Book Review: ICONOSCOPE by Peter Oresick

9780822963806 Iconoscope: New and Selected Poems 
by Peter Oresick
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
$16.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: KARANKAWA by Iliana Rocha

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: BOY WITH THORN by Ricky Laurentiis

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: DOUBLE JINX by Nancy Reddy

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: THE REPUBLICS by Nathalie Handal

 photo e089317b-6e09-4e80-a48b-24d024d2fb07_zpsv5bo8nla.jpg The Republics
Poems by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

After the Haitian earthquake of 2008, the poet Nathalie Handal revisited the country of her birth and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Faced with two vibrant cultures learning how to resituate themselves after this latest tragedy, Handal began to write a series of “flash reportages” based on the people she met and the stories they told. As much a love letter to her homeland as to its residents, The Republics is immediately successful as a collection that humanizes the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic to her readers elsewhere. Using the weight and lyricism afforded to her by the prose poem form, Handal is able to address these subjects with the urgency and gravity they deserve.

The island of Hispaniola, where so much is screaming crickets and broken motorcars and “Ten Drumbeats from God”—it is in these desperate spaces that Handal finds the people to whom she will give voice throughout the collection. Typically these are people living on the margins of society, such as the black Haitians speaking in “Noir, une lumière.” Even (and today, especially) in the United States we can recognize their particular cry for freedom: “Take everything but my blackness.” Spurned by a society that would rather erase them than face its issue of racism, they beg to be liberated from poverty, tragedy, and inequality while still being recognized for who they are. “They hated our black,” the speaker explains. “What they didn’t understand is that it illuminates their world.” By amplifying the voice of blackness in Haiti, she places the issue of racism starkly before us to be considered both as a Haitian problem and one here in our own backyard. By the poem’s end, readers are forced to face how demoralizing it is to be told, “You are in the wrong land even if the roosters recognize you.”

Despite some poems being written from what seems to be Handal’s viewpoint, nearly the entire collection is devoted to speaking on behalf of others. The series “Salt on the Tongue” introduces us to nine Haitians and their stories. “Amor in la Zona Colonial,” set in the Dominican Republic (and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World), doesn’t give name to its characters. Instead, it visits five bedrooms, perhaps in an apartment building or a hotel, to find unique voices and perspectives on romance. Some of Handal’s most beautiful lines are found here:

The hour changes time into other forms of desire. A woman needs no bra in summer. A kiss after a fuck. A way to depart.

We are a riot waiting to be broken and dispersed. I have no idea what it means to be beautiful but I try to survive what you don’t say.

I couldn’t tell if we were dancing or screaming or maybe it was a way to meditate la pobreza away…

Desire, loneliness, regret, and desperation make frequent returns throughout the collection. In “Milagro’s Recollections,” we meet a mother whose son, Frankie, died unexpectedly at the age of 19. The speaker remembers a time when the woman lived vibrantly before turning to examine her in the present moment. “All I saw was the way life moved faded leaves on her face. The way Frankie stayed handsome forever. She disappeared… But I was told, on some days when she is lucid, she says my name with a faint smile.”

The curse of the remembered dead seems to follow all the people Handal meets throughout The Republics, and each person lives with this burden in his own way. For her part, Handal first has to come to understand the rootlessness of this feeling.

I look at the mother looking at her child eating—why isn’t she smiling? I look at my lover looking at me naked beside him—why isn’t he smiling? I look at the ex-slave growing mangoes, and his daughters drinking water from a well—why aren’t they smiling?  I always believed that everything was black and white. But what’s closed inside me isn’t black or white.

Then there are those who run from what’s closed inside them—if only for a moment—such as the Haitians Handal observes celebrating Carnaval. “A parade of wild colors… Masks glittering. Every meter a dream.” Overtaken by beauty and joy, the people admire the “illusion” of the ocean while some cosmic camera pans over the entirety of the country. We’re told, in Haitian and French, that “coal is burning. The crowd is ready.” “Quelle belle nuit,” the partygoers agree. “Carnaval is a country made of secret crimson skies—why know everything.”

And yet, Handal’s voice throughout does ring as rather omniscient. There is no letting up from overwhelming reality; the presence of grief and injustice are never far. But, as she shows us in “La Carta del Capitán,” there are a few moments where we can locate the beauty in devastation. Sometimes, to survive, we must force ourselves to look at blessings as well as pain:

Love, your lips circling my chest, the shape of your mouth on my neck, I know now that distance isn’t a broken letter; it’s a dazzled heart, elegies turning into comets.


 

Book Review: MENDELEEV’S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 845c6028-9b52-4cf4-b74d-eef21d2102e0_zpsigjihztv.jpg Mendeleev’s Mandala
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Mayapple Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

mandala: from the Sanskrit for “circle,” a schematized representation of the cosmos chiefly characterized by a concentric configuration of geometric shapes; in common use, mandala has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe

Jessica Goodfellow couldn’t have picked a more apt symbol as the face of her second full-length poetry collection, Mendeleev’s Mandala, out this past February from Mayapple Press. Cleverly represented by a diatom on the book’s cover, the mandala captures perfectly some of the lofty questions Goodfellow sets out to answer from the book’s first page.

How to revisit centuries’ worth of scientific, religious, and cultural development? How to do so in a new, unexpected way? How to accurately represent scientific, logical and linguistic concepts on the page? How to do so intelligibly?

