NewPages Book Reviews

Feb 1, 2008

All Over :: Dixmont :: Ryan Seacrest is Famous :: Hiding Out :: Temporary People :: A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor :: The Pale of Settlement :: The Sky Over Walgreens

All Over by Roy KeseyAll Over

Roy Kesey

Dzanc Books, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0-9793123-0-4

Paperback: 152 pp;  $13.95

Review by Josh Maday

Roy Kesey’s debut story collection, All Over, was also the groundbreaking ceremony for Dzanc Books, a new publishing house based in Michigan. Dzanc “was created in 2006 to advance great writing and champion those writers who don't fit neatly into the marketing niches of for-profit presses.” Dzanc did well to procure talent like Kesey to launch their press.

Kesey’s collection has been anticipated by many who’ve been reading his stories in dozens of the highest quality literary magazines, and ever since his prizewinning novella Nothing in the World was published in 2006. In All Over, Kesey creates strange and wonderful worlds with pathos, sharp intelligence, and humor. While Kesey is definitely working in a tradition—names like Barth, Barthelme, and Saunders come to mind—these odd, attractive stories bear Kesey’s DNA.

The collection begins with one of the more traditional (realism in this case) stories in the bunch, “Invunche y voladora,” where a newlywed couple awakes on the first day of their honeymoon in Chile, still reeling from the ceremony and reception they rushed to plan and execute and now do not remember. They find themselves in a foreign place, learning that everything has changed and continues to evolve at a seemingly unnatural pace. And when their surroundings have suddenly organized into a situation, they once again have to make a quick decision that will affect their lives forever.

In “Instituto,” the main character, Stanley, is finally convinced that he requires the services of a mysterious company. The Instituto de Perfeccionamiento offers . . . well, the services are never stated specifically, only that the “program . . . has been chosen on your behalf . . . Cash, check, or credit card?” And after some circular linguistic games, he forks over one hundred bucks to begin his program. Treatment sessions involve sitting in a room for a little bit and then going home. But then Stanley wakes up the morning after to find that his “skin, hair, refrigerator, eyesight, wardrobe, gastrointestinal tract, sofa, car, unicycle, hearing, pogo-stick, flooring, plumbing, prostate, wiring, fingernails, and so on” are all miraculously, arbitrarily “perfected,” a word whose meaning never quite stays in one place throughout the story. Perfection, improvement, or whatever, he wants to know how this is done and is told that, “You are not meant to understand, sir. You are meant only to be pleased.” As soon as Stanley thought he was “just getting started, just getting going,” he is informed that his “program is complete.” So maybe he is left with the tools to pursue the things he didn’t know he really wanted most of all—none of which, of course, “yield to our treatment.” But maybe he simply finds himself drowning in more whetted desires than can possibly be fulfilled by his “perfect” things.

Kesey manages to do a lot with little. Most of the stories are a few pages or less but with his precise word economy they are thought provoking and entertaining. We find girls who work at Pizza Hut taking meticulous care to build a fairy tale castle out of material as fragile and perishable as the fantasies that nourished their hopes and desires as children. In “Fontanel” a verbal photo collage guides the reader through the artifacts of a miraculous event, which, just beneath the surfaces of things photographed, is a tragedy that can only be examined in small, tolerable pieces. “Martin” takes the shape of a psychological evaluation where the subject in question believes himself to be a guitar string, while the author of the evaluation unwittingly provides as much if not more insight into her own state of mind. The homeless narrator in “Strike” tells how the garbage men went on strike and he and his wife became the king and queen of New York City. Elsewhere, “Cheese” is a smart, fresh, funny riff on The Inquisition, which could have been tired rehash in less capable hands.

Roy Kesey is as innovative with form and content as any writer working today. Naming names like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don Delillo, George Saunders, and Thomas Pynchon is helpful to readers who may be unfamiliar with his work, but from now on it will only require one name: Roy Kesey.

