NewPages Book Reviews
November 3, 2008
By Charles Simic
Ausable Press, September 2008
Paperback: 128pp; $14.00
Review by Rav Grewal-Kök
The Monster Loves His Labyrinth will be one of the final titles published by Ausable Press, whose ten-year run as an independent poetry house ends in 2009, in a merger with Copper Canyon. It is an attractive volume, from the Varujan Boghosian collage on its front cover, to the reproduction of Saul Steinberg’s sketch of Charles Simic on the back. Inside is a selection of undated memories, aphorisms, observations, fragments and dreams from Simic’s notebooks. The entries afford us a glimpse of Simic’s preoccupations and passions, in a more elemental form than in his finished poems. There are moments of rare beauty and insight throughout.
The Monster is divided into five untitled sections whose organizing principle, I confess, largely eludes me. The entries in the first section tend to be longer, up to half a page or so, and center, though not exclusively, on Simic’s childhood in Belgrade during the Second World War. In the second section, Simic collects briefer entries, often an imagistic sentence or two, suggesting the raw materials of his imagination. The final three sections begin with Simic’s observations on poetry and art, but move outwards to politics, social life, and history. By the end, a picture emerges of Simic as an individual and artist (it’s an attractive one; if he’d lived in the neighborhood I’d have tossed the chops into the pan, uncorked the wine, and invited him over for dinner). He’s skeptical, funny, a little bawdy, and, notwithstanding his recent stint as poet laureate of the United States, suspicious of the governing narratives of nation and church. He is also intimately concerned with the aesthetics of poetry.
When he writes about the war of his childhood, Simic evokes the upheaval and indignities suffered by those on the margins of great events. One entry describes “a baby carriage, pushed by a humpbacked old woman, her son sitting in it, both legs amputated.” The carriage rolls away from the woman while she haggles with a grocer. While the woman screams, passersby laugh as if they were at a slapstick film: “One laughed because one knew it would end well. One was surprised when it didn’t.” In another entry, Simic describes how as a child he gathered the courage to take a helmet from a dead German soldier, only to become the object of his relatives’ mirth when his prize turned out to be infested with lice.
The boy who survived conflict and displacement remained unconvinced by the wars of a later age: “The occupiers everywhere, I note, are outraged by the bad manners of the occupied who do nothing but complain about being mistreated.” His vision can be as dry as it is bleak: “Finally a just war; all the innocents killed in it can regard themselves as lucky.”
But Simic reminds us that personal life makes its quiet claims too, no matter the madness outside. The Simic household had a maid who, when little Charles was five or six years old, would join him under the table where he kept his toy fort and soldiers. She would guide his hand up her skirt: “I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it.” He can suggest a novel in three sentences: “A life of vice starts in the cradle. He loved crawling under the skirts of his big sister’s friends. One of them let him stay there till he was an old man.” Or just one: “‘God has a plan for America,’ the preacher on the TV said just as you came to bed carrying a bowl of cherries against your naked breasts.”
The notebooks are most valuable when Simic meditates on his art. He considers how the lyric poem marries time and space through language and image, notes that every folk poem contains a weather report, and explains that poetry liberates the individual from the closure of history (“Only through poetry can human solitude be heard in the history of humanity. In that respect, all poets who ever wrote are contemporaries.”) And even this great writer knows he can never fully succeed: “The poem I want to write is impossible. A stone that floats.” No wonder the author of Hotel Insomnia and The Voice at 3:00 A.M. is up at night.
The poet cannot escape his obsessions, but he can name them, and we can peek over his shoulder as he does so. Perhaps The Monster Loves His Labyrinth will be a minor entry in the catalog of Simic’s work, but it is no less lovely for that.
Stories by Jesse Ball
The Cupboard, 2008
Pamphlet: 72pp; $5.00
Review by Brian Foley
Kafkaesque is a term that is passed off superfluously in today’s impalpable literary landscape. However, if there is one author that would be a suitable to such an intricate title, poet and author Jesse Ball would be a likely candidate. This is by no means meant as a reduction. The author of a prize winning collection of poetry (March Book) and a stirring novel (Samedi the Deafness), Ball’s prolific output, as well as his command over his singular voice, often lead him astray from Kafka’s parochial table. Yet one has little doubt his newest collection, Parables and Lies, is indebted, if not a conscious tribute, to the short works of the Czechian master.
