Posted November 1, 2010
Dunstan Thompson :: Room :: The Physics of Imaginary Objects :: Mentor: A Memoir :: Striking Surface :: Metrophilias :: Answer to an Inquiry :: Drain :: The Quickening :: The Space Between Trees :: Time of Sky & Castles in the Air :: The Lesser Fields :: The Ambassador :: The Circus Poems :: Seriously Funny :: The Last Lie :: Almost Dorothy
On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master
Ed. D.A. Powell & Kevin Prufer
Pleiades Press, June 2010
Paperback: 183pp; $12.99
Review by Caleb Tankersley
The contemporary American literary scene is as vibrant and diverse as any other art community; thousands of writers and millions of readers participate and interact on a daily basis. But looking back to any past period of the community – say the 1940s and 50s, somewhere in the layover between modernism and postmodernism – the world of letters looks sparse. One can’t help but imagine that literary circles must surely have been as wide and broad as they currently are. But it feels as if so few writers have lasted even such a meager sum of time. We’re often led to believe that there’s a reason past artists fall into obscurity. D. A. Powell and Kevin Prufer prove that notion wrong.
Dunstan Thompson: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master is a stunning and appropriate first for an ambitious series. Coming from some of the best poetic minds in contemporary America, Dunstan Thompson is the first of the “Unsung American Masters” series, one of which is promised every year from Pleiades Press. The book begins with a short biographical segment, followed by examples of Thompson’s woefully neglected writings. The latter half of Powell and Prufer’s book consists of essays written by well-known writers and critics analyzing Thompson’s work.
And speaking of Thompson’s poetry: it’s good. Damn good. “Unsung Master” good. The included poems are an unusual combination of pious Catholicism, bold sexuality, and war imagery. (Thompson was drafted in WWII). These crafted and subtle lines of homoeroticism lend a great deal of pain and eloquence to Thompson’s style. Here are the first few lines of “This Tall Horseman, My Young Man of Mars:”
This tall horseman, my young man of Mars,
Scatters the gold dust from his hair, and takes
Me to pieces like a gun. The myth forsakes
Him slowly. Almost mortal, he shows the scars
Where medals of honor, cut-steel stars,
Pin death above the heart. But bends, but breaks
In his hand, my love, whose wrecked machinery makes
Time, the inventor, weep through a world of wars.
Thompson’s images are exquisite; his lines, dense. And creating such obvious homosexual poetry was no small feat for the 40s. Several of the critical essays address this point. Jim Elledge makes an especially accurate analysis of Dunstan Thompson’s style, noting “he addressed two readerships – one gay, the other straight – simultaneously, offering the same text to each, a text that made sense to both at the same time.”
During the 1950s, Thompson experienced a religious revival that appears to correspond with the fall of his career and prominence in the literary world, although the arbiter of Thompson’s estate – Philip Trower – argues that the religious poetry Thompson filled his last decades with far exceeds his earlier successes. On this point, the book has no clear opinion, leaving to the reader decisions concerning what makes American masters and how they are lost to the wider world. If Dunstan Thompson is any measure, skill cannot play a role. With a fascinating biography, compelling essays, and poetry that will give you goose bumps, Dunstan Thompson is well worth the discovery.
Fiction by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown & Co., September 2010
Hardcover: 336pp; $24.99
Review by Sara C. Rauch
I was website hopping the other day, and came to the Brooklyn bookstore BookCourt's list of Top 10 fiction bestsellers. On their hardcover list, at #3, was Room by Emma Donoghue, which they call "a perfect example of that book (maybe Wolf Hall is also in this category) that's been a total success without being read by a single person under the age of 30." I am here to attest that I am a person under 30 (though not for long) who has read the book. Not only read it, couldn't put it down. While I was on vacation in Miami. It is that good.
Room was nominated for a Booker Prize, and reading Donoghue's intricately woven story, it is easy to see why. Narrated by the precocious and protected (to say the least) 5-year-old boy Jack, Room is deeply human, moving, and brilliantly executed. Jack's voice carries the story, and does a splendid job of conveying the atrocious and dark reality of his, without a drop of judgment or anger. During the first section of the novel, Jack has no idea that a world outside Room exists, a reality carefully constructed by his Ma. The second section reveals the secret Ma's been hiding – a horrifying secret most readers will have figured out by the time she reveals it – and hatches a plan for their escape. The last half of the novel takes place outside Room, where the world is all too large and complicated for a 5-year-old just beginning to know it.
Using Jack's voice to narrate, Donoghue is able to use language in fun and inventive ways, which gives her the opportunity to describe Ma and Jack's tiny world without the depression or hate an adult narrator would bring to it. Simple everyday objects – Meltedy Spoon, Wardrobe, Rug, Blanket, Watch – all become proper nouns, far more than objects, they are reality. The TV, which only plays intermittently despite their constant isolation, is regarded by Jack as a different world. He calls the channels planets. At one point, Jack sees a commercial for the painkiller (or as Jack calls them, Killers) that their captor, Old Nick, brings Ma, and he exclaims, "You know what that means? He must go in TV... Old Nick... When he's not here, in the daytime, you know what? He actually goes in TV." His Ma's attempts to describe the outside world become more and more urgent, bringing sadness, catatonia, and then hope into their tiny world. Jack's attachment to Room is understandable, if not rational. His attachment to Room carries with him through the duration of the novel, and probably further into his life as well.
Despite its strong points, and there are many, Room is not perfect. I regret never knowing Ma's real name, or even more about her. In fact, her character, despite being central, is very, very unknowable. Whether this is purposefully done to show how stripped of her personality she has become by being a prisoner for almost a decade or because Jack can't possibly fathom her as any more complex, I'm not sure. There were times when I was far more curious about Ma's health, her struggles, her reentrance into the world, yet she remains flat.
One other thing that bothered me was how unlikeable Jack becomes once he and Ma leave Room. He becomes socially unable, which is understandable, yet, also his curiosity wanes, and he becomes almost resentful of the complexity of the world.
Both Jack and Ma act impulsively after their (re)entrance into the outside world; her anger and his confusion intertwine through the rest of the book, showing how complex and interdependent their relationship is. Dealing with the media, their family, psychologists, medication, and new people is overwhelming for Jack and Ma, who deal with it quite differently.