 

Dixmont by Rick CampbellDixmont

Rick Campbell

Autumn House Press, 2008

Paperback; 85pp; $14.95

Review by Michael Hettich

Rick Campbell is a friend of mine, someone whose capacious heart and mind have served me as a touchstone of the genuine for over a decade. As director of Anhinga Press, as well as founder and director of the Florida Literary Arts Coalition (FLAC), Rick has performed immense and selfless service for poetry both in Florida and nationwide. For years he has advocated for good poetry, worked to make poetry a larger presence in our culture, and supported the work of his fellow poets. His work promoting other people’s writing has been so significant, in fact, that his own fine poetry, while not exactly overlooked, has garnered less attention than it deserves. His new book, Dixmont, outshines his previous collections by a long shot; it is a powerful, honest, finely-crafted book of emotionally-honed poems whose cumulative effect is simultaneously harrowing and life-affirming. Quite simply, Dixmont is the real thing, a genuine contribution to our poetry.

These poems address a variety of subjects including fatherhood, politics, marriage, baseball, illness and love. Campbell has managed to weave these wide-ranging poems into a cohesive book whose whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The poems for his daughter and wife, which make up the emotional center of the collection, are deeply moving; they are also, I think, poems which break new ground in their openness to pain and their articulation of the speaker’s clear commitment to love as it is experienced in daily life:

Sometimes, still, she wakes and says,
Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom,
And I pick her up. She’s warm.
She wraps her arms around my neck,
Her legs around my waist, and I carry her.
    (“A Poem for Della”)

When has the daily love of a father for his young daughter been phrased with such understated accuracy and power? Poems that evoke other kinds of love, for wife, for mother, even (in far more compromised terms) for father, are equally powerful, as are the poems dealing with Campbell’s harrowing experiences with throat cancer.

These personal but never private poems form the pattern that sets the landscape of the book; they are deepened and clarified by their contrast with the more outward-gazing (but still deeply personal) poems of witness (they are more than merely “political” poems) as well as poems celebrating baseball (the only poems in the book that don’t touch me). The poems of witness, powerful on their own, deepen the sense of vulnerability, the vividness of each moment, that characterizes Campbell’s more overtly personal poems of family love:

I want to claim that I don’t understand genocide,
That I have not read history; that I don’t
Understand the circulation of the blood
And how we can all die from its
Spilling on the ground
From hacked off limbs…
     (“Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”)

This is the awareness the father holds “below the heart, where things are tight” as he comforts or plays with his daughter, reminding himself “there is no excuse/ for not giving the world, all your blood/ every inch of skin and bone, for your child” (“Fair Warning”).

Finally, in his poems of nature, of place, Campbell is able to bind the personal and the public together in fresh images and metaphors that work vividly on their own but also unite the book as a whole, showing us a man in the world we all share as well as a particular man in his own world, living with the consciousness of the tenuous brevity of everything he loves yet blessed daily with joy:

Now I measure the past by how much
I remember. Measure distance
by my drive from town. Measure the sun
by its height in my windshield.
Measure joy by each time the gate
swings open and my daughter
runs up, flanked by dogs.
    (“Time Running Out on the Millennium”)

Dixmont is a stunning collection.

 

Ryan Seacrest is Famous by Dave HousleyRyan Seacrest is Famous

Dave Housley

Impetus Press, 2008

ISBN-10: 0977669343

Paperback: 202 pages; $16.95

Review by Matt Bell 

If you're the kind of person who reads book reviews, you're also probably the kind of person who occasionally says things like, "I don't really watch that much TV," or who likes to pretend they've never sang along to a boy band in the shower. If this in any way describes you, then prepare to squirm a little while you read Dave Housley’s Ryan Seacrest is Famous. This debut collection is littered with pop culture references, and I can almost guarantee that you'll catch way more of them than you'd like. These stories, which originally appeared in magazines such as Nerve, Backward City Review, and Hobart, take on a variety of pop culture types, including reality television, professional wrestling, and wedding DJs. Fortunately for us, Housley goes past the most obvious hipster-ironic observations and into the more earnest territories reserved for true pop culture fanatics.

