Posted January 19, 2011
Out of the Mountains :: Alphabet of the World :: Black Seeds on a White Dish :: Faulkner's Rosary :: The San Simeon Zebras :: Smiles of the Unstoppable :: Otherwise Elsewhere :: When Last on the Mountain :: Life :: Chamber Four Fiction Anthology :: Milk Dress :: One Island :: Elegguas :: So Quick Bright Things :: Houses Are Fields :: Best Western
Fiction by Meredith Sue Willis
Ohio University Press, July 2010
Hardcover: 170pp; $39.95
Review by Alex Myers
Part of the Ohio University Press’s series in race, ethnicity, and gender in Appalachia, Meredith Sue Willis’s collection of short stories, Out of the Mountains, captures visions of life in the rural hills of West Virginia. The twelve stories contained in this volume offer a full range of emotions, from heavy sadness and defeat to joy and rebirth, as well as a full range of characters and even—remarkable for a book defined by place—a pleasant variety of settings.
Character is the strength of this collection, and the strongest in an impressive set of individuals is Willis’s Appalachian nurse, Merlee Savage. A divorced single mother struggling to raise two children and earn her college and nursing degrees, Merlee defines the toughness and resilience of a contemporary Appalachian woman. She is featured in several stories in the volume and comes into contact with the other, outside world (New York City) in “Pie Knob” as well as the other, older world of West Virginia in “Big Boss is Back.” In all of these situations, Merlee embodies the resoluteness of the region, as she says, “I’ve never especially cared for the kind of people who go around having conversion experiences every couple of years, whether it’s religion or hair color. People ought to have some consistency, in my opinion.” But consistency does not equate with boredom or even with routine in Willis’ stories, and the characters are forced to grapple with life-changing events as well as their own human nature. Again, Merlee says it best as she describes herself, as well as many other characters in the stories: “One of the things I’ve always been good at is convincing myself I’m doing one thing while I’m really doing another.”
Merlee’s statement is true not just for herself, but for the West Virginia region where these stories are set. Willis is masterful in her ability to present a place that is constantly walking the fine line between past and future, and finding itself always uncomfortable in the present. As she says herself in the collection’s afterword—a short section that is, in some ways, as enjoyable as the stories—the Appalachian region is “about a lot more than whittling and feuding.” Her stories are rooted in the tension between old and new, as when two grown children come back to visit their mother in West Virginia in “Fellowship of Kindred Minds.” They notice a new church “named the Corbin Creek Lighthouse Church of the Full Gospel” and nickname it “the Mini-mega Church of the True Majority.” Throughout this story, the two children struggle to reconcile their present-day existence with what their hometown expects of them. Wrestling with their mother’s religious sentiments in the wake of their father’s death, the daughter says, “I also thought I could really use a glass of wine, but that isn’t part of mourning in West Virginia, at least not in the house. Who knows what the men do out back.” Willis subtly nods to the stereotype of Appalachia—the men with their hard liquor in the shed—while bringing it into stride with the modern-day world. It is moments such as these that make the stories ring true.
Indeed, Willis’s stories are filled with good writing. Particularly as characters grow up and leave West Virginia, becoming pilots in Vietnam or moving to New York City, Willis crafts gorgeous metaphors that relate the bustle of big city life to the staid pace of the home towns. At times, the stories suffer from an excess of telling, particularly at the end. While some stories cut off at that tipping point, leaving the reader with a sense of resolution but still some possibility, too many of Willis’s pieces have an extra paragraph that ties up every single loose end. Although this provides a sense of closure, the endings also feel confining and restrictive. The opening story, “Triangulation,” resists both of these weaknesses. Structured around the orienteering concept that “you locate an unknown point by forming a triangle between it…and two known points,” the piece rotates between three vastly different points of view and ultimately ends with a suggestion: “isn’t it a gift to stand precisely where we stand?” rather than a definite conclusion. This reader wished more of the stories in the volume possessed this variability in form and the tensile strength of the ending.
Willis’s stories are readable and enjoyable: full of engaging plot and rich characters. Strongly evocative of place, these pieces are sure to delight anyone seeking an escape (unless the reader wants to escape rural West Virginia). Indeed, so captivating are the characters in this volume, especially those who crop up in more than one story—C.T. Savage, Roy Critchfield, Merlee Savage—that this reader hopes Meredith Sue Willis will consider finding them homes in more of her writing, perhaps a novel or a linked set of stories.
Selected Works by Eugenio Montejo
Edited & Translated from the Spanish by Kirk Nesset
University of Oklahoma Press, December 2010
Paperback: 235pp; $19.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Venezuelan poet and essayist Eugenio Montejo (1938-2008) authored 10 books of poetry, five volumes of “heteronymic” writings (works by imaginary authors), and two books of essays, a large selection of which are brought together here in this thoughtfully edited and translated bilingual book of Selected Works. The University of Oklahoma Press deserves readers’ gratitude and appreciation for publishing the originals alongside their translations (doing so essentially doubles the size of any volume), and for giving us a multi-genre volume (so many presses resist combining genres in a single book). Montejo’s work is preceded by a lengthy, informative, and exceptionally readable introductory essay by editor and translator Kirk Nesset, who provides enough biography and background to contextualize the work, but not so much as to detract from the focus on the poet’s work itself. Nesset’s introduction is appropriate for academic and non-academics alike, intelligent and serious, but free of jargon and written to elucidate, not impress.