By adopting the mandala as a guide, Goodfellow is able to show how each moment can be a microcosm of the entire human experience and, in turn, how the macrocosms of science, religion, language, and logic can be applied to each moment. Poems like “The Bargain,” “Night View from the Back of a Taxi,” and “Other People’s Lives” do so directly by examining the idea of fractals—curves or geometric figures, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole—but each section of the collection takes on the charge in its own way.

The first section sees Goodfellow applying scientific and logical concepts to everything from the myths of Isaac and Iphigenia to the story of her father’s hometown succumbing to a copper mine. These stories, along with that of her father’s eventual death, use physics and logic to test the limits of our capacity for understanding. The second section focuses on various types of measurement and perception—time, space, distance, and sight—and how they restrict. The third section is a delicious exploration of color’s effect on sensory perception, where we’re treated to the characters of The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau (“the color seen by the eye in perfect darkness… perceived as lighter than a black object in normal lighting conditions”) and her blind husband. The fourth section seems primarily to be an examination of language—its limits and its (in)ability to represent abstract concepts. Finally, the fifth section exists as an amalgamation of the various ideas explored in the previous poems.

As in Dmitri Mendeleev’s version of the periodic table, what is most interesting about this collection is what isn’t present. Like Mendeleev, who noted the absence of certain elements in his table and attempted to predict ways of filling those gaps, Goodfellow often meditates on absence and emptiness in an attempt to reunify the self.

For instance, she considers the idea of nothingness as Sarai, the Torahic heroine, in “The Mother of Nations Waits.”

In the time before zeros,
merchants marked nothing with nothing,
leaving space to show where something was missing.
But what shape was the space?
Sarai wanted to know, pressing on her midriff,
hoping that containing the emptiness was a possibility.

The poem continues with the Babylonian invention of zero—“All losses were made equal / which was a relief to Sarai / and which wasn’t”—and the language of zeros and ones in binary code. By the poem’s end, Sarai comes to understand that “while the opposite of being fertile is being barren, / the opposite of being barren is still being barren.”

Absence also proves a rich lens through which Goodfellow can examine her own father. “How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There” contains a pitch-perfect pun that succinctly sets the scene. “Mine, my father joked, pointing into the gaping hole. / Not mine, he waved his arms in large gestures / in no particular direction.” Not only is the father associated with emptiness here, but he comes to own it (semantically and geographically) as a central part of himself. Later, in “The Factory,” Goodfellow writes, “Kilroy was here means he’s not anymore—a kind of geometry nobody / cannot configure.” An emblematic American symbol, Kilroy, and a universal human loss, the death of a parent, are touchingly intertwined to expand our understanding of grief.

The collection is rife with other examples of absence. “Knot Sonnet” represents the space between two people in a relationship as the growing distance between geese flying in vee formation. “Night View from the Back of a Taxi” makes note of a verb tense in Ojibwe that conjugates “what was going to happen / but didn’t.”

But perhaps the most beautiful and interesting portion of the collection is its final poem, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland.” Written in six sections, the poem begins to give way to chaos in its sixth line as random numbers begin to invade the words on the page. Is this an invisible science behind the scenes becoming visible? A visual representation of the randomness we all exist within? An attempt to fill the emptiness? In any case, it’s a wild experience to watch as spaces and the insides of words are consumed by a rush of numbers. As the final page fills with a block of arbitrarily sequenced numbers, the reader realizes she must agree with Goodfellow and her son on their opinion of night, and of life:

“It’s such a lovely dark.”


Book Review: GODDESS WEARS COWBOY BOOTS by Katherine Hoerth

 photo ab8c02d3-6ed7-48e6-926f-561834145fa0_zpsbcjj2f4m.jpg Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots
Poems by Katherine Hoerth
Lamar University Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: MORE MONEY THAN GOD by Richard Michelson

 photo 4a214628-59bc-48e7-8823-9271c7a25869_zpsqbxxk2sa.jpg More Money Than God
Poems by Richard Michelson
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: VESSEL by Parneshia Jones

 photo 8e6e90e0-1b35-41fd-8a1a-a373c328de59_zpstlqiaws1.jpg Vessel
Poems by Parneshia Jones
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 photo 492e4d0d-12ce-4aa4-ba83-925acd7a39fb_zpsubqabdms.jpg All night in the new country
by Miriam Bird Greenberg
Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013
$10.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

…people

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: PROXY by R. Erica Doyle

 photo ec8f7e8d-c0fa-45b9-819b-be0317652c86_zpskhwdqiwy.jpg proxy
Poems by R. Erica Doyle
Belladonna, 2013
$15.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: I ATE THE COSMOS FOR BREAKFAST by Melissa Studdard

 photo 66fc6125-e74e-405f-b95e-595fedfbe885_zpsmnwjv9nw.jpg I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast
Poems by Melissa Studdard
Saint Julian Press, 2014
$12.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

There is a universe inside each instant—if ever a writer has taken that statement to heart, it’s Melissa Studdard. Her fourth book, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, turns a keen eye on life’s smallest moments to pay homage to the astronomical range of human experience and emotion.

Studdard opens the collection with one grand overture before the small moments, “Creation Myth.” Here, her deft hand paints a new world in broad strokes:

So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
birthing the screaming world

from her red velvet cleft, her thighs
cut holy with love

for all things. both big and small,
that crept from her womb like an army…

A few simple word choices—her, screaming, velvet, army—and we’ve got a radical poem that sets the tone for its counterparts to come. Studdard shows us the beauty in ugly things, a God “in love with her own making, infatuated // with all corners of the blemished universe.” This God is a prescient predecessor for Studdard’s other speakers.

