Posted May 1, 2014
Detroit as Barn :: Becoming Judas :: Diddy Wah Diddy :: A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps :: The Boss :: Lungs Full of Noise :: Vow :: Kayfabe :: Skull in the Ashes :: Karate Chop :: Poems (1962-1997)
Poetry by Crystal Williams
Lost Horse Press, February 2014
Paperback: 63pp; $18.00
Review by Andrea Dulberger
William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems.” However, Crystal Williams’s third book of poetry, Detroit as Barn, is lacking neither in news nor in difficult truths between the lines (between the minds) of those she writes about. Her poetry engages with the question of how to live with what changes and also with what stays uncomfortably the same, stuck in a rut. The collection is centered on real moments where history seems to sit on a struggling city and its people, yet there is also a central wonder throughout the book about the “life beneath this life,” a reminder that history is shimmering, that it is not one thing.
From the first lines of the first poem, “Extinction,” there is a sense of lives being foreclosed upon: “Like a diseased lung, the city is shutting down, / & the parks are first to go.” The narrator is walking with her dog through grass grown to weeds as trash “mysteriously appears & disappears.” They see a couple on a park bench, another zipping down the street—the woman sitting on her boyfriend’s “motorized wheelchair, a bony arm cradling her back.” The writer is struck by how “this broke-down park bench, / middle-of-the-empty-street love” stands out “amid the ruins.” The poem moves towards an imaginative remembrance of how the last Heath Hen may have endlessly trilled for a mate above this very park, where these human survivors now hang on to their own mates; but before arriving at this melancholic awareness, there is a sense of something else—a type of resilient indifference to the brokenness:
But these crazy lovers, in the weeded grass,
high on something, eyes full of magic,
some wispy memory, the life before this life,
the possibility of a perfect & rounded orange,
make me happy with their surprise
& stubborn headedness.
I was not surprised to read that prior to years of teaching at Reed College, Crystal Williams often performed at spoken word venues, because voice and spoken language matter in these poems. Yet, although a consistent narrative voice appears in many places, there are multiple points of view in Detroit as Barn. The long poem “Monologues from Detroit” has three voices, whose words or silence weave simultaneously in columns that span several pages. There is Judy, a dancer, whose Chinese grandmother refused to speak English and who is “showing you / the languages / of [her] house” when she dances; next is Kelly, described as ‘Daughter,’ who says “I am Black” and is keenly aware of her “heart’s city / & its unbearable ruin”; and the final column is a chorus of “Ancestors,” often quiet but advising: “accept // the alienation of // being / Other—” This poem impressed me for how well it transposed the feeling of an ancient oral tradition (which poetry, of course, is) onto the lyrical voices of two women trying to find their way in today’s urban America.
In addition to multiple points of view, something this collection often subtly and successfully engages in is a shifting sense of “other”—of someone being seen as “outside.” Histories of social position and race and class have a kaleidoscopic quality in several places. There is the elderly woman in “Feeding Detroit,” aware that young organizer types wish she’d move so they could turn her property, surrounded by abandoned land where neighbors once lived, into a “citified farm” of some type. Her past feels so pushed aside that she “longs to say, “Y’all’s ruptured, children. Your spirits & tongues / ain’t right. You shoulda been taught: to memories, a body bends . . . ” There is the beautiful and intense “People Close to You,” a contrapuntal four-part prose poem that builds around the image of a woman approaching “you,” asking “Sis, can you help?” She is a being who “emerges in tatters from a darker crevice no more than a crevice,” but “Get back, you say, fear seeding itself.” As the sense of who feels or has become “other” shifts in the poems, the collection becomes layered with lives and emotional experiences.
Several of the poems were clearly written from the poet’s personal experiences of losing family members. These poems feel intimate and direct; they paint portraits of remembrance and of the poet’s efforts to move on from grief. Reading the book straight through, I was struck by how these aspects of loss in a personal history were embedded with stories of loss and change on a collective level. In “Harbinger,” the lines seem to echo the challenge of naming both kinds of experiences: “there is no competent language for loss. / there is only how we sustain it.”
Two poems in the collection, “Idiom” and “The Way Home,” are presented on the page in undulating lines that usually have three to four phrases each and carry vibrant imagery from dreams. In the first, a “mute African woman” touches the speaker’s head with symbols on her hands; in the second, toward the end of the book, there is a whale (named Kyra) and
She tells me we are going home
& home is many tongues away beneath
another beneath which rests between the reefs of hunger
I appreciated the inclusion of these spacious, otherworldly-feeling dream scenes. Though written in taut phrases, they conveyed vast spaces. “The Way Home” faces “Detroit as Brewster Projects” on the next page, a poem that mentions how in this large housing development, “Danger & death / bloom, balance / in the wind.” Moving from one page to the next—from an expansive dream-world to a restrictive real one—I could feel a tightness in my throat, and that furthered my empathy, and anxiety, for those I imagined living in a constantly threatening place.