In the story "Namaste, Bitches,” a reality dating show called Prince Charming II is down to its final three contestants, including the Nepalese “princess” Himani, who uses her exotic life story to first get on the show and then to make a run at winning the heart of Bruce, the titular Prince Charming. Like many of the more famous characters in Housley’s collection, Himani struggles with the popular idea of who she is, what she should be like, and how she should behave, contrasting it with the inner knowledge of who she really is.

Whether he’s describing Jimi Hendrix navigate a twelve-step program at the age of sixty-five in “Voodoo Chile Blues” or a professional wrestling announcer try to find a way out of the only life he’s known, Housley delivers not only biting commentary but a deep understanding of what it means for a person to be in the public eye every moment of every day. In “The Celebrity Orders Room Service,” he describes the celebrity state of mind in a memorable series of vignettes, including the following:

The celebrity is amazed and bored that people pay such close attention to her. On one hand, she cannot imagine following, scrutinizing, but more than anything else, caring about somebody she hasn’t dated or kissed or hung out with, somebody she has never even met, a picture in a magazine or a talking head on a movie screen. The idea is funny and inconceivably tragic.
On the other hand, it all seems so natural. Of course people want to know what clutch she’s carrying, who she’s wearing or dating or kissing or fighting. This is as it has always been. C’est la vie. It is what it is.

Still, it’s not all celebrity-endorsed exercise machines and rehab-inflected comebacks. Other stories tread less exotic ground, such as the refreshingly down-to-earth 9/11 story “Fall Apart” and the bittersweet “The Movie Soundtrack to Our Lives.” The best of these is the high-school drama “Are You Street or Popcorn?” Narrated by an unassuming high school vandal who carves slightly undecipherable phrases into his high school’s desks, the story deftly describes what happens when the narrator simultaneously discovers both a first girlfriend and a partner-in-crime in the aggressive transfer student named Dorothea Quan, who widens his minor vandalism campaign into a full-scale operation. The narrator struggles to balance his growing sense of wrongdoing and his blossoming feelings for Dorothea (who he describes as “getting cuter every day, like one of those pictures hidden inside another picture”), eventually becoming a kind of gloriously perfect ruin, romantic in a way that only high school really can be.

Housley's ideal reader is perhaps the guy who live-blogs episodes of Battlestar Galactica or the girl who’s memorized every line of Dirty Dancing, but saying so runs the risk of making a joke that sells short how good a writer and satirist Housley is. At it’s best, Ryan Seacrest is Famous is both poignant and hilarious, inviting us past the velvet ropes and into the inner lives of our favorite celebrities and eventually to the truth about our own dreams and aspirations. The sooner you can read this book, the better— that way, when Housley's famous, we can all talk about how we read him way back when, before he sold out. I think that’s the way he’d want it.

Full Disclosure: Dave Housley is the editor of Barrelhouse Magazine, which has published my own writing on two occasions.

 

Hiding OutHiding Out

Stories by Jonathan Messinger

featherproof books, 2007

ISBN: 0977199235

Paperback: 183pp; $13.95

Review by Sarah Sala

Jonathan Messinger’s debut collection of short stories, Hiding Out, hits the mark in every possible way. From the winding layout of the book, to the basic line drawings accompanying each story, to the wildly engaging story plots, Messinger’s book storms out of nowhere, his characters real enough to leave fingerprints on a windowpane.

Where the book begins is anyone’s guess. Reading closely, I first discovered a fifty word short-short embedded in the copyright page:

This Story of 50 Words Feels as Though It Ran a Little Long, Maybe by 5 Words
There is little left for Connie to do. Her options: exhausted. Her headlights: dimmed. Her friends: silent. She lets slip her car keys into the floorboard and neutralizes the gears. The dark car lacks any resistance, overwhelming her with its speed as it rolls downhill. She thinks of no lovers.

