NewPages Book Reviews
May 1, 2009
Novel by Jan Kjærstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland
Open Letter, February 2009
Hardcover: 481pp; $17.95
Review by Rav Grewal-Kök
I read the opening scene of The Conqueror, the second novel in a trilogy by the Norwegian writer Jan Kjærstad, with relief. The trilogy depicts the life of Jonas Wergeland, an ordinary boy from an undistinguished Oslo neighborhood, who rises to national and even international fame as a television personality. In the 600 pages of the first novel in the series, The Seducer, we read of Jonas’s travels, triumphs, and yes, seductions (there are many, from a beautiful and accomplished cast of women to, eventually, an entire nation transfixed by his documentaries). Jonas is equipped with a magic penis, a set of memorized quotations from books he hasn’t read, a silver thread in his spine, a crystal prism in his pocket, and an unerring eye for great art. He can’t go wrong. The Seducer is a vast and undeniably ambitious novel, but also, in its unremitting catalog of the successes of its hero, a little wearying.
So it was with some apprehension that I turned to its sequel. I needn’t have worried. From the first sentence – “‘I thought he was going to rape me,’ the woman said, reporting the incident later” – it’s clear that this novel will deliver a very different view of Jonas’s life. Over the next four pages a drunken Jonas vomits over his cabdriver, a young woman, who’d hitherto been one of Jonas’s many admirers, boasts of killing a man, delivers a few crude remarks, and collapses, nearly comatose on a sidewalk. We soon discover that the unnamed and admiring narrator of The Seducer has been replaced by another, a mysterious, black-clad woman with scarred hands who carries “an odor reminiscent of burnt horn.” This strange figure may be no more reliable than her predecessor, but she, at least, isn’t interested in hagiography.
In The Seducer, we encountered a series of attractive characters: a charismatic actor who encourages Jonas to pursue a career in television, a doting grandfather, and a precocious childhood friend. In The Conqueror, we learn that the actor is a pederast, and the grandfather a wartime collaborator. Jonas’s childhood friend, Nefertiti, vanishes entirely; there’s a replacement, Little Eagle, but that friendship ends when Jonas steals the boy’s stamp collection.
There’s still plenty of sex in The Conqueror, but it’s not often the transformative experience it was in the original. Instead, Jonas’s couplings are marred by more than a hint of coercion, and a bout of gonorrhea. The silver thread in Jonas’s spine becomes a piece of dragon horn, the crystal prism in his pocket a hockey puck, and his magic penis a standard one. In both novels, Jonas’s wife, Margrete, is murdered the night he returns from a trip abroad. In the first, Jonas is overcome with regret that he left her alone. In the second, Jonas has a history of jealous violence that culminates when he shoots Margrete with his grandfather’s Luger. The tale depends on the teller, after all.
The Conqueror is not a perfect novel (in fairness, no book, or three books, of this length and scope could be). Though it is impressively structured, with the events of Jonas’s life linked one to the next by theme, symbol, emotion, color and dream, rather than anything so prosaic as time, the very intricacy of that structure can undermine the narrative’s momentum. We are also asked a few too many rhetorical questions (“How does one become a murderer?” “How does one become a conqueror?” “Is this, then, where the story of his jealousy begins?”).
And often, after Kjærstad attempts a joke, I wished he hadn’t. On a visit to Istanbul, the city where he was conceived, Jonas looks on the Golden Horn, the strait of the Bosphorus that divides Europe and Asia, and notes that “his father must have had ‘a golden horn’ on that very night, since it had expelled the spermatozoa that fertilized his mother’s egg” (I hope this sentence reads better in the Norwegian; I suspect not, however, for later on that same page Kjærstad has Jonas deliver an equally lame joke in a neutral language: “Ich bin ein Byzantiner,” Jonas says, excited as he is by the activity on the harbor).
