Posted June 1, 2010
Orange Crush - Not Blessed - Gurlesque - Divination Machine - I Was the Jukebox - Hook & Jill - Currency - Seldom Seen - The Vera Wright Trilogy - The Mechanics of Falling - Drake's Bay - Tough Skin - Many and Many a Year - Full Moon on K Street - Girl on a Bridge - Family Parables - Dilemmas of Deokie - My Heart Flooded with Water - Moth Moon
Poetry by Simone Muench
Sarabande Books, February 2010
Paperback: 96pp, $14.95
Review by Kate Angus
I too am a fan of certain horror films, an admission that seems appropriate in the context of this review not only because the same sentiment is expressed in Simone Muench’s Author’s Note, but also because her third collection, Orange Crush, has much of the same pleasures as the best horror films – images and lines that shine sharp and precise as moonlight on knives, a simultaneous yearning for and horror at the body and its desires, a voluptuous darkness, and – almost everywhere – lost girls.
The book begins by giving us a setting: “in a small small town,” trouble not only arrives and settles in, but also sings as it brings with it “greasy ungenerous things” like the dead animals clogging the river and babies born deformed or dead (“Hex”). This Grand Guignol spectacle continues throughout the collection, finding particular strength in poems that, like most horror movies, depict dead or dying young women. Muench’s poetry, however, unlike many films in that genre, is neither exploitative nor crass – rather, she gives these girls their own kind of power. The “fever-damaged girls” who “light up in a row” in “Psalm,” are both a potential threatening lure for the doctor and seem to echo, later on, the “drowned brides” of “Bind” who, by the poem’s end, drag “sailors and map-makers / .....sinking” down into the water where, clearly, they too will drown.
The book’s strongest sequences are the two long poems “Orange Girl Suite” and “Orange Girl Cast.” For the first, Muench uses as a departure point the seventeenth century women who stood outside theaters to sell oranges (and, perhaps – for the right price – themselves). From this forgotten history, she creates a nightmare narrative where various women face threats in a landscape where “the sky’s cotton candy / melting in a girl’s cold mouth.” “Orange Girl Cast,” on the other hand, portrays women whose power, sexual and otherwise, gives them the upper hand in most of the depicted situations, including having the power to leave, to be free. In each of the poems in this collection Muench creates a small place where “we nightmared together” (“Where Does Your Body Rest?”). I suggest that you join her. Her world is a dark one, but beautiful.
Fiction by Harold Abramowitz
Les Figues Press, 2010
ISBN 10: 1-934254-13-4
ISBN 13: 978-1-934254-13-4
Paperback: 81pp; $15.00
Review by Keith Meatto
The best writers tell the same story over and over again. In his new book, Harold Abramowitz takes this idea to an extreme. Not Blessed consists of 28 chapters, each between two and three pages in length. Each chapter in this slim volume tells the same story: A boy wanders from his grandmother’s house, gets lost in the woods, and is rescued by a policeman.
But the plot is not the point. The book’s power stems from the variations in the episode. Each time, the narrator frames the story in a different fashion, adds and subtracts details, shifts the tone, and alters the sequence of events. Some of the variations introduce new information or a new point of view. Others are as small as the addition of an adjective or adverb. Inevitably, the reader starts to question whether or not the narrator can be trusted.
The technique has plenty of precedent. Poet Wallace Stevens does something similar in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Novelists such as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison made careers from stories told from multiple points of view. And in The Savage Detectives, one of the most celebrated novels of the decade, Roberto Bolano reveals the biography of his literary alter ego through a multiplicity of monologues.
What distinguishes Not Blessed is the relentlessness of the repetition. The effect is one of déjà vu, like having a conversation with a trauma victim or someone who suffers from amnesia or dementia. From the way the narrator repeats sentences verbatim in multiple chapters, one senses that Abramowitz enjoys orienting and disorienting – if not intentionally frustrating – the reader. Taken as a whole, the stories form a mosaic that testifies to the power and limits of language and memory.
