NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted March 14, 2011

The History of Violets :: A Walk in Victoria's Secret :: Sonja Sekula :: Lit from Within :: The Book Bindery :: Best Road Yet :: Driving Montana, Alone :: Everything Else We Must Endure :: Bloom :: Prodigal: Variations :: Meddle English :: Prayer Book :: the Homelessness of Self :: Manageable Cold :: Invocation: An Essay

[Return to Book Review Home]

 

The History of Violets coverThe History of Violets

Poetry by Marosa di Giorgio

Translated from the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas

Ugly Duckling Presse, October 2010

ISBN-10: 193325470X

ISBN-13: 978-1-933254-70-8

Paperback: 87pp; Price $15.00

Review by Stephanie Burns

The History of Violets is a book to read at dusk, when the light changes, the room darkens and the boundaries between day and night, real and fantastic, seem permeable. First published in Spanish in 1965, Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio's collection of short prose poems, as translated into English by Jeannine Marie Pitas, is a voyage into a garden world populated not only by exquisite flowers and hearty vegetables, but also angels, underground creatures and rabbits, figures both tragic and destructive. Throughout the book, we follow a family living by the garden, whose house is often invaded by its denizens, whether it is the insistent angels or the crazy gladioli. Di Giorgio's own particular brand of magical realism and gift for compelling description ease us into this world where the erotic pulse of creation in the garden is counterbalanced by an undercurrent of death and destruction.

Di Giorgio writes, “When I look toward the past, I only see perplexing things: sugar, jasmine, white wine, black wine, the strange country school I attended for four years, murders, weddings among the orange blossoms, incestuous couplings.” Does the protagonist, remembering her childhood, invent this fantastical world, or do the precision of her memories indicate true experiences? Perhaps instead, it is the act of remembering that renders the past magical. Regardless, through her, we experience a peculiar connection to the garden. She seems to understand the garden more than her parents. In “XV,” the speaker is disturbed when her mother allows a buyer to pick mushrooms from the garden. She sees that the mushrooms grow from corpses, are products of their dead relatives: “My mother does not realize that she is selling her race.” Though the narrator's age is indeterminate—“I am always the same child in the shadow of my father's peach trees,” she seems to be on the cusp of her sexual awakening. She watches the cycle of creation in the garden with elation that turns to shame and embarrassment when Mother arrives to tap her on the shoulder (“IV”).

It is unclear whether this “Mother” is the narrator's corporeal mother or if it refers to the Virgin Mary. The History of Violets is full of rather unusual religious imagery. The angels that infest the garden more closely resemble slightly malicious fairies than the traditional Christian angels we usually see. At one point, they drive the narrator and her mother from the house, having stolen their sweet things (honey, sugar, apples) and behaved so mischievously that her mother cannot stand it any longer (“XXX”). Yet these egg-laying angels are explicitly linked to the Virgin and God. An unconventional view of God emerges in the garden, earthy and indifferent, always near.

This type of dynamic, between the humans and their God, seems to fit perfectly with the other interactions in the garden. As beautiful as the inhabitants of the garden are, undercurrents of violence and consumption are always present: “From all directions came butterflies—the most absurd, the most unusual—from the four cardinal points came the forest roosters with their wide wings, their heads of pure gold. (My father dared to kill a few of them and got rich.)” The somewhat sinister underground creatures who attack “the best violet, the one with a grain of salt,” are in turn eaten by the family: “One time, my mother decided to trap one; she killed her, skinned her and put her in the middle of the night, of the meal. And that creature retained a bit of life, an almost unreal death […] We gulped her down, and she was almost alive.” In the same way, the figure of a rabbit first appears as a foreshadowing of violence, of a girl (standing in for a garden plant, perhaps) being attacked and eaten, but it is later the subject of tragedy. The narrator becomes a rabbit, caught and killed by the “guardian of the potatoes.”

The History of Violets is a fascinating blend of beautiful description and disturbing narrative. Di Giorgio's style emerges as precise and haunting in Pitas's skilled translation. The world she creates, with its daisies like “golden rice,” pink gladiolus that will kill, flocks of angels with “wax faces, blue eyes,” and underground creatures with “smooth alabaster faces,” is engrossing and seductively real. As an English-speaking reader, I am grateful to Jeannine Marie Pitas for this opportunity to experience di Giorgio's unique, beautifully-wrought poetry.

