Book Review: The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard

 photo 734107db-ed2e-4909-8ae3-9a43952d414c_zps39550200.jpg The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard
Coffee House Press, 2014

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

At first glance, former urban anthropologist Josh Ostergaard has written a love story. There’s nostalgia, great passion, cheating, impenetrable beauty, and remorse. There’s reunion, resignation, and heroic angels. And lots of hot dogs. Ostergaard comfortably puts down six in a nine inning span. And so, reluctantly, I had to accept the book for what it was, a compendium of thrilling baseball anecdotes.

This drew my attention. I am frequently stopped by the Subject Matter police for driving over the lyric. Ostergaard spent ten years proving some kind of point about baseball and American history. Didn’t anyone tell him subject matter was boring? That good writing was all about seductive language? Thankfully no one did, for while Ostergaard goes down a rabbit hole he finds mysteries and shouting and wicked ways. I read it and saw how politics hoodwink the masses. I saw our need to reaffirm our hierarchical society without blaming ourselves for doing so. I saw the romance of defeat.

The Devil’s Snake Curve is also one of the most interesting “alternative history books” I’ve read, somewhere between Churchill’s two volume Duke of Marlboro and Charles Lowery’s James Barbour, A Jeffersonian Republican. The history is alternative because it doesn’t settle on one actor or a few specific events in time. Rather, in an era when Presidents feel compelled to declare war on emotion, Ostergaard is compelled to give us the history of an emotion. And he does so without Googling anything. His is a grim business of old newsreels, paper stubs, and countless visits to sporting museums.

If you look past the conspiracies linking the Yankees to World War II internment camps and rest homes in Arizona, The Devil’s Snake Curve is also a crystalline metaphor for the self-persecuted post-modern poet jammed between the art and the job of it. It’s a book that could have just as easily been about small presses in Kansas City and the larger ones in New York which always seem to win. Between alt-lit and academic literature, the have-nots and the haves in today’s conversation about writing. Ostergaard’s mastery of baseball portraiture—in excruciating detail—is what lets us imagine the whole world in a catcher’s expectant return of a pitcher’s menacing glare.

What better place to begin this kind of baseball book than an epigraph from the controversial sports figure Mary Robison: “Now he and I are watching some men with a ball. No matter the shape or size of the ball, what team or for what country the men fight. The TV is showing men with a ball so we’re watching.”

In his chapter “Origins,” Ostergaard tries to understand with mathematics and beer and song why the sport has such an obsessive hold on its fanatics. There is the dual drama of our subjugated compartmentalizing behavior braided with hero worship and the mysteries of chance. “What began as a pitcher’s duel may end with a home run.” In a masterful stroke of meta-almanac baseball writing, Ostergaard even writes a capsule review of his own book: Its stories are the murmurs between innings. They are the pitches that make up a game. They careen off the wall and roll into dark corners. The game is played in fragments. Meanings accrue. Memories interrupt history. Each of us should be an umpire.

On a baseball diamond there are five sides to every story. Ostergaard dulled his scissors cutting into his arguments and pasting them into each section of his book which include: Origins, Machines, War, Animals, and Nationalism. But this book is also part memoir, if just barely so. Probably no more than thirty pages of memoir. We get the part of growing up in a culture of defeat. That his Kansas City Royals are a Podunk team in a Podunk part of the world. We see Ostergaard change the seasons, listening to summer games in the dead of winter that he recorded on a trusty cassette tape recorder. We see him drawing bored circles in the outfield dirt. Later we see him rage and still later we see old regrets wash out the color in his face. The other team has uniforms and a soundtrack. His team has a pitcher with a cigarette bobbing on his lip.

Why does nothing mean so much? Ostergaard seems to be asking. Nothing is more linear than a game of baseball. And yet the process and the outcome—the journey for those of you keeping score—is so elastic. One scene which conveys this occurs as his family returns from vacation. Ostergaard writes:

Distance Factors

My sisters and I were in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, rambling south through Iowa in the summer of 1983. We were on our way back to Kansas from our annual trip to Minnesota. We had spent a week in a tiny cabin on Pelican Lake, where every night we had campfires on the beach. By day I had stalked the weed lines with a butterfly net, looking for schools of bullhead fry. Now in the car we scanned the fields, counting horses to pass the time. My dad drove and listened to the radio. We had just entered the range of the Royals AM broadcast. I could hear the static fizz, and my dad fiddled with the dial. The Royals were playing the Yankees in New York.

In such a simple paragraph, Ostergaard combines Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and New York, and lakes and fields, and horses and fish, and Time. In the scene, there is triumph when George Brett hits a go-ahead top of the ninth homerun, then curses when Yankee manager Billy Martin has it disqualified on a pine tar technicality. It’s heartbreaking how the observant and curious boy nonetheless “didn’t understand” why his father was so jubilant, then crushed.

It’s almost as if the father’s been programmed, and that all of us have been hard wired to wage the fight of our lives for the sake of mediocrity. Not all of us can be Yankees. Not all of us can be one percenters. “How would you make a Yankees sandwich? In Kansas, we believed the only ingredients were arrogance and money.”

For Ostergaard, our very existence is based on inspiring ourselves to participate in a fight we cannot ever win. The Yankees’ job is to inspire us to risk losing to them by thinking we have a shot. Guess what? We don’t have a shot. Dreams are not enough. Joy is not enough. To make dreams come true you need money, arrogance, charisma, and at the very least, a low-residency MFA. Shaving the hair off your face is also a plus.

Even the belief in language and the hope of writing is its own kind of failure. The best we can do is walk away. Ostergaard traded his anthropology career for a job writing grant proposals at Graywolf Press. He gave up on his hometown Royals ever doing anything, and he walked away from this book a number of times. For five years The Devil’s Snake Curve was a novel about a father and a son. When he finally finished it he decided to send it to 100 small press publishers. If no one took it then he’d just toss it over a fence. Two days later he signed a contract with Coffee House Press. Jesus, how does that happen with a book about everything to do with nothing?

Quite simply, The Devil’s Snake Curve is that good. It reads well, either a paragraph at a time or in seventy page clips. When moments become too literal, Ostergaard spits on the metaphysic, weaving memory and sunlight and static A.M. radio. Before he’s carried away he’s back on message with another entertaining gem. Read him slowly and you’ll be outwitted. Read him quickly and you’ll be bombarded.

What does the empire fear most? It fears passion. It fears the George Brett in each of us who can burn a double into a triple. It fears our faith in our ability to turn the game. Last June, when Ostergaard was interviewed in HTMLgiant, correspondent Adam Robinson asked him about the Royals, who’d just completed an improbable ten-game winning streak. Ostergaard said he didn’t deserve to celebrate because he’d grown so frustrated with the team’s owners. Kansas City was the smallest media market in big league ball. Its owners were misers, only developing talent for the sake of selling its talent to other teams.

Last week when the Royals upended the Orioles in the American League Championship Series in four straight games, The Devil’s Snake Curve added a whole new chapter in invisible ink. It’s a chapter about slipping in and out of irony; it’s about how one man’s blues is another man’s scripture, and the razor thin margin between hunch and prophecy.

Our problem is that we yearn to believe the defeated outcome is in doubt. We’re talking about devils and going down swinging or caught looking. Now that the Royals are in the World Series, isn’t that proof of something?


Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

 photo 291329a6-45dc-4785-991d-c98101d39488_zps76d636a3.png The Earth Avails
Poems by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, 2014


Reviewed by Barrett Warner

God appears to be making a comeback. Six months ago Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual journal was unveiled in The New Yorker. The break came on the heels of former child evangelist Terry Lucas’ If They Have Ears to Hear (Southeast Missouri State University Press), and Edward Mullaney’s Figures for an Apocalypse (Publishing Genius Press)—a dark minimalist collage of nouveau romans and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

These works raised a few issues for postmodern reader such as how do we save ourselves from our own subject matter without a place to escape. They also hint that anarchy in poetry—a music of forms—is a critical push back against impenetrable and predictable layers of order in our society. Regrettably, these authors lacked the stamina needed to subdue the answers to questions they provoked. They’re poets for Christ’s sake, not bloodhounds, and poets readily grasp that it’s far easier to question the meaning of life than to actually live it. Still, the authors O’Connor, Lucas, and Mullaney—one from the past, one from the Golden State, and one from Brooklyn—ushered an important vertical dimension, bringing some sorely needed longitudinal thinking to the latitudes of the alt lit poetry community. Not since Saint Ignatius threw down his Consolation of Desolation has there been so much fuss about the up and down escalators between Heaven and Earth. Hang on tight, that handrail is there for a reason.

Mark Wunderlich makes a solid entry into this conversation with his third book, The Earth Avails. The title comes from an Anglo-Saxon charm, or ritual prayer-song, said or sung during the honey harvest to prevent swarming. It also seems to link him in a strange way with those curious bee poems in the last pages of Plath’s Ariel, as if we’re about to read of morbid sadness, a sadness that must nearly overtake us. In The Earth Avails, the poet’s soul seems in a constant state of surrender to an unhappy universe, the seasons, and all the possibilities for destruction—blights, illnesses, infertilities, coyotes. When it’s not shaking the white flag Wunderlich’s rustic soul is in the barnyard bleeding-out a lamb or taking a shotgun to a raccoon, but not before taking the Have A Heart cage trap to a reasonably beautiful and quiet setting at wood’s edge.

The Earth Avails mercifully is not divided into sections. There are no commercials in this drama. Nor does one need to read one poem in order to grasp another. Some of the poems are autobiographical. He visits his youth here and there, and commingles these with some reports from the limestone rich ground in upstate New York where he resides, but the majority of these poems are what Wunderlich calls “house prayers” after the late 18th Century prayer book models written by German immigrants to central and western Pennsylvania. For anyone keeping score, this was the onset of the Enlightenment Era.

Wunderlich’s house prayers are occasional poems. Some address very specific agricultural fiascoes, some are written as simple conversations with God, and so forth. Each prayer also serves as a prompt for the speaker to reveal himself as he loosens his meditation on us. Since many of them are written in second address, written to “you,” these prayers have the added bonus of making the reader feel like God. When he begs God for rain in his poem “Prayer in a Time of Drought,” Wunderlich is also in some way begging the reader to unlock our own shut doors that keep “the skies from opening / and cooling and sending the quenching, / sweet smelling rain.” His closing words, “Father please,” made me ache.

Wunderlich’s God is not necessarily a Christian one. In true Lutheran fashion the Messiah doesn’t even show up the first time, let alone a second coming. This gives the Lord a very Old Testament feel, which in turn imbues the speaker’s misfortunes, and blessings, with a larger proportion. Still, there is a reason that twenty years ago this book would not have been optioned by Hollywood for a film starring Charlton Heston. As William Carlos Williams said, each poem is a small universe. Wunderlich adheres to this wisdom while tackling a much larger universe. In other hands, the scope of these poems might have swallowed the poet, and even metaphor itself, but Wunderlich’s gifted use of language, his familiarity with older syntax and construction, and his ability to find the precise noun during some very imprecise moods alert us that these poems are shaped by someone skilled in the art of the beautiful and the true.