Montejo’s work is firm, sturdy, and well balanced (there were moments when I almost thought I was reading Borges: “Miro el hombre que soy y que vuelve” / “I see the man I am and the man who returns” he writes in “El otro”/ “The Other”), often almost persistently unsentimental (“Es miope, tardo, subjetivo; / yerra por calles que declinan / hasta que el horizonte lo disuelve” / “He’s nearsighted, dense, highly internal; / he wanders streets that descend / till the horizon dissolves him”). He ponders nature’s gifts (there were moments when I thought I was reading Ruben Darío: “Mayo nos abre su día blanco / en la llovizna de amenecida” / “May opens its white day for us / in the drizzle of dawn); contemplates his own future (there were moments when I thought I was reading Vallejo: “Seré un cadáver fácil de llevar” / “I’ll be an easy cadaver to carry”); and un-speaks his life and his land and, in so doing, speaks volumes (there were moments when I thought I was reading Neruda: “Hablo y desabo en este país caluroso / de much mar y pocos barcos” / “I speak and unspeak in this hot land / that’s all sea and few ships”).
The heteronymic writings are terrific. Clever. Original. He uses varied forms and styles that are extremely engaging and satisfying: excerpts from invented notebooks, prose poems preceded by small lyrics, and list poems. And essays, too, are quite original and often quite wonderful, in particular “Los terrores de caer en K” / “Fear of Falling in K” (and yes, there were times when I thought I was reading Kafka).
In “Gramática de la ausencia”/ “The Grammar of Absence,” from his last book of poems, Montejo writes:
Ya no quiero volver a aquella calle
donde las casas demolidas
siguen en pie.
Ni tampoco leer en esta hora
esos poemas míos
que estoy seguro de no haber escrito.
I don’t want to revisit that street
where the demolished houses
Or read at this hour either
those poems of mine
I know I could not have written.
I, for one, am glad to have been introduced to the work this fine poet did, indeed, write in what serves as a valuable contribution to our awareness and understanding of the literature of Latin America.
Poetry by Shira Dentz
Shearsman Books, November 2010
Paperback: 94pp; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Dentz’s black seeds and white dishes may refer ostensibly to botany or biology (the phrase appears in “Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting”), but I can’t help thinking of their Old Testament reverberations, and some of Dentz’s preoccupations certainly support this as a credible reference, most especially “The Night is My Purse, and Here’s Why I Empty Out”: a poem based on the Hebrew alphabet and related numerical system; and “Instead of words, my father blew cinders,” the final line of the opening poem in the collection. How not to imagine the ovens evaded, escaped in those cinders? The fires (black and white) of writing (Old Testament), but also of a history of genocide.
Whatever else Dentz’s verse may also mean or refer to, every poem is decidedly one step closer to survival, one step farther from death, from those cinders. Every line closer to life and a verse removed from oblivion (from the early death of her brother, to which she alludes on several occasions; from the grief of exile; from “numbness and shade”).
As they race from death and grief and oblivion, the poems in this book are urgent, often one syllable shy of desperate:
I implant myself a new heart.
Morning I see the old one:
two pieces, brown and gummy.
Terrified, I shroud them with a vowel.
They are often philosophical and insightful in the most original of ways, as in “Autobiographical”: “Or, not beautiful, a known-by-name shape; / nothing to do but let the form of things take over.” They are often clever, as in “A Thin Green Line,” an inventive collage of a poem:
The night hikes me up on its shoulders.
Want to bear back, far inward,
not like a plant, clover cactus gas glass sage sea foam
They are quite often, if not romantic, then sexy: “The other day your voice smelled like suede / and left an imprint—two shallow marks of deer hooves.”
And once in a while, they can seem slightly “work-shopped,” just a little too worked-over, as if the urgent, sloppy emotion has been excised from them. The poems that are more intense and a little messier emotionally (while still masterfully controlled in a poetic sense) appeal to me most, and, happily, there are more of these than of the more calculated type: the poet whose feet don’t touch the ground, who can “see right into my mother and father,” who knows she has survived the cinders.
This is a book that demonstrates great skill, and I am clearly not alone in this judgment. In addition to this newly released first collection, Dentz also has a book forthcoming from CavanKerry and a chapbook from Tilt Press. Nearly every poem in this volume has found its way into print in journals as obscure as The Evergreen Chronicles (I used to be one of this journal’s editors, years before Dentz’s work appeared there, so I am entitled to categorize it as obscure), and as established as Aufgabe and Field. These poems exploit the lyrical and the casual; the historic and the ordinary; the prosaic and the poetic. I appreciate the poet’s commitment to language as its own subject: “When verbs first rose to leave,” to poetry’s power to enact history: “Our feet didn’t touch the ground all year, but we marched, gray / smoke, one leg following the other curved like scythes, turning with / the measure of blades rippling in a field”; and to the limits of her own medium: “Vowels fall downstairs, scrambled in storage.”
“How to turn oneself harmless,” she wonders in “Flight.” Certainly writing—and reading—the poems in this fine book are one method of doing so.
Poetry by Sarah Vap
Saturnalia Books, October 2010
Paperback: 75pp; $14.00
Review by Alissa Fleck
At the heart of Sarah Vap’s Faulkner’s Rosary is a sense of conflict, at once extreme yet also subdued. With regard to the book’s overarching musings on maternity and the giving-of-life process, in all its various facets from the visceral to the religious, there is a collision of intense longing, optimism, anxiety, and even violence and aggression. Vap is a master of the unexpected juxtaposition, and she carefully fuses not only the maternal with the spiritual and natural, but also the possibilities of motherhood with a kind of child-like nostalgia and attention to detail. Her narrator recalls at one point her own ejection from the gifted program due to her religious curiosities, an anecdote which sits closely to the book’s core. On a technical level, Vap reveals her chops as well:
Heat that would snarl the cathedral,
heat would wilderness
the steeple. Heat would break and rebuild
the whole hell, that held house.