 

top of page

 

A Walk in Victoria's SecretA Walk in Victoria's Secret

Poetry by Kate Daniels

LSU Press, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0807137065

ISBN-13: 978-0807137062

Paperback: 78pp; $19.95

Review by Larry O. Dean

I was fortunate to hear Kate Daniels read many of the poems from A Walk in Victoria's Secret when it was still a work-in-progress. I'm a firm believer in getting a poet's verbal take on their own work, and while I've been disappointed on some occasions (Wallace Stevens, anybody?), the experience is often revelatory. Daniels was not particularly intense or melismatic in her delivery, but she was involved in the poems well beyond the performance itself—connected might be a better word. The effect of that connection was that she-as-reader was a potent conductor not just of the words on the page, but the emotive power beneath them—she conveyed that sentiment without telegraphing it ahead, or lapsing into sentimentality; a distinct advantage when you are a narrative poet, which resulted in an audience that hung engrossedly on her every word.

On the page, Daniels is just as engrossing, but more lackadaisical readers may be put off by first impressions. For example, part one of A Walk in Victoria's Secret is comprised of seventeen poems, most of which utilize lengthy lineation, which can appear exhausting (and exhaustive) to the casual browser. Part two doesn't completely jettison that propensity towards horizontal lines, but it does, cosmetically anyway, diversify the look and length of some of its poems. I hesitate to call Daniels' overall style “no frills,” but aside from occasional dropped lines, italicized phrases, or indentation, the end result is an exterior plainness masking deeper complications.

Those “complications” include motherhood, family dynamics and dysfunction, aging, class conflicts, sexuality and sexual politics, and racial tensions. Because she is a white southerner, who grew up witnessing segregation's pernicious effects at a particularly tumultuous time in history, the latter is a subject in a number of poems here—“Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South,” “Doc,” “Dogtown, 1957,” “Photo by William Christenberry,” “Late Apology to Doris Haskins,” and “Homage to Calvin Spotswood.” While each approaches the subject from a slightly different angle, Daniels’ voice remains consistent: guilt-edged, rueful, ever questioning. “Homage to Calvin Spotswood,” however, crystalizes Daniels' perspective not just on race, but on other concerns as well. It begins:

Because I couldn't bear to go back to the south side
of Richmond and the life I had led there—the blaring
televisions, the chained-up hounds, the cigarettes hissing
in ceramic saucers, the not never's, I'm fixin' to's,
the ain'ts—because anything at all was better than that,
I took the job. The four bucks an hour, the zip-front,
teal-colored, polyester uniform, the hairnets and latex gloves…

Daniels recalls her stint during college as “nurse's aide on an oncology ward for terminal patients,” and while such a milieu is rife with potential for premature tearjerking, she leavens the demands and constrictions of pure memoir for the sake of a greater epiphany—that “even in the final stages / of a violently invasive terminal carcinoma, nothing daunted” Spotswood, not even “in his final hours, / undiminished, unredeemed, unrepentant, his poor black body burning and burning.” There's more to it, of course, but part of the pleasure here, as well as elsewhere in A Walk in Victoria's Secret, is getting caught up in the narrative, allowing it to take you where it will.

 

top of page

 

Sonja Sekula coverSonja Sekula

Grace In a Cow’s EYE: a memoir

Poetry by Kathrin Schaeppi

Black Radish Books, January 2011

ISBN-10: 0982573154

ISBN-13: 978-0-9825731-5-0

Paperback: 155pp; $15.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Sonja Sekula (1918-1963) was a Swiss “poète-peintre” (poet-painter) who lived for a time in New York, was a colleague and friend of better known artists of her time (Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, John Cage, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst), experimented with “blended poetic word combinations” in her visual work, and spent much time “in and out of clinics” because, Schaeppi explains in her book’s epilogue, “her many secret art books and diaries tell of her passion for women in a time when same-sex love was considered a pathology to be cured with extreme treatments.”