Americans have always had a restless bone (did somebody just say Manifest Destiny?), and we’ve come to associate a spiritual record as a journal of discovery. That usually means going places in a poem. No thank you, Wunderlich seems to be saying, as if he’s perfectly at peace being engaged in labor-intensive routines on his small piece of ground. Rather than write himself outside of the box, to use poetry as a way to leave what Bruce Springsteen calls “his own small town,” Wunderlich climbs deeper into it, lushly revealing its habits and rituals and horrors.

The way some people put bumper stickers on their cars to show where they’ve been to I imagine Wunderlich has a sticker that says “Mail Box” or “Corn Crib.” Maybe going on the road meant something fifty years ago, but Mailor’s American Dream is not quite the same with 7-Elevens dotting the turnpike like punctuation. Wunderlich prefers to stay at home and let the world—and its loving, vengeful God—come to him: “Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side. The willows bent // their pliable necks, tossed green hair hugely. / The hawk cried by the well.” Thus it’s ironic that The Earth Avails begins with a journeying poem, but the discoveries are all within his own midst, his waking up and his gratifying slumber. “Once I Walked Out” concludes with a desperate yoga that might have added ten years to Frost’s life:

I swung my arms, pulled air into my lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew—

bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.

Wunderlich’s deft handling of images in series takes us from a dust mote to the solar system within just a few paces without the reader feeling hurried. He does this again I “prayer for Sunshine During a Time of Rain” when he writes: “The corn, stunted in the fields / presses green tongues to the sky, / desperate for a lick of sun, the garden bloats / and goes to seed, pebbled with slugs.” In those two brief couplets the reader is handed the cosmos, weather, dirt, rocks, time passing, and even ecological French kissing.

Another poem, “Heaven-Letter” also goes back and forth between God—a great force, a blinding light—and the day to day as represented by particularly mundane tasks on the speaker’s farm:

With your sorghum broom you sweetened my path, pulled
the woolen shawl around me while I slept.

That the lightning struck the willow
and did not fall—for this I am grateful.

Help me to work. When I mow or plant,
when I seal the summer fruits in jars,

slaughter or pluck, slit the rabbit’s throat, butcher the fallow hen,
when I mend my rended garments, stitch the blanket top,

it is for you. When I wash or scrub upon my knees,
it is to see you more clearly.

Poetry about subject matter has been frowned upon by some critics, and rightly so. The feeling among Beats that one had to live a poem before writing it was actually a lot closer to Hemingway—who believed one had to die in order to write about death—than to Mark Strand. The problem with subject matter by itself, writing what one knows for example, is that it becomes too difficult to get at the mystery of something. The world of the poem becomes very two-dimensional and it’s not enough to merely rely on Time to add another dimension. The result is a very horizontal condition which we access by reading how the experience or the concept of the experience made the speaker feel or else made the speaker think of something. Wunderlich’s use of poems as prayers acknowledges his subject matter, but shifts the focus onto a seductive, faithful and spiritual realm with which one never tires for its many surprises. And it’s all about the work, the work of writing: “Urge, with your holy claw, the scratching of my pen.” In “A Servant’s Prayer,” Wunderlich prays: “Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry / of tasks and humiliations // is a shining world that must remain hidden / so it may remain unspoiled.”

It is important that we have enough knowledge to more or less get by, but not so much that we lose contact with subtle harmonies. Like strawberries, those harmonies will turn in an instant and we’ll miss them if we’re too smart. It is precisely because those subtle harmonies are the source of mystery in his writing that Wunderlich has created this uniquely traditional and oddly experimental form of collecting them as house prayers. Consider the closing lines of “Driftless Elegy,” a long sad poem—I kept blinking though its middle parts—describing a return to the depressing Wisconsin territory of his youth:

In an early photograph I have, part of the town
goes up in flames—a premonition from the 1880s.

A group of women, corseted, skirts infested with lace,
watch from behind a buckboard as ash flings itself

into the sky. To the right the blur of a girl
rushes away like a ghost. No face. Hardly a form.

Just a hat and a dress, and the news of a fire,
though no one is alive who knows her name.

A hundred years from now would any of us be writing so sweetly and so sharply about the twin towers? The desolation of the postmodern poet is that even in community he feels isolated and alone, lonely, and afraid of death. This is why the focus has to be outside of ourselves completely, just shy of a light year away, and yet we must bring to bear on that outward focus all of the intimate, boring details, all of our clarities, to that aim. Consolation is only possible through empathy and empathy requires some sort of spiritual focus to transcend contradiction. Wunderlich carries this to extraordinary measure. At times, the speaker and God seem like lovers, and yet the God is also an executioner. In “Prayer for a Journey by Sea” he writes: “The day will come for you to draw / the bright sickle of the moon // across my wooly throat. / Do it with love, without regret.” Wunderlich also addresses empathy dead on in “A Husband’s Prayer” when he concludes: “our hands / barely touching as we sleep.” The empathy, making a connection, is more important than romantic love.

It is remarkable to me that as I read these poems, each one reporting an often very foreign context to me, I found myself saying, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say all this time. And yet, I hadn’t really been trying to say those things. It’s just that Wunderlich has such an indirect, even plain spoken way of “controlling the interview” between the poem and the reader. He lets us pray these poems with him.

The phrase that sticks in most readers minds from O’Connor’s spiritual journal was her comment about God being the only true atheist. That line kind of morphed in my head with advice from novelist Bob Bausch to “write what you know,” and poet April Bernard to “write what you don’t know.” The conflicting wisdom says a lot about the difference between genres. In fiction we create stories. In poetry, we create mysteries. But what if you’re not a poet or a novelist? What if you’re a minister; how would you follow this logic? Writing what you believed, I reckoned, was writing what you didn’t believe.

Maybe Christianity has it wrong. Maybe instead of creating us in his image, God destroyed us in his image. No one is afraid of mortality like a ghost. And if we’re not fully engaged in life, in our own autobiographies and the possibilities that defy them, then we’re all ghosts. “Come Lazarus,” Wunderlich seems to be saying. “Step out from behind that boulder. Grab a plow. Glance at the sky. Let me show you what you’ve been missing.”


Book Review: Talisman by Lisa C. Krueger

 photo talisman_zps46906e70.jpg
Poems by Lisa C. Krueger
Red Hen Press, 2014

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

A few summers ago, the Saratoga Racing Tip Sheet on Lisa Krueger noted: “Goes a few places. Moves away from the obvious. Sometimes needs to look back over her shoulder to make sure the reader is following.” Big bettors may wish to read Krueger’s newest volume, Talisman, and put this Golden State poet into their combinations. The new Krueger is sleeker, has a convertible soul and gets plenty of air into lungs. In Talisman, she writes to heal all of us, especially her grieving, implicated, rapturous self. Here, the flower child reminds us that landscape, and ocean, and sky—all of these elements occur in some wonderful dream when experience is sleeping.

Krueger’s poems are what happens when experience is suddenly woken by life. Although her Beat cousins liked to start with a car and a highway, Krueger begins with a crash in “What She Felt:”

In L.A. my sister’s car wrapped like foil
around a pole as the sun sank,

offering illusions of a softened world,
the other car careening, reversing,

screeching off into the almost dark.

That’s plenty of clarity, except for one huge detail—Krueger doesn’t have a sister. I mean, of course she does, but try to forget that right now. Krueger is writing about herself as her sister, having a secret self through her, a wilder one, a nearly dead one, a patched up self: “They lay her on pavement, / forced rods into her skull. / They called what they did a halo.”

Don’t many of us have a secret sharing soul like this one? A sister, or a brother—one who leaps from windows dressed like Superman? These secret selves become our heroic angels. Krueger’s poem nicely ends without ending: “What she felt, they said, / wasn’t what we felt. // My sister surfed every sunset. / Her hair was wet.”

Krueger keeps the reader close to her by making good use of internal logic and related images. The sun sank, wrapped like foil, surfing, metal clasping flesh, Jaws of Life, breathing machine…the logic keeps us focused without giving us tunnel vision while the poem’s energy goes upward, outward. It’s a call for each of us to wax our boards, jog into the tumult, make our hair wet, go where she’s going, risk our lives, risk our secrets.

In “Girl, I’ll House You” Krueger writes: “says my sister, / my only sister, my / best kept secret, // disabled sect of self.” The sisters—psychic twins—one a poet and one a muse, do all sorts of things: visit each other in asylums, bicker, go to Labyrinth parties where “we walk woodchip paths / that spiral in nautilus design…the universe listens to people / who wander in circles / then offers a response.”

Krueger’s “Pre-measured” differs from the other sister poems where the tension is between active and passive sides. Here, the two are just being together in the kitchen. The effects of an accident linger in one, but this visit is more about baking a pie. The crash survivor has lost her sense of nuance and the only world for her is a literal one. The speaker, however, seems to exist in a realm that is nuanced to the point of abstraction. Conflict produces an inevitable Lady Macbeth moment. The nurturing sister tells the victim sister that creation requires cleanliness, and the soap “turns around and / round in her hands:”

How pure is this? she says,
holding her hands above her head.

Sometimes the secret sister is an herbivore. In “Prodigal,” a deer who eats flowers and who mangles fences suggests the image of metal mangling limbs in “What She Felt.” The deer, like the wounded surfer, is also a swimmer, and begins to swim in the backyard pool:

I no longer feared she would drown.
I began to talk, not knowing if she heard.
Once I called her Mother.

She swam to me, animal face dispassionate,
fierce, a glint of silvery down
echoing the flash of my heart.

You are old I said to her.
I listened to the patterns of her breath,
the animal vowels, the voice.

Thank goodness Krueger loves a stanza break. The patterns of her breath, her vowels, and her voice make me think of Pilates, all that exhaling, and all that taking in of everything…it’s nice to have genuine pauses that a break offers just to wipe our foreheads. I could have used a couple in “Guest Farm Pardon,” a poem about caressing that urgently trucks eighteen lines. The caressing—tender, almost sexual—is between the speaker and a sleeping wild boar. The boar “assumes the possibilities of night” and has a “vigilant carnal scent.” Again, Krueger connects personal peril to evolving her spirit, but the connection isn’t rattlesnake Pentecostal, it’s more a process of connecting our frailty to the sweetly impossible. The poet also puts the ending of this poem in its middle as if to say, there’s no such thing as an ending when you’re rubbing a beast with tusks. Her lines “Most nights she yearns for sleep / but feels afraid, as though / she must fix her life” would ordinarily conclude a poem like this but Krueger goes on until she achieves an unguarded, feral complexity.

In section II of Talisman Krueger migrates from the duality themes of the first section to poems where we trust in the one-ness. Because of that trust, Krueger is now able to offer non sequitor images which might have given us trouble if she hadn’t already used the order of her poems to coach us how to read her. Unexpected pairings emerge, such as the lines “She notices the odor of ripeness from bananas / wondering why some people need to be kind” and “My daughter got ill the year / they tore out eucalyptus // along the 101.” There is a seamless ecological synthesis at work in poems such as “The Old Story Follows Us” (“I want to run my hand / across the ridge”) and “Opening to Light” where a husband’s birthday becomes claustrophobic; he feels trapped by time in the space of his marriage:

He wanted to open everything,
he wanted to rip off the roof.
Wildness would offer shelter.
That would be Heaven.

