Posted 6 March 2012
The Hermit :: Windeye :: Killing the Murnion Dogs :: Darling Endangered :: Going to Seed :: On Subjects of Which we Know Nothing :: The Last of the Egyptians :: Boneyard :: The Joy of the Nearly Old :: Writing the Revolution :: Panic Attack, USA :: Spring :: Gathered Here Together :: Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation :: Bin Laden's Bald Spot :: Piano Rats :: After the Tsunami :: The Love Lives of the Artists :: The Story of Buddha :: There But for The ::
Poetry by Laura Solomon
Ugly Duckling Presse, June 2011
Paperback: 88pp; $14.00
Review by Marcus Myers
The Hermit shows us Laura Solomon’s self-reflexive speaker, a poet who has lived much of her life sending more love letters to the world than she has received from it. In poem after poem of her third book, the poet-speaker illustrates the loneliness, anxiety, and doubt she has endured while living through words, whose meanings have weathered time. The problem she has had, we imagine, is with written language itself—“in the dream you are becoming / don’t become just words / one more person for whom love prefers / words to other people” (“Dream Ear III”). It seems the words she inks from memory cannot stay fixed. Even though remembered experience does not yellow like paper, it undergoes significant alterations—people change into shadows of their former selves, cities decay and get restored and decay again, and places once important to us drift into our peripheries. We imagine that another problem she has must be with the slipperiness of written language, its phenomenological deficiencies. Particular experience falls through the gaps left between the sentences she writes. As with infatuation, the good feeling that surges through us while in the flow of writing is short-lived. We each know something about how this goes, but most of us shrug when we ask ourselves how a poet might express such frustration. Solomon does so by writing poems that get at how her romantic relationship with the world—its people, places, things and valences—has matured and, as a result, taken up a more realistic position regarding written language and its possibilities.
In “Places,” the collection’s first poem, the speaker asks “what can you see? / a lung-shaped tree and the nest is made of words.” With the of-the-body image of the “lung-shaped tree” and the nest “made of words,” the speaker imposes an entirely human world, one built by the materials of language, onto the natural one. Dreaming along with Solomon, the reader draws analogies between, say, a hundred-year-old oak holding a hundred annual birds’ nests, and a person’s body over the course of a lifespan, fashioning her life out of words and actions season after season. Nests, like the dwellings we temporarily occupy, like the idioms and speech acts we share, belong to the species who construct them over time rather than to the individual birds. Throughout the collection, Solomon reflects on the peculiar relationship among collective humanity, individual agency, the things we encounter, and the words we individuals use to represent the world.
Further apropos of being and time, Solomon’s speaker expresses a fascination with language as a mysterious human system. Language, with its countless permutations, is always already available to us in the present, yet its readiness denies individual ownership since anyone can give words to the things in the world. Words forget you, states the speaker in “Dream Ear III,” in the way that “the mirror forgets you / after you leave it. . . / . . . after you / say them you leave them / with or without a trace.”
Solomon’s style capitalizes on this uncertainty in saying things. Writing from the poetic aesthetics of the open text, Solomon moves her lines down the page with room to breathe between each statement, with loose, associative connections welcoming the reader to backtrack and reread a line resonating two lines above the one just read. In “French Sentences,” the speaker’s syntactic experimentation illustrates how the reflexive nature of language gives her space, actual rooms opening onto imagined rooms, in which to work through her desires and losses:
the walls are useless
you can hear your neighbors eating cabbage
I go to where I am and you are there
this morning I woke because of dreaming the sentence below and above
is there anything lonelier than a lost glove?
Just as wood and plaster walls fail to wall out noises in an adjacent apartment, our psychic walls aren’t soundproof against intense feeling seeping into each porous moment of consciousness. The speaker partitions two fragments from a dream with a line of narrative: “I go to where I am and you are there,” and “is there anything lonelier than a lost glove?”
In terms of what renders Solomon’s speaker uncertain, the visual-spatial deceits of figurative language, particularly those of metaphor, simile and metonym, seem the biggest offenders. Toward the middle of “French Sentences,” the speaker remembers a lover who wrote her letters “in which he used the word cathedraling.” She says, “inside the word there were children laughing so I wanted to run away with him / we were both poets so couldn’t be trusted with words.” This metonym bent into a verb, “cathedraling,” saddens her because the way the young man used it meant too much to her; the reader senses the verb, galvanized for her by the sounds of joyous children, unlocked her heart and opened her to unrealized possibilities.
Elsewhere in the book, Solomon delights in the figure’s ability to shift the notion of one thing, dreamlike, into another noun that moves the poem forward. Often she generates a pleasant dissonance— a tension between the real and the surreal— in the blink of an eye before her syntax completes itself, giving the line breaks some slack. Consider the half-meaning suggested by these lines: “complaining about cockroaches the little brown ones / then the colossal flying ones that like to land on your head / even inside // the screened in porch they like to land. . . ”. At the quick image of cockroaches landing on and “even inside” the speaker’s head, I have to imagine the reader’s smirk and ah as “the screened in porch” phrase fetches the rest of the sentence’s meaning.
I particularly enjoy the way she swerves her metaphors from thing to thing in “Philadelphia,” the book’s longest poem:
we like where we live
the apartment like being inside
an old flower
orange and falling
apart but feeling
lucky to be
colored by the hum of another particular
afternoon behind the building
behind the building lies another
building, the primary
talk and traffic
beyond all that
lies the center
a periphery without periphery
a world of buildings, a building up of worlds and
it’s hard to imagine properly
what that means
Solomon has a knack for expressing what is marvelous and sublime in our constructed world. Here, in “Philadelphia,” and throughout The Hermit, she cracks open the real, as represented by our shared language, and reshapes it into another collection of poems, the vital things she makes of the world.
Fiction by Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press, June 2012
Paperback: 176pp; $16.00
Review by Paul Pedroza
Brian Evenson’s latest collection toes the line between genre and so-called literary fiction and between a recognizable world and new dimensions. Those familiar with his previous work won’t be surprised, as Evenson frequently does this; however, this certainly isn’t a run-of-the-mill collection.
Windeye plants the individual into new, disorienting worlds. The protagonists in these stories often deal with loss, frequently the loss of a sibling. The inescapable feeling that perhaps the loss is mistaken, and that maybe the missing sibling never really existed, magnifies the sense of disorientation. Stories such as “The Dismal Mirror” and the title story place protagonists in just such a situation. Loss of identity and a recognizable home are also prevalent themes throughout. “Discrepancy” explores a much more mundane form of terror as the protagonist experiences an unexplainable delay in hearing that seems somehow connected with the settling of her passion for her husband.
The reader often shares the bewilderment of these trying situations in stories such as “Angel of Death” and “The Second Boy.” In the former, an unidentified man walks with seven strangers through a watery world obscured by fog. The narrator writes about each day’s activities in a journal although all the men do is walk, with one occasionally collapsing and dying. The narrator then catalogues the dead man’s name, and soon, this power becomes the focal point for the rest who are compelled to keep on walking. In the latter story, the reader isn’t sure who is whom, where the often obtuse characters find themselves, or where they are headed (and for what purpose) in a dense, snowy world. It seems as if these characters can do nothing except try to find meaning in empty places. Stories fill the void, and often, they fill in the gaps left unexplained by the mysteries of real life, even if nothing is resolved in the end. “But sometimes, thought Leppin, it is enough for things just to be over, even if they end badly. Sometimes that was all you could hope for.”
“The Dismal Mirror” is filled with gothic details and is set mainly in a creaky, old house. Allusions to caves and the terror of having the missing return in the dead of night connect this and the other tales of lost loved ones to the penultimate story, “Grottor,” in which perhaps the answers to the questions of how and why are provided. “The Moldau Case” is a nod to the old deductive mysteries of Poe and Doyle, although with more of a narrative concern with the psychological motivations of revenge rather than solving a mystery. The terror of “The Sladen Suit” is classic gruesome-detail oriented horror. The reader squirms along with each character that attempts to wear the wetsuit, and it’s details like these throughout the book that will give genre fans a thrill.