Assumedly fashioned as a likeness to Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, these 37 concise tales function less as allegories embedded with folkloric wisdom, and more as magnificent prose poems that bare the bellicose teeth of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Observe “The Palace” shown here in its entirety.
A palace so large that the kingdom itself is but a small part of it. Servants sent to some far corridor are given burials, for we know well that they will not return. Communication is a matter of whispers, which travel like cursed fact. And our hearts are maintained through windows, where courtesans’ soft skin and long lashes are augments that uphold his life. Everyone has their orders, which must be carried out. These are kept in tiny cylinders hung like pendants from our servile necks. Since we cannot read we must ask others to read these instructions for us. And often these interpretations change. All in all, it is a good way to be, or so I have heard, as beyond the walls of this enthronement there are great doubts like standing trees, and each outlives a man, and each is named for some task we will never be allowed.
Ball’s fixations with secrecy, duplicity, and all things rogue are propped up as the pillars of his world. Related in a voice that is at times classical in its formality and integrity, he builds his picaresque castles on the broken backs of characters living in some sort of bleak, feudal existence. Yet it is these attributes, and the ease and ability in which they enchant and capture the reader, that make them so appealing. “The Palace” serves as an appropriate analogy of the stories found in Parables & Lies; the accommodations are spatial and grand in form, but its inhabitants are condemned to small rooms, fearful of some watchful informer. Ball’s harnessing of a profound sense of dread brings the reader in closer, as if attending to a deadly secret. These secrets may mandate the reader’s awe, but lessons these are not.
New & Selected Poems 1984-2008
By Eric Pankey
Ausable Press, April 2008
Paperback: 274pp; $16.00
Review by Jason Tandon
Spanning his entire career, Eric Pankey's The Pear as One Example includes selections from seven previous collections of poems, as well as a complete new collection, Deep River. Brand new to his work, I was immediately impressed by his linguistic virtuosity, especially his botanist-like knowledge of flora and fauna, and his poetic range, from vividly described narrative-lyrics to ontological meditations. Pankey is a poet-naturalist, and in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, whatever truths and visions emerge in his poetry he earns from precise observation.
In the poem “Debtor of Happiness,” Pankey invites associations and abstractions of thought only after firmly grounding us in the concrete. The poem opens with a tone of lament, “Whatever empties the feeder / comes and goes without my knowing. / There is little satisfaction / in their names or the songs I've stopped / listening for,” and the speaker goes on to recollect experiences that once brought visceral and spiritual satisfaction:
I broke open a frozen pumpkin
against the trunk of the maple
and chickadees and cardinals
and even a cedar waxwing
cleaned out the three jagged fragments
of their hard white seed.
The speaker then claims, “I believe the birds no longer / sing their one song of alliance . . . Now in my dreams if I fly / flight is more like a falling.” Pankey does not extend himself beyond these declarations; he does not explain the reasons for his new state of “unaware[ness].” In this sense, the typical Pankey poem steers clear of the revelatory Romantic sublime or “pathetic fallacy.” The speaker has lost his connection to the natural world, which is precisely that: his (or our) loss, and not nature's. The poem offers us the thematic pleasure of speculating the reasons for this loss, a pleasure enhanced by the poet's dexterity: sensory details render a visceral experience and patterns of alliteration and internal and end rhyme provide a euphonic coherence.
Though the speaker in this poem is forthcoming with his thoughts, I will caution that one should not always anticipate a great amount of narrative in every Pankey poem. He often emphasizes imagery and sonic effects over linear story-telling. Some readers might be put off by his Whitmanesque catalogues of the natural world, though others might be drawn to the texture that they provide. Ultimately, his frequency of lists and insistence on naming illustrate the conundrum of the lyric poet: language’s failure at precisely conveying experience, emotion, or the thing itself. Pankey asks and then hauntingly answers in “See That My Grave Is Swept Clean,” “Are words but an entrance? Words are but an entrance.”