Vap’s book succeeds in that it does not take the notion of motherhood to the realm of the overly sentimental (a poem that begins about the process of bearing a child will often finish with greater emphasis on a summer dress, or describe the child as the pit of a fruit)—nor the opposite—but rather sneaks in the scarce yet touching, tender moments amidst the complexities of reality: “I’d like us / to be the less delicate,” her narrator at one point pleads, among images of dragging and of smashing against rocks.
Poetry by C.J. Sage
Salmon Poetry, March 2010
Paperback: 72pp; $19.95
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
C. J. Sage’s The San Simeon Zebras, published by the Irish press Salmon Poetry, is filled with poems as exciting as the animals they portray. The pieces are quirky and gorgeous. Sometimes they become so overexcited with language they fall off the ledges they’re playing on.
The first poem, “Landscapes with Elephant Seals and Umbrellas,” begins with the image of molting elephant seals and ends with human nudes sunning themselves on a beach. This sets the tone for the rest of the bestiary, where many of Sage’s animals seem about to molt into humans in the same way her humans might molt into beasts. “How to Keep a Setter” and “How to Hold a Hummingbird,” both cleverly placed after “An Aftermath”—about the grief of a man who loses a woman who he “never would bother to tell…what most needed telling”—seem as much about certain types of humans as they are about animals. “Sonnet for Carryhouse and Keeper” is a love-story about a man and a snail.
Here’s how Sage describes a crane: “Your beak is a plier; / your head is all jaw.” A pelican: “back she throws her head to throat the little fish.” For one of her typically satisfying endings, she finishes “Lamb”: “At rest alongside the greatest beast, / your belly is to the earth, / and your little ear.” Her title poem, “The San Simeon Zebras” ends:
as the masses
of an outcast, homeless people.
—Lost so completely
everyone is, in passing, interested.
Sage’s lines are so lovely that everyone should be interested, but her occasionally overwrought language may put many potential readers off. She has a fondness for words like “verily,” and sometimes overuses alliteration and archaic accents and “O’s.” The best example is this excerpt of “Sea Canaries”:
…To bate the brink
of bygone beauty, I bear no bait. A thatch shed
on the shore would keep me closer. O idol
of the gulls and wing`ed seagirls and idle guitar
Although restraint would stop Sage from sliding into ridiculousness, her language makes her more academically interesting, especially when placed in the larger context of the New Formalist movement. Her subject matter, the conscious artificiality of her sinuous language, and her non self-aggrandizing use of the authorial “I” could arguably earn her the formerly derogatory title of “poetess.” This term has been reclaimed by the Queen of the New Formalist movement, Annie Finch, in articles such as “The Poetess in America” and “Confessions of a Postmodern Poetess” in The Body of Poetry. (Finch’s influence on Sage is highly visible. The journal Sage edits, The National Poetry Review, sponsors an “Annie Finch Prize.”) Sage’s old-fashioned language weakens some of her poems but, if given the right promotional spin, could also increase their visibility.
Another piece, “Memorandum on Human Being,” also contains an absurd final stanza. The amount of alliteration on accented syllables—two to three per line—makes the language over-bearing. The first lines read:
I have seen the mighty blueprints of belonging:
they are blue, of course, and beautiful and blurred.
I went and brushed them up against my body—
The good last line could be considered justification for the silly-sounding “B” sounds, though. It would come from their relief-filled absence in the first part of the line and the marvelous long-e rhyme: “I’d heard Delight is the equal of becoming.” This also demonstrates the other main reason to read Sage’s The San Simeon Zebras: the delight of watching a fine wordsmith develop through play.
Poetry by Jason Bredle
Magic Helicopter Press, January 2011
Paperback: 76pp, $11.95
Review by C.J. Opperthauser
This is a book of poems by a man who has very obviously figured out the formula for casual speech, reconstructed it in his own manic way, and added a few pounds of both humor and serious commentary in the process. Smiles of the Unstoppable is a strange, unique collection that is narrative-driven and conversational. The words are not poetic in nature, really, but the flow, the careful repetitions, and the masterful line-breaks are evidence of a language-commander being behind the helm. The humor pulls the collection together. My favorite bit of humor is towards the end of the book, in a poem called “Night of the Jaguar,” in which Bredle lists a bunch of characteristics people share with jaguars:
We both bite directly through the skull of our prey.
We both enjoy swimming.
We both range from Paraguay to Mexico.
We're both compact and well-muscled, with robust heads and powerful
We both reach sexual maturity at three to four years of age.
We both practice aggression avoidance behavior.
We're both the national animal of Guyana.
With this humor, Jason Bredle tricks the reader into letting down his or her guard before gutting in with deep thoughts that question average lives. Real, deep thoughts on society that sneak their way into the poems. In “Clouds,” the reader gets a look at commentary on judgments and classifications of people through very innate things, like the liking of mashed potatoes:
That was the day
someone called me an elitist fuckwad for liking mashed potatoes.
But they're the perfect side and I dare you to challenge that notion!
That was the day
someone called you
an independently wealthy Marxist poseur
for wearing a reindeer sweater.
I'd been heightening my love of mashed potatoes
to a level of parody
to illustrate a point I've since forgotten.
