NewPages Book Reviews
December 7, 2009
Poetry by Gina Myers
Coconut Books, August 2009
Paperback: 74pp; $15.00
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Aside from the eye catching distressed-look cover design of Gina Myers's new poetry collection, A Model Year, one of the endorsement blurbs on the back cover snared my attention. The blurb wherein critically acclaimed poet Joseph Lease assigns to Myers work a "New York school sprezzetura" informed my reading of Myers's collection, which is one good reason I usually forego the reading of such matter until after my initial opinion has been formed. Not so this time.
Myers's poetry is indeed disarmingly down-to-earth, deceivingly simple. The poet has a gift for evoking the mélange that make up a moment, that collectively comprise place. This technique is used to various effects. In "Tuesday," Myers locates the quiet magnificence in the mundane:
My magazine rack securing my place in the world.
The shelves of books a sign of the real.
The cup of tea I pour solves nothing.
I make a list of all the things I'd like to break.
Every moment, every object, carries some weight. Reading poems like "Tuesday" is like analyzing the hodgepodge of objects that make up a person's life, like stepping into a living room and forming a careful evaluation of the person based on the things they choose to surround themselves with.
Often, Myers' poems are constructed within a form. Sometimes the form is stanzaic, sometimes it is built around a construct of language, and sometimes, as in "Elegy," it utilizes "if...then," and "either...or" constructs. In this case, the logic is that of everyday life, and the form itself lends to the poem's movement. The subject remains the stuff of life, logic-infused:
Either the house was full or the tea leaves had dried.
Either a house, or if not a house, a sparrow.
If not words, then the meaning of words.
"After David Shapiro" is another poem that uses form to inform, and is one wherein language comprises the construct, every line beginning "dear" [fill in the blank], addressing objects such as a calendar, bridge, and song. The poems entitled "A Partial List of Fears" appear once each in the first three sections of the book (the fourth section is one long poem), and use language similarly, each line beginning, "Fear of." Other poems, like "Sonnet Beginning with Lines by Robert Creeley," present a unique approach to a well-known form. The unique approach is also present in Myers's use of language, as with "The Answer":
This is all I ask for – to exist. You'd think
I'd want more, you'd think I'd desire
understanding. But I am glad the earth revolves
around the sun how it does. I am glad
the earth's rotation axis is tilted 23.5 degrees
from the sun how it is. You'd think more –
Other poems, such as "Travel Notes" and the long "A Model Year," are somewhat wordy, the language less refined than in other pieces. In the title poem, the long bits that comprise its pastiche sometimes threaten to unravel, the language sometimes becoming too loose, too colloquial.
But to the poet's credit, such an approach may be intentional, a searching attempt to find herself artistically. Almost immediately, the title poem parallels life and narrative, which can be read as life and art ("Hands gathered in the lap, syntax folding / in the mouth.") This poet is a witness, occasionally, to the unexpected, even within her own experience, and gives voice to the function of narrative in life, also sometimes unexpected, as we can watch as our lives house their own narrative constructs. There is power in this.
"March" and "Self-Portrait as a Mirror" are both powerful and quietly lovely. In the latter, Myers writes:
Do not be deceived –
these words can cut
glass. This emptiness
inside a frame.
Such elegant simplicity and directness can be read as a stand-in for the whole of the poet's work, as is also evidenced in the one-liner, "Prayer."
Myers’s work as a whole is deceptively quiet and calmly powerful, as are the things of one's everyday life, the small mementoes of who we are. Whether those things, along with language, evoke tension, as in "Lullaby," wherein "shattered notes evenly spaced" give way to a "Song falling into discord" or they render a patchwork quilt from the quiet interconnectedness of all things, as in "Winter Window," their ability to evoke an atmosphere is memorable.
The Slow Vanishing
Stories by Maureen A. Sherbondy
Paperback: 180pp; $13.95
Review by Rachel S. King
My poetry workshop recently concluded all poems are about loss. To a certain extent, all stories are too. Maureen Sherbondy’s short stories in The Slow Vanishing definitely follow this theme. The title is evidence, as are the stories inside. There are vanishing limbs, vanishing mothers, vanishing children, and vanishing commas. In many cases, Sherbondy literalizes an emotional loss. A husband doesn’t just feel like his wife is lost because she isn’t doing her normal routine; she actually is lost, and he has to deal with it. Parents don’t feel like they’ve lost their children when they head out on their own; the children actually fly away. This literalization is a wonderfully imaginative way to tell a story, as well as great way to raise crucial questions about life, and how it can be lived.