“In Another Dimension, We Are Making Love” reminds us that our human capacity for understanding is limited while illustrating alternate possibilities and emotions that can change on a dime:

Like you, I believe most in what
I cannot see or hear. Anger: a wounded steam
rising from the cauldron of your throat.
Alchemy: the steam dissipates, and you reach
across the table for my hand.

Studdard’s mastery over metaphor collapses the most immense of concepts—humanity, the universe—into understandable images. She plays at shifting sizes and shapes, using the canvas of available objects as a screen onto which she projects the human drama. “What you mistook for a person / is really a country,” her speaker informs us; yet all the necessary things to remember “can fit on a scrap of paper / smaller than your hand.”

Perhaps the simplest of Studdard’s extended metaphors, “If I Saw the Airports in Your Eyes,” is exemplar of how sometimes only comparison can make emotion decipherable. The lover is an airport, departing planes, packed luggage, a trolley. The speaker: a city, a building, brown sugar packed tight. Then, a pause in the images—“I’d say Don’t remind me / Please don’t remind me.” This flash of concentrated feeling fleshes out the rest of the metaphor so that, when the lover’s “exhaust…punches through my sky / like a fist,” we all feel it.

These pained poems of love are the jewels of Studdard’s collection. Her incinerating diction and expert craft elevate the love poem, so long made shameful by clumsiness and cliché, into a series of glittering surprises. Two favorites include “A Prayer” and “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists.” No, Studdard doesn’t shy from love, religion, or politics—gasp!—yet still creates successful poems. I’d argue it’s due to her talent for making a thing comprehensible. Reformed conversion therapists, like us, are people whose “atoms have come to worship / and rejoice at the temple of the familiar.”

Close readers will note that I Ate the Cosmos, from its very first poem, is a galaxy of a collection constantly collapsing in on itself. Ideas are compressed into more accessible, digestible chunks as new emotions and concepts become part of the reader’s known universe.  And so, the final poem, a diminuendo. “The Soul is Swaddled in Body” doesn’t try at anything other than reminding us how the littlest moment can be immeasurable. For this, and all its other poems, I am grateful.

If I could do it all over again,
I wouldn’t write a damn word. I’d
just make love to you in the meadow
with the cows watching, and the cats
chasing mice through the straw.

 


Book Review: MY FRIEND KEN HARVEY by Barrett Warner

 photo 21b3d45a-d2dd-456d-b58a-ebf1a44627e6_zpsz5ggpyzr.png My Friend Ken Harvey
Poems by Barrett Warner
Publishing Genius Press, 2014
$7.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Nostalgia and sentiment were dirty words in poetry until Barret Warner’s My Friend Ken Harvey came on the scene. Here we have a chapbook that shows us the many forms of love, how relationships can be measured as “not enough war or too much war in someone’s life,” and how the simplest moments can be transcendent, all while dipping in and out of the sepia tint of memory.

Warner’s epigraph for the chapbook is borrowed from Jack Spicer’s “A Poem without a Single Bird in it”—there are no birds here, either, but we are surrounded by all the recognizable accoutrements of life. Bluebonnets and plumbers, cabins and raked leaves, these are the objects that populate a world where “bodies fall asleep against anything that doesn’t move— / floors, speakers, boxes, furniture.” These poems are much like the stories Warner’s friend Timmy Reed tells, where “instead of ogres and orphans there are shovels and lawnmowers, / and everyday people just trying to sort it out.”

And after a life spent among countless people, there’s a lot to sort out. What is a friend, for instance? A man like Bomba, who appears again and again in Warner’s reflective lines, or childhood acquaintances like Zenaida and Barbara Carmody who flash before our eyes only once? One small ode starts “My friend Tracy Dimond probably doesn’t call me a friend. / More like, someone she knows.” Yet each person illustrated here is drawn with the tenderest touch and the deepest respect. Though some poems linger almost long enough to be cloying, Warner always returns to the tangible to show us how deeply a moment can affect us.

“My Friend Julia Wendell” transports us to a brief interlude in a hospital bed, just long enough to sip briefly from a bowl of bullion before heading back to sleep. But when the speaker awakens from his rest, he finds himself immeasurably cared for—“When I wake up she’s gone and my hair is beautiful.” The things we do for the ones we love, these are the actions that add up to a life.

Warner spends much of the chapbook remarking on his own shortcomings—he doesn’t visit often enough, he isn’t as admirable as all his many friends. He laments about

The things [he’s] bashed. The cars. The lives. The dogs.
The sweat that flew off [his] brow. The wasted muscle.

The things [he] learned… The things [he] never learned.

But I’d argue he’s learned a little more than he gives himself credit for. Surely this is the best way to honor people, immortalizing their genuine graciousness to remind us of the goodness this world can hold. Even after years spent apart, he reminds us, our old friends and lovers can be just as immediate as ever through memory. Whether we keep up with each other doesn’t take away all that they’ve meant to us, their omnipresence in our minds—as Warner says, “I like not knowing / I like looking in every direction and wondering where [they] could be.”


 

Book Review: THAT OUR EYES BE RIGGED by Kristi Maxwell

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

reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow erases mud our feet rewrite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My soul’s in your head

if anywhere. The song

said so or something

like it. I fold my voice

to fit your ear. I fold it

more compactly

and store it. Stalled

after all. What horse

is this—that carries us

one at a time?