Bredle also has mastered a unique style of narrative which involves starting with a line and then twisting it to become a thought or a quote, changing the entire meaning or weight of the statement. He is active in this twisting and turning, with both his strange narrative and his usually subtle use of repetition, and this acts as a lasso which Bredle has the reader roped in. Smiles of the Unstoppable is a fun, refreshing ride into the mind of a poet who has a lot to say about the world, and does so with mastered techniques of narrative.
Poetry by David Rivard
Graywolf Press, December 2011
Paperback: 88pp; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
What is poetry if not, on some level, the embodiment of otherwise and elsewhere? The life beyond the very line that brings it into existence. The place the words evoke, but where they are a placeholder, so to speak. Poetry’s ability, its obligation, perhaps, to evoke what is not there or what is beyond even the concept of “there.” Rivard is preoccupied with otherwise-ness, with elsewhere-ness: “all those lives & destinations that might have been mine, but weren’t— / because there are two kinds of distance between us—towards, & away.”
He turns his awareness of, indebtedness to, and interest in otherwise and elsewhere into satisfying and acutely insightful verse:
know how you suddenly pass through yourself
as the simplest
you’ll have to sign
your name how many times
in this life?
A fixed number you
can never know.
(from “Outbound Fall River 1967”)
Another time, another place, a part of the poet and not yet part of him, as the past and the future always are really one and the same, both aspects of “else” and “other.”
“Where am I headed? Where will the touch go after I shake the carpenter’s hand,” the poet wonders in “At Large,” pondering how every small act takes place endlessly in an “elsewhere” and “otherwise” that happens long past the moment we’re experiencing and people we will never know or see.
The book becomes an obsessive accumulation of otherwises and elsewheres: “why return to what yesterday seemed to be becoming / before it became today”; “everyone feels that, everybody / understands // that somewhere & everywhere / a boy of 14 is out riding his bike”; “insert here, at the moment, the wrath of the janjawee / in Hashaba or elsewhere sweatshops / approved by theorists of economic development”; “who heals he used to”; “the iron earthiness of your mother & father outgrown, left behind”; “‘stop to let it pass,’ so you can see what else is there”; “in 1968, unknown to one another”; “in that desert half a world away”; “Not to be infinite, despite the child you once were”; and “you me he she it we they”—the first line of the poem “Master of the Offer” (the ultimate sense of otherness, those personal pronouns). Finally, “beyond all this was compassion,” the poet writes in the collection’s last poem, “Lightning with its Glare.” Beyond every scene described, beyond every poem, is the compassion for what is elsewhere and otherwise, what we are not, but can imagine; what we do not see, but may remember, predict, or create; what Rivard can bring to life through his poems.
In “Coffeehouse, Eastern Standard Time” (as opposed to coffeehouses in other time zones, elsewhere), he writes:
Don’t believe poetry –
poetry, which would use metaphor
to give grace
to the grief of everyday
homemade human failure,
indifference. As if words had not
weight, & didn’t accumulate
in you. Poetry? The evidence is skimpy
But, I don’t believe, after all, that Rivard dis-believes in poetry. He knows that every life is somehow what it is precisely because of what it isn’t. Poetry, perhaps more than any other tool at our disposal, helps us get just a little bit closer to that “isn’t,” to what was, or is, or will be, or could be otherwise and elsewhere.
The View from Writers Over 50
Edited by Vicky Lettmann, Carol Roan
Holy Cow! Press, January 2011
Paperback: 388pp; $17.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“By the time you’re fifty if you’re in your right mind / you want a divorce from yourself.” Poet Ed Meek pretty well sums up my feelings about it. And similar insights, emotional accuracy, and appealing, understated voices like Meek’s pretty well sums up most of this anthology’s opening lines. Here is Susan Pepper Robbins (“Middle Solutions,” fiction): “‘I told him, I’m not dead yet. You can have them all then, but not now. Not before then.’ Mary turns her head to me, who is not dead yet either, although almost. This year I have lost twenty pounds and gained back thirty, so I’m ten ahead.” And here is Ann Olson (“Coteau, 1969,” nonfiction): “I’m cold. It’s dark. I don’t know where the hell we’re going.” And here is Christina Lovin (“Credo at Fifty-Five”):
I believe you reap what you sow
but that sometimes you can steal
your neighbor’s watermelon
and get away with it.
I believe that swallowing watermelon
Seeds will make you a virgin pregnant
in some states.
Virgin pregnancy may be an unpredictable theme for an anthology of writers over fifty, but it likely represents a divorce from one’s typical sense of self. This anthology consists largely of more typical or expected themes for we of the over-fifty set: retirement; illness; aging family members (and selves); memories of youth; the perils of love and romance in “old age” (are we old?); past failures; past successes; children lost and found; the nursing home; wars past and present (aren’t they all one war?); and death, death, death (others, our own). And why not? What writer of any age is not preoccupied with death? Isn’t art of any kind a hedge against oblivion?
The seven dozen or so poems, stories, and essays in When Last on the Mountain—all quite appealing and readable—were selected from more than 2,100 submissions, reports editor Carol Roan in her introduction. Some of the work has been previously published; some is new. While most of the writers are fairly accomplished, with numerous publications and accolades to their credit, there are no major stars here, no household names. There isn’t much innovation or inventiveness in form or style, this work is, by and large, safe and conventional. (Is it ever safe to draw attention, in a youth-obsessed culture, to age?) Nonetheless, there is a considerable range of subjects, geographies, and perspectives.