The wide range of voices and observations in these poems is presented without despair but with a clear-eyed compassion for the hidden elements often missed in news stories (as well as in much of today’s poetry). There are phrases, images, and encounters here that will linger long after you have turned the page.
Poetry by Nicelle Davis
Red Hen Press, September 2013
Paperback: 112pp; $18.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
Becoming Judas, Nicelle Davis’s second full-length poetry collection, is a strange, beautiful, complicated book which includes equally strange and beautiful illustrations by artist Cheryl Gross. The book is comprised of a vast cast of voices and stories, with the speaker weaving religious history, popular culture, and personal experience into a complex personal mythology. Judas and Jesus may be expected characters, based on the title, but the book also includes Joseph Smith, John Lennon, and Charles Manson, as well as the speaker’s mother, grandmother, son, and many others.
The first section is aptly titled “Genesis: Origins of a Homemade Religion” and features an opening illustration of a stern-faced, robed angel with an electric guitar. In “Disclaimer: Assumptions Made by This Homemade Religion,” we understand the ongoing conflation of religion and music when the speaker says, “My myths crossed when I was four. I mistook the pastel picture / of Jesus hung in every Mormon home for John Lennon,” and later in the poem admits, “I still talk to John when praying to Jesus.” The initial image has its humor, but overall, the speaker takes things seriously. Another poem (“Issues With Ego in Song and Prayer”) from this first section mixes the Gospel of Judas, Charles Manson’s Lies, and the breakup of the Beatles, ending with the oddly touching line: “God, come down. Right now. Before someone gets hurt.”
The relationship between Judas and Jesus appears in several poems, sometimes in the context of the biblical story or the Gospel of Judas, other times purely imagined—as in “Jesus and Judas as Boys,” which describes the two playing in the sand, arguing, where Jesus says, “Don’t make me make a miracle of you.” The third and final section of “Faith as Seen on YouTube” reimagines the story of the betrayal, in lines that give voice both to Judas and to the speaker and which, until the end, are spaced evenly across the page (unable to be exactly reproduced here):
thing the night before Judas died, he paid some mouth to call him child.
Tell the ground to come for me—he asked the prostitute. Tell the world I
meant no harm. I don’t
know why love is deemed legitimate for some and not others. I tell
you Judas loved Jesus
enough to die for him. The hanging body: a pornographic image. I tell you, there are
those of us who must fall; our faith an all-in wager. We jump, praying:
Let there be light.
The all-in quality of the speaker’s relationship to faith also extends to the non-mythic characters in the book as well. In “1970,” she describes her mother’s younger days and says:
. . . I hate my mother (most) for not naming
blame. If not for her I’d never
be a poet. She’s who put me in this blue dress lit on fire—
taught me to speak, not of burning,
but how pretty the dress.
While the speaker may reveal anger toward her mother, she also expresses unqualified love for her grandmother, who died when she was thirteen and of whom she says “I’ll never feel like I loved her enough. I’ll love her more than any” (“Enough Time”), and her son, for whom she says “I catch / the alphabet in a hand-bound book for you. None / of the symbols spell how your laughter sounds” (“Commuter’s Lament”).
In spite of such extremes of feeling, the book also possesses a lightness, a spirit of play and creation. Davis plays freely not only with characters but also with form. The above-mentioned “Issues with Ego in Song and Prayer” is written in two columns until its final three-column line, and “Faith as Seen on YouTube” invents its own shape in each section. Other poems sit at the bottom of the page or leave holes in the middle of stanzas; many use brackets and double brackets, spacing, numbers, and other textual features to break ideas and to follow the complex thought-line of the poems. It’s a feature that can be off-putting at first but never feels gimmicky or unearned. The poems need their space and their quirks; they, like their characters, are anything but easy.
A Beale Street Suite
Fiction by Corey Mesler
Ampersand Books, September 2013
Paperback: 212pp; $16.00
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
On the copyright page of Diddy Wah Diddy, Corey Mesler writes: “Everything in this book, including its truths, is a falsehood,” establishing a humorous tone that continues throughout the book. The disclaimer is also a reminder that this is a work of fiction, even though historical characters—one-time Memphis mayor “Boss” Crump, W. C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Arty Shaw, Elvis, John Dee, Butterfly McQueen, Bessie Smith—appear in the scenes. While most of the chapters or vignettes could stand alone, together they present a complex, multi-layered imaginative account of post-World War II Beale Street, gateway to the Delta and birthplace of the blues.