Making literal an emotion lends itself to surrealism, but sometimes the stories contain surrealist aspects just for fun or just because. My favorite of these stories is “Creatures,” in which animals are taking over America. “On the first day of winter the doorbell rang,” it begins. “I opened the front door to find a chimpanzee. He extended his hand and grinned, showing off a mouth of yellow teeth and pinkish gums; then he walked into my house.” My favorite of Sherbondy’s realistic fiction is “Last Respects,” the last story in the collection. After her daughter goes to college, a mother finds solace in visiting funerals of people she doesn’t know. One day she stumbles upon the obituary of a long-lost friend, and at this friend’s funeral, the mother is finally able to let her latent grief overflow. I love how Sherbondy’s stories range from the silly to the very serious.
Most of the stories in this collection are flash fiction, though there are some short-shorts and a couple full short stories. I read this book like I’d read a book of poems: I carried it around and read a flash piece in my five spare minutes somewhere, then mulled over that story until I had five more spare minutes to read another one. Her stories deserve mulling over, both because they’re artistically well-crafted and because they often have some main question they want the reader to ponder. Would lax grammar rules lead to less law-abiding citizens? I ask after reading “Punctuation Elimination.” Would it take a disappearance of mothers for some husbands to realize the vital role they play? I ask after reading “The Mothers.” Don’t I often live like worry literally drives my car? I ask after reading “Worry.” The fact that Sherbondy can raise such questions through couple-page stories is incredible to me.
If you want to read short, quirky, versatile, thought-provoking stories, read this collection. I enjoyed the book very much, and I intend to keep Maureen A. Sherbondy on my radar as I read literary magazines and navigate through the literary world.
Fiction by Justin Sirois
Publishing Genius, September 2009
Paperback: 60pp; $8.00
Review by John Madera
Excerpted from the novel Falcons on the Floor, Justin Sirois’s MLKNG SCKLS is ostensibly the story of a road trip across a war-torn landscape. Actually, these aren’t excerpts but excised texts, deleted Word documents from narrator Salim Abid’s laptop intended for the novel Abid wrote while escaping from Fallujah to Ramadi with his friend Khalil. Salim’s epistolary accounts are composed on his laptop and are sectioned off by how much remaining battery power his laptop has. It’s a striking metafictional device that evocatively suggests that time may also be literally running out for Salim and Khalil. As Salim’s laptop’s battery power percentage decreases, the characters’ uncertainty increases. At any moment, you think that Salim will get the pop-up balloon saying: “Low Battery: You should change your battery or switch to outlet power immediately to keep from losing your work.”
And, in another symbolic turn, with only “44% Battery Power Remaining,” Salim describes a tender moment where he cooks and then “uncooks” a meal for his beloved. Why? “To show Rana how much I love her, I’d uncook an entire meal, the whole thing, just for her. Anyone can cook, but uncooking – that’s hard. That’s really hard. But it’d be so worth it.” It’s one of this short book’s many imaginative moments and may reveal Salim’s unconscious desire to turn back the clock, to somehow undo what was done to him, his family, his community.
And what exactly was done? Other than mentioning that these entries were written in April, 2004, while fleeing from Fallujah, nothing else is explicitly written. Salim and Khalil’s escape from Fallujah was presumably precipitated by the First Battle of Fallujah, codenamed “Operation Vigilant Resolve,” the U.S. Military’s disastrous attempt to capture the city of Fallujah in April, 2004. While 27 American soldiers were killed, hundreds of Iraqis including many civilians were killed in the offensive. It was later reported that the U.S. Military was guilty of using incendiary devices like napalm and white phosphorus in their offensive. Perhaps this is what Salim was referring to when he wrote “Now black skies burp fire and the water boils poisonous.”
While its rendering of fear and uncertainty is precisely and captivatingly drawn, MLKNG SCKLS opens up into much more. Lyrical evocations of loss abound as do reveries on desert life:
Windless as an aquarium, the night stretches itself from rim to rim with no beginning or quit. Forward past the darkened shoreline, beyond scrub brush and burr, the horizon is replaced by the river and only the river. North to south, it feeds the desert. Black water inks seaward across the prairie. The outstretched wingspan of water is endless with tributaries feathered into marshland. No one rides or floats. All night the water’s calm. The glassy black flows placid and quiet, and I stare hoping no one comes. No one has and no one will. Across the calm, at the river’s edge, palm trees and poplars poke the sky like crude weaponry.