But Kjærstad also affords Jonas moments of clarity and insight, and these win out:
Jonas Wergeland never really rid himself of the fatal suspicion that you had to be a criminal to be a good storyteller. Or that behind the best stories there was always a hurt, a wound, much in the same way as a foreign body will, in the course of time, cause an oyster to make a pearl; which, when you get right down to it, means that a pearl is disease transformed into beauty.
In reading the narratives of Jonas Wergeland’s life, perhaps it’s best to trust no one thread, but the whole. Jonas is as much villain as hero, mediocrity as genius, liar as visionary, conqueror as seducer. And we don’t yet have the whole story. Open Letter will issue The Discoverer, the final volume of Kjærstad’s trilogy, this August. It’s no small praise that, though I’ve already followed Jonas’s exploits for 1100 pages, I’m looking forward to it.
Novel by Roma Tearne
Europa Editions, July 2008
Paperback: 304pp; $16.95
Review by Laura Di Giovine
The mosquito season never seems to end in Sri Lanka; the swarms, “deadly as flying needles,” are always lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. Frequently referenced as a harbinger of death and strife, the image of the mosquito figures prominently in Mosquito, Roma Tearne’s eloquent and moving novel of love in war-torn Sri Lanka.
It's 1996 and after years living in London as a successful writer, Theo Samarajeeva has returned to his native Sri Lanka at the height of the 10-year civil unrest between the majority population of the Singhalese and the Tamils, the largest ethnic minority. Haunted by the death of his murdered British wife, Theo is nursing his heartache in a small town in the corner of the island. Comforted by his manservant Sugi, Theo spends his days working on his fourth novel and cultivating a friendship with a young local girl, Nulani Mendis, whose family has been torn apart by the war. Nulani is a talented artist and sketches Theo on her daily visits; their friendship eventually blossoms into a love that takes the middle-aged writer by surprise. Their love is rendered exquisitely through author Tearne's powerful language and defined, as is so often the case, by moments of absence:
Later, after they had hung the paintings and the girl had gone home, Theo went back to look at them. Paint and linseed oil gathered in the room where they were hung and her presence was everywhere. Again he felt the dull ache of it. He remembered her, in her red dress, with patches of rain falling on it, looking at him, alert as a bird that had evaded a storm.
Tearne’s evocative prose effectively captures the longing Theo feels for Nulani, for his youth and for the quiet beauty of his country, before it was wracked by violence and bloodshed. Tragically, while their romance is still in early bloom, Theo is captured by the government and Nulani is forced into exile in London, where the power of her art becomes fully realized. Brutally tortured by both sides, Theo becomes a painful metaphor for Sri Lanka, revealing the senseless violence that her people inflict against themselves.
Tearne also draws the reader into the story through the characters’ pain, using powerful and visceral imagery. Held hostage in the deep jungle, Theo’s fear is raw and unchecked. We experience his terror through the landscape: “The river running through parts of the jungle was a wide gaping mouth. It cut deep into the interior like a gangrenous wound, neglected and rotten.” We witness a more quiet despair in Nulani, but the extent of her sorrow is evoked on her canvases, for all to see: “Darkness and light, together in the most unlikely place of entombment, appeared to sink to the depths of the earth . . . [T]he images were of carefully drawn objects, glimpsed and then rubbed out even at the moment of recognition; hinting at the ways in which the past inhabits us, shaping us at some level hovering below conscious thought.” When after four years of captivity Theo returns home, his love for Nulani is again marked by loss. Tearne’s prose here, as throughout, is crafted with the skillful touch of a painter’s brush:
After the Tamil boy dropped him at the border, he had simply headed for the sea, the sound of it, the smell of it. His heart had yearned for the girl; his arms had ached with the need to hold her. But now all he had was a pair of broken straw sandals and a notebook lying open with all its stories gone. The wind had whisked them away; the rain had washed them out. Time had rendered them useless, making them old stories from long ago.
