NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted March 3, 2011

Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium :: You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake :: then, we were still living :: Saint Erasure :: Head Off & Split :: Asunder :: Eden Lake :: Fireflies in the Mist :: Triggermoon Triggermoon :: I & We :: Horizontal Surfaces :: My Business is to Create :: This Isa Nice Neighborhood :: Jargon :: A Beautiful Name for a Girl

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Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium coverOur Chrome Arms of Gymnasium

Poetry by Crystal Curry

Slope Editions, October 2010

ISBN-10: 0977769852

ISBN-13: 978-0-97776-985-8

Paperback: 94pp; $14.95

Review by Caleb Tankersley

In her first full-length poetry collection, Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium, Crystal Curry takes a daring and fresh stylistic approach. Chrome Arms displays less of a focus on the cryptic imagery that is popular today, filling that vacuum with a long-lost poetic art: fun. This book was a sheer pleasure to read. While images still exist in the poems, Curry places more emphasis on wordplay and syllables; bouncy and melodic, some of her lines just sound damn cool when read aloud, such as this excerpt from “Cherries”:

We wanted it so sizzling seven
we fell into a doghouse for king watermelon. For you,
a doghouse, for balloon bars. We did it so diamond deluxe,
we wanted it more pretend, so we did it on Santa’s
jackpot bed & felt so very more big pulsar then—

Don’t mistake Curry’s light and eccentric technique for work that is easy or shallow. Her delicate style in poems like “Love Chant” and “Tract” is so finely crafted, the changing of a single letter would interrupt the balance of the lines as they flow off one’s tongue, imbuing Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium with a deep sense of rhythm. Other poems, such as “Drink To” temper this melodic style with a comically bitter and cynical tone. “How I Explain Myself to Former, Current & Potential Husbands” features Curry’s own brand of dark humor:

I am arching and pregnant with dying postulates.
I will be the ellipsis between one & every other.
I am frigging anachronistic, so said all the nuns.
I will float in the music of liminal sounds.
I lived on spent bullet shells for a number of years.
I’m gold & I rim commemorative plates.
I was highly prized jackfruit & then I was rags.
I conduced.

This subtle undermining becomes more pronounced as the collection progresses, most especially noted in an entire section of religiously titled and themed works. Curry—a child of the Midwest—delves into the angst of religious confusion in “Rite,” “Confession,” “Vow,” and in this section from “Moral”:

if the body looses us lickety trees
on dandified trees &
                                when the tongue
teases some triune what does it do
for the long over-arching long arm of the long
to a bright assertion the bud responds
to a vis-à-vis
or is it a vaz
or searching the cream on each
                                            other’s nose

In Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium, Crystal Curry loosens the vice grip that concrete images often holds over writing. Moving away from the tendency to appeal to readers solely on the level of their mental projections, Curry bridges the gap between pretentious and experiential poetry, expanding the minds of her readers in the process.

 

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You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake coverYou and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake

Poetry by Anna Moschovakis

Coffee House Press, January 2011

ISBN-10: 1566892503

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-250-6

Paperback: 119pp; $16.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Moschovakis explains in her acknowledgments that the (rare and odd) books that served as sources for many of the “major poems” in the collection were discovered and purchased at the Bibliobarn, “a miraculous used bookstore in South Kortright, NY.” As it happens, I have been in the most-assuredly-miraculous Bibliobarn in the Hudson Valley, and it would be difficult for any poet to leave this store without an armful of finds that will inform one’s writing for years. The book’s opening from its “[prologue]” makes the best argument for the wonder of the Bibliobarn’s inventory: “The problem is I don’t care whether I convince you or not / In a perfect world I would be able to convince you of this.”

Of course, these lines are not about the bookstore but about poetry itself. Between her title, this first couplet, and the explanation about the works’ sources, I think Moschovakis has captured the essence of the poetic enterprise. We’re always approaching something knowing we do not inhabit a perfect world. Art always begins, to some degree, with a problem, and everything we create is influenced by surprising sources, acknowledged or otherwise. Sometimes it’s not clear if a poem is meant to convince us that the problem as perceived by the poet is what’s real and true, and sometimes it’s the poet’s solution we’ll need convincing of.

This is a tremendously exciting book that balances lyrical impulses, family stories, anthropological and historical realities, and metaphysical inclinations. The variety of forms; an astute sense of timing; restraint from excess juxtaposed with exuberance, where appropriate; and the forward motion of an original intelligence at work create an appealing, satisfying, and inspiring set of poems. Readers of my reviews will know that I have a personal bias in favor of poetry that cares about, and makes reference to, its linguistic-ness and works as meta-text, and this poet does not disappoint: “What can a poem kill?” And I’ve made no secret of my preference for poems that break my heart. Moschovakis is adept at getting inside and twisting the knife, too.

Frankly, I can’t do the book justice in this brief review, so much of it defies description and is successful for that very reason:

In translation, compensation refers to the attempt to make up for untranslatability between tongues. For example, by replacing rhyme, less prevalent in some languages than others, with alliteration. Or inventing a pun in line ten of a translation because the pun in line five proved impossible to render.

You may never have a chance to go to the Bibliobarn. But Coffee House Books are not too hard, happily, to find. Approach this one alone or with others. But, approach it!

 

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then, we were still living coverthen, we were still living

Poetry by Michael Klein

GenPop Books, October 2010

ISBN-10: 0982359411

ISBN-13: 978-0-9823594-1-9

Paperback: 63pp; $15.00

Review by Kimberly Steele

When Ben Franklin famously wrote “Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” he was not only ripping off Daniel Defoe, but he was also failing to anticipate Michael Klein’s second poetry book in 17 years, then, we were still living. Klein doesn’t actually have much to say about taxes, but he might take issue with “death” being “certain,” at least in the fatalistic way we tend to perceive it.

