NewPages Book Reviews
December 1, 2008
The Tsar's Dwarf :: On the Mason-Dixon Line :: Dismantling the Hills :: Not a Speck of Light is Showing :: Zone : Zero :: Bear :: The House of Your Dream :: Crazy Love :: The Zen of Chainsaws & Enormous Clippers :: Boring Boring :: Dear Professor, Do you Live in Vacuum
Novel by Peter H. Fogtdal
Translated by Tiina Nunnally
Hawthorne Books, October 2008
Paperback: 289pp; $15.95
Review by Laura Di Giovine
The Tsar’s Dwarf is Danish author Peter H. Fogtdal’s first novel to be translated into English. Sørine Bentsdatter, Fogtdal’s unusual heroine, is brilliantly rendered. A deformed female dwarf living in the early 18th century, Sørine is wittily acerbic, angry, and indifferent. She’s also shrewd, sensitive, and fiercely intelligent. At times she’s compassionate and almost kind; at others, her actions are questionable, even deplorable. Always, Sørine is human.
She lives in a time far less tolerant than our own; society considered her an oddity and constantly scorned her for her freakishness. She’s given as a gift from the King of Denmark to the Tsar of Russia, Peter Alexeyevich (Peter the Great), a notoriously ruthless and captivating ruler, known for his love of human deformities and collection of dwarves.
Called “Surinka” by the Tsar, Sørine finds herself drawn to his power, intelligence, and wit. He’s also a kindred spirit as the bearer of an abnormal affliction himself. She travels with the Tsar and his entourage from Copenhagen to Amsterdam to “the frozen melancholy of Petersburg.” There, she meets the Tsar’s favorite dwarf, Lukas, and finds herself repulsed by his pride, his sexual advances, and continual denial that he’s a dwarf.
Throughout, Sørine is tormented with guilt for drowning her son Mathias, who exhibited symptoms of the plague. She’s also haunted by disturbing visions of Mathias’ dead father, Terje the Scoundrel, a man she lived with in Copenhagen who was “fond of misshapen females.” Ultimately sent to a cloister to exorcise her demons, Sørine reflects:
There is a mushroom that grows only in the winter. It grows as a parasite on dead trees. Contrary to what people believe, it’s not poisonous. It was born at the wrong time – too late to be an autumn mushroom, too early to be part of the spring. From its place it hears the screams of the dying mushrooms. It hears their sorrows and lamentations.
If I were not a dwarf, I would be that sort of mushroom. I would be cold and slimy; I would renounce the sun. I would live on my tree trunk without distinguishing night from day. I would surrender myself to snails and insects. Death would never frighten me. I would reappear winter after winter, yellow as the sun, and with new gills.
Sørine, of course, is like this mushroom. Born at the wrong time in history, she acutely feels the pain of others, all the more so because she bears the brunt of humanity’s discontent.
Fogtdal deftly explores the experiences of the marginalized in this strangely uplifting and lyrical tale. The Tsar’s Dwarf also examines the power of the human spirit and, through his defiantly spirited narrator, shares the essence of what it means to be human.
An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers
Ed. Billie Travalini, Fleda Brown
University of Delaware Press, August 2008
Hardcover: 279pp; $37.50
Review by Joseph P. Wood
In BC Hall and CT Wood’s travelogue, Big Muddy: Down the Mississippi through America’s Heartland, they claim that the old dividing line between North and South, the Mason-Dixon, is arbitrary and outdated, a relic from a property dispute by two English astronomers in the 1760s.
I suspect Travalini and Brown – and the writers contained within On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers – would adamantly disagree with Hall’s assertion that Mason-Dixon Line in present day America is meaningless. In fact, the editors’ introduction claims that the line, partially located on the western border of the state, gives the state immense cultural meaning:
…we’re Yankee, but barely. We’re a state that hardly knows whether it’s Northern or Southern. Stretching ninety-six miles along the eastern coast of the United States, Delaware, the first state to ratify the constitution, and one of four border states during the American Civil War, is as diverse and interesting as any state in the nation.
The editors posit that Delaware is not only North or South, but rather an idiosyncratic synthesis of those cultures. A reader might conclude that the work contained within the anthology would speak to the particulars of the Delaware experience, and in the manner of Hall and Wood – or other North vs. South literature – create a cohesive and complicated pastiche on what it means to straddle both regions.
In creating this anthology, however, Travalini and Brown have not so much solicited work about Delaware as much as solicited writers with biographical ties to Delaware. The result is a collection of compelling prose and capably crafted poetry, but the reader is sometimes left uncertain about what constitutes a Delawite sensibility. For example, a good portion of the prose inhabits generalized, domestic worlds gone awry and the self-realizations that occur in the face of chaos.