At one point toward the end of the novel, Ma tells Jack about the study that isolated baby monkeys from their mothers at birth and ultimately proved how detrimental it is to a baby's health to have no physical contact and affection. Jack doesn't like the story, and resents his Ma's telling it to him, but to the reader it is a complicated and fitting metaphor. If one imagines Ma and Jack as babies, denied the world's (their mother) touch, the reader can see how truly scarred they are.
Despite its flaws, and the very tidy ending tacked onto a complex story, Room is an engrossing, terrifying, and insightful read. I recommend it to everyone, and especially to those under 30.
Fiction by Tina May Hall
University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2010
Hardcover: 145pp; $24.95
Review by Kimberly Steele
Occasionally you stumble across a piece of literary fiction so eloquent in its style, honest in its material, and direct in its approach that it resonates with you days, weeks, years after you read it. Such literature is valuable for both its simple sensory pleasure and its faith-restoring powers. Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects is one of these intelligent, enlightening, and brazen books that you’ll want to place on your shelf at eye-level so you will remember to keep picking it up. Hall’s poetic style and articulate precision give this book a revolutionary quality. It nudges you along with an air of solemn importance and modest wisdom. Expertly composed and awesomely beautiful, Hall’s hybrid of poetry and prose is neither sparse nor excessive, sentimental nor detached, diffident nor ostentatious. It is, however, seamless – so delicately woven you forget it ever required stitching in the first place. The words fit together so effortlessly it sometimes feels like they just naturally occurred that way.
Part of the book’s brilliance is in its structure – a series of independent vignettes – which allows Hall to play around with different formats and styles, showcasing her myriad talents. With the exception of a 50-page novella in the back, most of the tales are extremely short, ranging from 1 to 12 pages. Even the novella, entitled “All the Day’s Sad Stories,” consists of one-page segments that describe different days or moments in one year of a woman’s life. Hall doesn’t need more space to get her point across. She is deeply appreciative of brevity but sacrifices no meaning for her linguistic economy. She is simply expertly accomplished at finding exactly the right word or phrase that conveys an image or emotion better than any other: “When the flour tips off the counter onto the linoleum, their footprints materialize like magic, ghost steps, a diagram for dancing.” This image, too, materializes like magic, and the reader experiences it fully, becomes implicated in it, perhaps even wants to recreate it in order to verify its assumed precision.
The Physics of Imaginary Objects features no shortage of these kinds of “a-ha” moments that hit their perfect stride. Filled with such satisfying little gems, the entire work conveys a sense of generative power, which is appropriate since the book is largely about creation, birth, and the life-bringing force. Many of Hall’s female characters are in some stage of pregnancy or motherhood. One pregnant woman’s heightened senses cause her to become absolutely maddened by the smell of a dead animal rotting within her wall. The odor haunts her until it drives her out of her house entirely, symbolizing all the things in her life she keeps hidden and will one day have to escape. They are all “imaginary objects” that nevertheless exert a steady influence over every aspect of her reality.
The following passage from the short story/series of prose poems, “A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Long-Gone Love,” indicates that even loss and destruction can be fruitful:
Winter came and hovered. And with it, a roll call for my lovers:
the sculptor dead, his boot beside the highway, body where? The
boy who wrote me songs, whose guitar-calloused palms went
dark to fair. And back again depending on the season – at night,
dreaming of chords and basketball, those hands would shudder.
Next, there was a poet turned to science, and a second poet, and
another. And him, the thick turned thin, a starling in my attic
(heaven), a single coffee mug, a pair. Him, the one that I mis-
placed somewhere. Except for him, each one I’ve lost, I’ve found
again – as with omens, names, healed-over skin, to forget is to
Hall’s pace is both measured and intrepid – she does not shy away from incorporating metaphor and fantasy into her otherwise realistic and identifiable stories. She is not afraid of experimenting with form and point of view. She trusts her own storytelling ability and her readers’ basic aesthetic insight. The creativity in her writing will not be deterred. Each separate scenario is abstractly “true” in its own right, but the real thrust of the book is in the novella, which follows a woman named Mercy through her struggles to conceive a baby with her husband, Jake. Everything becomes a “sad story” in this piece, because everything is viewed through Mercy’s lens of longing and lack. She is plagued by an overwhelming emptiness that is the absence of her baby, which is also an “imaginary object.” Everything is colored by nostalgia, need, and the specter of the quintessential, nonexistent child. Even in this longer format, Hall doesn’t abandon her stellar ability to wring every possible connotation out of a simple observation. She says what you’re thinking before you even stop thinking it, or have time to realize that other authors regularly deprive you of this experience. She writes,
Outside, children are shrieking. Mercy remembers a game she
played as a child called “statues” in which the goal was to stay
frozen mid-motion as long as possible. This now strikes her as a
game made up by adults.
A-ha. If you’re looking for moments that resonate with palpable vibrancy, a meeting of the minds over the space of a page, and breath-stopping eloquence that delivers all the best features of poetry and prose, Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects will not disappoint for a single moment. It has earned its place up there on the eye-level shelf of your bookcase.
Memoir by Tom Grimes
Tin House Books, 2010
Paperback: 256pp, $16.95
Review by Jeremy Benson
Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes details the relationship of the author and his friend, teacher, and surrogate father, Frank Conroy. It opens with their initial meeting: Tom, a budding writer considering MFA options, is snubbed by Frank after a reading. "I spotted Stop-Time [Conroy's own critically-acclaimed memoir] on a high shelf and reached for it ... I struggled to tear it in half. When I failed, I ripped out pages by the handful until I'd gutted the thing, splitting in two the author's name and the book's title ... I turned and said, 'Fuck Frank Conroy.'"
Months later, Frank calls Tom personally to invite him to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Due to Frank’s faith in Tom’s talents as a writer, and Tom’s neurotic need for Frank’s approval, the two form a unique bond that survives even beyond Frank’s death.
Universally, the book is primarily about writing and the lives of writers: their loneliness, their quirks and struggles. Although a constant presence, Frank is often absent from the immediate action, for example, as Tom struggles to finish his novel or overcome paranoia. Similarly, some chapters detail Frank’s career, long before Tom entered Iowa.