I was impressed beyond expression by the anthology’s opening line from Judith Serin’s essay “Sharing a Room with Your Sister”: “You don’t remember anything about this; it’s all stories.” Another of those utterly perfect beginnings, the anthology’s clear strength and most appealing component. Isn’t this precisely how, on some level, we will all end up summing up our lives: it’s all stories.
Nonfiction by Keith Richards with James Fox
Little, Brown and Co., October 2010
Hardcover: 576pp; $29.99
Review by Nick Starr
Sex? Check. Drugs? Check. Rock and Roll? Check. What else would you expect from an autobiography from Rolling Stones co-founder and guitarist Keith Richards called Life? The book has all of these things in abundance, so much so that one could make the argument that they coined the now clichéd phrase for “Keef” himself. There are, however, some welcomed curve balls throughout this book including the Dickensian aspects of a childhood in post war England and references to both Mary Poppins and Master and Commander. Yes, all of that is here and more.
The bulk of this autobiography deals with the big three, Richards’s life’s work in rock and roll and an unapologetic look at his personal life which for years was an intertwining of sex and drugs. The most interesting aspects of this book deal with Richards’s progression through a life in music. The story is traced all the way back to his childhood when he first picked up a guitar that belonged to his grandfather. He becomes a disciple of the blues and begins to truly learn his craft during the formation of and through the early years of The Rolling Stones. We then get into the part of the man’s musical history that we as the general public are probably the most familiar with as he attains success beyond his wildest dreams and is granted legendary rock god status given to only a select few.
The single most fascinating element of Richards’s musical history is his working relationship with his partner in crime, Mick Jagger. We get a truly up close and personal firsthand account of the two literally being locked in a kitchen by their manager until they were able to complete their first song together (“As Tears Go By”). We then get to follow the partnership as it slowly dissolves more and more with each new level of success the band achieves to the point where the two men are working completely separate of one another. One thing that is clear, however, is that after nearly fifty years of working together, Jagger and Richards have developed a brother-like relationship where they are able to say or do anything to the other, but if any outsider dare to speak ill of the other’s counterpart, they will defend them to the end no questions asked.
Overall Life is a well-written book delivered in a very conversational style—as I read, I could hear Richards’ voice narrating every word. It made for a quick read, and I would highly recommend it to any fan of Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, music, or debauchery in general.
Outstanding Stories from the Web 2009/2010
Ed. Michael Beeman, Sean Clark, Eric Markowsky, et al
Chamber Four, 2010
Electronic PDF: 312pp; Free.
Review by Henry F. Tonn
Chamber Four is a fledgling operation which has burst onto the scene with all guns blazing. A visit to their site reveals book reviews plus their reviews of other people’s book reviews. There is a section entitled “Great Reads” which includes, among others, a review of the wonderful 1972 novel Watership Down by Richard Adams. There is a section called “The Best Places to Read Online,” and there is the announcement that the magazine is now accepting submissions to publish their own fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art. But, most interestingly, they have recently published their anthology of the best short stories published on the web in 2009 and 2010. And it is a good one.
This anthology includes one of the best short stories I’ve read this year, “Liz Phair and the Most Perfect Sentence,” by Andrea Uptmor, about a young woman who reads Tolstoy and believes her meaning in life is to write and to love her partner, Liz Phair, until she develops writer’s block and the relationship goes on the rocks. Here is an illustrative passage:
There are a lot of different first kisses. In one, I can imagine it happening right there, in the emergency room, at the same time my arm is re-fractured. Liz Phair touching her rainbow mouth to mine at the exact moment of the crunch, so my mind explodes in a fountain of dopamine and adrenaline and serotonin.
Also included is one of the best stories I read in 2009, “Semolinian Equinox,” by Svetlana Lavochkina, a walk on the wild side, Russian style. It concerns the lives and loves of students at Donetsk University in the ‘90’s while they struggle for money and food while trying to attain degrees. This story was also an honorable mention in the Million Writers’ Award.
A stunningly beautiful and poignant story comes from the pen of L.E. Miller, “Peacock,” about a suburban housewife who develops a fascination for an aloof neighbor who tries to socialize her very shy child at the playground while simultaneously fending off any friendly overtures from the rest of the mothers. The woman eventually leaves her husband to live in France, and the housewife seeks to discover why.
For change of pace, try “The Naturalists,” by B.J. Hollars, about a father and son who join a nudist colony, and the father keeps breaking one of the sacred rules: don’t have an erection in company. Things get more complicated when the estranged mother learns of her son’s location and shows up with her 6’9” basketball star boyfriend to re-claim him. Good, light-hearted humor here, which is hard to find in the literary world anymore.
Lastly is the Kafka-like “American Subsidiary,” by William Pierce, a bizarre, tongue-in-cheek account of a bureaucrat who works in an office where everyone is sucking up to a boss who is an example of the Peter Principle—a man who has risen to his level of incompetency. However, reality is a matter of perception in this tale, particularly when the boss dresses nice: “You couldn’t think about the Peter Principle when Herr Halsa wore that suit jacket.”
Of the various online anthologies I have read, this is the best one, and I’m glad they put forth such monumental effort for everyone. One should feel obligated to check it out: just click here: http://chamberfour.com/anthology/
Poetry by Nicole Cooley
Alice James Books, November 2010
Paperback: 78pp; $15.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Milk Dress has many strengths, exhibiting great poetic control and elegance, but no aspect of the book is more interesting to me than Cooley’s successful linking of “world events” and “bodily/personal events,” her experience of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, illness, loss and birth (rebirth?) again “against” (“Write against narrative” she begins in “Homeland Security,” the opening poem) the events of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the daily news, the threat of global disaster. “Write against blankness,” she instructs herself, and, by implication, simultaneously instructs us: read against blankness (“white, white, white”), the empty post-terrorist sky; the empty post-pregnancy crib; the unturned (pre-and-post reading) page.