Following this hideaway story comes an easier to locate “Captain Tomorrow,” reminiscent of the long summer afternoons many of us spent parentless in the basement, devising all sorts of ridiculous and possibly dangerous things to do out of sheer boredom. Alex, 13, is enamored with a video game called “Captain Tomorrow,” unable to make it past level 5. Meanwhile his sister Johanna, 16, home from a flea market, introduces a tape of people staging suicide by leaping from tall buildings. This opening story coins two of Messinger’s most effective techniques: a unique situation, (combined with) everyday people whose lives and motivations are as familiar as our own.

The story “Bicycle Kick” involves a regular Joe who suddenly discovers he has a double aneurysm in his brain, courtesy of the CAT scan he undergoes from being smacked in the eye with a soccer ball.

The CAT scan had shown I had an unusual condition in my head. Two aneurysms, side-by-side. Two bloated vessels that could, given enough emotional or physical stress, burst, sending squid clouds of blood over my brain, erasing thoughts, functions, memories—irreparable damage. Highly unusual, to have two such advanced aneurysms so close together, [the doctor] assured me, as if I should be proud. Like I was up for the Guinness Book.

Mimicking the seemingly random tragedies of life, Messinger’s story births a character we can sympathize with, without being forced to over-invest emotionally.

One of the most delightfully quirky items comes in the form of “Not Even The Zookeeper Can Keep Control.” Maybe it’s just my offbeat sense of humor, but anything that revolves around a man-eating wolf “permitted…to chew on the old bones of dead prisoners” is, for me, an immediate winner. Exhibit A:

Tourists went to the zoo and watched it from behind bulletproof glass. The wolf salivated at the sight of the onlookers, drool lolling from his jaws and, on occasion, he pointed at the most frightened as if ordering at a deli.

An expert at delivering humor, Messinger’s “Zookeeper” is driven by the town’s misguided effort to recapture the escaped wolf, the beast devouring everyone in its path. Ironically, the high school principal’s bid to control the situation evolves into a critique of organized religion, and the author still manages to round out the work with a pleasingly understated truth about love and relationships.

Messinger’s characters are beguiling in their persistent loneliness, their relief found only in risking a new relationship or mustering the courage to recoup an old one. Stories like “Hiding Out” and “True Hero” are fueled by the needling desire to finally cast off the self-doubt we allow to eclipse our dreams, and truly vie for what we want even though we may fail in the end. It helps that the protagonists are insecure or eccentric enough to write themselves self-reflexive e-mails every half hour or try to win back an ex-girlfriend by donning a super-fine robot costume.

Pregnant with insight into the human psyche, yet unremittingly basic in their logic, Messinger’s stories earn him the title “master of pedestrian philosophy.” I would recommend this book to anyone game enough to realize their life-long ambitions, if only vicariously.

 

Temporary PeopleTemporary People

Steven Gillis

Black Lawrence Press, 2008

ISBN-10: 0976899361

Hardcover: 203pp; $20.95

Review by Matt Bell

Like many readers my age, I grew up reading not literary fiction but the twin pillars of fantasy and science fiction.  As an adult, I've mostly left those pleasures behind, except for those genre-bending writers in the mainstream literary world, writers like George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Michael Chabon, or Jonathan Lethem. For the most part, I don't regret the transition in my reading habits, but I do miss the invented worlds and cultures that came with the best genre writing. Thankfully, Steven Gillis has created just such a place in Bamerita, the floating island country of his newest novel, Temporary People.  Much like Tolkien raiding Norse and Christian mythologies to create his own world, Gillis paints his culture with shades of Central American dictators and revolutions, then puts American pop songs on his character’s lips while giving them the oppression, ingenuity, and knowledge needed to forge true revolutionaries from Bamerita’s most common citizens.