With Mentor, Grimes shifts gears from his usual fiction into personal nonfiction, and occasionally the gears grind – mostly when the topic-at-hand becomes memoir theory, rather than the memories themselves. "I remember only a few dozen sentences spoken over the following two weeks, which is appropriate," begins the chapter immediately after Tom has sold his great American novel, segueing into a psychology lesson:
Every 'true' memoir must be incomplete; what I remember may not be 'true'; and people who know me may disagree with what I recollect. Neuroscientists suspect that the difficulty in retrieving long-term memories depends upon how recently the memory was used, how the memory is connected to other memories, and how unique the memory is.
Certainly, in this post-A Million Little Pieces world, in which Augusten Burroughs is sued by the family of a psychiatrist he wrote about, a writer must be aware of the psychological fermentation of memory and the impact such fermentation might deliver. But Grimes’ explanations break the illusion that all readers look for in a good read, delivering occasional potholes in an otherwise quick and smooth read.
Poetry Jason Schneiderman
Ashland Poetry Press, September 2010
Paperback: 61pp; $ 15.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Striking Surface by Jason Schneiderman focuses on death, religion, and the violence and exile of war. Though writing on such serious topics, Schneiderman still manages to weave in pop culture references, referencing several leading ladies such as Grace Kelly in his poem “Billboard Reading,” Sandra Dee and Lana Turner in “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” and Audrey Hepburn in “Elegy VII (Last Moment).”
The book is a mix of genres, including free verse, sonnets, and prose poems. It opens with a sonnet, “The Children’s Crusade,” which speaks of survival (“We had survived the hot / summer, the frozen Alps. This was another trial”) and perseverance (“we had no homes. We had / to continue”). War is referenced again throughout the book, in the other “Children’s Crusade” poems and here and there, interspersed with stories of Greek gods.
Section II is a series of elegies on the death of the author’s mother. “Elegy VIII (Missing You)” stood out as the strongest of the series; Schneiderman successfully writes about the death of his mother without verging into sentimentality. In this final elegy, he explains the series as “Not a complaint about what I lost / or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile. / Your denim dress.”
While the range of references, from Greek gods to movie stars, can be difficult to follow at first, Striking Surface is an intriguing book about violence, grief, and mourning.
Fiction by Brendan Connell
Better Non Sequitur, May 2010
Paperback: 100pp, $12.00
Review by Alex Myers
A geographical whirlwind, Connell’s debut collection presents 36 cities in alphabetical order (some letters get more than one hit … why eschew Moscow for Madrid? Xi’an, on the other hand, has no X peer). Each destination offers a story, a scene, or a vignette – as I read I came to think of them as little windows – into the city. A moment, a place, a person. Each encounter is an intense mixture of location and love.
At its best, Metrophilias evokes Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Poetic prose, glistening images. Connell is capable of these, as when he evokes ancient Carthage: “it sits against an ocean blue to profundity, shores gently lashed by the trillion fins of that vast creature, air swept by seagulls’ wings.” His language is a wonderful mix of the suggestive and the concrete; it both orients and disorients. Like Calvino, Connell is unafraid of the fragmentary, the impossible. His scene in Manila does away with traditional syntax to immerse the reader: “pollution smell incense overcrowded chaos prostitutes and faith healers.” Ultimately climaxing in a simple equation: “meat = flesh + scent.”
In each destination, Connell evokes both the setting and some aspect of lust or love. Sometimes, the fetishes are predictable, as in “Paris,” where a rich dandy buys a prostitute a new pair of shoes and has her parade through the filth of the streets, only to “set his lips to the shoes; – next tongue: lapping at and licking leather, – moans and sighs, – all the signs of a man experiencing the greatest pleasure, – licking it until it shone.” However, he frequently breaks out of the expected pattern and finds new avenues to explore. Whether it is in “Peking,” where the emperor’s son becomes infatuated with a vase from the Ru kiln, or Thebes, where a pharaoh, the delightfully named Usermaatresetepenre, is obsessed with women’s noses, Connell explores the far reaches of human desire.
Language is at the heart of this slim volume. Beyond the bizarre fixations, Connell’s prose delights for its diction, its poise. A man more interested in ghosts than living bodies invites the spirits “floating around him, beginning to diffuse about his person a silky white mist, ectoplasmic, softer than the softest virgin skin, more exciting than the hottest vitalic harlot.” Or a man obsessed with the letter W sings its praises: “that semivowel of horns became for me not merely a representation of love, but the object itself.” Connell’s words are enveloping and lush; they challenge and provoke. For all that, it is his simplest sentences that really pop; nothing more than the straightforward recounting of a subway ride in Mexico City, “the train rumbled along beneath the ground: shot along like electricity, like slow lightening,” was enough to make this reader pause.
Other pauses were not so good. I winced at the overdone “historical” prose in “Jerusalem,” when the narrator says, “For I hearken and hear her ply amongst her silks.” And there are times when the syntax just breaks down for no apparent reason: “He had mittens on his hands; was shabbily dressed.” One feels that the author hasn’t thought through each mark of punctuation. It also gave me pause that the volume contains no information about the author (except where some of the pieces were originally published). Perhaps I am picky, but I enjoy knowing where the writer is from and a little bit about the inspiration and the goal.
Weaknesses aside, the volume bubbles with passions and fixations. Dense and coiled, this collection rewards a reader with delightful images, sentences full of sensory detail, situations bizarre and intriguing. For anyone wishing to be transported to some other place, some other time, Metrophilias is sure to engage.
Artist Book by Robert Walser
Translated from the German by Paul North
Illustrated by Friese Undine
Ugly Duckling Presse, October 2010
Hardcover: 64pp; $20
Review by Gina Myers
Swiss writer Robert Walser opens Answer to an Inquiry, originally published in 1907, by stating his purpose for writing it: “You ask me if I have an idea for you, sir, you ask me to draft a sketch, a play, a dance, a pantomime, or some other thing you could use, that you could depend on.” From there, Walser lists the materials needed for costumes, set, and lighting, and gives step-by-step instructions with commentary on how to convey true suffering to an audience:
It does not take much to act out love, but sometime in your godforsaken, savagely tattered life you must have honestly and simply felt what love is and how love likes to behave. Naturally, it is the same with anger, with the feeling of anonymous mourning, in short, with every human sentiment.