Mesler’s large, diverse cast of characters includes musicians, bartenders, strippers, sorcerers, hobos, conjurers, immigrants, and hustlers. Many of the vignettes occur at Club BingoBango, a blues hall, speakeasy, and strip club. Because the language and adult situations befit the characters and settings, this book is not suitable for the faint of heart or the underage. With that caveat, I recommend this raucous ride down the famous street during the era of its decline.
Alongside historical figures, Mesler populates his stories with original characters with names like Arms Akimbo (a stripper), Ricky “the Rake” Romito, Styx Quetzalcoatl, Cornbread Slunt, and star-crossed lovers Huck and Hominy. Mesler’s knack for creating memorable character names demonstrates his expansive and imaginative use of language. That is to say, he wields words like weapons, frequently sending me to the Oxford English Dictionary—for example, when Mesler describes a character named Tiny as “anxious for thaumaturgy.”
The rhythm and prose sometimes mimic song lyrics—“Now the blues was the music and the music made Beale and the men who made the music were treated like the royalty they wanted to be treated like and the music flowed like religion”; sometimes a sermon—a character bemoans “There’s no one anywhere and the wind’s blowing down Beale, and it sounded like old voices”; or even a scripture verse, as when a happily married couple “smiled like birds whose nest is heavened in the heart of purple hills.”
Some of the more fantastical stories include time travel, sorcery, and shape shifting, and some include such characters as Santa Claus, the Devil, and a witch named Erin. Others involve believable characters in realistic situations, and the presence of historical figures lends veracity to these stories, which led me to several Google searches in addition to visits to the OED. As a result, I learned I’d incorrectly believed that Butterfly McQueen won an Academy Award for her role in Gone With the Wind. I also learned that Queen Elizabeth appointed the occultist John Dee to her royal court.
Mesler includes numerous song titles and snippets of lyrics, some of which sound obviously fictional, such as “They Bribe the Lazy Quadling,” “Walk Away from Me Backwards,” and “Sleepin on a Motorcycle.” However, references to a song called “Mississippi Lowdown Blues” appear several times, and the chapter “‘Mississippi Lowdown Blues:’ A Song” is devoted entirely to it. This chapter is comprised of two pages of the song’s lyrics and a third page, which is a photocopy of the sheet music. Because this song features so prominently in the text, I wondered whether it is an actual song rather than an imagined title, and a Google search revealed a YouTube video performance of the song. Further research revealed that Mesler wrote the lyrics (for this book), and a friend of his composed the music.
This book defies convention in content, language, and structure. One chapter is composed of a series of letters between two estranged lovers, while another contains the aforementioned song, and another recounts an extended conversation. One chapter reimagines a Zora Neale Hurston story, one is structured as a screenplay, and another is an ode.
Having lived in the Memphis area for over thirty years now, I’ve witnessed Beale Street’s rebirth after years of neglect; I’ve seen B. B. King perform in his eponymous Beale Street club. However, the current rendition of Beale Street pales in comparison to Mesler’s vividly portrayed characters and scenes. Although the book recounts the decline of the historic street, it ends on a note of hope. Elvis, having received “a little of disappearing but eternal Beale . . . sat there looking into Arkansas and beyond and into the tumbling thoughtful water as if he could see the future there and I guess he could, children.”
Mesler’s depiction of a music show aptly describes this book: “It was a callathump, a shivaree. A bombast.” One needn’t know about Memphis history or geography to enjoy this fantastical, entertaining book, but it’s certain to pique one’s curiosity about this essential piece of Americana.
My Mother’s Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade
Nonfiction by Barbara Rylko-Bauer
University of Oklahoma Press, March 2014
Hardcover: 416pp; $26.95
Review by Girija Sankar
Every so often one comes across a book so engrossing that, as the truism goes, one can’t put it down. Typically, such books tend to be works of fiction—popular crime thrillers, espionage novels, or summertime beach reads. It’s nice, then, to find a work of nonfiction that takes on a subject matter as grim as the Nazi concentration camps and turns it into an utterly relatable story—like that of a Catholic Polish woman who survived World War II and lived to 100 years of age. A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps: My Mother’s Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade is anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer’s rendering of Jadwiga Lenartowicz Rylko’s memories of life, both before and after World War II.
