marginalized groups. But, as Rocha shows, some of our proudest and most powerful stories can be the ones we tell about ourselves—especially those that blend our fantasies with a vow never to go unheard.


 

On a Poetic Voice

by Gerry LaFemina

Many years ago PBS ran a series of television shows about American poetry called Voices & Visions. Each episode focused on one great American poet, and I think that name, Voices & Visions sums up nicely what poetry becomes about for each of us who write it. Voice and vision share a symbiotic relationship within the work of each writer. Vision shapes the types of poems we write. Our voice as embodied in the poems hone and develop our vision.

As we write we think through our subject matter, embody that thinking in language, and shape it with line. Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought mentions a little girl who “had the making of a poet in her” because on “being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, [she] said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say.’” Wallas seems to agree that poets think as they say. By giving our thoughts voice, our visions are refined and defined as our own. Poetry is an art where a solitary voice and our solitary vision fuse in the making of each poem.

The history of the lyric is filled with distinctive poems of the I; poet Gregory Orr suggests that every culture has a lyric poem because the human need to express the unknown and overcome chaos. To be able to put it into language and thus “order” feelings that overwhelm us is an inherent need. Consider how many people write when they are sad or depressed; or why when they’re ecstatic with love they write about it. There’s a reason why there are so many love poems, so many elegies, so many cliches about writers who are crazy: writing allows us to express and to edit (or, better yet) clarify exactly what we feel. Although long over, the Romantic era’s sensibility of the poetic I remains rooted, perhaps, in William Wordsworth’s notion that inspiration is found “in the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which the poet works on when he can “recollect in tranquility.”

It’s easy to think we must recollect accurately, after all novice writers are told to write what they know, but not how to leap beyond the self into the imagination. What we know only takes us to the edge of mystery. The next step is to envision what we don’t know based on the empiricism of what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, what is possible. Novice writers are taught various forms but not how to use the poem to help them find their vision, how to use it to shape their voice. It takes time, truly, to discover the intricacies of poetry, to learn the various ways it might be used, and the various ways it helps us to formulate what it is we mean to say. That’s rocky terrain. It means we have to acknowledge that we don’t know what we want to say just yet, we have to begin in uncertainty, in a world that often seems filled with talking heads who seem so certain as to what’s right and wrong. That’s why it’s good to remember that we tend to learn more from our poetic failures than our successes.

We must also remember to trust the poetic process and our ability to actually find something to say. Writing in this way allows that voice and vision are interwoven. In one of the first books of literary criticism, The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons, the Chinese scholar Liu Hsieh notes that poetry is a combination of fruits and flowers. By fruit he means that what is said that is sustaining, in other words: content. Flowers refers to how content is said. A good poem has lots of fruit and lots of flowers, vision and voice. [1]

Louis Simpson in his essay “Honoring Whitman” notes that “[p]oets don’t have to be philosophers on the scale of Kant—they need only have ideas that enable them to make sense of their experience and make it seem worthwhile to go on writing.” More though, we have to express our vision in a way that makes it seem worthwhile for the reader to go on reading. Just as our experiences must be transmuted to be more than just the facts, so, too, must our voices be transmuted.  It is important for poets to love language and its possibilities—the way certain syllables make our mouths move; the way certain sounds clash together while others blur into each other. The poet’s voice is a transmutation of our own, but heightened: not in diction, or in rhetoric, or in intelligence (a good poem does not drop SAT words will nilly) but in concern for the musicality and imagistic capacities of each word and in concern for the possibility of multiple meanings and ambivalences through an understanding of homonyms, connotations, and denotations.

This understanding, then, allows for some help with the “best words” part of Samuel Coleridge’s dictum that poetry is “the best words in the best order.”  Our vocabularies surely reflect our poetic voices; ditto, our syntax and diction (our word order and how our words are used) shape our voice and tone (the attitude of the speaker toward subject matter). “High” language about base things can add sarcasm done well, or it can seem pretentious done poorly. Word order helps this. But order does not only include the ordering of words in our sentences, but the ordering of words in our lines. Our sense of line—of rhythm, of pacing, of its potential to make meaning, to create emphasis or surprise—is also part of our voice. As our sense of the possibilities of poetic craft develop, so too does our poetic voice.

To put it more simply: our voice is made up of our poetic vision, our sense of poetic craft, our love for language, our subject matter and our attitude toward it. With that said, whether we use the I or not, our poetic voice is an extraordinarily intimate part of our poetic selves. What develops as we develop a voice, is the lyric I who uses a private language for public discourse.  By a private language I don’t suggest our words mean “differently” than the dictionary definitions, but rather our language is representative of our thinking, our private selves. It’s this intimacy that defines poetry as different from many pop songs, that seem to be very “public” in their sensibilities. And, when done well,  the intimacy of a poem is its strength. Bly suggests “[p]oetry is best imagined as a conversation between two beings, even if it’s a conversation between body and soul. If two beings talk inside a poem, the reader usually has a chance to get a word in edgewise.” 

What I like about this way of thinking about a poem is that such conversations require both a level of trust and a need to withhold. We trust that the poem is a safe place to discover what’s beneath our wanting to talk about a particular subject matter, and we can withhold everything that seems unnecessary or uncertain. Our poetic voices are means of exploring and defining (or constantly redefining) our visions and such explorations should also help our voices to evolve. For our readers, they become confidants in the dialogue, sharing in the experience of thinking, so that it becomes part of their thinking, too. But they have to be invited into that experience through the poem’s voice.

________

[1]These first five paragraphs are a slightly variant version of comments on voice from LaFemina’s textbook Composing Poetry: A Guide to Writing Poems and Thinking Lyrically (Kendall Hunt, 2016)


 

Book Review: INTERSTATE by Chard deNiord

9780822963899 Interstate
Poems by Chard deNiord
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

The word interstate can be defined as involving, existing between, or connecting two or more separate states. Often this links to the physical—a road we travel in our beat-up 87 Volkswagen, windows down, crossing state boarders in summer skin. But in Chard deNiord’s newest poetry collection, Interstate, I find myself at the intersection of the metaphysical, crossing not spaces on a map, but the wanderings and wonderings of the mind: “If I look at the stars and see anything but stars— / pinpricks, diamonds—then so be it. /  I have another eye that sees the rebus in things.”

Yet, to say this collection involves a speaker solely located in the mind would be to neglect one of the main threads carried throughout these poems. The natural world is as present as our hands on the wheel, turning with every poem. Interstate is divided into four sections, with poems titled “In the Grass,” “Confession of a Bird Watcher,” “Under the Sun,” and “Head of the Meadow.” deNiord uses nature as a way for his speaker to access emotion. The reoccurring image of a window, for example, is a symbol of this processing. In “Confession of a Bird Watcher,” the speaker admits how, for years, he has watched birds fly into the window and break their necks, and continues to because, “how else to live among them and keep my view.” While this addresses the literal action of the poem, the speaker then shifts to a metaphorical thought, ending the poem here: “With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants: / the sight of you, the sight of you.”

The true emotions, brought to light through the natural world are often feelings of fear, loss, and pain. Multiple poems are dedicated or in conversation with a woman named Ruth, who died in 2011. The fourth section specifically brings these themes to a head. The poems are brief and compact, as if the speaker has lost words, or at least the desire to communicate. One of my favorites in this section is titled “At the River View Café.” Though nature is still at play, the language is more direct. The complexity found in deNiord’s writing is ever-present: both light and dark simultaneously exist, the metaphysical matched with reality:

The wind blew all summer after you died.
A friend asked what I was feeling now
that you were gone. I said, ‘A great emptiness
and fullness at the same time….’
I sat at my table above the river and listened
to the wind flap the umbrellas like a tattered name.

Although the collection addresses heavy, often-painful topics, deNiord doesn’t overstate or override his collection with such. It’s not until the fourth section, really, that we thrust open the window and sit amid the pain. This feels realistic, our minds and words cloaking our ability to process until the pain we’ve imagined has happened. Then, and only then, are we struck with how we must deal in the face of the whole, beautiful world.


 

Book Review: BOY WITH THORN by Ricky Laurentiis

9780822963813 Boy with Thorn
Poems by Rickey Laurentiis
Pitt Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“There are eyes, glasses even, but still he can’t see / what the world sees seeing him.”

In Rickey Laurentiis’ stunning debut collection, Boy with Thorn (winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize), readers are presented with an America where the questions are always of perception, discovery, and transformation. In these pages, Laurentiis explores what it means to be black and gay in contemporary America, to be a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and a particular American South; and, in doing so, he plumbs the depths of questions many of us ask of our bodies and minds as we develop a sense of being in the world.

This collection begins with a desire for magic, for transformation in all its multiple guises. In “Conditions for a Black Southern Gothic,” the speaker has a wish “to think stranger stuff,” and then becomes a decapitated, singing head in the middle of a field. In “One Country,” he sheds his body like the shell of a hermit crab, its disparate parts becoming doors to new worlds. “Black Iris” dreams the desire of heteronormativity—“And here runs the message in the blood: / This is it—fuck her fag like you’re supposed to”—as the speaker’s voice shakes like a young calf, “out of fear? / out of duty?… Because a voice outside him makes him.”

It seems to be this making that the speaker would like to escape: from the decapitated head wishing to be separate of its body and, as a mind, to understand, to the body shed and so becoming otherworldly. But even in the shedding of a body named and seen by others on their terms, the speaker seems unable to expunge or transcend their overarching ideas of correctness—the “fuck her fag like you’re supposed to.” This futility arises again in “Mood Indigo” when the speaker asks his beloved, during a storm he hopes will change the world, “They are still trees, right, slamming the roof tiles? / They are trees—the world not yet totally remade?” There is a tension between this inability to change the world (and perhaps the way one is perceived by it) and the speaker’s desire in “Carnal Knowledge” to “for once [be] the thing that looks at” and does some naming of its own.

It is, in fact, through the looking at, candidly and without much figurative language, that the speaker is able to bear, even celebrate, embodiment as a gay black man in a hostile society. This mission is taken up in “Do You Feel Me?”—“I need to find myself, I told myself / To live the limits of this body.” Then, the waters of Katrina envelop the city of New Orleans and “each becomes the revelation / of what the other can do.” The boundaries here are more concrete, dictated not by society and its mores but by the literal capacity of our environments, even our bodies, to survive. In this way, Laurentiis engages the full scope of being (especially being on the margins); to exist both in honor and in spite of, to perceive as a mind but also to act as a physical body, to be marked and to leave a mark of one’s own, to “shut the thorn up in [our] foot,” whatever it is, “and [say] / Walk.”