Klein transitions into a different kind of vocabulary on the topic of death without setting off any alarms, subtly restructuring the way we perceive the chasm between the living and the dead. His treatment of the matter is so casual and understated that the leap feels natural and comfortable. By the time we notice him tiptoeing around our preconceived notions, he has already stomped straight through the heart of them. Moreover, he knows he’s secured a captive audience as he conveys privileged information we’ve always secretly wanted to hear.

Klein uses September 11 as the backdrop for his message, which can initially seem a cause for concern. September 11 poetry often feels entitled to devolve into indulgent sentimentality without providing textual justification, but while Klein’s work has a tendency to be melancholy and thoughtful, it never encourages gratuitous sniveling. He avoids this gaping pitfall, much to the reader’s relief, partly by using the terrorist attack as both example and metaphor, but never as end in itself. The poems are “about” something else—a recalibration of life and death, an inversion of our dearly held philosophies that no longer hold up.

Life and death mirror each other. Though there is an impenetrable wall that separates them, they are simply parallel worlds. In “The mirror,” the speaker sees his dead twin brother in his passing reflection. His brother’s old mannerisms greet him on the surface of the glass before the speaker regains control of his reflection and, “just as fast – it’s me / as I am in life with him, and as he is in death with me.”

The condition of being a twin highlights this bizarre fluidity between life and death. In “The twin,” the speaker reaches out from a state before embodiment, just after conception, when he has a soul but no form of his own. “I wasn’t supposed to have a body. I am not from a family of bodies.” His “family” here is not his nuclear, biological one, but a “family” of hypothetical twins—duplicates, beings whose only purpose is mimicry. He speaks of “[m]y soul,” using the possessive pronoun to indicate that he “has” things. But if he is disembodied, exactly what aspect of him possesses the soul? Does he “have” one, or is he one? Alternatively, perhaps he exists in some chasm between life and death, where being a twin allows him to experience non-being in ways most of us couldn’t comprehend. He admits:

My soul was already confused.
It didn’t know how consciousness pulled the body
into the world or pulled it out of the world.
My soul was inside the inside.

So there is another realm, a place one can be “inside,” whence one can talk about not yet “living,” as the unborn twin does, or about having “lived” before, in the past tense. Alternate states of being exist, but we don’t notice them until we have a reason to pay attention and get back to the basics of human nature. Death and life are the same thing—a division, a membrane that separates one condition from another. Sometimes there exists an “abyss” or passage between them into which we spill, transcending our physical boundaries. In “We can’t live with the dead,” the speaker has found a way to “feel the dead” by inhabiting

a space we forgot something in. We think this
is still my life when really it is you emptying
into a sublime coda for the dead a falling.

This is what happened on September 11, when we could all “feel the dead,” because we were forced to walk into that space “we forgot something in.” In “2001,”—a poem that invokes both the year of the terrorist attacks and the ominous sci-fi Stanley Kubrick film—Klein reminds us that the attack on the “twin” towers “wasn’t like the movies and it wasn’t real.” It was neither reality nor artifice (known nor unknown, life nor death), but something in between: “our entirety emptying into the fully realized emptiness.” And that moment, we, as a collective consciousness, understood what the disembodied twin was struggling to convey while his soul was searching for a vehicle. “Then,” Klein says, expertly and beautifully closing in, “we were still living.”

 

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Saint Erasure coverSaint Erasure

Poetry by Donna de la Perrière

Talisman House, December 2010

ISBN-10: 1584980761

ISBN 13: 978-1-58498-076-6

Paperback: 63pp; $13.95

Review by Kristin Abraham

Just one year after the publication of her first full-length book of poems (True Crime, Talisman House, 2009), Donna de la Perrière has presented us with another equally-stunning volume, precisely crafted and devastatingly haunting.

Saint Erasure is an exploration of female identity, with a series of poems that range from vivid and aching internal discourse to the ideas of antiquated “hysteria” and demonic possession, and their relationship to the present-day nomenclature: depression.

In these poems, “the body carrie[s] on for years” while the mind/soul becomes a separate entity, far removed from biological life. The speakers in these poems struggle to come to terms with self and its variations and responsibilities:

nine temperaments, nine flights, each a type of soul
not as pathology but as a part of the self
belief of being persecuted, possessed by a demon:
turbulent sleep, palpitations, a simple sadness of the heart
it came to this:
        one was Atlas, growing tired, fearing she’d drop the world
        one a fragile-shelled snail, intricate and unfurled
        the last a special secret brew, quiet, unending, to keep them
        from despair so they would not offend their god

It is nearly impossible for a reader to resist being swept away by the torment in their voices, to resist feeling the pain and confusion:

house swept and dusted. a creature even remotely like. wished to satiate
rather than have itself extinguished. (hardships of its own condition.)
everything is distance. an increased susceptibility. as if an oversight. An
awful roar. the bearer and the fellow bearer. the efforts of one so soon
awake. with sleepiness is soon asleep. an abstract heaven over a naked
rock.

It isn’t simply word choice that makes these poems so electric. De la Perrière is a master of breath and line; she uses limited (yet highly precise) punctuation and often creates caesura with space within her lines (a lá Gary Snyder):

getting a coffee perhaps    running errands     anyhow you
are in line for something    you are doing fine    you are
standing in line    people talking around you     and you
ignore this other    thing because it will go away     you think
it will probably go away you will concentrate think
clearly    but still this other thing is happening also

Without punctuation, the language is allowed to accelerate and take on the slightly frantic, slightly paranoid internal dialog of depression; the caesuras and enjambment denote only a brief hesitation, a pause much quicker than any punctuation would permit. These pauses are timed precisely with the natural breaks in language: we hear an intake of breath in these gaps, a quick gasp, a quick heartbeat:

in the real body there is always
the sound of the ocean
a frantic
tapping a dull
hum a high rushing
of air in the real body
cars flash by the end
of a tunnel in the real
body things are caged
and trampled

These poems are written to be heard. Read them aloud when you read this book; they have the ability to enter on the breath and to possess a reader, just as the speakers in the poems are possessed by their trauma.

