NewPages Book Reviews
March 2, 2009
Secret of Breath :: Irresponsibility :: A Fixed, Formal Arrangement :: Big World :: Circulation :: The Islands of Divine Music :: The White Space Between :: Family Secret :: Tomorrowland :: When You Come Home
Secret of Breath
Poetry by Isabelle Baladine Howald
Translated from French by Elena Rivera
Burning Deck Press, October 2008
Paperback: 27pp; $14.00
Review by Joseph P. Wood
In one of the early poems of Isabella Baladine Howald’s haunting new collection, Secret of Breath, the poet writes, “What I love is not seeing, but the effort of seeing.” This untitled poem’s opening line could easily serve as the book’s Ars Poetica: Howald relentlessly self-interrogates as she scrutinizes the philosophical meaning behind her lover’s/husband’s death (it’s never quite specified who exactly died) – and, by extension, life.
Unlike the countless elegies in contemporary poetry, these poems stand out in that they try to understand and articulate grief in the most austere terms possible. This book is not a litany of personal anecdotes or specific concrete details. There are no prosodic adornments or narrative flourishes. Instead, Howald wastes no time diving straight into the emotional and intellectual moment. Most poems run under fifteen lines, and there are many one to three line poems. The result of this economy is a highly distilled, emotional intensity; upon finishing many of the poems, I was often left feeling devastated yet somehow transformed.
Secret of Breath occupies two different worlds. On one hand, these lyrical poems are highly physical. Some poems describe her dying love’s body. Others depict barren natural landscapes. And others, of course, blend the body and land together:
To date, war everywhere,
the fields, the forests of birch trees,
the wind, the grass, the low light,
the earth is plundered and the bodies abandoned.
They change the name of countries,
they no longer even know from what. Or of whom they speak
and here we are at these gaping borders.
First, it should be noted that throughout the book, stanzas are set off with large amounts of white space (which may not be evident in the citations of this review). In fact, some poems (particularly the one-liners) start off at the bottom of the page. This is not a gimmick. The book hinges on silence and the white of the page gives that silence a tactile presence, such as in the aforementioned poem where the whitespace actually creates starkness. Moreover, the landscape’s particular details vacillate between general and specific: “fields,” “wind,” “grass,” and “war” could happen anywhere. Yet, when “forests of birch trees” and “low light” enter the mix – the barest of descriptions – I’m in Central Europe and it is winter.
Instead of furthering the narrative, Howald elects to finish the poem with larger, emotional intensity. We never learn who is “they” (border guards, army generals, politicians?). We have no idea where these borders are. But if the reader asks these questions, they-re completely off the mark. Time and again, Secret of Breath moves from the actual to the metaphysically raw moment, often with deceptively remarkable ease.
Yet, these poems are not just ones of landscape and body. Despite its ostensible accessibility, Secret of Breath is at its heart a highly personalized and urgent philosophical investigation. The poet Karl Shapiro once claimed that philosophy and poetry were naturally antithetical to one another: the language of philosophy, Shapiro posited, was static, whereas poetry’s language was open and somewhat mysterious. Howald turns this argument on its head time and again, by placing broad, often abstract language within the confines of highly compressed syntax:
No longer pushing away the obsession.
Seeking. Like an exploration, slow, diligent, desperate,
looks, face, bodies.
Repeating in front of this face and this body:
“There is something, there is something”.
On one hand, this poem shouldn’t work. The language is not particularly evocative. If there is an image, it’s threadbare and non-descript. Mostly, the poem is direct statement (although as someone who doesn’t speak a lick of French, I wonder if this same quality exists in the poem’s original language). Yet, it’s the grammatical oddities of this poem – and almost all the poems in this book really – that gives this poem its vitality and uniqueness. First, there is no subject, which in turn indicates to the reader that s/he is dropping in on an internal argument. Second, consider the poetic effect of the grammar in the second stanza: the reader moves from generalized abstractions to nouns within the comma chain. By throwing the grammar, the reader is seeing a mind – a desperate one – at work. And in this way, we’re located not in the world of generalized ideas, but in the world of intellect and emotions, a world where things contradict and no easy answers exist.
At the end of the day, this book – through all its grief-filled intellections – never posits any real answer to its relentless searching. In fact, the final book of the poem posits:
Always: “I don’t know,”
ignorant what it’s all about
– to some extent death has already started.