Schappei’s “poetic memoir” is an homage to Sekula’s work. Every poem in the book is based on Sekula’s paintings and writings. The appendix includes a detailed list and descriptions along the lines of a museum or gallery catalogue of every work of Sekula’s on which these texts are based. Schaeppi, who lives in Switzerland, studied creative writing in the US and writes in English, says her memoir represents “but a trace.” My review must be, too, only a “trace,” as it is difficult to provide a true picture (pun intended) of the book, given its fundamental visual components. Like Sekula, Schaeppi blends visual and verbal images and texts, including text in a wide variety of spatial arrangements across the page, graphic elements that include columns, boxes, grids, a variety of font types, sizes, and treatments, symbols, swashes of ink in various shades, and other painterly and graphic elements.

Verbal texts range from stream of consciousness outpourings of phrases linked by vague, dreamy, imagined connections; short lyrical bursts; poems created of lists, charts, grids, and graphs; prose poems; and a variety of other postmodern configurations and permutations of language and forms. There are references to Sekula’s struggle with “cures” for her lesbianism; to her friends in the art world; to the life of an artist; to the meaning of artistic imagery; and to specific performances and artistic works. There are references to the history and social circumstances of Sekula’s life (WWII, poverty, the post-war rebuilding of cities) and to the intellectual preoccupations of her era (developments in the sciences, for example).

Schaeppi imagines and channels Sekula’s voice, her yearnings, her pain and personal and emotional challenges, her perspective, her unique intelligence with compassion and passion. Here are the concluding lines of “Give me, 1948”:

a totempole of me·envious me·impatient me-·depressed me
·frustrated desiring competitive me·sweet little girl me·
ungiving me·longing unloved me·caged me·ghost of me

This is an utterly fascinating book that succeeds in bringing to light the work of an artist whose work would likely be otherwise unknown to many of us. Thanks to Schaeppi, Sekula is no longer a ghost, overshadowed entirely by the better-known artists of her time. She is now a figment of Schaeppi’s imagination—and of my own. I can’t wait to see what Schaeppi will imagine next.

 

top of page

 

Lit From Within coverLit from Within

Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing

Edited by Kevin Haworth, Dinty W. Moore

Ohio University Press, March 2011

ISBN-10: 082141948X

ISBN-13: 978-0-8214-1948-9

Paperback: 206pp; $19.95

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

This anthology brings together presentations given over the last several years at Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival, which is described by the editors in the book’s introduction as “a remarkable yearly gathering of some of the nation’s most talented and celebrated writers…in the most rural corner of Ohio.” Fifteen of these celebrated fiction writers and poets appear in the publication, to be released in March 2011: Ron Carlson, Robin Hemley, Francine Prose, Billy Collins, Peter Ho Davies, Charles Baxter, David Kirby, Claire Bateman, Stephen Dunn, Lee K. Abbott, Tony Hoagland, Maggie Nelson, Carl Dennis, Rick Bass, and Mary Ruefle. Each writer focuses on a clearly identified, often narrowly defined topic of interest to readers and writers, typically with the twin goals of helping readers understand the writer’s personal approach to composing his or her work and to an idea of some “universal” importance for reading/writing in general.

Carl Dennis writes about poems close to fiction in their depiction of “characters.” Peter Ho Davies offers thoughts on the structure and composition of the short story collection. Francine Prose discusses the meaning of gesture in narrative. Rick Bass contributes thoughts on the relationship between writers and editors. Ron Carlson discusses the importance for his own process of working of not selecting themes but letting the work evolve its own thematic preoccupations. Maggie Nelson elaborates on the use of facts in poetry (“documentary poetry”). Charles Baxter discusses “stillness” in fiction.

The essays are detailed and sophisticated enough to appeal to writers, particularly novice writers, yet general enough to appeal to readers who are not necessarily writers. They include wisely chosen examples and quotations, but they are not dense and do not rely on particularly close readings and interpretations. They are not academic in style or jargon-driven, and most assume limited background and literary training. They tend to be “popular” in tone and approach, rather than professional, academic, or wholly literary. Many exhibit a personal, or at the very least personable, tone. They reflect a wide range of approaches to the notion of “authority,” in other words, these writers’ sense of themselves as experts on the topic they’ve chosen to discuss. Bateman is most humble and her approach accounts, perhaps, for the Ohio’s festival ongoing success. In “Some Questions about Questions,” she writes: “This essay will be characterized by its lack of identifiable focus, internal transitions, and conclusion, for my goal is not to posit anything in particular, but rather to present my ongoing, ever-expanding web of personal speculation on the topic of questions in poetry.”