Saint Erasure is a mystifying collection of poems, one to turn to often, one to carry with you everywhere. Talisman House should feel privileged to have produced not one, but two of de la Perrière’s manuscripts.

 

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Head Off & Split coverHead Off & Split

Poetry by Nikky Finney

Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, February 2011

ISBN-10: 0810152169

ISBN-13: 978-0-8101-5216-8

Paperback: 97pp; $15.95

Review by JodiAnn Stevenson

Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split is a collection of 27 poems arranged in 3 sections titled, “The Hard • Headed,” “The Head • over • Heels,” and “The Head • Waters.” The first and last poems stand outside these sections and bookend the collection on a thematic level. The theme of this stunning collection of poems is emotional evisceration which is symbolized by the central image suggested by the title: a beheaded and gutted fish.

In the first piece of the collection, “Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction,” the poet introduces us to this image in the story of a girl who is fetching fish for her family at the market. When the fishmonger asks, “Head off & split?”, Errand Girl politely answers “Yes” but she seems disturbed by what mysterious treasures are being cut away. Errand Girl grows up to be a woman who knows better than to answer yes to this question: “This time she wants what she was once sent for left whole, just as it was pulled from the sea, everything born to it still in place.” In the final piece of the collection, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica,” the poet advises, “Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss, & cut away.”

For the poet and the speaker of these poems, it is necessary to keep the guts, to look deeply into them, to hold them up for others to see and accept that they are parts of us we cannot deny. This seems to be the basic underpinning of the political subject matter Finney launches into in the first section of the book. She begins with a portrait of Rosa Parks, in “Red Velvet,” then moves to tell the story of victims of the Hurricane Katrina Massacre in “Left,” and finishes off this section with cunning indictments of both George W. in “Plunder,” and one of his henchman in “The Condoleezza Suite.” In each of these poems the politics is not masked but underscored by nearly-painful attention to personal detail.

The second section of the book explores territory that is less globally political and more personal to the speaker: Sex, Love, Family. In “Orangerie,” Finney writes,

The arc of your boneless back flags above me
We are blind discoverers, the nine seas pool
between us, blue curves, maritime, sheath of
surrender, limbed night.

The personal is as urgent, as worthy of palpably rich language as the political in Finney’s work.

The final section of the book becomes an exploration of where personal and political overlap. Personal decisions become minor political victories and major political statements in the story these poems tell. In the title poem, Errand Girl is all grown up and leaving her parents behind after spending Christmas with them. The poet then launches into a surreal account of the speaker herself being cut open and gutted by the fishmonger then sold off, in parts, to excited customers:

The fishmonger lays me on the table    He chooses a
smaller knife for the rest of my drive    The skin of my
torso is peeled back to reveal    What is left What it will
take for me to leave them behind    The 803rd time
How can I drive back to my life ahead    Each time the
leaving hardens the soft tissue of my birth    This time
he says    He will only take the head and the pearl green
eyes    Next time he says The lungs The heart sac
The liver Will all have to go along    What can you do
in this life without the parts you need    To feel the bend
in the road?    I am head off & split    Perfectly served

From beginning to end, Head Off & Split offers the reader politically fierce and personally fearless candidness. Finney puts all of her cards (or guts and parts) on the table and invites us to read them with her. At every level and at every turn, Finney’s poetry is cutting, breathtaking and masterfully precise. As if the content and the language were not compelling enough, Finney also manages to be a formally acrobatic poet. “Resurrection of Errand Girl…” is a prose poem. “Plunder” is a kind of extended crown of sonnets. The title poem, “Head Off & Split” does away completely with punctuation and also manages to move into magical realism. Finney allows her tone and material to dictate the form of each piece leaving us with a formally eclectic collection tightly bound by its thematic preoccupations. This is a stunning book; the sort that reminds the reader of some of poetry’s highest aspirations.

 

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Asunder coverAsunder

Fiction by Robert Lopez

Dzanc Books, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0982631812

ISBN-13: 978-0982631812

Paperback: 165pp; $16.95

Review by Alex Myers

A dense collection, Asunder is half short stories, most of them very short, and half a novella-in-shorts. In the first section of unconnected shorts, Robert Lopez moves through scenes and characters that are mostly blank, anonymous—they could be anywhere and anyone. For this reason, the stories have a haunting quality, a creepy sort of universality.

As a master of the very short form, Lopez wastes no words. Within the first phrase of a story, he locks in to meaning. Take, for instance, the opening line of “Scar”: “This Deborah talks out of the left side of her mouth, as if she’s trying to keep what she says secret from her own right ear.” Themes, such as lop-sidedness, secrecy, halves, and self, jump out of the sentence and then drive the rest of the story. The sparseness with which Lopez writes lightens the stories; he gives just enough to avoid confusion, as with these lines from later in the same story:

Just as we are pulling up to a red light she says like she is accusing me of something, You’re not wearing the seat belt. I answer, I only put it on when it rains. Out of the left side of her mouth comes, You’ve never gone through a windshield.

Suggestiveness is a strength; this is prose full of possibility. Not over-written, not lacking any key details, he continues to strike the perfect balance.

Several themes recur throughout the short stories in the first half of Asunder. One of these is metafiction, best captured by the title story. In this piece, the prose and purpose are front and center: “Someone in particular wanted to compose a story without characters and details. Without a setting. No themes, no ambiguities…A story without exposition or a conflict or an arc and with nothing at all at stake.” The irony, of course, is that between these musings, there is a story that has all of these disavowed components.

Many of the stories are also styled as “variations on a theme.” These shorts call to mind the piano piece “The Goldberg Variations,” in which a phrase is taken and modified, added to, sped up, slowed down, thoroughly explored—though Lopez’s method is more like Phillip Glass than Bach. For instance, in “Priapism,” a five page story, there are sixteen variants of a situation involving a man with an erection, his wife, children, a bathroom, a dog, a roast in the oven, and the kitchen table. It is baffling and delightful, playful and serious, a gorgeous statement of how prose can be turned inside-out and back again.