 

Book Review: WHEN THE MEN GO OFF TO WAR by Victoria Kelly

9781612519043 When the Men Go Off to War
Poems by Victoria Kelly
Naval Institute Press, 2015
Hardcover, $27.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

It’s convenient to think wars are distant worlds across the sea. To think of them as containable and separate, only affecting the lives of soldiers and the towns they occupy. It’s convenient to limit the loss. But here, in Victoria Kelly’s poetry collection, When the Men Go off to War, we are witness to the intrusive, residual displacement women experience as their husbands deploy. For brief moments, we learn about the battles that take form inside the bodies of those left at home.

Kelly divides her collection into three sections: “Departure,” “Absence,” and “Homecoming.” This division sets the stage for the speaker’s life; her own time is marked by the location of her husband. Already we can imagine the emotions, and thus the themes, this separation awakens: anxiety, wistfulness, and haziness. Simultaneously Kelly balances her speaker between hyperawareness and distraction. She writes, “How merciful to be unaware, for a night, / that one is condemned to dance forever somewhere / between this world and the next…”

The poems are narrative and straightforward, tight stanzas as precise as a gun. But inside the frames of the poem, the mind wanders. Often, after staring at the sky, we shift to the past and learn about the speaker’s grandmother, who “had a small life too, her needlepoint and the tidy compartments / of her mind that would be closed off in widowhood, / one by one, like the rooms of a half-used manor.” The presence of family and the consciousness of age are rooted at the core of these daydreams. In the poem, “Reverie on Leave,” the speaker finds a carousel and is transported back into the edges of her memory, imagines,

[parents] looking
nothing like you last saw them, when they were rigid…
Your grandmother
leans into a lawn chair, because there is
no hurry, you are never too old
to be young here.

As complicated as marriage is, Kelly illuminates the true weight of companionship. There are few moments in When the Men Go off to War that feel complete; this is not to say the poems are unfinished, but to say the taste of longing is always present. We can’t put our feet up; we cannot settle or rest. The full-body consumption of an absent partner is made apparent in “Homecoming.” The speaker is at her brother’s wedding. In the parking lot, she talks with a guest,

“Where have you been,” he asked sleepily,
leaning against a lamppost. “Married,” I said, and he
laughed. “Girl,” he said, “married isn’t a place…”

It would be false to say there were not moments of lightness here. But Kelly is skillful; even in the happiness we know it can’t last. We know there will always be another war, another stage of departure, absence, and homecoming. So we appreciate what we are given as readers, as the speaker too appreciates when her worlds collide and rest, if only for a moment. This appreciation is represented perfectly in “Birth,” as her husband holds their daughter. The three sentence poem ends “She is only / six weeks old and there are no other / pleasures: everything is ageless here, everything / is here.”


 

Book Review: EMMETT TILL IN DIFFERENT STATES by Dr. Philip C. Kolin

emmit Emmett Till in Different States
Poems by Dr. Philip C. Kolin
Third World Press, 2015
$18.95

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

A friend asked me the other day if I thought the world was ending. She was drowning in the constant-seeming reports of violence in the news, on college campuses, in the streets of major cities, violence so often targeting minorities and the poor. My first thought was to consider America in the ’60s. After centuries of slavery, the oppression of Night Riders and lynching meant to stifle dissent, the hidden slavery of forced labor in prison systems in the South, change seemed to be coming. People were marching in the streets in protest of this barbarity and making national headlines. But so many Civil Rights leaders were murdered for their troubles—Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers—in addition to Freedom Riders beaten and murdered, church bombings, race riots; countless people of color were attacked, threatened, and silenced. In my own home state of Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School, telling the story that they had to wring their clothes out after they got inside the school because they’d been so soaked in spit from the jeering mob outside. It must’ve seemed like the end of the world then, too. Out of the horrors of the ’60s, which were just an extension of the horrors many African Americans and minorities faced since the beginnings of this country, one crime has stood out as particularly brutal. The murder of Emmett Till made national headlines not because a young black man was murdered in the South. Nor was the fact that Till’s murderers went free a particularly uncommon event. Till may have been forgotten, as countless victims before and after him, were it not for the courage of his mother, who held an open casket service, and the newspapers and magazines that covered the tragedy and expressed the outrage many in the nation felt. Now, this centuries-long culture of subjugation and violence was, at least, being exposed in tones too pervasive to ignore.

On the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, Dr. Kolin has released a collection of poems chronicling the events surrounding Till’s death and the reverberations it created. The book begins with excerpts from articles in Southern newspapers of the time, which mostly distort the situation to make Till seem at fault. Similarly, in an interview with Look Magazine, Till’s murderers claimed that the 14-year old was unrepentant and didn’t show them the proper respect, forcing them to kill him, something novelist William Faulkner responds to in his Harper’s essay, “On Fear,” saying,

If the facts as stated in the Look Magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him…. What are we Mississippians afraid of?

In the end, Till has been cast as something not quite human in many ways, first by his murderers, and later by those who consider him a martyr, a symbol more than a 14-year-old teen. Dr. Kolin tries to humanize Till. “Facts about Me” lists basic details one might not think of with Till, such as his bout with polio:

I was born breeched.
They had to tie a red string
around my wrist to pull me out.
Mama said breech babies would have
more danger in their lives.

Kolin focuses on much of the minutia of Till’s life, finding meaning in his wallet, with its pre-packaged photos, his hat, his father’s ring, his spelling ability. These things serve to show that Till had human reactions.

The environment of Money, Mississippi, where Till was murdered, lends much to the feel of the book. The Tallahatchie River, in which Till’s body was found, appears many times, and the culture of the place is explored in several poems. “Mamie Till’s Warning,” imagines what Till’s mother might have told him about Mississippi:

She lectured me about lynching trees
with their bitter fruit hanging

A few feet from the ground—
all the space a black person really needed.

I heard her cry about the night riders
who stole black men and boys away

And drug them home
as pulp-faced ghosts.

I had to learn fast that the rules
of white etiquette in Mississippi

Were written on the inside of
black eyelids.

 

Reading and thinking about what happened to Till is troubling, but one of the most devastating poems in the collection is “Slop Jars,” which tells the story of donations gathered to fund the murderers’ defense.

They put them out all over
Tallahatchie County—from Charleston
to Sumner to Webb to Whitehead—
in stores, gas stations, fire stations,
police stations, schools, hospitals,
banks, restaurants, morgues,
post offices, any public place
unafraid of shame

The callousness reverberates far beyond the page. Without this perspective, it might be easy to dismiss Till’s murder as a singular act, an anomaly. Dr. Kolin makes sure to list businesses from all walks of life, professional and private, to demonstrate that this hatred crossed economic classes. It’s not completely hopeless, though, as Dr. Kolin points out:

They found mostly loose change and talk,
IOU’s, congratulations, even a pair of jokers
from a deck of cards. But not enough.
they never got half of what was promised.
Legal fees were costly and they had a roof
and sheets to put over their heads.

He goes on to describe their ruined finances, as the store owned by Bryant went out of business, not that financial troubles in any way balance the evil done by these men.

Dr. Kolin eventually shifts the narrative from Till to the broader reverberations Till’s murder caused throughout American culture, from Eisenhower’s silence on the murder, to other, similar, murders such as Trayvon Martin’s.

So is the world ending? For Till and Martin and so many others, it has, and for many African Americans and minorities, the fear is that their worlds, their lives, will end, similarly, in violence and oppression. Many people would like to think that the world that allowed—encouraged—these murders to happen is ending, that these most recent vile acts are the death throes of racist hegemony. Maybe they’re right, but it smacks of laurel-resting and wishful thinking. The real lesson to take from Till’s murder, finally, is one of vigilance.


 

Book Review: PROSTHESIS by Ian Hatcher

prosthesis-682x1024 Prosthesis
by Ian Hatcher
Poor Claudia, 2016
$17.50

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

In The Question Concerning Technology German philosopher Martin Heidegger explains that technology is a framework through which man can access a higher plane of truth and understanding. However, the creation of this framework inherently conceals truth in its attempt to provide a comprehensible platform. It’s a paradoxical relationship, and Heidegger argues that only an artist or poet will be able to navigate the disorientating relationship between man and machine. Ian Hatcher’s 2016 collection of poetry entitled Prosthesis is perhaps the best answer yet to Heidegger’s Question.

A binary in and of itself, the word prosthesis has two distinct uses. First, a prosthesis is a device, whether external or implanted, that supplements or supplants another part. Second, prosthesis is the attachment of a sound or syllable to the beginning of a word or verse, often seen as a result of translation. Hatcher draws on both definitions of the word, breaking away from any traditional, or perhaps programmed, form of poetry. Studded with computer code and Boolean symbols, Prosthesis verges on falling into the multilingual category and functions itself as a hybrid of man and machine.

The text covers an array of topics relating to the interdependence of humanity and technology—from the breakdown of individuality in this copy and paste culture to the binary quality of our true/false society. Hatcher is smart and mindful with his word choice, delivering sharp lines, like “how i i sees itself seeing itself in time” and “time is only measurable in instants of structural interruption.”

The image of the mirror crops up more than once. In the case of the following passage, Hatcher uses the mirror to reflect on self-image, the battle between self and image, and the inevitable breakdown of one at the expense the other:

folding (another) / into (another) / yourself (another) / with that (another) / self in (another) / breathing (another) / it’s not (another) / me it’s (another) / this that (another) / holds me (another) / mirror (another) / me that (another) / i put (another) / in me (another) / u are (anothe) / nothing (anoth) / u are (anot) / just an (ano) / image (an) / deferred (a) / waking () / to find / this just / ticking / down time / steady / from this / til when / we’re no / longer / ticking / down time / into / fusion / into / numbers / what more / than this / could be / going / on

As in this segment Hatcher often uses the repetition of sound throughout his poetry, perhaps to mimic a mechanical feedback echo or maybe the fading beat of a human heart.

One of Hatcher’s most memorable pieces is an observation on the absurd interdependence of our world. His poem “Attachments” spans over three pages with strange associations:

LONELINESS ATTACHED TO MONSTERS ATTACHED TO ALZHEIMER’S ATTACHED TO ARE U THERE ATTACHED TO THE GREAT CORAL REEF ATTACHED TO ALMOST ATTACHED TO ZZZ ATTACHED TO THIS.FIND(\”*\”) ATTACHED TO WIKIPEDIA ATTACHED TO WIRELESS SIGNALS ATTACHED TO MEMORY

Like most everything else in Prosthesis, these attachments could refer to something intensely human, such as an erratic thought process as synapses fire spastically across the brain, or something intensely machine like a search engine’s browsing history.