Not to recognize this noise,
or this step, or a friction, a sliding,
or from where it comes.
Perhaps there isn’t any noise.
We all, of course, are in the process of dying, and are always ruminating about our own and loved ones’ ends. But these ruminations bring us no closer to understanding mortality. We end where we begin: in unknowing. Yet, after reading Secret of Breath, one feels more at peace with this uncertainty, and oddly, much wiser.
Poetry by Chris Vitiello
Ahsahta Press, February 2008
Paperback: 101pp; $17.50
Review by Karyna McGlynn
Here is an austere and well-made collection which brings to mind a spitfire of phrases, like “German ingenuity” and “high modernism” and the “plasir” of the “illisable texte.” The book shifts its glasses and a-hems a bit before engaging me in a conversation which is charmingly incomprehensible. And despite its attempts to be cordial and funny and warm (okay, maybe not quite warm), I can't quite shake that feeling I used to have when I met my physicist boyfriend for beers after work and he'd start talking about trapping ions with lasers: it was sexy as hell but my eyes glazed over almost immediately – not because it was boring, but because I wasn't smart enough. I admit it: this book raises the presumed-dead spectre of my math fear. It feels clean and masculine and well-groomed and logical and intimidating in a way that made me put off writing this review for months. This isn't easy-going for me, but then, I don't think it's supposed to be.
After all, the book is called Irresponsibility, an apt title for a book that both excuses and interrupts any sense of “real world experience” via the speaker's overactive intellect. Thus, we can only piece together torn fragments of the underlying narrative via the intentional (or unintentional?) cracks in the narrator's habitual intellectualizing. On the occasions that we do catch a rare glimpse into the book's raison d'etre, the revelation startles and touches a nerve: "Write what the idea is / Iris sings in the bathtub: 'You did nothing wrong.'"
The pleasure is intense and isolated, like catching a glimpse of Victorian ankle beneath obfuscating swaths of material, for there is rarely more than a single image allotted per poem. In this sense, Vitiello's cerebral acrobatics – sentence diagrams, a list of the first 1000 prime numbers, obscure references to Bartok and Barthes, poems in the form of proofs, arrows, self-conscious dissections/corrections of diction, discursive digressions into the text's inherent “thingness” – seem less of an indulgence and more of intentional display of distraction that helps to temper what might otherwise feel too raw, nostalgic and/or sentimental:
The road twisted and the map didn't / / This writing happens
is a thing
Closing your eyes is
lying to yourself about fooling yourself / / My and myself
A series is a defense not a concealment
This is only one of the many embedded instructions Vitiello provides to help us navigate Irresponsibility. Indeed, one senses that the speaker – at times GPS-like in his didactic relationship with the reader – is trying to find his way back to a place/time by obsessively piecing together the fragments of a torn-up map. And the reader, in the passenger's seat, is not only witness to the puzzle, but complicit in solving it as Vitiello issues forth his series of fourth-wall-breaking requests: “Write your name above this line,” “Take only one photograph,” “Cut this,” “Tape your hair clipping below,” Draw a rectangle around the word “hinge.”
Each fragment of the map – or section of the book – is clearly labeled. We know the when and where (“September 2002/Topsail Island, NC,” “9 May 2004/Baltimore, MD/3 hours,” etc.), but the emotional terrain resists Vitiello's systematic naming:
someone let those row houses be there
Watching the flies led my eyes to the dog feces
Notation stops me
This is not an economy until I say that it isn't
These last lines are indicative of the speaker’s perpetual power-struggle: the push-pull between his abstract lack of agency and his professed sovereignty over information. Similarly, the juxtaposition of confident, conceptual information – “seeing is a perpetual axis // an understood axis” – versus intimate, uncertain address: “Brent, I have to break out of this and / not just to do something new.” These are rare, heartbreaking moments that seem to well up from the holes made by the pushpins of Vitiello’s taxonomy: I was here, I was here, this is fact, this is fact.
“A 180° angle is not an angle,” “Living the differentiation makes the difference ± The increments / Initial burnt-out N // Redundancy,” “Enjambment and stanza breaks have atemporal durations.” Here are examples (all from the same poem) of the difficult litanies from which Vitiello’s rare moments of vulnerability, humanity and humor ultimately relieve us, tumbling out onto the page before the speaker can check the impulse:
and the sentences are dull
or all the same length or awkward I’m
not going to do anything about them anyway
Sometimes these moments are, in effect, delightfully reminiscent of James Wright’s famous end-line, “I have wasted my life”: “The ocean was matter-of-fact” or “I know what I’m doing.”