The fixation and compulsion throughout Not Blessed recalls the scene in The Great Gatsby when the narrator Nick Carraway tells the lovesick Gatsby “you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby dismisses the claim and then looks around “wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.” But while Gatsby wants to win his ex-girlfriend’s heart, the narrator of Not Blessed has no such tangible goal. Instead, his inability to grasp the past leaves him in a state of paralysis and confusion:
And it is high time I made myself more clear. Forgive me for having been, thus far, obscure. In fact, I did not mean to lie. In fact, I meant to do the opposite. I mean always to tell the truth. It’s just that your line of questioning has been excellent and has allowed me an opportunity to reflect on the past, to remember that there are many different ways of viewing the past…certain principles need constant restating in order to be understood.
With all the circumlocutions and restatement, much goes unsaid. None of the characters have names. The locations are generic: e.g. village, woods, lake, and mountain. There’s mention of a war, but no reference to the participants or the outcome. And save a few minor references to electricity and technology, the story could take place in any century. As a result, Not Blessed feels like an archetypal fairy tale, albeit a fractured one.
The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics
Edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg
Saturnalia Books, April 2010
Paperback: 300pp; $20.00
Review by Dan Magers
The highly-anticipated poetry anthology, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics has aroused a vigorous discussion since its release. Most of the discussion has surrounded the concept, definition, and limitations of “Gurlesque,” a term coined by co-editor Arielle Greenberg in 2002 to map certain tendencies of a number of female American poets born between the late sixties and the early eighties writing in this last decade.
The appeal of the term is the visceral way it captures the funny, sexy, gross, irreverent, experimental, and the idea of hybrid – all critical parts of the poetry in the anthology. Couple this with the critical theory underpinning that has been developed by co-editor Lara Glenum (among others), and you suddenly have something that looks like a burgeoning contemporary American poetry movement (though both Greenberg and Glenum deemphasize this in their respective introductions).
While a lot of interesting and productive discussion about Gurlesque has emerged in the wake of the anthology’s release, as is often the case when discussing such a striking artistic concept, discussion can veer from the most important part – the work itself; in this case, the poems of this anthology. Much of the discussion about Gurlesque would never have been written if the book were called 18 Younger Female Poets, or some such. Bland as that title might be, it would not detract from the poetry included, and furthermore, would not mitigate the exciting ways in which each poet’s work vibes against and compliments other poetry in the anthology.
The poets in Gurlesque – Ariana Reines, Brenda Coultas, Brenda Shaughnessy, Catherine Wagner, Cathy Park Hong, Chelsey Minnis, Danielle Pafunda, Dorothea Lasky, Elizabeth Treadwell, Geraldine Kim, Heidi Lynn Staples, Kim Rosenfield, Matthea Harvey, Nada Gordon, Sandra Lim, Sarah Vap, Stacy Doris, Tina Brown Celona (along with a color insert of visual artists with similar impulses) – are writing some of the best contemporary American poetry right now and deserve a wider audience.
The number of poets in the anthology could likely have doubled, but the editors, where they could have gone the way of many anthologies and given sixty different poets a page or three, have wisely decided to offer deep cuts of each poet’s work (ranging generally from eight to fifteen pages of poetry). While one of the connecting themes of the poets in the anthology is the “queering” of female identity and sexual desire (for males, not homosexual desire, as poet and critic Amy King rightly points out), it is critical to stress the variety of ways that each poet does this.
Ariana Reines, for example, has poems that are as violent and scatological as they are formally disparate, elliptical, and linguistically playful: “Liquid shoot into her skull and leak out her eyehole.” Since it is “shoot” not “shoots,” “leak” not “leaks,” the effect, as in much of the poems from Reines, is of an off-kilter volatility that is strange, dangerous, and compelling. All the more volatile when she is straightforward: “If I don’t fuck today I’ll die.”
Catherine Wagner shares a similar strategy, with brutal, bleakly funny poems of female debasement (“Shoulderblades frayed the cloth I’m made of / Sewn up my neck round speaking hole / and ragged with snot”) that curdles into mockery of male power and insecurity: "Am not required to praise, required to love I am / Praise for him falls short of what himself can give," and
Now let us have ceremonial
Who is the pauper?