Common to many of these stories is the urge for protagonists to write their experiences down for posterity. Perhaps the only way to find satisfying answers or peace of mind in perplexing and trying situations is through the ways they define them as such. “Hurlock’s Law” explores the mystery of meaning explicitly as the protagonist, Hurlock, encounters strange words and phrases. He devises a list of propositions for how one might decode syntax and semantics from the words that can direct the path of one’s continued (or abruptly discontinued) existence. “Knowledge” takes this theme to its literal and logical end. This is a four-page story that reads like a craft lesson in why and how the locked-room dilemma just doesn’t work anymore, in fiction or in real life.
Comparisons with writers such as Poe, Kafka, and even Stephen King are justified; the writer who can effortlessly blend genre and literary elements into a cohesive, dynamic collection is someone who earns my respect and interest, and Evenson is definitely one of those writers. Windeye is first and foremost a ghastly fun read, but it also has heart. For anyone who has lost or has even pondered the loss of a loved one, certainly the sense of longing will be undeniable. This book is proof of a master working at his best.
Poetry by Joe Wilkins
Black Lawrence Press, November 2011
Paperback: 67pp; $14.00
Review by David Breithaupt
I’ve been dipping into Joe Wilkins’ Killing the Murnion Dogs all month like a box of Russell Stover’s candy. Unlike the box of chocolates, I haven’t picked a bad piece. Every poem is a little gem, like your favorite chocolate, not sweet but revelatory and exciting as it delivers moments of loss and gain.
Then a friend usurped the book and read it front to back. “You should read these in order,” she told me. “There’s a chronology, a life story.”
“Like a memoir?” I asked.
So I did.
Wilkins’ poetry follows him through life with verse that dots the backwaters of states from North Carolina to Tennessee to Montana to Iowa, reflecting from a midlife vantage point while paying homage to this “brief crack of light” (I stole that from Nabokov) we call life.
One of the first poems that caught my eye was A Roadside Diner in Iowa. Wilkins covers much ground in this piece describing a simple roadside stop for pie and coffee. A distraction of boys playing Pac-Man “with that reckless sixteen-year old joy” sends the narrator into a reverie, “a small boat drifting back a muddy river of years.” Whatever the author’s intention was in stopping, it seemed to be diverted:
but all you can think about is how
you’ll never make love again
to that girl you knew in high school,
and you miss her small shoulders
and the way she smelled of apples,
so you order a slice of pie
and with that first forkful,
you know, no matter what,
you can keep driving.
While lamenting the fleeting pleasures of youth never to return, Wilkins takes refuge in the simple joys of everyday life:
you come here every day,
because here every day is the same
and you love that above all things,
as your days are most times hard
and wrong and wrapping your cracked
hands around a cup of milky coffee
is the best thing you know.
By the end of the poem Wilkins comes to a heart-rending conclusion that perhaps few of us ever admit:
Maybe this is your life -
corned beef sandwich, fries,
one thin, bright slice of orange.
I was not familiar with the work of Joe Wilkins before I picked up this book, but the title caught my eye. What is, I wondered, a “Murnion” dog? I thought I knew all the breeds. Reading the book, I discovered that the title is taken from the collection’s longest poem, written in seven sections. Murnion is not a breed but a group of dogs owned by the poet’s childhood neighbor, Willie Murnion. The Murnion dogs kill the entire lot of sheep owned by Wilkins’ (then a six-year-old boy) family. The carnage is devastating, a farmyard Guernica that threatens the very livelihood of the farm:
And the lambs –
broke clean in half, sheep torn open
at the belly, gray loops
of entrails soft
in the sun. Some were still
alive, bleating heavy.
Killing a neighbor’s sheep is serious business. I lived on a farm once when the farmer down the road knocked on my door. He greeted me on my porch, a shotgun cradled in his arms.
“Your dog killed my sheep,” he claimed. Apparently he was ready to take revenge right there on my dog and/or me. My dog had an alibi, though—me. I fought for my dog’s innocence and finally my neighbor went away, albeit reluctantly. The lesson was clear, however: do not covet thy neighbor’s sheep.
Wilkins turns such dark moments into poetry:
Days later there were the pictures
in the county paper—
my mother pointing at the torn
and bloated carcasses,
my father and Willie Murnion
staring at their boots,
and one of me,
my small hand wrapped
around the spiral horn
of a fly-bitten skull
Memories of the dead sheep remained vivid through the years, while the images of Wilkins’ father, who died three years after the massacre, faded like a Polaroid too long in the sun:
My father is everywhere
but memory: He rises with the moon,
his arms the gnarled stalks of greasewood,
his breath the hot winds of the plains.
Justice comes, the mother tells Wilkins years later, in the same form of execution my neighbor demanded years ago. The guilty dogs are tied to a tree and shot one by one:
My mother shudders
as the rifles fire and six dogs howl
for the one who is dead.
Don’t despair for the wreckage and reflections on moments of loss. Wilkins provides moments of tenderness and playfulness in his book as well. In his poem The Big Dry, Montana, 1985, he paints a soft portrait:
Father comes in from a day on the tractor, his neck and face blown raw. Mother lays him down on the couch and rubs wool-wax into his skin. My brother and I watch from across the room. She sings softly. She is so tender with him. He smiles up at her. For a moment they have forgotten us, and everything else.
At his best, Wilkins recalls the rural flavor of Wendell Berry, but in a world all his own. Read him. This is your life; wrap your cracked hands around this book. Order some pie. You will keep on driving.
Fiction by Carol Guess
Brooklyn Arts Press, November 2011
Paperback: 80pp; $14.95
Review by Jodi Paloni
Dispatches From the Garden
Poetry by Charles Goodrich
Silverfish Review Press, April 2010
Paperback: 73pp; $14.95
The old adage, good things come in small packages, rolls off the tongue easily during times when economy is in fashion: smaller cars, tighter budgets, and fuel-efficient homes. Lately, the scarcity I feel regards time. So when a batch of uncorrected proofs of lyrical shorts arrived in the mail, I thrilled at the brevity of their roughly 7 x 5 inch shape, the ample white space on the pages, and the thin way they slid into my purse, at the ready for checkout lines, dentist chairs, and half-hour lunch breaks. This month, I’ve come to understand that good writing comes in small packages, and that a mere few lines can pack a potent narrative punch.
In Darling Endangered, a new book of lyrical short fiction by Carol Guess published by Brooklyn Arts Press, sixty-one brief scenes expand the boundaries of the quick print space they take up on paper. They are grouped in sections, reminiscent of chapters, with place titles such as “Central High School of Needle Trades,” “The Ruined Garden,” and “Second Left in a Town of Right Turns.” By the third page, I knew I was in for something beautifully strange, like a painting that haunts me long after I’ve left a gallery and gone home—one I hope to stand before again, because it draws me close enough to want to get closer. It was sentences like these:
Surrogates shoved children on swings, hoping chains would make astronauts of us all.
Love came later than I would have liked. Came with a price. Came with prey and dominion. Came to stain my floor vermillion and my back door with torque.
Come nightfall children drop books to win kickball—no, they’re kicking a soft-spoken boy.
I was provoked by childhood and ballet, frightened by accidents and stray dogs. I felt a chill in the presence of abandoned buildings, broken girls, and littered landscapes, then suddenly warmed; love emerged, and a nearby sea.
Willing to assume that one nameless protagonist journeys an obscure cover-to-cover arc, it made sense to me that the girl in the opening pages would become the reminiscent woman in the end, her distant voice delivering sharp descriptions wrought with longing, inviting the reader to feel as if embers smoldered in the chest:
Cell phones are just earmuffs fuzzy with the static of a new century. You’re pimping polyester like the 80’s were yesterday. Maybe retro’s where it’s at, holding onto holding on. I’m not thinking about toy guns when I tell you what I want. You’re at the far end of the farthest corner of the road. You’re a girl where girls don’t go.
Randall Brown, flash author and founder of Matter Press, called these fictions word-nests. How apropos. I call them a city of story cocoons on the verge of a great transmigration.