The human condition is portrayed as miserable and godforsaken, and as such, there is much concern over the soul. In order to convey suffering, the actor must appear to show his soul to the audience. The instructions begin with letting out a roar “such that people actually believe a soul is roaring.” Later, Walser advises the young actor:
to ponder seriously with which quick movement of your body, sir, you are able to best symbolize a convulsion of the soul. The stage is the open, perceptible maw of poetry; in your legs, dear sir, very specific states of the soul can come to shuddering expression, to say nothing of the face and the thousand mimicking duties it has.
The instructions range from practical to the absurd. In one step of the process, the actor is to begin to speak, but when he opens his mouth, a snake is to come out. In another step, the actor calmly lights a cigarette after having just stuck “a long bent knife in one eye, so that the point of the knife appears underneath on the neck, near the throat, spurting out blood.” In a brief introduction by the illustrator, Friese Undine writes, tongue in cheek, “It should be said, though, that without stage illusion or digital enhancement, this drama would be difficult to perform twice.” Undine’s illustrations further contribute to the absurdity of Walser’s instructions.
From the hardcover and binding, to the full page illustrations with few words spread across the pages and some pages given over entirely to illustration, this new edition appears almost like a children’s book. In addition to Undine’s introduction, it also includes an afterword from the translator, Paul North, in which he discusses Walser’s portrait of suffering in relation to the story of Job. Walser was admired by Kafka, Benjamin, and Hesse, and his writing has been re-discovered by a number of contemporary German writers. This new translation, along with Susan Bernofsky’s recent translation of Microscripts, should help introduce Walser’s work to a new generation.
Fiction by Davis Schneiderman
Paperback: 253pp; $22.95
Review by Kimberly Steele
Davis Schneiderman vividly creates a desolate and backward futuristic word in his novel Drain – a world that is made all the more terrifying for its uncanny resemblance to our own. Part sci-fi/fantasy (though certainly not the kind you want your kids to read), part psychological thriller, and part commentary on contemporary religion and politics, Drain follows numerous paths and occasionally fights the urge to draw extraneous ideas into its already-teeming domain.
Schneiderman’s prose is nothing if not ambitious, relentlessly pursuing with a thunderous style, sustaining a frenetic pace that releases you only for the split-second it takes to turn the page. It is both captivating and unsettling, successfully conveying the panic and urgency the characters experience in a world that wilts around them while they struggle to survive at any cost, even if it means sacrificing their humanity.
The world of Drain is a parched, crumbling, yellowed one in which all the water in Lake Michigan has mysteriously vanished, wealthy development corporations scramble to capitalize on the country’s unfortunates, and rampant superstition is the gospel of the day. This environment fosters a return to the primitive, where higher functioning can no longer even hope to triumph over base instincts, and generation after generation succumbs to either predatory opportunists or old fashioned street thugs who make today’s criminals look like choir boys and girl scouts.
These bullies, who are nothing but kids, run in a gang called The Blackout Angels and unleash the most sadistic, sexually perverse terrorism onto their backward victims, punishing them for their perceived stupidity. Schneiderman doesn’t shy away from conveying this violence to the very last gruesome detail. He even opens the book by describing one of the Angels’ rampages, as if he is trying to prepare the reader for what s/he is in for: “Tape the mouth. Cover the head in a nylon sack. Stick a bondage ball down the throat and hog-tie the little bitch.” You should prepare yourself, all right. This is about the least perverse it gets, as Schneiderman takes you along his schizophrenic ride. Though his frantic storytelling style sometimes sacrifices clarity for cleverness and packs a bit too much into the book’s short space, his characters are bizarrely sympathetic despite their depravity, and he manages to write an entire novel as though it is a rant.
Fiction by Michelle Hoover
Other Press, June 2010
Paperback: 216pp; $14.95
Review by Skip Renker
In a brief, illuminating YouTube interview on the publisher’s website, Michelle Hoover discusses the genesis of The Quickening. She discovered a typewritten memoir, composed in 1950, by her great grandmother about her experiences as a farmer and farm wife. The memoir of twenty or more pages covers much of this strong woman’s life in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Hoover used this story and further research on family history and U.S. farm life as a springboard to create the imaginative world of this novel.
The Quickening is narrated by two women in alternating chapters. Enidina is tall, big-boned, hefty, outwardly often gruff but possessing an underlying sensitivity, and happily married to Frank Current. They live on their Midwestern farm a half-mile from the Morrow family – no state is named, though Hoover’s relatives resided mostly in Iowa and Missouri. Mary Morrow, traumatized by rape at age 12, manipulative, self-justifying, befriends Enidina, and the book takes us through several decades and the many vicissitudes of their interwoven lives. There are droughts, torrential rains, fires, a meteor crashing to earth, vivid scenes of hog-slaughtering, the births and deaths of animals and humans, the press of events from the First World War and the Depression, reversals and betrayals. Religion plays a major role; there are immersion baptisms, enigmatic sermons, and Mary’s relationship with a lonely minister named Borden.
Feelings of loneliness and longing often drive the two main characters. As Mary says early on in the story,
When I looked in the window again, I caught my breath – the afternoon had darkened, my reflection suddenly bone-thin, and I feared everything in me that had been bright and young could die in this place before I ever turned thirty.
Later, Enidina says, “I’ve seen it. Loneliness can make you do terrible things.” Hoover creates a stark landscape in which the characters are isolated by the demands of daily survival – canning, milking cows, plowing, harvesting – and also trapped by bad weather in the claustrophobic interiors of their houses, without autos or phones or central heat. Visitors arrive mostly on foot or in buggies.
I’m sympathetic with Hoover’s attempts to portray this kind of life – its demands for hard physical work, its isolating quality, the possibilities of psychological and spiritual suffering that can result; she wants to put us in a world that has passed, yet is vitally important to remember and re-imagine. However, I don’t think the book fully convinces. Perhaps it’s a matter of pitch. The intensity of the events, the depth of the betrayals, the sheer number of traumas brought on, for me, a feeling of “Yikes, what next?”