In Gillis’s words, Bamerita is a country whose "history is like the rim of a wheel made to turn round and round, [it’s] political cycles nothing if not redundant.” A country whose past is riddled with near-constant revolution, Bamerita now finds itself run by the failed television actor Teddy Lamb, who is using his oppressive government to fund and film a movie using the country’s citizens as both actors and props. In the words of narrator and former revolutionary André Mafante:

The scenes for Teddy’s movie are shot out of sequence and no one can say for certain what the film’s about. Even when the soldiers come and order us into our costumes, we’re not shown a script. At best, we hear rumors that the movie is a multi-generational saga weaved through the telling and retelling of a 3,000 year old fable. The focus of the fable changes however, each time the rumor is repeated. Teddy reviews all the daily rushes, assesses the caliber of our performance. Everyone’s uneasy about how they appear. The perception we give is not always as intended. Our fear isn’t artistic but rather a concern for our safety. Teddy’s impatient with people who disappoint him. Those found deficient are removed from the film and rarely heard from again. “That,” Teddy says, “is show biz.”

It is against this backdrop that André once again finds himself at the center of a plot to overthrow a corrupt government. He is a deep admirer of Gandhi and a student of non-violent protest, believing that violence will not solve Bamerita’s problems despite the more militant leanings of his friends, neighbors, and co-conspirators. Late in the book, his daughter’s American boyfriend comments “there’s no such thing as a harmless rant here. All pseudo-revolutionaries become the real deal,” neatly summing up the character arcs of Bamerita’s many young men who wish to fight but haven’t yet learned what their actions will cost them and their families.

Read merely for its plot, Temporary People would be a serviceable political thriller. Luckily, Gillis has placed that plot in his excellent invented country and then populated it with a huge cast of likable and unique characters. André steals the show, even burdened with an idealistic streak so wide that it constantly tested the limits of this reader’s cynicism. While the first instinct is to dismiss André’s pacifism as old-fashioned and unrealistic, Gillis’s book gains much of its weight from its ability to force you to resist this feeling and to read the book not as a disguised polemic, but as a true novel of ideas.

Temporary People is Gillis’s fourth book and his finest work to date. Balancing world-building, a thriller-worthy plot, and high-end political dialogue, Temporary People is the kind of book that forces the reader to fight between turning the pages faster to find out what happens and slowing down to consider its arguments and to savor its sentences. This is a great problem to have when reading, and one Gillis caused me over and over during the course of his novel.

Full Disclosure: I am lucky to frequently see Steven Gillis both socially and professionally, and to have had the pleasure to work as a classroom volunteer through Dzanc Books, which he is the co-founder of.

 

A Red Cherry on a White-tiled FloorA Red Cherry
on a White-tiled Floor

Maram al-Massri

Trans. Khaled Mattawa

Copper Canyon Press, 2007

Paperback: 145pp; $15.00

Review by Sarah Sala

Whenever a man
leaves me
my beauty increases.
Increases…

Maram al-Massri’s A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is comprised of poems from two book-length sequences, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled floor, first published in Tunis in 1997 and awarded Le Prix Du Forum culturel libanais en France in 1998, and I Look to You, published in Beirut in 2000. Written first in Arabic and then translated into English by the poet Khaled Mattawa, the assembled collection of poetry is a powerful portrayal of the female experience of love and intimacy.

Reminiscent of Sappho in their self-contained buds of verse, seemingly fragments brushed on the page, the work is divided into one hundred different sections. Each division is meticulous in its brevity, just as al-Massri’s language is unaffected and pure, as if such verses exist already in the space between man and woman.

I know
I shouldn’t have
let him
uncover my breasts.
I only
wanted
to show him
I’m a woman.
I know
I shouldn’t
have let him
undress.
He only
wanted
to show me
he’s a man.

Al-Massri’s writing encompasses a lifetime of experience, unwaveringly self-aware in all situations so that the reader may benefit from the emerging truths. She disguises nothing, but instead bears up the boredoms of marriage and the violence of loneliness, bodily and spatially, as all people must to survive.

