NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted January 5, 2011

Driven to Abstraction :: Missing You, Metropolis :: Horse, Flower, Bird :: The Orphan Rescue :: Witness :: In the Next Room :: Each Crumbling House :: The Parable of Hide & Seek :: Wolf Face :: Glass is Really a Liquid :: The Last Jewish Virgin :: Greetings from Below :: Lord Dragonfly :: Why We Make Gardens :: Adamantine :: You Know Who You Are

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Driven to Abstraction coverDriven to Abstraction

Poetry by Rosmarie Waldrop

New Directions, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0811218791

ISBN-13: 978-0-8112-1879-5

Paperback: 133pp; $16.95

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Waldrop, co-founder and publisher of Burning Deck Books, an extraordinary translator, and an accomplished poet whose work I have always found utterly breathtaking, just keeps getting better. I admire Waldrop’s lyrical stamina—she sustains long series of related poems with impeccable control over every syllable, there is nothing superfluous, careless, or casual—and her ability to ground the abstract and abstract from the grounded, from the world of objects and circumstances (driven, as she is, to abstraction).

The book contains two series of poems, “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004-2008)” and “Driven to Abstraction.” The first consists of four sections, each composed, in turn of a long series of numbered or named prose poems, the last group of which also include a secondary component of a dictionary of related words (a to z ) in small type at the foot of the page. The last word in “Sway-Backed Powerlines” is “zero,” which becomes the central preoccupation of the latter half of the book and, in fact, the final page of the book concludes:

ZERO,
OR, CLOSING POSITION
Contradict as needed

“Driven to Abstraction” is also composed of series of like-formed segments (long lyrical lines in short bursts, long prose-poem like lines in short blocks). This form gives them a sense of unity and wholeness that is useful, but it is not what is most important, I don’t think, about the work in this book.

Like most (if not all) of Waldrop’s work, this book is a long query into the meaning of meaning, into the power of language and the language of numbers. These poems ask us to consider what it means to “discover” and claim a country (“The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns”); to stake a claim on history (“Great beginnings too can end up a small world”); to ponder our fathers’ biographies (“Does this fit my image of the real?”); to consider the art of self-reflection (“Vermeer paints himself painting”); and to consider the grammar of mysticism (“I am that I am” she quotes the Old Testament).

If you are tempted to imagine, however, that Driven to Abstraction is simply an exercise in linguistic play or manipulation, let me assure you, it is not. “Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We wrap entire villages in barbed wire,” the poet tells us. And a few pages later:

4,000 to 6,000 civilians have been killed in Fallujah.

It is impossible to describe the fact which corresponds to this sentence, without simply repeating this sentence.

When, later, Waldrop ponders the meaning of zero, the nature of counting, the relationship of nothing to writing and of writing to emptiness, emptiness to knowledge, she is not asking rhetorical questions. She is not merely enjoying a linguistic game. She has already given us those 6,000 (dead) civilians.

King Lear, she tells us, was “thrilled by quantity as language.” But, Waldrop has “made a pact with nothingness.” She knows we cannot be redeemed (“If there is no redemption by voice”). She is—we are all of us—implicated in the countries we name/claim as our own, in the bodies, counted and uncounted, in zero’s failure and in its power. And yet, “at the bottom of anything I find a word that made it.” We are not empty, after all. Language is everything.

I adore this book and continue to think that Waldrop is an incredibly gifted poet whose language about language is, in so many ways, the most important writing we can read. Contradict as needed—but, you’ll have to use language to do it.

 

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Missing You, Metropolis coverMissing You, Metropolis

Poetry by Gary Jackson

Graywolf Press, November 2010

ISBN-10: 1555975720

ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-572-2

Paperback: 80pp; $15.00

Review by Kimberly Steele

In Missing You, Metropolis, the 2009 winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, first-time poet Gary Jackson uses the motif of comic book lore, with its hopeful yet unforgiving treatment of the superhero, to speak about childhood feelings of isolation and sexual maturation against the backdrop of a racist culture. Sometimes the speaker uses the comic book theme as a protective blanket, relying on the fantasy world it offers to escape the harsher elements of life that children often fail to understand. At other times, seeing the world through the anvil-heavy metaphors of the graphic novel helps the speaker come to terms with his actual environment. Good and evil are drastically polarized in this genre, which offers straightforward solutions to worldwide problems and therefore appeals to a child’s sense of simple justice.

Jackson proves adept at operating on many levels at once, conveying the naïveté of youth while speaking from the informed adult perspective. Under the surface of his colloquial verse lurks an unfulfilled eagerness to exist in that dreamlike landscape that previously cultivated his idea of manhood. Once he discovers that manhood is nothing like what the stories indicate, he feels convinced that he must have missed something, and these poems chart the course of his retrograde exploration. He expresses this overarching sentiment in the book’s epigraph, which quotes Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen: “All those brilliant and resourceful sleuths and heroes offered a glimpse of a perfect world where morality worked the way it was meant to… Which world would you rather live in, if you had the choice?”

Jackson sets out to answer this question for himself and present an argument to his readers, considering how “[the] old comics were never wrong. / Right always defended / by the hero,” and telling himself that “I’d trade my job, my BA, // hell even my wife, anything to climb walls, / spin webs, touch rooftops with toes.” At the same time, the speaker acknowledges the tedium of perfection in such poems as “When Loving a Man Becomes Too Hard” and “The Dilemma of Lois Lane,” wherein Superman’s girlfriend ponders the gulf that separates her from her lover:

…Sometimes,
when we’re alone at home,
fixing dinner, you’ll pretend
to wince when you cut yourself,
and I find myself hoping
that the tiniest drop of blood
will bloom on your finger.

For Lois Lane, such a benign injury would constitute a celebration, a spring-like rebirth in the fashion of blossoming flowers. It would breathe new, human life into the otherwise “solid as diamonds” Superman, making them more alike.