Next in my tidy pile, gardener and muse-seeker Charles Goodrich sketches minute miracles out of quotidian moments in Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden. Fifty-two pithy prose poems reveal the poet’s devotion to existential glimmers in singular observations, mostly in his garden. They are often about the nature of growing old, though his messages are light-handed and even his subjects are micro: river midges, teeth, and bees that “bang,” “buzz,” and “shamble.” The world he describes brings to mind some certain beauty that otherwise could go unnoticed: how a neighbor planting a tree with babes in arm is the same neighbor who will one day “lie sleepless, stiff with fear, as the tree limbs groan and scrape at the roof on a stormy December night,” or how
Sticking to ritual makes things tick. Ask the robin sitting on her nest. Ask the lilac beginning to bud. Ask me. Or better yet, take this shovel and help me plant these spuds. You dig the trench and I’ll set a seed potato every two feet in a row.
This poet’s ritual is in drawing an outer landscape into clarity until it merges with an inner understanding, then filtering it back through the garden where
Damn. The squashes have crossed paths again.. . . How far apart do I have to keep these plants? Some vegetables have no shame.. . . Listen, you’ve got to be tough to grow vegetables. Tough, smart, and a little bit mean. Because plants are headstrong and narcissistic, prey to all the sins of the flesh.
The poet Goodrich writes, “A garden isn’t a cosmos, just one if its dreams,” then leads us to his plot of soil, his mirror of humanity, a maundering path through the universe.
Though two writers could not create more dissimilar tones, both Guess and Goodrich succeed in telling a great deal with few words, allowing world enough and time (to borrow from seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell) for reader interpretation. After reading, I did not feel as I usually do, that hours had eluded me, but instead that the world had slowed. Good things come in small packages. I wonder; perhaps small is the new big.
Poetry by Karen Carcia
New Michigan Press, November 2011
Paperback: 48pp; $9.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
As its name might suggest, Karen Carcia’s On Subjects of Which We Know Nothing explores the periphery of awareness: objects unseen, things unsaid, and events forgotten. Like a crooked tree, the chapbook depends upon what isn’t there as much as what is, achieving its own wholeness and balance.
The titular poem, for instance, hangs on “The Rest in Music,” a moment of silence which nonetheless takes up space and time and perhaps lends meaning to the surrounding tones. In “By Raincloud or Anvil,” a night is measured “by absence / like all matter / that matters”—an idea revisited in “Dear Remembered”: “As I write, my lamp erases part of the night. Well, erases my vision of it. . . Of course, we think of emptiness more as presence, don’t we? An absence so large it fills things up.” “Selection” calls attention to the gaps in the speaker’s memory. It starts, “When I begin to map it out, I already see / how I’ve left your house out.”
The poems—about 10 in all—are each accompanied by extensive footnotes. Some act academically, sharing quotes and scientific facts that explain or had influenced a line, while others serve as extensions of the original poetry. While other poets might play ironically in their use of footnotes, Carcia’s are genuine, with less flash and more substance, although they maintain a hint of playfulness as they self-refer to other poems and their notes, or call up false mathematical equations.
The notes add layers of depth to poems that already plunged, and in doing so, further allude to absences in the primary text. On Subjects of Which We Know Nothing is a prime example of how, beyond the form of an individual poem (for Jack Spicer wrote, “A poem is never to be judged by itself alone”), the form of a collection of poems will follow its function.
Cross-Genre Work by Gérard Macé
Translated from the French by Brian Evenson
Burning Deck Press, October 2011
Paperback: 80pp; $14.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
This is a trippy little book. A biographical note in the back describes Macé’s writings as “unclassifiable texts that cross the lines between poem, essay, dream, biography, literary criticism, anthropology, and history.” This is as good a list of summary descriptors for this book that’s to be found; Macé covers all these areas. It's a unique object of curiosity.
The subject of the book, Jean-François Champollion, is described by Wikipedia as “a French classical scholar, philologist and orientalist, decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.” Macé offers a reading of Champollion’s life, focusing on what he views with fascination as a pivotal awakening point: while recovering from a bad case of gout, someone read out loud to Champollion the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, particularly The Last of the Mohicans. Macé teases out the tantalizing possibilities of how this affects the scholar’s work, mixing Champollion’s knowledge of Egyptian lore with his fascination with Cooper’s novels.
Evenson’s translation is sharply crisp, retaining the wryly distanced stance of Macé’s prose, which performs a delicate balancing act. A scholarly tone is maintained throughout. Elements of Champollion’s biography and his research interests, including the essential role his older brother played in determining the course of his life, are amply covered, yet without ever quite explicitly revealing anything specific in too blunt a fashion. The result is an enjoyable air of intrigue and excitement of what might be coming. At heart, this remains a historical mystery where much of the basis of any conclusive statement lies in pure speculation. Despite Macé’s authoritative declarations, he is very much going on nerve alone. And it’s a fascinating weaving together of Champollion’s work with hieroglyphics and his enthusiasm for Cooper’s tales. The forest full of possible dangers mirrored his absorption in the land of the Pharaohs:
Champollion too dreamed of a world in which names would not lie. Where habit and deafness wouldn’t make masks or dead flesh of them. It is thus that he again gave life to the biblical and gilt name of Pharaoh, belated and deceptive, and if he sounded the names of Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Ramses, and so many others, it was in the way one listens to an instrument whose soul is as light as those of the dead. He unwound the papyrus as one removes bandages from language, and under the starry vault of the tombs, on their walls covered in signs, he looked less for the mummified bodies of the kings and queens than for the presence of things embalmed in writing.
The French approach Native Americans through a quasi-Romanticism based on their own historical relationship. Macé’s drawing out of the correspondence between the “Indian” characters of Cooper’s Romantic tales and Champollion’s work with hieroglyphics finds a partial corollary in Jean-Luc Godard’s paralleling of Palestinians/Native Americans in scenes from his film Notre Musique. While not as pointedly political as Godard’s film, Macé is nevertheless dwelling in depths of melancholic hue. He describes a visit by a few of the last remaining members of the Osage tribe to the Louvre—a visit Champollion witnessed first-hand. One of the women, Mihanga, who is pregnant, lifts her voice in song: she “cradles her sadness by singing to herself, but at the same time that she appeases her likely nostalgia she is perhaps looking to ward off bad luck.” She’s destined to return alone with her new child to what was once her own country, all other original members of her party having passed away during their “tour.”
While Macé’s acknowledged interest in Champollion’s inherent genius is deeply engaging, there is also no end of lament to be found here for inexcusable realities of human nature. Grief lies in back of Macé’s interrogation of his subject. It’s at once universal, intimate, and quite mysterious. The reader learns a great deal about Champollion; yet he remains no less an abandoned relic, similar to those he studied, of his culture as much as of history itself. Rather than present a clear argument, Macé dangles enticing facts from out of the record and, in the end, slips away without any final condemnation or praise. It’s as if he’s inflicted a beautiful hurt which lasts without leaving any recognizable mark: that place of emotion where words fail us even as they remain our solitary companions. Knowledge which brings a gain that will always remain a loss.
Fiction by Stephen Beachy
Verse Chorus Press, October 2011
Paperback: 304pp; $15.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Stephen Beachy’s novel Boneyard is different, even original. Appealing perhaps to a younger readership, the book shows a young man’s revolt against the Amish community he came from, as well as against the outside world. It parts ways with the usual sentimentalized picture of Amish society (like in Beverly Lewis’ novels). It is also different in including the author and his editor battling with each other as part of the story—and that battle in interesting footnotes! Lyrical in parts, Boneyard depicts a young man’s dark fantasies that evolve and transform right up to the end. Clearly Beachy is questioning how much of reality we can know in fiction.
The book’s premise is also unique: the idea that in tackling a fictional character’s manuscript for its veracity, the novel’s author and his editor, Judith, show their lives to be involved. Stephen Beachy, abbreviated to SB, met 14- or 15-year-old Jake Yoder (not his real name) in 2006 while working on an article about the October 10, 2006 shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Carl Roberts, a milkman, shot ten girls in that schoolhouse, apparently still grieving for his infant daughter’s death (but he had also abused children in his past). Jake lived nearby, and both he and the author were haunted by this event. Later, Beachy came into possession of Jake’s manuscript, parts of which were burnt, forcing SB to fill in the burnt parts. Jake’s manuscript presumably contained stories of his life after leaving the Amish (which he did after his mother’s suicide) and becoming a rock star. But nothing is certain.