With an infinite number of messages to decode within the pages of Prosthesis, New York-based text / sound / code artist Ian Hatcher challenges readers to open their minds to a new era of poetry.


 

 

Dance Review: LAWS OF ATTRACTION by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For over two decades, Attack Theatre has transformed otherwise unknown Pittsburgh sites into ultra-creative performance spaces. In their latest work, Laws of Attraction, they took on an old auto body repair shop located in Uptown.

The two-act show was inspired by the study of science. About a year ago, the company taught creative movement classes to elementary students at Winchester Thurston. There, the science teacher asked if the dancers could center their lesson around “the complexity of bridges.” The concept grew from there, culminating in an almost two-hour long show.

Laws of Attraction featured five dancers, including Nile Alicia Ruff who joined the company most recently, and live musician (and painter), Ian Green. Under the direction of co-artistic directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, the performers used scientific concepts like weight transfer, structural supports, and counterbalance to build movement phrases. Like most Attack shows, props were used; however, exploring these themes with their bodies worked equally well.

No Attack show would be complete without the use of witty metaphor. The piece tied elementary classroom concepts to the nature of human relationships. Throughout the show, they played with phrases like, “Why does everything revolve around you?” And, “Nothing can pull us apart.”

The first half brought a healthy dose of partnering phrases that naturally invoked the science of kinesiology. Ashley Williams stood on top of Kaitlin Dann while the narrator (pre-recorded) declared, “I don’t understand why you’re always right on top of me.” Each dancer continued with individual solos in and out of the floor that left them breathless on their backs. The narrator spoke again. “You’re exhausting me; I’m tired of all these ups and downs.”

In another section, Anthony Williams placed magnetic shapes on a large metal door. The dancers then built similar shapes with their legs, arms, and torsos, darting about the space as the music crescendoed.

The women performed a memorable trio, each partnering with a ladder. The three of them took turns climbing it, cartwheeling inside of it, and jumping in and around it. Many duets also stood out. Dane Toney’s and Ruff’s extended lines complimented each other well. Anthony Williams and Dann played two patrons in a neighborhood bar, eyeing each other from across the room. Their short relationship ended with, “I’m sorry; I want to go in another direction.”

The second half brought signature Attack athleticism in the form of child-like play. In one section, the dancers performed on hover boards. Although long, the segment was mesmerizing. The boards waved as the dancers calmly snaked around one another, gesturing and turning the entire time. The choreography never resorted to trickery; rather, the group found ways to turn the obvious into artistic.

They did the same with a giant seesaw. Each took their turn on one side, investigating weight and simple physics. A lovely moment ensued when Dann and Ashley Williams found a counterbalance. To illustrate swing, climbing and falling, the dancers manipulated a dangling rope swing throughout the show. Both Ashley and Anthony Williams impressed the audience by climbing the rope in what felt like five seconds.

Most eloquent was how Attack managed to blend the exploration of relationships with the investigation of science. The ending led us back to the opening relationship, when Ashley Williams needed space from Dann. Their attraction couldn’t keep them apart. The two ended in an embrace. Perhaps our human attractions are mere chemistry.

Laws of Attraction was smart, entertaining, and easily educational for a classroom of students. Attack continues to create well-made dances with clever storytelling that compliments exciting and playful movement. Don’t miss the remainder of this performance run; see details below.

Laws of Attraction continues for one more weekend, April 27th-30th at 8:00 p.m. The shows are located at 300 Gist St., Uptown. Check the website for parking information and ticket costs: www.attacktheatre.com/laws


Book Review: BRETT EASTON ELLIS AND THE OTHER DOGS by Lina Wolff

Bret-Easton-Ellis-a-t-O-D-_-Lina-Wolff-rgb-300x460 Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs
by Lina Wolff
trans by Frank Perry 
And Other Stories, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

Swedish author Lina Wolff’s debut novel is a wonderfully complex and sometimes confusing journey. The plot meanders, the prose balances grittiness with the surreal, and our ideas about gender and love are challenged. While the novel is not linear and the narrative can be difficult to follow, the situations and concepts Wolff puts before us are thought-provoking, yet easy to digest. This balancing act between soft and hard, challenge and ease, and supposed versus real morality is central to the novel’s success.

Araceli Villalobos is a young girl at the beginning of the novel, living with her mother in a small Spanish town. Her life leaves much to be desired, which leads her to compulsively watching Alba Cambo, the writer downstairs. Araceli wonders about Alba’s life, fantasizes about it. Wolff’s prose and near-constant switching of point of view makes it unclear how much Araceli actually knows about Alba. The narrative tends to deviate from Araceli’s story in pivotal moments, such as when Alba’s maid comes to live with them. In this instance, we’re immediately thrown into Blosom’s backstory. If Araceli knows this, comes to know this, or if it is only known to the readers, is hard to discern. The narrative voice clings to Araceli when she is on the page, yet seems to know things she couldn’t know. Wolff’s choice to leave knowledge ambiguous gives the novel its surreal feel, yet manages not to distract from later progressions.

Wolff tackles more than unconventional narration. Her attention fixates on women breaking gender norms, and she challenges her readers to think about the concept of “real” love. Despite having opportunities later in her life, Araceli chooses to pursue sex work. Wolff also takes us inside the complex relationship of her friend, Muriel. Muriel’s ideas about love are materialistic; they include ideas about gifts, wealth, and favors. The transaction of money for sex seems to have seeped into her overall understanding of men and women. We learn that Muriel left her boyfriend, a man we’re to believe actually loved her, for an older, richer man named Paco Parra. Wolff tests us with this relationship. Is it love? Parra captures Muriel’s former boyfriend and offers her the chance to murder him, an act which he sees as a gift to Muriel, a gift of love. Like Muriel, readers are likely disgusted by this. But through Araceli, we’re left to wonder what makes a person so perverse? What makes their version of love so different? Are we correct to assume that people like Parra are beyond any explanation or redemption? Araceli says of him as she and Muriel retreat back to Barcelona, “His good intentions frightened me,” because of the kindness he had shown her. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to forget him, or this trial on our moral conscience.

Wolff’s novel weaves together many stories, each one with a distinct narrator and series of unexpected events. One of the more memorable stories is actually a short story written by Alba Cambo. It features a little girl named Lucifer, Lucy for short. Lucy’s mother named her so because she hated her, hated the thought of giving birth to her, to raising her. This defies conventional thoughts about how mothers should behave, but the story doesn’t just tackle that issue. As Lucy grows up, she forms an innocent attachment to a young priest. Poisoned by ideas that this priest must be molesting Lucy, the town rises up and prosecutes him. To them, a simple love between a man and a child cannot exist. It must lead to perverse actions. But in this story, we see it does not. In the overall novel, Alba is known for writing violent short stories, and so Araceli ponders if that could be the only reason the young priest meets a horrible end. But as readers, we’re able to look beyond Alba’s intentions, and realize that Wolff is making difficult statements about what constitutes love.

The novel’s preference for strong female characters, like Araceli, Muriel, Blosom, and Alba, only exemplifies the naming of the brothel dogs – with famous, male authors. It is clear from the rest of the novel that these dogs are metaphorical, and that perhaps what Wolff is really saying is that the topics she’s so diligently covered in her novel were essentially ignored by male writers, the “dogs” whom she feeds rotten meat when woman are mistreated. Wolff’s debut novel is well-worth the zig-zagging trip it takes through narrative, to end at a place where readers are left with an appreciation for Wolff’s careful craft and protest of conventional norms.


 

My Slant

by Nola Garret

            1129

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
Wit explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson

Three years ago at a coffee shop on Mt. Washington when Mike Simms first asked me to write a monthly blog about anything at any length for coalhillreview.com, I was surprised. I was so depressed about being in the process of being divorced by my husband of 33 years and being diagnosed with a potentially fatal, auto-immune liver disease that I said no, or maybe I could if I wrote under a pen name.  Mike said, “Think about it,” and he handed me an Autumn House review copy of Andrea Hollander’s Landscape with Female Figure: new and selected poems, 1982-2012. Then, Mike gave me a ride home in his pickup truck back to my downtown, fortress of solitude in Gateway Towers. That evening when I settled into reading Andrea’s new poems, tracing her marriage’s long disintegration into divorce, I took heart. I wasn’t the only older woman dealing with a broken marriage. I knew that I not only wanted, but that I also needed to write a review of her book under my own name. When I thought I no longer had a voice, Mike gave me a new prose voice. What a great gift Mike (and Andrea) gave me!

Writing that first blog was made easier because I was assigned a form and subject: a review of Landscape with Female Figure.  However, writing the second blog essay meant that I had to dig deeper into whatever leaky truth trove I might possess to discover not only content, but also a rhetorical form to accommodate the subject and my new point of view. At that time I was still in the midst of the legalities of divorce: not the best of all times to publicly let one’s almost ex-husband know much of anything that might be on one’s mind. I found myself yet again wishing I was writing hidden under a pen name. Essays, even the most informal blog/essays, always involve a lot of trial and error, a sort of trying to figure out what one thinks out loud, so to speak. That’s when I remembered Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” And, that’s pretty much what I did monthly until the divorce became final almost two years later. I discovered I didn’t need to take subjects or even emotions head on, though many of the blogs I wrote were deeply felt. I slowly learned to trust the writing process itself would dissipate, disarm, and soothe me through any essay subject I chose. In many ways writing essays was almost the opposite of writing poems, which often served me as ways to intensify my hidden feelings. My own poems often frighten me. Sometimes after writing a poem I’m  emotionally exhausted for days, but writing an essay seemed to corral me, seemed to give me more emotional control.

Also during a good part of these last three years, I discovered that my two sons didn’t know me. Maybe most sons don’t really know their mothers, but I suspect that in my case, I always tried to protect them by withholding many of the messier parts of my life, especially the time during my first marriage and divorce from their abusive father that happened when they were toddlers. And, because my family—my grand parents, my parents, my uncles, my aunts, my brother, and most of my cousins—died or were murdered either before my sons were born or when my sons were barely in grade school, I wrote about my childhood and family. So, some of the essays I wrote became memoirs, my attempts to pass along a legacy to my sons, even though they may or may not have read these essays. Maybe, some day…maybe, not. That is their choice.