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


 

Book Review: BEST BONES by Sarah Rose Nordgren

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: YOU COULD LEARN A LOT by RJ Gibson

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abundance, you say, so much…

… of course the earth

so ready to burst

it smells as if everything
is about to happen,

only some of it good.

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

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

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

We shine red.


 

Book Review: THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS by Rachel Mennies Goodmanson

 photo e2331f31-5ee1-4b9c-892c-521f018b5b24_zps181382cc.jpg The Glad Hand of God
Points Backwards

Poems by
Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
Texas Tech University Press, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Faith is a lineage: cultural, familial, political, a heritage in some ways inescapable. This is by no means a new idea, but that doesn’t stop Rachel Mennies Goodmanson from exploring it in active, surprising ways in her debut collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. These poems arrest with their images, leading readers through unexpected turns that take us from 1930s Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, Goodmanson paints and repaints the history of Judaism from her place as woman in the world. This is not self-indulgence, but a calling from Torahic mothers like Sara, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, who, Goodmanson writes, “had the hearts of the bodies we stand on tall as arks / had the shawl to wrap around my bare and sloping shoulders / had the soil to force into my fists and turn my body west.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this early admission that faith is an imperative thrust upon her by the matriarchs, many of Goodmanson’s poems explore the difficulties of faith. The morning after Kristallnacht, her great-grandfather’s Jewishness becomes an impossible garment: “A glass overcoat waits, open / on the sidewalk: sleeves of debris / for his cold arms to slide inside.” This poem, like many in the collection, thrives on the unsaid. “Today, he learns how clothes betray,” the speaker tells us, and then later, “old customers pass / kicking aside findings with a steely toe.” The tiniest details are employed to depict the vulnerability of being Jewish in Germany during the second World War; we know who these old customers are. “The Glass Overcoat” shifts from its central metaphor to the speaker, who tells us, “From him, I learned to mend.” But even she, mending in contemporary America, cannot always find comfort in her coat—her hands kept from warmth by a pocket mistakenly sewn shut.

Goodmanson follows this poem with one about her grandmother, “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York.” The poem opens with a list of all the belongings Goodmanson’s matriarchs had to give up to pay the price: “One by one her mother sold her silver spoons / and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear, / silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves…” At first it seems that Goodmanson is simply reinvesting immigrants like her grandmother with power, reminding us of lives led before they came to America with nothing to their name. But then there’s a stanza break and objects take a sinister turn as Goodmanson bids goodbye to

the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.

Stated in its simplest terms, this list leaves readers to realize the meaning behind Goodmanson’s words—the grisly origins of this latter set of objects. Again, faith is made to bear an impossible price.

But faith isn’t all horror for Goodmanson. “The Jewish Woman in America, 1941,” a member of the diaspora, reminds us that the love for one’s culture and home can be retained in spite of past pain. Goodmanson allows the woman in the poem to make a fantastic nightly escape:

… alive with immigrant sweat. The scrubwoman
dreams at night in German, she flies over oceans,
first a bomb, then a boat. Das Glas covers her body,
shards glint like small stars.

The glass of Schönwetter’s overcoat becomes this woman’s dazzling dress, supernatural bauble to decorate the complexity of her homecoming. In “Grandfather Onion,” Goodmanson hints that Jewish faith is like Jewish food, “its complicated / briny odors.” Indeed, food metaphors seem to be one of the ways she can best articulate this concurrent grief and love. As she asks the reader in “Huevos for Seder,”

Who’s to say dirt never
made a meal better, some sour
blackness against the yellow sun, grit
in the gift of sustenance?

If the first four sections of Goodmanson’s book set out to depict the complicated nature of Jewish heritage, then the final section, “The Jewish Woman in America,” articulates her celebration of those complexities. We get a hint of what’s to come here in the fourth poem of the collection, “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010,” when Goodmanson writes, “My God accepts // the muddle of our lives.” This last section is all muddle—mixing of history with the present, heritage with new perspectives, and especially body with body. For the first time in the collection, female sexuality becomes a major theme. Like the speaker in “To Those Still Godless,” the Jewish woman in America is called upon to revise mythology: “you shutter your parents’ house of lessons, you write your myths / on the backs of your lusts…”

Love and sex, in this world, aren’t always beautiful, but they are a reclamation of the body. They are ways to control the unappeasable appetite from “Eating Animals Without Faces,” where “what we seek / alone at night stays hungry, always hungry” and “My Sister the Diviner,” where love is eaten along with food, “that closed mouth, / fit always, despite ourselves, to bursting.”

And so, 65 pages after her list poem “Matriarch,” Goodmanson gives us two final lists that turn all the old rules on their heads. “Rapture” meditates on peaches to give us a new idea of perfection:

                  …Peach God, rapt for carrion,
turning above us in the heavens, waiting for
us, ripening, to satisfy ourselves;
come to him pitted, come to him
finished, made rotten by
your sweet time in his sun.

Here, as with fruit, our wasting away can be a sweet thing; “the very taste / of sin” rewritten as rapture. The final poem continues to muddle the sacred and profane, telling the reader, “Our bodies // naked before men are God” and “The lungs expand with our God, God / in the scream, also the moan.” Then we zoom out, back again to the original pains and gains of faith and heritage: “The broken limb // and its setting right. God in / the remembering and the forgetting.” In the way we write and rewrite our worlds.