In Fleda Brown’s haunting and harrowing personal essay “Anatomy of a Seizure,” the reader watches a family try to deal with a son’s degenerative paralysis. Maribeth Fischer’s equally moving essay “Stillbirth” documents the struggles of a daughter in Iowa trying to reason out her mother’s divorce. While most of the prose in this collection gives careful attention to character development and narrative, and while there is a healthy diversity of tone and voice, much of the work feels less located in a particular region and more grounded in a broader American context. Moreover, when some of the work does investigate the function of place, it is a location eons away from the Mid-Atlantic, such as McKay Jenkins’s “And None Came Back” about a climbing expedition gone bad in Glacier National Park or Elissa Schappel’s “The Green Fairy” about absinthe addiction in Portugal.
There are two prose pieces, however, that feel squarely rooted in Delaware (albeit wildly different portions): Bonnie MacDougal’s excerpt from her novel Out of Order and the start of Travalini’s own memoir Bloodsisters. MacDougal dives into the world of Delaware blue-bloods. Lawyer, senators, and other well-groomed elite mince about a giant estate where piano music and tuxedoed waiters are ubiquitous background. The excerpt depicts a people inextricably linked to larger urban centers (DC and Philadelphia), and yet who are culturally self-contained. Travalini, on the other hand, introduces her readers to the tribulations of the working poor. Her narrator is a ten year-old girl who returns to her biological parents in Wilmington after spending most of her life with her adopted mother, Mama Cope. Travalini expertly depicts a Delaware where wide open rural spaces quickly lead to crammed urban neighborhoods, and where one’s class is not the same as one’s kindness.
The poetry in On the Mason-Dixon Line has a more consistent regional air. Many of the poems utilize the specifics of Delaware landscape, such as the Brandywine and Symrna Rivers, Delaware Park, and farmland giving way to strip malls. More often than not, the poems primarily are concerned with the fates of ordinary individuals or occasionally, a notable historical figure. Most of the poems in the collection are highly narrative and descriptive, sometimes at the expense of musical complexity and attention to line. However, some of the poets – such as David Scott, Allison Funk, WD Snodgrass, and Jeanne Murray Walker – have both a wonderful gift of story and a finely-tuned lyricism. For instance, Murray-Walker’s sestina, “Betting in Bright Sunlight at Delaware Park,” tells the story of a nameless gambler – and one who, it is implied, has had his fair share of rough luck. But the poem’s resonance does not rest in its narrative but in its prosodic and figurative complexity:
Rags shaken in the wind, her mane. Her head
eats light, drinks furlongs. He can’t even see
the blue until the photo. There’s she still.
And first. And his. He rises beyond the track,
beyond his hands, his rings, his blue tattoo,
his shoes. The crowd divides to let him pass.
Murray Walker’s ear is impeccable: she creates subtle yet pointed drama in the short sentences of the second and third lines, and then follows them in a long sentence where the poem’s subject metaphysically “rises beyond” the gauche adornments on and of his body (the “rings”, for instance, one imagines not to be on the subtle side). The figurative moment in the stanza is heightened through the musical variation. Not all the poems in this collection are this finely constructed – but the ones that are resonate.
Ultimately, the collection – intentionally or unintentionally – is not so much a literary exploration of Delaware’s Southern and Northern attributes, as the title would suggest. Rather, On the Mason-Dixon Line is more about how Delaware fits into a larger national narrative. Perhaps, the Mason-Dixon Line is not a distinct line between two opposite cultures, but more a point where local particulars give greater breadth to the spirit and ideals of America.
Poetry by Michael McGriff
University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2008
Paperback; 88pp; $14.00
Review by Roy Wang
Don’t read the back cover; Dismantling the Hills is not a love song to forests alive with work crews. It is an elegy for the soul-crushing life in the logging countries of Oregon, highlighted and made ironic against the background of a majestic Nature that should not only have been benign, but inspirational.
From the very first poem, “Iron”, Michael McGriff laments the life that so few get out of:
This is the book
of the universe, where iron is the last element
of a star’s collapse and the moon retreats each moment
into oblivion. My blood fills with so much iron I’m pulled
to a place in the hard earth…
and I can turn away from nothing.
In his many evocations, Michael McGriff renders his sense of place and otherness with deliberate diction and well-placed references. Whether it’s J.C. Penny, the VFW, or burned tractor tires, each feature sinks us into the same silt fields his subjects sludge through. Take for example a fairly deliberate noir moment, “smokestacks pocked with peep shows / of flame and soot,” where the speaker gets caught up listing the trappings of Coos Bay. He then continues with the natural features of “mother-of-pearl, sea lion calls in the dark,” dialing back the melodrama. The noun lists sometimes drag on too far, a failing of many ‘get me outta here’ poets, but by and large, the language serves its purpose.
Like the best poetry of this kind, McGriff very judiciously integrates elevated or dramatic tones to make sure his poems matter. At times it gets overblown, demanding self-important microcosms from pools of mucky water. However, most of the time he finds his balance, as in “Mercy, Tear it Down”:
The vise in my throat bore down,
daylight broke its bones across the ridge.
Tear it down. From there you could see
the whole town. Tear it down, tear it down.