In order to deal with emotional trauma we must strengthen our spirit. In order to strengthen our spirit we must put ourselves in some sort of physical peril or risk. It helps to have a few magic powers to aid us. The marvel of Krueger’s poetry is how she shows us how to be one of Rilke’s mysterious heroic angels as if it were the only way to cope with human emotional catastrophes such as grief, abuse, or even love. It’s a wise and sustaining message, but Krueger’s elastic gift to us is her abstract confessional lyric. Personal experience is a metaphor first and foremost. Krueger lives her images just enough to help draw us to the essence. It’s the first step towards transcendence from lives of generally slight impressions to lives of vision.

Book Review: Girl at the Watershed by Nicola Waldron

Girl at the Watershed
Poems by Nicola Waldron
Stepping Stone Press

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

You’d expect a little vertigo from a poet who migrated from the berries and cream at Cambridge to the red eye gravy of South Carolina. The speaker in Nicola Waldron’s poems in Girl at the Watershed is ever on the move, but even at 30,000 feet, or on bicycle, or dogging it, she has an uncanny ability to find her middle in spite of the contrary motions she engages. Sometimes it’s a moment, or else a rock, but feeling or thing, it’s always a magic lamp of a noun kicked up in the flourish of action.

Waldron’s finding of her middle is often represented by holding the stillness of it in her hand. Stillness in spite of the heavy forehand pace. The result is that Waldron’s most profound lines have nothing to do with the obviousness I associate with light and dark subject matter. Sure, there’s some grief in here, but these are not poems about how the speaker lost a leg or had a parent die or sometimes considered suicide or noticed how an incident along the coast bore a resemblance to Greek mythology.

There’s plenty of Voice, and Tone, but these don’t steer the lines either. Instead, Waldron’s poems are crocheted with a kind of fantastic internal logic. Her words are marionettes, yet we seldom notice the strings. The drama is that dazzling.

Some readers will want a clue as to how a patriotic Brit would have found herself in a state known for hounds traveling in pick-up beds or which was the only state to carry Bush One in the 1992 Presidential election. About the only thing South Carolina and England have in common is a love for breakfast. England is one of those countries which have specialized dishes for coddled eggs. The state flower of South Carolina, on the other hand, is the Waffle House billboard that blooms at every highway interchange where one can have grits and pancakes for 24 hours every eight miles.

I was looking for those clues in Girl at the Watershed because I know Waldron as a memoirist who has made great work of tugging back the curtain and dressing, but not undressing, in front of the reader. The tone in her prose is so direct it’s as if you’re listening to her chapters instead of reading them. Her poetry however, is quite a different beast. The mystery is in the revelation. Every second, every small square inch, seems to have a story to tell.

Waldron’s poem “In the Capay Hills” involves a trek through old French fur trader country along the Cache Creek in Northeastern California where the speaker and her partner have gone to find “something more than fields / blank with winter; pages waiting to be turned.” Her partner has “purple rings around his eyes” much like the sediment that she cannot name that “splits the red stone.” The waters “rage with life” but a “quail sits dead on the trail like a defeated dancer.” The couple are lost and must become each other’s compass: “The bridge to the trail’s been washed away. / Without direction, what are we to do…?”

I pick out stones and when he calls,
I bring him the sandstone treasure in my hands,
and he takes my face in his hands,
because there’s no one like me who loves him.

The logic here transforms her face into his sandstone treasure, and “In these hills, / we cannot get enough of touching: we reach out / like prophets, making the streambeds run.” The couple have to pass the dead quail twice, once heading out, once heading in. On the second pass, the speaker gets “down on my knees, press my two fingers inside the crescent footprint of a deer, to show him I am true.” It’s a graceful stroke: the two lovers, the two fingers, the raging with life, the passing by death, the touching, the kneeling, the Sufi crescent, her lover’s washed out bridge of his faith, her belief in everything, and her trueness which becomes their direction.

“Red Barn” is a conditional poem. It’s premise is not what the speaker would do if she had a million dollars, rather, what she would do if she were a farmer: “I’d weave the dubious contours / of my land into some kind of dream…I’d kneel in the valley / and wash my face in the sand, / in the lines the sky made before falling…We could lie on our backs and look at clouds— / call it work, I would have reasons / for the folding of the mountains.”

Like Elizabeth Robinson has sometimes done, Waldron is more apt to dwell on her birth than her death, as if her own birthing, her becoming, were something that never stopped happening. It’s a process where we move from blindness to vision so that sense of self and sense of place are linked. Most poets start thinking a lot about death when their parents die and there aren’t any more doors between themselves and nothing. Waldron in her true and believing way looks for ways to add doors between herself and the fear. “New World” is a symphony of this thinking about existence.

If I chose to travel here,
how then did I come to exile?

If I can sort the broadness of new sound
like pebbles on sand, but make no sense

of a hand raised, a soft hello;
if I, afraid of voices jangling in midair,

feel color now but distantly,
translating marigolds as sun,

should I stay
to make my history happen here?

Will what was England in me
be swept down strange waters?

I do not recognize the bird you call robin:
to me, the hated blue-jay is miracle;

here, springtime is not carried in
on swallows’ feet, but comes to earth

as fury. How is it summer will follow
without lawns of daisies, ladies’ slipper, chamomile?

Can an alien lie down, feel April on her skin?
and what does her child hear

at the moment of birth?

Waldron’s syntax lets her connections and associates occur without any awkward self conscious feelings or edgy juxtaposition. Her poem “At 30,000 Feet” is a marvel of symmetry as she butts up against some issues: “While the movie runs eight inches from your face, / I lift the window shade and scan the screen.” In the first line, we’ve moved from 30,000 feet to eight inches, and soon we go from a movie running to the world running outside the window. The couple are flying and the first information we get is where they are not flying to: “the ice below that frills and parts like first love / is from Iqaluit: a place we’ll never go.” Waldron then smears her brush into the birthing and existence bucket: “It’s been six hours now since London, my body / lifted by my father from the gritty newborn earth. / Outside it’s 70 below and if we fall out here / we’ll freeze and die before we can say I—

Your hand falls loose against my thigh,
I squeeze the belt across my lap,

which makes me want you.
The sun behind us races to keep up.

When I turn my head, I’m looking
at the left side of your face, where

they cut the skin to take the cancer out.
I wonder about the science of flight,

and if we’ll understand each other
when we land breathing in America.

My favorite poem in this short collection is “Stalker” where again there’s a suggestion of sky and flying, and again, the speaker focuses on one small mystery: “I pick out a rock and / pretend it is my father: / it is a big rock, and cowardly. / When I grasp it in my fist / it cringes, and will not / look me in the eye. / Perhaps it is / the altitude.”

Girl at the Watershed is all too-brief a book from a writer who has lived and seen so much and publishes so seldom. Waldron surely has more to come—she’s previously been a winner of the prestigious United Kingdom Bridport Prize—and it will be fascinating to learn which press will have the honor of putting out her long anticipated debut collection.

Book Review: Drift by Alan King

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Poems by Alan King
Willow Books, 2012

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The acknowledgments page is standing room only in Alan King’s debut collection of poems, Drift. In fact it’s two pages long, which might say a lot about King’s gratitude, but climbing aboard these poems (each one is a train car) the first thing I noticed were the many passengers. The speaker is almost never alone. Yet neither are King’s poems boxing matches where dramatic tension is drawn from characters at odds. Usually the company he keeps is a lover, a brother, his mom or dad, a wife, some friends, or just some fellows from the neighborhood. There is a matter of fact sort of intimacy that sweats out from his lines. It made me realize how I’ve been reading too much of the loner stuff, speakers isolated from the world, with fractured egos, driving empty cars on highways without any trucks to follow.

King seems like the kind of poet who would be perfectly comfortable with a stranger sleeping on his shoulder on an airplane. And these poems, having meter without being metric, are conversational without being plain spoken. How nice to read them without suffering the “I am being a writer” tone that dulls most music.

Drift is divided into nine roomy sections of between one and twelve poems each. I read one section a day in a span that included busheling some tomatoes for sauce canning, skipping a pitchfork, writing a poem for Saemus Heaney (how original), loading a piano onto a truck, and making love to my wife twice (once downstairs). It’s so pleasant to carry on with them, here and there, sharing King’s world with mine. King’s poems are almost always one page, but that’s plenty of space to offer some adventure. Consider his poem “Conundrum” in which the speaker and his brother head out to find the recipe for pheromones, an irrational pursuit of an irrational goal that somehow makes perfect sense:

A decade before, my brother
and I were strapped inside the leather
belly of an Oldsmobile 88 that roared

like something feral, with speakers
coughing up bass and spitting rhymes
from Busta’s first album. I don’t recall
where we were headed, just that we

cruised the city with our fresh
haircuts and fragrant whispers
of Egyptian Musk behind our ears.

The clock and the compass, the when and the where, are not so important to King’s journeys, this one to “answer the riddles of women,” which makes it possible to swing between narrative and metaphor without losing your balance. The logistics are rich with detail, while the subjects continue to be abstract, searching moments. In “Why I could Never Be Vegan” we initially think we’re in the land of memory: “The smell of charcoal gets me / nostalgic: my childhood and / those summers my parents / were always throwing something / on the grill…” But quickly the discussion moves from nostalgia, to animal rights, to human rights. Birmingham is also part of the speaker’s memory: “…fire hoses / and what was unleashed / on protestors. What’s sacred / then?” In this poem, the only sacred thing left is his mother’s sense of exaggeration: “Ask my mom and she’ll say / I might have been / an Alvin Ailey dancer the way / I Step Hop and Run to a bubbling pot / of curry goat.” The speaker concludes “Why does salad, / despite its dressing, seem incomplete / without chicken?” King is asking, Why does memory, despite its dressing, seem incomplete as well, given our Birmingham, our history?

The past, hunger, hope, and resignation are so intimate in these lines. Perhaps a thousand poets will write a poem about a horse this year, but almost none will have ridden a two minute lick in company, wire to wire, at a race track. Being so comfortable with intimacy, having had some experience with it, having ridden that horse a time or two, we’d expect King to shape some physical intimacy where the actual doesn’t sit so far back from the ideal. His love poems made me think of John Donne. King runs to all sorts of bubbling pots, and not all of them are cooking curry. In “The Invitation,” like many of these poems, King gets us into and out of a poem with images: “Your lips were petals brushing / my neck…” is followed by some light-hearted analysis “This was not supposed to happen // on the third date” and eventually concludes “our bass-heavy pulses. / The eye contact, / you biting your bottom lip, / then smiling.”

The poet’s vexing history and his passionate flair join up in “Horn”:

The more I watch the news,
the more my country resembles
a biblical city destroyed by fire;

the more I think of those
who spat on the messenger
their God sent them. At the gates

of a temple called “Beautiful,”
sat a blind man. How many of us
are him? Sometimes there’s no name

for what runs the streets with
misspelled picket signs and hate
as its bullhorn. Sometimes

what’s wrong with this life
could be an avalanche ready
to wipe us out. The only true Bible

might be your open arms. Your name
is a communion wafer on my tongue.
The only true psalm might be

what washes over us while
we sleep, your breath in my ears—
the sound in a shell.

While some poets may marvel about empathy, how it comes from using image and lyric to wed unmarriageable ideas, King returns again and again to the simple truth, that empathy is very intimate, expressed in the oneness you discover after slipping out of routines of living, desire and memory, but without slipping out of who you are. It’s cruising in a big car with your brother in blood. It’s the sermon in a barber shop. That post-modern poets love the hero afraid of being alone and dying alone may just be a mask for the greater fear of connecting with others, of being intimate. King describes such poets in his poem “How to Call It”:

Take the woman walking
alone down a boulevard
of lovers

or the guy seated
at a table for two
with a glass of wine

and his favorite book.

