NewPages Book Reviews
January 6, 2009
Fiction by Jean Ross Justice
University of Tampa Press, December 2008
Paperback: 224pp; $14.00
Review by Vince Corvaia
With the stories of Jean Ross Justice, it is moments and images you come away with, details that stay with you long after the stories as a whole have faded.
For instance, in “Night Thoughts,” what remains isn’t so much the middle-of-the-night visit by an acquaintance’s latest flame, but something Luke notices in the street a few nights earlier – a man and woman kissing in front of a temporarily parked car. Why are they out there? Did impulse overtake them while they were changing drivers?: “That couple kissing out here the other night: in the glare of the headlights it had been a moment out of a play, out of a movie being shot there on the street; almost imaginary, lovely and mysterious.”
“Lovely and mysterious” is a good way to describe Justice’s style. The nocturnal visitation itself has an air of mystery about it. Just why did Arnie Yost’s girlfriend, Beverly – “skinny and intense, with light frizzy hair and miniature teeth” – come to call at all, waking Luke on the couch to have coffee and talk about someone from her past? It’s what Justice doesn’t spell out that is most enticing. And the couple in the street. Do they represent an erotic vision of Luke and Beverly? Luke and his ex, Sally? No, they seem to be just who they are: two strangers kissing in the road, taking their meaning with them when they drive away.
In the title story, what lingers aren’t the parties themselves, but a makeshift séance during one of those parties, Claudia trying to reach an old friend, Julian. The protagonist, Victor, isn’t sure what to think: “It was silly, but it gave me goose pimples anyway, and I jiggled the table with my knee. ‘Vic, stop it! I’m serious.’” The attempt to reach Julian through a control, or a spirit of one who has been departed for a longer time, proves unsuccessful, as it should. Had Claudia made contact, it would have become a different kind of story altogether. But the poignancy of the attempt, the overall sad and comic sense of the scene, makes it unforgettable.
Justice’s characters are by and large kind and lonely people, and we relate to them because they reflect ourselves in their universality. Take “The Offer” (so to speak). It begins, “He was one of their best friends, and he was ill.” The main characters are known simply as the wife, the husband, and the sick friend, thus lending weight to their universality.
The sick friend needs a kidney transplant. The wife is considering giving him one of hers. This sends the husband into a world of his own, apart from her, as he considers why she might want to extend such an extraordinary favor upon a friend, a colleague of his. Could there be more to their friendship than he perceives? He is slowly consumed with jealousy, and it was “Too bad he couldn’t hook himself up to a machine, like the friend, and get this poison out of his system.”
The story is told in the third person, but we experience it through the husband’s mind. And yes, there is a lovely, random moment that remains with the reader: “Through the skylight over the bed he saw, one morning, two softly dissolving jet streams crossed in a giant X – did that mean something?” That is the Justice touch. We are left, along with the husband, to interpret this possible sign as we will.
Throughout the eighteen stories in The End of a Good Party, we meet ordinary people in seemingly ordinary circumstances, but those circumstances are imbued with Justice’s fine sense of wonder and empathy. There is a touch of Chekhov here, and that is as fine a compliment as can be made.
Poetry by Dirk Stratton
NeO Pepper Press, September 2008
Chapbook: 40pp; $10.00
Review by Joseph P. Wood
Dirk Stratton’s new chapbook of poems, A Series/A Sequence, is a throwback of sorts. In an age where E-Books and particularly E-Chaps are abundant due to the explosion of the blogosphere and readily available publishing software, Stratton’s chap is handmade and released in a very limited run. The book is constructed “old-school”: side stapled, stock cover, paper one could find at a neighborhood Kinkos. Rather than seeming fly-by-night and hurried, however, A Series/A Sequence is lovingly made, with beautiful embossed imprints on each cover – notice I do not say the “front” and “back” of the book. A Series/A Sequence is actually two separate suites of poems that are thematically and aesthetically linked. Hold the book one way, one can read through “Capitulation Suite,” which constitutes the Series part of the chap. Flip the book over and one discovers another suite of lyrical, borderline-concrete poems entitled “Laiku,” which makes up the Sequence. In constructing the chap in this manner, NeO Pepper has joined a growing movement of grassroots to make poetry books that are pieces of art as opposed to mass-produced commodity. The pleasures of A Series/A Sequence rest in its construction as much its poetry, though one feels inextricable from the other.