There’s little doubt that the speaker knows what he’s doing, but readers may grow weary of his overindulgent photo-matting, or his near inability to be frank with us, or the at-times claustrophobic feel of his thought-patterns trapped in endlessly self-referential loops. Still, we end up rooting for him. What at first feels cool and impervious in Vitiello’s work eventually reveals itself to be quite generous and playful. What’s lacking in traditional narration is made up for in invitation and participation. Where there’s a dearth of image, there’s an abundance of fizzy diction & rhetorical force. Irresponsibility may recklessly defy readers’ expectations, but it’s that defiance that opens up the space for a new way of telling.
A Fixed, Formal Arrangement
Prose by Allison Carter
Les Figues Press, November 2008
Paperback: 105pp, $15.00
Review by Sarah Sala
Allison Carter’s book of experimental prose isn’t, as Danielle Dutton suggests in the introduction to the slender volume, “a kind of writing that gets called ‘cross-genre’ because it pulls all the best aspects from poetry and all the best aspects from fiction.” A Fixed, Formal Arrangement is far beyond that in its originality of thought and image as to feel like a new genre altogether; something like a planet and a star colliding, fusing a third heavenly body in the process. No longer a star and a planet, they orbit away – a wondrously altered thing.
Carter’s book is divided into two parts: “In Your Spare Time” and “Garages.” The first section deals in concise and densely-packed blocks of print. At first, the pieces can seem overwhelming: novel syntax, alacrity of ideas, absolute sparseness, and undefined endings (often the last line punctuates in a comma, waving the reader on to the next piece). Very quickly, however, the reader settles into the cadence of the work, the syntax lending clarity to the Stein-like momentum of the lines, the surprise bursts of language and impromptu dialogue assigning immense pleasure to the reading.
The pieces of “In Your Spare Time” often take the form of sleep, dream, pre-dawn moments and the everydayness of interacting with a husband. Proving herself (over and over again) a champion of language, Carter conveys the speaker’s depth of attachment to her husband as, “feeling like somebody who is loved, romantically, loving pluots, buying two pluots, making a point of buying two of everything, one for husband, one for you, reserving private basement space in your enflamed cardiac mansion for the absent third pluot.” The sentiment in these lines is overwhelming: feeling wanted, romanced, but also in loving pluots (a plum-apricot hybrid), she is moved to buy one for her husband; maybe she spent the rest of the day shopping so she could bask in the delicious newness of buying two of everything. Then there is the tremendous language her words fire into at the end of the line – reserving space in her husband’s “enflamed cardiac mansion” for the smoldering happiness of a possible third pluot. It’s a spectacular fusion of intense emotion with the everyday details of a life.
“Recurring Dream” is a strong example of Carter’s ability to seize a seemingly mundane moment and infuse it with new life and intrigue:
“What about you,” asks a colleague, a man I know, after all, from work, “What do you do for a living,” as if we weren’t on the stoop outside the office, the weather having disappeared, “I mean, do you know what you want to do,” inversion through our eye sockets, he sneezes, blank space comes out, some gets on me, “I mean, for a job,”
Her description of the weather as “disappearing” and the “blank space” expelled from a sneeze are as delightful as they are exacting. Carter’s syntax is a landscape of hills and valleys, the caesuras lending the same conversational fluctuations to the speaker’s thoughts as they do to the colleague’s speech. The dialogue is refreshingly frank and real, and at the same time, a little faraway. Slowing the moment down to the frame-by-frame of dream-speed, Carter pinpoints one glimmering atom in the universe of our daily lives; this, as if to say: there is majesty even in somnolence.
The latter section of the book, “Garages,” is far and away my favorite part of the collection. In the mesmerizing tradition of the French philosopher Georges Perec, Carter’s driving questions revolve around types of “space.” How do we approach them? Inside. Outside. Mind-space. Heart-space. Empty. Full. The garage poems range from the very private happenings in a domestic garage: playing with her brother, a fear of driving (near-inability to leave the garage), making love, the irreversible death of a puppy, to the external thoughts on public spaces.