King concludes these portraits of poets with one of himself: “I need a lot of things: lips / and fingers waking the body. / And from what? // Call it hibernation, / but never loneliness.” Read a book to yourself and you’re a scholar. Talk to yourself and you’re a nut. But poetry evolved from an oral tradition. It’s always been about talking and listening between friends and strangers.

Why are we so afraid of empathy? That is the “drift” in Drift. King writes in the superb title poem: “What were you / searching for among the buzzing / kazoos and party blowers // punching the air? That night // the bright streamers were serpents / curled among liquor bottles that blurred / like landscape through the windows // of a train headed to the end // of its line. You watched the lit / subway cars zigzag the night / like the Dancing Dragon / of Chinese New Year.”

Move over Mr. grumpy disassociated poet with your arms and legs and ears falling off your disconnected body. There’s a new kid in town.

Alan King is a poet and journalist living in the DC metropolitan area. He is a blogger on art and domestic issues. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Alan is also a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum.

Book Review: Night Moves by Stephanie Barber

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Night Moves
by Stephanie Barber
Publishing Genius Press, 2013

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

We’re a nation of critics and deciders—folks hired for their opinions rather than physical labor. One of the pleasures of nonobjective painting is that the role of the critic in defining contemporary art becomes obsolete. The artist—photographer Linda Conner in the Seventies, or painter Susan Rothenberg in the Eighties, or poet and video artist Stephanie Barber today—loosely shapes the art, sharing the discovery process with the viewer or reader. In its purest form, the nonobjective painting or poem is the energy produced between the original signifying work and its audience. An audience of thousands or an audience of one. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the waves produced by someone experiencing the photograph or poem, waves where feelings and thoughts don’t swim in different lanes. Think Reiki therapeutic massage. The touching is figurative, but the healing is real.

Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves tests the outer limits of concept poetry, but because hers are found words the bulky, baggy premises which accompany most concept works are happily not present. Barber draws on YouTube comment threads responding to Mr. Seger’s song “Night Moves,” a ballad of desire and aging and nostalgia. Is it even poetry one might ask, to tap into the energy between a Classic Rock song and its listeners and then to reproduce it without altering so much as a comma? Thomas Sterns Eliot might have thought so, based on his view that poetry was the mix of desire and memory. And whether one samples Sanskrit texts or The Golden Bough, or whether one samples three chord harmony, using literary allusion to scaffold the mix is sturdy stuff.

“I remember…I remember…,” writes one listener. Keyword search “Heart” and variations on “Memory” in this volume and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes to count with. One of the mystifying traits in Barber’s Night Moves is how the “comments” come from witness, and become seductive in the way that witnessing is so sculpted by memory and wanting. By using their comments, each listener becomes a speaker, each speaker, a viewer. Participation is the thing, Barber seems to say. It’s what makes art of our day to day, as if life weren’t about the drowning but all the riotous splashing we make before the end.

“Love this song…I remember this song and dancing around singing it, stereo as loud as it would go…” says another. Like people who all seem to remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, these speakers hear the song and it cues them involuntarily to a forgotten context. It was love-making before there were any responsibilities. It was having a magic night begin with an unforgettable dinner at the Golden Corral. It was a song you hummed driving your first car before you ever flattened a tire or bent a rod. The funny thing is that so many have forgotten an “unforgettable” time. Hearing the song out of context brings it back, which is one way that old music is still so important to poetry.

The comments Barber reproduces are not epitaphs in some strange graveyard. Listeners interact with the song, but they also interact with each other interacting with the song. There’s even a lot of debate as to what makes music real, or what “points” may mean, or what could be wrong with the seventy-eight or eighty-four people who hit the “dislike” button. Maybe they never had sex, one listener wonders. “Must be under twenty years old,” another writes. In one sequence, two listeners spar about the meaning of art:

You claim this song is boring but I think what
you are missing is that it is a “Mood” song. It might not
have interesting melodies and chord changes but to
Add these you would Subtract from the “Mood.” Some
of the best songs are the simplest and this you do not

In such plain-spoken ways, Barber transforms a modest 2013 discussion about a 1978 song that romanticized something going on in the summer of 1962, so that the YouTube comment thread reads like the minutes of an AWP panel about the meaning of poetry today, its riddle of memory, and desire’s cryptic role. “Gina will never know the truth,” someone writes, in what could well be the best six-word short story since Hemingway.

The interactions vary between the heart-breaking and ones sopping with praise. Most are emotional, some rational, some even seem scripted by authors who have some experience at this sort of thing. “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered. I feel such emotion with this part of the song. So true. That’s how life is. Honestly, one of the best transitions in song writing I’ve ever heard.” This writer, like all the others, anonymous, which blurs point of view. We’re used to first, second, and third voice, but Barber’s Night Moves seems to offer a hybrid, a fourth voice which combines the other three and makes it seem as if the reader is hearing his own thoughts aloud.

Particularly evocative are the anonymous notes intended for a specific unknown someone: “Night moves in her dad’s barn 1975 love you Pam! Hope you are doing well. I think of you every time I hear this song.” Someone else chimes in “Pam I do not know where you are now. I think of you every time I hear this song. I am glad my first night moves were with you. I hope you have a great life.”

One of the hazards of living in a high concept world where the idea of something has more weight than the actual doing of it, where the abstract replaces the concrete, is that poets lose track of a narrative thread’s value. It becomes all about the lyric, or all about the extended metaphor, and we lose track of how important it is to use narrative to give the reader’s empathy some place to go. Greek myth is interesting, but it becomes relevant to us through the story of the Odyssey. “Today’s music can’t tell any stories about their experience in life,” someone writes. Neither does a lot of the poetry either.

I love how this “nonobjective painting” of a poetry book makes us ache for more in our lives to not be so objective. Praise to Stephany Barber for taking the time to sit cramped on her former bodega’s trembling wooden floor between the friendly cat and the other cat who gets sick a lot, hustling what internet she could when the wind was blowing right, and crying for days over this comment thread that was so sad and so inviting that she had to share it with us.

This book gives us permission to lust for what we remember about whom we loved. Take any three years out of the past fifty. What were you doing 1962? What were you dreaming about in 1978? What has become of all those doings and all those dreams? Your personal answer is a poem for everyone. Now thump your left hand on the roof of your speeding dark sedan and sing it.

Book Review: Puerto Rico By Alejandro Ventura

Puerto Rico
By Alejandro Ventura
Brooklyn Arts Press, 60 pages, $15
ISBN-13: 978-1-936767-15-1

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

When it comes to oceanic feelings, novelists reach for fishing poles and poets reach for binoculars. Being the latter, I’ve spent my life trying to find a pile of dirt in the high seas. I want to build a fire on it. Combine the five ancient elements into one miraculous instant. But this god-damned planet—earthly rotations and lunatic revolutions aren’t kind to lumps of firmament. Tides, waves, and currents wreak their petty havoc by the minute. That pile is gone in a blink. Along comes Alejandro Ventura. He was born on a pile of dirt in the ocean. It was a big one. It had mountains. It had a race track. Puerto Rico. Rich Harbor. Heaven of intimacy. Where his body grew inside his mother’s body before leaving her womb face first. And then the pile of dirt was gone and just like that the whole world became a subdivision in New Jersey.

Ventura’s debut collection of poems Puerto Rico is slim without being slight, intelligent without being “smart.” He signals that his journey is backward and forward to intimacy—to Puerto Rico—early in the going. In “Beginnings” he writes “I don’t understand the winter. / Blindly, I felt for things that made life bearable” and “The land is fallow here. The animals can sense your guilt.” Ventura doesn’t play games with his lines the way some poets use gaps or step down enjambments or a sickness of commas which tell the reader when to breathe. He assumes we’ve got the breathing part nailed and instead breaks his lines with a maul—a sentence, a sentence, a sentence. The heavy downward energy keeps our feet moving so that we don’t lose a toe. “Beginnings” continues, “The only decent way to die is in your lover’s arms… / An oath is sworn, perilously close to intimacy.”

“A Waiting” is like several poems in this collection, a good one, but also one where the speaker focuses in, controls the shot and just at the moment of genuine intimacy, pulls back one curtain:

What remained, when last we swam at Sandy Hook

and were embarrassed by nudity?

We got lost somewhere along the beach,

and yet, as Deleuze says, no sense of falling explains the face in vertigo.

Like Fontana’s Attese, black gauze supports the canvas.

Brothers abide and are divided.

One remembers the gesture that makes the wound,

but this explains nothing of our lives together.

Who can say when a duration has occurred,

as when the grass becomes a field?

It has nothing to do with color, and is timeless.

For instance, why do I mention that day at the beach?

I love this poem. It’s a single-room apartment but it feels so big with its space and time and involuntary memory. The speaker’s self-conscious note which ends the poem has cousins in many of these searching laments. At times the whole poem seems drunk and Ventura’s sober thinking voice slips past. At others, the poems are very sober and his glancing remark seems a little buzzed, as if the intimacy had gotten too real or scary and a little distance was needed to help him find the rail. In “You Are Either Making Mangu or Something Else Entirely” his un-analytic description of place is smoldering: “There is an American tower along the mountain pass to Las Marias / and a Spanish one overlooks the bay at Guanica. / Perhaps they communicate, by pigeon or raven. / Wait, are there ravens on the island? Someone call an ornithologist.”

True, Ventura does address his own contrary side, so it’s not as if I’m calling him out. He calls himself out with such lines as “Free and whole, with no more cynicism than was necessary” and “the only thing you know at death is disbelief” and “no one can disabuse you if you don’t believe in anything, / and merely go about yourself, collecting postcards” and “as if the Apocalypse will grant us a sense of belonging.” In fact, the greatest barrier to arriving at intimacy—which means language and place and seduction—is to believe it can still exist. Ventura doesn’t believe it in most of these poems, but in a few he does, and the results may drop you to the ground. In “Culebra” the poet’s body absorbs his whole loss, nurses teasing him about his round ass after a game of stickball goes awry:

To feel the body’s weight descend the hill with the lesser island above you.

Sunscreen oil eases along the fingernails, which ease along the curve

of the thigh line. The waves continue to cylinder on land.

When your mother dies your fingertips roll into the rosary,

beads being so unlike music. This is a general rule

not unlike the one in the hospital in La Vega, where young women

tell you how round your ass is, after a stickball

lofted into the neighbor’s lawn spiked your arm into an iron finial,

to paint it with a skin of rust and clear your mind of sound.

There’s something I cannot get past, reading Ventura, which is that over fifty years later I still live close to where I came out face-first. His thousand mile wound seems so much bigger than my little ten mile mishap. I’ve driven the wound countless times—it’s on the way to the Post Office and the Feed Store. I’ve walked those miles and ridden horses back and forth, and even though my “Puerto Rico” is so much nearer to me (even on cloudy nights I see its lights), the intimacy is no easier to grasp. I wish for it, too, and I think that’s the story Ventura has walked all of us into. Maybe this is why I sometimes get moist approaching the outskirts of Hampstead. In Ventura I have a brother, and maybe we’ll fight now and then about what it means to be a poem but it’s nice to have him sharing some of the heavy lifting, the big dead weight of not believing anything, or else the little one pound weight of a rum bottle as we share sips off the rim.