Pankey relishes language and knowing how to name things, but his deeper concern is what lies behind the name. His poems often begin with a speaker engaged in the act of looking, which becomes a prolonged gaze that fuels a curiosity aimed at further discovery. Perhaps his overall poetic project can be described by the opening lines of his poem “Extracts from a Treatise on Form”: “I attempt to make manifest the hidden, and in doing so, / attempt to not veil the apparent.” In the title poem of this collection, Pankey puts that practice into action. He describes a nameless “he” who has closed his eyes while holding a pear:
This is it.
This I would know without metaphor.
But his touch rubs up the pear’s perfume:
A hint of honey and magnolia,
Grape and almond. None of it the pear
But the otherness that is the pear.
These lines suggest the provisional nature of metaphor and language itself to precisely describe the essence of a thing. Pankey comes to find that an essence represents not a focused simplicity, instead a fragmented multiplicity.
Pankey's concerns about, and fascination with the natural world do extend to humankind. He writes many poems about family, friends, and loved ones, such as the tender father-to-daughter-advice poem, “If You Can,” and the skillfully rhymed love sonnet, “Without You.” He has the capacity to disappear behind the voice of the seemingly objective observer and re-appear in poems later as the intimate voices of father, son, or lover. Fans of an earlier generation of American poets, such as Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons, and Robert Bly, will find much to enjoy in this large volume of poetry that showcases an acute poetic prowess, capturing a range of heartfelt emotions and experiences. Though there are representations of deeply felt pain (“A Walk with My Father,” “Overcoat,” “Family Matters”), Pankey is a poet of celebration, as expressed by the volume’s concluding poem “Deep River”:
I sat at the
Overlooking the river's frozen surface.
A skunk slipped beneath a porch’s broken lattice.
A couple of kids spit from the bridge,
Then pointed to something I could not see or guess at.
You might say I was happy in that moment.
For Pankey, each new dawn presents a multitude of poetic possibilities, and he incorporates both the ugly and the beautiful, pain and pleasure in his aesthetic vision.
Stories by Kyle Minor
Dzanc Books, November 2008
Paperback; 220pp; $16.95
Reviewed by Sean Carman
Kyle Minor's stories take place in some pretty rough terrain. The first three words of "The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party," the opening story in In the Devil's Territory, tell us that the narrator hates Christmas. Then we learn that his family's Christmas gathering, which would be stifling in any year, is complicated by his wife's high-risk pregnancy, his sick and unruly child, and his mother's painful recuperation from surgery. This year, the family is not celebrating Christmas, it is suffering an ordeal.
An early scene in the story captures the tenor of Minor's debut collection. Brenda, the wife rendered helpless by a fragile pregnancy, demands that her husband make her an ice cream sundae. But not just any ice cream sundae. She wants vanilla ice cream over a warm brownie with crushed almonds on top. It's a lot to ask and her husband is tired. And so, six days before Christmas, in her imperiled health and his fatigue, the young couple fights over whether he will get her the sundae.
I hadn't turned the first page of Minor's collection and already I felt uncomfortable.
"Look," I wanted to say, "you two stay here. I'll get the sundae."
Minor's stories are about lives that have drifted, inexorably it seems, into the land of the collection's title. Or, to use the plain key in which Minor's characters often speak, these are stories about people who have come up hard against the world.
"A Day Meant to Do Less," selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2008, maps the lifetime toll of the trauma Franny Wenderoth endures as a child. In "A Love Story," a southern preacher suffers the pain of having exiled his sexuality from his identity. The title story, which traces the torn lives of an East German refugee, an air-conditioning serviceman, and his errant son, ends with a few lines of brochure copy that might have been the collection's epigraph: "Mistakes were made long ago. It is someone else's fault. We can't be held responsible, but we are very sorry."