For this reader, the novella-in-shorts, titled “The Trees Underground,” was not as engaging as the first half of the collection. Centered around a first-person narrator whose job is shepherding blind people, the stories explore how “the blindsters,” mostly Blind Betty and Pity Jimmy, navigate and understand the world. The plot, as well as the setting, fails to fully materialize. It is the language that brings the novella to life, particularly the speech of Blind Betty, who creates her own verbal sets, such as: “Blind Betty says Yes married No instead of Maybe So.” Once Lopez establishes a few of these idiosyncrasies of speech, the stories have a tremendous texture to them. But the spirited buoyancy of language can only support so much weight, and in other areas, the novella sags.

Admirers of the short-short form will appreciate this collection. With perfection in phrasing and attention to the minutiae of prose, Asunder presents a model for how new the English language can seem. There is nothing tried or tired here.

 

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Eden Lake coverEden Lake

Fiction by Jane Roper

Last Light Studio, May 2011

ISBN-10: 0982708416

ISBN-13: 978098270841

Paperback: 371pp; $15.00

Review by Patricia Contino

One of the more “cherished” childhood myths is the camp experience. Whether scout, day or sleep-away, kids are told camp is good for them. In other words, conformity is good. Yet the memory is polarizing. As with Star Wars vs. Star Trek or Super Mario over Donkey Kong, there is no in-between. Adults either loved or loathed every minute of it. And this former camper never saw one that looked like Matt Dillon did in Little Darlings.

The fictional Camp Eden Lake will remind readers of their own experiences but that is one of the many strengths of Jane Roper’s Eden Lake. Her absorbing debut novel takes camp culture an imaginative step further by looking into the lives of Eden’s Lake’s founding family—the Perryweisses. Roper knows that owners and directors are always great gossip among campers and staff. Camp Director Clay Perry and second wife Gail (a former dance counselor) die in an accident a few weeks before the season begins. Oldest son/former camp hottie Abe becomes acting director. Daughter/onetime bitchy camper Jude returns as drama counselor and is implausibly put in charge of a bunk of adolescent girls. Stepdaughter/once poor counselor’s kid Aura works in the office. Youngest son Eric, the only one with physical and emotional ties to Eden Lake, is groundskeeper. Clay’s ex-wife and Eden Lake co-founder Carol Weiss lost interest when she lost her husband to her former best friend Gail. Carol looks and acts like an omnipresent campfire ghost, a role she clearly relishes and readers will too.

Going through the grief process and re-connecting with each other while running a business for young charges makes it a truly life-changing summer for the siblings. Their relationships are played out against an inflexible schedule of activities. While this helps them as a family unit, Roper makes a two-edged observation. Structure is important but it is also a way of guaranteeing the status quo. Camp Eden Lake may have been founded in 1968 as “a vision of what the world might be if everyone lived in harmony with each other and with the land” but will forever be a six-week summer stopover for rich kids. Abe recognizes this in a fantastic chapter about a first day on the job:

They came bearing overstuffed duffels and enormous wheeled suitcases, tennis rackets and riding helmets, fishing rods, and yoga mats. Some carried milk crates and laundry baskets full of miscellaneous gear – electric fans, CD players, stuffed animals. One girl got off the New York bus carrying a bright pink inflatable chair, which, according to the counselor who’d chaperoned the trip, had been inflated by being passed around the bus, each kid blowing into the thing until they got dizzy.

This gently sarcastic point is taken further when Roper separates key episodes with flyers printed in courier font chronicling the camp’s official history. These artifacts, like those readers find when going through their parents’ crumbling files or fraying scrapbooks, include Eden Lake’s nontraditional mission statement and a camp newsletter interview with Clay portraying him as the ultimate father figure.

Chapters are named after the Perryweiss under discussion. Jude emerges as the most complex. Her role as keeper of family secrets made her a bitter, aimless adult and Eden Lake’s most compassionate character. Whether or not homeschooling benefitted her or Abe is left for the reader to decide. Regardless, Jude is the anti-Eden Laker whose unsuppressed memories return nonstop:

She was a quick study. She learned how to roll her eye and say “duh!” the way they did, and joined in when they ranked boys on their cuteness and kissability. She started shaving her legs and wearing makeup to evening programs. On trip days when they went to Camden or Boothbay Harbor, she bought rubber bracelets and Tiger Beat magazines and did whatever else seemed like the normal, acceptable twelve and thirteen-year old girl things to do (Not going into the galleries and looking at the paintings by local artists; not browsing in the bookstores or sitting by the harbor looking out at the boats, imagining what it would be like to sail around the world in one.)

All this angst plus the staging of Eden Lake’s production of Annie to worry about too!

Eden Lake’s ironies are reflective but not entirely humorless. The grown Perryweiss children are joined that summer by beguiling Russian counselor Masha, ex-camper turned sleazy entrepreneur Brendan Baker playing on Abe’s indecision about Eden Lake’s future, a camper named Niedermeyer who is nothing like the Animal House character who shares his name, and campers who attend Abe’s Free Speech sessions. They make camp fun. So does Jane Roper. Going to an imaginary place can be better than a real one.

 

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Fireflies in the Mist coverFireflies in the Mist

Fiction by Qurratulain Hyder

New Directions, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0811218651

ISBN-13: 978-0-8112-1865-8

Paperback: 325pp; $15.95

Review by Olive Mullet

Qurratulain Hyder received India’s equivalent of the Pulitzer for Fireflies in the Mist, an epic, set mostly in Dacca, Bangladesh. The time period of its three parts, besides some earlier historical references, extends from 1939 to 1979, through India’s Partition and finally into partition from Pakistan to form an independent Bangladesh. As Aamer Hussein (who knew Hyder) said in the introduction, “history was an obsession with her; she saw time as a continuum.”