Cooley takes us from morning sickness experienced carrying a first child (“My body is its own shipwreck”); through the baby’s problematic birth, illness, and death (“Body that now in the world she can’t keep safe”); and finally into a newly renewed sense of life with the daughters who (later) thrive (“Now my two girls running on the lawn beyond // the museum, behind the black gate, my girls / who cannot be bodiless.”)
Write/read against narrative: in Milk Dress every body, every experience, every event is a text—or relates to a text—of one kind or another. Pregnancy is a Cassatt print in Special Collections (“Pregnant at the Archive”). Life with a newborn, the poet imagines, is mother and child “like the pages of a book, unwritten, open forever.” The experience of emergency hospitalization is a photograph (“Photograph #1, The Lying in Hospital”). The events of 9/11 are the subject of a student writing class (“Pedagogy, 2001”). Coping with disaster requires an “instruction manual,” and is the source for a small thesaurus: “mischance, misfortune, misadventure, mishap.” Taking care of a sick child sends an anxious mother to a time-honored reference book (“Dr. Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby Care and Child Care”). After surviving great trauma and loss, “skin is a map” (“Ghazal of Nines”) and the marriage bed, where new life (and new poems) will be conceived, is a “canvas.”
Milk Dress is the rare “project” book that manages to be as interesting to a reader as it likely was, in process, to its maker. It strives carefully and deliberately to bring together the whole of its narrative, while pausing for just the right click of the shutter, just the right brush stroke at each image (I’m thinking here of Cooley’s documentary poems, photographs, references to paintings). This is narrative in the service of poetic elegance and economy; life as disaster, and disaster as text. Life, in fact, as death; and as new life, new text. The page, finally, turned.
Poetry by Gretchen Steele Pratt
Anhinga Press, 2011
Paperback: 80pp; $17.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Tony Hoagland selected One Island for the 2009 Robert Dana Prize for Poetry, and it’s indisputably a winner of a book. Pratt is a masterful poet, although her effectiveness is—in the happiest of ways—difficult to describe. Exploiting poetry’s most powerful and effective strategies (economy of language; unusual syntactical arrangements; unexpected, but comprehensible, combinations of words and phrases; a heightened sense of sound and rhythm, among them), the poet turns the ordinary into the oddly exceptional and, often, the exceptionally odd. The book’s opening line, for starters: “The past is a humidity.”
Pratt exploits to great advantage one of poetry’s most potent (and, all too often these days, I find, under-practiced) tactics: precision. In fact, I would say that it’s the oddly exceptional/exceptionally odd to which I refer above that is largely responsible for the way in which the images in this slender volume are carefully managed to evoke responses of great specificity. Here are the opening lines of “Road Rising into Deep Grass”:
All I know about barns I know
From the highway. They apple
The horizon with their fragrant
Rotting. Yesterday, I was in love
So the barns disheveled themselves
Noun as verb (to “apple the horizon”) becomes an unforgettable visual image, small barns dotting the view the way apples in the orchard, seen from a distance, dot the rows of trees, unrecognizable except as shape and color, taking up space, almost as an abstract design. The barns smell like apples (fragrant with rotting), ripe with unknown/imagined stories and history (“All I know of barns I know from the highway”). Adjective as verb (“barns disheveled themselves”) heightens the act of the disheveling, again bringing precision to the act and the emotions evoked.
The poet is, as it happens, conscious of her own quest for precision in “I Try to Hear the Island Disappearing”:
To hear cigarette as only a sound, some
of those ashes on red leather,
Wild rose and no taste of fuchsia petals between my teeth,
bathing suits drying on the rocks –
And tapdance free of the clicking in Helene’s basement,
her red hair, it all coming undone.
Highway empty of the cold, all those songs,
asphalt buckled with frost
Here is the poet on the road again (highway), disheveling the memories (“coming undone,” “buckled with frost”), listening hard for the unique and distinct sounds of her own stories, and—precisely—only the sounds (“only a sound, none of those ashes”). Of course that quest for precision in one sense (sense as meaning, and sense as type) has given us precise visual images, too (the red leather, the red hair, tap shoes, frost on pavement). Finally, here is the poet, summing up her own poem’s efforts:
To hear the clear absence of a life –
to stand under the streetlamp
Without any snow sifting down through the orange light,
without any histories stapled to the telephone pole.
Not only have these precise sounds and sights added up to an impossibly present sense of “absence” (missing), that absence is now complicated by a history we could not have foreseen or guessed, a life story stapled to a telephone pole (as in gone missing). Death, yes (“Let cemetery mean nothing”); disappeared (and I hear that precise word’s new precise echo in the poem’s title now), unexpected, startling, desperately, brilliantly sad. I would be tempted to say this is one of the most expertly crafted poems in the volume, if there weren’t a whole volume of others equally effective and effecting.
And she saves the best for last, “One Island” (after Neruda), a series of 20 poems of couplets, each of which begins with an italicized question (“Why did I return to the indifference of limitless ocean?”; “Do thoughts of love fall into extinct volcanoes?”). In these poems, Pratt demonstrates that it is, indeed, possible to tell a family story, a personal story, in poetry—to craft a narrative while relying on poetry’s unique strengths and appeal (as described earlier in this review). Poetry is not, in fact, lines of prose broken up across a page to fool us into believing it is not prose. It is truly another endeavor altogether: “Do you not see a threat in the bloody silk of the poppy?”