A number of motifs get repeated throughout the narrative: an imaginary twin, a girl with hair “the color of light itself,” a boring girl and a boy with an oddly shaped head; so-called facts like Jake being a good speller and a woman named Darlene; and events such as stones being thrown at a train. Each time the motif shows up, it is in a different context; for instance, Darlene is a counselor and later a substitute teacher. Sometimes Jake has a “sister;” or is she his mother who committed suicide and left him behind to be brought up by the Amish? Undoubtedly it’s not an accident that Jake’s favorite movie is “Shadow of a Doubt.” Not only are his life’s details in doubt, but so are SB’s—his editor believes much of this story is his own, but Judith’s own obsession is shown emerging from her life. It’s not unusual for an author to reflect on his own life in his fiction, but the bio at the back of the book does not fit the events of the novel. This debate between editor and author makes the footnotes fun to read.
If this is an Education of a Young Man story, it is a dark one. Jake is homosexual and is raped by his language arts teacher, after which he searches for his education in extremes, seeking out hermaphrodites as company and using many drugs. As he says of himself, “My soul is wild and discordant and angry. Like an untethered white horse stampeding at night.” Earth is a “tomb,” and he has escaped the “coffin” of the Amish. He emphasizes the disturbing in society: “The hospital is shaped like intestines and it is full of fluorescent lights that make the sick people look like they’re already dead.” Sometimes, however, images become beautiful:
In the moonlight, this city looks like it was infused with a luminous powder from another world. There are no people and no cars in the night, but as they [the twins] creep through the darkness something happens in the sky. Strange lights that quiver like jelly dance around each other. Perhaps this is the aurora borealis. It is the saddest and most beautiful shape-shifting thing they have seen.
The reader will learn about the Amish, probably the most real details. But this novel also keeps you going in its shape-shifting world, and parts of it will not be forgotten. If there is any consistent theme, it is bones—the light color of them, the skeleton that is our body’s base. This is part of Jake’s fascination with death; the word “boneyard” becomes real in one episode and is also a one-time name for his rock band. However, perhaps this novel should have taken the advice of one of Jake’s teachers, “Creative expression is a wonderful thing. But there are limits.” In the book’s unsubstantial world, we often don’t know where we are, and there’s only the merest chronological structure from childhood to adulthood. The reader might become frustrated with no clarification at the end, but if you want a unique jumble, this is it.
Poetry by Rosalind Brackenbury
Hanging Loose Press, February 2012
Paperback: 98pp; $18.00
Review by Alissa Fleck
There is still so much surprise to be had in “old” age. In the title poem of The Joy of the Nearly Old, Rosalind Brackenbury writes of a dying poet, “poetry / changes nothing in the world, / only poetry. But poetry, he told me, / is everything.” In Brackenbury’s world, the poem is the oasis. Viewing life as an extended poem, one unendingly upbeat though not without its share of obstacles, is one way the poet’s speaker continues to find surprise in “nearly old” age. Death is inevitably sprinkled throughout the pages of a book about aging, waving to us from over the brink, but sadness remains largely buried under the surface of these poems, particularly those about death. Even death is not so daunting; it is always met with optimism, as after all it has only “terrier jaws.” The Joy of the Nearly Old is minimal in structure—short lines compose short poems; syntax and diction are simple and airy—but it is only deceptively minimal in idea. To say it plainly, the poet makes writing poignant poems—the kind that sting like bees and are gone before you know what has happened—look easy. In these poems, small things physically fill big spaces, and the same is figuratively true of Brackenbury’s writing prowess.
In The Joy of the Nearly Old, the wisdom and immense, oftentimes invisible, elation that accompany age—the satisfaction, reverence, and possibility in the “simple” things—are lyrically woven and sung throughout these pieces. It would be unfairly dismissive, however, to leave them at “simple” in the speaker’s world; to her they are everything. Brackenbury fills her poems to the brim with bees and splinters of wood and the sounds of birds, each packing the intensity of the world it inhabits by being the very focal point of its own small poem-world. Across these lines, it is always about what was eaten and what was drunk and what was discussed, and never letting the quotidian be merely that.
In “A Man and a Woman and a Blackbird,” after Wallace Stevens, the poet writes, “it’s so much easier now / not being young and in a hurry.” Never have we been made more aware of the cosmic, jigsaw-like perfection of slowing down and realizing how pieces of the world fit together: a listener—or two—for every note of birdsong; everything is allowed its place.
Though just when we think things are a little too neat, or the poems hand themselves too easily over to the book’s conceit, when things are slowing down perhaps too much, the calm and reflective subside, making way for the exhilarating, moving across time and geography, igniting with the tactile power of memory, and still the poet sustains an immense control over language. Just when we are beginning to doubt Brackenbury’s seemingly ceaseless brand of optimism, she gets real with us. In “Poems Used To,” the writer pleads:
Now, I confess,
I need you, the reader, to be there,
tell me you get it, even
feel the same; life flowing past us,
no detail too small, banal or frail to matter.
The poet finally becomes fallible, afraid. It is not all resigned, happy, retrospective fatalism; the book evolves the way a mind does. It reaches out, desperate for the connection of dialogue. It is no longer enough just to be the writer of poems. If Brackenbury’s poems were merely reverent, they would risk triteness. Waxing about the beauty of foreign lands eventually gives way to a poem about Peru where all the poet wants is to go home. What does it mean to be home though? The question is explored again and again in these pages. There are too many stories to tell about home. To be home, comfortable and safe, is to also be burning.
These lines warn and urge us, as readers, to cautiously let go of all the hurt we hold within us. They urge us to be “crazy with joy” despite our invisibility to the world. Be satisfied, they say. Accept some confusion, passiveness, contentment, inevitability. Don’t whine over the way things are; some things change, some stay the same. Examine the world but not too closely. In a book filled with mentions of “old friends,” Brackenbury reminds the reader other people always help us see the world more beautifully, who or whatever those old friends may be. “Letters Home” captures the book’s sentiment perhaps most astutely: “madly, furiously, bicycling, in love,” the way we should all aspire to live, always. Life is the poem we must always be burning to write; “School, 1950s,” a personal favorite of the collection, insists “writing and burning” always go hand-in-hand.
The Feminist History Project’s
Collected Columns of Michele Landsberg
Collection by Michele Landsberg
Second Story Press, September 2011
Paperback: 304pp; $24.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
The idea of completely understanding the processes of any revolutionary change is daunting—to say nothing of making sense of its cultural and historical contexts. In the historic waves of North American feminist theory and practices, the respective paradigms of feminism shift, evolve, and ultimately normalize along lines of particular intellectual circles and politically historic movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the first convention for women’s rights and suffrage in 1848, for example, show a completely different, and seemingly unparalleled, cultural milieu than a feminist theorist like twenty-first century philosopher Judith Butler. Both women, however, illustrate a “revolutionary context” for understanding a broader feminist identity, however constructed—both show the powerful effects of change within particular societal circumstances. In Writing the Revolution: The Feminist History Project’s Collected Columns of Michele Landsberg, Canadian writer, social activist, and ardent feminist Michele Landsberg reminds us that beyond any of the historical feminist revolutions are the people of the revolutions—women and their narratives. From Landsberg’s columns, we get the sense that she finds feminism on the ground, in everyday life, to be the centering force that keeps the falcon of feminist theory from circling out in a wider and wider gyre of culture.
In short, Writing the Revolution is a collection of newspaper columns from Landsberg’s days as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Her stories featured feminist causes, fundamentally grounded by women and their respective stories, and how these stories spoke to the broader socio-cultural themes at work in her native Canada, or even to the United States. This collection, however, is more than a simple haphazard smattering of invocative or significant feature articles. By its very nature and its scope, Writing the Revolution serves as a timeline for the fronting issues and themes most specifically pertinent for Landsberg and her feminist context. Covering causes like daycare, union strikes, and the dialog of women’s testimonies in court, the book becomes a brilliant, Derrida-esque archive of what Landsberg saw as the purpose of feminism throughout her writing career. Her early work of the 1970s and her columns from the last ten years let us understand what she sees “the feminist revolution” to be today, and how we ought to make sense of it now. The collection is interspersed with a current commentary and reflections—weaving the columns together to illustrate the context for the “revolution” that she wants her readers to grasp.