The long, dull lines that McGriff sometimes favors can have some rhythmic awkwardness that does not sound at all intentional. Similarly, the short lines he offers also can go too far in their thudding nervousness, one short declarative after another. But when he finds his line matched to his message, we can get marvelous effects. The end of the fourth section of “Ash and Silt” reminds us of Eliot’s ‘bitten macaroon’ with “how he unthreaded a tick from my thigh / under the cold half-light of our pantry”. Or consider the previous section: "She can shed her husk / and soar above everything with the red-shouldered hawks / until all of Coos Bay reveals itself as a grid of service roads, a net / stretched over thousands of acres of Douglas fir. From that height / it must be clear our days ahead and behind are one, / that everything we touch clings to its own ghost."
Some of the best moments of this collection are actually when McGriff gets beyond the numb world of Coos Bay, either straying into an honest love lyric, as in “Lines written before the Day Shift,” which displays a genuine energy, or the wonderful dream-like sequence of “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
The small-town bring down can no longer be a go-to subject without either a larger idea or some remarkable handling, and this collection could have benefited from more diversity, if not in theme, then at least approach. The many imaginative leaps in “The Last Temptation of Christ” give plenty of evidence that McGriff would have been up to the task:
My friend slipped from my hands
and fell like a pinball through a thirty-foot redwood
then just lay in the duff laughing at the Oregon rain…
It was his feet you saw stitched
to the soles of your own
as you took those first watery steps
over the Galilee. It was his body
that wandered into marriage and three kids
and a gradual retreat from his wife…
But something’s filling you with bodiless light.
You turn to the untouchable, invisible kingdom
already decided for you and live forever.
That Rilke-like ending, where the Romantic-Modern undercurrents flash to the surface, is perhaps the best thing about these somber, beautiful poems. It is an actual manifestation of what we hope to see as we stare long into a deep green silence as CATs in the distance dismantle the hills.
Flash Fiction by Barry Graham
Paper Hero Press, Achilles Chapbook Series, October 2008
Chapbook: 24pp; $4.00
Review by Ryan Call
“I pulled my mother’s head out of the cream of wheat and wiped off her face and neck with a well worn green and yellow sponge from the kitchen sink.” And so goes the first line of Barry Graham’s chapbook Not a Speck of Light is Showing, a violent, rough, oversexed collection of flash fiction that, despite its hard-edged nature, tends to welcome readers at the oddest moments with its surprising revelations of humor and tenderness. Take this quote from "Dishonorable," for example:
I could feel the glass crunch against the tweezers and the shard drive deeper into my heel. She dug in a second time and grabbed hold of the glass and pulled it out. [. . .] I walked into the kitchen for the broom and dustpan and swept up the glass so I wouldn’t step on it again, then went to the bedroom and finished getting dressed. All my boxers were dirty so . . . I chose looks over smell and took them into the bathroom and flipped them inside out and sprinkled lavender scented baby powder all over them and shook the excess into the sink. I flipped them the other way and spritzed Cool Water cologne on the outside. My father taught me this trick before I left for sixth grade camp. His father taught it to him before he left for the Army. [. . .] My foot was still sore in the morning.
This is pretty typical of how Graham begins the stories in the chapbook, in that he often uses a moment of violence or questionable activity to set off the piece. A few more first sentences demonstrate this technique: “Won’t it be funny, ten years from now, when we look back at what we laughingly refer to as the pitchfork incident?” and “I’m outside my father’s house, looking through the window, he won’t let me in.” Often, his narrators either recall or experience a moment of pain in their life, and by doing so, they reach a tender realization, however small, in the final sentences.
In “Dishonorable,” the glass shards in the narrator’s heel interrupt his dressing to go out. Certainly Graham could have begun with the narrator sniffing at his boxer shorts, but then we would have lost that final sentence, which by its proximity to the mention of his father, gives us some small sense of the pain that accompanies such a memory. Graham has a good feel for how seemingly incongruous sentences, when placed together, can really ring out in a reader’s mind. And what is nice about this, is that Graham also knows that such a move needs only rarely to occur so as to have a greater effect. In a collection of stories as gritty as these, his subtle touch is much appreciated.
Poetry by Stephanie Strickland
Ahsahta Press, September 2008
Paperback: 120pp; $19.00
Review by Joseph P Wood
In contemporary experimental poetry, we a have vast collection of schools: lang po, post-modernists, ultra-modernists, post lang-po writers, etc. Among this large pool of innovation, we find Stephanie Strickland and her fifth book of poetry, Zone : Zero, recently released from Ahsahta Press.
In her interview with Strickland for the popular literary blog Bookslut, Kate Greenstreet introduces Strickland as a leader in Hypertext Literature where “more and more poets have become interested in moving their poems off the page and onto the screen where new levels of interaction with the reader/viewer are possible.” This information is not mere miscellany; it is a fundamental way to understand the dense, non-linear logic in Zone : Zero. The book draws on a dizzying array of knowledge: computer language, math logic, the natural world, religious history, the human body, to name a few. Rather than just treating these subjects as mere themes, she actually weaves and synthesizes the language and logic of these disparate arenas into her poems. The result is a collection of fiercely intelligent poems (there are five solid pages of endnotes that discuss various poems’ geneses and influences) that forces the reader to actively participate in constructing meaning. If a reader is willing to slow down and not apply preconceptions on what a poem should or shouldn’t be, then this collection is astoundingly good. On the other hand, if a reader wants a collection that has clear narrative arcs and singular rhetorical tropes, then this is not your book.