Jadwiga, known as Jadzia (pronounced Yah’-jah), was born in 1910 in interwar Poland. Jadzia’s father was a medical assistant; aspiring to follow in his footsteps, she attended medical college in Poznan, Poland. After six years of medical school, Jadzia returned home to intern at the Anna Maria Hospital, and then Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Slowly but surely, the Nazis carried out their systematic annihilation of Polish society, but Jadzia drew comfort from her medical practice. Jadzia and her friends had clandestine meetings at night to listen to British radio broadcasts until the wee hours of the morning. One of these friends was soon arrested by the Nazis, and slowly the entire group was picked up, one by one. Jadzia’s turn came in the early hours of January 13, 1944. Thus began her 16 months of imprisonment in Nazi concentration and death camps. Jadzia was initially imprisoned in a women’s camp in Lodz until she and a few other prisoner doctors were rounded up and sent to the Gross-Rosen camp. This camp was, in Jadzia’s own words:
. . . a difficult, terrible camp, and the prisoners had to work in the quarries. While we were there, we saw groups of men who were like walking skeletons. They were so thin, shuffling along with their hands up, carrying heavy stones, barely marching. . . . It was a horrible sight . . . one that I’ll never forget.
After traveling to several other camps, Jadzia ends up the Nuesalz slave labor camp in southwestern Poland where her camp doctor role gave her a status that may have protected her from the most abject of brutalities that other inmates suffered. She notes: “My profession helped me a lot. It made things better for me in this labor camp. In fact, my profession saved me, for I might well not have survived if I had stayed in Ravensbruck or if I had been sent somewhere as just a regular prisoner.” In January 1945, Jadzia and the prisoners at Neusalz walked out of the camp in one of many infamous death marches towards the end of World War II. Jadzia was eventually transferred to the Mehltheuer camp, where she and others were freed by the American soldiers.
The rest of the book deals with Jadzia’s time as a refugee doctor at several DP (Displaced Persons) camps, and the brief romance leading up to her marriage with Wladyslaw Rylko, the author’s father. Jadzia and Wladyslaw immigrated to the United States and settled down in Detroit, a city with a sizable Polish immigrant population.
What follows is a fairly familiar account of an immigrant family’s struggles and aspirations. Sadly, Jadzia was never able to practice medicine as a doctor in the United States owing to medical licensure board stipulations and state regulations that made it very difficult for immigrant doctors to gain the necessary qualifications to practice. Jadzia’s struggle from the practitioner’s perspective is a grim reminder of the tangled and complex roots of the U.S. health care system.
Rylko-Bauer is a gifted storyteller. A story as potent as Jadzia’s could have been taken in a different direction, one that was more entrenched in research, history, and fact and presented in the language of arcane social science. Or such a story, in the hands of a non-academic writer, could have dwelled more on the “sensational” aspects of Jadzia’s time in the concentration camps. But what we get instead is a perfectly balanced and synchronized narrative that deftly weaves the larger narrative of World War II into Jadzia’s intimate accounts. Skilled is the writer who can erase those lines between personal history and context. In the chapter devoted to Jadzia’s time at the Ravensbruck camp, Rylko-Bauer walks us through the administrative structure of prisons and camps that typified Nazi bureaucracy. The Nazi obsession with documentation was so severe that at one point, when Jadzia was at the Trautenau camp, a Gestapo agent visited her to obtain her signature on a piece of document declaring that all her possessions, taken from her on the night of her arrest four months ago, were now Nazi property. As Rylko-Bauer explains: “All this bureaucracy and documentation gave individual people in the Nazi system, from major decision makers to minor clerks, a way to distance themselves from actions that caused great suffering and deprived innocent people from their possessions, their families, and their lives.”
A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps is a gripping and compelling work of non-fiction that strikes a perfect balance between historical research and personal narrative, an “intimate ethnography” of one woman’s remarkable journey from one of the worst recorded abysses of human experience, retold with humility, pathos and empathy by Barbara Rylko-Bauer.
Poetry by Victoria Chang
McSweeney’s, August 2013
Paperback, 46pp; $20.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Any time I pick up a book from McSweeney’s Poetry Series, I have high expectations—and Victoria Chang’s The Boss does not disappoint. This collection of poetry is full of clever, cheeky language that propels you through to the last page. The author presents us with a diverse collection written on the same core topic, yet contemplates it from so many points of view that although she considers it fully, I still wanted more. A particularly good example from “The Boss Has Grey Hair”:
The boss has grey hair the boss’s hair has greyed down
from the roots now everyone is rooting for
the worker but nothing takes root all is grey everything
is changing everything is unchanged
. . . HR is not very human is a
nervous artificial heart aware that it might
stop beating the boss has grey hair now the only thing
that changes HR doesn’t change the square
root of 4 remains 2 just as the square root of
the boss is always the boss
The rest of the poem has some amazing imagery. The idea of how everything changes in the workforce but still remains unchanged is fascinating because at the end of the day, the boss is still the boss and we are all working under him/her. Another great line from the poem is, “HR is always sweating is / always wetting itself.” The Human Resources Department is supposed to be the calm, cool, and collected department, a resource for workers in chaos or with issues, yet Chang shows us another side to HR that makes us say, “Yeah, I can see that.”