Book Review: Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

 photo 0ae29e21-7c9c-4fd5-a883-936dfe2d93cc_zps60e566b9.jpg Interrobang
Poems by Jessica Piazza
Red Hen Press
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Jessica Piazza’s debut collection, Interrobang, begins with fear—specifically melophobia, the fear of music. But from the poem’s first few lines, it’s clear that this fear isn’t of just any music:

They’ll tell you there are only two ways: flawed
windpipes that knock like water mains behind

thin walls or else a lovely sound like wood-
winds sanded smooth—no middle ground…

The speaker is afraid of her own voice, of “Them” telling her she’s singing badly. Their critiques are endless and contradictory: “begin // again, again, again, now overwrought, / now under-sung; not done.” How apt a conflict to incite this particular collection, a series of poems exploring personal longing through the common lenses of love and fear. (What if readers think she explored these subjects “wrongly?”) But by the end of the poem the speaker seems to shrug off these ethereal naysayers, telling us: “Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” She keeps singing and her voice, once she trusts it, transcends her body and becomes a natural element. We breathe a sigh of relief; we’re being led by a strong, sure voice.

More than just someone of firm conviction, Piazza proves herself in this collection to be a master of form. From sonnets to pantoums to poems that create their own rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, the powder kegs Piazza offers us here have clearly been painstakingly arranged. In “Clithrophilia: love of being enclosed,” she longs for “wonders, harbored,” writing:

And I’ve ached for it all: a closet; a stall;
the crevice between your flesh and the wall.
A way to forsake this freedom I’ve heeded
too often…

Under pressure, forced to be economical with her words, Piazza employs bold images and makes riveting connections and conclusions. Each poem contains harbored wonders. The speaker in “Xenoglossophobia: fear of foreign languages,” like so many of Piazza’s speakers, directs the reader in how to process something she’s seeing. From her first description—“The background’s Brighton Beach”—to her last—“gray sea, white house, red slash that is her heart”—Piazza fleshes out a painting from sketches into full detail, shocking us by landing on the only vivid color mentioned.

We enter Piazza’s collection with the assumption that love and fear are separate entities, possible endpoints on a spectrum of human emotion. But by the book’s midpoint we reach “Phobophilia: love of fear,” a dystopia of grisly images. Piazza handles these atrocities with a surprisingly gentle touch:

The censors will reveal the body, but
black out the eyes…
                        Tomorrow, paradise.
Tomorrow, trucks idling at yellow lights
will dash, will crush the thousand hands that wave
unvoiced applause. And then: mass graves…
            Tomorrow, circuses
will drop the safety mesh, disaster checked
for falling flyers with brute prayer alone.
Though some will slip, we know the system will
be wholly good…

Here, fear and love converge like the interrobang, simultaneous interrogation and exclamation. For Piazza, they’re sometimes one and the same. And in case we miss the memo, she gives us “Eisoptrophilia” and “Eisoptrophobia”—the love and fear of mirrors—a few pages later. Fear mirrors love, and often we love the things we fear.

There’s no real equivalent “fear of love” poem (though we do get an entry on “fear of sexual love.”) Arguably, that’s because the whole book addresses a fear of love. Every poem stands as a testament to this anxiety surrounding intimacy, especially those that flesh out the romantic through-line of the collection. “People Like Us,” the first of three series of sonnets, tells the story of a failed love affair from the moment of attraction to the aftermath of separation. The speaker appeals in these poems to herself and her lover, but also to society at large:

People like us, we’re dust, we’re everywhere. We lie
in spaces between places praying madly for
each other, staying mad at one another…
                        Chasing careless fathers or
neglectful mothers…

For Piazza’s speaker, love is a series of failures repeated time and time again with new subjects for our affection. It’s a futile search to fill an emptiness that has always existed, tied up in a fear of our inheritance—we get “Patroiophobia” later. To explore the depths of love and loss, she depicts tragic characters like the mother in “Pediophilia: love of dolls.” Loss is marked immediately: “The week her daughter died, the room her girl / had occupied became a home for dolls. / The first an angel… It looked like her.” There’s unspeakable pain here, a frightening illustration of the lengths we’ll go to memorialize love in our lives.

But life isn’t always lived in these extreme moments, and Piazza chooses to end her collection with a return to unadorned reality. “What I Hold” begins with its own answer: “a glint—an intimation of what gleams.” The speaker resorts again to a description of her surroundings, but this time her words are almost clinical:

The birds I hear don’t sound like opera, not
like flutes or piccolos at play. They sound
like birds. Sometimes the birds are all I’ve got.

We wind through these sonnets past attempts at forging meaning from moments that “amount / to nothing but a blink over the lifetime of the eye.” “I’m not a girl who has epiphanies,” the speaker tells us before launching into a story of her meeting of a tired woman who begs for a ride home. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say that Piazza comes again to that eternal conflict—choose love, or choose fear? An impossible question, perhaps, but one that winds up central to her self-perception. Beneath its possibilities exists a clue toward the things we hold inside us:

And maybe to this day that choice still seems
like a hint, a minute’s inkling of what gleams.


Book Review: Little Heretic by Gerry LaFemina

 photo a39964f9-26c8-4266-a137-be56844b36bf_zpsb59de7a0.jpg Little Heretic
Poems by Gerry LaFemina
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

 

Oh how desire can make us feel/ like gods and beasts both…

—“Papyrus”

I think it’s generally true that good poetry is born of obsession: an unavoidable exploration of those subjects, people, and memories that we writers can’t turn away from. If poetry is, at least sometimes, an exploration of the self, then obsession is that concentrated site where the self most exists to be interpreted. In Little Heretic, Gerry LaFemina’s speaker has more than enough obsessions to go around: latent Catholicism, time and history, past lovers, punk rock, New York City. LaFemina plumbs the depths of these essential ingredients to find what’s really lurking underneath—morality, mortality and (just maybe) forgiveness.