The book weaves in elemental motifs of blood, fire, sexual awakening, the quickenings of pregnancy, but there’s a certain schematic quality that kept me at a distance from the characters, even when someone was beating animals to death with a club or setting fire to a child’s corpse in a field. There are too many such events, and the book often becomes melodramatic. Hoover’s relative’s memoir, on the other hand, has a matter-of-fact tone that is often moving without being over the top. There’s a sense, even in its brevity and focus on major events, of time passing with less drama than in the novel. Its pitch seems to me more realistic than Hoover’s novel; it also makes more room for simple human decency. Of course Hoover needs juxtaposition, tension, compelling events to create a strong story, but perhaps not so many packed into 216 pages. Its brevity comes with too much symbolism and too little realism; the book is part fable, part naturalistic narrative, but not fully organic.
A sampling of reviews, some from such literary luminaries as Ted Kooser, Ursula Hegi, and Charles Baxter, indicates that my take on the book is probably a minority view. Most reviewers emphasize the strength of the novel’s tone and voices and its powerful imagining of the lives of its people, especially the women; some critics compare it to the work of Willa Cather. But Cather at her best, as in novels like O Pioneers and My Antonia, allowed her stories to develop with an appropriate balance of the mundane and the extraordinary, capturing the realistic cadences of day to day pioneer and farm life without forcing the drama, as Hoover often does. I see Hoover’s book as a worthy attempt, but ultimately an unsuccessful evocation of its time and people. Read it, perhaps, and judge for yourself.
YA Fiction by Katie Williams
Chronicle Books, June 2010
Hardcover: 256pp; $17.99
Review by Laura Di Giovine
Katie Williams’s debut YA novel, The Space Between Trees, is a lyrical journey into the lonely world of 16-year-old Evie, a friendless teen whose life changes forever after a childhood friend, Elizabeth “Zabet” McCabe, is murdered. Evie was friends with Zabet in middle school, but they hadn’t been close for ages. Adept at small, usually innocuous stretches of the truth, Evie finds herself telling Mr. McCabe at Zabet’s funeral that she was his daughter’s best friend. Evie’s lie initially repels Hadley Smith, a troubled, unstable teen who was Zabet’s real best friend, but Hadley soon draws Evie into her dangerous obsession to find Zabet’s killer.
Evie’s strange (and often one-sided) friendship with fellow outcast Hadley is very believable, particularly since Evie has always been a loner and Hadley is her first friend in years. Author Williams has an ear for teen dialogue and also exhibits a flair for detailing human behavior, as in a scene when Evie tries to determine whether Hadley is mad at her:
Forget geometry and algebra, precalc, and all that. There should be a math class that teaches you how to plot out a face, determine the angle when a squint of an eye becomes a glare, the arc of a lip that makes a smirk into a sneer.
As Evie gets pulled deeper into Hadley’s increasingly neurotic search for Zabet’s killer, she experiences the growing pains familiar to teens, including confronting her crush on college drop-out Jonah Luks, who becomes a prime suspect in Hadley’s eyes. At the novel’s dramatic end, Evie is once again a loner, not even noticed by her classmates: “But somehow my name was never whispered, as if I were a ghost, an escapee, the space between trees, the page on which a story is written.”
An alternately moving and suspenseful coming-of-age story, The Space Between Trees admirably captures the tense drama of high school life and will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.
Poetry by Ayane Kawata
Translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu
Litmus Press, May 2010
Paperback: 144pp, $18.00
Review by C.J. Opperthauser
Sawako Nakayasu's translation of Ayane Kawata's Time of Sky & Castles in the Air proves that translating Japanese to English can result in a beautiful rebirth. The first half of the book, Time of Sky, is full of number-titled poems usually no longer than three or four lines in length, but these poems pack so much imagery and beautiful sounds that the reader often has no choice but to reread immediately. I found myself pausing to soak in all of the wonderful, unique images and ideas. Even simple things resound with beauty, like the description of a pigeon in 12:
Does not grow any larger than that
Does not grow dark
Draws yellow on the spine
While some poems leave you both breathless and confused, I feel that they do their job. Another poem, 45, owes its strange and wonderful imagery to Kawata and its lovely wording to Nakayasu:
The noon sky
Does not fall apart
Inside the cup an enormous tongue goes numb and parishes
The latter half of the book, Castles in the Air, is, by definition, a dream journal. Each poem is exactly what you'd expect: A dream embodied in word form. Clouds, castles, being a snake – it's all there. This section of the book serves as a fun insight to the dreams that Ayane Kawata has had, and Nakayasu's interpretation of them. I like to think that, in translating the dream poems, Nakayasu shared some of the same dreams. I like to think that I will, too.
Poetry by Rob Schlegel
Center for Literary Publishing, December 2009
Paperback: 54pp; $16.95
Review by Matt McBride
Rob Schlegel’s debut collection of poems, The Lesser Fields, winner of the 2009 Colorado Poetry Prize, creates a kind of rarefaction through decay. As Schlegel states, “I breathe away the parts of myself I no longer require.” The titles of the three sequences which comprise the book, “The Lesser Fields,” “November Deaths,” and “Lives,” seem to underscore this theme. Indeed, the collection itself feels rarified, taking up a miserly fifty-four pages, including notes and acknowledgements.
Everything in these poems is in continual danger of effacement. All structures are provisional at best. The dam is “made with leaves.” The vacant houses “threaten nothing but the public road.” The laurel has “collected a thin layer of dust.” In his poem “From a Sheet of Yellow Paper I Cut Bolts of Lightning,” Schlegel writes:
To scatter over the birds
And some dying
All of them prepared
To return to this world as eyes
Yet this return is short lived – in his poem “Lives of Raft,” “the dead open their eyes / Stealing sight from the birds.” In Schlegel’s vanishing landscape, what is holy is what survives, a place where “the tallest trees are gods.”