I guess what I’m saying is, I liked this book and I look forward to the next.


Book Review: Big Ray

Big Ray
By Michael Kimball
Bloomsbury, 185 pages, $23, ISBN: 978-1-60819-854-2

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Most metaphors weigh a few ounces. Big Ray weighs five hundred pounds. He isn’t the sort of metaphor that fits through a window. Think grand piano. And we’re talking dead weight, not live weight, so right away we know that all of Michael Kimball’s skills—his deft handling of gesture—aren’t going to be much help as he walks and drags and pushes the big refrigerator across nearly two hundred hysterically sad pages. Kimball does the heavy lifting, but don’t just sit there, help him! I did my part by making sound effects. Grunts and groans and gasps.

It’s amazing the author found the ends of some paragraphs. It’s amazing this story ever got told. When the book was released last September Kimball gave plenty of interviews, explaining the Rick Moody-like trans genre—half-memoir, half- roman a clef. Kimball doesn’t just write close to the wound. He does a cannonball off the high dive. Once he’s in the pool of old scars we see him doing an Esther Williams backstroke so precise the saltine cracker balanced on his forehead never gets soggy.

Big Ray is a predatory glutton. While I like to believe that every effect has at least two causes, Big Ray’s past is one of those that just sort of happens. His death unlocks the grief and memory of his son who tells the story. Although he died seven years ago, the story is told as if it had only happened a few pages before the book’s beginning. The son is still preoccupied with its details and logistics this long after.

My heart leaps up when I behold, some say. Those afraid to leap tend to have a lack of faith. It’s the landing—not the jump—that worries them. The son has a persistent not-knowingness—even the first sentence of this book contains the hedging word probably. He doesn’t know how old his father was when he died: “I can’t be exactly sure because my father had been dead for a few days before anybody found him…probably five days.”

The son’s way of grasping what he cannot understand is to learn the order of things, as if knowing all the minutes could make an irrational hour seem comprehensible. This book is an obsession on chronology. When he’s confused the son repeats what he knows and starts over, trying to find the connections between abstract effects and concrete causes. This is why, although he has his own life, a marriage, the world of a different city, the son is still a very young adult in spite of being his thirties. He knows what he feels, the physical reactions to his emotions, without knowing what those emotions are even seven years later.

As a witness, the narrator is unreliable because he seems so unformed, but we’re drawn into his experience by his methodical openness, his deadpan, his tone of Oh well, someone had to have their life destroyed. The fact that he seems to have so little agency for his own life is charming. Haven’t we all shrugged at life? Isn’t that why we cry when no one is looking? The son says in the early going: “For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father. After he died, I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father seemed complicated like that.”

Kimball’s willingness to engage the idea he’s created, to flesh out the metaphor, gives each of us a craft workshop in describing things which there are no words for. He doesn’t settle for calling his dad a fat monster, but rather, like Sexton “wondrously tunneling” into her own beasts, Kimball focuses on logistics. The way Big Ray sat in his truck sideways in order to drive, only able to make right turns. The way he sits on the floor because nothing can hold him. The way he pees all over the bathroom because he can neither see his penis nor the commode. In one old photograph of Big Ray in fifth grade “He’s trying to smile, but it looks like he hasn’t learned how.” Our rational mind doesn’t want to believe in the father, but our practical mind cannot not believe in him.

While the father becomes more real, more alive, in every chapter, the son is completely open about how pathetic his upbringing is. He doesn’t have any judgments to put on his dad’s head. The son seems nonplussed about missing out on a world that excited the rest of us. My buddy Rachel talks about that special age of boys who are carrying toy guns in one hand and teddy bears in the other. Big Ray’s son skipped that part of life. The world is just something to walk through—to endure—for the molested speaker. In one instance, the father’s inability to deal with his childhood wounds—his own father shooting and drowning all of the cats—contrasts mightily with the son’s trying explicitly to deal with the old hurts centering on his father:

That story was why, when I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have a cat. That was why I also wasn’t allowed to have a dog or any other kind of pet—no matter how many times I asked. As some kind of shiny consolation, my parents would buy me glossy photobooks of cats and dogs for my birthdays and Christmas. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly lonely, I would pull one of the glossy photobooks down from the bookshelf in my bedroom and start naming the cats or the dogs.

The phenomenologists—if they exist—are not always right Kimball seems to be saying. We don’t know if something matters just because we can name it. We’re not even scratching the surface, because living isn’t only about the concepts. It can help us when we’re lonely, but no amount of drinking your own tears will slake your thirst. The complexities are what push back against answers and knowing, and the more the son describes the father, the more he seems to be describing himself: “I don’t know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life.” The son has a coin collection while Big Ray has a racy pinup medallion, and in one episode the son observes: “Sometimes, I look at the hair on my arms and it makes me think of the hair on my father’s scary arms.”

Kimball is very slow to release information to the reader. When we first learn of Big Ray’s obesity in chapter nine it’s as if the son is reluctant to describe one way in which he and his dad were so different: “I need to say something else about my father. I don’t feel good about this, but the first thing I think about when I think about my father was how fat he was.” Kimball’s pacing uses many hundreds of micro paragraphs which approach us like mile markers. Some of the dolmens are rhapsodic and some are brief, and the chapters do not end, but merely stop. New chapters sometimes reflect a new time sequence, but not always. The plot points are based equally on action and realization, which is a little closer to how things seem in life where consciousness seems to matter as much as actually doing something. Soon after passing a mile marker which contains fat jokes, we come upon the next: “I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.”

This duality is present in one of my favorite scenes in the book when the father and son are playing poker. Big Ray is broke, and has to borrow money from his son to make ante: “…he had used half my life’s savings to win the other half of my life’s savings from me.” This brief reminiscence becomes one of Stuart Dybek’s “Magic Objects” toward the end of the novel when the son takes Big Ray’s ashes to Law Vegas.

Kimball is not shy about telling interviewers he wrote Big Ray in three months. Although we can all agree this had something to do with his having lived the book his whole life, I believe it has more to do with his developing skill as a writer. This is Kimball’s fourth book, although it’s his third published book since his third book, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story on a Postcard, was published, and re-published, recently. There’s also a collection of short stories which must be cooking.

Subject matter—in spite of overwhelming the speaker—is only part of the lyric in Big Ray. What exactly is Big Ray to the rest of us? Is Big Father a new of way of calling Big Brother? How do we write about weighty issues like AIDS, rape, child abuse, poverty without the subject overtaking the art?

There are many ways to answer these questions. This novel is one of them. A story about the child in each of us. A story about the Big Ray in each of us. That’s the value of looking at Big Ray as a metaphor and not only as Michael’s dad. If the child is the father of the Man, surely we must all be cousins. Bloomsbury re-released Big Ray in paperback this past June making it a perfect Father’s Day gift. It might not be what he had in mind, but it’s better than giving him another suit tie with strawberries printed on it.


Book Review: Could You Be with Her Now by Jen Michalski

Could You Be with Her Now
Jen Michalski
Dzanc, 2013

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Jen Michalski may have been listening when Nikki Giovanni spoke how the internet—how social media—was turning us into extroverted hermits. The shy Maryland author runs the biggy-sized literary platform JMWW. The site totes some 1,000 hits a day thanks to Michalski’s tenacious but quiet charm, and the way she keeps hundreds of conversations going without any eye contact. Likewise, Michalski’s stories are often driven by characters trying everything to make deeper connections with each other in spite of huge differences. Her energy seems anti-Modern, without being traditional, since she clearly moves away from the “loner, fractured self heroes” of the previous generation of novels. Instead of questioning why they exist, Michalski’s characters wonder, mustn’t there be one person, anyone, to share the world…who cares if it’s a Martian spider?

Michalski’s latest book Could You Be with Her Now consists of two novellas: “I Can Make It to California before It’s Time for Dinner” and “May September,” and you don’t have to Google anything to figure out one novella evokes a crisis of space and boundaries, and the other a crisis of time. First things first—a novella is not a short novel or a long short story. Rather, it uses a single tumultuous arc to get the readers someplace even before we’ve had a chance to deeply understand a complex plot, or the full ironic and conflicted ranges of the characters. We intentionally don’t get the whole story. In a novella, dramatic tension is not always between two characters (since we don’t know them well enough for that). It relies on the stress of the larger outside world coming inside for a visit and blowing things up for a little while.

The protagonist and speaker in “California,” Jimmy Dembroski, falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He requires lots of supervision, repetition and small school buses. We haven’t seen such a convincing not-knowing hero since Quentin Compson’s brother, Benjamin, but we’re a long way from Yoknapatawpha County. There’s a street name, a house, a neighbor, a Giant Food store, a MacDonald’s, a 7-Eleven. Everything else is California in Jimmy’s mind. Making it to California before it’s time for dinner ostensibly means making it to the unknown, which is only three or four blocks away. So it’s a journey, Jimmy on an adventure, and the world is journeying too, pulling him along, pushing against him. The struggle is about context. Jimmy’s literal perception—it’s all he has—means his experience is always two-dimensional. There is no boundary between concept and reality. Sound like anyone you know who lives by the internet?

For Jimmy, the world-wide web is really wide, and very sticky. “I watch the TV for my girlfriend Megan. She’s fourteen and I’m fifteen and every day she’s on the show that I watch about her. She’s pretty and I wish we could hold hands and kiss. My brother Josh is seventeen and doesn’t play with me and doesn’t like Megan. His girlfriend is not on TV and she’s not pretty.” Jimmy creates an intricate one-sided relationship with the after-school television star, part of his drive to “connect” in spite of being surrounded by a family that seems to want to disconnect from him. At a family “big talk” session, “Mom and Dad look at each other but don’t say anything.”

Jimmy’s quest for California begins innocently enough, since it’s only a mile or so up the street from his home in Maryland. He’s gone looking for Megan since Josh wants to watch his own TV show. The murder, kidnapping, and rape which ensue are released to the reader in Jimmy’s voice, associative to the edge of non sequitor. This lens softens the details, and gives the reader plenty of room to invest his or her own imagination. Jimmy’s voice is the lyric of this story. The plot he occupies is the narrative. Everything in between is metaphor. Michalski manages each strand like a poet, alternating the weave as she goes, until lyric and story and infinite possibility are one. Whether or not it’s a raft down the Mississippi River or an eighteen wheeler speeding down Interstate 95 to Florida, Michalski has written us into believing an improbable tale of migratory sociopaths.

Part of this is because Jimmy is someone who lives in everyone’s ego. Like many of us, Jimmy loves his routines. He cannot come any closer to connecting than repetition, but he also gets excited for surprises. When he returns from killing the girl he thought was Megan, his mother “calls for pizza and I am excited because we are having pizza and it isn’t Friday.” Hasn’t each of us wanted to wear our football jersey to work even when the home team wasn’t playing that night?

Jimmy’s ticks are charming too. His compulsion to have two of everything reinforces his fetish for companionship. He’s got two toy soldiers, and when given a lollipop by the truck driver who reminds him of an uncle, Jimmy quickly asks for a second one. When Josh takes him to the 7-Eleven he wants two Slurpees in one container. Almost all of his baseball cards are doubles. He orders two Happy Meals for himself, and since he doesn’t have enough money he orders two fries instead. Having mistakenly suffocated his hamster Mr. Kibble one night by sleeping on him, he wants another, Mr. Kibble Two.