The first poem of the collection, “I Once was a Child,” talks of special treatment people can receive—from a spinning top, to a tap on the shoulders, to everyone getting fired. We learn that the narrator’s father was let go from his job without any notice, as many readers can unfortunately relate to. Chang also brings another player into the game:
. . . in this land someone always
owns the land someone who owns
the land owns the buildings on the land owns
the people in the buildings unless and earthquake
sucks the land in like a long noodle
There are many different types of bosses, but Chang makes it very clear throughout her book that there is only one top boss. However, in this poem, Chang presents the possibility that the boss might not have any real power at all. There is so much outside the boss’s control, and if the earth we live in can suck up the boss’s building like a long noodle, maybe the earth is the boss after all.
Throughout The Boss, we meet many different characters besides the narrator. We meet her children, her father, her mother (family plays a very important role), Edward Hopper (who has several poems titled after him), and many different bosses. The bosses are either people she has met that are described to us concretely or abstract bosses based on ideas. For example, from “The Boss Rises”:
The boss rises up the boss keeps her job
the boss is safe the workers are not
the boss smiles the boss files the boss
throws pennies at the workers
the boss rises up higher and higher the boss’s
head is the balloon getting bigger
and bigger it gets harder and harder to hold
on the workers do good work
Being a member of the working class, I find there is so much to relate to, laugh at, and sigh over in this book. It is a gem in the literary world, and I’m hoping Chang’s other work lives up to the high bar set with The Boss.
Fiction by Tessa Mellas
University of Iowa Press, November 2013
Paperback: 133pp; $17.00
Review by Courtney McDermott
Tessa Mellas’s debut collection is full of noise—and absurdity, charm, otherworldliness, and beauty. The twelve stories in Lungs Full of Noise brandish the bizarre and stroke the pages with strange and unsettling stories that hover on the border of reality. Mellas ushers us into the uniqueness of her world, reminding me of the inventive and alluring worlds created by such writers as Kevin Brockmeier and Joyelle McSweeney. It is no wonder that she was the deserving winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
The collection opens with a piercing image of girls ice skating, naked, their skate blades screwed into the bottom of their feet. “Mariposa Girls,” the opening story, signals to Mellas’s background as a synchronized figure skater, but it also challenges us to consider what we will do for beauty and success. What I found so poignant about Mellas’s writing was not merely the extraordinary and fantastical elements that forge the stories, but how at the heart of each story there is a timely message. Her stories are spun from other realms, yet they are all deeply familiar. She scouts the familiar terrains of motherhood, beauty, loss, and myth-making, all from a fantastical vehicle.
“Bibi from Jupiter” tackles xenophobia, and uses a startling and offbeat concept to address very real and relevant societal issues. Bibi is from Jupiter and attends college, where her roommate dislikes her at first. Then she sees a shift in Bibi—perhaps how American college culture can change foreign students.
“White Wings of Moth” displays Mellas’s exactitude with details, which are alarmingly spot-on. Bea is a middle-aged woman who fills up the emptiness in her life by collecting caterpillars, and eventually settling into her daughter’s old tree house. “Bea had never been disliked by anyone before becoming a mother.” Motherhood is one of the pervasive themes throughout the collection, as Mellas excavates the relationship between creator and created.
The story “Beanstalk” also addresses motherhood. This whimsical story narrates the story of the young mother Lucy, who gives birth to a green baby she names Jack. Jack has buds and vines growing on his body. In some writers’ hands these storylines would feel forced or extraneous, but Mellas so clearly owns her world that I am enchanted.
Mellas not only draws from the whimsy of fairy tales, but from the life lessons and narrative shaping of mythology. There is the story “Blue Sky White,” in which the blueness of the sky is replaced by whiteness. And the simultaneously disturbing and playful story “Quiet Camp,” which tells the story of girls who chatter too much and get sent away to a special camp. As the story beautifully begins:
We arrive in a westerly wind, our lungs inflated with speech. Our mothers said that this would happen if we didn’t learn to quiet our tongues. Our tongues couldn’t be stopped, so up we went. Up and up. Until we knocked the chandeliers with our heads and scraped the ceilings with our feet.
Lungs Full of Noise is not only a study in genre and world-building, but a deep exploration into the roles of women, and the shifting and conflicting gender roles that pervade our social landscape.
If there is anywhere that the collection falls short, it is in its length—I wanted more! Lungs Full of Noise is undeniably one of the best collections of short stories that I have read—not just this year, but perhaps ever. Mellas is a weaver of fairytales and an inventor of folklore. Her stories dazzle and intrigue, choreographing a dance between absurdity and reality, and they champion her right to be considered a great new literary voice.