Though both “Capitulation Suite” and “Laiku” occupy the same book and are compliments to each other, each suite displays a wildly different aesthetic. At the heart of “Capitulation” are big, fat existential questions: what meaning do we derive from existence? Why do we construct stories to make sense of our experiences? These are not poems where the 21st century world enters with cell phones and plasma TVs. Rather, they are located strongly in a generalized, philosophical world, such as in the suite’s sixth section:
Loving both the singular and the constant,
it’s clear why we’re addicted
to frontiers, why we need new ones
every day. Once stepped on, the moon
And we felt cheated: billions
spent to be first, for what? Footprints?
A flag hanging like laundry? A box of rocks?
In this zone of middle distances,
lost against those vast closed
spaces of fact, we are cairns
of flesh and bones, mobile markers
of mortality, rolling from the center, staggering
in the wake of our steadfast waste, our chaos
too small, and our ghosts too eager.
While stepping on the moon is a relatively new phenomenon, considering its meaning is not. This excerpt incorporates references to The Tao of Physics and to Nietzsche (who was referencing Copernicus). Stratton’s Series manages to take on broad ideas without lapsing into the static language of philosophy. Instead, his work displays a lyrical compactness and astute ear (the sonic patterns of “m” and “s” in the final stanza, for instance). More importantly, the poet arrives at no answers, but instead gestures towards other larger questions of existence and meaning. In a way, Stratton’s aesthetic harkens back to Stevens or Yates, and more recently, William Bronk, who made a living on straddling the line between philosophy and poetry. Yet, Stratton’s poems overtly criticize our use of narrative – and by extension, the confessional/self-referential poetry that has been an American staple these past few decades. In this way, these poems feel like a timely response to a major strand of contemporary American letters.
On the other hand, Stratton’s second suite of poems, “Laiku,” inhabits a completely different universe: the nature lyric, though with a concrete-poem sensibility. The poems appear as if they were hammered out on a typewriter, and they tend to be all over the page. Moreover, the poems also break words up, often letting letters of the same word drop to the next line or simply space the letters apart on the same line. I kept thinking back to the work of John Hollander and others of his ilk, who wanted to prove the typewriter could bring a truly tactile sense to poetry. Yet, “Laiku,” at its heart, is a suite of nature lyrics. The first two poems frame the suite: they focus on human consciousness and perception. After that, the poems are broken up by season, each offering there own types of tightly lyrical, emotionally big moments, such as in one of the numerous sections entitled “Winter”:
in the blue calm
after the blizzard
Though the stanzaics are quite different, one is brought back to Snyder here, and perhaps other West Coast nature poets of the 60s and 70s (particularly with the de-emphasis on human will and story). Though some might find this kind of poetry in a modern context somewhat imitative, I believe it has a profoundly different effect within the context of this chapbook. “Laiku” is the natural response to “Capitulation Suite”: if humans forgo their stories, what’s left? The answer, simply, is to exist, to be part of the larger cosmic order. This concept might not be a radically new thought, but Stratton’s placement of it within a call-and-response is quite inventive. Ultimately, Stratton is not simply “making the old new”; he and NeO Pepper, in their localized way, are encouraging contemporary poetry readers to think beyond their era’s attitudes and predilections.
Novel by Bragi Ólafsson
Open Letter Press, October 2008
Hardcover: 157; $14.95
Review by Sean Lovelace
Everything I know about Iceland could fit into a shoebox: two Björk CDs, a six of Viking beer, a tin of cured ram scrota (a gag gift by one of my “friends”). But I do find the unique and au courant alluring, and my ventures into the unknown often prove worthwhile or at worst innocuous (the only extreme exceptions being Riverdance and Robo-Tripping – I seriously advise you to lay off both, no matter what the cool kids say.)
Björk, I like. She reminds me of the morning after an ice storm. Her voice is cut bouquet, glacier torsos, etc. Her best music was during the Sugarcubes days; though no one noticed (they do now). Her bass player was Bragi Ólafsson. The Sugarcubes crumbled, Bragi spiraled away. He sat in dark rooms with himself. He wrote novels.
For example, The Pets, by Open Letter Press, the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press (the original text is in Icelandic, and titled Gaeludyrin). This is Ólafsson’s first book to appear in English.