Despite the conflict throughout Sri Lanka, Theo is drawn to his homeland and its terrifying beauty again and again, his fervor ebbing and flowing like the mosquito seasons. In his writings, he says that “for all of history and all over the globe the mosquito has been a nuisance, a pain and the angel of death.” And yet, after the pain of the insect's sting comes the promise of healing. Theo firmly believes that “underneath the mess they had created for themselves, the land . . . was still capable of healing. One day it would go back to what it had been before.” Just as Theo is held captive by his country (in both senses of the word), Nulani is compelled to leave and pick up the pieces of her life abroad, mimicking Theo's exodus from the U.K. to Sri Lanka at the novel's beginning. In this sense, they are two halves of the same self. Whether they will reunite is at the crux of Mosquito and Tearne depicts this dance with a lyricism that belies the sheer horror of their experiences.
Sri Lankans have experienced unspeakable traumas throughout their country's civil war, but Tearne shows that they are as extraordinary and resilient as one of Nulani's paintings. Thought-provoking and beautifully written, Mosquito is a stunning and bittersweet portrait of a shipwrecked land, torn by the dualistic ideologies of a post-colonial people.
Poems by Timothy Green
Red Hen Press, February 2009
Paperback: 102pp; $18.95
Review by Jeanne M. Lesinski
Timothy Green’s debut collection of verse, American Fractal, is named for the concept of order existing within what appears to be randomness that mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot developed in fractal geometry. Although his new way of perceiving relationships has revolutionized modern science, initially others were not able to “see” what Mandelbrot discerned and represented in unconventional mathematical formulas. As a poet, Green also challenges readers to see with him the patterns he has discovered and recreated in this aptly named collection of fifty poems in five sections.
His images deal with universal themes: human relationships with other humans, with nature, with the universe; the topical and the timeless; the light and the dark; the abstract and concrete. The nimble wordplay and light tone of “Saddled” juxtaposes the equally playful yet somber “The Urge to Break Things,” the surrealism of “Pot Luck” somehow matches the surrealism (or hyper-realism?) of “Man Auctions Ad Space on Forehead,” and the punch line of “A Constant Lack of Hunger” made this reader groan.
As is always true, readers will gravitate toward individual favorites. Mine include “On the Phone My Mother,” in which the whistling air escaping from the balloons captures the tension of my mother-child relationship, and “American Fractal” and “Bending of Birches,” which number among the handful of poems that exemplify the fractal structure of reiteration and resonate at different frequencies upon repeated readings. Because Andrew Kozma provides an interesting appreciation of the title poem in his review in American Book Review (americanbookreview.org), let’s focus instead on “Bending of Birches.” It begins with the epigraph “after a string arrangement after Frost,” then
the circles the stagelights the outline of a body of
an old man outlined by a body by a spotlight & one
might call that light a halo but it extends further
deeper & think: it is written of the body this buoyancy
like wood what floats is carried away this man in the
halo call him god call him peter he lifts his bow
tucks the cello between his legs like a lover like a child to
bed & then his fingers on the strings one might call
. . .
things everything else swirling fluttering
The poem mingles aural and visual music: The caesurae [unable to be reproduced here] audibly create rhythm, while visually recalling the fragments of the fractal that are repeatedly broken down into tinier fragments. Later, the viewer encounters a story within a story, which is another fractal aspect, as well as circular imagery (halos, reverberations, bends of backs and notes, spotlights, clusters), light (spotlights, halos, dust motes in track lighting), upward movement (buoyancy like wood, plucked up, bounce of the horsehair bow, lifting of leaves, swirling, fluttering). Throughout, Green has entwined the images that play so well off each other in various associations into beautiful, lingering poignancy.
As Mandelbrot and Green have discovered, what appears to be chaotic may, in fact, only seem chaotic because viewers lack the ability to perceive the underlying pattern. This challenge to order chaos, or at least follow the poet’s efforts to do so, exists for readers of modern poetry, who may or may not be able to follow the associative jumps the poet makes, especially when poems stretch into the surreal or into personal mythology. Yet, the chance for reward is worth the effort in general and in particular when it applies to American Fractal.