Poetry by Kristina Marie Darling
BlazeVOX [books], October 2013
Paperback: 56pp; $16.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
Kristina Marie Darling’s Vow is simultaneously familiar and strange. The title itself evokes Anne Waldman’s Vow to Poetry, but one look at the small, spare book tells you that this is a different thing. It is, like Waldman’s book, a text about text, but not just in content:
†1. To render something dull, lifeless or dry
††2. To preserve
5. The film follows its heroine as she photographs the scorched altar, and later catalogues these images within the sprawling university archives.
Darling uses appendices, footnotes, and other forms usually reserved for academic writing to create a book as an object of desire, which as Anne Carson explains in Eros: The Bittersweet, is desirable because of, not in spite of, its elusiveness. One footnote reads: “I respect most the men who’ve refused me: the bridegroom, with his corridor of locked rooms; you, the light descending on a burned house; Saint Jude of the Lost Causes, despite the roses I leave at his scorched altar.”
Vow witnesses a wedding and the marriage that follows: before us is a white dress, a dark-haired man, an altar, a locked door. Each successive image builds on the last while resisting any readerly impulse to ground it in allusion. Is the pale-dressed woman wandering a hallway of locked doors Bluebeard’s wife? Is this Bertha Mason, dreaming of fire, or is it Jane Eyre? “I dream another me exists in the burning house, reading aloud from what I have written. Broken glass. A sad film. The awkward silence.”
But, dear Reader, Darling does not want you getting lost in a good story and forgetting, briefly, that you have a book in your hands. Vow constantly reminds the reader of his or her role as watcher, as translator, as participant in a “version of this story.” But the reader, finding the mirror of literature shattered, still finds herself “unmade”:
empty frame. He stares at the glittering pieces, trying to
distinguish between self and other.
By the time Vow reaches appendix C, the house’s “flawless architecture” burning around us, words are overtaken with white space: the silence after a fight, the chill after a flame has gone out. In this space, union takes place and analysis fails. Unable to separate one perspective from another, the reader is left to feel the vibration that occurs when music ceases.
Fiction by Saul Lemerond
One Wet Shoe, September 2013
Paperback: 103pp; $15.95
Review by Benjamin T. Lambright
Saul Lemerond writes in a bizarre universe, fraught with psychosexual dysfunction and filled with strange and desperate characters. The worlds of Kayfabe, whether rainbow cities littered with drunk children or WWE-style wrestling rings, are surreal, disturbing, and often hilarious. He goes to places where few writers have dared, or thought to dare, and finds something universal out there on the same edge that Vonnegut likes to view us from.
Like Vonnegut, but much more concerned with surrealism, it is the heart of Lemerond’s expertly crafted characters that sets his darkly comic satire apart from the rest. I have had long conversations with “Fake Barry” about his mommy issues and wandered around in a pair of alligator shoes I borrowed from Stewart (“Reptiles in Tijuana”). I loved the time I spent in the ring with Solid Mike in “Kayfabe,” and I’ll be back for a few more rounds.
In walking with these characters and in the face of their strange and tragic existence, I consistently find one message: hope. Lemerond draws you in with the promise of an absurd jaunt down a crazy road (and he delivers), but he doesn’t tell you that he’s going to tug at your heartstrings and make you believe a little more in the strange and tragic world you’re already living in.
Kayfabe is Lemerond’s first offering, and it’s a sincere delight. He seems to have avoided most of the pitfalls young authors are prone to and writes witty, earnest prose, filled to the brim with hope cleverly disguised as despair. There is much of Kafka, Douglas Adams, and Vonnegut coursing through his lines, but Lemerond writes with a pen that is all his own. I doubt the author will be putting away that pen anytime soon, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.
I don’t know why you’re still reading this review. Go buy a copy of Kayfabe, curl up with a warm blanket and your best friend who might happen to be a philosophically minded Tyrannosaurus rex (a central plot point to “White Fields and Emerson”), and enjoy an acid -laced trip into the heart of what it means to be human.
Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America
Nonfiction by Peter Kaufman
University of Iowa Press, September 2013
Paperback: 298pp; $19.95
Review by Patricia Contino
A fire sparked Peter Kaufman’s Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America. On the evening of February 3, 1897, the Walford, Iowa General Store burned to the ground. Among the few recognizable items found in the rubble was a skull detached from a partial male skeleton. The assumption was that it was storeowner Frank Novak, who had been guarding his property following a rash of neighborhood burglaries.