The collection is broken into five sections: “Zone ARMORY War,” “Zone MOAT Else,” “Zone DUNGEON Body,” “Zone RAMPART Logic,” and “Zone MOTE Else.” The sectioning of this book is not meant to create narrative in acts. Rather, Strickland explains in her interview with Bookslut, that these sections represent different states of existence, distinct yet only part of an amorphous whole:
It is the sense of living among these fortified zones, you might say, that gives rise to the poems. The War Zone and the (Computational) Logic Zone seem to reign at the moment, and the Body Zone is deeply contested and conflicted. Each of these zones is structured by its own dualities, by history, by language, by archaeology, and their calcification threatens life – or life must be wrested from them…So living among these, or in/between these, is where life happens: sometimes that space gives the sense of a moat, a watery path that slides and tumbles; and sometimes a mote, a rarely seen smallness in the air that dances in uncharted spaces. Our old views of time and space don't serve well to locate this moment from which life can begin again.
The last sentence is the most striking and most damning of the more traditionally narrative-driven, overtly rhetorical work popularized in the last few decades. Strickland’s work does not lead the reader toward a singular conclusion derived out of anecdotal experience; her work is about exploring the possibilities and limitations of perception itself, such as in the poem “20/21 Vision”:
no king. We are turning our attention
to the slim
man, his tattooed hair, alloyed skin. Pierced
with sensors, milked, his garb
a sheath of wireless wires twining
his body like snakes that feed at
the flashing towers, he is
his aura of amperes
almost gone –
To be completely frank, I can not summarize what this passage “means”. Rather, I am forced to examine the images, sonic patterns, and stanzaics, and begin to piece together their effects. In this case, instead of a king – a dominant figure, a reigning intellect – there is strange melding of the human world and a synthetic one, ultimately culminating in a computer-generated overload. The energy of the poem – the constant run-ons, the accruement of images – conveys urgency. Moreover, the center-justified stanzas give the poem a tactile presence; the poem is as much physical object as intellectual abstraction. The overall effect appears ostensibly basic: the meaning of the poem lies in its formal construction. Yet, unlike a good deal of more conventional poetry where there is an established language for discussing the poet’s technical and artistic proficiency, Strickland’s poetry creates its own aesthetic terms. To ask if the poems are “well-written” is beside the point: she forces the reader to apprehend how the language is functioning and re-imagine what constitutes poetic logic.
Moreover, the entire genre of electronic poetry re-invents the basic act of reading. Accompanying the book is a CD containing hypertext versions of two longer poems in the manuscript, “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” and “slippingglimpse.” Reading these poems in the context of book – with an implied progression (start on page one, continue linearly to end) – versus reading them on screen with accompanying images and links are wildly different experiences. For instance, “The Ballad” is a long sequenced poem that is told by two different characters, the aforementioned Sand and Soot. It is, at its heart, a love poem, albeit a highly unconventional one. These characters are people; they are elements of the natural world; they are the two basic components of binary code, as the sectioning of each poem broken up as 0 and 1 indicates. Yet, the poems are anything but mechanical:
Hold me down, Sand prays, to dusk &
musk, purple black sheathed with frost,
the Concord grape of Krishna’s shoes
with golden tips and toes
and soles. The stars are variable rays,
golden geometric rays
of twisted silk. Crimson lining unfolding.
Achtung! Loose lips. Beware.
Here comes Soot.
On the page, this poem’s pleasure is its prosodic adeptness –
creating complicated sonic patterning and rhyming – and its
intellectual span from a sexualized natural world to the
religious garb of Krishna to stars seen in
geometric terms. In short, Strickland’s music orders her intellect.
However, if the reader is inclined to upload the CD, a whole new experience unfolds. To call it reading is not accurate. This same poem is laid out against black background, multi-colored text is used, and an image of a large boulder inside an intricate sand garden is in the right upper screen. On the bottom of the page is a string of zeroes, each leading to a section of “The Ballad.” Click on the zeroes from right to left, the reader gets the poem ordered as it is in the book, albeit with an accompanying image. However, if the viewer/reader clicks on the image, he is led to an entirely different section of the poem. Click on the word “Achtung,” the viewer is led somewhere else. This has enormous implications. The poem is not solely a written or vocal act. Rather, it is one firmly entrenched in the contemporary world of digital media – a media that relies on the physical, active participation of the viewer. In this way, the author does not dictate meaning. Rather, meaning is negotiated between artist and audience.