It is a comic novel. Situational, in its way. Here is the eccentric menagerie of characters on the transatlantic flight (a classic comedy technique – there is nowhere to escape). Here is a man crawling through our narrator’s window (pratfalls, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, etc.). And, from page 65 to the final word (p. 157), here is a protagonist hiding beneath his bed. Basically an entire novel, a cast of lively characters, stirrings of conflict, crisp dialogue, all from a small apartment, all delivered by a first person narrator – from under his bed! Quite the literary feat. The author is humble. He says (interview from University of Rochester’s translation program blog, Three Percent):
“But that the main character is trapped under his bed is not really a restriction, on the contrary it’s very helpful for the imagination of the person writing the story. In fact I would like to write more novels from that point of view, I feel comfortable under a bed, it’s probably something from childhood.”
Things I liked about this book:
1.) The narrator. For the majority of the book, our guide is first person POV. He is intelligent, often witty, a bit wounded (divorced, separated from his young son). In a word, sympathetic. This narrator passed a key test for me as reader: I would have a beer with him. Remember, he is hiding under his bed. And he isn’t exactly sure why. As a metaphor, I hope we can all relate. Hiding under the beds we’ve made. Dodging conflict. Avoiding consequences. Wondering about the smallness, closeness, oddness of our situations, our lives.
2.) The drinking. Cognacs and double vodkas and red wines and beer. Honestly, I just like to drink, and am actually writing this review while polishing off a bottle of Shiraz, so most any alcohol reference gives a tiny spark, and makes me feel less existentially alone. In this novel, all of the characters drink, often, glass after drained glass, nonchalant and necessary as the rain. This may be an Icelandic virtue, since colder, more Northern cultures certainly embrace alcohol, possibly as curative to bone-gnawing wind, snow, ice, sleet, a lingering mental state as low and large as the leaden sky. The writer, of course, uses alcohol for something more, as technique, as craft (see Raymond Carver 101). Alcohol lowers inhibitions. Opens the characters to tension, to stumble, to faux pas, to the core value of any serious fiction: truth.
3.) The characters. I’ve mentioned our narrator, but likewise intriguing are the minor actors. Most authors purposely mute these personas to illuminate the protagonist. The main character in The Pets is prostrate under a dusty bed, so the structure lends itself to an exploration of the secondary (though we do get fascinating internal monologues from our narrator at times). Havard is the man who breaks into the protagonist’s apartment, providing a catalyst for his mad dash into the bedroom, and beneath the bed. Havard is a modern day Ignatius J. Reilly, only drunk. Need I say more? The potential love interest, Greta, using the author’s words, is “much more mature and exciting than the other girls,” with her body “tousled and flush.” I am a fan of any person tousled (and of tousling in general). Again, one of my key tests as reader: Do I want to sleep with the love interest in the novel? Indeed, I do.
Things I did not enjoy about the book:
1.) The ending. Like an upper class college kid with ironic T-shirt, can of PBR, and Lilliputian eyeglasses, a bit too cool to actually register as cool. But I may be wrong. I did have to read, and re-read this ending. I mean it holds something, some verve. Let’s once more listen to the author:
“I’ve had lots of comments on how the novel ends. While many readers find it very frustrating, even feel betrayed, other readers think it is the proper ending to a story like this. One reader came up to me and told me that the ending of The Pets was the second best ending he had read in a book. I was of course very flattered to hear that, especially because this reader seemed like a “normal” person, not a literature student. And when I asked him what was the best ending he had read, the answer was: For Whom the Bell Tolls! It made my day.”
2.) The cover was an iridescent blue that made me nauseous. The fault may be mine; a medical disorder, for example, like when kids have seizures while playing Nintendo.
But these are trifling concerns. Overall, the book glitters and gleams, a clear, laughing glacial stream. I have something new to add to my Icelandic shoebox. And to remove from that shoebox. To discuss, argue, gladly contemplate over a bottle of Reyka vodka – to share.
Poetry by Margaret Christakos
Coach House Books, September 2008
Paperback: 120pp; $16.95
Review by Vince Corvaia
Reading Margaret Christakos’s poetry on the page is like reading sheet music. You don’t get the full effect until you hear it. And when you do hear it, when you read it aloud to yourself, you realize that the music is wildly experimental and takes some participation. Christakos, in What Stirs, challenges you to meet her halfway. There’s nothing passive about these poems.