Minor's voice lands somewhere between William Faulkner and Stephen King. There is a lot of what you might call high drama, but it is also aimed at something true. In this passage, John Wenderoth, Franny's husband in "A Day Meant to Do Less," steers his truck to the roadside while he is having a heart attack:
They got into the car and drove away, and that's the last time she saw John alive. On the interstate, on the way to the construction site, John clutched his hand to his chest. Jack later said that he thought, for a moment, his father would lose control of the car; but just as Jack was reaching for the wheel, John rallied, inhaled with great effort – “He was white as a sheet," Jack recalled – and straightened his shoulders and gripped the wheel and steered the car onto the shoulder and then the grass strip beyond.
Minor's work never veers into melodrama, although I did think that I could sometimes see it looming in the distance. Still, throughout these stories, Minor keeps a steady hand. I always believed what I was reading. His stories are steeped in pain and difficult to read, but his characters are flesh and bone, their lives genuine, their losses real. In the end, Minor's collection does not try to convince the reader that the devil's territory is limitless, only that it covers a great number of small corners in the world.
Stories by Daniel Gabriel
Whistling Shade Press, April 2008
Paperpack: 147pp; $12.99
Review by Jeff Vande Zande
Daniel Gabriel’s Tales from the Tinker’s Dam centers around The Tinker’s Dam – a pub in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales. Reminiscent of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone Days, these are tales in the best sense of the word, being both humorous and human.
In the collection’s first story, fittingly titled “First Draught,” Gerry Culhane leaves his homeland of Ireland to become the new publican of The Dam. When he pulls into the “car park” of the country pub, he finds nobody around except an old farmer who says, “Shut up, it is. Been so for months. Dreadful old place, anyway.” Culhane explains that he’s the new owner. Gabriel writes, “The farmer looked up sharply. – New owner, is it? He spat tobacco juice in a puddle along the verge. – Poor bugger.” The farmer’s words are a prophecy.
As in any good collection of tales, the characters are plentiful, quirky, and loveable. Along with Culhane, there’s buxom Margo the barmaid, Evan Evans, Fat Howell, Ginger George, Wee Hughie, and Dai Legg, a woman’s undergarment salesman and rugby expert.
Although there’s humor in the stories, Gabriel never sets his characters up for us to ridicule. Our laughter is sympathetic when one of Culhane’s schemes to increase business fails. Our chuckling is chuckling at our own frailties when Rhys Jones is convinced that Margo is finally falling for him.
And, sometimes, we’re not laughing at all.
In “The Unwarranted Tribulations of Dai Legg,” Legg innocently predicts that Scotland’s team will beat Wale’s team in an upcoming rugby match. It’s not something as a Welshman that he wants, just something that his knowledge of the sport tells him will happen. Regardless, the patrons in the pub turn on him and goad him into betting against Wales. Soon, he’s in for a pile of money and, as he predicted, Scotland wins. For Dai Legg, it is a bitter victory:
Gerry reached up onto the shelf behind the bottles of Dutch gin and tossed a packet of well-creased bank notes onto the counter in front of Dai Legg’s glass. The edge of the packet slid into a pool of spilled beer and there it sat, soaking up the stale bitter while poor Dai tried to wish it away.
The reader, like Legg, can feel how the place will change for him. His friends will always remember this win sullenly, despite the fact that Dai Legg never wanted it or their money. It’s a melancholy moment that Gabriel writes very well.
Still, melancholy isn’t the order of the day in The Dam. More often than not, I found myself laughing, especially at the words that seem to roll so naturally from the characters’ lips. One character, describing another’s thickness or stupidity says, “Too thick to pour piss out of a boot if the instructions was printed on the heel.” In another story, Culhane tries putting out unusual hors d'oeuvres to attract a gentrified dinner crowd. What it attracts is the disdain of his regulars: “Stuffed olives, did he say, said Wee Hughie. – Never et one, and then a moment later – Bloody hell. I can see why.” At the end of the night, cleaning up after the fiasco, Culhane finds that “the ashtrays were full of green olives with one bite gone out of each.”