In a strange way, this relatively new kind of poetry is a subversive act, but one that feels more subversive of the academy as opposed to society in general. After all, most citizens of first world nations participate in digital media and hypertext culture every day. Most of these people may not fully understand the technology’s intricacies or its philosophical implications, but most citizens participate in the technology nonetheless. In one way, Strickland’s aesthetic is so esoteric and specialized that it puts her on the fringes of American poetry, let alone American society. On the other hand, Strickland’s poetry utilizes the stuff of the contemporary world, and in this regard, is more populist than many of our current “traditionalists.”
Poetry by Karen Chase
CavanKerry Press, March 2008
Paperback: 88pp; $16.00
Review by Micah Zevin
Karen Chase’s second collection of poetry is not only about the significance of bears in terms of humanity’s barbaric need to destroy them through poaching, it is also a metaphorical and allegorical device that permits the author to impart tremendously beautiful narratives, often centered on the most painful and burdensome subjects in her own life. Her poems are emotional songs that dig their claws into your flesh until you simply respond or comprehend what is at stake. These poems of remembrance bridge the gap between the world of the beast, the bear, and the not-so-dissimilar world of human beings often overcome with the same primal tendencies.
With the poem, “Bear Safety,” in part two “Bear, I need you,” a human being is taught how to act towards and speak to the bear:
Do my English words
worry you? Can you feel
my breath, Bear? who’s in charge?
Sometimes you go too far.
I am thirsty
for your burgundy meat.
What do you think?
You’d eat me, Bear, and I,
I would eat you. And you?
What do you want?
This poem makes a serious argument about man versus nature in a playful way – if a man stared a bear in the eye on its own turf, would he even have a chance? The absurdity of this poem and many others in this collection is infectious in its theoretical and questioning tone.
With the section entitled “Inside the Lockup,” the subject of death is tackled from the perspective of a salamander as well as, of course, a human perspective colored by experiences in jail:
fear departs as we all do, which gets me to this: why
exactly do we make such a deal of causing another’s death?
Be it the one-time murderer in the next cell, Or even
those who kill and kill, Death, anyway, comes on
us all, no matter what.
Here, the "sanctity of life" question comes into play, questioning the validity of our emotional response to another’s death and the inherent dangers that lie within. The imprisoned narrator in this piece often is found talking to a “Bear,” as if the bear were a mere metaphorical or symbolic construct that has taken away the characters’ power of speech.
In the third section of this daring collection simply called “The Grid,” the “Bear” theme, although not entirely without representation, is put aside to describe the protagonist of these miniature narratives, their hardships, adventures and experiences from childhood through adulthood, such as the “End of their First Marriage,” and the title poem of this section, “The Grid,” which appears to discuss the disastrous affects humanity has had on nature: “The mind blows the trees down, knocks over manmade structures. \ Crows caw through the yellowlit sky, \ every birch rises blue and skyward – a lash of red ribbons – flags slice the skyline, \ eagles screech towards a light.” In this passage, and if you read further, it suggests the havoc that humanity has wrought over its environment and the irrevocable consequences of these careless and often greed driven actions.
In the final section, “The Angel of Used Things,” Chase transports the reader often far away from bears, into a world of daydreams and relatives and loved ones who have passed away. This section’s title poem, “The Angel of Used Things,” recounts objects that one collects on voyages that span the world and their singular associations:
From Krakow to Tesuque, I move
through land and sea, sleep
by the Seine newspapers
inside my black wool devotionals.
I drift in and out of each shabby
Parisian, busy with their wares –
colanders clogs or brass
barrettes – my mouth goes dry.
When I found an arm in an
attic, I was not surprised.
When the unexpected happens in this collection, you are not exactly caught unawares. You laugh at the truths that come out whether it is through satirical and one-sided conversations with overpowering and ravenous bears or through ironic commentaries on the true nature of humanity and all its imaginative and destructive powers. There is an urgency and seriousness to these poems that will scrape at your insides until there is nothing left as you too, like the narrator, scavenge for what is left of your memories, if you can bear it.
An International Collection
of Prose Poetry
Edited by Robert Alexander & Dennis Maloney
White Pine Press, July 2008
Paperback: 160pp; $16.00
Review by Ryan Call
In his introduction to The House of Your Dream, Peter Johnson, founding editor of the influential and now defunct magazine The Prose Poem: An International Journal, writes, “About twenty years ago we prose poets lived in relative obscurity, lucky if we could get editors to read, much less publish, our work.” He goes on to recount briefly a history of the genre: its beginnings during the late 60’s and early 70’s in Michael Benedikt’s anthology of prose poems, the several international renaissances it has undergone over the decades, and the current generation of prose poets writing now. He offers the White Pine anthology as a sort of recent history of the prose poem, and with him Alexander and Maloney agree. They write in a short editors’ note in the frontspace of the book, “given the predilection we both feel for the magical form that is the prose poem, it didn’t take long for us to conceive of a prose poem anthology drawn from all the books that White Pine has published (or will soon publish) in its variegated career.”