This is my last blog for coalhillreview.com. Mike Simms has retired as the editor of coalhillreview, and the new editor, Christine Stroud, is reshaping her on-line journal into a more formal publication of poetry and reviews. This is as it should be, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially if I were the new editor. But, know that I am thankful to have been given the healing gift of sure and accepting publication for these last three years.

My prosaic closure has come just as I have begun to resume my poetry writing life. July 1, 2016, Mayapple Press will publish my third full-length poetry collection, The Relative Heart & Selected Sestinas, the new poems exploring family, place, and the last of  my pastor’s wife persona poems. I have begun writing a few new poems for yet another book, this one dealing with dusk and other end of life subjects. I don’t know how many more essays I will write, but I do know that I have one more long literary essay that I need to write which will be about the life and style my former poetic persona, the pastor’s wife. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to prepare for that task in such a grace-filled venue.

Onward…


 

Book Review: EMBER DAYS by Nick Ripatrazone

00023 Ember Days
by Nick Ripatrazone
Alleyway Books, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

COME BACK HERE. KNOW A GUY WHO CAN HELP YOU FIND THE BOMB.

Ember Days opens almost immediately with this all-caps note—a message from a brother to a brother, a last-ditch effort to reunite, to collect a debt, and to repent for a wrongdoing. This is the core of the collection, slightly rotten and a little sweet. The past in muddied recollections. Characters trying to overcome the tragedies and disappointments of their past, whether it be a deceased daughter, a taped-over VHS, or even a bomb that burned much too brightly.

With sentences that oftentimes blend prose and poetry, Nick Ripatrazone’s Ember Days is a gorgeous read. Eight stories that flow off the page, slithering in your ear and rattling around your skull. The language is beautiful, but can occasionally lose the reader with its generous use of metaphoric imagery. Though when the images land, Ember Days captures ether.

Indeed, the setting is never static—Ripatrazone flies between decades, from the sand-blasted New Mexico desert, to the suburban homes of blue-collar families riddled with dysfunction. No two stories in the collection feel the same; there’s constant momentum. And it helps that the various characters of Ember Days think of themselves in relation to the setting, the inexorable forces of nature that shape their lives—the desert, first and foremost. Ember Days spends a good chunk of its page count in the arid wasteland, and Ripatrazone writes life into an otherwise dead landscape.

The desert appeared so stale and white, as if God had created the vast expanse for one reason: to be blown up.

~

Wind spun through the cracked windows and he moved his mattress to the kitchen. He kept a blanket over his face and wondered if he would ever wake up. He had dreams within dreams and saw the desert in black and white, and imagined peeling off his own skin and touching bone and feeling so real.

Ember Days is swift in its pacing, in that it offers glimpses—quick flashes of human depravity. Cruelty from one brother to another, blistering dialogue between spouses, the occasional hard-handed violence. There’s an especially terrible moment in one short story when the reader suddenly realizes a next-door neighbor isn’t merely a friendly role model to a young boy. The collection allows us to see the worst in its cast of characters, often through the machinations of the surreal landscape—the desert, rearing up with its grit and heat, catching people in its swell and dragging them down and under.

These terrible, human moments consistently surprised me—they come almost out of nowhere. Almost. Once you realize what’s happening and the shock wears off, the stories kind of just…click into place.


 

Book Review: WAKING THE BONES by Elizabeth Kirschner

waking_the_bones_400_2 Waking the Bones
by Elizabeth Kirschner
The Piscataqua Press, 2015
$13.00

Reviewed by Allison Keene

In her memoir Waking the Bones, Elizabeth Kirschner unravels the snarled strings of her life, weaving connections between her childhood traumas, her adult mental illness, and the redemptive power of self-reliance.

Kirschner divides her memoir into clear sections, each of which anchors the short, poetic chapters within to a specific span of years and to a particular location. Despite these confinements, the individual chapters are airy and dynamic, and Kirschner’s language is alight with sensory detail and a feeling of constant, fluttering movement.  Often, this movement is most apparent when Kirschner – called “Little Bits” as a child – escapes the dangers of her domestic life and seeks refuge in nature:

I, Little Bits, dost remain in the vast, blue woods of my childhood from scantest dawn to decanted twilight, rare as the cherry womb of a lady-slipper. Here I scramble onto downed trunks whose roots span the girth of Catherine wheels, trunks whose spongy insides are stuffed with what seems like crimson-brown catkins. I wonder: does the catkin fairy nest in that puffy stuff? Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink with sea-green inchworms?

Kirschner’s poetic prose plays with both speed and sound, starting with low, deep vowels sounds that anchor it (and Little Bits) to the ground – “downed trunks whose roots span the girth.” Then, the narration beings to lilt upwards, building to sharp consonants and tight, light vowels – “Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink.” Though she is weighed down by immense childhood trauma, Little Bits is as bright and airy as her narration, darting and hovering between images like the monarch butterfly whose migrations she traces throughout the book. Kirschner never loses this childlike voice, nor the impression of speed and sensory distraction.  Elizabeth the woman maintains the sporadic wonder of Little Bits the child, attracted to beauty and ephemera, fantasy and poetry.

Even as the memoir moves forward in time – progressing from Little Bits’ chaotic childhood through Elizabeth’s marriage, the birth of her son, Ryan, and her eventual institutionalization and divorce – the story maintains its fluttering narrative style. Kirschner’s chapters continue to resist the temporal order that the section headings ascribe them, often beginning with phrases that destabilize an attempt at ordering the narrative at all:

“After a long death, I started to come back.”

“In time, over time and through time, I continue to cross three bridges and states to see Ryan.”

“Soon after, long after Dad goes to the other side, the seizures start.”

These gestures intentionally unravel time, drawing the reader’s attention to the way that all the moments that Kirschner describes – childhood, marriage, illness, divorce – inform and shape each other. It’s of no consequence if a moment occurs “soon after, long after” another moment in linear time, since all moments occur simultaneously in her memory.  Little Bits/ Kirschner are in constant motion alongside and against each other, colliding into one another and their memories as they try to make sense of their story.

Woven amongst these fragments is a complex question about love and blame. In spite of Kirschner’s painful childhood, suffered at the hands of abusive parents, she chooses not to challenge or condemn them for their transgressions against her. Kirschner knows that her bones are not her own – they belong (at least in part) to the family history that created her, the tangled knot of stories, relationships, and people that produced her damaged (and damaging) parents and her own wounded self.  Her bones are fragile, like the skeleton of a fallen bird that she and her son once found in their garden, and they’re flimsy, like the material of the skeleton costume that she wore while her father abused her as a child. However, fragile and flimsy bones are also her foundation, and they are the tools that she uses to rebuild her life after the unraveling of her marriage.

Kirschner often refers to her Sea Cabin—the home in coastal Main that she rebuilds after her divorce. She calls the process of rebuilding the house “waking the bones,” stressing that, in rehabilitating the house, she is also rehabilitating herself.  Kirschner doesn’t reject her damaged foundation –  her old and wounded bones. She merely accepts that she has been “Kirschnerized,” that her loss expands her, propels her, and is part of her heritage.

At the conclusion of her dynamic and emotive memoir, Kirschner leaves her readers with a sense of hard-won wholeness and peace. Kirschner continues to renovate her Sea Cabin, feeling, as she does so, her damaged mind and body begin to heal:

Because I go after it, through, under and over my healing, I braid it into the plaits of my being. By doing so, I learn that a mad mind can heal, but a mad soul – Mom, Dad’s – can’t. My mind is a lighthouse, greenhouse, moonhouse.  It’s a dream structure built upon a foundation of boulders caulked by starlight and mission figs. It’s not only built to last beyond my own lasting, but out of a fabric transient as tears, a hope that’s not easily undone.


 

Book Review: THE NERVE OF IT by Lynn Emanuel

51+A-OhCOGL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_ The Nerve of It:
Poems New and Selected
by Lynn Emanuel
University of Pittsburgh Pres, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna 

As a younger poet beginning her career, I’m interested in the process seasoned writers undergo when compiling a new and selected. Can the inclusion of older poems be likened to a band playing that first single, ten years later, at the encore of every show? Are the ghosts of who we were, at least as artists, a burden to bear? Or are the words a reassuring reminder that we’ve changed at all? I may never know my own answers to these questions unless I’m one day lucky enough to have a similar project. But here’s what I do know: Lynn Emanuel embraces these disparate spaces of time. Instead of arranging chronologically, The Nerve of It is based on “linkage” and “collision.” Old poems nestle against the spine of new poems, the new poems sparking fresh context and narrative through the words we’ve read and loved. This re-imagining gives a real pulse to this collection, as Emanuel points out “This is the wonderful thing about art / It can bring back the dead.”

Art as a medium of expression, as well as the work of the poet, is a major thread here. From the first page we are met with a poem titled “Out of Metropolis,” which details a train trip into the heart of America. The first stanza lures us with romantic images of the Midwest:

             We want cottages, farmhouses
with peaked roofs leashed by wood smoke to the clouds;
we want the golden broth of sunlight ladled over
ponds and meadows. We’ve never seen a meadow.

But in the second stanza we experience a shift in tone. Our visions are broken. Suddenly, urbanization pops our country bubble with “a Chevy dozing at a ribbon of curb,” and “the street lights on their long stems.” A second train fades into the distance and “there is a name strolling cross the landscape in the crisply voluminous / script of the opening credits, as though it were a signature on the contract, as though / it were the author of this story.” At this point, I wonder if Emanuel is talking about the train anymore or the scene outside the window. That maybe, instead, this is the journey of the poet; we must imagine beauty where it has long ago fled. Or, as writers, we are often disappointed by the real world in comparison to our own creations. Perhaps Emanuel is suggesting both.

Another poem that stands out in this collection is “Frying Trout While Drunk.” Though an older poem, it still remains a bright light in contemporary poetry. Here we are witness to a mother struggling with alcohol and a speaker who locates herself within this addiction. The images have not wilted over the years; “In his Nash Rambler, its dash / where her knees turned green,” “The trout with a belly white as my wrist,” “Buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.” And probably most famously:

She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
In love with a man of lechery so solid
You could build a table on it
And when you did the blues would come to visit.

In these lines we are reminded of why Emanuel has a new and selected. And tomorrow, when I cringe at what I’ve written today, I’ll think of the trout frying and know, eventually, I’ll find the right words, because,

A new planet bloomed above us; in its light
The stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;
We could have anything we wanted.