One key can be found in “Andalou,” a short poem that is relatively straightforward: “Eleven weeks to the day, I held / Her or him like a branch. / Like a tipped word. Through the window / Is another window.” The image of a window seen through a window is key to understanding the original structure of most of these poems. When you look through a window, you see an understandable world filled with familiar images. But when you look through Christakos’s window, you find yourself looking through a second, fragmented window where the familiar is broken up, diffused.
Take, for example, a passage from “Used”: “In department store windows it’s They / happen in lack like blubbering like / large punk bowtie blabbering They don’t / know what will happen its own / many-featured lack.” Christakos breaks up language much like jump cuts in a film. (A blurb on the back cover attests to this as well.) That cinematic sense becomes more evident when you hear it read aloud. Other passages in the same poem don’t make the literal meaning any clearer: “Be a letdown Always match Cleverly / match the gaunt Be up up / vain All the cleverly the punk / bowtie with some nice elbows Zesty / Almost gaunt.” What we have is language calling attention to itself, language for language’s sake. This is poetry for the graduate school crowd, not the Billy Collins crowd. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your definition of poetry and how inclusive you find it to be. I appreciate the effort, but I don’t find these poems enjoyable.
At the start of “(I Really Don’t Think You’re) Strong Enough,” Christakos writes, “Something inside me was screaming Write / you fool! Tell the whole damned / world how you / feel! Something inside / says there’s something / better than this.” There are occasional flashes of beauty such as this. And there is humor, such as this line from “Lost (‘Immortal’)”: “Living this long’s going worse than planned.”
Margaret Christakos is a poet worth following, but you proceed at your own risk.
Modern Poetry in Miniature
Edited by William Pratt
UNO Press, October 2008
Paperback: 184pp; $16.95
Review by Vince Corvaia
It was during the decade of the First World War, 1910-1920, that the Imagist poem came to fruition. Imagist poetry was part of the literary revolt in the United States and England against the staid and formal techniques of the nineteenth century. William Pratt, in the introduction to his indispensable anthology The Imagist Poem – Modern Poetry in Miniature, quotes Imagist poet F.S. Flint’s three rules by which the Imagist poem exists:
1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Two Imagist poems in the anthology support this thesis explicitly. William Carlos Williams, in “A Sort of a Song,” states “(No ideas / but in things).” Not an abstract description of the thing, but the thing itself. Archibald MacLeish writes famously in “Ars Poetica,” “A poem should not mean / But be.” That is, a poem should not represent, say, Williams’ red wheelbarrow, but try as closely as possible to reflect the reality of that wheelbarrow “glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens.”
All of the poets in The Imagist Poem are masters of the art. One significant addition not included in the original 1963 volume is T.S. Eliot, particularly his influential “Preludes,” which opens, “The winter evening settles down / With smell of steaks in passageways. / Six o’clock. / The burnt-out ends of smoky days.” Thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cats, Imagism has influenced even Broadway.
The third edition of The Imagist Poem expands on its precursor, giving us one additional poem by Ezra Pound, H.D., D.H. Lawrence, and Marianne Moore, two additional poems by Wallace Stevens and e.e. cummings, and four more poems by Williams.
The moon appears in several of these poems, each in a strikingly distinctive way. In T.E. Hulme’s “Above the Dock,” “What seemed so far away / Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.” Richard Aldington’s moon poses “With a rag of gauze about her loins” in “Evening.” In Amy Lowell’s “Wind and Silver,” her “Autumn moon floats in the thin sky; / And the fish ponds shake their backs and flash their dragon scales / As she passes over them.” And Adelaide Crapsey presents the moon as “Autumnal, evanescent, wan” in “Niagara.” Each image, whether metaphoric or direct, is vivid, imaginative, and not an idea of the moon, but the moon itself.
Carl Sandburg is represented with six poems, and yet the most striking Sandburg poem “Limited” is not included among them. But fear not. Sandburg’s “Fog,” which “comes on / little cat feet,” is represented here, as are such classics as Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Life: A Letter,” cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s,” and Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” The Imagist Poem – Modern Poetry in Miniature captures an historic moment in the evolution of modern poetry and is a must-have for any poetry lover.