To close this all too brief review, I return to Pratt’s opening poem, “Rodman’s Hollow,” in which she anticipates these poems’ controlled, yet often overwhelming emotion (I am tempted to say sadness) and announces what drives (those highways) One Island: “On this blue planet – Oh life enough!” With poems like these, life does—almost, almost—seem enough.
Poetry by Kamau Brathwaite
Wesleyan University Press, October 2010
Hardcover: 123pp; $22.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
The ten sections of Elegguas are structured around a series of “Letters to Zea Mexican.” I needed to know who she was (the first letter begins with her death, seeing her for the last time) and she wasn’t hard to find. A quick search online turned up summaries and reviews of Brathwaite’s Zea Mexican Diary (1993), an award-winning memoir/diary about the death from cancer in 1986 of his wife, whom he called Zea Mexican, an allusion to her ancestry. The first letter in Elegguas, is, in fact, dated 1986, the year of her death. Brathwaite, who is from Barbados where he still makes his home part-time (he spends the rest of his time in New York where he teaches at NYU), is a prolific and highly regarded writer both in the Caribbean and in the United States. I confess, however, and with no small measure of embarrassment, that I was not familiar with his work until Elegguas, and I found it helpful to learn about his earlier writing to contextualize and understand this book.
This is a handsome, thoughtfully produced volume, shaped and sized to respect the poems’ requirements for special graphic treatments, page formats, and line lengths, which include changing font types, styles, and sizes; a variety of symbols; narrow, black-line margins bordering the “Letters” text; large drop caps; long, broad lines; irregular spacing; and related visual elements. The design is effective and compelling.
Elegguas (the term, jacket copy informs me, is a combination of “elegies” and “Ellegua,” the Yoruba deity of the threshold) is part-love story, part-family album, part-national history (a series of biographical poems of assassinated political leaders/revolutionaries.) The language varies as much, if not more or more dramatically in many ways, than the graphical treatments, from the intimate and colloquial diction of the work addressed to Zea Mexican, to the lyrical conventions of contemporary western poetry, to neologisms and invented forms, to the grammatical constructs of Caribbean speech. Brathwaite is equally adept and comfortable in all of these idioms, which move fluidly, as does the poet through time and personal and national history as they unfold from letter/poem to poem, between geographies, cultures, and histories.
Brathwaite is a poet capable of great eloquence and elegance (“our wild unaccountable lies”; “solitude a silver thing”); musical precision (“it is that reggae reggae regaae riddim that Xplodes the prison burns the clock”); and inventiveness, as in the style of script he has fashioned that is both the reflection of and the antithesis of the spoken word (“This man proud of you Zea Mexican / as he is from / the very beginning when you first / walk towards me at that dance at NormaForde & KP notice but nvr more so than the day I take you home to RoundHouse and Mile&Quarter & the ancestors evvabody from Mother to Joan & John & all the aunts and uncles & St Elmo i remember”).
I want to be careful not to portray as exotic aspects of Brathwaite’s work that are unfamiliar to me, but which might not be to a reader from his home in Cowpastor, Barbados. Here’s where my online searches failed, me, however. An attempt to decipher the words and phrases I did not recognize in the ninth section, which begins “the writing of the sea did not result / in its escarpment / she said,” proved difficult. “Guernei,” turned out to be a type of sea snail (this made perfect sense, of course); but “thussaluttata” eluded me. I did not, of course, need a dictionary to figure out “unexpected,” but is “TransssaluttatA” part invention or all invention? Perhaps the larger question is do I need to know what has concrete referents and what is pure invention to appreciate the work or to understand most of what I need to about the stories revealed here? And, the answer, happily, is no. In fact, at the risk of making something seem exotic, which, inherently, is not “foreign,” I would say the work does, in some ways, strive to have me ask these very questions.
And, ultimately, who needs a reference manual to understand these poems’ emotional power? Here are the final lines from the book’s conclusion, the last letter to Zea Mexican, subtitled “The Crossing”:
…setting out to find her in that landscape over there so near
so far far away in the grey green going-
>down evening sun forever & forever<
Heartease Which is where she is/in that
soft distance shining & i’m suddently & at
last happy & very very sad & lonely at h
(e) same time because she feelin so lonely
but somehow at peace & there was noth
ing i cd do nothing nothing, i cd do any <
more nothing i cd ever do ever & ever a-
gain but to lose her there & that way wh-
ere i cd see & not see her beyond th-
at valley high up here in the
Poetry by Gail Wronsky
Translated to Spanish by Alicia Partnoy
What Books Press, October 2010
Paperback: 163pp; $15.50
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
If some of us want, and many of us do, to read translations in English of work written in other languages, it stands to reason that readers of other languages—Spanish, for example—might want to read poems written originally in English. Wronsky has translated Argentine poet Partnoy’s poetry into English. With So Quick Bright Things / Tan Pronto las Cosas, it’s Partnoy’s turn, beginning with a title (thank you Shakespeare) that’s brilliantly and awfully hard to translate. I applaud Partnoy for her smart, vivid translations of work that is exceptionally difficult to render in another language.