Her approach for handling such stretches of time is to make us care through paralleling the country’s history with the ironic fortunes of four girlfriends—Deepali, Rosie, Jehan Ara and Yasmin—plus a lover of two of the girls, Rehan Ahmed. Three are poor: Deepali, the daughter of a doctor, Rosie of a black priest, and Yasmin, Rosie’s student. Only Jehan Ara is wealthy, the daughter of a Newab. Deepali and Rosie become involved in the revolution against the wealthy and to keep India united—along with Rehan who is actually from a wealthy family. Muslim Rehan was betrothed from childhood to cousin Jehan Ara but refuses his wealthy inheritance in order to join the revolution where he falls in love with Hindu Deepali.

The revolution breaks up the girls’ friendship and also their parents’ happiness; further, a rich British woman, Uma Roy meddles in their affairs. Ultimately, as often happens, the revolutionaries become themselves wealthy, and marry not for love. Only Yasmin suffers, as her moving journal tells us in the most personal unburdening of feelings in the book. That journal brings Deepali back to Bangladesh from her Trinidad exile to confront her own foreignness but also hope in life’s continuum. One of the book’s many ironies is that ex-rebel Rehan does not know what to do with his niece Nasira, the only rebel left. Yet she may be the country’s hope with her pure convictions.

So what was the revolution worth? Deepali wonders, “What did we do? What did our generation achieve? Now it seems to me that we were hitchhikers who stood by the highway, raising our thumbs for a ride. A car stopped by and took some of us to Moscow. Others to Washington. The car that broke which stopped for me broke down in the middle of the road.” Hyder said, “History is another name for humanity’s inability to learn its lessons.”

Another way Hyder brings the broad canvas of history into the personal is to focus on houses and through them the nostalgia of the past. As Hussein says, Hyder looked for something “poignant, something elliptical, an intimate connection between place, fiction and memory.” There are two houses owned by two men of different backgrounds who even in old age remain friends. The first house Caledonia “grounded the connection between Britain and Bengal.” Originally a Scotsman’s planter’s house, it becomes Chandrakunj, “Luna’s Grove,” stripped of any former elegance by the time it is Deepali and her father’s home. The other is Arjumand Manzil (“the auspicious house”) where Jehan Ara grew up. In this book we come back to so much from the beginning but most poignantly to that house’s “stage-throne under the cotton flower tree” where Jehan Ara held court with her friends. By then, it is tinged with the house’s tragedy.

Hyder also covers time by, as Hussein says, “trying to capture landscape—its short, sharp, lyrical fragments,” where there are switches “from celebration to lament in the space of a few beats.” Most descriptions come as flashes of lyricism, poetic quotes, like “In the fireflies’ light she goes out to meet her lover.” Fireflies give only the briefest and tiniest of light but therein lies hope:

The clouds have grown old. The night has placed her moon-pitcher in the sky’s courtyard. The hot sun has saddened the waterfowl. Loafer winds roves from forest to forest. Uncle Sun is growing angrier by the hour. He has become red like the parrot’s beak. Famine stalks the land. Allah, give us rain. Then, he plaited his hair of dark clouds. He picked up his staff of rainbow and lightning. The sky turned into a dark banyan of rain, whose beard touched the earth.

Summarizing dramatic events reduces emotion in the personal tales. Major historical events are similarly bypassed. And conversations become too chock full of information for them to sound like real conversations. Also though Hyder does explain terms like staff names, the reader needs historical footnotes. However, this novel captures nostalgia for a beautiful country, ending with a poetic repeat of the opening—the river Ganges, young where it starts and old in Bangladesh—but still living.

 

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Triggermoon Triggermoon coverTriggermoon Triggermoon

Poetry by Julia Cohen

Black Lawrence Press, July 2010

ISBN-10: 0982636423

ISBN-13: 978-0-9826364-2-8

Paperback: 63pp; $14.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

The opening lines of Triggermoon Triggermoon establish immediately Cohen’s primary preoccupations. This is a poetry that concerns itself above all else with the relationship between self (as body, as moral agent in the world, as emotional intelligence, as individual in relationship to others) and the objects and physical constructs of daily life. The first poem, “There Was a Bridge of Tattered Rugs,” begins:

I’ve cut the rope-swing, carved scars in a tree
I’ve taken a glass bottle & shingles its side
I’ve taken some velvet leg & tossed it in the gully of my bed
I’ve wasted quilt
A nightgown soaked in milk
The bassinet sleeping in the greenhouse
A boat-shaped spider crabbing the high corner
What have I done to this world

I find the missing question mark curious and fascinating (what have I done to this world?, the poet might have written) because it converts the line from the question the syntax suggests to a statement that will shape the remaining pages: this book is about what the poet has done to the world of things, the world of tattered rugs.

A heap of objects are piled on those tattered rugs in subsequent poems. To cite just a few: “grass curled under my eyes”; “I was found in the excrement of an owl”; “spoons buried in the backyard”; “scraps & the fingers that pulled them apart”; “a city in sackcloth”; “a chorus that brushes its teeth”; “a two-headed kitten”; “what happens around the porch”; “a button on my side”; and “1,000 rooftops.” The poet is always a body in relationship to the objects with which it interacts, and yet it exists in a state of constant tension with these objects: “For days you walk with your head up for fear objects will fall / that are not grasses.” She is, in fact, no less terrified of her body (as object): “My fingers frighten me most when they / convince me I have never been.”

Consistent with her emphasis on and attachment to the world of objects, Cohen is adept at exploiting and objectifying the concrete possibilities of grammar. “Your grandfathers are urned,” she writes in “Lopsided Longing for Spoons Buried in the Backyard”; and “I’ll widow,” in “The History of a Lake Never Drowns”; and “For sentencing our time,” she writes in “Hello, Goodly”; and “Rather your eyes be matted with Queen Anne’s Lace / than pill-blisters scatter the sink,” she writes in “Comb the Chrysalis from Your Beard to Fasten the Milkweed.”

“No refuge is permanent,” Cohen warns us in the opening poem. It is as if she is saying this book will be a tattered rug between your fingers, familiar but slippery, both comforting and dangerous. My anguish will become your anguish, the poet seems to promise: “Defer your rapture, every era the most trying.” Cohen will sentence you, and you’ll be grateful to be at her mercy, to her own particular quest for rapture.