This omnipresence of erasure gives the speaker an urgency to name things. Indeed, “name” is one of, if not the most frequently, repeated nouns in the book. Additionally, equation serves as the corollary to this naming. If “name” is the most repeated noun, “to be” is the most repeated verb. Most often, this equating is used in relation to the speaker himself. Equation is a way to understand oneself in a world that is falling apart. We see numerous instances of this. In “Illuminated Face,” the speaker notes that “As a man, I am free and listening. / As a bird, I am wounded and asleep.” In “Lives of Odin” the speaker states, “Who made me is not me.” Yet in a rapidly disappearing world, the speaker is left with an ever decreasing lexicon to describe the self, leading him to declare tautologically in “Lives of Furrow” that “The me is me.”
However, if a reader dismisses the world Schlegel creates as morose or fatalistic, they miss out on what is gained through loss. In The Lesser Fields, Schlegel demands “that every loss / Reveal its science.” Once one has breathed away the parts of themselves they no longer require, one sees in the absence the “length of horizon by which I measure / where I have not happened.”
Ultimately, The Lesser Fields is a harrowing collection of poems in every sense of the word. It is haunted, and in some ways, terrifyingly so; however, it also unearths and inters by differing turns of Schlegel’s sharp-edged language. And though the world Schlegel depicts may be in danger of erasure, his voice is one that will stay with a reader long after they’ve finished the text.
Fiction by Bragi Ólafsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Open Letter Press, October 2010
Paperback: 298pp; $15.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Bragi Ólafsson is a well-known author of poetry, short stories and novels in Iceland. His fifth novel The Ambassador was the finalist for the 2008 Nordic Literature Prize and received the Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year.
The Ambassador is a well-structured novel, contemporary in its hero Sturla Jon Jonsson, an apartment super in his fifties, but also here a wandering poet. Sturla’s adventures and misadventures sometimes seem aimless in the sense of a quote from an early collection of his poems, “free from freedom.” On the other hand, this novel, almost like a prose poem, has a definite framework and structure, while suggesting what “free from freedom” means.
First we meet Sturla buying an English Aquascutum overcoat, which he has saved up for, and immediately Gogol’s The Overcoat comes to mind. Afterwards, Sturla wanders Reykjavik’s streets, passing buildings that are gone or replaced by others, notably the bank where he once worked and a bookstore, which is now a gambling place, which Sturla wanders into and wins big. He also mentions a poem about a mother behind a barred window, a reference to his alcoholic mother, a set of lines which his critical father says are untypical of Sturla’s poetry, and even Sturla calls himself the “purported author” of his just published assertions collection.
Thus emerges the novel framework: the mother and the overcoat, showing up again at the very end of the book. Also his wanderings offer the theme of displacement, which really gets developed in Vilnius where Sturla goes for a poetry festival. Throughout the book, he is imagining where people are at that moment, what they might say to him, not just memories from his past but familiar places which are not the places where he is. Towards the end of the book he seems lost in Vilnius since his mind is really in Reykjavik. Like the replaced buildings, he replaced an older Icelandic poet, which is a really funny segment. He even imagines himself as his long dead poet cousin Jonas, a connection that gets Sturla into trouble while he’s in Lithuania.
The title seems ironic. He is sent by his government (all expenses paid) as the nation’s ambassador at Lithuania’s Nordic Season of Poetry festival. However, he becomes anything but an ambassador. His grandfather was the only real ambassador in the family, Iceland’s ambassador to Norway. Even the prediction by a teacher that Jonas, from his brilliance, would become an ambassador is doomed by Jonas’ suicide.
There is a certain definiteness to Sturla’s actions in the beginning: planning ahead for the expensive new overcoat and the determination to give up poetry in favor of writing articles about the festival, and maybe a novel. And before he leaves Iceland, he does write an article about the festival, a satiric piece based on previous festivals, one of the funniest sections of the novel. But then in Lithuania, governed by “omens” – a hazelnut (lucky?) and a dwarf at the hotel reception (unlucky), plus the greeter being named Jonas – Sturla’s wanderings become misadventures, following people and eventually getting into trouble. Not only is the overcoat stolen, but he does the same – stealing a Brooks Brothers coat. Meanwhile at home, assertions’s authorship is being challenged, a scandal making the newspapers’ front pages.
Events, like Sturla’s wanderings, are explained later. For instance, early in the novel he mentions a childhood memory, something written on a mirror during a parental fight, something to do with “mother.” At the end we get the full quote as the novel comes full circle, to where he is about to break the cycle: “The mother of my children has / murdered the child in their father.” By then, he has come to grips with his running away, and also with his insignificance as a poet, like his poem’s lines which a fellow poet translated, “I knew the substance / I was made from / was not meant to last / it wouldn’t survive / a lifetime.” This fellow poet, whose work he reciprocally translated, is the woman he loves at the end. Will he go with her to Belarus or return home? Sturla notes about the novel “that thrillers don’t need a robbery or a murder to hold your attention. They just need to create some uncertainty about whether or not the protagonist will make his Big Decision.” So has he created himself in a novel?
The amusing, insightful, very accessible and realistic novel not only talks about poetry but offers up a quirky contemporary human lost in his wanderings to find himself. Its structure is admirable, but like a thriller, it is also a page-turner.
Poetry by Alex Grant
Lorimer Press, September 2010
Paperback: 53pp; $16.95
Review by Renee Emerson
The Circus Poems by Alex Grant defied my expectations, becoming more than “just” a book about circus performers through contextualizing the circus in history and myth and leading the reader toward the idea of the circus as metaphor.
The cover art by Sherill Ann Gross is vibrant and intriguing, and the book was beautifully designed by Leslie Rindoks, with illustrations of circus performers and a roaring lion. Each prose poem is titled after a circus performer, like “The Ringmaster” or “The Barker.” The majority of the poems are brief prose-poems, sparse and centered on the page. The poems are lush with description – in “The Human Cannonball” the character “hears the muffled voices, clanging metal, the soft liquid rumble sluicing behind, fire-gush and cordite thick in his mouth.” Grant fits each poem to the character, here allowing the poem to gain momentum, just as the human cannonball would, physically, gain momentum. “The Clown” was my favorite of the prose poems; it was not what you would expect from a poem about a clown, focusing obsessively, on the idea that “things are always collapsing” – “the moon disintegrates,” “it all turns / to dust eventually,” and, finally, it ends with “collapsing, always collapsing.”