In the third section of the book the speaker is confronted with the delicious draw of lust, “Desire inflames me/and my eyes glimmer./ I stuff morals/in the nearest drawer,/ I turn into the Devil/ and blindfold my angels/ just/for a kiss.” However, as the speaker progresses into the sixtieth section, she is forced to suffer through the frustrations of her familiar life: “With my delicious fruit/ I light/ the way leading to me./ Your stupid birds/ prefer/ old bread.” It seems as if al-Massri has captured “woman” in every shade of her complex experience, distilling her down into a formidable, yet shapely simulacrum.

Al-Massri also has a magnificent ability to seize a moment in ordinary time and fire it into an extraordinary thing of beauty. Where one may easily overlook a slant of light or the subtle reactions our physical body yields to the material world, she refuses not to celebrate them:

I looked at him
through a thread of light
beaming from
the window of my mercy—
the tired body
spread beside me
hungry like mine.
I signaled to my hand
to come closer
and it refused,
I commanded it
and it disobeyed.
I forced it,
and it bent closer
shivering with the pain
of touching
another body.

A Syrian poet and translator originally from Latakia, Maram Al-Massri’s A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is a brilliant introduction to modern Arabic poetry. A quick read, if only because the stanzas are short, the sincere search for meaning in her writing will linger on in your thoughts like a fragrance.

 

Margot SingerThe Pale of Settlement

Stories by Margot Singer

University of Georgia Press, 2007

ISBN-10: 0820330000

Hardcover: 213pp; $24.95

Review by James Menter

The nine linked stories in this collection follow Susan Stern, a New York City photo journalist who often finds herself operating between two lives. The life she leads in the U.S. has its problems, relationships mostly, but she does all right. Her personal and familial ties to Israel and the Middle East, however, provide a much richer source for conflict. Bombs in Haifa, buzzing helicopters, border patrol violence, a massacre in Palestine–these events are merely background noise compared to the nuanced consideration of the personal lives and family history deeply imbedded within this chaos.

Susan’s attempt to reconcile her place among members of her extended family, many of whom, unlike her parents, still live in Israel, makes up the backbone of this collection. In the story “Helicopter Days,” we see her develop a strange attraction to her cousin, Gavi, that is as much tied to her memories of her first summer on her own in Israel as it is to genuine intrigue and affection. Susan delivers the ashes of a dead relative to her uncle Avraham in “Deir Yassin,” a story that plays with form in a way that weaves past with current action, alternating between three points of view. These stories and others like them place Susan in the present, forcing her to interact with people and places that aren’t always familiar to her, but that are significant, nonetheless.

Coming to an understanding of her past has its own place in this book and, arguably, a more interesting one. Many of the stories are steeped in memory, both Susan’s and those of other characters. “Lila’s Story” combines Susan’s efforts to retrace her grandmother’s steps with her attempts to fictionalize the life of a woman she discovers she only partially knew. Memory itself becomes a source of conflict in its inconsistency, its inability, often, to separate stories from experience, the actual from the imagined, as Susan muses in “Lila’s Story”:

Back in Haifa…I retrace my grandmother’s steps…Here at the corner there used to be a handbag shop, dim and pungent…and here’s the newsstand where my grandmother bought me treats…There, I sat on a bench in the late afternoon while my grandmother told me stories…So are these my grandmother’s footsteps or my own?

Margot Singer’s investigation of what it is to remember and what it means to understand one’s past, while perhaps forcing certain connections and “chance” meetings, and relying on the description of photographs to give a sense of what was (a crutch the collection often returns to, yet, somehow, necessarily so.), rounds out an impressive first collection. Singer’s authorial hand is patient yet playful and confident when delving into the most personal of mistakes and shortcomings. The Pale of Settlement impressively divides and intertwines one family’s history with an ever-changing, uncertain present.