 

top of page

 

The Book Bindery coverThe Book Bindery

Nonfiction by Sarah Royal

Microcosm Publishing, October 2010

ISBN-10: 193462084X

ISBN-13: 978-1934620847

Paperback: 96pp; $5.00

Review by Tanya Angell Allen

Although it includes a glossary of bookbinding terms and a three-page photo-essay on “How To Bind A Book,” The Book Bindery is less about book binding than the function of creativity and negativity in a work environment. Sarah Royal, who worked briefly at a bindery in Chicago right after graduating from college, writes that “even if you’re in utter bliss over your job, you still need to feed off of negativity in some form or another. Bitching about what you’re doing or joining in on bitching about someone else’s predicament is what makes everything roll by day to day.” She and her colleagues spent hours gossiping about their transvestite boss, coworkers, and the naked neighbor who lived next door to the factory. They played Bingo with the most common quips made by the bindery’s secretary over the Intercom. During coffee hour they built a shrine out of “action figures, Hot Wheels, badminton rackets….whatever interesting and weird shit we could find.”

Colleagues seemed to love Royal’s bravado and the fact that she collected stories about the place—in one anecdote she tells of a coworker who left a dirty band-aid on her desk just so that she could write about it. In spite of their admiration, Royal makes occasionally vicious fun of co-workers and friends without tempering her writing with the self-deprecation or reflection needed to make her as likeable to readers as she reportedly was to those at her workplace.

Nonetheless, The Book Bindery is well written, engaging, aesthetically pleasing, and potentially inspiring to others in non-stimulating jobs. Hopefully we will see much more from Royal in the future. Her other zines and books, such as Beer, Bikes and Bridges: Notes on Portland, Oregon and Creative Cursing: A Mix n’Match Profanity Generator (co-authored with Jillian Panarese,) have already been published by other book binderies around the country.

 

top of page

 

Best Road Yet coverBest Road Yet

Fiction by Ryan Stone

Press 53, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1935708082

ISBN-13: 978-1-935708-08-7

Paperback: 190pp; $14.95

Review by Elena Spagnolie

Ryan Stone’s writing absolutely shines in his collection of twelve short stories entitled Best Road Yet. In particular, Stone is able to create realistic, multilayered characters who have distinct personalities—the way they speak, talk, eat, and even snore is engrossing, largely because Stone takes the time to develop the details and complexities of each individual. He writes: “He was only a sliver, a slip of the tongue they sometimes let out, and that’s how they mentioned him. Eddie’s coming, too, they’d say.” It is clear that Stone writes with intention, aware of how each element of writing contributes to the development of the story, and he has great control in his work.

His characters are neither good nor bad—they are capable of doing bad things with good reasons, good things with tenderness and uncertainty, and sometimes nothing at all—and every story is written with humanity and empathy. In one example, Stone writes: “Ted shoved his hands in his pockets, lowered his shoulders. Arnez had the same look as the time they were lost in the woods. Defeated. Ted lifted his hand to his face and rubbed it but couldn’t feel anything. His arms tingled around the wrists; his breath came in short gasps. Inside the bathroom, they could hear the old man banging around, probably trying to figure out the toilet paper dispenser.”

Stone uses the landscape of Missouri and the Mid-West beautifully and invents truly interesting scenarios: two sons are made responsible for their formerly abusive father, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s; a man finds out he’s a father one month before his son is born; a drug dealer intrudes on another family’s vacation day. Stone is also notably talented at creating tension without resorting to melodrama. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection of short stories and whole-heartedly recommend it.

 

top of page

 

Driving Montana, Alone coverDriving Montana, Alone

Poetry by Katie Phillips

Slapering Hol Press, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-9820626-3-0

Chapbook: 41pp; $12.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

There are only 500 copies of this priceless little postcard book and I am the proud owner of #161. Reminiscent of the linked postcard books available on those little turning stands in shops and drugstores and souvenir outlets in tourist towns, the top-bound spiral book of photos (all but the title page by Ron Rapp were taken by the poet) and poems was the winner of the press’s 2010 chapbook competition. The poems are stark little stories that match the landscapes depicted. They reflect the same sense of poetic sensitivity and originality the poet demonstrates in her title’s punctuation (that extraordinary comma).