 

Book Review: WHY IS IT SO HARD TO KILL YOU? by Barrett Warner

warner-book Why Is It So Hard To Kill You?
by Barrett Warner
Somondoco Press, 2015
$14.95

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe 

Warner’s collection opens with, “I Thought Pigeons were Vegetarians,” a meditation on (and critique of) the concept of monogamy as expressed through the image of doves and love birds. Warner challenges preconceptions of married life and normalcy, the sickly-sweet ideas we’re often spoon-fed in childhood, contrasting them with the harsher realities of life. Similarly, Warner challenges preconceptions of nature poetry as pastoral, serene. “Poem with Only a Single Reference to a Shotgun” describes a mercy killing of a deer badly injured by a car. “I’m startled by his surrender, / turning his head to give me a better target,” Warner writes. He hauls the body into the woods and finally, “toss(es) a bucket of lime over the wound / to discourage thieves.” Even with death, the description isn’t peaceful. In fact, Warner’s final act with the deer is one of aggression; he tries to sabotage the primacy of scavengers and decay. It’s a final ‘fuck you’ to death. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty in nature. Surprises still happen. “Sleeping on Sand While Dolphins Swim Past Bethany” describes exactly that, except, of course, the narrator isn’t asleep: “A few shrieks, and an olive-skinned bather says, Look! Look! / He begins counting dolphins in Arabic. // I can tell by the sincere way he’s counting/there are a lot more than five.” The narrator tries to ignore this moment of beauty and return to sleep, but the spirit of the moment sneaks in, “I am dreaming/you are brushing my hair off my eyes, // and I am not trying to bite your hand or anything.”

Warner’s poems describe moments in which the world breaks. Some of these moments are beautiful, some are tragic, and most are a combination of the two that make it impossible to pick a side. “I Thought I’d Stop Having Sex Dreams of Kim after She Broke Her Neck” is one of these latter ones. It describes the narrator’s sub/conscious fixation with “Kim,” listing some examples of dream scenarios, “outdoors, under willows, bodies quilted. / The more she takes, the more she has to hold. / The more I take, the more I let go.” Warner has set a wistful tone. He describes the injury in almost emotionless language: “Kim’s break is two knuckles down/from what they call a hangman’s fracture.” One expects the poem to end in sadness, anger, some wrenching outpouring about lost opportunities. The real accomplishment of this poem, though, comes with the turn at the end:

After lunch, I wheel her outside to the herd.
A gray horse lips and tongues her ball cap
until it finds the peppermint someone put there.
This is the one who fell on me, she says.

A lesser poet might’ve gone too heavy-handed, but Warner leaves it open, somewhat ambiguous. Is she angry? Do they laugh?

“Tanya” is a love-lost poem. The narrator receives a phone call from the titular character, a kerosene drinking hard case down in Florida, “I thumbed an atlas, scanning varicose highways. What could forty years have done to Florida?” he muses. The poem continues, “When my wife asked me for water, I reached for the bottle, drained half, and gave her the rest. I wanted to say, because I’m a mean bastard. But instead of asking why I had done that, she stared at the rain hammering our tin roof. She said, Who’s Tanya?” There’s a lot happening in that interaction. The narrator tries to lash out but his wife doesn’t even notice.

“Immortal One” gives us the book’s title. It begins, “Good morning, angel fish. / Why is it so hard to kill you?” The poem continues with a litany of pets the narrator has owned until they died or neglected until they died. In the context of the book, the fish could represent many things: love, innocence, even depression.

But underneath the darkness of Warner’s world, there’s a joie de vivre. He embraces this darkness for what it is: reality. And to explore that, honestly, means he’s going to bump up against some joy, too, even if he doesn’t want to. Most often in these poems, those things come from art and an appreciation of beauty. In his previous collection, Warner crafted a love letter to the Baltimore poetry scene. He touches on that again in some of these poems, “Thrasher,” for example, which is about novelist and skateboarder Timmy Reed, “His stories make me think of fables. / Instead of ogres and orphans there are shovels and lawnmowers, / and everyday people just trying to sort it out.” “Maine Is Not the Place to Grow Bougainvillea” is a great example of Warner’s joy. He describes a trip to a cabin, abounding with natural beauty. Warner’s great sense of humor pops up:

I imagine her sunning herself
on a chicory mat,
surrounded by Japanese poetry.

Bougainvillea
is almost
one-fourth of a haiku.

The “she” in the poem scolds him about how unrealistic it is to have a tropical plant in Maine’s climate, “That plant will die in a few/weeks, she says, and then we’ll all/have to deal with your grieving.” Finally, she relents and asks, “Where do you want to put it? / Over here, I say, by the banana tree.”

But it’s not all bad between them. “Bath” is a tender, loving poem, “Julia comes midday to the hospital/to smear lunch on my lip and to wash my hair and back.” Warner describes the simple acts of her feeding him, adding ice to the soup so he doesn’t burn his lips. “I swallow three sips and go back to sleep. / When I wake she’s gone, and my hair is beautiful.”

“Wow,” gets at the heart of things. “The Yellow Pages of everything / I might have been is slimmer over time.” it begins. The poem cycles through foiled dreams, “At forty, I tear out all the Surgeon listings / when I notice the fluttering in my hand.” Finally, “I’m looking for a single listing:/Walking Around with an uncertain look on my face, / exclaiming, Wow, at frost on the turnips, / at the red smile of blood as I slice open a finger…”  And in this collection, Warner has shared his true talent for cataloguing the wonders of the world as he sees them; dead horses, disappointed lovers, missed opportunities, his dead or dying hand, but also the wonder of crows grieving their own dead, a grandmother’s wisdom, the way a heart can still catch fire.


 

Book Review: ROCHESTER KNOCKINGS by Hubert Haddad

Rochester_Knockings-front Rochester Knockings:
A Novel of the Fox Sisters

by Hubert Haddad
Trans. by Jennifer Grotz
Open Letter Books, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

In Rochester Knockings Tunisian author Hubert Haddad brings to life with exquisite historical detail the theater and sensation of the Fox sisters, spiritual mediums who captivated the world in the mid-nineteenth century. Haddad travels through time and space and spiritual plane to bring us this tale, channeling both the voices and the spirit of this turbulent time in history when abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage were forefront on the political stage.

The novel opens in the small town of Hydesville just outside of Rochester, New York, where sisters Maggie and Kate begin to witness strange phenomena in their farmhouse home. In the dead of night, doors slam, furniture scrapes across the floorboards, and unexplained rapping comes erratically from underfoot. Instead of treating the farmhouse as the innocuous setting for these bizarre events, Haddad introduces it as another character in the story of the Fox sisters with complexity and agency of its own: “Certain long-poisonous houses seem indifferent, bored with human lives, and then one eye half-opens suddenly from the depths of their comatose sleep.”

Maggie and Kate become convinced that a spirit from the beyond is attempting to make contact, so the sisters perform their first séance before a crowd of Hydesville neighbors. As the spirit knocks in response to their questions, they learn that a man named Charles Haynes had been murdered and his body buried beneath the farmhouse. This shocking information is regarded with both fear and skepticism, but their unnerving ability to communicate with the other side launches the Fox sisters’ career throughout North America and across the Atlantic. It was the first of hundreds of séances the sisters would conduct over the course of their forty-odd years spearheading the Spiritualist Movement.

Haddad works hard to place the Fox sisters within their proper historical context, resurrecting the uncertainty toward rapidly evolving science as well as a general dissatisfaction toward conventional religion. In the wake of this societal unrest, spiritual mediums pierced the veil, providing much sought-after answers about death and the afterlife. Furthermore, Haddad ties together the power of spiritualism with the rising demand for equal opportunity: “[As mediums] American women finally held a new way to take their turn speaking without being booed at like those feminists in municipal assemblies advocating the right to vote.”

While Haddad’s extensive research no doubt provided the framework of this intricate story, it is truly the prose that sends readers spinning through time. For this artfully crafted narrative, Jennifer Grotz’s translation retains all the fluidity and precise word choice of the original French. At times, the writing might feel stuffy and cumbersome, not unlike the nineteenth century, and this technique speaks to the expertise of the author and translator in mimicking and recreating the formal air of the time. It’s one of a few tricks that serves to further engulf readers within the realm and world of the Fox sisters. Masterfully written, Rochester Knockings is a haunting tale you won’t be quick to forget.


 

Lucifer Morningstar

by Nola Garrett

Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he Stood and call’d
His legions, angel forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbor’r; or scatter’d sedge
Afloat, when fierce Winds Orion arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o’rthrew
Buriris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
from the safe shore thir floating Carcasses
And broken Chariot Wheels; so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hallow Deep
Of Hell resounded.

ll. 301—315, Book I, Paradise Lost
John Milton

It’s Lent, and during this year’s Ash Wednesday service while I was reciting The Great Litany of ills that beset us humans, I was pressed yet again into thinking about the nature of good and evil. So, later when I noticed Fox Network’s new dramedy, Lucifer, I watched the pilot show. It had everything a Lutheran, English professor turned poet-blogger could possibly find in a television series: comedy, evil, sex, odd justice, a jazz-piano playing Lucifer, set in Los Angeles (oh the glory of puns!), laid over a police procedural; derived from a comic book series, a graphic novel; a handful of verses from Genesis, Isaiah, Job, Matthew, Mark, Revelation; and, most specifically, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which echos in form and content most of the great epic writers of Greece and Rome.

Don’t bother to phone me on Monday nights between 9 and 10 p.m. I’m not picking up. I’m taking notes for further research, and later rummaging around in various Bible translations, Paradise Lost, Google Search, and my O. E. D. Don’t you just love Milton’s word, “nathless!”

Fox’s Lucifer is based on the premise that Lucifer after all these eons has decided to take a vacation from Hell. Though he has retained his immortality, he has removed his wings the better to show off his beautifully tailored black suits. He has bought a nightclub in L.A. which is managed by one of his female dark angels. To help him understand his life on Earth, he has acquired a mid-life, blonde therapist whom he appears to pay with sexual favors. Every now and then God (Dad) sends down from Heaven Lucifer’s brother angel to check up on His disobedient son. Sibling rivalry ensues.