In an untitled fragment, seemingly one of two “after-thoughts” on the poem titled, “Garage Apartment #6,” Carter plays at what it’s like to navigate through a garage by outlining its opposites: “Moving through a garage is not like moving through a traffic pattern not like fishbowls / parade, kitchens / trunks or a map of USA, bellies or feet, graduation ceremonies, a million things similarly looking, or a ladder.”
What is a garage, exactly? Perec asserts that we define space by its utility: a coat closet exists to hold coats, and a kitchen for us to prepare food. Therefore a garage is a place where we shelter cars or store miscellaneous items. In some instances, however, the speaker in the garage poems parks her car on the street and removes nearly every box from its confines. Released from any defining characteristics, the garage becomes a blank space filled with the speaker’s painting, and a conduit for memories of childhood, adolescence and fantasy.
In “Public Garage #1,” the speaker attempts to explain her ideas of the shape and ways of space, but it becomes too much for the other person, and she slips away – into new space, an “edge” to the garage brightening off to the north:
In this garage I parked the car to tell her about the shape of space. Across the car was an easy foot of space. I parked the car to demonstrate one or two items in the concept of the shape of space. I sat with her across from a heavy mountain with a heavy heart. The shape of space is a heavy concept to teach…I parked the car to tell her about the shape of the car.
The speaker begins with the shape of space: how space can be defined for use, as in a parking space. Between the two people exists an easy cushion of space, a calmness. Then she begins to talk about the heaviness within her own heart-space; it’s difficult what she needs to tell the other person. She’s pulled the car into a parking spot so that the space itself can reveal something about the car; that their sharing heart-space teaches them something about themselves.
I told her, “I am teaching you the relationship between science and alchemy.” I am teaching you a lesson about empty spaces…” It was too late. She had a quick slide. A falling body is both heavy and consistent. This is a metaphor for science. The heavy mountain glowed like an icon in the shape of the northernmost horizon. The edge of the garage was bright.
The speaker attempts to explain the differences between defined concepts (science) and the enchantment or transformative powers of alchemy. Their relationship has become a science, and what the other person truly learns about is loss, or empty space. All at once, dropped from the speaker’s heart-space, the person’s fall is irreversible. The speaker is given to stare into the belly of a heavy mountain, while the reader is left to wonder at the edge of the garage, a brightness signifying unexplored spaces.
The poems in A Fixed, Formal Arrangement read as though one stares directly into the thought-center of the writer’s brain: experiencing every image, emotion and idea with the effortlessness of pure thought. One could lose themselves in the book for a whole afternoon or a day without looking up, the polished and immaculate writing a huge payoff for their investment.
Stories by Mary Miller
Short Flight/Long Drive Books, February 2009
Paperback: 200pp; $9.95
Review by Ryan Call
Mary Miller’s Big World, the second release from the mini-books division of Hobart: Another Literary Journal, is physically reminiscent of the 1950s-era pulp paperbacks you see stacked around used book stores. If I were older, I imagine that David Kramer’s bright front and back illustrations, the colored edges of the book’s pages, and the book’s small size would remind me of the good old days when I could buy naughty books for ten cents apiece and hide them in my back pocket.
The stories in Big World get their strength from Miller’s beautiful, spare telling of the seemingly mundane, as well as her descriptions of the daily collisions between people, animals, and things: a young girl and her widowed father struggle to reconnect, a woman and her boyfriend wander drunkenly through Pigeon Forge as their relationship fails, a woman goes to the emergency room after her dog bites her face. Of the dog, the woman says, “I kept on harassing him because I was drunk, because I wanted to see if the dog and the husband and the house and the job were things I could extricate myself from, one by one, without making myself look too bad.” What the woman fails to appreciate is how badly the wound on her face will alter her looks once it heals into a scar, thus binding her to the dog for the rest of her life.
Miller’s stories work best when they upset the notion of exploitation. The violence, heavy drinking, drug use, and sex in which the women of Big World take part do not so much excite us as cause us to empathize with the women even as we avert our gaze. These sordid details function as a means to creating a fuller sadness, and Miller skillfully wields this power. Take, for example, the following exchange between the narrator and her ex-husband at the end of the title story, “Big World,” in which the narrator goes to a family funeral and sadly watches as her father worries about her missing mother. Notice how the narrator suddenly shifts the conversation:
On the way home I called my ex-husband. I’m a vegetarian now, I told him. You don’t know me anymore, I was saying. You have no idea.
That’s stupid, he said. Why?