Especially appealing are the contrast between the four-color covers and the black and white of almost all of the interior photos (there are only two color photos between covers); the balance of vertical and horizontal pages; the play between long-view and close-focus images; and, finally, the spare verse that, like the landscapes and photos to which it is linked, is somehow both vast and narrowly focused:

I wrote October and meant it. Something would not
let me say November, gateway to winter,
where weather in the air is mood on the ground.

As an insomniac myself, I appreciate “Insomniac’s Prayer,” aligned with a photo of a wide, wild prairie sky: “Please, Lord, send jazz soon”; the unabashed emotion of the title poem:

I want you to see these dark rotting barns,
roadkill of Highway One. It seems only you
could know why my eyes fill the road
with tears again when a flock of swallows
swoops through an open barn door
and rushes out the gaping roof

the juxtapositions of photos and text that seem odd, but also just right. The following lines appear below a stunning photo of tall pines lining a narrow, densely snow-packed road (the poem is “Explanation”):

Your mother loved spring,
but you were conceived in winter,
born in fall, and she could not
keep autumn out of you.

This highly original book, designed by Edward Rayher of Swamp Press in Northfield, Minnesota, is not a gimmick. The poems are beautifully composed, simply, thoughtfully rendered, as emotionally compelling as the landscape to which they’re linked visually and physically with the sturdy black coil binding. This is not, despite the allusion, a quick tourist stop. You will want to linger.

By all accounts, there are 499 of these little books in addition to the one I now own and intend to keep. So, I’d suggest you figure out how to get yours soon, before the poetry tourists buy them up.

 

top of page

 

Everything Else We Must Endure coverEverything Else We Must Endure

Poetry by Brian McGettrick

sunnyoutside, February 2011

ISBN-10: 1934513296

ISBN-13: 978-1-934513-29-3

Paperback: 52pp; $13.00

Review by Renee Emerson

Everything Else We Must Endure is the first collection of poetry by Irish poet Brian McGettrick. The book, published by sunnyoutside, a small independent press, is beautifully designed—a slim gold-colored volume with artwork by Jonathan Barcan on the cover.

The poems, while adhering to standard punctuation, abandon the use of capitalization throughout the book, with the exception of capitalizing “I” – and, in one poem, “Christ” – whenever it is used. The lines are short, sometimes consisting of a single word, and the poet favors simple, everyday language. The majority of the poems are also very brief, only two or three stanzas long, and focus on a single, meaningful moment. For example, the two stanza poem “jealously on the cusp of commitment” couples the moment in a relationship with the context of the larger world around them:

as she drags her thumb
across my lips
I know she is silencing
the questions I have.
I look at the sky
and am jealous of the distance
it has achieved.

Other themes explored include spirituality in “an unbroken crucified Christ” and “what the greek gods realized.” McGettrick shows a fascination for how things fall apart—in “block of bad days,” he muses, “to what extent / we have made ugly / what was once beautiful.”

 

top of page

 

Bloom coverBloom

Poetry by Simmons B. Buntin

Salmon Poetry, January 2011

ISBN-10: 1907056491

ISBN-13: 978-1907056499

Paperback: 98pp; $12.00

Review by Renee Emerson

Bloom, Simmons B. Buntin’s second poetry collection, is a book that immediately draws the reader in. Buntin’s comforting tone invites the reader to pull up a chair and listen to his stories—stories about his family, the desert landscape of Arizona, and light and darkness. The book is divided into three sections—“Shine,” “Flare,” and “Inflorescence,” further developing the subtle thread of light versus darkness that can be found in the undercurrent of his poems.

The book opens with the poem “Whether You are Listening or You are Reading,” which invites the reader into Buntin’s private life. He speaks lovingly, though never sentimentally, about his wife, “who listens to a podcast and sometimes / laughs so hard her earbuds drop.”

While integrating references to modern technology into a poem can sometimes pose difficulties and create a cold, artificial tone, Buntin masterfully weaves these references in this poem, and later in poems such as “Amazon.com” and “In May I Consider My Websites,” with the tangible everyday.