 

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I & We coverI & We

Poetry by Joseph P. Wood

CW Books, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1936370115

ISBN-13: 978-1936370115

Paperback: 80pp; $18.00

Review by Renee Emerson

I & We is Joseph P. Wood’s first full-length collection of poetry, having authored five chapbooks before. The poems in I & We are aggressive, violent at times, surprising, and unusual. The poem “In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed To Do,” which opens the book, concludes with the lines “I never thought God / would snap my spine,” after the speaker having described him or herself as “the photographer / snapping The Cross submerged in my urine.”

The free verse style of the poetry allows for surprises that throw the reader off balance, working off of association. “Newfoundland” is one of the more experimental poems in the collection—the prose poem lacks punctuation and capitalization, and repeats phrases such as “fishermen clapping” and “fishermen fold,” the repetition growing heavier toward the end of the poem.

“Diary Excerpt of a Laid-Off Philadelphia Ferry Worker, Circa 1930” was one of the most striking poems in the collection. A prose poem narrated by the Ferry Worker, it incorporates elements of description, such as “the fog was thick, the air lined with ice—& I heard women talk of pulling their shawls tighter & of the puffs of steam from their mouths,” with thoughts that, I believe, are present in the collection as a whole:

I used to think the human heart was something of a vault & all we had to do was look inward to withdraw from it. Now, the heart is still a vault, but the bank in which it’s encased is just so much paper lining the floors, so much dust in the air. It makes you want to tie an anchor to your feet. It makes you want to take a poker to your wife, & she to you. But sometimes she & I walk by the river, & an old man is selling apples. I buy one & hand it to her. On the opposing bank, there’s one small glint of light, from where we do not know, & that, I dream, is where we’re going.

Though the poems can be, frankly, scary at times, there is an element of grace in the collection. Babies are mentioned in several of the poems—“Our History, Chapter V: ‘War Brewing,’” “Facts,” “Our Luck,” and “A Half-Century Contemplating the Double Helix,” to name a few. This works as a symbol of hope, innocence, and new life among such frightening images as the beheaded corpse in “Below the Saw Blade.”

The book explores the heights of innocence and depths of depravity, often in the same poem; these highs and lows make for an intelligent and interesting, if at times off-setting, collection.

 

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Horizontal Surfaces coverHorizontal Surfaces

Nonfiction by George Bowering

BookThug, November 2010

ISBN-10: 1897388713

ISBN-13: 978-1-897388-71-6

Paperback: 93pp; $18.00

Reviewed by Alec Moran

There are few writers today who can get away with the kind of book that Horizontal Surfaces is. However, when you are the prolific George Bowering, Canadian poet laureate of over 90 books, you might know a thing or two about a book that deserves publishing. Horizontal Surfaces is a curious little thing coming in at just under 100 pages, a collection of page-long essays that open more doors than they conclusively shut.

Bowering writes on the myriad of subjects that make him him–it would be improper and futile to try to sum up Bowering by simply listing the topics of his writing, so I will not. But there is humor in his essays (of the roughly four different places of birth he is reported to have, he writes that it was a “slow birth in a fast car”), and there is lyrical language (of listening to a Jazz solo: “you are experiencing [the player’s] mind, moment by moment, as it shifts and decides, as it adds and reminds”). And on that inevitable other hand, a select few are dyspeptic, painting him as the stereotypical curmudgeon spitting vitriol about texting, young people’s music, and the like. Tone between the essays shifts rapidly, mimicking the undulations that mark long conversations—topics deep and not-so-deep (for nothing Bowering is writing about is truly “shallow”).

There is no cornerstone essay in Horizontal Surfaces; the essays are arranged alphabetically (“There is no hierarchy in the alphabet” Bowering says, admiring) and some stick out at strange angles–for example, Bowering includes a list of his favorite authors, something either bizarrely superficial or cryptically deep. His essays tend to end rather abruptly; at first one might find frustration in this–I did not feel like I was learning a lick from the book. But really, closing doors is not the thing that Bowering is trying to do here. With his experience and age, he certainly has the authority to pontificate his conclusions about life to us. But Bowering tells us he has always been one for the open form over the closed, in poetry and, one can assume, in life, because open form allows open thought.

At the end of the essay “Open,” he says “It seems to me that closed verse concludes, whereas open verse proposes. What about micro-essays? What if I were to finish this present meditation with a smart summing-up? I could be a swinger of birches.” Cheeky Frost allusions aside, Bowering leaves his essays open so that we might include our own thoughts. That is perhaps the lasting effect of this work: with the idea of this book being Bowering writing about anything, one would assume it to read as monologic and commanding; however, he has created the impression of a dialogue out of the inherently one-way road of published print. See, for Bowering every facet of life is a horizontal surface to write upon, and with this book he is asking us to bring a pen.

 

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My Business is to Create: Blakes Infinite Writing coverMy Business Is to Create

Blake’s Infinite Writing

Nonfiction by Eric G. Wilson

University of Iowa Press, May 2011

ISBN-10: 1587299909

ISBN-13: 978-1-58739-990-9

Hardcover: 112pp; $19.95

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

If you don’t know much about the work of William Blake, Wilson will make you want to read him. If you know a lot about Blake, this book will make you want to read Wilson. He writes beautifully. He does an exceptionally fine job of summarizing Blake’s bio, elucidating Blake’s ideas on inspiration and the creative process, and he surprises his own readers by telling a personal story of struggles with the creative process, without actually focusing on himself or his personal story. The book is informative, inspiring, and intensely pleasurable. It’s also under, rather than over written, yet manages to be exuberant and full-bodied (in other words not deliberately cryptic).