Despite its short length, the book is quite impressive for its expansive table of contents. Alexander and Maloney have collected here over one hundred and forty poems by ninety international authors. Notable contributing authors, whom Johnson calls “poets from the first renaissance,” include Michael Benedikt, Robert Bly, Morton Marcus, Charles Simic, and James Wright; poets from “the second renaissance,” such as Nin Andrews, Killarney Clary, Mary Koncel, P. H. Liotta, Gian Lombardo, and Gary Young; and those poets newest to the genre, such as Kim Addonizio, Kim Chinquee, Peter Connors, Peter Markus, and Tom Whalen. Johnson, in his introduction, also highlights some influences from abroad, naming René Char, Jean Follain, Max Jacob, Chongii Mah, Gabriela Mistral, Imre Oravecz, and Francis Ponge as important international contributors to the genre. The list here indicates both that the prose poem has had a constant loyal following over time and that Alexander and Maloney have successfully documented its historical arc.
But because the poems in the book are arranged alphabetically by author rather than by date of publication, readers may have a harder time appreciating the genre’s historical arc. However, such understanding can be had, though it requires a little more work, such as checking the contributors’ notes and the acknowledgments page, and perhaps hunting down several of the other anthologies from which many of these prose poems have been selected.
What the alphabetical arrangement does accomplish, however, is the emphasis of the importance each of these authors have had in advancing the genre. Reading their various contributions, one gets the sense that the beauty of the prose poem comes from two characteristics: the inherent paradox of the form (prose poetry), and the tendency for the prose poem to be short in length. The author of a prose poem must work within the limitations of length and line, but through prose he or she can also circumvent those limitations. Thus, prose poetry varies greatly from one author to the next, and it is this variety, this dynamic sensibility that has led to the constant reinvention of the form.
Whether readers of this anthology choose to read it slowly straight through, as I did, or skip their way across the table of contents, paging back and forth to whatever poem piques their interest, they will notice many distinct possibilities for the prose poem: as meditation, as in Ponge’s “The Pleasures of the Door”; as narrative, as in Koncel’s “The Big Deep Voice of God”; as nature poem, as in Pablo Neruda’s “The Sand”; as fable, as in Ignatow’s “A Modern Fable”; and as riddle, as in Russell Edson’s “The Prose Poem as Beautiful Animal.” And while these poems, taken one against the other, do vary greatly, their power to hold a reader momentarily in an alternate state of mind unites them in a similar fashion. This perhaps explains why the editors titled the anthology after Vern Rutsala’s prose poem “The House of Your Dream.” In the final lines of the poem, Rutsala writes, “Each object you meet glows with that old light, even / the sidewalk looks like a rainbow – because it is your dream and I am / a stranger here.”
Stories by Leslie What
Wordcraft of Oregon, July 2008
Paperback: 204pp; $13.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Leslie What, an author whose publication credits include numerous short stories in journals and anthologies as well as a novel and short story collection, is a Nebula Award Winner whose creativity and imagination are boundless. Crazy Love is a collection of 17 short stories that stop at nothing to convey the limitless possibilities of love and its tremendous potential for both honesty and hilarity.
Known as the Queen of Gonzo by contemporaries and reviewers, What’s style extends a tradition of writing that began with Hunter S. Thompson and is most concretely evidenced in the appropriately-named “Storytime.” The interjection of a first person narrative whose voice is that of the author’s, rewriting and revising and questioning her own tale, lends to a thoughtful presence of metafiction, a sort of auto-commentary whose honesty is an acknowledgement of the flaws of traditional storytelling. The story is not static, but questions itself through the author and is always open to interpretation. It is a tale that takes the grittiness of real life into account with a tale of two families – one whose dynamic is a flawless ideal and the other whose experience is far more realistic:
This is not the story I started out to tell, and I would like to begin again. I would like to change the ending, though to change the ending, I might have to change the beginning and I am not sure how to do that. It is difficult to change the beginning when the end has already been written. I wonder if some stories are just too sad to tell and it’s better to forget them.
The story is redefined as an entity whose borders and parameters are no longer fixed, but mutable.
What’s characters are compelling in their honesty, in their ability to convince the reader of the sincerity of their being. They are as varied as What’s fertile imagination, sometimes making a living dressed in a gorilla suit (“Finger Talk”); sometimes by being a professional victim (“The Cost of Doing Business”); sometimes they are even vampires. In “Going Vampire,” Victor is a Hollywood agent who falls in love for the first time in a decade, but the choice he makes is one of sacrifice – and for what else but love.
Love is the common thread throughout the stories, but its outcome isn’t always doomed as it is in stories like “Going Vampire,” “Finger Talk” and others. Sometimes love is a joyride. The couple in “Why a Duck” experience their last moments together in a hot air balloon and are destined to relive them together. While Anthony and Beatrice float along with a pilot who is completely ignorant of his otherworldly passengers, Anthony attempts to make a leap, both literally and metaphorically. Will they, as a couple, spend their eternity bickering over his penchant for ballooning and the resulting accident that ended their lives, or do they have the power to change their future? Anthony’s decision results in the couple's latching on to a duck from a passing flock, and a new adventure begins.