In Jackson’s poetry, “blood” often indicates a merger between two unlike things that have enough in common to potentially confound an observer (as opposed to “skin,” which is used to solidify an impenetrable border). If one didn’t know better, one would observe no immediate visual, tactile, or otherwise sensory difference between Lane and her otherworldly boyfriend; but, as it stands, the two are separate enough to require this pinprick of blood to unite them. In the same vein, Jackson argues, if you don’t scrutinize too closely, the worlds of fantasy and reality can blur until they are indistinguishable. While describing the harmless pastime of reading a graphic novel in “The Secret Art of Reading a Comic,” the book’s opening poem, the speaker compares comics to

…treats, delicious twenty-two-page
snacks we swallow, never questioning
the action between the panels’ gutters
and how similar that world bleeds
into our own.

These worlds are separated by a membrane that can rupture, allowing its contents to seep, or “bleed,” into something else that is also wounded, imperfect, and reveals an opening in its figurative flesh—here, reality, which invites the warm, liquid rush of fantasy because it is so flawed in itself.

In “Reading Comic Books in the Rain,” the poem that ends the collection, both nothing and everything has changed for the speaker. After years of feeling like a mutant from X-Men—most notably the character Storm, whose “almond skin” is “no different from ours save a darker ink,” yet who is still eternally showcased like the Hottentot Venus, placed “on display” for “marvelous / wonder” and pre-pubescent sexual fantasies—he finally understands that merger into “that four-color world” of the comic book is possible, but unsustainable. He would like to take his partner, “the girl who has mashed her cheek / into my wet shoulder,” and

…Escape for as long
as we could. Stave off Topeka, Kansas,
the whole goddamn world, by falling
into another one. The panels may bleed
beyond their borders, but stay contained in our hands.

It may sound like he gives himself over to this conclusion easily, considering his lifelong struggle with the motif (plus a formidable frustration with the hand fate dealt him), but the beauty of Jackson’s speaker lies in his tender resignation. Though contrary and restless, he is chiefly pensive, curious, reasonable, and forgiving. His frustration never crosses the line into unbridled emotion, which allows Jackson’s poetry to stand out with the kind of measured clarity and brilliant vision his unique subject and universal sentiment demand.

 

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Horse, Flower, Bird coverHorse, Flower, Bird

Fiction by Kate Bernheimer

Coffee House Press, August 2010

ISBN-10: 1566892473

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-247-6

Paperback: 185pp; $14.95

Review by Gina Myers

In Horse, Flower, Bird, Kate Bernheimer, editor of Fairy Tale Review, gives readers eight of her own dark fairy tales centered on sad heroines. There is a certain timelessness to the tales, except for references to things like easy-bake ovens, plasticine dolls, and Star Wars, which place these stories firmly in contemporary times, or at the very least post-WWII, due to the haunting references to people in ovens. In the opening story, “A Cuckoo’s Tale,” the protagonist is a young Jewish girl who likes to atone. She describes spending Yom Kippur downtown with perfumed ladies: “Neither she nor the perfumed ladies were much interested in God. They were interested in forgiveness and, the girl vaguely understood, people who had been cooked inside ovens.” The girl traces her own fear of ovens back to stories her grandmother told, which include tales of a witch who cooks little girls to eat them.

There is a magical element to these stories, as there is in many fairy tales. There is something immediately captivating about the protagonists’ innocence, how they look at and understand the world. The stories are written in a simplistic, direct style, and paragraphs are given their own pages. In this way, the book uses white space much like poetry does. The weight of Bernheimer's direct, seemingly simple sentences is emphasized by the blankness of the surrounding page, and some stories seem to slowly trail off as the final pages only have a single phrase or word, like "A Tulip's Tale," whose last three pages end, "Come back. // Come back. // Come back to me," with each sentence existing on its own page.

There are times when this isolation of sentences on the page reminded me of children's books, though these tales are definitely geared toward an older audience. The final sentence of "A Doll's Tale," a story of numerous Astrids, is: "And as perhaps you have gleaned from this story, our Astrid did not much thrive." This sort of moralizing or plain statement of purpose/intent, is reminiscent of children's books, but more specifically recalled for me Edward Gorey's tragically doomed children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”).

However, Bernheimer’s dark fairy tales are not all doom and gloom. In fact, I found myself laughing out loud in a number of places. In "A Cageling Tale," the narrator describes a family who has a history of hating birds:

And the girl's grandmother had a vengeance for birds. (She had very bad vision and once, mistakenly, got a chair upholstered in a fabric that depicted garish birds. Strangely, the girl's mother, whose mother this was, seemed to take some kind of wicked glee in the error, and never revealed it to her.)

Later, in the same story, the girl, Edith, trains her pet parakeet to speak the phrases "You're sexy," "hot lady," and "nice rack," to upset her mother "who had phobias about words like sexy, lady, and rack." Bernheimer deadpans, "The bird was a loyal friend." However, this story also takes a dark turn, as Pretty Eyes, the parakeet, dies by flying into a window, and Edith runs away from home and becomes a topless dancer who is later supported by various men she met at the club where she worked inside a giant birdcage.

In "A Doll's Tale," Astrid's father describes Astrid as a "delicate, odd little girl," and this description can probably be applied to most of the girls in these stories. The girls who are at the center of each of these stories are a little odd and seem doomed from the offset. They seem isolated, are unable to like other people, or prefer the company of imaginary friends, or play games that involve passing tape recorders between "locked" walls, or live secret lives, as the narrator of "A Petting Zoo Tale" claims, "All good animals have secret lives." They also seem to escape these lives, but to what? The first-person narrator in the final tale, "Whitework," escapes into books. Her doctor warns: "You have the key to the Library […] Only be careful what you read."

This is a delightful collection of strange tales. Dark, yes. But any darker than the original Grimm's fairy tales? No. The stories are also accompanied by anthropomorphic illustrations by Rikki Ducornet, which are wonderfully befitting of the tales. This made for a quick read, as once I was pulled into the worlds of these stories, I did not want to stop reading until I found out where Bernheimer was taking me.