“The Road to Archangel” is the first poem in the book that is not a prose poem. It takes the book from being about circus performers in general, as personas, to placing it in a distinct history and place – “Three days from Murmansk, two years since / the Czarina faced the firing squad – and comrade Lenin / spends his winters with the generals in Gremyachinsk.” The second departure from the prose poem style is “Marc Chagall’s Lament,” a poem written from Chagall’s perspective, detailing the monotonies and trials of his daily life: “Every morning is the same” – and again pulling the reader to Russia, as Chagall is begged “to leave Moscow to the proles and the Reds.”
Spirituality and the sense of a “hole” or absence in one’s life is seen first in the poem “The Road to Archangel” where the speaker’s brother pays for “the counsel of his Zen Master” who describes life as “coming up for air in an infinite ocean / and finding your head inside the only ring that floats,” successfully merging the idea of the circus (circus rings) with the absence, the emptiness in his life. The idea is revisited in “Cathedrals,” opened with a prose poem introduction on the opposing page, that describes “cardinals of the flooded church,” and later muses over the Native American legend of the dream-catcher, with its “hole in the center [that] lets the bad fly through / Every life should have such a hole.” “The Turnstile of Years” speaks of “a hole opening like a mountainside, pouring broken rocks into crevices / he never knew existed.” Other poems that touch on spirituality and the church are “The God Chaac Brings Lightning,” “Oden Hunts the Souls of the Dead,” and the similes “like churchbells in a foreign country” in the poem “The Juggler” and “the foundries clang like churchyards” in “The Knife-Thrower’s Assistant.” Grant subtly nudges the reader toward the idea of the circus as the church, the performers as mythic as gods.
While the prose poems provide interesting profiles of the circus performers, delving into the performers, the stereotypes, the idea of being defined, even named, by what you do, it was the free verse poems interrupting the steady onslaught of prose poems that truly contextualized and grounded the book. The result is an immersive, never heavy-handed, experience in the circus as a metaphor for human existence.
Ed. Barbara Hamby, David Kirby
University of Georgia Press, April 2010
Paperback: 427pp; $24.95
Review by Larry O. Dean
I was drawn to this collection for two – make that three reasons: I enjoy versifying power-couple Barbara Hamby and David Kirby's individual work, and I believe good, 'funny' poetry is, if not quite as uncommon as some might argue it to be, at least worthy of omnibus analysis and appraisal. I suspected that these two editors, no strangers to humorous writing, would take a broad enough approach to compiling what they deem “seriously funny” poems, and the book's introduction – a fine read in its own right – bears that out.
Hamby and Kirby define the type of poems the title promises as “ones that evoke poetry's timeless concerns but include a comic element as well,” adding ruefully that “a lot of contemporary poetry doesn't do that.” So the poems sought for Seriously Funny also had to include a contrasting darker underpinning, work that “glow[s] with a starry sheen, but often that's because there is a black sky behind it.” During the two years Hamby and Kirby assembled Seriously Funny, they'd “set out [to work] with a couple of boxes in the back seat, and whoever wasn't driving would read to the other. When we found a poem that made both of us think deeply but laugh as well,” it was earmarked for the anthology.
And while they argue that seriously funny poetry can be traced as far back as Beowulf (!), in order to keep the book size manageable they begin with the Beats, “no group more deadly serious about American culture and none that uses humor to better effect,” and end with poems as recent as two years old, from well-known poets as well as newcomers, organized under such broadly designated rubrics as popular culture, the self, sex, love and marriage, family, friends, national identity, work, literature, animals, and metaphysics, culminating with an apocalyptic bunch of end-of-the-world poems.
True to their promethean promise, “there aren't many subjects that these poems overlook,” and Seriously Funny is stronger for it. Hamby and Kirby are astute editors, so the poems here comprise a wide variety of voices as well, avoiding an aural sameness or staleness that even the funniest of poems would evince if they all sounded exactly alike. The same is true for the work visually on the page, which varies in length and lineation. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Seriously Funny is well thought out, organized, and assembled.
Part of the joy of this book is discovering its pleasures on your own. If you're willing to accept its editorial edicts, either because you consider yourself an aficionado of humor in poetry, or are looking to gauge this particular project's success, you will not be disappointed. Readers can start at the beginning and continue along that way, browse by topic, or choose work randomly – the abiding strength of Seriously Funny is that it can be navigated successfully from any number of angles. If you expect to find the usual suspects, you will and you won't; Frank O'Hara, Albert Goldbarth, Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Tony Hoagland, and James Tate are here, for instance, but again to Hamby and Kirby's credit, you'll also find poets not exactly known for being ambassadors of wit or chancellors of chuckles, such as Louise Glück, Andrew Hudgins, Yusef Komunyakaa, Galway Kinnell, and Franz Wright. Their very presence bears out the book's ambitions and attests to the vision and discernment of the editors.
Poetry by Tony Gloeggler
NYQ Books, June 2010
Paperback: 140pp; $16.95
Review by Kimberly Steele
Tony Gloeggler’s latest poetry book, The Last Lie, celebrates imperfection in all its ubiquitous manifestations – in people, relationships, memories, and dreams. It is about the lies we tell ourselves when we discover that the truth is insufficient, and the tools we use to renounce those fabrications that distract us from recognizing beauty in imperfection and experiencing fulfillment from that which seems lacking at first glance.
Every poem in The Last Lie surrounds a fantasy that has never been realized, a mirage that has yet to manifest, an ache that cannot be soothed. In “Literature,” Gloeggler’s speaker discusses things that “Me and my uncle never talked / about,” because the latter “died / before I ever wrote anything / I wasn’t afraid to show people.” He refers to missed chances and wasted potential in “Reading and Writing,” a poem about “A woman who may / or may not be dying / of cancer.”
He ruminates over the things he “wanted to be” in “When I Grow Up,” knowing in retrospect that he was probably never destined to achieve those childhood goals. His portrayal of the could-have-beens that never were pain us because we haven’t yet bought what he’s trying to sell – the idea that these hopes and dreams have little worth; they merely get in the way of understanding and accepting life for what it is. Gloeggler prefers to savor each tiny pinprick that plagues the world around him and proves that it’s real. He cherishes that which transcends the confines of fantasy – the uncomfortable, taboo, or devastating. If the dream is a lie, he will stare the bitter truth in the face until it is all he can see.