What understands that love sometimes means sacrifice, and is often painful and rarely rewarding – but her view is not always so fatalistic. Realism trumps optimism, trumps pessimism, trumps even love – every time. The Queen of Gonzo has a heart of gold, and a soaring imagination.
Prose Poems by Drew Kalbach
Paper Hero Press, Achilles Chapbook Series, October 2008
Chapbook: 28pp; $4.00
Review by Ryan Call
Inside the back cover of Drew Kalbach’s chapbook of prose poems is a section of text from the author, in which he writes one seemingly random sentence after another about the collection: “several children read the manuscript, but they started crying” and “it is a tribute to the ninja turtles disguised as a marilyn manson song disguised as real poetry” are two of the tamest examples. But among the chaos of this self-deprecating afterword, Kalbach has this thought about the chapbook: “it is so deep and layered that you can’t read it, you must climb through it.” Despite his immediately negating that idea by writing “there is no depth,” I could not help but grasp at the metaphor; it seemed to describe my own experience with the poems. These prose poems do have depth, and I didn’t so much read them as climb through them, over words and images, across sentences and line breaks.
To read a Kalbach piece for some easily comprehensible meaning is to miss out on the joy of how its various parts precariously rest against each other, like boulders in a rock scramble. Take this excerpt from “A Series of Intertwined Coincidences Beginning at Childhood”:
Now plays involve slow tongue cutting and embryo
torture in perfect blank verse. You hear the sound of
tires crunching gravel. It’s midnight and the fan is
broken and your perfect raincoat is somewhere in
What’s most interesting in this stanza is the first sentence. Kalbach holds us with a painful image from which we cannot quickly escape due to his drawing out the vowels in the phrase “involve slow tongue cutting.” We are momentarily relieved, however, by the nice drop at the end of the word “embryo” as well as the line break, but we fear for the embryo. And rightly so, for Kalbach again sends us climbing with the word “torture.” In the next sentence, we take a break in the sometimes overused imagery of “tires crunching gravel,” though it echoes the violence done to the tongue with the rhyme between “cutting” and “crunching.” This is a nice way to give a reader the chance to pause on a rather mundane sentence, while still allowing the tension in the stanza to build. The release comes during the final two lines, in which Kalbach shows off a little sense of humor. A “perfect raincoat”? “Finland”? In three sentences, Kalbach shifts his prose from horrifying to comically pleasing. And he does so through a careful weighing of his options: sound, rhythm, rhyme, image, timing.
Kalbach’s poems do not seem to create meaning from any sort of neat, coherent structure, but rather from the odd spaces between their parts, how each part crashes against the next. This is not to say that the poems are not structured, but that meaning comes less from the definitions of the words and their logical arrangement and more from how we feel as we read. We have already seen how Kalbach structures each of these poems purposefully, but to what effect? I suggest that the emotional and intellectual process of reading these poems creates a sort of meaning, if we are willing to embrace our confusion and the sudden shifts in our emotions as that meaning. In this way, the short length of the chapbook is misleading; readers will have plenty of language to climb through.
Novel by Zach Plague
Featherproof Books, July 2008
Paperback: 273pp; $14.95
Review by Jody Brooks
Note: All character name fonts have been approximated by the reviewer. Font-play isn’t her specialty. Forgive any stylistic discrepancies.
When Ollister’s infamous gray book goes missing, he and his love interest Adelaide plot revenge against The Platypus, head of the art mafia in a city dominated by the quest for talent. Adelaide obsesses over Ollister, the art school kids theorize about bad art, and a punk named PuNk introduces a potent sex drug. These anarchist art school teens come together in a frenzy of ennui to gossip about the sinister White Ball, hosted by none other than The Platypus and guarded by the White Sodality. Rumor has it that the art terrorism movement plans to crash the party and cause a postmodern uproar.
The plot circles around Ollister’s elusive gray book which is full of something that will rock the art world to its very core. It’s full of stuff and things and whatnot that, if revealed, will bring The Platypus and his adult art empire crumbling to the ground. Problem is, we never find out what’s in it. And despite the intriguing sound of that idea, this is no successful MacGuffin.
Ollister is a threat to The Platypus empire because he wants to – and knows how to – create something new, something beautiful. Something beautifully and painfully new. So, I ask, where is it?
Plague’s novel is postmodern art about postmodern artists titled Boring Boring – therefore we expect a satire that is anything but. On the visual level, Boring Boring is a satire of the art world, and, as such, uses the visual to hint at many levels of design absurdity – the overwrought, scrolling chapter headings; the excessive highlighting and italicizing of “meaningful” words; the use of different font types to represent different character personalities. This, I get. This is a novel idea. But underneath the catchy visual satire, there still has to be a good story. Underneath a novel idea, there still must be a novel. And this is where Boring Boring fails.