 

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The Orphan Rescue coverThe Orphan Rescue

Children’s Fiction by Anne Dublin

Second Story Press, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1897187815

ISBN-13: 978-1897187814

Paperback, 124pp, $8.95

Review by Olive Mullet

Award-winning Canadian children’s writer Anne Dublin has created in The Orphan Rescue, an exciting family rescue story in the real world. Dublin constructs her story from her father’s story of a Jewish family, a boy aged 7 and his sister 12, living in the small town of Sosnowiec, Poland in 1937 (before WWII). Fortified by maps and real details of a poor family’s life and of a Jewish orphanage and factory, Dublin says in her Afterword, “l wrote the story inspired by the events of the time and because the experiences of the characters are relevant to young people today.”

Miriam is determined to rescue her younger brother David when their desperately poor grandfather places him into a Jewish orphanage for his care. Even before she can rescue him, David is taken to a factory for dangerous and dirty work. An orphanage boy Ben, who had not been kind to David, wants to redeem himself and so works with Miriam to plot David’s way out. Hurdles abound as does humor, but the message is clear at the end: “Sometimes a person must do something wrong in order to correct a bigger wrong.”

This is a warm and charming tale of family closeness with wonderful illustrations by Qin Leng.

 

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Witness coverWitness

Essays by Curtis Smith

sunnyoutside, December 2010

ISBN-10: 1934513286

ISBN-13: 978-1934513286

Paperback: 150pp; $18.00

Review by Ann Beman

Recently, I failed to participate in National Novel Writing Month. But…while I wasn’t writing a 50,000-word novel, I was staying abreast of NaNoWriMo’s weekly missives from well-known authors. I caught the pep talk penned by Lemony Snicket in the same week I read Curtis Smith’s Witness. “Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world,” Snicket wrote.

Witness is decidedly not a novel. Rather, it is a collection of eighteen essays exploring topics as varied as fatherhood, war, tattoos, media hypocrisy, teaching high school, faith, poverty, poaching, photography, disguises, death, and the magical powers of literature.

It’s appropriate that the collection opens with “Vision,” because in that essay, as well as those following, Smith proves he is a seeker of vision in every sense—dream, nightmare, insight, foresight, wonder and foreboding. In that opening piece, the author describes an ultrasound revealing a white spot on his unborn child’s heart. When the spot vanishes, Smith wonders where it’s gone:

In this world where matter can neither be created nor destroyed, what had become of the spot? Did it still exist in my child’s body, a free-floating particle of malice? Had it escaped the trappings of my wife’s body and tumbled off on the wind like a dandelion seed? Did it follow me around, brushing against my world, showing itself as the tickle that preceded a sneeze, an irritation begging to be scratched?

Though the essays cover myriad topics, the linchpins are those that feature Smith’s toddler, a healthy little boy despite the sinister white spot. In “Giraffes and the Unspeakable Beneath,” Smith braids observations of his son with those of his public high school students. “When a graph is completed or a sentence diagrammed, what truly counts is the vague middle, the untidy domain of scrap paper and arcane symbols,” he writes. “What matters isn’t visible, what matters is the unspeakable beneath.” In other words, to gain the kind of vision that matters, we must pay attention to the invisible, the unclear, the question. It’s the questions that matter, after all:

The big giraffe and baby giraffe—his christening, not ours—are a team, and when one is missing, the search begins. Cushions are lifted, our house’s dusty nooks explored until the lost party is found. Reunion awaits, and in its glow, our son performs his posing ritual, for the giraffes must stand facing one another, the baby’s snout nuzzling the muscled knot between the big giraffe’s front legs… Something is being said here. I sit on the cool floor and try to comprehend.

As readers, we proceed through the author’s observant and sensitive prose, reminded essay by essay that our vision—the way we perceive the world—changes, from infant to toddler to parent to grandparent. And, in Smith’s case, from parent to teacher to writer to agnostic to sort-of-believer. In the piece titled “The Agnostic’s Prayer,” he writes: “My son zooms ahead through a late summer’s twilight. Above us, the bruised underside of well-spaced clouds, a sprinkle of hardy stars. Darkness creeps from the east, and in the air, a hint of autumn.” The boy is rushing headlong into a spooky landscape: twilight, bruises, darkness, creeping. It’s as if Smith’s tomorrow is a nightmare. His book’s publisher may be sunnyoutside, but his outlook lurks on the bleak side. Yet even as he refers to himself as a sarcastic pessimist, he exercises his gifts of language and awareness to wrest moments of grace from situations heartbreaking or brutal or mundane. In “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” he admits his failings as a teacher, yet finds that these imperfections engage him:

Her gift lay in seeing that within moments of ordinariness, there existed profound truths that remained long after the moment had evaporated, truths penned in the unspoken language that lingers beneath the masks we all wear. The teacher in me perks at the notion, understanding there is much, much more I need to learn.

Smith appreciates the profound cloaked in the ordinary. It seems he appreciates the cloaked in general, as masks, disguises, and ghosts appear throughout the collection. In “Little Devil,” the author is temporarily converted from post-modern worry-wart to chaos advocate, promoting Halloween as:

the rudimentary images that would follow my son through his life, his first introduction to the true, meaningful milestones that would mark his place in the world, his flirtations with the dark undertones of disguise and death and fractured reality, the wonders of tasty treats and harmless shivers.

In “Goodnight Nobody,” he speaks of “magical moments in literature,” particularly of one page in the children’s classic Goodnight Moon. Two words and only two words grace that book’s page:

“Goodnight nobody” lends weight to the weightless. It paints the invisible. In an uttered breath, ghosts are born, spirits recognized. ‘Goodnight nobody’ resonates as a grinning bass note smuggled into a lullaby’s slumbering melody. Too young to realize it, the child has been introduced to monsters in his closet, imaginary play friends, stuffed animals that stir to life after goodnight kisses and whispers of sweet dreams.

Smith’s short fiction and essays have appeared in more than sixty literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. Press 53 published his last two fiction collections, The Species Crown and Bad Monkey, wherein the author’s stories can make you laugh and break your heart. In them, too, he plays in the dark, embracing monsters. But doesn’t everybody want to hug monsters and see ghosts, just a little, enough to be amazed, but not so much as to incur trauma? We do. We want to believe; to bestow faith in something we cannot detect but know is there nonetheless.