Michalski has also given Jimmy the gift of pretending, which is a wink-wink form of imagination. Jimmy says, when the family is gathered for pizza, “I pretend I am a dinosaur eating people. Dad tells me to eat with my mouth closed because I am not a cow.” He also make-believes sleep and sort of wins us over with his analysis of himself which is held together with implausible, but irrefutable causes and effects. In some chapters the word “because” appears three times on each page, with comparable numbers of transition words like “but”:

I walk to Josh’s school, where we play pogs. I wish I brought my pogs because maybe
those kids will be there. I go behind the school. I have homework for tomorrow but I will
do it later because I can’t write on the ground.

Jimmy is lost in his own neighborhood. Fortunately there’s a truck stop nearby where he meets the driver, Ed, who is “short and fat like a Weeble and has a moustache like Yosemite Sam, but he is not a cartoon he is a real man.” Here, Jimmy makes a mental leap he never made with Megan. Well that’s animation for you, as opposed to reality programming (which must be really trying for someone who only sees in two dimensions anyway).

Ed’s truck, for all its horrors, also leads Jimmy to his first understanding of a different dimension and point of view, helping him to go beyond the flat screen of everything: “Mr. Ed’s truck is louder than our car… It’s fun because we’re tall and I can look down at the other cars. They look smaller than when I am in our car. It’s weird that things get smaller when you are not close to them but they really do not get small. I wonder if Mom would be small now if I saw her.”

I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to reach the conclusion of “I Can Make It to California before It’s Time for Dinner.” It’s rare that an author could give us so much existentialism, at least two answers for every three questions, and still build a story that has both pleasure and suspense. Part of it is that Michalski has fingered an ache in all of us. Life shouldn’t be about our aches, our emptinesses, how we lost the leg or hand. Life should be more about the connections we still try to find, the life in us that continues on with other lives around us. A soul is everyone’s best hope. Jimmy’s soul is checked by his lack of nuance, and as social media continue to train us against nuance in favor of averages and compromise, we risk losing our own best hopes for lighting the paths we must walk.

Nuance also plays an important role in “May-September.” The two protagonists, Alice and Sandra, are full of nuance. Not surprisingly, Alice’s former lover and Sandra’s former husband and her daughter Andrea haven’t any nuance at all. It has to do with pitch. Digital everything has given us even tempered pitch, where the “B” note is merely the average of the “a” and “C” notes. Well-tempered pitch on the other hand reflects the natural evolution of scale as it corresponds to the human ear. Alice and Sandra have tuned their lives to a well-tempered pitch, which is key to two women so different in ages (there’s forty more years one has lived that the other hasn’t) making a connection into a love affair.

It started with a computer. Sandra has one set up for her by a man who won’t look at her because she is so old. She plans to write a blog to keep her grandchildren informed about her and so that her daughter won’t worry that her mother lived so far away and so alone.

Alice had tried to talk her through the process on the phone—setting up the account, adding pictures, typing entries and labeling them and organizing archives. She said, yes, yes, yes, all the while knowing she would never remember these things. She wished she would die and leave the grandchildren nothing but her money, no stories, no strings. And when she hung up with Andrea, full of assurances that her first post would be coming within hours, days, oh but soon, she turned away from the friendly little void and played some of Chopin’s etudes.

The young Alice, an MFA in her hip pocket and a day job at a bookstore, responds to the ad for a blog writer. Heat comes off almost every one of their exchanges, and Alice is so careful not to learn something about Sandra without revealing herself. She spends her first paycheck on bunches of grapes to bring Sandra. From their first meeting, the dialogue is seamless from experience (there isn’t any conversational punctuation and chapters don’t end, but start anew): “A splash of lilies on the table, cinnamon and violet and butter ones, bled into the reflection of window rain beneath them. The rain bled on the Steinway in the corner shadow and the coffee table and the low-light glass frames on the walls and the grandfather clock and Alice wondered how someone could live in a room full of rain.”

William Gass called the word “violet” a sexual shudder. In this brief description, Michalski gives us lilies representing spice, sexual shudder and the fat pleasure of butter. Add a corner shadow, some music and a reference to Time (the piano and the grandfather clock), and the outside weather coming inside, and this is what you need for empathy to take over the world.

This novella is one of the most moving stories I’ve read this year, and Michalski shows herself to be a remarkably subtle writer of a kind of writing that seems impossible to teach or learn. Unlike the second dimension preoccupations of Jimmy Dembroski, this pair are traveling in the fourth dimension, time itself, and timelessness. And to imagine it all started with a blog creation. So easily do they slip from trading notes about themselves, and photographs, to trading their lives with each other, and Sandra’s music, and Alice’s short stories. The outside world with its schedules and drivers and mechanical responsibilities doesn’t always comply and this add great drama to a love affair which is so simple and so essential. Drink plenty of water before reading the ending. Most of it will be coming out of your eyes. The groans that came out of me were so loud my therapy dog started barking in sympathy.


Engaging in Life: An Interview with Barrett Warner

Engaging in Life with Barrett Warner, Associate Editor of Free State Review

By Nicole Bartley

At first glance, you may not believe that a man who raises horses at his farm in Maryland’s Gunpowder watershed is also a poetry editor for a literary magazine. Yet Maryland’s new biannual literary magazine, Free State Review, saw both its first issue release for Winter 2013 and Barrett Warner’s inauguration run as an associate editor. Warner’s lifestyle fits well with the magazine’s theme of “people doing things.”

Warner, a poet himself, concentrates primarily on poetry submissions and helps with short stories. However, much of the magazine’s content does cross his desk. He is also a reviewer for Coal Hill Review, Loch Raven Review, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Otis Nebula, JMWW, Concho River Review and Chattahoochee Review. His poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, California Quarterly, Roanoke Review, Natural Bridge, and Comstock Review, among others. His chapbook, Til I’m Blue in the Face, was published by Tropos Press.

Coal Hill Review managed to distract him from his busy schedule for an interview before a reading event in Pittsburgh on April 17, during which editors and featured writers will present at the East End Book Exchange.

Coal Hill Review: What got you into writing?

Barrett Warner: I was one of those kids that was just fascinated by letters. When I was a kid, I was constantly drawing letters. When I was in 2nd grade, I read the Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum. It just totally set me sailing. I dabbled at [writing stories]. When I was in high school, I began writing stories in earnest. I had an ability to type three pages an hour and always had three hours. I must have three dozen stories from that period, all nine pages long.

CRH: When and why did you shift toward editing literary magazines?

BW: It was a shift that was 35 years in the making. I shifted primarily to writing poetry in 1994. I had published a dozen stories and was a finalist for a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University right out of college. I didn’t get it, but I was sort of on a real fiction track. I segued into editing by starting with revising my own poems. When I switched to writing poetry, most of my poems were outlines for writing my stories. It took me 10 years of revision to write the short story out of my poem.

CRH: How did you get the job?

BW: One of the other editors knew me and knew my work, and knew that in the past year I’d been doing a lot of book reviews and felt like I would be a good person. I had a lot of breadth of knowledge of what was out there and what people were trying to do. I’d written a lot of essays on it. It was just sort of putting a couple things together and it worked out.

CRH: How were you approached to do it? What was your reaction?

BW: The other senior editor called me up and I immediately wanted to do it. Part of it was anything that my friend Jim Clark was involved in, I felt like I wanted to be part of. I just knew instantly that I wanted to do it.

CHR: Were you part of the process to start this new literary magazine?

BW: Hal Burdett… he recruited Jim Clark and Jim recruited me. There’s another person who helps out with some of the readings we have and some of the managing. Her name is Raphaela Cassandra.

CHR: Did you set out to emulate a particular literary magazine, or to start with a clean slate?

BW: I’ve been publishing my work since 1982; Jim since 1966. Both he and I had seen a lot of literary reviews come—some make a splash—and we also saw ones that seem to stick around for a while. We knew what our own experiences had done and we just wanted to steal from the best and try to be original—just try to have our own focus. We knew what we liked and we just wanted to concentrate on that for the most part. We like the print journal, we liked activities, so a lot of the literature in our journal is not so much conceptual and speculative, it’s more like people doing things.

We really emphasize that we like literature that comes out of action. It doesn’t mean like an action-thriller. The easiest way to look at it: It used to be that you’d have a window installed by somebody that made the glass. There’s a real sort of in-touch with reality there. We go for the literature of people who are out there doing something and living life. Riding horses, rolling up nets, just engaged in life rather than a more academic sort of thing.

CHR: Were there any dreams for this literary magazine? What were the realistic expectations?

BW: Well, we sort of dream one issue at a time. Hal comes from this newspaper background, so the big thing in newspapers is distribution. We didn’t want this to necessarily be something that was read by 100 people just like ourselves—we wanted to see if we could get it out there in the world, both to be read by other writers and also with general readership. We want to be able to support print runs of 500. We want it to become a national literary magazine.

CHR: How was its name created?

BW: We were just kicking around some ideas and we like the Maryland state motto (The Free State), and just started with that. We’re all Marylanders. It’s sort of like a Maryland’s publication, but at the same time it’s also a little bit like bringing in the world a little bit and exporting the state a little bit.

CHR: How did you determine the cover image? Does it match with the magazine’s contents, or stand alone?

BW: When Mark Strand was in Baltimore, we got to know him a little bit. As a result, we had some of his paintings. I just asked him, “Mark, do you mind if we use [one] for the cover?” And he said, “Absolutely, go ahead.” The way it transferred to the cover, you can’t see it well. It’s a very sort of Prince Edward seascape. In the original painting, it … [is] as if you’re viewing a book that’s opened—viewing it from the top. Not all of that came out when we digitized it. We just thought it was a striking portrait of land, sea, and sky. I do think it matches with the content in the sense of cross-genre. We have a poem submitted by a novelist, we’ve got an essay by a poet, we’ve got a poet who wrote two short stories in plain verse. So there’s a real cross-genre element of people stepping outside themselves. Mark is much more known as a poet, so that’s why we were interested in having him as a painter.

CHR: Was there a minimum page count in mind for the first issue?

BW: We just wanted to have enough pages to be able to have a spine, so that put us in the 60s range. We ended up having around 90 pages. We were really worried we weren’t going to have enough pages. But submissions came in. The funny thing is that we had only one rejection.

CHR: How did you advertise for submissions?

BW: We just put the word out like word of mouth. We canvassed a lot of readings and talked to people. We sent smoke signals up everywhere. We did everything we could to put the word out during announcements at the poetry readings—we let people know we were up and running. We felt like we got some really nice submissions. For the next issue, of course, we got swamped by submissions. [Page count is] not a problem we’re ever going to have again.

CHR: Did you solicit for stories and, if so, how did you decide who you were going to ask?

BW: We just let people know that we were putting together a literary review. A couple of people that sort of followed my book reviews, they knew about it, so some of them sent in work. We didn’t make a special appeal.

CHR: Will you solicit in the future?

BW: Our policy is: “Hey, we’re just letting people know.” We feel really good about it. We think these issues are taking really nice shapes. I suspect if we have special theme issues, [we will solicit].

CHR: How long did it take to receive submissions after advertising?