One of the hardest things about “writing the revolution” is first determining what that revolution is or was—the next hardest thing is determining what it means to write it. If we take “the revolution” to mean a simple revolution of feminism, it becomes very tricky to sort out, contextually, whether Landsberg intends for feminism to be the complete and ultimate underlying revolutionizing force behind political change toward women. Since Landsberg’s book is a collection, there is a natural tendency to think of these as “case studies” that somehow add up to the broader theme of revolutionary activity.
Consider, for example, her series of articles on labor union strikes, and the feminist voice and presence that appear in the changes that women are bringing to the working conditions around them. Landsberg unhesitantly takes up the cause of Canadian women workers, highlighting how their unique socio-cultural circumstances let them be a force that is changing what it means to be a female worker in a Canadian union. From this, the reader can reason something along these lines: If this case shows feminism to succeed, then all cases like this would underscore the legitimacy of the underpinnings of the feminist movement. Sure, the audience can see that “something changed,” thus making the movement “revolutionary,” but without a broader context weaving these examples together, Landsberg’s examples and columns leave the reader wondering what tied or ties women together in a revolutionary movement from the 1970s to now. Although the theme of feminism in revolution is compelling (much more so than, say, “Feminism: Why Not?”), part of what would make the collection even more compelling would be what she sees—or saw, for that matter—“the revolution” to be and what it meant. Landsberg has done a phenomenal job of pulling together this archive from the late twentieth century about what it was to participate in this feminist revolution—the reader is left to interpret what it all meant or could mean.
Writing the Revolution: The Feminist History Project’s Collected Columns of Michele Landsberg is a fascinating collection of the author’s columns, views, and writings over thirty years of work with feminism and its ramifications. This book allows the reader to dive into the pragmatic expressions of the feminist movement and voice in North America, and Landsberg’s reflections between articles help us to see how she makes sense of her writing. While Landsberg’s columns and topics are eclectic and far-ranging, they provide us with her unique view of feminism and what she feels it means to write about it.
Poetry by Nate Slawson
YesYes Books, November 2011
Paperback: 128pp; $16.00
Review by Gina Myers
In Panic Attack, USA, the debut collection of poetry by Nate Slawson, the poems rush full speed with wounded but open hearts into the wild and unpredictable future. “I call my heart Megaphone,” a speaker claims in the poem “July 4,” “because I sometimes feel / epic when I feel / with my complete circulatory / system.” Each poem in the collection seems to have speakers with these megaphone hearts, speakers who feel epic when feeling, who have the volume cranked to eleven 24/7.
The book is divided into four sections: “Teenage Sonnets,” “Panic Attack, USA,” “Essays for a Broken Heart,” and “Very Very Agoraphobia,” all of which are made up of short poems, with very few ever breaking onto a second page. “My Band Will Be Named Your Name,” a nine-page poem, is the one exception to the rule. Even though it’s a longer poem, it shares characteristics of the shorter pieces that are packed full of images and energy and nearly bursting at the seams. Slawson shares the hyperbolic enthusiasm of his contemporaries Matt Hart and Nate Pritts. In “You Are Lunch Hour Revenge Therapy,” the speaker says:
for you in spite of you & me &
human fucking error I love you
pill-crush & propeller sleep I
love you kill switch & dirty movies
every morning I rasp for you &
this is the longest I’ve ever been
window shopping for a new face.
These are fast poems that seem to get even faster as the book goes on. In the final two sections, the author hardly sees a need for punctuation, with most poems—after a cascade of lines and images—simply ending with a final period. The enjambment of the lines creates a run-on effect, both dazzling and dizzying as the distinction between one thought and the next becomes blurred.
Panic Attack, USA is comprised of love poems for the damaged, and for those who will nod in appreciation to mentions of bands like Jawbreaker, Afghan Whigs, and Galaxie 500—the two are not mutually exclusive. The book opens with three epigraphs that should be telling: one is from the great New York School poet Frank O’Hara, one is from the movie Lost in Translation, and the last, from Superchunk, asks: “When will our fucking hearts cease to riot?” In the introduction to the book, Peter Markus writes: “These are poems that tell us what it means to be alive…they shake their fists in our face and demand that we wake up.” And he’s right. These poems demand we find our own megaphone hearts.
Fiction by David Szalay
Graywolf Press, January 2012
Paperback: 272pp; $15.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
The first section of Spring, by British writer David Szalay, has the feel of listening to a clueless college pal heading for another romantic train wreck. An inscrutable, perhaps capricious woman becomes the blank screen on which he paints his own meanings. James, now in his mid-thirties, is no longer a hipster entrepreneur, having already gained and lost a fortune in the volatile economics of the dot-com world. He is bright and wounded and seems to choose cluelessness in a willful way. He ruminates about his downsized life expectations:
No more magnificence. Now, he just wants things to be okay.. . . Perhaps a few modest luxuries. A middle-class life in other words. And a woman. Of course a woman. She is the indispensable ingredient for such a life. Without her it would have quite a sad, lonely look.
He obsessively parses every interaction with his new love interest, Katherine: will she/won't she, does she/doesn't she?
Luckily, the writer's intention is more complex than this romance-flick cliché. He writes strong scenes of contemporary social interaction laced with humor, all of which keep you going. Then the novel opens out, weaving together a multiplicity of close third-person narrations that put the reader in a privileged position, adding poignancy along with irony and some humor when the characters come together with their various myopias.
Katherine works as a hotel manager, hoping to learn enough to open her own inn somewhere. Married though separated, James is the first man she has been with since the split. The intensity of old feelings pulls at her. "The past. As if someone had forgotten to lock its cage and it had slipped out, looking for her. It is on the loose now. " Her ex-husband, Fraser, is a hack fashion photographer with disappointed artistic aspirations. To be with her, he left a wife and child. Szalay underscores the leap of trust Katherine had to take: "He himself had once told her. . . that even if he did leave his wife, she would never trust him. . . .However, she insisted on trusting him. She had to trust him. What was the point otherwise?" There was the inevitable betrayal, and now, Fraser has come back, asking for a second chance, complicating the relationship with James.
Szalay writes with brave honesty about the nuances of sex, the way the body sometimes refuses to go along with hope and desire, the way ambivalence complicates intimacy. Katherine and James’s first night together is, per James, a fiasco. During their second encounter, she asks him not to come inside her, and afterwards, he isn't sure if he has or not:
"Is that normal for you?"
"No. . . "
She was shaking her head. ". . . I never let anyone come inside me. I've only ever let one person do that. Someone I was totally in love with."
For a moment he wondered who this man was. Then he stood up stumbling in his lowered trousers. "Look, I'm sorry," he said.
Equally sad is Katherine's experiment with patching things up with Fraser:
"You're very angry with me," Fraser said finally.
. . . So what was it? It was his eyes. His squinting eyes, with whose joyously sexual merriment she had once fallen thuddingly in love, were polluted with sadness. They were polluted with sadness and fear.
A second narrative woven in with the love relationship involves the sordid world of horse racing. James begins by setting up a website that sells racing tips and ends up partnering with an alcoholic journalist school chum by investing in a horse. They will make big money through a race-fixing scheme. James knows that the quick-fix, sure-thing will bite you back, yet he still hopes. He fails all around because a horse is no more predictable than a woman, and in horse racing someone is always manipulating a bigger fix than yours. Colorful characters are associated with this racetrack world, and their points of view are an excursion, but at times they seem part of a separate novel that wants to gallop off in another direction.
The true emotional center of the book is Katherine, whose growing awareness becomes quite moving. She faces the devastation of no longer loving Fraser and is unable to connect with James, who wants her but can't see her. The sense of estrangement generalizes to her entire middle-class milieu; she pulls herself together and gets out.
Spring is Szalay's picture of "the way we live now": characters who wish to change but keep finding new ways to replay old patterns, hungering in the face of diminishing possibility. Finally, despite the disparate pieces, the sum of the book becomes greater than its parts, and each part is rendered with acute insights whose sharpness keeps making you return to reexamine and rethink.