As Lemony Snicket wrote in his NaNoWriMo pep talk, “Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world. It brings light and warmth and hope to the lucky few who, against insufferable odds and despite a juggernaut of irritations, find themselves in the right place to hold it.” I would argue that insightful writing, period, is that tiny candle, and that Curtis Smith offers us its flickering flame in the form of Witness.

 

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In the Next Room coverIn the Next Room or the vibrator play

Drama by Sarah Ruhl

Theatre Communications Group, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1559363606

ISBN-13: 978-1-55936-360-0

Paperback: 144pp; $13.95

Review by K. Frithjof Peterson

For fans of Sarah Ruhl’s fanciful often highly theatrical works (Clean House, Eurydice, Melancholy Play) the premise of her latest, Pulitzer Finalist play, In the Next Room or the vibrator play may seem a risky departure from her trademark style. For starters, it is a period piece rooted heavily in historically specific research. At the least, this venture could limit the scope of the timeless, amorphous worlds she often creates and at the worst it could stifle the lyrical beauty that often spills from characters in their theatrically heightened worlds. Fortunately, In the Next Room lacks none of the poetry of Ruhl’s early work.

The play, set circa 1880 at the dawn of electricity, follows Mr. and Mrs. Givings and the events that transpire around Mr. Givings’ patients. Mr. Givings administers therapeutic treatments for men and women diagnosed with hysteria. His preferred method of treatment is stimulation by way of an electric vibrator to release the buildup of troublesome fluids in sensitive areas. At its heart, it is a play about personal revelation and the distances between not only the sexes, but normative and unique experience.

The play’s charm, wit and contemporary social relevance are derived primarily from Ruhl’s exceptional use of dramatic irony. The audience is well aware of the vibrator’s sexual context. However, for Ruhl’s characters, the vibrator is a trip to the doctor, another day at the office, and often laden with the ominous undertones of a very large hypodermic needle. When Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry are trying to figure out how they had such seemingly different experiences from the same treatment, they decided to pose the question to Elizabeth, the wet nurse. After hearing the descriptions, Elizabeth responds:

Those sensations you are describing – they are not from having relations with your husbands?
Mrs. Daldry: Good heavens, no!
Mrs. Givings: No! Good God.
They laugh.

As humorous as these exchanges can be, Ruhl never sells her characters out for the joke. She takes great care to use the sexual dramatic irony to illuminate the differences between her characters’ notions of sex and our contemporary understanding. While the irony is effective and often humorous, it never comes at the sacrifice of the character’s humanity. She even goes so far as to address it in her stage directions for Mrs. Daldry’s first treatment with the vibrator:

She has a quiet paroxysm. Now remember that these are the days before digital pornography. There is no cliché of how women are supposed to orgasm, no idea in their heads of how they are supposed to sound when they climax. Mrs. Daldry’s first orgasms could be very quiet, organic, awkward, primal. Or very clinical. Or embarrassingly natural. But whatever it is, it should not be a cliché, a camp version of how we expect all women sound when they orgasm. It is simply clear that she has had some kind of release.

Ruhl keeps her characters infused with palpable wants and relentless drive. They are all characters struggling to find the locus of their individuality yet desperate to be understood through shared experience. The preferred instrument to forge this connection however, isn’t the magical vibrator but rather poetry and love. When questioning the artist, Leo Irving, who is receiving treatment for a very rare case of male hysteria, Mrs. Givings asks, “Have you loved many women, Mr. Irving?” Leo replies:

I have loved enough to know how to paint. If I had loved fewer, I would be an illustrator; if I had loved more, I would be a poet.
Mrs. Givings: Are poets required to love many women?
Leo: Oh yes. Love animates every line.

In the end, it’s both poetry and love that either brings Ruhl’s characters together or sends them on their separate paths.

Ruhl’s previous plays always made the most out of the theatrical medium. In fact, film adaptations of works like Clean House or Eurydice could easily lose their magic and poetry in translation. However, throughout most of the play, the naturalistic world of In the Next Room would seem to translate well or even benefit from a cinematic adaptation. It may leave certain audience members asking themselves, “Why did this NEED to be a play?” – a question rarely asked when reading Ruhl. Fortunately, in the plays stunning conclusion, the audience is reminded that this is definitely a play, and better yet, this is definitely a Sarah Ruhl play.

 

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Each Crumbling House coverEach Crumbling House

Poetry by Melody S. Gee

Perugia Press, August 2010

ISBN-10: 0979458234

ISBN-13: 978-0979458231

Paperback: 78pp; $16.00

Review by Noel Sloboda

Melody S. Gee’s Each Crumbling House won the 2010 Perugia Press Prize. The volume advances the mission of the press, which “publishes one collection of poetry each year, by a woman at the beginning of her publishing career.” Each Crumbling House includes 52 poems, many of them autobiographical, in which Gee dwells on the challenges of negotiating relationships with lovers, family members, and history. Adding atmosphere and nuance to her verse, Gee’s Chinese-American heritage often haunts her speakers, as they navigate multiple continents as well as in-between spaces not found on any maps.

Throughout the collection, Gee’s handling of form is both subtle and precise. In several works, she uses lineation to explore a façade of normalcy that veils hidden tensions. Take “Fear,” which describes an encounter with a spider, breaking up regularly metered lines to convey the apprehension of the speaker—and to suggest the connection she feels with the curious, watchful arachnid:

For all its eyes, it never sees me whole,
but I am invaded.
        Send it quivering
away with a breath, only to find it
later lurking in my sleeve?
        Or drown it

Absence likewise matters in “A Line of Skin,” when the speaker struggles to find a word that does justice to an intimate connection with another:

          —do we call it love?
in this moment heavy
    with need     a moment drowning
in the thought of us
do you hear the sounds of pockets
    emptying?
when we let the space between
     become us         my lips
on the broken line of your lips

The self-referential playfulness evokes the thrill of joining with someone else. At the same time, the openness not only creates a sense of uncertainty (appropriate for an inchoate relationship), but also resists the impulse to reduce the bond between these two individuals to a single term.