What I love most about this collection is that it doesn’t let up. No matter where the reader turns, Catholicism, or religion in general, is waiting. It’s found in all the obvious places: the churchyard, the confessional, a bar called St. Dymphna’s. But LaFemina’s New York City is also one where “the honking taxis cry Ho- / sana! Hosana!” and a booth at the adult video arcade is a “little cubicle… the size of a confessional.” LaFemina’s organic comparisons, his inability to turn from worship as a broader point of reference, highlight this speaker’s obsessive tendencies—in fact, all of our obsessive tendencies. Punk rock gets worshipped, too, (think of the pigeons “like rock kids/ before the stage, [bustling]/ with avian wisdom”) along with youth and old lovers. As a former Catholic, this deifying of the everyday makes total sense to me. Spend your formative years with all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Mass and everything from then on seems instilled with that same gravity.

But Little Heretic isn’t just for lapsed Catholics and those who remember CBGB (I don’t, and I still “got” these poems). LaFemina’s ruminations bridge gaps in content knowledge by employing familiar patterns of thought. “So much of Manhattan/ remains the same despite what’s changed,” the speaker tells us in “Another Blues in E Minor.” Who among us doesn’t live in this dual world of memory and The Now, constantly orienting and re-orienting ourselves against our surroundings both immediate and remembered?

So many mornings I re-entered the world
as sunlight filled the filthy windows, & watched
dust motes swirl
                              like poltergeists of longing.
Nothing will drive them away.

—“On Hearing David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’”

Hearing a Bowie song immediately plunges the speaker into memory, eventually bringing him to this thought of a common past experience. But note the verbs. For four lines we’re situated firmly, or so we think, in the past. Then, suddenly, those dust motes are still in the room before us, choking the air. And are the dust motes the “them,” really, or does “them” refer to the poltergeists of longing? Or memories? Obsessions? For LaFemina, as for most of us, time is one big simultaneous experience—memory is evoked in the present and every moment is already the past. This reality of the nature of time is what allows LaFemina to bring in icons of our collective and his personal history, whether rain dancers from the Reconstruction or high school friends, without jarring his reader.

Alongside memory enters another human constant: guilt. Or, the way LaFemina spins it (which I prefer), the desire for penance. Even LaFemina’s skeptical speaker who often speaks against the idea of penance is aware of some social cost, even one that’s self-inflicted, assigned to bad behavior:

I place a ten dollar bill in the mission box
a homeless friar holds out. Brother, can you ….
Like a pigeon, he rocks his head & bestows
a blessing on me

so I give him another ten bucks, unworthy.
This is the cost to walk with one’s sins
even among the city’s blessed anonymity.

—“Dim Sum”

LaFemina’s speaker isn’t afraid to have complicated feelings about his own self-worth throughout these poems. Some days he wants to be a superhero, others he’s sure he is utterly depraved. But all in all, he’s working toward acceptance. Sound familiar?

One thing that seems to make that acceptance easier is the speaker’s (arguably impossible) striving for objectivity. He almost apologizes in “The Poet at 37,” admitting, “such melodrama was never a strength of mine.” Despite the constant overlay of God and punk, there are moments when this voice tries to articulate its experiences in only the realest way possible.

I wasn’t a new man, not even close,
wasn’t in love, wasn’t anything special—all us pedestrians
trying in vain to shelter ourselves from the gossip wind,
from the tendrils of precipitation, from the inevitable
walk back to apartments that waited like the dull expressions of parents
we’d escaped. She didn’t change my life & I didn’t change hers.
It took only 17 years to figure this out, but it’s one thing I’m certain of.

—“The Inherent Shortcomings of Metaphor”

Such simple declarations, but so much weight. I’d be remiss in not adding that the oomph here is in part due to the fact that LaFemina has planted his flag, in this poem especially, as King of Enjambment. Regardless, in this moment the speaker finally sloughs off that coat of drama his obsessions wear so comfortably for the feeling of skin on skin. The ability to truly appreciate past experience, to really move toward forgiving ourselves, seems to come with the stripping away of nostalgia. The lessons emerge only when we see things as they truly were.

Despite that, LaFemina chooses to end the collection with a quiet poem admitting that even the simplest of our experiences can be interpreted in countless ways. His list poem, “Daybreak,” characterizes light with a shifting series of labels and qualities, all of which seem wholly accurate. Light is sacred, we think, but yes, also, light is quotidian. We are all simultaneously zealots and heretics, concurrently gods and beasts. And maybe we’ll never understand it all. Or maybe we will. But probably all that’s guaranteed is that we’ll keep trying. Maybe all life of life is just “light [we’d] walk into if [we] could.” If that’s the case, I’d hope to have Gerry LaFemina as a companion on that bustling sidewalk.


Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

 photo dc599729-b2e7-49a7-8703-e7eb684fea6b_zps9e7455a6.jpg The Holy Ghost People
A Play in Verse
by Joshua Young
Plays Inverse Press, 2013
$12.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The power of drama is that it plays back to us the human condition in a way that, while not always wholly realistic, seems just real enough for us to understand and absorb. Add to that the connotative meaning-making and compression of language found in poetry and you have Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People: A Play in Verse. Equal parts supernatural, ominous, and linguistically beautiful, Young’s play has all the right stuff to help us make sense of a subject—religious disagreements in America—that we might otherwise find incomprehensible in its vastness.