Fiction by Garrett Socol
Ampersand Books, December 2011
Paperback: 240pp; $16.95
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
The title to Garrett Socol’s fiction book, Gathered Here Together, at first may be reminiscent of the phrase shared at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, but as soon as you dive into the first few stories, it is clear that the people are gathered for funerals. In fact, the short story from which the book gets its title is a story about a woman flying home for the funeral of her best friend. The tie that links the collection together is the theme of death; even when you think it is going to be a great love story, death creeps up, just as death creeps up on us in real life. The book explores the different ways that death, the fear of death, or the consequences of death can turn life in new directions.
My favorite story in the book was actually the last one, “Fame & Madness in America,” which reveals the strange ways in which people crave fame, even if it is for something such as murder. It has a Chicago-esque feel to it as we quickly learn that Brenda has poisoned and killed her husband because he cheated on her at their wedding reception. Socol successfully switches character views between Brenda and her brother-in-law, mother, sister, and ex-classmate, making each character unique and believable. The ex-classmate, Lisa Gherardini, speaks up to add supporting evidence to frame Brenda in her court case. In the following quote, Brenda speaks about Lisa:
It’s mind-boggling that someone who was a total bitch at age nine could be an even bigger one at thirty-two. You’d think life would’ve softened her, age might’ve had a mellow effect. Instead, Lisa Gherardini hardened: her features, her personality, maybe her arteries for all I knew and hoped. Behind that phony smile, beneath that oversize green jade bead “Flintstones” necklace and those cosmetically enhanced breasts, lived pure, unadulterated evil.
Compare this passage then, to the way Socol is able to switch gears and show the opposite character, Lisa, and her thoughts:
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Brenda thought I was making the Mona Lisa story up to draw attention to myself. What she failed to realize was that I didn’t need to invent stories to draw attention. Being the prettiest girl in class (in the whole school actually), I received more attention than I could handle. It was obvious Brenda was consumed with jealousy. She was also jealous that my father was a millionaire real estate mogul and that my hair wasn’t frizzy and I had a summer house.
In each story, Socol creates unique characters, all with different quirks. What I enjoyed most about Socol’s writing, however, was the way in which he buried literature and cultural references into the language of his characters and narration. With references to Naked Lunch, Saturday Night Live, authors that have killed themselves, and more, writers and readers will love picking out the hidden messages. Take, for example, the following exchange between Matthew and Carolyn, who are best friends going to pick out an urn for Matthew, in the story “Gone Shopping”:
“What did I do to deserve you?” Matthew asked, happy to feel human touch for a purpose other than taking his blood pressure.
“Well, somewhere in your youth or childhood, you must’ve done something good.”
“I guess so.”
Matthew and Carolyn shared a level of comfort rarely found between any two people. Her mere presence revved him up. It was an established fact that they had more in common with each other than she did with Matthew’s older brother, Wayne, the dolt who happened to be her husband.[ellipses]Like Matthew, Carolyn had a keen appreciation for jazz, literature, and Broadway musicals.
The reference to The Sound of Music is subtle, but appreciated by those who find it. This is like most of the stories in the collection; at first they seem outlandish, but with a little digging, it is easy to find truth, and to savor and ponder that truth.
My only complaint is that, at times, the theme of death feels overworked or too heavy. Once I caught on, I found myself expecting that whoever I was reading was about to die. At times, it was unsettling, but it always caused the gears in my head to start turning—the evidence that a piece of writing has done its job.
Poetry by Amal al-Jubouri
Translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Gayle Howell, Husam Qaisi
Alice James Books, December 2011
Paperback: 140pp; $17.50
Review by Jeremy Benson
In a series of before-and-after poems, Amal al-Jubouri describes the changes in day-to-day action and mood in Baghdad and greater Iraq after the invasion by American forces and the fall of the Ba’ath Party in 2003.
And she does this with much honesty and grace. In some poems, the Ba’ath reign is cast with the peculiar nostalgia that follows in the wake of totalitarian collapse—this is from “My Mother After the Occupation”:
Even her prayers become a hymn
We’re sick of you, Democracy
There used to be one president
There used to be one fear
Likewise, the effect of the occupation allows soccer fans to “cheer and cheer and cheer” (while before “even our thrill was controlled”), but otherwise “Freedom After the Occupation” is
Auctioned off to the highest bidder—
Sectarian Religion, Politics
and the country next door raises the price on your head
An average American reader may find Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation a difficult read, even as translators Rebecca Gayle Howell and Husam Qaisi take great pains to ensure that few cultural and literary cues are lost in the conversion. But as with any difficulty based on unintended ignorance, it’s well worth two or three readings—with one finger in the Notes and Wikipedia within arm’s reach—in order to encourage a more sympathetic and full understanding for the citizens of Iraq.
Late December 2011, the remaining combat troops of the United States military exited Iraq after nearly a decade of invasion and occupation; yet it’s never too late to examine, and hold to heart, how war continues to affect a community for the good, bad and ugly.
Fiction by Brian Doyle
Red Hen Press, October 2011
Paperback 160pp; $16.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In this collection of twenty-five short stories, Brian Doyle takes his readers on a roller-coaster ride through social issues, politics, war, religion, mortality, and morality and shares his beliefs as an Irish, Catholic, devoted husband and father as openly here as he does in his nonfiction. Readers familiar with Doyle’s work will recognize the playful prose and rhythmic sentences, which the writer has tailored in tone and content to match each character’s persona, while a charming, unnamable oddness chuckles over the entire collection. Doyle doesn’t tell his readers what or how to think; rather, he simply asks us to follow him like the Pied Piper and watch as he drills down to the marrow of something, where he almost invariably finds a shred of hope.
Most of these stories contain enough elements of truth or plausibility to be accepted as factual, but these elements are juxtaposed against enough improbability and obscurity to confirm them as fiction. In “The Train” the narrator has a heart attack on a train, and the first-person perspective pulls the reader into the man’s excruciating predicament. With each wave of pain and struggle to breathe, the man resorts to speaking in his native Gaelic. It’s no coincidence that Doyle’s Irish grandfather had a heart attack on a train, which Doyle has also written about in an essay.
The narrators enhance the tone of these stories, and they provide both the emotional connection to and distance from each one. In “Stay Flush,” the narrator recalls being paid to hear final testament of a customer at the golf club where he worked. Doyle sprinkles enough clues throughout to identify the customer as Joseph Kennedy, whose confession portrays him as a selfish, materialistic, unlikeable man. But the possibility of hope appears at the end, when the narrator imagines that the customer kept in touch with his brain-damaged daughter after that day on the golf course. “Pinching Bernie” reveals the fate of Bernard Cardinal Law after the Pope promoted him out of Boston and into the Vatican. The tough-guy narrator rekindles our anger and indignation here, reminding us of several of the infamous priests under Cardinal Law’s jurisdiction whose arrests for child sexual abuse made national headlines. According to the narrator, the former archbishop has been kidnapped and sentenced to scrub toilets for the victims’ families until “he has a heart attack and wins a date in hell with Mao and the boys.” We nod in agreement with the narrator’s conclusion that Bernie’s sentence seems “like the absolute best idea, you know what I’m saying?”
Several of the stories demonstrate Doyle’s writing style and use of humor, which he says “allows and opens a vein, sort of, and you can slip in the poignant dagger.” In the first and title story, Osama Bin Laden’s barber insists that Bin Laden has a bald spot shaped “amazingly like Iceland, complete with the Vestfjarda Peninsula to the west.” Inside the cave, the terrorists conduct a hilarious debate over the attributes of their favorite American movie actors while Osama orchestrates endless film productions in which he stars wearing a properly pre-rumpled camouflage jacket. Meanwhile, the barber daydreams of the day when justice will visit the cave and Osama will pay for his crimes. (Doyle wrote these stories before Bin Laden’s death.)