At a crime scene Lucifer meets Chloe, a Los Angeles Police Detective, who like him deeply believes in justice, but seems to be one of the few humans, other than her young daughter Trixie, who is immune to his wiles. Her immunity and her shared sense of justice interests him so much that he sets out to help her solve crimes by becoming a consultant to the LAPD.  What Lucifer and Chloe both insist upon in every situation and with each other, is that everyone must take responsibility for their actions. Chloe is content to let the law mete out punishment, but Lucifer sees himself as the one who punishes. After all, punishment always has been his hellbent job.

However, as the series proceeds, we find that Lucifer’s time on earth among the mortals is beginning to change him. He starts to feel pain. He bleeds. He’s surprised, yet curious. He does retain his ability to persuade everyone, except for Chloe and Trixie to admit their deepest desires which they often then act out, even though he cannot make them take action. In other words, the Devil doesn’t make them do it.

Nathless, Milton’s spoken version of nevertheless, a sort of transitional, reality check accounting for the Universe’s only constant: change—always involving some loss along with some gain—may be the most powerful force at work in Lucifer’s televised vacation. After Lucifer’s long fall from Heaven he didn’t just lie there. Milton reports that Lucifer and the other fallen angels built the Palace of Pandemonium and organized punishments for the hoards of Earth’s sinners who keep arriving. Lucifer’s vacation appears not to be time off from work, but rather merely a change of place. And, just as when God created the earth and its inhabitants, His interactions with the inhabitants, caused God to change his mind several times, to change his covenants with His people, and to reincarnate as Jesus. I suspect that Lucifer’s interactions with the inhabitants of Los Angeles will change Lucifer, too. Never mind Fox’s Trump and the Republicans. Lucifer Morningstar’s forthcoming changes as portrayed on the Fox TV Network are what so terribly intrigue me.


 

Book Review: THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli, Trans. by Christina MacSweeny

StoryOfMyTeeth-Web-356x535 The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli
Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 2015
$16.95

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bingler

In 2013 Galería Jumex, a contemporary art gallery outside of Mexico City, commissioned Valeria Luiselli to write a fictional story about their exhibition, The Hunter and the Factory. Her resulting work, The Story of My Teeth, explores the connection between the gallery’s collection and its source of funding—Jumex, a juice factory. Luiselli was inspired by nineteenth century Cuban tobacco readers—who read serial novels to tobacco factory workers—to write the novel in installments for the juice factory workers. The workers read and critiqued her installments, contributed photographs of the neighborhood, and offered stories and opinions on the art collections that their labor funded. The final, collaborative product is ultimately about the love of storytelling, from the process of creation to its power as a shared experience. It becomes so layered and complex through experimentation with perspective and form that ultimately it transcends genre. It is literary fiction, but with elements of memoir, biography, metafiction, tragicomedy, and magic realism woven in.

The novel is about Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, nicknamed Highway, a collector of objects, like teeth, his father’s fingernails, jewels, and contemporary art. He works at a juice factory in Ecatepec (a neighborhood outside of Mexico City) for more than nineteen years, before becoming an auctioneer. He desires to someday write his autobiography, and have a surgery to fix his teeth. As a temporary solution, he purchases Marilyn Monroe’s teeth at an auction and has an operation to replace his with hers. The confidence Highway gains from his Monroe teeth does not depend on their authenticity. Fake or genuine, they contain not only the weight of Monroe’s name, but also her history and impact on the world. In replacing his teeth with her teeth, he merges their histories and evolves his identity—he is as much a part of the teeth’s story as the teeth are a part of his story.

And this is, more or less, the “story of his teeth”: they are crooked, then removed (and replaced with dentures), and then sold at an auction. He auctions them as the teeth of Virginia Woolf, Plato, Rousseau, and more. The stories he tells are entertaining, humorous, and often complex. They derive humor from their two-line simplicity, or long and unrelated anecdotes, or violent endings. His stories indirectly question why we value what we value—whether that is art, or straight teeth. He believes that he can “restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’” Its authenticity doesn’t necessarily matter, only the story and faith he has for the object. In buying an object at an auction, one is buying the story that sold it. Consider a certain portrait hanging in the Louvre that increased in value from being stolen and vandalized. Like auctioneering, art—whether in the form of literature or a painting—must be bought and sold, both figuratively and literally.

Highway’s story is “sold” to us from three different perspectives: Highway’s, his friend (and transcriber of his autobiography), Voragine’s, and Christina MacSweeney’s, the actual novel’s translator.  Luiselli “sells” us The Story of My Teeth by appealing to our inherent need for storytelling. The novel is, overwhelmingly so, a writer’s novel: it is (continuously) aware of its origin—a fictional collaborations with an art exhibition. This is exemplified by the novel’s setting in Ecatepec, Highway’s initial career at Jumex, and the most climactic scene, which takes place at Galería Jumex. These examples serve as the novel’s “constraints”: the novel’s plot cannot stray too far from its origin as a commissioned project.

In consequence for straying, Highway is punished: he is kidnapped, most likely drugged, and taken to a clown exhibition at the art gallery. There he is forced to confront some of his biggest fears, such as clowns and being perceived as a clown. This section is absurd, and seemingly fantastical. It is not until Voragine’s chapter that we learn what exactly happened to Highway when he was kidnapped. On its own, this chapter would not have worked; it would have felt too contrived. But combined with Voragine’s chapter, it works because Voragine grounds both Highway and the story of his kidnapping, and presents him as a more sympathetic character. Voragine’s chapter is a necessary companion, and contrast, to Highway’s story for this reason. He presents himself as a more reliable narrator than Highway, and avoids Highway’s hyperbolic and boastful language, instead favoring straightforward facts and prose. Voragine admits to Highway’s flaws, but still hopes that the reader will see Highway as he does: as an entertaining and enthusiastic storyteller.

Like Voragine, I choose to see Highway as an entertaining, albeit flawed, storyteller. It is his exaggerated sense of self, and his stories, that make the novel enjoyable. But the novel becomes successful, as a whole, with its structure: Voragine’s chapter, MacSweeney’s chapter, and Luiselli’s “Afterward” revealing the novel’s origin, help to immerse the reader not only in the world she created, but in the process of its creation. Luiselli proves that collaborative fiction, or even a fiction exercise, can yield a successful and cohesive novel—and that if this is where the future of contemporary literature may be heading, we should embrace it.

In addition to The Story of My Teeth, Christina MacSweeney translated Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and her collection of essays, Sidewalks. Luiselli’s first novel won a Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and in 2014 she received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. The Story of My Teeth was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015.


 

Book Review: WAITRESS AT THE RED MOON PIZZERIA by Eleanor Levine

s224039681740579826_p92_i1_w2560 Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria 
by Eleanor Levine
Unsolicited Press, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

I’ve known Eleanor Levine primarily as a fiction writer. Her stories are usually funny, high energy jaunts that read like bursts of insane joie de vivre, though they can be quite dark as well. I’ve also seen her read fiction, and it was just what I’d have expected; Levine is one of those writers who can command attention without even, I think, meaning to. Everyone knows she’s in the room, and they tend to like her. So, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from her poetry. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Levine’s poems have surreal elements, but at their core, they are love poems, and there’s nothing more surreal than real life. The Red Moon Pizzeria, itself, is mentioned in several poems as a neighborhood landmark. The title poem is a touching reminiscence, “When I first met you, you were a waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria.” It continues, “I wanted to kiss your cheek, feel your fury for a minute, but / couldn’t drive my bike near your German Shepherd on Sycamore Avenue.” The waitress marries a man named Hank and doesn’t respond to the narrator’s letters. Intermittently, over the years, she reaches out to the former waitress without success until finally they reconnect, years later. Of course, things have changed, and though that fantasy attraction is still strong, it can’t compete with reality. Aside from the pathos of the poem, one thing that really stands out is the way Levine casually drops what would seem to be life-altering occurrences. She describes the former waitress as “in ‘the program’ with boys who drowned me.” This casual reference to abuse is never explained. Similarly, “It took months / weeks after my mom died for you to write.” The casual mention of the narrator’s mother’s death is overshadowed by the humorous description of the conversation:

Thought you were nuts/speaking forever on the phone/the jittering sensation of your mind
on the moon/the matters that lilted in your brain on cocaine but were now
quite sober, thank you Jesus and members of AA.
Wanted off the fucking phone, but you kept talking talking talking.
Other women I could date didn’t divulge heroin addictions in thirty seconds;
could walk in profoundly safe conversations along country roads;
why not date normal fifty-year-olds with inferior orthodontic work,

These details, though tragic, are commonplace. Everyone’s mother dies. Everyone has difficulties in life. The truly profound moments, like love, are the ones worth focusing on, Levine seems to be saying.

In addition to love poems, Levine also writes about her family and friends. “Daddy and the Cicadas” is another standout. It begins with a spare, almost terse description:

When Daddy was dying
he watched the Mets
“Been there, done that,” he said
like the kids in school

The poem is restrained, avoiding melodrama with what could easily be a dangerous topic. Levine manages emotion, though. One of the more compelling details, for me, is the simple statement:

I worry about Daddy
stuck in the ground
with no Worcester sauce
to put in his tomato juice

It’s such a specific, odd detail, and it evokes a speaker who is familiar with tragedy. “Daddy” is a beautiful, heartbreaking poem about loss. It begins, “he was a thin man/ with lips tighter than Nebraska dirt/ and bristles on his chin.” The image is one of restraint, possibly forced restraint. She continues:

I wanted to touch his face
but instead felt the stomach
and kissed him there
and asked, “Why are you
taking my Daddy?”

Of course, there’s nothing to be done, and Levine continues with an almost surreal detail, “The people politely didn’t /  know what to say, but/ wrapped him in a big / sack.” The image of the sack is a perfect counterpoint to the bare emotion of her reaction to his death. There are a handful of poems about Levine’s father, and all of them are outstanding.

Being Jewish and from New York are recurring details in Levine’s poems, though she avoids the clichés often associated with these things. She doesn’t wax poetic about any of the boroughs or make parochial references meant to show how well she knows New York and you don’t; instead, her references are to (often dead) family and places that no longer exist, much of the time. Neighborhood kids threw rocks at her family’s door, and the peculiar quirks the family and friends exhibit are neither praised or ridiculed; they simply are. There’s a vibrancy to the New York Levine paints, not of cultural significance, but of bodies; these places exist as backdrops to the scenes of heartbreak and past joys. And, Levine does seem to move around.