But to boil the book down to that one simple nugget seems unfair to the scope of Young’s project. This is also a wonderfully terrifying god-cult horror movie, a study in metaphysics, a slightly surreal retelling of life in fundamentalist Christian communities—or maybe just everyday American suburbia. Young’s archetypal character names (the Holy Ghost People, the Speakers, etc.), indeterminate setting (a city neighborhood, time: whenever), and his placing us directly in the midst of a situation (“we’ll come in at the half-act & the holy ghost people will be here already”) make this play an allegory with all the potential to stand the test of time. This is 2014’s Vanity Fair, another story without a hero depicting humanity’s inevitable failings of morality and understanding, but Young doesn’t seem to share Thackeray’s desire to promote a specific mode of thought.

From the outset, the Speakers attempt to show how different the Holy Ghost People are from typical humans. Their hair looks like neon, they can conjure a deity known as Sylvia, they wear white cloth and seem to glide when they walk. The list of items they consider blasphemous seems laughable to us:

SPEAKERS   the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, cru-cifixions, dalmatians, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beat-ers, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrids suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in play-grounds, dead pigs…

The Speakers decide that the Holy Ghost People’s religion is nothing but “a story punched together/ with astronomy & pop-astrophysics & [they] do not/ believe [the Holy Ghost People] because there is nothing to believe.” They tell the preachers, “we have learned to recognize cults.” And this attitude seems warranted for most of the play—the Holy Ghost people speak at times in unintelligible nonsense, at other times in unrelenting dogma. At one point they react violently to blasphemers. They deliver to the Speakers a menacing prophecy:

HOLY GHOST PEOPLE    god will come for you in the ether-light of dreams, your throat will be slit in your living room, in your lawn, in the road, in your workplace, in your bed. when there is a dead owl without its feet in your back lawn, you have been judged & god is coming, or he is sending us to finish. you will know in the morning & god will come in the night & the owl will rise & you will be dead flesh. you’ll ask for sylvia then.

Over time, though, it becomes clear that the Speakers are just as dogmatic as the Holy Ghost People. They worry that “the weakness of faith revs.” Their biggest issue with the Holy Ghost People is that they cannot prove that their god is more real than the Speakers’. The two groups are cut from the same cloth and only separated by the names and qualities they give to their gods (jesus, god, sylvia, science). Twice throughout the play they break into a chorus of the repeated line, “we drink from the same water.”

Young shows his smarts with these characterizations. The reader, at first, feels gradually more and more comfortable with the Speakers, until she realizes that they are simply another shade of the Holy Ghost People. Who, then, in the play stands in for your everyday person? We’re given three representatives in the supporting cast: the Barfly, who only drinks; the Policemen, “kind of annoyed with the holy ghost people,” who dismiss both the Holy Ghost People and the Speakers from the scene of a stand-off; and the silent people who sit quietly on barstools or in parking lots. Young’s world, then, is one of high drama created by a passionate fight between two small groups over religious truth—the rest of the population either drinks to deal with the chaos, feebly tries to hold onto order, or entirely surrenders its voice. Sure, the Holy Ghost People are not quite anything we’ve seen before… but this world is ours.

After reading through the play once for the story, I’d encourage you to go back and examine Young’s language more deeply. There are many beautiful lines and stanzas that could inspire or stand as full poems in their own right. At one point the Speakers, presumably speaking to other Speakers about the Holy Ghost People, say, “but you are so right about them./ they are not truthful & you look like your/ mother in the garage shadow.” The Holy Ghost People decree that “all you need to/ make a star is tongue-baths & god’s will.” And the language is not only beautifully lyric—at times it enters a space where meaning is built solely by connotation:

SPEAKERS  give us the good stuff. the black tongue & stomach deep. give us the army jacket & stairwell run. the dresser of good booze. the holy ghost people parade. the holy ghost people preach. sermon-flare. the snake handlers have been bitten, give into the holy ghost people. the tv’s waving lights ruptured in four.

Almost Steinian in its way, Young’s language here is certainly poetic but also suits his subject matter. In conversations like those between the Speakers and the Holy Ghost People, words almost never mean what they seem to on the surface. At one point, Young compresses an entire debate between the two groups as the Holy Ghost People saying “evidence, evidence” and the Speakers replying, “we respond. ok. evidence, evidence.” His language is at its most compressed here, entire opposing dogmas being concentrated into the same two-word phrase.

As a reviewer, it’s always wonderful to come across a work of literature that is simply too well-written to be fully articulated in the span of a single review. Young’s play in verse is certainly one of those works. It’s my hope that the lines above inspire you to seek it out but, as a final motivator, I give you my favorite “poem” from the play, some lines from the speakers which I think very easily stands on their own:

SPEAKERS   transit into the trail—the detour, the hedge, the channel spike—you are so drunk when i pick you up & you want to see the floating bridge, the construction—you say, there’s supposed to be an abandoned piano, abandoned train cars, filled with gravel & chunks of coal. you’re asleep when we get to the bridge. i watch the construction lights from the hood, waiting for you to wake & demand a cigarette.

JOSHUA YOUNG is the author of When the Wolves Quit (Gold Wake Press), To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press), and, with Chas Hoppe, The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press). He is the Associate Director of Poetry and Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his wife, their son, and their dog.