Many of Gee’s poems meditate on the difficulty of making meaning with words, particularly when trying to bridge different languages. In “Southern Xi’an Road,” the speaker grapples with dissimilarities between Mandarin and Cantonese: “Their word for burning / sounds like our word for sugar.” Still, in the company of her mother, the speaker tries to purchase terracotta soldiers from the locals; the pair finds the transaction much harder to complete than they had originally anticipated: “We don’t know / how to ask in Mandarin, How much for one soldier? / Between our languages, we cannot agree / on the idea of a soldier.” The mementos are purchased, but not at a fair price, because of what is lost in linguistic negotiation.

In “What You Remember,” language is again problematic, though not ultimately necessary to bridge the distance between people of different ages and cultures. The speaker anticipates giving gifts to children in her mother’s village, suggesting the inheritance she will pass on, offering that she and the youths will “touch hands in exchange. / I will not remember how to say / the simplest words to them.”

Although Gee always displays self-awareness and formal precision, a few of the poems in Each Crumbling House are less available than others because they insist on private meanings at the exclusion of public ones. See, for instance, “Migration.” However, the majority of Gee’s works actively invite imaginative engagement from her audience, even while depicting highly personal struggles. In “Eating Bitter,” a plurality of sensations affords multiple points of entry for those aspiring to relate to the speaker:

To eat bitter, my mother
dipped her finger
in her father’s absence.
Cut her lip on the hungry
dry season of Canton.
Ate winter’s bitter melon.
She squeezed bitter from her
palms onto the bamboo
knife handle. Into the savory
and the sweet. I learned
the taste of things
was not always in the taste,
was not reason enough to dislike
or like what I ate.

Although an intimate mother-daughter relationship features prominently in the poem, it treats more than an individual’s disillusionment. The use of taste makes the scene accessible on a fundamental human level, even as it stretches the palates of most readers. Other references to food and to appetite in Each Crumbling House similarly enable the audience to become part of the confusing, multivalent scenes constructed by Gee. In “Build, Build No More,” a tangerine “shrugs off / its caving skin,” as though it was a person coming of age. In the apocalyptic “Flood,” an overflowing river resembles a monster as it devours the rice of a village; it leaves behind only “a pulp of hunger,” which represents a specific place in time (Li-Hong Lei village, China, 1957) and resembles innumerable locations throughout the ages.

Each Crumbling House is a rich collection, with a complex but consistent vision. Words from the Shakespearean epigraph of the second section intimate that Gee’s voice is not only original—despite being informed by the past—but also more than the sum of its parts: “perform an act / Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come / In yours and my discharge.” Gee’s work will appeal to anyone interested in the politics and poetics of intercultural exchange. Readers who sojourn alongside her—ranging from California to China, across a span of several decades—will share in explorations of how to transcend boundaries between different places, people, traditions, and languages, in search of a fluid and vibrant twenty-first-century identity.

 

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Parable of Hide & Seek coverParable of Hide and Seek

Poetry by Chad Sweeney

Alice James Books, October 2010

ISBN-10: 188229582X

ISBN-13: 978-1-882295-82-1

Paperback: 72pp; $15.95

Review by Alissa Fleck

Chad Sweeney’s Parable of Hide and Seek reads like the experience of stepping into someone else’s bizarre but magnificently imaginative dreamworld. In Sweeney’s world, deserts have doors and rats swim to the sun, calling to mind a surrealist painting. There exists also a prevailing wariness about the deceptive nature of cities, and the oddness of various geographical landscapes, which can be paralleled only in the absurdity of language. Sweeney’s occasional wordiness is offset by language that is frequently tight and beautiful, replete with analogies that stick with us long after we have moved on, or easily evoke a chuckle in their cleverness: “My wife screamed backwards / which sounded like a bear trap / not going off.” Bordering on esoteric at times, Sweeney also grounds us with poignant images of human futility, as in “A Love Song”:

Because a man drowning
in a grain silo
in the deep golden flax
thinks only of the note
in his back pocket
that will not be given.

But then, as we can count on with Sweeney’s gift for the tantalizing push-and-pull, the book’s historical and sociocultural explorations lend it an air of human connectedness, like the hangman disappointed by the results of his elementary school personality test. Ultimately, Parable of Hide and Seek is a mesmerizing read that takes the unexpected to a new and unchartered level.

 

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Wolf Face coverWolf Face

Poetry by Matt Hart

H_NGM_N BKS, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1453832270

ISBN-13: 978-1-453-83227-1

Paperback: 90pp; $14.95

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

In a poem that couldn’t be more aptly titled, “Poem,” the poet philosophizes: “The problem of meaning can’t begin / until you think it.” Judging from these quirky and oddly appealing poems, I would say that Hart thinks about meaning, meaning he thinks about thinking, a lot. His preoccupations—running, his dog, his marriage, his baby, his students—are excuses (reasons?) to think about meaning.

Here is Hart thinking about false meaning(s): “We lie because we are human” (“New Day Rising”). Here is Hart thinking about the absence of meaning: “This language isn’t anywhere” (“New-Fangled Air”). Here is Hart thinking about the relationship of data to meaning: “I’m thinking it’s not information / the robins and finches” (“Watch Me Blowtorch”). Here’s Hart thinking about story and meaning: “And now / I can only repeat myself, because / there is nothing to narrate” (“Goodnight Everybody”). And here is Hart thinking about faith and meaning: “The reason it’s good to have faith / is the reason for everything good” (“Electron Face”).

If these examples seem to suggest that Hart is a poet of metaphysical impulses, I would say this is not really, or not entirely, the case. He is, despite his obsessive thinking about meaning, grounded in the often disturbing or confusing images and data—astutely rendered— of daily life: “the half-baked smell of church”; “hot air balloon made of unmade beds”; “ancient glowing phone booth”; “plastic deck chairs upside down.”

Hart is anxious and edgy (“Today this tenseness is a past or present anxious”), and despite his desire to have faith and his faith in desire, he is often worried about how life disappoints us (“Have a nice day because most days you won’t”). He turns his anguish into poems that race along urgently and then pause to take in what he has experienced. In “Nosebleed,” of a marital dispute, he writes: “Nothing for miles but grass. I do what is done / to me. It seems important to hurt.”