Some of the stories give reason to pause and ponder our own possible responses. In “Mule,” a young soldier is ordered by his sergeant to steal a mule that the sergeant plans to use in the execution of an enemy soldier, whose only “crime” seems to be his nationality. In “Blue,” some enlisted men are ordered to drown a comrade for being drunk on duty. And in “Yoda,” an elderly bachelor finds buried in his garden a newborn baby, whom he bathes, feeds, and rocks to sleep for two nights before returning her to her mother, the teenager who lives next door. The baby was born on Good Friday, “the saddest darkest day of the year,” and returned to her mother on Easter Sunday morning, and the associated notion of resurrection gives hope for the baby’s future. In “Lucy,” told in the third person, a man accidentally hits and kills a neighbor’s cat with his car, a hit-and-run. In the last paragraph, the narrator confesses—in first person, thus drawing us into his conscience—to keeping a memento of the incident for years.
I found these characters lingering like old friends long after I’d finished reading their stories. This collection would be a wonderful introduction to a reader unfamiliar with Doyle’s work. For Doyle devotees like me, the stories reaffirm his status as one of the finest storytellers and word wizards of our time, perhaps of all time.
Poetry by Franki Elliot
Curbside Splendor Publishing, October 2011
Paperback: 74pp; $10.00
Review by Katy Haas
In her first book, Piano Rats, Franki Elliot gives the world a glimpse inside her life as she recounts scenes of her past and the other characters inside them. With a writing style that's blunt, honest, and beautiful, she wins readers over as someone who's easy to relate to—someone else who's felt messed up or like they have messed up, or someone who's been in love or fallen out of it.
Early in the book is the poem "Who's Counting?" in which Eliot speaks on the phone with a friend, each tallying past lovers. It almost feels as if Piano Rats is an extension of this conversation, another honest examination of those people of the past, whether they're family, ex-lovers, or complete strangers -- those who have wronged her or those that she has wronged.
In "With an Obsessive Compulsive," Elliot leans toward the latter. "I wait for the sun to rise; usually I can wait it out until late / morning, until the guy wakes up but this time I don't care / about being appropriate." Instead, she gets up, places her discarded underwear in her bag, and leaves after a night of being in an obsessive compulsive's home. Elliot's frank language is easy to access and easy to relate to, but may sometimes almost come off as cold.
She addresses this coldness herself in the poem "The Coldest Person I've Ever Met." In another snapshot of her life, Elliot listens to a man speak about his life while, behind a closed door, he slowly tries to kill himself. When he finishes his story, she goes to bed; later, she wakes and he says:
“Next time someone tells you their life story
don’t just get up and go to bed. Hug them.
Tell them it’s okay. Grow up, if not for me, for the next guy.
You are by far the coldest person I’ve ever met.”
However, the poem finishes up on a warmer note that’s just as open as the rest of the book, saying, “I don’t know if you’re alive anymore but / I swear to you, I’m still trying.”
There are other times when her scenes turn soft, showing a warmer side that creates a comfortable balance. This soft side shows through in her piece “Flash Back,” which features her and an unnamed “You.” The two lie in bed and the faceless bedmate says, “‘I wish there was a God.’ I didn’t have to say anything / because I understood completely.” The two seem vulnerable beside each other.
With the author’s honest approach and language that’s straightforward and charming, Piano Rats is an enjoyable glance into her life. With her longest poem spanning three pages, she left me wanting more from some of the stories she shared; I wanted to learn more about the secondary characters that she’s so realistically portrayed. Piano Rats is Franki Elliot’s first book of poetry, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to tell us.
Fiction by Annam Manthiram
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, October 2011
Paperback: 280pp.; $18.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Annam Manthiram’s first novel, After the Tsunami, a finalist in the 2010 Stephen F. Austin State University Press Fiction Contest, is a powerful story of endurance but also a disturbing picture of an orphanage for boys in India. The inspirations for this novel were first, the experiences of the author’s two elder sisters in a boarding school and secondly, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In this novel, the boys had either lost their parents in the tsunami or were abandoned by living parents. Since the orphanage’s “Mothers” were so arbitrarily brutal, the boys had to bond to survive, but their shifting alliances also had consequences. Siddhartha, the narrator, a successful teacher in the U.S. with a loving family, is haunted by what happened to his friends and what he did himself to add to the brutality in the “House.”
The friends are each distinct, and the events and characters evolve slowly and believably to escalating brutality. At first the House does not seem so bad to the boys. Caste distinctions fall away:
Most of us forgot who we were. It was as if the sea, for those of us who had come from the sea, had recreated our existence, and we were free to become whoever we wanted to be. The only time our social class was most evident was when the mothers reinforced our backgrounds—almost colonial-like, and their efforts to pit us against each other worked to serve as some sort of self-inflicted discipline, which they did not have to endure.. . . we tried to keep the hope of [our parents] returning alive by talking about what we would do if they were to return.
This possibility of the parents coming to take the boys away plays a sad crucial part at the end.
Among the “friends” is the bully Jaga-Nai, who takes from other boys and attacks them viciously, always without being punished. Golicchio pictures his father coming in a rainbow, because this boy is an extravagant storyteller. As he says of himself, “I always saw things as I thought they should be.” Peepa means “barrel,” because he can never quench his thirst. He’s also the most handsome boy. The biggest boy, Ganesh, in spite of his muscles, gets away with doing little work, because he’s of the upper caste. Puni has eyes that never blink and is always hungry. Along with the boys, a mysterious, lovely girl appears in the greenhouse, supposedly watering the plants, only her pitcher holds no water.
Siddartha, as an adult, mentions that he cannot eat fish and is glad that the place he lives in is foggy so that he does not see the stars. The reader eventually finds out why. We also find out why Jaga-Nai is a bully and why Headmistress Veli is nice. Among the “Mothers,” young Sid thinks she is the kindest since she sometimes gives sweets and extra food to him. The boys are always hungry, given inadequate and rotten food, while the Mothers are fat. The government allots new clothes for each boy every year, but most of the pants and shirts are stained or torn except those for Ganesh and Jaga-Nai. Boys are put in the Closet, a dirty, dark place where they cannot stand upright, for a night or longer or even forgotten in there. The boys retaliate to some degree by snooping and enjoying what they find in the Mothers’ rooms when they are absent.
The author is skillful in merging past with present throughout. Most of Siddartha’s before-tsunami memories have to do with his sister Smita, whom his father loved more than him. When Golicchio and Peepa become close and started to
sound the same, envy boiled inside of me like payasum on a hot stove. I felt as though I were in the middle, intruding on a special moment, not unlike the times I’d tried talking to my father when he was playing with Smita.
The end reveals horrors in what happens to some of the boys and in the actions of the Mothers. Siddartha feels guilt for what he does, as well as what he doesn’t prevent. The reader understands how the boys change incrementally in this short saga. Siddartha has to recognize he has become a mini Jaga-Nai the bully, and yet he does fight against the Mothers’ corruption. He is a strong survivor for being forced to face his past at the end.
The only slight criticism of this book might be that each long chapter consists always of mostly dialogue and, blended past and present, Siddartha’s thoughts. Also, no place names or dates are given. However, you care about the characters, and this page-turner will stay with you.
Five Stories of Creative Intimacy
Nonfiction by Daniel Bullen
Counterpoint Press, October 2011
Hardcover: 300pp; $28.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Daniel Bullen delivers an intimate account of five artist-couples whose relationships stepped outside of the status quo of the times in which they lived. He admits that his interest in the subject is personal. In writing this book he was “looking for the language to reconcile marriage and desire.” Any long-lasting intimate relationship of significance is bound to be a tricky endeavor—prone to be often full of mishaps, some a matter of chance, others deliberately pursued. Bullen’s book is more concerned with the latter; the individuals in these relationships each pursue multiple lovers, leading to hopelessly complicated love lives.
The pairings he explores range from artists of the literary, both philosophical and poetic, to those in the visual arts, and are in the following order: Lou Andreas-Salomé and Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Bullen’s inquiry covers a broad swath of all available materials on his subjects and is therefore a fitting place to begin for readers with little prior knowledge of these artists. If you happen to enjoy, say, Kahlo’s paintings or admire Steiglitz’s work with artists in his galleries and Camera Work, and are curious to learn about their personal lives, this is a handily informative book. On the other hand, if you know nothing at all about any of these artists but are interested in love relationships between artists in general, this book is likewise informative and worth your while.