In this first poem, he also introduces you to his muses, his two daughters—“Juliet curled beneath a quilt of flowers, / Ann-Elise bent across her black blanket.” The last line of the poem both charms and invites the reader to continue further into the book: “I think of you again, listening or reading— / the poem paused by the person you love.” The poet, unlike many modern poets today, makes it clear where his priorities lie—not with poetry, but with the subject of his poetry, what he truly loves.

Though there are many notable poems in the book—for example, “Flare,” a short poem written in couplets set in Arizona, where the brevity of life is compared to “the last brushstroke of sunlight, you say, flaring / now to rise again next spring”—the long poem that is the last section of the book, “Inflorescence,” truly showcases the author’s skill as a poet. The poem, written in eight sections, tells the story of his young daughter accidently running through a plate glass door. The poet causes the reader to feel the parents and child’s fear and shock and the blood is “inking the white / pages of her arms and legs.” He pulls back from the accident in the next section, opening with

Our agave is dying:
thick stalk rises on center
in bluegreen and mauve. Large
as a bull, the needle-edged plant wants
to bloom before toppling:
Who doesn’t aspire to shine
before the end?

Subtly, he leads the reader to wonder if the daughter recovered from the accident. In the next stanza, and in subsequent stanzas, he assures the reader, telling of his daughter’s emotional and physical healing process, while still coming back to the dying agave.

I would highly recommend this book—Buntin’s work is not only skillfully written but touching in a way that is unique from many modern poetry books.

 

top of page

 

Prodigal: Variations by Ed Madden coverProdigal: Variations

Poetry by Ed Madden

Lethe Press, April 2011

ISBN -10: 1-59021-340-8

ISBN-13: 978-1-59021-340-7

Paperback: 86pp; $15.00

Review by Renee Emerson

I love Ed Madden’s poetry best when he is talking about the landscape of his childhood. “Forsythia, early spring,” begins with the vivid description:

A crayon scribble of tree, bright splatter
of yellow in a neighbor’s yard
wet with mud and melted snow
on the road between home and the highway.

The poem of course is more than a nature poem—it is about “signposts,” and leaving home. Madden’s memories intertwine with the landscape in which they were formed. In “Red Castor Bean” the speaker “came here to think about the maze of grief,” but is drawn into the natural world, focusing on the plant whose “dark leaves glistening like wine, or blood, / spiked seed pods clotting the groin of branches / like difficult decisions.” The mixture of nature with the emotions and thoughts of the speaker creates an intriguing metaphor.

While that is the aspect that draws me in as a reader, I do not think nature is the subject of his work but rather the feeling of domination and sexual discovery, shown first in his poem “Sacrifice,” that opens the collection. The poem associates the speaker with the biblical story of Isaac and Abraham; in this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Though, in the biblical story, God was only testing Abraham’s faith and does not require Isaac’s life, Madden’s poem ends differently:

I open my eyes, watch my father
raise his fist against a bright and bitter
sky, no angel there to stay his hand.

The theme reemerges in poems such as “Spunk,” “About the room in which,” and “Far from home, this small room.” Madden’s work is evocative and always deeply descriptive, setting a scene so that the reader can connect to the emotions of the speaker, however dark and complex they may be.

 

top of page

 

Meddle English coverMeddle English

New & Selected Texts

Poetry by Caroline Bergvall

Nightboat Books, January 2011

ISBN-10: 0982264585

ISBN-13: 978-0-9822645-8-4

Paperback: 164pp; $14.95

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

Bergvall’s bio is worth reading before engaging with Meddle English, and I say engaging (rather than reading) because this isn’t a book one reads in a traditional sense, but more like a book to be considered. Here’s the first paragraph of the poet’s page-long bio:

Caroline Bergvall is an international writer who works across media, languages and artforms. French-Norwegian, currently based in London. She grew up in Switzerland, Norway and France with longer periods in the US and England. Projects and research alternate between published writings pieces and performance-oriented, often sound-driven language projects. Her books….are noted for their combination of performative, visual and literary textualities.

This book is consistent with the poet’s announced preoccupations and tendencies. It is clearly a “project”; a mix of “textualities” is an essential characteristic of Meddle English; and sound is critical—the English of Chaucer, the sound of which is rendered in an appropriate form, as in these lines from the first poem in the book: “The fruyt of every tale is for to seye; They ete, and drynky, and daunce, and synge, and pleye.”