Words Overflown by Stars
Creative Writing Instruction and Insight
from the Vermont
College MFA Program
Edited by David Jauss
Writer’s Digest Books, January 2009
Paperback: 480pp; $16.99
Review by John Madera
Words Overflown by Stars is a mammoth-sized compendium of thirty-two essays on the craft of writing fiction and poetry. At their best, these essays, culled mainly from lectures, are transcriptions of teachers compassionately addressing their students, inviting them to dig beneath the surface of language, to sharpen all of their senses as they write and read, to cross boundaries, to challenge their comfort zones, to write and rewrite and rewrite again.
It’s divided equally into two sections: prose and poetry. Considering that any serious writer recognizes the fuzzy borders between the two, the book’s overall feel would have been better had the essays been ordered in some unique way – taking the reader on some kind of journey – or simply alphabetically. Prose is often privileged over poetry and I wonder why David Jauss, the editor, didn’t care to challenge this bias. The book’s hierarchical organization is doubly ironic since the most provocative and instructive essays may be found in the poetry section.
Much of the prose essays cover familiar territory, namely, reminiscence, point of view, novel and short story structure, the porous membrane between fiction and memoir, the porous membrane between dreams and waking life, the porous membrane between fact and fantasy. In spite of the rather wearying, if competently written, explication found in the prose essays, there is some insightful commentary. For instance, there’s Camoin’s rumination on misreading, the reading of which complicated things greatly in writing this review. He posits:
Every reading of a book is different, and all readings are misreadings – inadequate readings, incomplete readings, incompetent readings. The categories overlap in unpredictable ways . . . The question becomes how to misread, in what manner we wander through a narrative, and how to take such wandering into account when we write.
So at the risk of offering you a “misreading” of Words Overflown by Stars, I’ll present some highlights, that is, articles that focus on the “acoustic properties” of language, the art of neither showing nor telling, the topology of poetry and prose, and that deviate from conventional pedagogy. Brett Lott focuses on “those three numbingly nondescript syllables that together only use up three vowels and three consonants”: a, the, and this. Here we learn that “wonder and reverence” are the “twin dynamos that generate the art of writing” and that
in caring for the word, in all its light and texture and density and purpose, we see ourselves as the servants to the word we are called to be as writers . . . that even the single letter a is worthy of our carrying, through the long and arduous and fulfilling and ill-attended parade our writing lives will be, as though it were a golden crown on a tufted velvet pillow, and not so many yards of gravel dumped on a roadbed. Our ideas, ambitions, our intellect truly are, after all, nothing more than paper floats. The word came before us, and will live on after us, whether that word be a single timorous letter or a polysyllabic fiesta.
Lott’s celebration of the word stands in stark contrast to Camoin’s idea that “[w]e have to take the world into account, pretend that it is real, that it exists before language and more or less independent of words.” I’m tempted to extrapolate more of Camoin’s essay as he explores how aspects of the novel may be likened to geology, how it depicts life as sediment. But this idea is further excavated in Natasha Sajé’s sparkling essay on how the study of etymology, “the medium through which constellations of power shape the true and the false,” may deepen the meaning of, increase the layers in one’s writing.
Other excellent essays from the poetry section include Jack Meyer’s, which uses the “behavior of atoms to the works of nature to the formation of galaxies” as metaphors of creativity. Mary Ruefle’s wildly discursive piece, pieces its argument together from a wide range of discourses including phenomenology and semiotics. Betsy Sholl’s essay explores stuttering as both a metaphor and a means of building a work. Its illuminating take on line breaks, caesuras, and white spaces are echoed and further developed in Leslie Ullman’s meditation on silence in poems. Richard Jackson’s essay reaches for the ineffable in its myriad forms. Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, and Jean Valentine form the centerpiece for a race around the clock in Nancy Eimers’s reflection on poetry and time.