Because animals feel pain too, I said. I didn’t really have a reason. It had been a rash decision made primarily to prove I could make them. I was weak. My sister was weak, my mother, my father. I like animals, I went on, and I never really cared much for meat anyway. Just the thought of biting into a chicken leg–
I’m going to have to eat twice as much meat now to cancel you out, he said.
Are you seeing anybody? I asked.
No, are you? You probably have lots of boyfriends.
Just one, I said. He likes to choke me while we’re doing it. I like to say things that shock him, the truth. Like my father, he had sent me out into the big world all alone and I was going to show him how ugly it was.
Every word the narrator speaks into the phone is calculated to create an effect. She sets up her ex-husband with a seemingly innocent question, knowing that he’ll ask the same of her. But what gives this conversation meaning is that last sentence. Without it, the story risks being mere pornography: the talk of meat, the choking, the phrase “doing it.” By mentioning the father, loneliness, the ugliness of the world, Miller contextualizes a previous sex scene and connects it to her father’s grief and the missing mother – we understand now how truly alone the narrator is, and her striking out against her ex-husband is evidence of her frustration.
But Big World is not about sadness for sadness' sake. Instead, the sadness in each story is much like the wound in that woman's face, serving as a lingering reminder of how often we seek out our own pain, if only to prove that we can still feel it even after our friends and loved ones have long since failed us. Over the course of Miller's collection, her women's failures may come to be expected, but the reckless beauty of their sadness will never cease to surprise.
Novella by Tim Horvath
sunnyoutside, March 2009
Paperback: 68pp; $10.00
Reviewed by Jason Hinkley
In his introspective novella Circulation, Tim Horvath devotes special attention to examining the grey areas of modern life where reality and fantasy often meet and the distance between life and death dwindles. In what would best be described as character self-development, Horvath brings the reader face to face with the narrator Jay's dual preoccupations of family connection and recorded knowledge. The self examining nature of Circulation presents the reader with a sympathetic look at these twin pillars of the protagonist's identity, even as Jay begins to slowly tear them down.
Like an heir who has not yet grown into his estate, Jay has been unable to make sense of his dwindling familial relationships. With his real connections all but severed, his legacy consists of a dying father's unfulfilled vision of a recordable world, one that can be replicated and indexed within a single binding: “The Atlas would chart the voyages of things, as heroic . . . as the boldest venture in the Age of Exploration.” The grandioseness that makes this task heroic also makes it impossible. The perfect task for later, as it can never be completed by any one man or tribe. However, like his father, Jay has a hard time dealing with impossibility, only slowly realizing that that book could never have been written: “Unwritten, perhaps unwritable . . . that ideal version of that book; once one admitted the impossible, one might as well usher in its unruly companions.” Forced to confront the influence that this naïve vision has had over him since childhood, Jay undertakes the task of redrawing the outlines of his world before the old ones disappear.
As his father's health fails, Jay revisits his childhood where he began associating written history with family history. Musing on the connection, he remembers the questions it aroused in his youth, “Do all families have such unifying themes? And if not what replaces them? How, otherwise, do they make sense of it all, bring together the noblest and basest in their histories within a single binding.” Of course, such a cleanly bound family has never actually existed. As the novel progresses, Jay realizes that such a vision of family life, like the unifying atlas of his father’s obsessive imagination, could never be realized – that his embrace of fantasy necessarily denied a part of reality. However, as is often the case with illusions, once put into perspective they can be illuminating. Yet such demystifying is not easy, constructions of the mind do not just fade away; they must be replaced, invalidated, or synthesized with new experiences and insights. Like the myth of the omniscient library, “that essentially comprises the whole universe – the universe as library,” the myth of the omnipresent parent is only a distracting antidote to reality as even “the greatest libraries of civilizations burn down, suns collapse, abandon planets without child support.” It is in the darkness of abandonment where Jay must venture and find his way in the world.
In the darkness, Jay begins to “realize that the truth is precisely the wrong instrument for the task,” of putting his family's history to rest. It is in fiction that he finally finds the tool to confront the reality of our age – that history is always in flux, always being rewritten, vanishing and reappearing every day. Like Jay, Horvath uses his fiction to expose the tension between reality and fantasy in modern life. The uncertainty between where one begins and the other ends is used to explore the ever changing way in which we as a people define and record the facts. In questing after the facts, Circulation gives the reader a chart to navigate a reality clearly inherited, but less clearly defined.