BW: It took about two months before we got the first batch in. In the first batch was Edgar Silex, Barbara DeCesare, Chris Toll (who died after he submitted), and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The interesting thing there is that Edgar and Chris and Barbara were veteran writers. Jessica Lynn Dotson had not published anything before. But since we took those two poems, she’s been in six other magazines and has a Pushcart nomination. She’s just skyrocketing—this is all within three months. Two other authors, Bethany Schultz Hurst and Katherine Cottle, after we accepted their work, they became finalists for the Yale Younger Poetry Award.

Part of the success, I think, is that we were able to put the word out and we’ve been in the business a long time. Probably, if you ask the other writers, they would say, “I always wondered how long it would take Bar and Jim to do something like this.” The other thing is: Because we’re so involved with literature, writing poems and stories and doing all the book reviews and going to a lot of readings, we’re all able to find these authors when they’re really on the rise.

CHR: How did you determine what piece is featured on the website, like Bethany Schultz Hurst’s?

BW: We’re just basically trying to feature a different one every month. First we chose Scott King, and then we chose Bethany. Part of it had to do with the timing of when they made submissions. Scott King submitted his work early, so we had more time to fall in love with him. As for Bethany, she is somebody I’ve sort of been tracking for six months and I’m seeing her get more and more stuff out there. So I felt like I knew her a little bit as well. The point of the splash page on the website is to share a story about the author, if there’s a story to be told.

CHR: Is anyone on the staff paid, or is it all volunteer?

BW: We’re all crazy volunteers.

CHR: 14 clams?

BW: We’re happy to receive clams. We were offered a dozen oysters, but that’s not a rarity in Annapolis. We took the oysters but we still made them buy the review. None of us are used to being hustlers—we’re not used to being salesman. We’re just trying on these outfits and doing the best we can to make it work.


Book Review:The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke

The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The Susquehanna is an old river. Kerouac called it “the mighty ghost of the East.” At 440 miles, it’s the longest river to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a lot of haunt, but author Gary Fincke doesn’t scare easy. The director of the Writing Institute at Susquehanna University has published over twenty volumes of poetry, short stories, nonfiction and memoir. Although the Pittsburgh native jay-walks between genres, he’s primarily known as a poet. Fincke’s most recent offering, The History of Permanence, won the 2011 Stephen Austin Poetry Prize. All but two of its twenty-eight poems and sequences were previously published, making this book feel like a greatest hits collection. The adverbacious liner notes say Fincke “has built a reputation for his skill at combining the realism of personal narrative with the realism of the fantastic precisely imagined.”

Fincke’s subjects are everyday, ordinary people to whom very bizarre things might happen on a Tuesday. The collection begins with “The Possibility for Wings,” a meditation on what aerodynamic form our souls return—the suicides getting crows, the lonely hearts getting butterflies. Two friends speculate the winged possibilities for their own passe composse, their souls becoming “moths or whatever” and the speaker chooses the “poorwill,/ the only bird that hibernates.” As if listening to this conversation, the Gods send an airplane overhead, “shaping our fear against the summoned sky.” The speaker never says it was divine intervention, or something random, but in many places where Fincke knits the ludicrous with the day to day—such as neighbors chatting in the backyard—there’s a spiritual energy at play. The reader feels the spirit by its sudden arrival or sudden departure from the poem, and sometimes by characters who are seeking that energy, and not finding it.

“The Serious Surprise of Sorrow” begins “She’s twelve, the girl who discovers a foot/ Washed ashore in British Columbia./ Interviewed, she chatters, puzzled, amazed.” This poem is written in blank verse tercets, creating a kind of order when realities collide. Also, by focusing on the girl instead of the foot, the reader is invested before the absurd takes hold which becomes apparent when two more feet wash ashore, both left ones like the first, each wearing a size twelve running shoe, a size as big as the girl is old. The concluding image finds old men with metal detectors, moving as if wearing prosthetic feet, “Walking with stuttering steps like robins,/ Their heads cocked a moment, then cocked again,/ Their beaks passing over the unmown grass,/ Listening for the soil’s faintest sound.” A poem, then, about everyone looking for a certain random and holy energy, “becoming the urban legend,” or perhaps, leg end, of the mysterious left feet.

Fincke seems to love teaching poetry as much as he does writing it. At Susquehanna University, twenty-eight percent of the graduates have taken courses in his small department, making his the biggest rival of the Science and Business programs. So it’s not a surprise to find a few poems about poetry in this volume, notably “Meat-Eaters” which contrasts two different writing approaches:

In B-films, the carnivorous plants
Are always huge. They swallow anyone
Who wanders near, a single knot of vines

Tugging a victim into the dark maw
Of horror, not discriminating
At all, as if eating were accident.

Fincke observes a killing field of sundews in England which consume millions of butterflies—the souls of lonely hearts—but his final rhapsody is for the Venus flytrap because for the poet “working alone, selectivity/ Is what matters.” The plant “Measures its meals so it doesn’t/ Squander the down time of digestion/ on the undersized. The jaw seals/ Slowly, the spaces between its teeth/ Allowing the escape of small insects…Not through mercy, but efficiency.”

One of the most efficient techniques Fincke uses for his hyper real and hyper absurd marriages is to be very tidy in how he enters and leaves a poem. His care with getting into a poem spares the reader the over-written set-up most poets rely on for unexpected juxtaposition. His poem “Selflessness” is a marvel in how he gets from the animal kingdom to a single trans-gendered womb in less than forty syllables so that in the space of fix or six breaths the reader finds himself in very new territory but without any whiplash:

In the animal kingdom among fish,
one father carries all of the laid eggs
in his mouth sixty-five day starvation,
to make the flexible, deep mouth a womb.

This poem evokes the simplicity of parenting and fatherhood in general: the fish spitting out the babies and taking them back in his mouth at night, the daily chores of being a selfless dad. One of the hardest things to do when writing blank verse is to use language which still gives the feeling of a poem rather than a story, and this must have been additionally hard for a poet who’s an accomplished short story writer. When he uses blank verse Fincke puts a stop—a comma, a period, an em dash—somewhere in the middle of each line. He uses verbs for description—puzzled, amazed—and keeps analysis to a minimum. You’d have to be a real asshole to find something wrong with these touches, but unfortunately, I’m an asshole. In “Selflessness” Fincke’s language gets a little too religious, with his clunky “Such sacrifice” and “his mouth like God” and “He’s a living prayer.” This makes it seem like he’s taking a shortcut to suggest something sacred or mystical. Fincke is much better merely implying some spirit energy rather than being so out loud about it. He’s even forgiving of the father at the end: “…every father has his limits, and so/ does this one, turning his back, one morning,/ as they feed, swimming away while he still/ knows them, before his children grow so large/ he can’t tell them from what he hungers for./ If he forgets to flee, he will eat them.” Fincke’s excellent departure line returns the terrifying moment to the ordinary behavior. The father is essential, but deadly.

Fincke is so aware of the demonic tendencies in his world he would never have to spend a weekend in Iraq in order to write a book of poems about torture. The exotic is not the thing; rather, the interplay, that millisecond vibration one feels before a light flicks on. In Pennsylvania, we need only to do a little fishing, or some casual gardening. If the season’s not right for cultivation, try the florist. In his poem “The Doctrine of Signatures” a man seeks a certain something: :The woman who followed me from flower/ To flower said Birthday? Anniversary?/ And I shook my head among the arrangements/ Until she shifted to Accident? Sickness?” Paracelsus’ Doctrine of Signatures assigned healing purposes to flowers and seeds based on shape, size and shade. The speaker wanders aisles finding remedies for pancreas and liver and soul, “the flowers that form like tumor…scattered/ Like great seasonings for the earth, blended/ So perfectly they lie invisible/ Until they rise from our astonished tongues.”

Some people feel ashamed about the ordinary. Every next generation is screaming to be different from the former, yet all of its revolutionary members are wearing the same Earth shoes, or “Crocks” or Nike running shoes. Fincke’s riddle is that the more we’re dependent on communities, the more our individuality wants to spark and reclaim its own freedoms, and to do this while still making connections and feeling empathy. Kerouac’s restless bone was geographic. Fincke’s bone is temporal. He carves and shapes vast stretches of Time and this sometimes makes it tricky to not come off as a Delphic Oracle. The quotidian elements of his narrative threads are the perfect fuzzy handcuffs to rein his big reach. “Specificity” is an elegy, in a modern sense, for the poet’s friend Len Roberts: “Until I was twelve, worn out/ and God’s will were the reasons/ my relatives died.” Fincke calls it King James medicine, and he pushes back to his mother, his grandmother, and his great greats in creating the evolution of mystery. When the poem ends, that mighty old ghost of mystery is still at it:

And now, after memorial,
after an hour of tributes
by poets who traveled hours
to eulogize, I sit with my wife
who orders a glass of Chambord
for a small, expensive pleasure

in a well-decorated room,
the possibility of happiness
surprising us in the way
hummingbirds do, stuck in the air,
just now outside this window,
attracted to the joy of sweetness
despite the clear foreshadowing
of their tiny, sprinting hearts


Book Review: The Geese at the Gates by Drucilla Wall

Drucilla Wall, The Geese at the Gates
Salmon Poetry, December, 2011
ISBN 978-1-907056-59-8

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The search for truth and beauty is a panic for dreamers. Try heading north from native Creek country, turn left at Philadelphia. Keep more or less straight to Wyoming, then dog-leg back to Nebraska. Pick up the big river and let it run you south to St. Louis. Avoid the floating McDonald’s.

Drucilla Wall’s journey likewise takes a very promising turn on the trussed banks of the muddy river’s western shore. Her debut collection, The Geese at the Gates, is a book of great arrival and strong presence. Big forces have put a vast geography into Wall’s middle, but irony has quieted this terrain. The Beats’ hurry for constant motion and their ecstatic, restless subtexts are generously absent from this book. Even the geese in her title poem do not migrate: “The fat geese should be slicing/ the heavy clouds, heading south./ In the last heat of these afternoons/ I should hear them exclaiming/ on their way. But the geese remain/ all winter. Having forgotten themselves/ and changed their story.”

When Wall writes about a car, it’s almost always parked: “we can see our cars wiggle their/ steely asses under the laurel oaks./ All that shiny potential.” In a poem about her son Matthew, he is running, but his eyes are closed. He’s asleep: “You’re safe,/ safe in your bed./ It’s only a dream, a dream./ Sinking back, you answer,/ blinking, disappointed,/ Only a dream?”

Wall stands well apart from the usual crowd of word slingers. Poets today seem obsessed with wanting a poem to have something happen, but dramatic tension doesn’t require cause and effect, action and reaction. Wall’s poetry liberates us from that facile snare. Her poems don’t require verbs to manifest meaning. Occasionally a speaker will roll over or recline. Sometimes there is a memory of an action from twenty years before. Wall nicely doesn’t need to establish motivation to justify action which doesn’t occur. The result is that her poetry—her essence—isn’t cluttered by personality and the tricks of story-telling. There isn’t any Vaudeville in her meter. While there’s movement, it’s usually just the narrator’s eye, panning about, or else making a feast of unexpected associations. Her title poem “moves” from parked geese to parked cars, a shopping mall, Egyptian cotton made in China and washed in Mississippi waters, all the way to the memory foam of God’s bosom where we wonder “how to rid ourselves/ of these fat, honking angels here among us.” We’ve navigated the globe without leaving the windows, looking down on geese which don’t fly, perhaps like us, fat, honking poets whom we are, needing and dreading a higher purpose.