Without name dropping for the sake of appearing erudite or as filler (the book is a mere 112 pages), Wilson links Blake and his ideas on and experience of the creative process to dozens of artists and great thinkers, among them Dante, Allen Ginsberg, Swinburne, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley, Alicia Ostriker, Hilda Doolittle, Charles Olson, Kathleen Raine, Benjamin Britten, R. Crumb, Walker Percy, Martin Buber, H.G. Wells, Annie Dillard, Borges, Milton, Adrienne Rich, Emerson, Basho, Hemmingway, Kant, Melville, Joyce, C.S. Lewis, and Ken Kesey. References, quotes, and ideas of these writers and others are woven seamlessly into Wilson’s brief text, always in a natural and logical fashion and always with good reason.

Wilson’s personal struggle to write and his relationship to the act of composition render utterly immediate and intimate the effort to create, while the presentation of Blake’s bio, interpretations of his poems, and a more general discussion of Blake’s poetics put Wilson’s issues in a larger context:

To write well is to adore the bright line, the translucent sentence that reveals what is true, right now, about this one thing. What is true is that this being is this self-contained entity and nothing else besides. But within the boundaries of the thing’s area and volume are countless minute particulars that themselves differentiate into further infinitesimal particles and these do the same, and so on, interminably. And so writing with excellence is loving not just the line but also what escapes design, always just beyond semantics and syntax, trope and tractate. Lively writing requires nothing less than a passion, perverse maybe, for the fragment bereft of finish, hunger beyond filling, constant privation.

Finally, he concludes: “Unrequited longing engenders the imagination’s plenitude.” What I long for is another book by Eric G. Wilson.

 

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This Isa Nice Neighborhood coverThis Isa Nice Neighborhood

Poetry by Farid Matuk

Letter Machine Editions, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0-9815-2275-0

ISBN-13: 978-0-9815-2275-3

Paperback: 138pp; $14.00

Review by C.J. Opperthauser

Farid Matuk's long book of poems from Letter Machine Editions is memorable and unique. Many of the poems deal with Matuk's status as an immigrant from Peru, and the life that accompanies it. But it is not done with any agenda. It's a beautiful, oddly paced look at this world which non-immigrants may not understand. One clear look at this is in a poem aptly titled “Immigrants”:

            They were bound to arrive
though walking through the vast newness
of grass fields and dirt fields far from paths
consumed them in a way so unlike
their imagined risk,
that their being in this new country seems
sudden, like something won.

And later, a beautiful line which cannot be overlooked:

             Across the cement floor
they sleep their new sleep each in a gesture
which lifts the tender side
of their left wrists onto the dry folds of their lips

These gems are lodged in nearly every poem in the collection, though some of these poems are so lengthy that the title of “short story” seems applicable. And these poems do have the movement of a story in many cases. But the strange wording and phrasing, and of course the line breaks, solidifies these pieces as poems.

Matuk often uses nothing but well-done imagery to convey the point of his poems, and each poem seems to have a purpose, a message. In another poem that handles immigrant issues in a subtle way, called “Maybe Go to the Sea,” the opening imagery in the poem sets up a lonely, homesick stare:

It is an unremarkable time, day by the sea
but for the novelty of his standing
feet from the fenders and the hood.
These are things that shine in the sun by the sea.
And the lone tick, tick of his engine radiating upon the gravel of
            the turnabout.
There is nothing else, nothing but his hands in his pockets.

This is how Matuk conducts the majority of the book. The imagery is the voice, often, and it speaks for itself.

The last section in the book serves as a final punch to the gut, describing first a love-lost conversation about moving all over North America, then what appear to be tragic news stories in a stone-faced, cold manner. Each poem in this section is personal, real, and honest. This Isa Nice Neighborhood is the long story of the immigrant life, each section a different look at the good and bad qualities conflicting between faraway places and home turf.

 

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Jargon coverJargon

Poetry by Brian Clements

Quale Press, December 2010

ISBN-10: 1935835009

ISBN-13: 978-1-935835-00-4

Paperback: 132pp; $14.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

The etymology of the word jargon is unclear—historians of language aren’t sure of its derivation—which is ironic, considering what it means, and marvelously appropriate. In a pure sense, it simply connotes a specialized vocabulary related to a specific discipline or profession, though it’s common to hear the term used to refer, in a negative sense, to language that is considered impenetrable or deliberately opaque. I love the word and the idea of jargon as the title of a book of poems and prose poems. At the same time, I would say that Jargon is, happily, not impenetrable (as in incomprehensible), and while it reflects a unique and quirky personality and intelligence, it is not so much deliberately opaque, as deliberately and persistently original, and sometimes wonderfully confusing (a confusion I ended up not minding in the least).

As a book (object), Jargon presents its own structural jargon, so to speak. The pages are un-numbered (not a single page number in the book). The Table of Contents, also unlabeled as such, divides the poems into 6 sections, each numbered, rather than titled, in the same format (a colon, two spaces, the number in bold) and the numbers have no obvious significance (do they represent their order in a series outside of this book? are they a form of “jargon” as in a set of symbols known only to certain insiders?). The titles of the pieces contained in each section appear in a dual format, the title underneath which appears, in italics, a line from the poem, but not the first line. Every piece in the book begins on the right side of the page; with the title on the left-hand page opposite.

“: 55,” the first section, begins with an untitled poem, fragments of which re-appear throughout the book. Jargon is composed largely of prose poems, so it is clearly important that the book is framed by a poem that, while not traditional in form, is not prose poetry. I cannot render the form here, so my quotation of the opening “lines” is not faithful, unfortunately, to the poem, which spaces the words out singly across the page as if they were floating. Nonetheless, I must quote the opening idea, “forgot things to speak” or perhaps “forgot things speak to” depending on how one approaches (reads) the space.

It seems to me that it’s the work of the rest of the book to speak these forgotten things or make into things this forgotten speech. Clements is a sort of philosopher of forgotten meanings (is that a kind of jargon?) and a maker of new philosophies. And so in the very next poem in this first section, “A Basket of Brains,” he begins: “What you might ask is enlightenment? Does it happen in the brain? Is it a meeting of science and faith or the erasure of both?” These are some of Jargon’s major preoccupations: science, religion, what is erased (forgotten), how we think or understand or make meaning (the brain), how history may be interpreted (the Enlightenment as an era).