The Islands of Divine Music
Novel by John Addiego
Unbridled Books, October 2008
Hardcover: 241pp; $24.95
Review by Laura Di Giovine
Like most families, the Verbicaros are anything but ordinary. Following five generations of a close knit Southern Italian family over the span of a century, The Islands of Divine Music by John Addiego follows the Verbicaros’ journey from Italy’s boot to San Francisco to the Yucatán Peninsula. Along the way, they encounter traces of the sacred and the profane, discovering themselves in the process.
Told in a series of vignettes, Addiego’s family saga is warm, funny and intimate. Through Rosari Cara’s young eyes, we immigrate to Ellis Island in the early 1900s, filled with excitement for the new world. Rosari meets her future husband Giuseppe Verbicaro and eventually bears him seven children in San Francisco. The incorrigible Giuseppe is “lean and hungry and ferocious as a wolf,” and, much to the dismay of his children and grandchildren, leaves Rosari after fifty years of marriage for a 17-year old Mexican prostitute, Maria. Giuseppe vows to take care of Maria’s son, Jesús, but Giuseppe dies; after which mother and son flee the Bay Area to find work up north:
They picked apples outside Hood River, Oregon, and this was the first vision of snow for mother and son, from a tall, three-legged ladder in the apple trees where Mount Hood filled the sky. These were days of beauty for her, the ache of the ladder pressing on the soles of her feet and the shape of apples in her hands. The sensation remained in her bones and in her dreams at night, along with the volcano which gleamed above her like a loving face.
Heartache and beauty are of the same tree, and these themes are woven effortlessly throughout the tale. There’s always the risk that a family drama will be too emotive or saccharine, but Addiego measures out the right dose of sentiment in each scene.
Interwoven with Jesús’s story are that of Joe Verbicaro (Rosari and Giuseppe’s youngest son) and the lives of his siblings and his five children. Joe’s oldest son Paulie tries to make sense of his life after the Vietnam War; his oldest daughter Penelope is a fugitive on the run after committing a federal crime; his brother Ludovico is a hopeless gambler; his youngest daughter Janine explores her Calabrian roots in the old country, hoping for “an epiphany, an escape from the ugliness of her own culture”; his son Angelo teams up with Paulie to find Jesús, who disappeared for many years and is now a spiritual healer in the Yucatán.
The younger generation’s rediscovery of their heritage through their spirituality is a theme that snakes through Addiego’s tale. Jesús returns physically and symbolically to Mexico to practice Mayan shamanism; likewise, Janine visits Reggio Calabria and participates in the mystical folk dance, the tarantella. When her host Marie is bitten by a tarantula, she plays the fiddle all night as Marie dances out the spider’s poison. The tarantella serves as a bridge between homelands and between life and death. While Janine performs the tarantella in Italy, her immigrant grandmother Rosari sees a tarantula in San Francisco and knows her end is near. When Marie falls to the ground hours later, exhausted but purged of the poison, Rosari succumbs to the “black fingers” of death.
As the Verbicaro family struggles to make ends meet, journeying through periods of misery and joy, they ultimately discover the magic of who they are. This is the essence of life for the Verbicaros and for all of us; we may face moments of conflict and loss, but we also hope that our families will inspire us to become better people. After reuniting with Jesús, Angelo reflects:
He walked to the café, thinking of beauty and loss and the music of the moon, the music of the spheres. He thought of his wife and daughter, of their hearts being little bolsas, purses of beauty, filled with a kind of celestial light which he could never possess, but never entirely lose, either.
Tracing the American experience from the Prohibition and the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War and the cusp of the new millennium, The Islands of Divine Music is a heartfelt, sweeping narrative that embraces the reconciliatory power of the family.
The White Space Between
Novel by Ami Sands Brodoff
Second Story Press, October 2008
Paperback: 302 pp; $18.95
Review by Christina Hall
You could say this is a novel about the Holocaust. You could say this is a story about secrets and the past, control and acceptance, love and emptiness. And The White Space Between is all these things, but, above all else, Ami Sands Brodoff has crafted a tale of ancestry and the familial bond.