Wall’s traditions spring from older grounds in Ireland where Irish poetry from Yeats to Muldoon hasn’t stopped being Irish no matter with what the rest of the world is pathetically busy. To that island’s fetish for boundary and place, Wall adds a mystical, feathery, almost Japanese way of observing. She wants us to know Jack Gilbert’s waterfall without hearing the sound of its water, wanting us only to hear its beautiful silence as it rages.

Wall’s “Disappearance Song” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. The first stanza is the rapture of an awakened spring. It’s second stanza is a classic haiku, scanning five-seven-five, so that two distinct traditions, the Romantic Era’s nature praise poem, and the haiku—an imagistic surrender—are wed: “Now behind it all/ the silence of honeybees,/ the absence of wings.” When we remember that St. Patrick chased the snakes of Ireland and sent them all to England, we can look at this poem as an elegy for the environment we’re losing, and perhaps disappearing ourselves along the way.

Wall releases information very slowly, unlacing her brief narratives with agonizing—for us—deep-breathed modulations. Most writers have shown us their tits by page three. Eighty delightful pages of Wall and I’m still anticipating, absolutely aquiver on my chopper. Oh for a glimpse. It almost happens in “Deer Woman at Fifty”

One misty night on the road
to Wentzville, a doe cut across
the headlights and vanished
kicking gravel chips
from the edge of the woods,
her provoking rump
giving the last flash.

What begins like fable…’twas a dark and stormy night…immediately gets specific, so that the abstract qualities of the poem are not lost in abstract language. Her specific, rational observations enhance the unknown. “On the road to Wentzville” immediately engages our right brain hemisphere. It makes us think of maps, signs, trailheads. The fact that Wentzville is a town named for the past tense of a being verb, literally, “wents ville” also intrigues. The images of the doe “kicking gravel chips” steers us to Wall’s belief that movement is only one half the thing in motion. The other half of movement is the way such motion affects the larger world.

By contrast, Wall also celebrates some movement which has no impact. “Invisibility Lesson #1” teaches us “the way Indians walk in the woods” and concludes: “You’ll know when you get it right/ by the deer ignoring you,/ and the arrowhead hunters,/ with their shovels and sieves,/ shouting your obituary/ right across your path.”

Wall probably does not write poems in the nude, but she does seem to take off her watch before composing. There is hardly a clock face to be had. Not only is her poetry nearly devoid of temporal markers, but in several poems she conveys several centuries in one stanza so that images mixed in time–“colonial” and “highway”–are almost matter of fact. In another, “Hannibal, Missouri” characters go in and out of the 1840s. Tom Sawyer jogs past the diner and “Becky Thatcher strolls down Main Street/ with a smile and a pistol in her hand,” while the “kids out/ by the Dairy Queen prefer their cherry vodka.” Wall’s poem, “Regarding Last Chances,” about relationship miscues, ends on a hopeful note: “I have one page left/ in my appointment book,/ where another man’s name/ is penciled in.”

Where time is so indefinite, space means everything. This is Wall at her strongest, giving us just enough light to adjust our irises and just enough detail to rightly furnish each stanza. “Under the lights,/ the elongated hurt,/ stubborn clay,/ turns within the force/ that is your will,/ beyond any choosing,/ to each smallest/ rounding of the elbow,/ slightest declination/ of the fingers,/ builds gesture to gesture,/ circling more and greater/ space into fire.”

Wall’s mastery is that in spite of her dialed-down revelatory pace she writes very personal poems. Her intimacies are thrilling. There’s the evocative sexual imagery in “Blue Marker Landscape” in which the speaker is doodling a Kansas farm scene on her lover’s back, when—because it’s Kansas—the winds pick up and a tornado whirls their embrace. In “Snake Shadows” Wall writes: “my arms coiling your chest,/ my hands diamond heads,/ my tongue water over rock,/ your sounds the prayers of stones.”

Any one of Wall’s gorgeous blossoms could stop a train, but one of my favorites was “For Matthew at Twenty-five.” Although one never stops being a parent, the poetry about being a parent seems to come to a crashing halt after our children start driving cars. For Wall, nurturing means everything and it will go on forever. Archetypes aside, she’s plain good at it, whether scrubbing a sick cat or comforting a restive child or a worried husband.

Do you remember collecting
the bright leaves of autumn,
how we ruined the iron,
pressing them in waxed paper,

and taped them to the windows
to glow like stained glass,
now that another holds your hand
and takes you walking in the woods?

The nicest part of walking the woods with Wall is that she doesn’t stop to sniff every butterfly, just the ones which matter. The unfenced world there, its trees and denizens, is meant to be lived and experienced first, then dreamed and remembered, and only after the longest and most pleasant of whiles, to write a timeless poem about.

Book Review: Meat Heart by Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder
Meat Heart
Publishing Genius Press, 2012

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

There are only eighty-eight keys on a piano and the best of us only have three simple chords to our lives—work, love, and play—but music is not made of math. Neither is poetry. Still we take some risk in making art from our confessions. The narrative that comes from living in the world is too often one-dimensional, or else it’s too wink-wink, and that’s the peril. Melissa Broder’s second poetry volume Meat Heart shows us why that risk is so important. In these intensely personal poems her experience—her personal witness—is a stepping stone to revelation. Broder’s is the perfect bascule between apocalypse and rapture. She snuggles up to the edge, she rocks back, she rounds and folds inside the arc, she reaches and grabs the other side.

Broder plays a jive, a rag, a stride, a blues, a hymn. She finds her center by getting outside of her middle. Give her eight beats and she’ll discern the plaguing icons, love them, discard them. Prufrock wondered if he dared to eat a peach. Broder isn’t so polite: “Listen wormhead/ There is no celery emergency/ …/ No evil peach in your vein of air.” In her title poem the love, glow, and magic all of us are seeking are only Slim Jims, tacos, and all-night burgers. In another poem, “Lack,” Broder is ravenous for icons: “I found the Summer of Love in a trashcan at Hardees & I ate it.” We are gluttons for it because we’re never satisfied. In “The Mail,” Broder is “disgusted by the U.S. Mail/ its endless soul-crush pulp of catalogs/ utility bills, act now offers and sales/ stinking with aggravation.” Broder wants something different, free from obvious rituals that displace her soul’s true purpose. “The Mail” continues: “Just once I would like to reach in the slot/ and come upon a stony hollow/ or perhaps, a tiny garden…This will be the depth of my story,/ the stunning extent of my smile:/ a scattered few pinprick dung drops,/ some night weather, no envelopes.”

Most of us are what we eat. Broder is what she vomits. She’s a self-mutilating anorexic alcoholic: “There are scratch marks all over/ my life…Let’s/ write a sermon on control. Let’s/ write a love song for heavyweights.” Broder’s poem “Supper” puts all her key images—boys, food, smells, and church—into a rousing intimate couplet:”Boy comes to me at church potluck/ perfumed with frankincense and lasagna.” Their courtship begins with tater tot casserole, a gateway food that can only lead to angel cake and ice cream glossolalia as Broder becomes the “burping circus lady” who’s “busting from her garments.” Just at the brink of a Willy Wonka-styled destruction, Broder finds “There is room at the organ bench” and plays.

Hungry for seconds? “Binge Eating in 2067” which turns out not to be all that futuristic. Consider these lines: “I have a jaw that seeks chunks/ and he has the heart of a fat man,” and later, “When he cooks a real live cassoulet/ flesh and fat, no hoax/ I turn my face from the bowl/ and put my fingers in his mouth.”

It’s the moods of these poems—their great suffering arcs—rather than nifty openings and closings, that catch you and whip you forward into Broder’s doom. You’re relieved as each one ends, and immediately nostalgic for the inscrutable what-was-that? you felt as you strummed into its seductive opening. I know why I liked the poem “Waterfall,” but I don’t know why it made me cry so hard:

The most romantic thing a human being can say
to another human being is Let me help you vomit.
your vomiting; it is like a psalm to me
a place where wilderness might be new.
Other people’s dirt makes a lovely frock.
Grant I be forgiven in the gush.

Broder’s poems are works of art and works of life. She isn’t the first writer to believe one should live a poem before one writes it, but she’s one of the more effective partisans since she understands its limitations. She confesses just enough to make it clear she has a great grasp of her subject—herself— showing us how genuine is her poetry bone. This is something real to her—her poetry, her life—and it becomes real to us. By turns we learn how to make poetry of our own pathetic misfit lives.

But this is only one half of a breath-taking story. Most volumes of poetry are like little kissing matches. Our nerves are touched. We smile. We smirk. We nod. At times we get excited. Meat Heart is more of a boxing match. Broder confuses our reflexes, softening us with the believability of her otherworldly destruction—her personal apocalypse—and then knocks us down with her speculative poems dealing with the abstract. We trust her as readers to take us there because we’re already swept up in her upside-down life that oddly makes perfect sense. The narrative rings true enough that when her lyric and metaphoric threads take leaps we stick around. This is what makes “Ciao Manhattan” a different sort of poem:

All day long my skull
That horsey gulper

Goes braying after sherbets
Busts up ventricles

Trashes valves
But pauses somehow

Hinge open
The day falls off its reins

My brassiere goes unhooked
God walks in

And says I’m back baby
What now?

We smile at each other
Go horseless and headless

It is so God
When the voice is like wheat

Spooned wheat
In whole milk

Come closer it says
You cute little fucker

The French have one word, sacre, to mean both sacred and profane, depending on the stress, and there is something decidedly Last Year at Marienbad about Broder’s pulse. What Robbe-Grillet does with a circle, Broder conveys by harmony between the actual and the speculative. In “Gate 27” she demures “It’s very important to me/ that there be a sense of unity.” And in “Flurry,” “Something/ about the sum of us/ works best.” Sparks fly when the unity between destruction and glory happens; the feeling is electric. In “Mercy” it happens literally through the poem: “Yesterday the worship rattled like an engine/ I said Let this voltage last forever.” And it almost does, it wants to: “I want to buzz all night…Maybe your hum could just fall from my lips.”

In “Superdoom,” before the electric happens, there is panic, “200 flavors of panic,/ the worst is seeing with no eyes./ Cowboys call it riding your feelings.” Let go, Broder is telling us, ride into the violet. This is the whole world in her sad eyes. “Obituary” captures this theme much better than I could: “But if you put nothing to your eye/ Take the questions out of your mouth/ I’ll let you kiss me on the lips/ and suck my ancient oxygen.”

My favorite poem in this collection is “Bones,” which can be dissected vertically, or horizontally since the first and fourth the second and fifth, and third and sixth stanzas have seamless connections:

I held a nightlight
to my bones.

Run said the moon
or build yourself
a rowboat with a roof.

I am like a sailor
who is terrified of fish

if I see a skeleton
I might begin

to vomit up
the mystery
and then what?

I am nothing
like a sailor.

This is a poem about identity, mortality, and myth, conveyed about as simply and clearly as the big awful of life could be shown, and rendered with a sophisticated lyric parallelism that reveals a curious mind in spite of life’s battering wounds. All of Broder’s most intimate moments involve imperfections. Some of us tolerate flaws; others blink and try not to talk about them. Broder adores imperfections, physical and emotional, a life as crooked and sad as her teeth are straight and happy. As a bad man living a messy life I find these poems thrilling. The search for truth and beauty is also the search for imperfection, and not being so ashamed when we find it.