The concept is intriguing, I’ll admit. And many of the images are beautifully rendered:
His nose had been broken so many times that it looked like it had never been broken at all, or rather that it had stopped growing when he was about 7-years-old. It was small and squat, and the interior was regularly exposed to view. A viscous cache of hair and bloody mucous that required a constant sniffling, just to keep the stuff from trickling down his face. Even so, there was usually something unrecognizable hanging out of it, or around it. Although this nose was not without its seasons, often it was shiny pink, cracked and peeling, bloodied from a coke binge or scuffle.
But without the promised ideas that transcend the boring boring art world, we end up with nothing but boring boring banter. I found myself more interested in The Platypus and his wife (the only two characters who hint at complexity) than in the plights of the art kids.
Ollister, for example, claims to want to rise above the bullshit art scene and yet he attends all of the bullshit parties. For someone who claims to be so bored with this scene, he seems awfully involved with it. Other characters poke fun of clueless artsy types and yet remain embedded in this same art world:
Jolene had most of the requisites for her position. She was thin attractive in a birdy sort of way. She wore a black turtleneck with thick black framed glasses under dyed-black hair. Her family was wealthy. She would perform fellatio on the gallery owner, never intercourse. Her apartment was so minimalist as to be empty. Her tone was just condescending enough to sell art. She did not, however, have a foreign accent. This was her only clear disadvantage.
But in poking fun of these absurd artsy types, Plague (not his real name) becomes one himself. He becomes the Ollister type who lives to create something that rises above art. Problem is, he doesn’t. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with another story that deteriorates into a soap opera web of misunderstanding, cheating, and revenge.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Boring Boring is supposed to be boring boring. Maybe its only goal is to capture the absurd ennui of young, inexperienced art students. If that was, in fact, its goal, then it succeeded.
The novel does, however, have many highlights, most notably the Appendices in the back. I’d hoped that the characters would be as interesting as they seem in the appendices, which served as brief and fascinating character sketches. I found myself drawn more to the back of the book, to the sections following “The End,” than to anything before that. If this book does happen to fall into your hands, read Appendix C2, Appendix B. Read Plague’s wonderful list of party guests (pp 71-2); read the “Art Terrorism” interlude:
“some dirty hipster” grabs the microphone at Uni-Arts Lecture Day: “All you kids make me sick. Revolutionary, my ass. Nobody likes to be preached to, and that’s what you’re doing with your fucking “concept.” Preaching through painting, bullying us into your boring boring worldview by telling us what we know. You give no aesthetic value, no beautiful alternative to the shit you are whining about, be it your own banal shit, or the insolvable shit of the world. You are cowards. If you want to change things, change them, if you want to change the world, I don’t know, go fucking change it. stop fucking around with art. Because this is not the tool that makes that happen. And, also, you suck at it. and your bullshit “cause,” your piddling “concept,” is poor cover for that.”
Boring Boring comes from a perspective that still believes that parents and education are anti-enlightenment. The impression we’re left with is that this infamous gray book is nothing but a young artist’s composition book, full of ideas that he considers deep and meaningful in a hazy college dorm sort of way.
At its core, Boring Boring follows classic juvenile literature’s quest of the hero. One kid up against evil adults. The outcome? The kid, using his wits and his courage, outsmarts those foolish adults and saves the day. In the end, we’re searching for a glimmer of the divine – the thing that rises above the bullshit. If the art critics, buyers, and sellers are blind, as the art kids believe, then we need to have our eyes opened. Maybe the answer to all of this is in the gray papers, maybe not. Point is, we never find out. And all we’re left with is a group of uninspired art students who survive on drugs and disgust.
Do You Live in a Vacuum?
Poetry by Nin Andrews
Subito Press, January 2008
Paperback: 56pp; $10.00
Review by Brian Foley
Derived from emails, comments, and notes sent by students to her husband who is a physics professor, with Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum, Nin Andrews has collected a series of short epistolary poems with mixed results.
Andrews, who is best known for wry prose poems which idle around topics of lust and longing with a Lacanian-like jouissance, substitutes her usual yearnings for a playful bewilderment related in the voices of negligent students:
I hate it when I’m in class,
and you use all those technical terms
like kinematics and mass and velocity
and stuff. I always feel like
you’re a walking textbook.
I want to ask you one day
if you can put something in your own words.
With much of modern poetry being written for an audience primarily made up of poets who share some sort of current student-teacher relationship, this collection taps into a ready niche. One can already anticipate Xeroxed copies of these poems being passed around classrooms with an acknowledgement of conceit. Unfortunately, it is the poems inherent cleverness that puts them at a disadvantage. Building themselves up as jokes, they quickly teeter over into predictable phrasing with the final line delivering a limp punch that rarely delivers. Andrews is at her best when dancing with the inbuilt role that physics play, as when a student overhears the professor complaining about the class, saying, “Consider Newton’s / 2nd and 3rd laws / we have a lot of mass / the more you push us, / the more we push right back.”
Mild and inoffensive, Dear Professor will undoubtedly bring enjoyable recognitions for some, but as a collection these poems do not push anyone.