The novel has two main characters: Jana Ivanova, octogenarian and Holocaust survivor; and Willow Ives, her middle aged, puppeteer daughter. Both women live lives somewhat estranged from the outside world. Jana runs from her horrific past, and in an attempt to shield her daughter from the ills she herself suffered, she inadvertently brings upon Willow many of the same traumas. Willow doesn’t want to accept her mother’s tight-lipped version of her life during and even after she escaped death during the Holocaust, but she never presses the subject, afraid that her volatile but gentle mother is too fragile. Because Jana never accepts her past, Willow is then stuck with the same past trailing behind her like a dark secret. This shadow forces Willow into a world that is safer, lighter and more predictable.
In one of the first chapters, the narrator says, “[Willow] loves this miniature world she can hold, whole, within her eye, unlike the real one, which never makes sense in its ever-changing, shifting fragments.” Although Willow has a strong bond with her mother, she has created for herself another family in an imaginary world. The relationship Willow has with her puppets is beautiful, and one of the greatest strengths of the novel. The reader learns more about Willow in these interactions than in any other part of the novel.
The quirky discussions with her “family” are the heart of the originality of the novel. In one scene, Willow is surprised by a man at her door, and unused to attention, she freezes. “Her favorite puppets stare at her, wondering what she’ll do . . . Ernestine, Lise, Trevor, Mr. G. and Alphonse are gossiping about her, at first softly, then in a roar . . . Her favorite five burst into a cacophony of laughter, mocking, delighted.” Later, Willow remarks, embarrassed, to the man, “Sorry. I’m talking to myself – selves.”
Unfortunately there are too few of these highly energized and unique insights into Willow’s life. Too often, the windows into Willow’s personality feel forced, especially concerning the omniscience of the narrator, who should be able to show us who Willow is without the strained epiphanies. They don’t flow with the character or the novel in the same delightful way that her life with her puppets does. For example, Brodoff writes, “Willow thinks of fire’s double-edged nature, fire needs a special place – a fireplace. She is a little afraid of her own fire, not to mention other people’s.” It feels very awkward, and the declaration isn’t followed through with in the rest of the novel. Willow is very hard to get a grasp on as a main character. At times she seems shy, particularly around men, and then she is suddenly stripping off her clothes on the beach. The reader has a difficult time making a connection with Willow. While Willow’s character is inconsistent, I will concede the fact that Brodoff does seem to specifically write Willow so that we learn the most about who she is when she is alone with her puppets, when she feels most comfortable being herself.
Brodoff does also make it clear, through explicit narration and through the characters’ thoughts and behaviors, that neither Willow nor Jana understand where they belong. Referring to the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, Willow says, “it’s like she’s writing about the pull toward an empty space where there should be something. I feel that.” And Jana refers to all and none of Prague, Montreal and New Jersey as home. Similarly, Willow is engulfed in the historic presences of her ancestors in Prague, but she grew up in New Jersey, finally settling down during her adult life in Montreal. Jana’s disappointing return to Prague towards the end of the novel is mirrored by Willow’s return to her childhood home in New Jersey: “Willow craves the familiar, but the house is strange.” Neither woman quite understands the old cliché: Home is where the heart is.
At the end of the novel, both women have learned to accept who they are and, more importantly, where they came from. Willow has learned the meaning of home, naming her newest puppet show, Family Strings, and while not completely letting go of her puppet family, she does add one more familial voice to her head: “She is carrying on a conversation with her mother in her mind, as she does with her puppets . . . her mother speaking directly into her ear.”
Poetry by Rich Murphy
Finishing Line Press, 2008
Chapbook: 27pp; $14.00
Review by Roy Wang
Family Secret is an exercise in using whimsical metaphor and sound to illustrate the rather serious business of love's inadequate worldly manifestations. With his quatrains of irreverent, fanciful observations, Murphy draws conclusions about the absurdity of love in the world we've elected to build.
However, the problem with the poems of this chapbook is that they indeed read like exercises. Rather than striking on poetic truth, we are more often left with, “Yeah, I can see how a family can be like a corporation.” It's as if the poems are unfinished: single ideas fleshed out, but not yet connected enough to yield more than a single note message that can, at times, seem childish despite some decent poetic flourishes.
Similarly, Murphy's ear seems earnest, if misguided. The occasional rhymes work, but the rhythms often stumble with more awkwardness than Murphy intended, and the alliterative effects neophyte. Consider “Mass Consumption”:
The summer's heat lamp swings hips
along the ocean where pubescence consumes
super-sized boys and seasoned girls
and laps the beaches of adulthood.