An investigation by county attorney M.J. Tobin resulted in more questions than answers. Novak’s business dealings were precarious to the point of ruin, and several witnesses saw Edward Murray, an itinerant laborer and the town drunk, at the store. Tobin studied handwriting, dental records, and photographs and concluded that Novak murdered Murray, substituting his body for his own—and fleeing Walford. Meanwhile, the possible walking dead man’s insurance company, American Surety, was looking to settle their policy. They put their best man on the case. With only a few clues, detective Red Perrin captured Novak in Alaska in September 1897.
“The Walford Fire,” capture of its suspect, and resulting trial are sensational. Kaufman presents it as a landmark crime; he carefully explains that circumstantial evidence was mostly untried and untrusted at that time. U.S. and Canadian law enforcement provided solid back up (along with warrants was a signed document from President William McKinley guaranteeing cooperation) across the thousand-plus mile pursuit. Perrin does not arrest Novak outright—he takes a handwriting sample and photographs the suspect before and after shaving. By the time Tobin prosecuted the case, he had enough solid evidence to match the discoveries made within the burgeoning area of forensic science. (Ironically, Novak became a prison photographer.)
Kaufman not only recreates the crime but also solidly places it within a town, state, and country on the verge of the twentieth century. Novak is brought to justice by a detective and lawyer who knew mob justice was a strong possibility. Transporting the prisoner back to Iowa was almost as tense a journey as the one to find him.
Then there was the press. News traveled slowly, but word of Novak’s capture spread across the Solon, Iowa County Fair within minutes. The Walford Fire was fodder for the yellow journalism that lives on today in tabloids and the Internet. Mixing fact and faction with incredibly overwrought prose, articles alternatively sympathized with either the Novak or Murray families. Some of this stems not from too much freedom of the press but the then-undefined aspects of the Sixth Amendment, specifically that the accused is “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Amazingly, Novak met with Murray’s family before the trial. Today, the victim’s family may be called to testify as witnesses and are only allowed to address the defendant in court before final sentencing is pronounced.
There is one aspect of Skull in the Ashes that embraces the mythic. Detective Red Perrin is stoicism personified, the living image of the laconic lawman at the heart of the Wild West. Not even a dangerous manhunt leading to Alaska fazes him. “I have followed you a long time but I caught up with you,” is all he has to say to Novak when he finds him. His direct answers during Novak’s trial drive defense attorney Frank Milner nuts, providing the book’s only comic relief. Skull in the Ashes is a satisfying history of murder case solved with hard work.
Fiction by Dorthe Nors
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Graywolf Press, February 2014
Paperback: 104pp; $14.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
If the fifteen stories in Karate Chop, by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, were drawings, the spare lines would be punctuated by dark space filled with implication. Each tale is a visit to a foreign place from the viewpoint of an other, someone you might pass without noticing—a walker in the park, a woman getting a haircut, a teenage girl with her father in a car.
In the title story, a young woman analyzes her unsuccessful relationships with men. “She had once been advised to listen closely to what a man said just when he began to sense a woman was showing interest in him . . . important information about their true nature.” Looking back, she sees that she hadn’t understood a person could have self-knowledge and not wish to change. A child psychologist, she has been dating the father of a client. Now, bruised and wounded, she realizes he’d been frank with her about his disturbing traits. But she fell in love because of this frankness. The authorial camera pans back to reveal the bloody aftermath of this failure to protect the self. The protagonist compares her action to a girl-child coloring outside the lines beyond the need for approval and submission. The reader senses Nors’s frustration with fatalistic female passivity and the male capacity for violence. The story shocks because of how far she takes this.
In “Do You Know Jussi?” a young woman watches TV in her bedroom after her boyfriend has just gone home. The show is about a search for a person who has disappeared. “The son [on TV] is thirty, rather chubby, and nearly cries when he says he is not angry with his father. But he can’t understand why his father has not written to him.” The boyfriend hasn’t texted the girl yet. She thinks of the way he always tongue kisses. This reminds her of licking envelops at her Dad’s office as a child in competition. “The addresses were all for men and the addresses made her think about people to whom she didn’t belong.” She remembers imagining that one of these men would rescue her, taking her home in his imagined car. This fantasy is flat, devoid of romantic content but filled with disconnected longing. The young woman touches herself under her panties. “It still feels tender, but she thinks it will pass.” She still has not heard from the boyfriend, so she turns off her cell phone and goes to sleep. The reader feels the dry whisper of disappointment. At least the man on the TV could cry.
Nors leaves room for only the occasional half-smile, but the reader is on guard. In “The Buddhist,” a bureaucratic functionary, after a divorce, grows disillusioned with writing speeches for the foreign ministry and gradually realizes that he is “a Buddhist.”
It was more like the Buddhist, as an idea, crept up and settled in him. . . . The Buddhist came in and sat down at the opposite side of his desk. . . . He contemplated the Buddhist and thought it was a good format to step into. Buddhists are good people. They’re deeper than most. Buddhists can see connections no one else can. These were all qualities he recognized in himself . . .