If I have one complaint about these tales, it’s only that there are so few of them. Because the tales move chronologically and are so interconnected, the book ends up feeling like a novel. And, as such, it’s too thin, leaving me feeling that things ended too quickly. As a consolation, Gabriel also includes an appendix – an excellently-written piece of non-fiction that explores the significance of pubs in British life. It was this piece – coupled with the homey feelings that I carried over from the tales – that left me wanting to open a pub myself here in America. Not a bar, a pub. Like Culhane, I found myself thinking that I just might be able to make a go of it.
Such is human folly and faith, and Daniel Gabriel writes of both very well in Tales from the Tinker’s Dam.
Poetry by Matthew Rohrer
Octopus Books, 2008
Chapbook: 43pp; $10.00
Review by Brian Foley
Described as “a rollicking epic adventure poem of foxy revolutionaries battling a fascist government,” the guts of Matthew Rohrer’s newest chapbook ask for more than just lighthearted fanfare. A departure from the thoughtful and romantic altered-states found in his defining collections Satellite and last year’s Rise Up, They All Seemed Asleep is a minor politically driven marathon that confronts the outrage and confusion brought on by authoritarian powers.
An epic to be sure, the trouble begins in a foggy port town as an unnamed narrator returns from a long journey at sea only to witness a crazed mob impaling a man on a spear. He quickly flees on an overnight bus and arrives in a mountain village. He befriends a man named Don who tells him about the nationalist coup that took place while the narrator was at sea. A colonel known as The Cat, an educated and deadly man who quotes from Socrates and Poe, has overthrown the progressives party in power.
Over many pints, the narrator expresses his contempt for the “fascist bullies;” threats Don takes literally. Don brings them to a cave on a hill where the narrator meets a rebel militia planning to overthrow the Cat, who is after them. The militia requires the narrator’s help:
Don patiently described
The Cat’s horrors, the campaign
against the interesting,
the doubtful, the terrific
in this world, poets digging
their own graves, though half-assed,
parents of festive teens shot
in community theaters
after seeing the whole cast
humiliated in death
even in the best of times
freedom of speech a sham
free speech zones at demonstrations
citizens of the empire
arrested and held without charges
or put in airplanes
and tortured in aerial
secrecy, above all laws
It is this knowledge which draws upon familiar paradigms of tyranny, evoking Argentina’s Dirty War as well as the Patriot Act; Rohrer creates a nebulous cocktail of political indignation, an outrage only some are clued into. In the domiciles of the poem’s dreamlike village, every concern is far off and unreal (“distant thunder seemed like fake thunder”) and the politics of life and death have been hijacked by the blue vortex of enormous televisions. As the narrator puts it, “The idea is not to think about your life passing / and it seems not to.”
Further on, he name checks political revolutionaries such as Jean-Paul Marat and Sendero Luminoso, the Peruvian guerilla militia that waged a war against its government. In this way, Rohrer’s motivations are clear: he aims the poem to lay an edifying blow while acting out its terrifying fantasy.
This idiomatic charm of They All Seemed Asleep will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has read Rohrer’s work before, but here the political blows are softened by the support of his fluency in conversational tone. Similarly, the spare language that compels the narrative is never far from pleasantly surprising. But where Rohrer’s voice in his last collection Rise Up was an attempt, as one critic put it, at “trying to shove away the darkness,” in They All Seemed Asleep, the narrator embraces, though reluctantly, the risks of the darkness.
Personifying the shade of the cave with the plight of the guerrilla soldiers and their rhetoric of action, it is in these confines that the narrator ventures to see if the “shining path” does indeed exists. Too smart to commit to absolutes without some poetic trepidation, Rohrer explores the moral contradictions in the narrator’s actions:
the question of violence
and its utility plagued me
before the cataclysm
and preventable is calm
With They All Seem Asleep, Matthew Rohrer takes the rhetoric of rebellion and pits it against the visceral occurrence of bold action, creating an enduring, adventurous and immediate tale that does not overwhelm the reader with its memorandum, but attempts, very plainly, to explore what happens when you put your money where your mouth is.