In a lengthy introductory essay, Bergvall explains the book’s journey through the development of the English language: “I would like to make four points. Four short points about Middling English. The point about the midden. The point about the middling. The point the middle. The point the meddle. The midden, the middling, the middle, the meddle.” She subsequently explains each of these with multiple historic references, poetic musings related to grammar, and personal revelations: “My personal sense of linguistic belonging was not created by showing for the best English I can speak or write, but the most flexible one. To make and irritate English at its epiderm, and at my own.”

Flexibility and irritation of the skin of the English language manifest as lines of type of upper case letters; lines of barely legible reverse type; poems in the style of the language of Chaucer; pages composed of a single letter in tiny type; and a variety of other permutations of physical and abstract elements. A prose-poem-like section titled “untitled” is subtitled “homage to Inger Christensen.” Christensen was an extraordinary Danish poet whose work certainly could be read as an inspiration for this section of the book, a lyrical elaboration on objects that serves as a jumping off point for a commentary on social and linguistic realities.

I was fascinated by “Crop,” a prose-poem essay (for lack of better terminology) composed of lines in multiple languages (I refer you back to the author’s bio). And many of the pieces that may seem impenetrable at first, turn out to be similarly fascinating, and comprehensible, on a second or third reading.

I am compelled to seye that Meddle English is essentially an original and exciting treatise on how language works: “A lingual event is taking place, not in the voice but in the clearing of the throat,” the poet writes in “Cat in the Throat.” And, as such, it is a marvelous, inventive, and highly successful project. But, it is, nonetheless, a project. And like many projects, I suspect it was, ultimately, at least—if not more—more meaningful to dream up and create than to read.

 

top of page

 

Prayer Book coverPrayer Book

Poetry by Matt Mauch

Lowbrow Press, December 2010

ISBN-10: 0982955308

ISBN-13: 978-0982955307

Paperback: 100pp; $13.00

Review by Renee Emerson

In Prayer Book, Matt Mauch’s poems are prayers for the simple, everyday things. They are “Prayers to be prayed over French fries, green beans, sausages, the rest,” and “Prayers for those flying solo on jet plans ascending and descending through turbulence reminded of the ghost on a bicycle ghost-riding stairs.”

Mauch introduces the collection with “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a poem about the family dynamics of a young couple in a Laundromat, while the speaker observes. The “young mother” and “young father” of the poem carry on their small drama, an argument over using a half of a dryer sheet rather than a whole dryer sheet, which the listener, the speaker of the poem, elevates to mythic proportions, comparing the mother to the “daughter of Zeus” and the father to “Sisyphus.” The poem turns introspective at the end, as the speaker reflects:

I draw the last
of the warm change
from my pocket, feed the coins
into myself. I can’t remember the words to a song
I thought I had memorized. Washing
panties, I’m trying to become a better man.

Immortalizing and elevating the everyday is a theme in this book. In the poem “Prayer to that which accepts me in sacrifice,” the crawfish under a rock the speaker lifts up could be “the sleeping head of a god / all my up-the-ladder reincarnations.” This theme is seen again in “Prayer to the shape-shifting god, now goddess of motion, who more often than not appears to us in the form of a stone,” where something as simple and everyday as his breath “congeals” “in the shape of a Buddha.”

Mauch’s work is a reminder that ordinary objects and seemingly routine actions can contain an element of mystery, and a beauty that is only held by the spiritual and eternal.

 

top of page

 

the Homelessness of Self coverthe Homelessness of Self

Poetry by Susan Terris

Arctos Press, January 2011

ISBN-10: 0972538410

ISBN-13: 978-0-9725384-11

Paperback: 96pp; $16.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

“I make and remake myself,” the poet writes in “No Stork,” the collection’s opening poem. The whole of the book is similarly smart, composed of economic lines that contain more than seems possible, given their deceptive simplicity and plain diction. Terris reminds us that poetry need not be arch and “high brow,” down and dirty (edgy, rough, street-wise), or impossibly inventive (structurally or syntactically over-ambitious) to be artful (“If I / told you what I know, you’d question / my solutions”).

Terris has a lovely ear, as evidenced in “Another Blue House”:

Place of casual clutter –
                       High bed with convolvulus
Blooming beyond leaded glass.
                        A personal touch or a soft one.
Here every ghost needs an escort
                       And permission to leave.