I will be. I will be.
Poets like Brenda Shaughnessy work in a different, but no less arresting register. Shaughnessy utilizes traditional formats like quatrains and couplets, and offers more traditionally lyrical reflections, as in “Your One Good Dress” where the poet writes how a dress wraps around identity and duty, “This black dress is your one good dress. / Bury your children in it. Visit your pokey / home town friends in it. Go missing for days.” Or in “Parthenogenesis” a meditation on being overweight or losing weight. Where another poet in this anthology may have used the space to scorn societal norms, Shaughnessy is more personal: “For me, starving, that coreless, useful feeling, / is not making myself smaller / but making myself bigger, inside. / It’s prince and pauper both, it’s starving artist / and good model in one masterpiece.” The effect is broadly romantic, yearning.
These poets have been brought together because they share similar impulses, but it would be an error to see these poems as programmatically fulfilling the criteria set out by the editors in the anthology. The editors rightly are forthcoming with caveats that not all poets here maybe consider themselves Gurlesque. In fact, what is most exciting about Gurlesque is how these similar emotional and intellectual drives have been refracted in such new and strange ways by each of these young poets.
Poetry by F. Daniel Rzicznek
Parlor Press, August 2009
Paperback: 71pp; $14.00
Review by Kristin Abraham
The self-described mission of Free Verse Editions (in new partnership with Parlor Press) is to publish free verse that “[uses] language to dramatize a singular vision of experience, a mastery of craft, a deep knowledge of poetic tradition, and a willingness to take risks.” Divination Machine, a new release from the Free Verse book series presents to us the very archetype of that poetic mission and aesthetic.
Divination Machine is the second full-length book of poetry from F. Daniel Rzicznek, and it demonstrates the growth of a poet who is continually challenging himself and evolving, a poet who persists in the exploration of poetry as literature and as a way to translate our world.
In his first book, Neck of the World (Utah State University Press), Rzicznek presents to us a deeply personal poetry, a poetry of “inseeing,” as Jane Mead so aptly describes it. This poetry is a balance between speakers and their environments, an exploration of that relationship between man and nature which inspires in its readers the same awe the speakers exhibit. Rzicznek has a fine-tuned ear that flawlessly presents to us language in all of its exquisiteness – the words and their sounds come together so perfectly that his poetry seems effortless.
The title poem, “Neck of the World,” encapsulates his ability to explore the outer world while revealing an interior fraught with wonder and confusion, a voice that can sing us gently to sleep even while exploring a naked and sometimes ugly reality:
For eons we string animals
up (humans, too) and for years
they die speechlessly down
upon us. Someone told me
flesh makes a bed in quiet,
expansive soil, in cascades
of sweat, even some drunkard’s
vision of the self as dove.
No one tells me if the dove
can swim, or will be eaten –
eventually. These rank pears.
A watery daughter I hadn’t
dared imagine pleads goodbye.
Divination Machine, Rzicznek’s second book, capitalizes on his understanding of the inherent song and measure of language, but as an even more intense study of the natural world and its complete distance from technology and “modern” society. Gone in part is the “inseeing” of Neck of the World, and what we get in Divination Machine is a piercing view of the outside; these poems remind us of the beauty and complexity of nature, details we often overlook or do not consider enough, as we are told in “Natural History,” a meditation on a stuffed elk displayed in a museum:
If there were a looking from out
of the eyes, it could awake through this,
but the world
in all its difficult cycles, is missing:
wind, snow, blood, rot, rain, change.
The way man displays nature immediately detracts from reality; we only impose a stuffed narration of our own imaginations, while the gritty real, unfettered natural world is still out there somewhere, missed by our view through the dead eyes of our trophies.
We need to, Rzicznek argues, move outside of ourselves to truly see “the oak where bees / toss their dead to the ground. // The freeze-whitened treelimb: / the glass encased treelimb. // The sun and its roof / of blood: heavy of light of cold.” We need to see the earth’s diorama, the natural natural history museum.
Rzicznek gives us the “return of the world’s tongue – // and yes, this is the one world / where each impossibility, work / undone waits with absolute patience.”