Robin Behn’s wonderful essay on punctuation – its cutesy asides notwithstanding – deserves special attention. Beginning with an examination of music and dance notation, swimming diagrams, and linguistic recording methods, she perceptively analyzes deviations, inspired uses and takes, and inventions of punctuation in a number of poems.
But perhaps the best advice in Words Overflown by Stars comes from “If You Have to Be Sure Don’t Write: Poetry and Self-Doubt.” After offering some strategies for circumventing paralysis before the page, David Wojahn writes: “These are the daily doubts, the ongoing doubts, but ultimately they are trivial. You learn to write better by rewriting. You conquer writer’s block by writing. You overcome careerism by attending to writing and not to career.” And, I’ll add, you overcome your escape to and reliance on books on writing craft by writing and rewriting and rewriting.
While the essays as a whole engage the reader with their scholarly, without being stuffy, content, their often inspirational tone, and their understanding of the very real challenges writers face, the question remains whether it’s worth adding this book to your library. Yes, if you’re willing to tear it in half and send the recycled bits back to be pulped.
Poetry by Lyn Lifshin
Red Hen Press, October 2008
Paperback: 184pp; $20.95
Review by Vince Corvaia
It says on the “About the Author” page at the back of Persephone that “Lyn Lifshin has written more than 120 books.” I want to read all of them. Here is not only a prolific but gifted and generous poet. In Persephone alone, Lifshin offers 189 poems, every one of them skillfully crafted and emotionally resonant. Some of them are overwhelming.
The book is broken up into ten sections or themes, ranging from the personal loss of one’s mother to the national tragedy that was 9/11. Loss is prevalent throughout Persephone, even the loss of a limb in several poems, such as the excellent “Though I Didn’t See It,” about the time “Paul / McCartney’s wife / took off her leg / on Larry King.” The speaker doesn’t “find it strange or / gruesome,” though some do. The end of the poem, which introduces us to a Nam vet the speaker knew who lost a leg overseas, brings the poem to a powerful and touching close.
Perhaps the most effective and moving poem of the bunch is in the section called “Bay of Love and Sorrow: Mother Poems.” It’s called “My Mother Hated the Song of the Whales,” and it brought tears to this rugged reviewer’s eyes:
I could not believe my mother,
who called me five times a day sometimes,
wouldn’t always be there, on the phone, ready to
come and take care of me when I had the flu.
. . .
“Look,” my mother said, “I’ve hardly had
to sit down, I think I’m getting stronger.”
But of course she isn’t, and for anyone who has recently lost a parent, this is rough (but rewarding) going.
Certain images recur throughout, none so prominent as roses or the color rose. In “On the Shortest Day of the Year,” a woman passes “black ruby roses” and the speaker imagines “those tissue thin roses.” In “Lips,” we find a symbolic “raft of roses,” “a sea of / roses.” Roses represent life, but life in its most delicate and transitory state. Black roses reappear in “Trying to Write the Blue Out of Me,” growing “in those / holes where you yanked / the roots out.”
They are omnipresent, like Lifshin’s prodigious body of work itself.
The Accordionist's Son
Novel by Bernardo Atxaga
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Graywolf Press, February 2009
Hardcover: 370pp; $25.00
Review by Jason Hinkley
Bernardo Atxaga's latest novel, The Accordionist's Son, aims to expose the effects that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath had on the collective conscious of the Basque people. However, it is not a novel of the war, nor is it record of the clandestine resistance that followed. It is a novel of a people and a place, about a way of living life that vanishes as soon as it hits the page. Into this world Atxaga has carefully injected the struggles and sufferings that can befall the oppressed. That he does so without sacrificing any of the everyday beauty that he has found in his people and their land is a testament to his power as a storyteller.