She exhibits an admirable sense of control and restraint, even as she expresses a great feeling of yearning and even anxiety:

Some days all choices are the wrong ones.
With this key, I would spring the lock.
The gaudy shoes may carry you to Kansas or to Oz,
but what unlocks more doors: a typewriter or a key?

And she displays philosophical tendencies that move us beyond narrow personal stories:

In the sky, for the blue beyond blue,
                      In the word, look for the sense beyond the sense.
Open a shell and probe for a pearl.
                      Find the thought in the seed of the thought.
In the sand, dig until water pools up.
                      In the world, think backstory, understory.

A poem in the final pages of the collection is titled, “In Our Universe These Things I Know Are True.” Here’s what I know to be true: Terris is a gifted poem and this is a lovely book.

 

top of page

 

The Manageable Cold coverThe Manageable Cold

Poetry by Timothy McBride

TriQuarterly Books, December 2010

ISBN-10: 0810126753

ISBN-13: 978-0-8101-2675-6

Paperback: 96pp; $15.95

Review by Renee Emerson

The Manageable Cold, Timothy McBride’s first poetry collection, is perfect to read in the midst of a hard winter. I was surprised to see that this was only his first book, since McBride writes with a confidence and skill that one would not expect from a new poet. McBride is not afraid to experiment with form, and the book includes forms ranging from free verse to villanelle to sonnet. He explores the theme of “manageable cold” through the physical coldness of winter, country life, relationships, and the bleak hardships of his father’s favorite sport, boxing.

My favorite poem in the collection was the first poem, “Snow Fence,” which tells the story of his grandson and another family member (an unnamed “her”) who would come to stay with him during the winters, avoiding each other the entire season. The poem gives an example of how families can work together, despite differences that are “grudging as the snow / that gathered each winter in the fence / it took the three of us to hang.” The work supersedes the “grudge” as the poem continues:

Clearer than any word or gesture,
I remember this, our one job together,
how they stayed each end of the coiled wire
while I moved back and forth along the ground,
stretching the frets to their angled shadows,
pounding the stakes at their feet. In a month,
a steep gray drift would rise
at the side of the drive
and curve between his windowsill and hers.

McBride’s work shows a close attention to sound and rhythm, a skillful mastery of subjects that seem genuinely close to his heart.

 

top of page

 

Invocation coverInvocation: An Essay

Nonfiction by Jennifer S. Cheng

New Michigan Press, January 2011

ISBN-10: 1934832278

ISBN-13: 978-934832-27-1

Chapbook: 56pp; $9.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

One great idea. One beautiful little book. Ander Monson of New Michigan Press creates fantastic chapbooks with a preference, and special contest for, innovative hybrid manuscripts. The full-length chapbook essay form is especially appealing, and Cheng’s work is perfect for this structure. Her chapbook is a personal memoir-photo-cultural exploration-essay in one compact, smartly designed package (publisher/editor Monson is also the designer).

Cheng’s prose is lyrical. Her photos are intriguing. And her sense of narrative is original and also inviting. Her integration of visual components (black and white illustrations and black and white photos) is clever with visual elements well and appropriately placed and paced, which overall is quite striking. And she knows how to grab—and hold—the reader’s attention. She begins with a diagram of the oral cavity, follows with a spare, haunting verbal introduction (“The world begins with a voice shut tightly, a closed throat”), and moves immediately into a series of stunning photos. Then back to the prose: “When I speak bitter molasses drips from my tongue into still water basins.”

This is the story of cultural intersections, family dimensions, and visual and verbal interactions. Verbal texts move between forms, from single sentences to short narratives to lists:

(She walks through the grocery store while pushing a cart.
She waits in line.
She pays the cashier.
She washes vegetables, turning each leaf over.
She closes the refrigerator, sits at a table.
She turns on the water in the bathtub.
She looks at the tiles, blinking through droplets.
She puts on a shirt, brushes her teeth.
She turns off the light.
She curls on the bed.
She waits for her eyes to adjust to the dark.)

I can’t tell you more or the review will be longer than the chapbook. So, I’m invoking my right as a reviewer to stop before I go too far. But, take my word for it, you will not want to miss Innovation: An Essay.

(Note of disclosure: New Michigan Press has published work by the reviewer.)

top of page