“First Girlfriend” is a bittersweet reminiscence. It begins with solid characterization:

instead of Rilke,
she hums the Garden State Parkway Blues
reads a Pisces horoscope
plays guitar at the nursing home
and meets her husband

Right away, Levine has established the liminal quality of so many of the relationships she describes. “Meningitis” is another love poem. The narrator describes encountering and being intrigued by a woman with meningitis. She researches the disease and then flirts with the woman:

I knew at any moment,
in those big vinyl chairs,
with ice clicking in my Coke,
she’d stare at me

Levine sets the poem up beautifully. The narrator is obsessed:

across from the golf course,
as rain poured along the highway
and cars went to the amusement park,
past the blue-shingled house,
I decided to write her biography.

I phoned to read the introduction,
but she hung up.

That moment, at its heart, captures the appeal of Levine’s poems. The thrill of meeting and becoming intrigued with someone is vivid and real, and the sting of rejection is also real, but is tempered with Levine’s great sense of humor. It’s so absurd, of course, that someone would just decide to write a biography of a near stranger, but haven’t we all felt that way, for a moment, when meeting a certain someone? There’s a great wisdom and equal parts stupidity to the human heart, and Levine excels at capturing both with a manic but real energy.


 

Book Review: DRONE STRING by Sherry Cook Stanforth

 photo 12c71526-9610-486f-9d95-d61af4fe36aa_zpscwpduakb.jpg Drone Strings
by Sherry Cook Stanforth
Bottom Dog Press, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Anthony Otten

Anyone who has seen Diane Sawyer’s documentary A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains will understand that Appalachian culture presents some excruciating paradoxes. Sherry Cook Stanforth’s new poetry collection Drone String actually rejoices in the themes of this region’s people, their fatalism and determination, their despair and humor. These poems vary their tunes as skillfully as a dulcimer in a trained hand, focusing on the lives of rural women who are at once proud and cornered by circumstance. Through the collection runs the biography of a woman with a fierce but tender self-consciousness of her heritage.

In an early poem, Stanforth launches a biting defense against prejudice: “My twang too educated for you? And my education / just doesn’t jive at all with your portrait of Rocky Top / You’ll Always Be a barefoot pregnant hilljack daughter…” The book provides a contradictory delight in the way it assails convention and humanizes its subjects even as it revels in confirming some of our cornpone assumptions about Appalachians—celebrating, for instance, the “chicken-chopping mama” whose daughter earns a doctorate.

Stanforth demonstrates an unwillingness to let the reader settle for a monochromatic picture of the futility or comedy of Appalachian life. With a bitter wink of defiance, she relays the story of a mother who kills a crow in her kitchen for fear of its deadly omen, and later tells a young girl to “set your mind to lose whatever you got/in this world.” Yet we find laughter in the same family. A gossipy aunt recounts “that wicked recurring dream / about her gynecologist” while a young daughter, frustrated with ironing, swears she “will buy / permanent press or nothing.”

The later poems display a refreshing boldness to force language past its usual contours, to speak of a storm that “sprayed us blind” or time “pooling into minutes.” These verses have a welcomed sobriety to them, which a few of the exuberant, breathless pieces earlier in the book are lacking; they also descend into the darker pockets of Appalachian life. The misery of an abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend resolves shockingly with the slash of a “lucky slice / of glass.” The “keenings” of coal miners echo in the hills where they perished, “reminding folks that / losing repeats itself stone by stone / acre by acre.”

A common thread among Stanforth’s works is their comfort with earthier realities—in particular, death—and their eagerness to challenge readers who shun them. The collection’s opening poem, about a woman discovering the shards of a skull “rippled gray / by water’s slick tongue” in a creek, foreshadows this concern. A little girl encounters the life cycle by watching a cicada struggle in a spider’s web. “Worms and wildflowers,” we hear, would make a better fate for a corpse than being “sealed up / neatly” in a coffin, “no hint / of decay.” The collection’s finest piece traces the history of a knife from its discovery near a murder scene to the moment it was first given as a gift, a play on chronology that achieves a deep pathos.

Stanforth writes at her best in spare narrative poems like the latter. The occasional nostalgic ode to tough grandmothers, whether they are decapitating poultry or beating raccoons with a hoe, could have benefitted from a lighter dose of sentiment. Altogether, though, the collection steers away from romanticizing these hardscrabble lives.

In Drone String the reader will find a seasoned and sassy personality, assertive of her roots yet unencumbered by illusion. “Go ahead and roll your eyes,” she dares, “at the way I wrap my / mountain identity around me like a crazy quilt forged / stitch by stich by some withered up sooth-saying holler / witch.” At the same time we meet a writer willing to uncover “everything you refuse to see” about a culture plagued with social problems and endowed with a generous heart.


 

Book Review: DOUBLE JINX by Nancy Reddy

 photo 0782e9b0-e225-4554-8b33-1938167d404e_zpsxjxovbbu.jpg Double Jinx
by Nancy Reddy
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

What if Eve told the story? That’s a question raised by Nancy Reddy’s poem, “Inventing the Body.” Exploring the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus, the earliest known hominid, Reddy asks, “Did she feel / the tender humming jumplily, catfish, / the rapid flare as she lit / on the precise right name?” Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer; this daughter of Eve is never allowed Adam’s powers of signification.

That glory is left to the team of male paleontologists who stumble upon her remains. “Her bones become a body / in their hands. Touched, / she breathes again.” In Reddy’s debut poetry collection, selected by Alex Lemon for Milkweed Editions’ National Poetry Series, even the ancestral mother of women is subjected to the Double Jinx all women face while living in a man’s world. Or, as Lemon writes, “her poems… unravel and embody the seething mystery, the metamorphosis, the inherent violence in womanhood,” “the brutality of being the girl not chosen by the boy, as well as the cruelty of being the girl who is chosen.”

Boys are not quite the center of Reddy’s collection—that honor is reserved for her fellow women—but they keep coming up. The girls are defined by them, seen by them, pursued and spurned by them, and ultimately contorted into paper doll versions of themselves. The sources Reddy returns to—American history, popular literature, science, fairy tales and folklore—allow her to turn the traditional narratives of womanhood on their heads. Here, women are wholly women again, trying their best to escape the restrictions of marriage, their family’s expectations, the space cut out for them in society.

Reddy’s reinventions of famous female characters always force her readers to see these stories in a new way. What if Little Red were abandoned by her mother? What if the prince never again came looking for Cinderella? But for all their strength of craft, these poems seem to exist uncomfortably within their predecessors’ old parameters. The poems that don’t rely on familiar stories and outright moralizing, those that seem to come from Reddy’s personal history, are the strongest of the collection. In these, she is able to take to task the damaging aspects of femininity, and, for that matter, masculinity, with greater specificity.

“Why the McKean County Lifeguards Left Town” revisits the mire of adolescence at an inland swimming hole. “When a girl went out into the water there, you / couldn’t say for certain / what would seize her.” Taught by their mothers all the joys of swimming, the young women quickly tire of Heimlich practice and recreated beaches. “We gassed up our cars and hightailed it for the coast. / Before our mothers / could call us to our dinner tables, we sped off / down the forest highway— / its logging trucks, its bait and beer shops, already / going out of season.”

This fear of expiration carries throughout the collection. The beauty queen deposed by middle age, the spinster, the other woman who overstays her welcome—Reddy writes an elegy for each of them and the ways they are not allowed to overcome their stories. As she shows, everyone loses in this culture… even the men. Fathers prone to violence, husbands ignoring their wives to gaze dumbly at unattainable women—the confines of femininity, masculinity, monogamy, heterosexuality.

In the end, the freedom Reddy’s speaker finds is to be complicated and unapologetic. She masturbates to depictions of Christ, “hung there / an object lesson in desire.” To a gone-away husband, she laments, “I was good for you. I was on / my best behavior.” She waits in the window for a strange man outside and “when he lifts her nightdress— / she won’t say no, won’t be sorry.” This voice rings dissonant to everything its parents ever taught. Woman, finally reinvested with creative power, begins her own imperfect story and waits to see the ending.

“My Love, / my Frankenstein, I made you up. I built a model lover,” she declares.

When you loved me
you called me on the telephone. Now I stitch a voice box
from cable and string. When I can figure out this radio,
its glitchy dials and rusted-out switches, I’ll make you sing.


Book Review: LANDSCAPE WITH FEMALE FIGURE by Andrea Hollander

 photo 3ef2523a-7c76-452b-8fa3-8bdb90d1e7df_zpsjnqhjbpz.jpg Landscape with Female Figure: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2012
Poems by Andrea Hollander
Autumn House Press, 2013
$17.95

Reviewed by Bill R. Scalia

Andrea Hollander’s book Landscape with Female Figure is comprised of 27 new poems and selections from three previous books (Women in the Painting, 2006; The Other Life, 2001; and House Without a Dreamer, 1993).  Given the breadth and scope of Hollander’s work, the selections are notable; the consonant themes are duplicity, betrayal, and the reconstitution of belief: in love, self, and language.  Hollander works these themes not as cause and effect, but as aspects of one another: duplicity (of desire, of language) leads to betrayal; as well, betrayal is worked by duplicity (a violation of trust).

In Hollander’s anthropology, humans are essentially constituted of language and desire.  She suggests that thought (desire) precedes language, and that language names desire.  However, language, due to its nature, is always in the process of unsaying itself as it says what it qualifies; for example, language unsays desire (qualifies the subject as subject), as opposed to unqualified desire existing for itself, in absolute relation to its subject.  Because a word is not the thing it names (the relationship is associative, not indicative), language shifts perception, identity, subject, and object.

Desire necessitates relationship, which in turn necessitates language.  Meaningful relationships are qualified by trust; in a marital relationship, for example, the benefit of giving yourself wholly to another person, making yourself wholly available, is also a surrender of your self-protection.  The trust is that a partner who has the means to hurt you will choose not to do so, and vice versa.  Nothing less than human society is built on this kind of trust.  Hollander writes, in “Woman and Husband,”

When I first conceived him in my life
I craved the softness of his voice, his eyes
that penetrated mine.  Disease
is made of less.

The break in the third line is crucial; with that choice Hollander associates sex with disease by isolating the terms in a single line.  This is typical of Hollander’s craft; she is attentive to the shifting semantic fields of her terms and allows them to flow into each other (as in the example of penetrated and disease, above).

Similarly, in the poem “Black”:

What little she has known of passion.  It takes in
everything, seduces the most innocent.
Only road kill seemed to own that road: skunk, skunk,
armadillo, possum, possum, possum. Passion

travels in the dark — the animal
we do not truly know, the one
we never pet . . .