 

The Sky Over WalgreensThe Sky Over Walgreens

Chris Green

Mayapple Press, 2007

ISBN 978-0932412-546

Paperback: 78pp; $14.95

Review by Roy Wang

The wonderings and wanderings of the maturing poet, recollected in elegy, self-deprecating humor, and moments of personal clarity seem to be a perennial favorite among Midwestern voices, and Chris Green’s first book clearly defines him as a champion of this mode. From his choice of puns and candid scenes to the obvious displays of technical skill and learning, Green exemplifies the ironies and neuroses that plague the writer who sees himself as Dante-prophet in the isolation of Midwest winters and towns. And his limits are as high as the skies over a Walgreens.

Glancing at the table of contents, many nature and cultural references grab the eye—so many “animal poems” in fact, Green almost seems to be daring the reader to dismiss them. Many of the titles also announce the casual ironic humor that is to follow with poem titles such as, “A Woman at Starbucks Reads the Cliff Notes to Moby-Dick,” “What I Can Tell Ted Kooser and No One Else,” and “The Physics of Ex-Girlfriends”. With titles such as these, one can’t help but dive in.

The leading entry, “Nursing Home Love Poem,” characterizes the mix of humor and sadness that dominates the entire book, justifying and accelerating the reader’s anticipation. The first lines read:

I’ve never told anyone this.
I lean in to give her a peck,
but before I can say, Grandma, it’s me, Chris,
she slips me her tongue,

The first section, composed essentially of elegies, laments Green’s distance from grief through scenes that carefully separate the author from the events, taking slow steps towards release with simple lines such as, “Old friend, I loved you, and I’m sorry,” towards a breakthrough in “The Night my Grandmother Dies, I Watch a Documentary About Sharks”:

When the shark finally recedes,
waves darken, and after
a silence, Shark Gordon’s voice,
“This is why I wake up every morning.”
And then it’s herself and myself
and the whole cradling sea.

The second section gets a bit farther away from death, opening up to humor, and taking up the loss of connection in place of the loss of life. Consider “Limbo,” Green’s sensual, reference-laden commentary on the sterility of his friend’s poetry and marriage:

In the map of Dante’s hell, he neglects to note
the circle for listening to a lecture on Dante’s hell.
The speaker keeps speaking,

It was the first time he ever smiled without being drunk or
borrowing money, and I wait for the poem where his Beatrice
conceives on a lonely freeway of endless wordplay.

Perhaps the most successful of the bunch, “Ars Poetica,” is a meditation on transcendence that owes much to Keats and Eliot. It directs the action with straight-forward observation, weaving deftly between the universal and immediate as the poet observes his dog:

Like poetry,
he understood more
by not understanding. I want to
die without knowing I’m dying,
to love the ground and dig
for sweet bones, to lie in doorways
at night, and in the morning
take in the sunlight.

The last section of Green’s book takes to humor more fully, tackling scenes of love and sex with a mixture of the genuinely positive and a sense of loss over our self-imposed distance and shortcomings. In it, Green draws us into his immediate senses and textures: the field of his hair, his nervous anticipations, the charge he feels just inches from another’s face. The last line from “First Sex” perhaps sums him up here best, “So difficult even to begin, and then it’s over.”

Overall, The Sky Over Walgreens is very accessible to the non-poet reader while maintaining the interest of those who care to read more closely. The host of literary and cultural references will certainly make the reader feel rather pleased with herself for discerning them. While there’s still the hint of showing off that comes from such efforts because they are embedded in a consciously casual tone, they are not in the least bit annoying; they instead work as sign posts for his intentions and influences.

The book could easily have been a bit shorter (it still only comes in at 72 pages) given that there are some flat moments that read more like private exercises, left in by over-indulgent editing, but with the strength of Green’s wonderful observations and humor, it is perhaps better to view them as variations from the peaks in Green’s quiet, private landscapes driving by a Walgreens.