Set mostly in Franco, Spain, a generation after the reign had firmly established power, The Accordionist's Son charts the protagonist's, David's, coming of age in the heart of Basque country. As he grows, he divides his time between his maternal uncle's ancestral farm and the rapidly modernizing village that his parents call home – two worlds that become increasingly hard to reconcile as time passes. Even as the protective sphere of childhood is pieced by the pressures of the outside world, David's internal angst is increasingly being caused by events that occurred long before he was born. He slowly begins to discover below the surface of his ever changing world lies the unrecorded horrors of recent history:
The story he told me that day – I would say – led me to suspect Angel of having been involved during the war in persecutions and executions, something for which no adolescent is prepared, however cool his relationship with his father might be. But when I think about it now, I believe he was right: if I hadn't had those suspicions about Angel, I would never have struggled. If I hadn't struggled, I would never have become strong. If I hadn't become strong, I would never have been able to move on.
Atxaga artfully weaves this struggle to cope with historical and familial shame into the character development of his young protagonist. This subtly gives a voice to a collective cultural burden – to keep the history of the suffering from vanishing without being consumed by it. From David's suspicions another world emerges, where the ghosts of the war refuse to stay dead and familial guilt becomes unavoidable. In his struggle to move on, he develops new ways of coping with the silence and begins to recognize the same burden of history in those around him:
I watched him stirring his coffee. With his glasses, his thin face, and his cigarette, he seemed to be the man I was used to seeing, our science teacher. But beneath that appearance, I was beginning to glimpse a second Cesar, who was looking with his Second Eyes and speaking with his Second Tongue.
With his “Second World” evermore present and the once edenic Obaba unbearably jaded, David turns irreversibly away from the official version of history. Using David's “Second World” Ataxga tells the story that cannot be told on the surface; the story of what happens when victims and victors, the oppressed and the oppressors all live across the street. The conceit of David's “Second World” adds an incredible amount of psychological depth to the narrative, emotionally charging everyday interaction with the struggle to contain the collective secrets of Obaba.
In employing this layered and complex narrative, Bernardo Atxaga brings the recent past to light without diminishing the mysteriously foreign and beautiful world that he has created. And it is another world that Atxaga has created, so particular in the details of both the land and its inhabitants that Obaba feels organic like few fictional worlds have. Atxaga's ability to so effectively evoke the feelings of place gives the town of Obaba a synecdochic effect – Obaba is Franco, Spain in the same way that William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is the post-Reconstruction South and Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo is Latin America. Such mastery of place has allowed Atxaga to create a living record of this untold history, one above and beyond what even the best revisionist historicist could hope to accomplish.
Then, a Thousand Crows
Poems by Keith Ratzlaff
Anhinga Press, April 2009
Paperback; 98pp; $15.00
Review by Roy Wang
Keith Ratzlaff would like some answers. Or perhaps he would like a world that didn't need so much explaining. This collection of anecdotes and meditations, despite not being dramatically questioning, still seem to present the ghost of “I don't know why, do you?” From stories of misbehaving, fighting relatives to portraits of paintings in Amsterdam, a current of surprise runs through the plain text and action that reminds us that there are things worth knowing before we pass judgment on our neighbors.
There are many poems referencing other poets and artists, a manifestation of where many search for truth. However, these poems often stray from anything resembling classic ekphrasis, and often show a more interesting perspective, as in “On a Snowy Morning I Think of Michelangelo”:
But imagine it, the first great snowman
of the High Renaissance. Piero's giggle,
then his heartbreak as he watched it melt –
which probably wasn't the point at first
In most of the poems, the description tends to be fairly general; we have very little of the close-up rendering of detail. This is a fairly common method of 'being bleak'; however, it is worth noting the exception:
She's sure this is the best photograph
she's ever taken – the illusion
of floating above her mother
like an airship, cutting her
off at the knees, off at the forehead
the rabbit's black fur
echoing her mother's storm of hair,
the animal small, her mother's hands
large and muscular like the hands
Leonardo and Picasso gave women.
There's so much energy there, it would have been nice to see more throughout the book. These departures from the overall feel have greater significance for their rarity though, and when we encounter a break from the norm, we get the feeling there's something genuinely personal or important going on for the author.