Hollander’s tally of victims in the fourth line includes, both alliteratively and symbolically, passion as a death on that road.  But if passion is a kind of death (in terms of seduction of the innocent), it is also fundamental to life, as she indicates in “When She Named Fire”:

It was a sound
she uttered, not a considered thing, nothing
her mind did.  It was a sound
that burned her throat to come out
and announce itself for the thing
burning outside her
where the trees had been down for years . . .

When she named the sun, she didn’t think
of fire at all.  Sun, she claimed,
because it was big and unexplainable,
a oneness that she loved
for its ability to command
the whole sky and the earth too — . . .

She didn’t name the moon at all.
That was the name it gave itself.
At night she heard it call.

She thought she gave love’s name
to love, that beating thing she could not
still. She might have called it bird.  Or fire again
for fire inside that gives no light
but burns and burns and does not
stop until she touches
what she loves, and then it only burns
again and makes her want
to name it something more.

Hollander’s strategy is to reimagine a common creation myth to highlight on the eternal presence of desire.  In Genesis 2:20 Adam gives names to the animals, but Hollander grants Eve a more difficult task.  When an animal is named, it remains in itself unchanged; naming an animal doesn’t change its essence.  But Eve names fire, and Eve’s fire (as we know from the correlations in Hollander’s other poems) is desire.  Eve knows, fundamentally, that when desire is named it becomes a subjective totality that affects everything it touches; when desire is embodied, it becomes seductive (which in Hollander’s equivocation is always duplicitous).  Desire is contagious, and according to Hollander’s mythos is not sated until fixed on an object — but only to burn again.  Her pitch-perfect closing lines — makes her want / to name it something more — is also a condition of Hollander’s semantically overdetermined terms that fail to qualify (or better, fail in the fact of qualification).  As well, the lines set up a repeating condition, the motivating consumption that is desire; or at least, a desire that is named and therefore fixed on an object.  This naming, an ongoing concern in Hollander’s work, is perhaps best expressed in her important poem “Longing”:

I say this: if words could be laid down,
If they could be held,

my longing would end.
But words are not what they say.

They echo the sound
of a voice, a remnant, itself

an echo.

Such is the poet’s despair:  that which is fundamental to human life and society, that which names what we most want, and need is, at best, only nearby, an echo of an echo.

In the poem “Anniversary,” from the new group of poems, Hollander writes:

Last night I set the dining room table
he’s never seen.  He’s never seen
this apartment or the street where I live.

The duplication contained in the second line accentuates the absent mate.  Likewise, the end stopped stanza asserts a matter of fact statement of loneliness.  However,

The river light brightened as the moon rose.
I watched that.  Breathed in the fruity redolence
of the chardonnay.  Sipped.  I ate a chicken breast

marinated in champagne and limes.  I ate white rice
and fresh green beans from my neighbor’s garden.
I ate alone and wanted nothing.

The brightening moon (the feminine image of the moon recurs frequently in this collection), the reportorial list of the dinner menu, the introduction of neighbors, and even the frothy lightness of the expression fruity redolence suggests a woman far from despair.  But, as is typical of Hollander’s craft, even the assertive images may be read two (or more) ways.  The speaker may want nothing because she is restored to herself.  Or, she may in fact want nothing, that is, no / thing.  Or, she may want nothing because the desire to want has deserted her.  This last idea is perhaps reinforced by the poem’s last line, another of Hollander’s fatalistic declarations:

Whatever comes next will happen anyway.

Again, while this sounds like Hollander’s fatalism at work, it might also be a mature resignation not to the inevitable (loss, betrayal) but to the flow of human life that, finally, has not assured her despair but sharpened her sense of self.  In any case, the only assurance of her resignation in the line is that language, and her orientation to the world made of language, is always uncertain.

Hollander approaches this concern from the perspective of the writer in “Writing Studio,” one of the strongest poems of the new work. She begins by comparing writing poetry to planting a newly plowed field, watching crows feeding on seeds.  Then:

Do not fool yourself.
Do not think yourself
some all-powerful god
free to invent the world
according to your whims.
You are a watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
are done.

This is the most clearly wrought statement of her methodology.  The poet doesn’t create the world, but observes it and feeds on its leavings.  Hollander articulates a sort of poetic deism here.  As well, in terms of the dominant themes of the book, and particularly the restructuring of the self after the loss of innocence, this is the poet’s most mature vision: it is a fatalism that does not necessarily invoke despair.

Art is, fundamentally, the expression of the essential nature (and, in the case of poetry, ontology) of its materials, wrought by the artist.  Hollander’s poems are crafted such that at times her mechanisms are clearly on display; with the poems she has selected for this book, her material is the duplicitous essence of language — the ability to say more than one thing at once (for example, in “Wood Thrush,” It doesn’t surprise me that the male can sing / two notes at once; or, in “Delta Flight 1152,” It’s so easy, all you must do / is answer this man’s questions with truths / you’ve just invented), or the ability of language to not say anything at all.  Consider her poem “Wander”:

What we don’t know we don’t know,
so accept it.  If your mother wandered

when your father was stationed in France
during the war before you were born,
before you were even conceived, so be it.

The tautology of the opening lines betrays a casual fatalism, too generally stated to be of much use to the speaker other than mere pacification.  The next stanza localizes the information behind the tautology, but note that Hollander does not use this information to change the endless cycle of the tautological structure.  That is, specific information is contrary to the un-provability of the tautology; but for Hollander, the tautological condition is necessary, keeping with the ongoing theme in her work that what is necessary is not always what is true (and vice versa).  Later in the poem she writes:

Your job is to be the daughter,
to stay open to where you are,

your ear toward the glistening insects
that draw your eye to the wild azaleas

The pronoun indicates the speaker and her role in her relationship with her mother, as well as her understanding of herself.  She conflates the “I” with “eye,” centralizing her perception of her role; she exists insider a relationship and outside of it as well (a situation that is echoed in the opening tautology).

These insects must be honeybees heavying
with nectar — so many lifting in and out

of the wild azaleas you can almost smell their
desire.  Wild like your mother’s may have been.

Like your husband’s was.  But you don’t know
anything.

In clarifying the sexual imagery as well as her perception of it, Hollander comments on both aspects of her condition.  And later:

You sit on the porch

of this emptying house and think
whatever you think. . . .

Your job was to be the wife and mother,

the daughter.  To be whatever you are now.
The moon has its own job.  The house

will fill again.  Perhaps you are tired
of watching the bees.  Of noticing how

the petals of the azaleas strain upward
to right themselves after the bees

have finished with them.  Tired
of the questions that repeat themselves

like the fat predictable moon, and the doubt
that manages, no matter what the truth is,

to never run out.

Hollander determines — better, she allows full determination to occur — of the companion terms heavying and emptying (sexual imagery; family / children / domesticity; relational fulfillment and expectation) and creates dualities that again echo the tautology in the opening stanza.  The doubt of the last line is a counterbalance to truth, to knowing; this poem, like many in her section of new poems, does not resolve because it cannot resolve.  Hollander explores the ephemeral nature of language to inscribe the ephemeral nature of desire / sexual complication / social instability / the ineffability of language.  The tautological condition, then, is best suited to describe the ineluctable fact in Hollander’s poetry:  that language cannot qualify the truth of our roles and desires, a fact we either endlessly combat or reluctantly accept.  But the final resolution is that language is all we have — which is, of course, no resolution at all.

Hollander resigns herself, in “The Other Life,” to the acceptance of unfilled desire: in this case the desire for a more exotic, more fulfilling life than the speaker has lead: The Other of the title is Levinas’ “Other,” the recognition of the personhood (we might say the soul) in another human, but Hollander takes the idea a step further: in a woman separated from her sense of trust (indeed, her sense of self), she sees the “other” in herself.  Even as the poet qualifies life with the image of a scarf, and then further removes the scarf image by qualifying that as perfume, the poet is herself two removes from who she once was, or perhaps once wished to be:

The life you wish you had lived
inhabits the lavender scarf
you lift now and then

from the dresser drawer.
Like perfume, it invades

every room in your house

with possibilities
until your body is filled —

that body
anyone can touch.

The availability of the body is as well the poet’s desire for the availability of herself to herself.  The “Other Life” is thus necessary, and is, as she writes,

. . . the life you covet and protect,
the one you invent and invent

because it invents you back.

The manifold life in this poem is part of Hollander’s anthropology, at least as it describes a person separated traumatically from herself.

“The Other Life” appears roughly at the midpoint of the book, and given the repetitions in the last stanza, we might despair of the poet ever finding grounds for a reintegration of her sense of trust with her experience of the world.  But by the end of the book that process seems to have, in a sense, begun.  At the end of the book Hollander’s work becomes more focused on a summation of what she’s learned in poems with the revealing titles “What I Want,” “Advice,” and “Dawn.”  In “What I Want,” she writes,

. . . I want

to change this longing if I can.
I want to stop discounting
what I am.  I want whatever’s out there —
perhaps a word, perhaps a man — to part
that silence,

to clear the road ahead,
to signal dogs and rabbits,
to want oncoming traffic
that someone mean and tired of longing
is speeding down this forlorn
road . . .

The closing poem, “Dawn,” is a poem of liminality, a poem of transition states, the poet’s reawakened desire to be between absolutes, between (we might say) the present and future tense of existence:

I want to know the precise moment
today becomes yesterday —
tomorrow, today. . . .

I need to know so urgently exactly how
the woman who lies awake at night
becomes the sleeper, then the dreamer,

then the dream.  I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else. . . .

I have to know what it’s like
the moment that ice is not ice anymore
but isn’t yet water.

In seeking the answers to these questions the poet seeks, as she writes, not scientifically / but with my whole body.  The speaker has reentered the world of transitional states, of spaces between words, feelings that cannot be scribed without being unfairly qualified.  Hollander alludes to distinctions between kinds of loss and species (though not degrees) of pain, specifically pain which betrays all of our illusions, even that of the signification of truth in language.  But I would contend that, particularly in the poems centered on betrayal, the distinction doesn’t matter.  When trust is violated, the pain reaches to the core of what and who we are.  When this violation is evoked in language the assumptions we carry about language — that it says what it means — reveals itself as the eggshell veneer upon which human society rests.  (None of us live our daily lives at the semiotic level.)  At the level of pain (which is also the failure of identity) the poet describes, the niceties of qualification and analytic assessment is simply irrelevant.  A drowning woman doesn’t need a lecture on hydrodynamic theory (or semiotics); she needs a life preserver. Only then can she begin to learn to swim.