Bullen’s focus is on relationships that are both artist-to-artist in nature and not the least bit monogamous. He points out: “They were not, after all, Rodins, Gertrude Steins, or Willa Cathers, with longtime nonartist companions—they weren’t Faulkners, with nonartist wives and lovers, they weren’t Hemingways or Picassos, with serial marriages, to beautiful women who were not also artists.” His interest centers upon relationships that might, even if problematically, be seen as being between equals. In most cases, if one partner in one of these couples caused the other to suffer, it was undoubtedly returned in kind by the other at some point. To be sure, these are relationships which were suffered through, but suffered through for the benefit of Art. These couples remain heroic champions for Bullen, carving out unknown territory between lovers as individuals against society’s norms, all for Art’s sake:
The artists’ relationships were not only open to lovers: they were also open to the sex urge and jealousy, and all the chaotic emotions their parents had hoped they would free themselves from by making recognizable marriages. But with the power to make decisions about what to claim as their own, and what to renounce as merely the world’s, or history’s, or nature’s, the artists’ individualities themselves seemed to obligate them to make decisions, and create things, that would reveal their personalities. In their relationships with each other—the equals who shared their visions—they really entered into the most intimate relationships with themselves. In their relationships, they encouraged each other to become their own ideas of themselves; to relinquish or transform what was not theirs, and to invent forms that would give them expression; to say the things, and be the selves no one had let them be anywhere else. Now their flaws and frustrations and lusts and rebellions and failures were just understandable, even forgivable human reactions, and all of it was just raw material for art: together they could forgive each other their human lives and failings—so long as they continued to create.
These are not always endearing stories—surprised!? Turns out personal lives of artists, like everybody else, are often quite messy. The lesson to be found here, even if it arrives with some slight distaste and mild shock, is that everyone must ultimately discover their own ways to love and that “true love” is actualized in many different ways, thankfully as individual as Art itself is.
Bullen should be commended for leaving all the rough edges exposed. Nin, it appears, did in fact successfully pursue a sexual relationship with her father later in her adult life. Such facts are not for the squeamishly staid. However, nothing here is likely to shock today’s readers who are immersed in the televised “reality” of both stars and non-stars of the entertainment world. For readers living honest, open romantic lives with several lovers, these stories will strengthen pre-existing bonds, further reaffirming the fact that there is no so-called correct course for romance to take. In the end, Bullen’s book affirms that what’s important in Art, or much of anything else in life, is staying committed to doing whatever’s needed to accomplish the vision given you. Nothing else matters.
A Graphic Biography
Graphic Novel by Hisashi Ota
Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Ichimannendo Publishing, December 2011
Paperback: 235pp; $16.95
Review by Jeremy Benson
The Story of Buddha: A Graphic Biography plots the Buddha’s journey from crown prince of the Śākya kingdom to Enlightenment as a reformed ascetic, as told and illustrated by Hisashi Ota. It’s a story not often heard outside the studies of practicing Buddhists or lectures on World Religion, but it is key for even a basic understanding of Buddhism, the religion based on Buddha Sakyamuni’s teachings.
The book follows Prince Siddhartha as he travels beyond the palace’s four gates, where he sees his subjects suffering in poverty and disease, noting that “people live in search of happiness, but in fact life leads straight to the horror of the grave.” Meanwhile, his father, the king, notices his discontent and provides him with all he thinks his son needs to be a happy, contented heir to the throne, from food and drink to the most beautiful wife in all the land. But these comforts don’t seem to satisfy Siddhartha, either, who decides to enter the wilderness, fasting and meditating until he figures out the meaning of life.
To introduce readers to Prince Siddhartha and his search for meaning, Ota uses two fictional characters: Aśvajit, an attendant to the prince, and his friend Udda, whose directionless lifestyle leads her to seek counsel with Siddhartha. As sympathetic characters, their actions coincide with the Buddha’s journey, helping to spur the plot along from scene to scene. Udda, especially, is meant to relate to readers, as she is first drawn to the Prince’s royal lifestyle before realizing herself that comfort and pleasure are not wholly satisfying.
Not unlike graphic novelizations of the Bible or the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the biography’s goal is primarily to educate, with its comic-book format and manga-style artwork intended to appeal among younger audiences. Every new setting and character is boldly labeled, and each chapter ends with a take-away quote that summarizes the teachings explained by the preceding story. The book includes, as reference, a map of the region of modern-day India and China where Buddha lived and taught.
Fiction by Ali Smith
Pantheon Books, September 2011
Hardcover: 256pp; $25.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Readers who love word play, such as puns, and prefer a nonlinear structure for the surprises it brings will find prize-winning Scottish novelist Ali Smith’s There But For The amusing and insightful.
What plot there is involves a dinner guest who doesn’t leave, and each word of the title is a section, giving the perspective of a person who knows this guest slightly yet meaningfully. Miles Garth is the extra dinner guest (brought by an invited guest, Mark) who before the dessert course leaves the table to lock himself in the spare bedroom upstairs. The first of the four narrators in the THERE section is a Scotswoman, Anna Hardie, who met Miles as a teenager on a winning writers’ trip through Europe. She claims they didn’t have much to do with each other, but then she remembered that Miles brought her out of her shell, though he calls her Anna “K,” not her name. The BUT section is Mark’s story—he met Miles at a play, where Miles impressed Mark with his wit. The FOR section is the elderly May Young’s story; she is the mother of a dead woman whom Miles loved. Even after the daughter’s death, Miles keeps up with May all through the years. The THE section belongs to Brooke Bayoude, a precocious 9-year-old, the other non-invited dinner guest, who seems to understand Miles the best.
Miles’ disappearance upstairs follows very funny but also cruel exchanges by the dinner guests, and during his several months’ long stay upstairs, he becomes a celebrity, and various groups (The Milo Multitude, The Milo Masses) congregate under his window claiming his affiliation with their groups, like “Milo for Palestine.” Newspapers call it Milo Madness, Milo Mania, Milo Mayhem—an amusing social commentary here, which includes the hostess’ change of mind into making money on Miles living in her spare room. Mostly, however, the novel’s humor comes from word play:
I said, I’m Brooke, the child said, and then you said, what a coincidence, I’m Brooke too.
No, Anna said. The thing is, when we met on the steps, I didn’t know you were saying the word Brooke, I thought you were saying the word broke. And I’m broke. So I said, me too. It’s a pun.
Like, broken? the child said.
No, I meant it in the sense of having no money, Anna said.
What exactly is a pun therefore? the child said.
What exactly is a pun there for? Anna said.
Anna used to work for The Center for Temporary Permanence, a title which reversed
becomes “permanent temporariness”—like Miles’ stay and the characters’ tentative relationships. The reader has to work at understanding connections, as do these characters (Anna’s forgetting Miles’ important role during their trip, for example). And nothing is fully seen or developed straight up front. This is best explained by Miles’ preference for the word “but”:
Yeah, but the thing I particularly like about the word but, now that I think about it, is that it always takes you off to the side, and where it takes you is always interesting.
is very occasionally a preposition but is mostly a conjunction,
and the word conjunction. . . means:
simultaneous occurrence in space and time
Thus the setting of this novel, Greenwich, the center of timekeeping, is important. The kind of word play that connects everything involves clocks as well. Brooke reads a secondhand book, which leads her father to say:
Yep . . . it’s second hand. Second hand! this was funny. First: because of the clocks and watches at the Observatory in the museum which have second hands, and second: in a sort of weird way because of the man with the hand [who tried to bomb the Greenwich Observatory] that exploded off his arm.
The reader, with this darker bomb reference, is reminded that this book is not just knock-knock jokes and word play but also reveals sad pasts—May’s and Mark’s particularly, but even Brooke’s at being tormented by her school teacher. The reader must remember what is left out of the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I,” and then note that the I may be shared by the four narrators; the question of God’s grace Brooke addresses, though she cannot resolve its meaning. The novel’s serious parts show, in our contemporary society’s casual cruelty, impermanent relationships, which should not be forgotten since they are all we have. Characters, though not thoroughly known, are still sympathetic, Miles particularly, as a man of a few but good words. The reader must wait for explanations of mysteries late in the novel. But the rewards are that the book is funny, moving, and often thought-provoking.