As another example: despite most of these poems being told in the first-person, the speaker is a fairly passive observer, recalling actions at most. It gives the illusion of straight narrative, judgments rendered only in the manner of telling. However, in “What Kind of Guy are You?” we finally get the speaker to just come out and tells us why he isn't donating money to a telephone solicitor for Vietnam Vets, and the effects are wrenching:
I'm the kind of guy who sits so quietly
that yesterday in the park
a squirrel nearly ran up my leg.
I don't even stand up for the national anthem,
. . .
And I'm the kind of guy who wants to be
like my cat Dudley, how every night
he claims the pillow at my wife's head –
as he has for fifteen years – sleeping there,
touching her hair, as all my passive,
crippled life I've wished I could.
Mixing highlights into the plain style is a real talent, and Ratzlaff's ear serves him well in this. We get some moments that don't quite work, where he's trying too hard, but for the most part, he pulls it off with enough grace that you barely notice anything but the effect. Consider “Almost Ending with a Line from Wang Wei”:
A block from the Christian school
five kids count to three
and yell “fuck” in unison,
the way a choir might
if the choir were Finnish
and yelling “fuck.”
The final section of the book intensifies appeals to the Chinese poets, and of course calls up the stoicism Ratzlaff is advocating in the absence of answers after meandering through the first two parts. It reminds that our shortcomings are not depressing, but just require an enduring search, almost contracting with us that he will maintain it if we will.
A Disposition for Shininess
Poems by Arisa White
Factory Hollow Press, 2008
Chapbook: 18pp; $7.00
Review by Cynthia Reeser
In Arisa White’s debut collection, A Disposition for Shininess, family eclipses mere flesh and blood. Siblings are a unit that both torture and uplift one another, come what may in the strange universe of adults. White’s observations of family dynamics gain interpretive momentum as the reader progresses through this slim volume of nine poems.
The six-part title poem contains a narrative embedded in imagery that works to inform the collection as a whole. Siblings dwell within the realm of a mother whose boyfriend redefines their cohesion as a family unit:
He rarely greets us –
what’s the point of saying hello over again?
He stays more nights, his clothes find a place
in her closets. This is the beast
crawling down the stalk:
Our doors are not locked to it,
morning or night it has welcome.
No choice to pretend we are not home
White probes the problem of what can children do to compete with a new adult figure, suddenly present, who gradually leverages a mother’s affection away from her children. She asks, “Who are we to rid her of her glass slippers, / Huxtability and thereafter?”
The poems unfold to reveal layers of family dynamics, most of which are bound up in the lives of siblings. In “To You, Named the Messenger of God,” the cohesion of sibs is revealed in full flower. The seven children are born with their own set of difficulties to weather and endure; but under White’s pen, each child eclipses those troubles backed by the love of family:
Nigel arrived on the 12th toll of golden bells, and you, Uriah
ride a love inexhaustible, inducible as Jah or art; we her seven wonders or sins.
. . .
jambeauagainst collisions come low. Uriah, you are protected in Ibert’s
prayers, in Jamar’s, Shaquana’s eyes your beauty’s given back. You brown in Nigel’s sun-soaked scales and you string a psalm from Kayana’s water-vowels.
An endearing love is revealed that makes up for its lack from parental figures; where a mother’s love has grown chilly and distant (“For each year the wish for her to love me is broken / and the cast is old and soiled around my chest”) a philia takes its place. Children look out for one another, become each other’s greatest friends and allies.
White’s gift for pushing lyricism toward meaning unfolds throughout the collection; form informs content, whether through triplets or free verse, and the often striking observations give this poet a unique flavor all her own. Some lines stick and ramble around in the reader’s mind persistently (“our customs to the dust we pirouette down”) and often speak to transition, its proper care and handling. White’s petite debut collection leaves the reader wanting more from this promising poet, and waiting for her next collection.