 

Book Review: The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

 photo 31a43176-0499-4db7-9147-29ab68b8308e_zpsce473e38.jpg The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
Poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing,” said Gertrude Stein. Alicia Suskin Ostriker borrows those words for the epigraph of her newest poetry collection The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. They are, in fact, the perfect words to frame a collection that creates for readers an unlikely chorus of three voices searching for identity and examining the world around them. Taken together, these three characters weave a multicolored tapestry of memory, philosophy, and desire to remind us that our perceptions of life are what define our experience.

While reading Ostriker’s poems, the multiplicity of voices and the use of flower as persona struck me as vaguely familiar. About halfway through the book, I realized it is somewhat in conversation with Louise Glück’s collection from 1991, The Wild Iris. In that book, Glück inhabits voices that are natural (in the form of wildflowers), human, and divine to explore the concepts of faith and mortality. While the two collections share some structural similarities, it’s clear that Ostriker’s project is embarking on a new journey. For one, her diction isn’t as formal or somber as Glück’s. As Tony Hoagland writes of the voice in her poems, “Ostriker has devised a style that is offhand-seeming, a voice that is effortlessly concise.” It’s this voice that allows readers to easily engage with Ostriker’s poems and inhabit the minds of her three distinct characters.

Another good word for this voice might be “unassuming.” Ostriker’s characters, even in their starkest pronouncements, never take on the arrogance of certainty. They simply present readers with their perspective on life. All the while, though, their voices retain great power. The best example of this comes in “The Outsiders,” a poem in which each character reflects on her marginalized status:

Actually I am at the epicenter
of your subconscious
I am the witch
the mother
the excreted
the marginal one said the old woman
I’m the damned dark of the moon

Have you noticed
poets don’t write poetry
about flowers
these days
so what said the tulip
lightly tossing her blossom
the bees dig us

The characters own their history here—even the Dog stands among a pack, all of the canines “remembering when we were wolves… every single one of us/ unleashed.” Ostriker uses the Old Woman to recall, like Sexton and Plath before her, various mythologies of women throughout history—the witch, the Madonna, the whore. The Tulip takes a stab at the poetic canon, and the Dog at human civilization. It is out of this tension between one’s unstoppable power and the limits imposed by society that these voices are born.

“The Outsiders” might very well speak directly to the ideas that Ostriker only nods at throughout the rest of the collection. Structurally, we’re always aware that no one voice is more important than the others. Each poem is broken into three stanzas—one for each character—and each stanza is comprised of the same number of lines. The lack of punctuation allows each voice to flow smoothly into the next, exposing to readers a constant stream of thought as well as multi-layered language. Sometimes a poem passes by in a moment, sometimes the stanzas stretch across pages, but in each case the trio is given an equal opportunity to explore various subjects and impart their wisdom. These poems don’t shy away from heavy subject matter—God, family, death, and politics are all considered, among other topics. By each poem’s end, the reader finds herself unconsciously absorbing the words each speaker orates. This, Ostriker seems to say, is how identity and ideas are created. We all are an accumulation of the stories we hear and the lessons we’re taught.

That accumulation is what allows for the many-ness in Stein’s epigraph. Or, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Throughout the book, the Old Woman is described as impure, proletarian, literary, a mother, a drunk, and naked. The Tulip is red, purple, dark, throaty, Biblical, and naturally selected. The Dog is philosophical, frightened, nostalgic, a mongrel, vain, and imbued with divinity. As each poem begins, the reader is unaware what new facets of identity will be held, sparkling, against the light. But by the end, each new layer makes perfect sense. “Yes,” we think as we read, “I, too, contain multitudes.”

So it’s true that this is not a book of poetry suited to a reader asking for answers. But, then again, what good book of poetry is? Ostriker is content to dive into a messy excavation of life, comfortable to question even her own conclusions. Take, for example, these lines from “Many Lives:”

Many lives said the old woman
the grains of sand add up
I have been a housefly and a queen

Do you even know what love is
said the dog and are you sure
the grains of sand add up

We open with a claim and end with a question that surely exists in the reader’s mind—Do those grains of sand add up? These voices aren’t here to grant us a final answer. Due to the book’s unpunctuated style, we get that line “the grains of sand add up” twice without embellishment. No period, no question mark. How will we choose to read it? The question at the end is nearly unavoidable, but the reader might elect to make it a declarative statement. Or she might side with the Dog, deciding to leave the whole discussion open-ended. Inevitably, the reader’s interaction with the poem is as necessary an ingredient to meaning as the words on the page. She is as much a free agent as each of the three characters.

This existential freedom, I’d argue, is what Ostriker celebrates. Our ability to simultaneously inhabit our many selves, to pursue the immediate desire. It’s on that note that the collection ends, though without a strong sense of finality. The quest for understanding will extend, for characters and reader alike, beyond these pages. Even so, Ostriker gives the Dog a final say in “Summertime,” an exultation of revelry:

Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls

______

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of America’s premier poets and critics. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979–2011; The Book of Seventy; The Mother/Child Papers; No Heaven; the volcano sequence; and The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998, as well as several books on the Bible. She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Ostriker is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.


 

 

Book Review: The River Underneath the City by Scott Silsbe

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The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
Low Ghost Press, 2013
$10.00



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.

Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.

Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.

But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.

Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”

Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.

Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is

such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.

We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”

In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”

Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:

Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.

The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”

This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.

And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
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Book Review: Chapel of Inadvertent Joy by Jeffrey McDaniel

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The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.

My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.

The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”

Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.

Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.

In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:

“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”

The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.

“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.

But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.

Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.

And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.

In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.

It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,

“a bucket
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”

As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…

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Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
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