One of the most ambitious pieces in the collection is “In Darkness Light-headed,” a series of linked poems that unite Hart’s preoccupations and strengths in lucid, anxious, and at times lyrical lines that straddle the extremes played out throughout the book, despair and hope, hurt and joy, love and despising, optimism and pessimism.

Hart is the founder and editor of a marvelously original little journal, Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety (to which he makes reference in a poem in this collection). This volume, like his journal, is hard to classify, define, or categorize, but not hard to appreciate. It’s just important to remember that it won’t mean much, if you don’t think about it.

 

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Glass is Really a Liquid coverGlass is Really a Liquid

Poetry by Bruce Covey

No Tell Books, October 2010

ISBN-10: 0982600011

ISBN-13: 978-0-98260000-1-6

Paperback: 142pp; $16.99

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

These are poems that will launch you “Into the air & land, two feet before / Every syntactical permutation (green).” Covey’s syntactical permutations are designed to “keep you teetering / on the edge,” considering the “hollowed out dictionary” of our lives and the “unexpected rivalry between east and west” (that constitute “Meaning”). His permutations extend to card shuffling (“the fewer of spades,” “the thigh of hearts”); a restaurant meal (“A lobster targets your toe”); a “declaration” with alphabetical aspirations (“all all are ask bad be bring cease comes day date drive / earth end faith felt few give give grave groups hints hopes is”); and a truck accident (“Forcing a spin, what direction”).

The poems in Glass is Really a Liquid define particular moments of our lives and identities with original, uncanny precision (“the picnic part of you”; “you like it all, wish to travel / With the smoke of the blown candles wishing // This fabulous birthday wasn’t someone else’s last”). And they capture the absurdities of our reality, well, absurdly: “Breezes the train I can reach I can clip the hedge quickly, the / one with whom we are timorous & chafing tuff tonight. Which / one’s art’s? The circle at the end of the lap.”).

There are boxes and circles and lists. There are prose poems and a sonnet. And there are poems that serve as “notes” on the poems that precede them (“Notes to Section One,” etc.). There are poignant questions (“Are there more sand grains or bacteria cells? / You’d know, if they hadn’t invaded & overtaken Your lungs.”); and wistful conclusions (“Amidst what’s true and what have been”); and (uncharacteristic) little bursts of romanticism (“To ensure the sky will be blue for you / I’ll hire all the two-seaters in the world / & tie crepe paper to their tails”).

“Do adverbs crawl into soft you speak?” the poet asks in “Kneeded that.” Read this book if you like or find interest in the strange, and urgent, and mysterious, and original, and unsettling.

 

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The Last Jewish Virgin coverThe Last Jewish Virgin

A Novel of Fate

Fiction by Janice Eidus

Red Hen Press, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1597093939

ISBN-13: 978-1-59709-393-4

Paperback: 147pp; $24.95

Review by Patricia Contino

Fashion student Lillith Zeremba wants to be noticed. She also strives to be the total opposite of her mother Beth, a famous feminist professor. This good Jewish girl and sworn virgin from the Upper West Side gets more than she wished for when she walks into the “ageless” sunglass-wearing Baron Rock’s classroom in Janice Eidus’s The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate, an entertaining, original, and psychologically creepy variation of immortal love…for while Lillith suspects it, readers know right away that Baron is a vampire.

Usually, ageless male vampires and vulnerable, pure young women always find each other in remote places like the Pacific Northwest. Eidus gives city girls an undead fantasy of their own by setting her novel in contemporary New York City. Exact dates aren’t provided because vampires do not adhere to mortal time, but the story takes place before gentrification of the Lower East Side, a neighborhood Lillith finds intimidating. Then, the Dads are almost always the primary caregivers and vampire hunters. Beth is a key character because beneath her hardened interior is a hopeless romantic, something as irresistible to Baron as her naïve daughter. Finally, there is always less-menacing boyfriend material. Lillith’s classmate Colin Abel is a sweet Jewish blond boy who wants to change the world through art.

What makes The Last Jewish Virgin a fun read is how Eidus plays around with vampire lore. Lillith’s half-hearted attempt researching vampires brings her to the video store and the unnamed-yet-recognizable version of Dracula starring a Byronic rather than Satanic Frank Langella:

Tall and dashing in his swirling black cape, he broke into the virginal Miss Mina’s bedroom, standing above her as she offered him her enticing, swan-like neck, and while he looked at her with fiery eyes that commanded her to be his. And just like that, presto, she was a goner. I touched my own neck, remembering Mr. Rock’s unexpected, teasing kiss.

This feeds directly into her romantic fantasies. Had one of the Hammer Dracula films starring Christopher Lee or Murnau’s Nosferatu been available she might not be so enamored.

Or would she? The author never forgets that vampires are cruel. This is no sweet love story. Lillith’s first-person narration indicates that she is aware of what Baron is doing to her—and that she enjoys it. Baron’s treatment of Lillith as a life model and his endorsement of two female classmates bullying her are misogynistic, let alone cause for a harassment suit in ordinary circumstances. His mind games include disrupting her sleeping and eating patterns and leaving timely (vampires can make time work to their advantage) voicemails. The girl also finds herself walking long distances in a trance.

Readers will also enjoy how Eidus uses word games to tell the story. The heroine’s name is Hebrew for “demon of the night.” Depending on personal preference, the besotted Colin Abel has a name right out of the Old Testament, puritanical New England, or John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Although nothing genteel happens to our heroine there, the Jane Austen-sounding Bennett Institute of Art and Design is a thinly veiled name for The Parsons School of Design. Best and most obvious of all is the juicy substitution of “Baron” for “Count.”

The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate is a welcome addition to vampire literature. The only complaint readers might have is that this tight, vivid narrative leaves no possibility for a sequel.

 

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Greetings from Below coverGreetings from Below

Fiction by David Philip Mullins

Sarabande Books, January 2011

ISBN-10: 1932511881

ISBN-13: 978-1-932511-88-8

Paperback: 184pp, $15.95

Review by Olive Mullet

These linked stories of Nick Danze’s sexual experiences, though self-contained, are arranged chronologically from the age of fourteen through his adult years, and therefore read like a novel.