Drift and Swerve
Stories by Samuel Ligon
Autumn House Press, March 2009
Paperback: 180pp; $17.95
Review by Ryan Call
Drift and Swerve, Samuel Ligon’s second book and winner of the 2008 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, takes its title from the second piece in the collection, a road trip story about a family traveling behind a drunk driver as they return home after visiting their dying grandmother. While the family bickers, the drunk driver grows more erratic, weaving across the road, first lazily and then desperately, before wrecking the car into an enormous concrete ditch. Each family member reacts differently to the nearly fatal accident: the mother cradles the injured drunk’s head against her body to comfort him; the father weakly stands to the side with a blanket, pretending to offer help; and the children, disappointed because the man is not dead, go sliding through the mud “as if it were winter and the drainage ditch a frozen over river.”
The doomed path of the drunk driver characterizes the terrible attraction of the work in this collection. Reading Ligon's stories is much like searching for internet videos of people being physically injured, accidentally or otherwise: you know you shouldn’t be watching, but you can’t help it. Whether you’re reading the few linked stories about Nikki, a wandering young woman who can’t seem to escape the surging violence of her life, or the story of Henry, the boy who is disciplined by his elderly teacher for drawing a swastika at the bottom of a quiz, you can sense running throughout the book the hysteria of characters who see disaster approaching and can do nothing to escape it.
Two stories in particular especially deserve mention here, as they embody this drift and swerve: the first, “Something Awful,” quietly floats to its sad conclusion, while “Vandals” leaps into an altogether new, and disturbing realm of horror.
In “Something Awful,” Jack and his wife Elaine visit with two other couples to drink, smoke pot, and take part in a painful social game, which requires everyone to confess the worst thing he or she has ever done. Throughout the evening, Jack cannot keep himself from leering at Sally, his neighbor’s wife. While he makes drinks in the kitchen, Sally propositions him in return, grinding her body against his, and despite the fact that Jack “never wanted to be the kind of guy who cheats on his wife,” he later faces the consequences of his lust: Sally tells her own version of what happened in the kitchen, and Jack suddenly finds himself to be the most awful person of the night.
In “Vandals,” Hugh booby-traps a tree in his yard to teach a lesson to the teenagers who have been vandalizing his property for the past few months. The story begins calmly enough until the teens arrive at night in their station wagon, and Hugh, “hungry for the beautiful crashing sounds of revenge,” sends tumbling down the concrete blocks and crates of railroad spikes he’s stockpiled up in the tree only to realize that what he wanted isn't exactly what he's received:
Time changes after that, after it starts to happen. Sounds accumulate. Glass and metal. The back block bounces off the roof of the wagon, but the middle one crashes right through the windshield, followed by the dull thud of the front block landing on the hood, where it seems to be firmly lodged. Hugh upends the crate of spikes, and then the car is moving, fishtailing in the dirt. Screams come from inside, but Hugh doesn’t register words, just the sounds of startled fear as the wagon drunkenly weaves away from him, the tires spinning up a roostertail of dust and gravel.
As the ensuing chaos mounts, Hugh impossibly tries to make right what he’s done to the teenagers, but amidst the stink of gore, the flashing lights of the ambulance and police cruisers, the insane sobbing of his wife Roberta, he can only fall back on the part he’s so used to playing: that of the victim. It’s an empty ruse, one that might temporarily fool the others who come to help, but he and Roberta know the full extent of his guilt. In the aftermath of the accident, Hugh can do nothing but turn the hot water to full blast and drag Roberta into the shower with him to wash away the blood that’s caked onto their bodies.
What makes “Vandals” remarkable is that scene of frantic cleansing in the bathroom; it is an example of Samuel Ligon’s thoughtful tendency to project his characters’ lives beyond the final sentences of the text. This is what gives Drift and Swerve its emotional weight: these characters, regardless of the hard circumstances they’ve suddenly fallen into, try somehow to recover and carry on.