Wronsky’s poems are fluid and “effusive” (there is a series of poems titled “Effusion 1,” etc.), yet also controlled, carefully sculpted. Here is the first “Effusion”:
Some of us
are so obsessed with the lyric past
that we die of it.
it has the permanence of
bronze although it was conceived
in clay or plaster. Or by a
flirting or murdering.
Every poem in the volume is similarly sculpted, drawn elegantly across the page making use of the physical space of the page to breathe a kind of lyrical eloquence into the effusive (but refined) energy of the lines. A “striptease” (“In Imitation of a Dream”), showy, but partially concealed.
The lyric past, the dream imitated, that obsesses Wronsky (and by extension her readers) is Shakespeare’s A Midnight Summer Night’s Dream. She modernizes the tale of Titania, Oberon, and Puck, ponders their “movie star” relevance, their “wireless telephone” presence; the “real place” they can have in a modern day fantasy, an erotic contemporary love story. These poems, like the play on which they are based, are dreamy and surreal, witty and other-worldly.
Despite their magical references and quality, these poems (or it this one long drama of a poem?) also ask us to consider some truly earthly concerns, none the least of which is the meaning of these poems themselves:
having noticed the way fragments dilute
the way the poem pulls to remove itself
from its subject.
Pulled both toward and away from its subject, this an ambitious project of a book, made more so by its bilingual incarnation. It has made me want to read, not as you might expect, Shakespeare, but the lyric past composed by Partnoy and Wronsky. This bright book has made me want to know what came before, how these poets found their way to this strange, quick, dreamy midnight of a book.
Poetry by Taije Silverman
Louisiana State University Press, May 2009
Paperback: 85pp; $17.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Houses are Fields joins the fast-growing genre of illness memoirs in verse. (In the last week alone, I’ve encountered no fewer than three such books published in 2010. And I am aware that there are many more.) Silverman’s poems treat the subject of a mother’s brain tumor, exploring relationships between a child and her dying (mother) and well (father) parents; the meaning of death; the nature of illness; and the power—and limits—of memory.
These poems are written in simple, sometimes spare, even understated, language (“Then the cheek and the swelled skin / under, and the pink chin, trembling”). They are fraught with emotion, yet often restrained (“When we imagine someone asking us / the answer is sadness”). They are frequently poignant (“At night in the swept yellow gleam of the kitchen / I sit with my father and watch while he eats // I offer a secret or ask for a story”); sometimes anxious (“Someone is singing, somewhere else. I hear things. / I could not ever leave the house”); and infrequently, but understandably, angry (“And here in the mirror / my mother’s face / is a ball of dough. Who / the fuck. Do you know / you’re you, I asked, underneath it. No?”) It’s the rhyming (dough/know/no) that keeps these lines from “Fugue” from becoming simply ranting or anger out of control, and which demonstrates Silverman’s competence and care as a poet.
A series of “Little by Little” poems is quite lyrically satisfying, as is a long poem “Poem to Keep What I Love,” the penultimate in the book, which contains lovely lines that are less conversational than the style of many of the poems and which change the pace in useful ways. In the book’s final poem, “The Spring Before Spring,” the poet draws the entire collection to a loving and hopeful conclusion: “We are grateful for your love, my mother said. / It makes your heart strong.” These poems will make you hurt, more so if you have dealt with the devastating illness of a loved one, but they may also help you heal.
and Other Poems
Poetry by Eric Gudas
Silverfish Review Press, March 2010
Paperback: 75pp; $14.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Best Western, like previous Gerald Cable Award Book Series winners, is composed almost entirely of narrative poems in accessible and familiar language intended to draw us easily and naturally into their scenes and stories. Gudas is especially adept at creating a credible and almost palpable atmosphere through small, seemingly ordinary detail, and in so doing, heightening his stories’ emotional impact. Each scene becomes, in essence, a minor drama of human experience, often one with which the reader can identify, if not empathize.
Pondering who will drink the orange juice left over at a business meeting leads him, through a series of related images, to recollect a woman he saw earlier sobbing into a pay phone, and leading us to wonder what sadness she is enduring, what griefs we all endure. The “suffocating summer dusk” of a drive the poet takes with his father to his grandmother’s funeral leads us to remember sad summer twilights we have ourselves known. In “A Glimpse,” the poet considers the janitor’s mop and bucket, the empty trash cans, and imagines the life of the man whose work it is to keep the hall so clean “it squeaks” beneath his feet. Do any of us notice the clean floors on which we walk, the trash cans emptied of the day’s debris?
Imagining “someone else’s pain” (his own, and yours and mine by implication) is the work the poet has assigned himself, from the orange juice in the collection’s first poem, to “Wherever,” one of the final pieces in the collection:
Once, to be
someone, I had
where—on the steps
of a cabin deep
in the woods, looking
up at the tin-foil sky:
or on a crowded
noonday New York
It’s his work to be lots of “somewheres,” to speculate about the world as it is experienced by lots of someones.
The book’s final poem, “945 Pecan Place,” brings together all of his preoccupations, the precision of place/the address (945), “this run-down suburban house”; the small detail of daily life (“the checks we wrote all yesterday afternoon: $68.74 to Pacific Bell; $45 to Sutter Medical, etc.”; and the larger stories these details reveal); the daily grind (“since ten you’ve been standing behind a cash register passing vermicelli, skim milk, chicken breasts, and bottles of carbonated water over the scanner’s red eye”); and the emotional underpinnings of our lives (“But love, common as the oranges on our neighbors’ tree, spreads itself half-unseen beneath around us”). Bringing into the full light of day the half-seen is the work poet Eric Gudas has taken on, and he has succeeded at it.