Most of the stories are set in Las Vegas, starting with the first: during a drought, fourteen-year-old Nick and his friend Kilburg steal saplings from street plantings to surround their makeshift fort in the desert. Diabetic Kilburg with his fake leg introduces Nick to alcohol and sexual yearning, and with the failure of that friendship, a pattern of Nick’s failed relationships begins. In this first story, his father is dying, and we don’t learn until the end story why he can’t let go of his memory, even writing notes to his dead father, “greetings from below,” for his advice. His incapacity to commit begins in his twenties when as a virgin, he runs away from an “Asian Sensation” prostitute, because she insists that he say he loves her. Between caring for his mother who drifts into several different addictions and his inability to break with Annie, a decent attractive girl, whom he doesn’t love, Nick starts and stops affairs mostly obsessed with overweight, older women. He scorns Las Vegas for its “broken promises, its hyped immoderation,” but his appeal of gentlemanly innocence makes him vulnerable to trickery.

He is dominated by guilt, shame and lies, as particularly witnessed in the three stories from the first person “I” perspectives, instead of the rest where Nick is distanced in third person “he” perspective. In “True Love vs. the Cigar-Store Indian” he lives across the street from a “big wooden Indian with “arms folded high on his chest and hawk eyes half closed and black.” This “giant Apache” even when it’s been carted inside the store, watches Nick:

Even at night watched me. He was just as contemptible as I was, and he reminded me of everything I detested about myself. I would look deep into him and contemplate my licentious urges and my behavior toward Annie, at times begging him out loud to stop watching me, psychotically hoping my words would have some effect. I would tell him that I wasn’t going to be like him anymore, that I was going to change for the good and he would be alone in his ignobility.

In “First Sight” Nick, the I again, is watching his frustrated wife’s affair unfold:

A smile across your face. I can see how much he means to you, Annie, and I’m moved only by an erotic excitement the likes of which I’ve never known before. At the same time, I feel myself consumed with guilt. When I think of your unrequited feelings for me, of how lonely you seem when we’re together, of what it might be like to be you, Annie—to yearn for your own spouse’s attention, to know the boundaries of your own appeal—I hate myself for ever agreeing to marry you.

In the last story, “Crash Site on a Desert Mountain,” we learn why his father haunts him. Nick says something awful to his father on their last hiking trip together, and like all his other relationships he cannot act: “I knew I had to apologize but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even cry. I just stood there, ashamed of what I had done, wondering who I was and who I might become.” Since this is not the most recent story, we learn that he can move off stasis. Thus the stories might be sad but not grim and are beautifully written.

 

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Lord Dragonfly coverLord Dragonfly

Five Sequences

Poetry by William Heyen

H_NGM_N BKS, June 2010

ISBN-10: 1453608001

ISBN-13: 978-1453608005

Paperback: 110pp; $14.95

Review by Tanya Angell Allen

William Heyen’s Lord Dragonfly was first published in 1981 by Vanguard Press, but most of the copies of its paperback edition disappeared shortly after Vanguard sold to Random House. Although three of the books’ sequences have since been republished elsewhere, now all five are together in a 2010 edition by H_NGM_N BKS. The re-issue contains minor editing by Heyen, plus a glowing appreciation by Nate Pritts—the chief editor of the press and Heyen’s former student. There’s also an essay by Matthew Henricksen which maintains that Heyen’s “personal vocabulary of deep imagery becoming peak language…seems to have predicted the direction many young poets are taking today.”

Lord Dragonfly is both a strong book of poetry and a demonstration of Transcendentalist philosophy. In the first sequence, “The Ash,” the narrator deals with the oncoming death of a friend by meditating on a tree. “Of Palestine” uses the vegetation of that country to address the general sorrow of its people. “Evening Dawning” is on growing old. The title sequence “Lord Dragonfly” has the feel of Chinese poetry, as it’s made of Koan-like stanzas such as “In the mowed field / a million crickets for hire. / My steps are money.” The stand-alone poems of “XVII Machines” are especially noteworthy for their metallic beauty and humorous titles like “The Machine that Mends Birds’ Nests” and “The Machine as Jewish Mother.” In one, “The Machine that Kisses You Goodnight”:

stands by your bed, a tree
of lights glowing soft as orchids
in the dark. It purrs and whispers
sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

Taken with the other poems in the sequence, it’s a chilling fable of how machines bring us closer both to the natural world and other humans. Perhaps Heyen’s book has more to say to us now than when it was released twenty years ago.

 

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Why We Make Gardens coverWhy We Make Gardens

(& Other Poems)

Poetry by Jeanne Larsen

Mayapple Press, October 2010

ISBN-10: 0932412955

ISBN-13: 978-0932412-959

Paperback: 74pp; $14.95

Review by Renee Emerson

Why We Make Gardens, Jeanne Larsen’s second book of poetry, is divided into five sections: “Elementals,” “Generations,” “That Green Expiring Close,” “Annihilating All That’s Made,” and “Pleasance.” Each poem incorporates the word “garden” in the title in some way—some are more metaphysical, such as “Garden of Bitterness,” and some are more literal, such as “Garden After Winter’s First Storm.” The book is unified through this theme of gardens, yet Larsen’s finely tuned sensibilities never allow the poems to fall into redundancy.

There is a lushness and close attention to sound, the way the words feel in the mouth, in Larsen’s work. Sometimes the sound is so dense and thick with consonance the lines can be difficult to read aloud; for example, in “The Gazing-Globe Garden,” the line “Carrara of columns, remembrance’s / granite acute” shows close attention to sound, the similarity of “granite” and “acute” working as a slant rhyme.

“The Garden of Wood” is one of the more striking poems in the book. True to its title, it is a poem about wood but written nearly as a personification, and ending with these resonating lines: “It tends other gardens / with shreds of its skin. / Its secret is bending, is also / refusal to bend.”

Larsen writes about other writers in several of her poems, often from the author’s perspective. Nathanial Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Anne Spencer, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are just a few of the authors she pays homage to in her poetry.