Rather than keep us from understanding (jargon as “babble” or insider speak), Clements offers up insight after insight (enlightenment?):

“After all the worry, who wants to spend another minute of our middle years on work?” (from “Xeno’s Paradox”)
“That you’ll never get an answer to anything starts to come across as funny” (also from “Xeno’s Paradox”)
“That’s the appeal of being somewhere you’re not and having the freedom to make your own content” (from “Tale with Six Bridges”)
“Sadness is a kind of light” (from “Chet Baker”)
“Position is where you find it.” (from “Still Life with Supernova”)
“The opposite of magic is barbarism.” (from “The Great Vérités;” a title that suggests that Clements does, indeed, mean to enlighten us).

Clements can be sensitive (“And there actually may be something to that ache behind your eye.”); hopeful (“At least it’s December. Something is on its way.”); poetic in the emotional sense of the term (“That’s all there is to extending welcome, even if you believe another sky is on the way.”); funny (“as surely as I am the ludicrous Sigmund Freud”); sarcastic (“a liberal was once a real person”); or surprisingly sincere (“Everyone refuses to believe for a time that they bend the space they inhabit.”) Unifying these—and other moods/modes—is a distinct, original, and highly appealing voice shaping unusual pages with exceptionally astute insights.

A really fine book of poetry—like this one—ultimately, defies explanation/explication. Isn’t every good work of poetry, then, a sort of jargon?

 

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A Beautiful Name for a Girl coverA Beautiful Name for a Girl

Poetry by Kirsten Kaschock

Ahsahta Press, 2011

ISBN-13: 1-934103-17-9-3

Paperback: 97pp; $17.50

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

“Girl-ness” matters a lot to Kaschock. Her bio begins: “Kirsten Kaschock was the second, and then the third of five children.” And the book opens with a character who might be a girl or a woman or a woman/girl: “This is the house that Jane built. // Jane begins by standing. Once this was / Jane finding Jane.” Or Kirsten Kaschock finding Jane. Or finding Kaschock. And the relationship between girl-ness and the pain of that essential self matters a lot to Kaschock, too, and is the foundation (think house) for the book:

                         —but now I am
in a unique position to feel pain
. This is distinct
insistent now. Jane, Jane fraught. I have
more space for pain
Above the primordial
flowering of was, a shimmer.
In its wake—structure: Jane is.
It is less space.
This is the house Jane built by being the house
Jane built by being. This is not
the good pain—pain
Jane stood to feel in origin of Jane
Instead, this is the pain of lean-to—
uncontaining. Mere stay
against exposure. This is all is left
a Jane. This is enough.

And there is, indeed, ample pain here, that particular pain of a disappointed wounded girl with the capacity to wound us all with her self-loathing. She is destined to suffer from the beginning, as predicted in “Baby Names: Girl F:”

FABLE         the one you think would go on, but circles back, her daily calls almost a
                  nuisance—wasn’t she supposed to do something special?
FYNE         what you eventually named her—resigned to predicating her ruin

It’s not merely that girls are expected (but fail) to be special, but that they are, by their very girl-ness, bad, wrong, strange (and oh, how I wish these ideas really were strange, rather than part of the common experience of so many, if not all, girls), as in these lines from “Old Doll Baby”:

They think mine
a prettypretty blank blank
If they knew the same they’d love it like a root
but would want to get away—if the same
were true for them
day in, day out—their fingers would stop
no prettypretty holes down there
They don’t know what that’s like
everything in and nothing let
inside my forgotten space—cotton

The girl who feels she is already, at birth, less than expected or less than she should be, once “Sold into Performance,” continues to disappoint:

I never sang—I danced but no solos.
I was legs in the frog chorus, at that time strictly
Platonic. You want to put me down as a leading lady when I was so much
less.

Performance is an important component of this book—Kaschock is, in fact, a dancer—and girls (women) as performers (performers who act as a result of or who can inspire pain), the act of performing, and the arts are persistent themes and images: an aging Marlene Dietrich (“Marelene Dietrich at 70 Had Legs That Shot to Heaven”); a long choreographed poem titled “Snuff Ballet (A Monologue for 2, 3, or 7)”; a prose poem elucidating the poet’s poetics (“Angel, Boxed: A Poetics”); and a poem about music (“Quartet”). “Snuff Ballet” is particularly intriguing (and painful), complete with stage directions, notes on the cast, the set, costuming, music, and the ballet’s plot. The poem begins with nearly three-dozen questions in italics:

Why a one-woman show/ Tell us—is this performance art?
                                Can it be somehow about surgery?
           How will the audience sit through two hours of her?

Despite their more seemingly universal importance (“Have you considered Hiroshima?”), no other question is as significant as: how can we tolerate “her?” Here is that (performing) girl again, unworthy of our attention, yet demanding it anyway. (How can we read her?)

Kaschock is inventive, creative, and original. Her lines are often exquisite, her syntax not impenetrable, but not typical, a careful and artful choreography. And her work is as uniquely pained and painful as any I have ever read. Every time I picked up the book to review it, I had to put it down again, I was so overcome with anguish and grief and sorrow. So much weeping (“The song weeps because this one child was never born. / There were other children; there were even girls.”). So much moaning (“Oh my head, my / head. My moan flower.”). So much lying (“If she would have a daughter, I would be / that daughter. No that, / would be a lie. In truth I am / a march of lies.”). So much raw distress (“I sang to the muscle even as it grew / ashy. The song was continuing pain.”) So much diminishment (“During the same period, I have shrunken to the size of a petri dish”). So much grief (“It is purple, a day about lettuce. A day to get / the grief across. I open the corpse / with a letter opener.”) So much loss (“why does it matter where I am losing my // self, to whom?”).

In a long poem ostensibly about Houdini (“Houdini Dies. I Teach His Obituary”), the poet advises: “Write your own obituary: write it about someone you admire.” I admire Kaschock, despite—or perhaps because of—the intense pain she so artfully performs.

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