Sirois’s prose glistens with precision. Its sparseness mirrors the parched desert through which Salim and Khalil travel, its lyricism one proof of how resilient we can be in the face of disaster. Clocking in at fifty-five pages, this novelette manages to pack dreamy reveries, juvenile taunts, gorgeous descriptions of landscape, gothic depictions of vultures circling, lapidary views of blood, and doses of humor (like Khalil’s tall tale about a man with a crippled hand whose life was saved by a cigarette) that spell the reader through a harrowing trip to a place that’s, with any luck, safe, or, at least safer. If MLKNG SCKLS’s excised texts are any indication of the quality of Falcons on the Floor, then, as readers, we have much to look forward to.
Her Highness’ First Murder
Novel by Peg Herring
Five Star Publishing, January 2010
Hardcover: 346pp; $25.95
Review by Elizabeth Townsend
Being a bit of a history buff, I was excited to read Her Highness’ First Murder by Peg Herring. I must admit that my knowledge of the Tudor period is mostly confined to the early part of Henry VIII’s reign, but even so, I felt as if Herring accurately portrayed the personalities of her characters during the later part of his reign.
The story revolves around three characters trying to identify a serial killer. There’s Simon, a fifteen-year-old physician’s son with a crippled arm, the Princess Elizabeth, and Hugh, a captain of Henry VIII’s Welsh Guard. The trio’s investigation of the murders begins when one of Elizabeth’s ladies is killed within the walls of the princess’s yard. They soon discover that other women have been murdered in the same fashion as the one Simon found: two noble women and two prostitutes. As the trio tries to piece together the motivations behind the murders, more occur, only making the list of suspects longer. The possibilities seem endless until Simon and Elizabeth individually piece together bits of information that seemingly had nothing to do with the murders. The murderer then turns his sights on both Simon and Elizabeth before he is apprehended by Hugh and his soldiers. The matter is solved to the King’s satisfaction and without him being aware of the extent of his daughter’s involvement in the matter.
It’s easy to see how Herring took the time and effort to be historically accurate in the novel, especially when it came to any medical ideas. She talks about how people believed in a balance of the humors and how when one of the humors was out of balance it affected a person’s mood and health: “It was uncomfortable to be in the king’s presence these days, so unbalanced where his humors.” She also shows how some of the medical procedures of the day were performed through Simon’s father:
A departing maidservant carried a basin of blood, and the patient’s inner arm was bound with cloth. Glancing into the basin, Simon saw the bodies of ants floating in the dark liquid. When held to a wound, the creatures bit down on the skin, pinching the edges together. The doctor then cut off their bodies, leaving the heads as sutures until the cut healed.
These things help to give the reader a sense of the times and make the setting much more realistic than if she had glossed over such details.
I did have one minor issue with the story and that was Herring’s portrayal of Elizabeth’s brother, Edward, as a sickly child. I have read that he wasn’t as sick as he was originally believed to be and that he was only really ill in the last six months of his life. However, there are many people that believe Edward was ill for most of his life, and this is something that has been commonly accepted for years. Edward is also a very minor character in the book and hardly mentioned as he was not needed for the plot. As I said it was a minor issue and it was really more of a personal preference than anything.
Something that I was impressed with was Herring’s ability to capture what it must have been like to be in Elizabeth’s position. By all accounts Elizabeth was a very smart lady. She had a sharp mind, a quick wit, and an uncanny ability to rightly judge a person. With the abundant amounts of time she had, she perfected many of the teachings and hobbies she took up. However, as a teenager never expected to inherit the throne, she wasn’t important enough to do much and at the same time too valuable to send away. She was very aware of her precarious position in life should her brother die. She was a Protestant and her sister Mary was a Catholic, making her a potential rallying point, should Mary become queen. Though the sisters were rumored to hate each other, Herring was able to show both a bit of Elizabeth’s understanding of Mary and the uncertainty of her youth: “Elizabeth had a moment of admiration for her sister. At least Mary had beliefs and stood strongly for them. Elizabeth had no such commitment to religion. To what was she committed? […]Elizabeth took leave, reflecting that she was not the only one of Henry’s daughters who longed to be of some use to the world.”
Herring’s story telling abilities and characterization kept me interested the entire length of the novel and have me hoping that there is more to come for Simon, Hugh, and Elizabeth.