Overall, Larsen’s work captivates with its prismatic look at the word “garden,” revealing all of the intricacies and possibilities of the word.

 

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Adamantine coverAdamantine

Poetry by Shin Yu Pai

White Pine Press, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1935210181

ISBN-13: 978-1-935210-18-4

Paperback: 108pp; $16.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Adamantine is not what it announces itself to be. By which, I mean adamantine (impenetrable as rock). Compact, solid, polished, focused in on itself, grounded as rock, yes. But, not stone-y or stone-faced, even as “Stone Face”:

In Yehlio, a jagged scar
runs across the neck
of Queen’s Head Rock,
a vandal’s foiled plot
to fence and ancient land-
mark on the art market
scarred stone hardly bears
her royal profile,
years from now to fall like
Franconia’s Great Stone
Face, the old Man
Collapsing, overnight
in a slip of rock

That overnight collapse, shatters the impenetrable, draws us into the image, sends me back to the poem’s opening. Where is Yehlio, I want to know now that there is an emotional payoff I so appreciate. It’s that subtle emotional payoff that keeps these poems, ultimately, from the adamantine, despite their sharp, granite persistence.

Shin Yu Pai is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including Haiku Not Bombs and the work in this volume does seem haiku-like in many ways, capturing a big idea in a small space and a small moment in a grand line; life composed as compact narratives, often through visually compelling images, appearing as if they had been conceived in one breath/glance, intact, viewed whole (unbroken like rock). They are grounded in place (a kitchen, a street, Yehlio, the crossing of Phanh Dinh Phung & Le Van Duyet, the National Palace Museum, Shentong’s Monastery, the Taiwan Strait, the Koh-e Bab Mountains, a Japanese garden, The Yellow River, a Museum, a roadside lumberyard, Chifeng); and in raw human emotion (here are just a few of Pai’s last lines: “in self-pity;” “the other crushing illusion;” “we lose;” “hammering out its heart;” “heart on one open hand”).

Techniques that might fail attempted by less skilled poets are wildly successful in Pai’s work, the repetition of the final three lines in one of my favorite poems in the book, “Burning Monk” (“his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn”) and italics for emphasis, used to great effect in “Hozho” (“into the intimate and the vast”); and reference to one of the best known and most quoted poems in American literature (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture”): “eye / of the witness / the I of the commentator”).

Adept with shifting styles, tones, and preoccupations (an emotionally charged family memory; a sarcastic commentary on a social/cultural/political reality; a small metaphysical insight), the poet’s at her best, I think, when she is, after all, at her most adamantine, her stoniest (most solid, least overtly personal) as in “Bell(e)”:

in centuries
past, sunk
beneath soil
to draw earth’s
vital force, inert
vessel of
sound + light,
conserved
in a museum
of curative plants
the moment of
stillness &
gathering before
the shudder
of first sound
dreaming
the shake of chime,
hum &
gong

And in one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Greenhouse Effect”:

what makes the earth
suitable for life
cultivate enough
to feed a starving nation

I would argue that what makes the earth suitable for life, as much as food, is what this talented poet cultivates in Adamantine, the art of carving meaning out of stone.

 

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You Know Who You Are coverYou Know Who You Are

Poetry by Ian Williams

Wolsak & Wynn, April 2010

ISBN-10: 1894987411

ISBN-13: 978-1-894987-41-7

Paperback: 79pp; $17.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

If you’re asking who are Wolsak & Wynn, I can tell you that, located in Hamilton, Ontario, they’re the publishers of “clear, passionate Canadian voices,” a literary press with more than 122 titles published since 1986, including many winners of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. I can tell you that they produce beautiful books with smart designs on exquisite paper. And I can tell you that their website is worth checking out if you’re interested in Canadian poetry.

If you’re asking who is Ian Williams, I can tell you that he’s a young (as in under 35) Canadian poet who divides his time between Ontario and Massachusetts, where he teaches. I can tell you that his work is inventive and clever. I can tell you that his obsession, as his title suggests, is, indeed, “you” (you know who you are)—you as a reflection of me; you as other; you as not-other; you as the way you talk and the way you don’t talk; you as what you say and what you don’t say; you as voice; you as story; you as name; you as “someone there” and someone not there; and you as part of “we are all we have.” I can tell you that I think Ian Williams probably knows who he is: a poet who can get you (you!) to pay attention to what he has to say.

References to popular culture (Bollywood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Super Mario Brothers, Law & Order, the Michelin Man, TV characters, Men’s Health magazine), which I typically find off-putting, I really like and admire in this book. I like the poet’s smart, and authentically Canadian, bilingual tendencies with their marvelous attention to sound (“Nous sommes a la limite de l’amitié” / we’re at the limits of friendship [translation mine] in “Not Saying”). I like his psychological insights (“You’re on a mission / to return to the present and prevent / the future,” in “Notwithstanding” [italics the poet’s]) I like the way he plays with language (“He didn’t hear what I said / He wishes me dead for scolding him / in the kitchen to unburn the fish. // It’s about the fish, son. It’s about un. Listen: we’re both angry / at the wrong ones” in “What Remains of Us”). I like the way he spins out a story over the 11 poems of “Emergency Codes” (color coded), the biography of a character called Dre, whose end (“Coda” codes / coda – get it?) is:

          Don’t ask how
everything worked out. Do you believe it?
Dre married his babymother, got a job
in Mississauga
          What did you expect?

It helps to know that Mississauga is a suburb of Hamilton, Ontario. But you don’t need to know this to appreciate what the poet’s created here.

Above all, I loved a poem titled “Must See,” which you really must see to appreciate because its form on the page is an essential component of the piece. It’s based, explains the poet in the book’s Acknowledgements, on a form of traditional Korean poetry (Sijo), which can be translated “My body may die again and again, one hundred times again.” And it is a great example of inventiveness in the service of meaning, rather than simply for the sake of experimentation. “Must See” begins: “All Gaudí” and ends with “kingdom come.” Need I say more?

In “Triolet for You,” Williams asserts: “There is no synonym for you.” But, I disagree. Here’s one: you—future reader of Ian Williams.

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