The real soul of the book comes from poems that describe the speaker’s work with the developmentally disabled. He gives us the panoramic view of the caretaker, who, by necessity, invades the privacy of his patients’ lives in a way most of us would consider humiliating. In “Crossing,” this metaphorical omnipotence becomes actualized as the speaker hides behind a black Cadillac to watch his patient Larry attempt to cross the street by himself for the first time. In the middle of helping his friend Rob bathe in “Bath Time,” he recognizes the latter’s urge to masturbate:
We both watch it
harden, rise above
soapy water. I draw
the shower curtain,
sit on the closed
toilet lid, light
Gloeggler’s portrayal shocks with its honesty, focusing on the child/adult dichotomy that exists in all of us but is intensified in the developmentally disabled. We may find it more comfortable to infantilize these individuals, but this is a delusion – a lie. The truth is, while Rob may have the mental acuity of a child, he has the body of a man, complete with adult urges that are every bit as unrelenting as our own.
Of course, the speaker is not immune to frustration when it comes to dealing with life’s harsh realities. When he tries to wash Rob’s face in the same poem, Rob “slaps the water” when he gets soap in his eyes, eliciting the sharp rebuke, “Stop acting / like a damn baby.” In speaking thus, the speaker reveals his own expectation of adult-like behavior from Rob, instead of making excuses for him based on his condition. He also, however, betrays a desire to believe the lie. Although he accepts that all metaphor constitutes fabrication (one possible reason he opts for such a straightforward poetic style), he would not always have it this way. He, like everyone and everything else, is an imperfect part of the imperfect world he chooses to embrace, subject to the same emotions and temper tantrums as his patients. His subtle shift in perspective has brought him no immediate or applicable enlightenment.
In “Mid Life Poetry Crisis,” he bemoans his frustration with stark reality while delineating many of the book’s motifs:
I’m tired of song titles,
retards, autistic kids,
old and new girlfriends,
battered valentines, baseball
metaphors, not getting
laid, subway stations,
working class families,
drunk drivers, dead fathers
and every one else who never
try to talk to each other.
His world-weariness makes him want to “escape” into the realm of aspirations and dreams, where he could be a child again, when he thought he could be “a fire truck” when he grew up, and there was always a chance that he and his father would talk about something meaningful. This is the same childlike naïveté he exhibits later in life when he hopes his old girlfriend will leave her husband to be with him in the book’s title poem, “The Last Lie.” This establishes the only time that the vibrancy of the fabricated world so eclipses the solemnity of the real one that the speaker can’t abide the latter. He says, “We were walking down Houston / to see some movie and I said no / I wasn’t seeing anyone else” as if just saying it will magically make it true. The following verse reveals that he is lying less to her than himself:
And yeah, I kept lying
after I told her the truth
a day later as she screamed
and cried and cursed me
all the way from Virginia.
In this poem lying is really put to the test – its value becomes paramount. Certain cruel truths are easier to accept than others, and even the speaker isn’t entirely resigned to a life without fantasy. He declares that he “won’t lie anymore.” The statement sounds decisive and firm, if not a little idealistic, until he qualifies it. “Not about something / like that. Not to her.” This says nothing about the lies he will continue to tell himself, and these, as he’s already indicated, are the hardest ones to refute.
Poetry by Neil de la Flor
Marsh Hawk Press, March 2010
Paperback: 72pp; $14.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Neil de la Flor’s Almost Dorothy is a collection of poetry dealing with issues of sexuality, the past, and coming of age. AIDS is a recurring theme, as is death. The world he writes in isn’t inviting or pretty, yet he seems to find humor in it and approaches it in a playful way.
These narrative poems are disjointed and lengthy. They mix genres, jumping from nonfiction to interview, visual art to text book definitions. Pop-culture and scientific references abound. With so much going on in one book, it can sometimes be hard to follow.
There are threads, however, that seam this hodge-podge together: his love of long lines, associative thinking, the reoccurring character of his gay friend Joey, who is introduced in the first poem “Introduction,” where he tells a story that is simultaneously funny and sad – “the closest he’s felt to a man” resulting from two men having sex beside him. This is picked up on later in the book – he is never quite part of things, always observing from a distance, friends and relatives becoming characters in a play, himself even becoming a character in poems such as “Interview with Mr. De La Flor,” an intense and comedic interrogation over him assaulting a lover in his sleep. Interviews are seen again in the book, in the poems “Why” and “The Invisible Chromosome.”
A tendency towards playwrighting emerges again in “The Elegant Universe,” “In Toto,” and “He Tries His Tongue,” which features parts and actors – “a girl (as a clown) and a boy (as a Doberman).” The poem “In Toto” has less conventional characters such as “Baseline,” “Casual,” and “Darling,” which brings to mind the chorus of Greek tragedies.
Visual art interrupts the poems “Especially, Death” and “Memoir of a Barbed Wire Fence.” While this can be a gimmicky addition to a poem in many cases, both instances of visual art are either self-portrait (“Memoir of a Barbed Wire Fence”) or his attempt to draw people (“Especially, Death”). The visual art ties into the speaker’s search for identity.
The first instance of definitions comes in the prose poem, “Joey and the Banshee,” where he defines “Banshee: In Gaelic folklore, a spirit of a woman who appears, wailing, signals that somebody in the household is going to die,” which simultaneously introduces the theme of death which runs throughout the book. The author’s associative tendencies also arise in this poem – “1492: Christopher Columbus. Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeye State. Black eye peas. Bratwurst. In Toledo I met a man named Chris. He ran a Christmas shop stocked with Santas and snow. Summer Sale, the sign read. He sold me my first set of pinecones and a bunch of mistletoe." A reference to history, then one word building off another until it develops into one of his memories.
The poems in this collection perhaps work, in total, as a collective group of associations as de la Flor grasps at his past to understand who he is. The grab-bag of genre is a way to look at a subject in a prismatic way, from every angle, and the subject he is looking at is, ultimately, himself and how he fits into his role as a gay man.
Almost Dorothy, the deserving winner of the Marsh Hawk Press 2009 Poetry Prize, is a poetry collection with many levels, all of which are entertaining and a pleasure to read.