But there are a few winners here. They tend to be poems more concerned with developing the conceit than shouting “truth” to the reader. When the forcing pressure is relieved and the reader can wander freely, the sometimes startling images Murphy comes up with work best. For example, the leading poem “The Ark of Oops” seems to find the balance:
Pairs of people have accidents, catch
fevers, and get married. Later, the illness
cures itself, the injury heals, and there
is either divorce or braces-for-two for life.
who put themselves in harms way for the thrill
of ambulances of physical pleasure understand
nothing from experience ever. The Bunglers
and Klutzes carry headstones for their hearts.
The poems get better towards the end, where the vignettes manage to stand unapologetically on their own. Consider, “Cassanova's Bossa Nova”:
roam floors that beg for chandeliers.
In search of flat-footed beauty
and a bed...The wallflowers can't say
when the tango with the rag doll began,
but witnesses toasted a conga-line
of would-be brides that transcend
a retirement community in Florida,
each giving up her precious moments
on Earth to fandango’s flimflam.
In “Romeo's Ruse,” Murphy leaves us with a meditation on the effect of all he's touched on: “Juliette's wiser bedtime / stories, antidote to a boy's dreams, / never dispense into a daughter's ear.” And so that's it then; we plod on, unwise, never-wise, as the characters in Murphy's poems.
Flash Fiction by Howie Good
Press, Achilles Chapbook Series,
Chapbook: 24pp; $4.00
Review by Ryan Call
A vague, unnamable danger drives much of the language throughout Howie Good’s Tomorrowland. The narrator speaks of a land in which “bodies in the early stages of decay hang like gray rags from the trees” and authorized personnel instruct evacuees “to wait for the destroying angels to tire and the broken buildings to stop burning.” It seems that the characters of this world cannot escape no matter how carefully they plot: secret police and paid snitches abound, and the whirring ceiling cameras never cease.
While the source of Tomorrowland’s unrest is never clear, it does appear to be rooted in the narrator’s childhood. In the opening story, “Love, Death, Etc,” the narrator describes his mother’s bathing his brother and him with snow, and then says, “After she dumps the snow from the pot, I kneel outside the tub and play with it, not knowing what I’ll remember one day or that no one escapes from the fire.” This instance of danger establishes the possibility that each flash fiction piece could be a brief glimpse into the future.
Then, at the end of the chapbook, Good’s narrator speaks again of his childhood, recalling the original source of his fear: his father’s violently annihilating a bird’s nest: “Their cheeping would wake me as if first light had become suddenly audible until my mother noticed them there and told my father who cursing opened my bedroom window that Sunday and reached out a dark and sparkling hand and destroyed as I watched in pale silence the circle of their nest.” And this is probably the most disturbing element of Tomorrowland: how easily that which is pleasant and calm can suddenly transform into the vicious and cruel.
When You Come Home
Novel by Nora Eisenberg
Curbstone Press, November 2008
Paperback: 288pp; $15.00
Review by Jessica Powers
Nora Eisenberg tackles a touchy topic in When You Come Home – specifically, she writes about the mysterious Gulf War illness that afflicted a quarter of returning soldiers from the Gulf War, but, more generally, she explores the damage that soldiers sustain physically and emotionally during wartime.
In When You Come Home, we follow the tale of two best friends who fought in the Gulf War. The novel opens when Tony returns home, followed soon after by his best friend Homer. Tony quickly falls in love with Lily, a young woman who grew up in his hometown and who was always his best girl friend. Homer returns to his wife Nancy, who becomes pregnant on Homer’s first night home. Life seems like it’s going to return to normal, and the two young men will be able to pursue their dreams of career and family. But when Homer falls ill and doctors can’t explain it, the two men and the women that love them search for meaningful answers, not only to the question of why Homer is sick but also to the question of how to return to civilian life after going through the horrors of war. The transition is horrifying at worst, mediocre at best, and the women are left with the shaky uncertainty of living with men damaged, both physically and spiritually, even while they dream of a better day on the horizon.
This quiet novel about love after war joins a host of classic stories about soldiers and the return to civilian life – stories like “The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich or “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway. Though at times the narrative jumps too frequently among characters’ points of view, the novel provides a critical glimpse into the psyches of young men engaged in modern warfare. Eisenberg never falters as she walks the precarious line between condemning war and supporting the men and women who fight battles at the behest of the American government and the American people. There has never been a better time to read about these issues and discuss them.