Forced out of his job after writing a truth-telling article about lies in government, the new convert talks his way into running a Buddhist aid organization. He wants to do good: “the Buddhist has had the feeling for a long time that he is the kind of person who is able to grasp the meaning behind things . . . that the world needs a strong, solitary man to save it.” In a scathing satirical moment, he likens himself to Hitler, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa and crosses from self-justifying narcissism into outright delusions of grandeur, which, of course, lead to disaster. Nors creates a historical archetype—though writ small, still deadly.
Violence courses through almost all of the stories: real, imagined, metaphorical, or all three at once. The narrative tone travels from dissociated grief toward distanced irony laced with anger, but there are softer moments. A daughter copes with her mother’s recurrent depression and her “fear of life . . . a kind of fear that took in the whole of people’s lives and could make them forsaken wherever in the world.” A handicapped man is one of those people who “look at their burns and bruises, their emptied bank accounts and broken dreams, as though it were an eternal source of astonishment to them that malice actually exists.” Nors describes so precisely the facets of vulnerability and self-delusion, as well as the high price that must be paid in life for self-protection.
Poetry by Robert Lax
Wave Books, November 2013
Paperback: 353pp; $25.00
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Poems (1962-1997), a new collection from Wave Books, presents 35 years’ worth of work from avant-garde poet Robert Lax. An enigma even in the weird world of poetry, Lax (1915-2000) was educated at Columbia University, where he met lifelong friend Thomas Merton and studied with poet Mark Van Doren. He served over the years as a critic, editor, and writer for TIME, Parade, and The New Yorker, among other publications, although he identified himself as a poet first and foremost. As a young man, he spent a season traveling through Canada with the Cristiani family circus, which eventually led to his first book of poetry, The Circus of the Sun.
A few years later, Lax published his second book, New Poems, and it is here that Wave Books’s new Lax collection begins. There are many gems to be found throughout the body of Lax’s work, but “New Poems” in particular offers inviting poems that cheerfully engage with visual form. The fact that it’s printed here in its entirety, after being hard to find in bookstores for many years, is reason enough to buy the collection.
“New Poems” opens with the lines “one stone / one stone / one stone,” and ends with the same three-beat repetition, establishing a poetic practice that operates in a gray area somewhere between visual and concrete poetry. Lax’s work is visual poetry, experienced as the eye interprets the arrangement of words on the page, but there is also great care in the word choices; Lax is equally sensitive to their referential value.
In the book’s introduction, poet and editor John Beer says that “one almost inevitably wrestles with the issue of how much of this emotional and spiritual significance inheres in the work itself and how much is projected by the reader into the experience of the poem.” Certainly some of the most visual poems bring this to mind, as in “never,” a poem in which the word “never” is repeated thirteen times in a vertical column, plunging the eye down the page.
But in poems like “andalusian proverb,” the visual thrust of the poem is overshadowed by the elegance of the words themselves, as the poem asks a beheaded rooster:
what are you
of the bloody
The lineation that separates “what are you” from what follows, and the choice to place “bloody” before “morning,” rather than anywhere else, invites both a sanguine and an invective read, and show that Lax’s preoccupation with language operates on all levels at once.
The danger of such sparse lines—and visual poetry in general—is that it can be tempting to simply skim over the pages for the pattern and then move on, particularly in a book as long as this one. Fortunately, Poems (1962-1997) is punctuated by surprises; the arrangement foregoes chronology, moving instead between complete collections and selections of previously unpublished poems so the book feels symmetrical but still somehow spontaneous.
Most of the poems fall vertically; even when many columns appear on a page, it readily becomes clear that they are to be read from top to bottom, left to right, and Beer suggests in his introduction that “the primary impetus behind Lax’s vertical structure is not visual but musical.” There is evidence of this musicality in the poems that eschew words for letters and numbers, patterning sequences in a way that suggests elementary music lessons—or maybe “Sesame Street” sketches—as much as poetry. But there are a few exceptions to the vertical preference, such as the first few poems in the 1981 collection “nights & days,” which are arranged as phrase units that can be read vertically as well as horizontally, giving readers the delightful “at night / a dark sun / shines on the sea,” as well as the possibility of,
a dark sun
squats in the sea.
This kind of ambiguity is not a major feature of Lax’s work but is fantastic when it appears.
Lax left the United States in the 1960s to relocate to the Greek islands. He settled first in Kalymnos, and then in Patmos, and from there, he continued to write. His poetry has been published in small print runs over the years, but his work has become harder and harder to find as time has passed. Poems (1962-1997) is an elegant book that will, with any luck, make Lax’s work more readily available to new audiences.