But this book doesn’t completely leave behind the stunning self-meditation of Neck of the World. The poem “Divination” is a faultless example of how Rzizcnek maintains deep contemplation entwined with his newer, more piercing outseeing. It begins:
My life listens for a place where
the snow leans and melts, runs
down, naked as the bright water
that turns green in the mind.
And where does green
leave the mind?
This poem is at once a prayer – a conversation with some larger force that controls our universe, whether that is God or energy or “mother nature” – and an internal struggle with where self and the natural world meet; yet the speaker is content with this struggle and may not want an end or an answer to the questions:
If I could say aloud my true
name, then the town rabbits
who dart from my steps might
be calmed. And what, then,
would I have to marvel at?
This marveling is innate in Rzicznek’s writing and contagious to readers; his poems create a harmonious convergence of philosophy, language, breath, and song. Although it would seem practically impossible, Divination Machine is a book of even more precision than Neck of the World; the musicality and measure of its lines shows a mastery of the poetic line that is a “current / running fast with winter melt / from the path where sight turns.”
Through polyphony of word, line, and interlude, the poems have the ability to enact the music of the world outdoor, unadulterated and natural:
So many centers to the world,
so may wire-hot wings tossing
in the stone lung of each edifice –
the nightscape is of peach-glow
windows, of pitch against them.
In the creel of light I roast
my heels, let thoughts of weather
roll back untouched, unthought
Rzicznek teaches us that poems such as these can speak to us, just as our world can, if we allow them to “roll untouched, unthought” off our tongues and simultaneously appreciate their infinite centers and meditate on the complexity they have to offer.
Poetry by Sandra Beasley
W.W. Norton & Co., April 2010
Hardcover: 90pp; $24.95
Review by Kate Angus
I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo for the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, is Sandra Beasley’s witty and furious second collection (her first, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize).
One of this book’s great strengths is its variety of speakers. Sometimes the “I” is Osiris, the dismembered Egyptian god; sometimes the speaker is sand or a world war or orchis (the flower); and sometimes the poem’s voice croons, “You were you, I was the jukebox” (“You Were You”). Because there is no clearly discernible sustained personal narrative at play here, the individual poems combine to create a thematic narrative – that of an “I” (many “I”s) trying to establish an acceptable mode of living in this jagged quilt of a world. Rather than the personal “I’ of the poet opening up into a universal experience, Beasley gives us the universal as filtered through her own clear and unsentimental eye.
Beasley has a dry wit (“You hit on me. You hit on everyone” (“Love Poem for College”), and it is at its best in poems like “To the Lions” where the humor demands a knife’s edge. “Time to gather your most / fuckable queens,” she tells the lions, “Stop this kitty kitty nonsense” (and) “show us why your tongue / is covered in hooks.” Beasley’s willingness to acknowledge the dangerous rage at the heart of the domestic makes poems like “The Natives Are Restless” and “The Parade,” with their “Hello, Dali” depictions of an absurdist American suburban landscape, particularly strong. This is a fierce, funny, and moving collection.
Novel by Andrea Jones
Reginetta Press, August 2009
Hardcover: 293pp; $24.95
Review by Alex Myers
Welcome back to Neverland. For those who loved the stories of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, Andrea Jones’s novel Hook & Jill will absolutely delight. All of Sir James Barrie’s characters appear, from Peter Pan and Tinkerbell to Mr. Smee and the ticking Croc. There are hideouts, Indians, bedtime stories, flying, and battles. And a good bit of passion, too.
Yes, Hook & Jill imagines what would happen if Wendy Darling decided that she wanted to grow up, that she wanted to be a woman. The novel begins with the Lost Boys and Wendy up to their usual tricks, but soon Jones spins off from Barrie’s original and launches into her own tale; Wendy, though still in love with Pan, begins to desire a more complex, meaningful, and rewarding life. Thus, she gravitates towards the pirates, and their infamous Captain Hook, Neverland’s best representation of adult maturity. From her tension and desire, a whole new story unfolds as Pan and Hook fight for their values and their version of Wendy. To say more would spoil the plot; rest assured that the twists, turns, and tension continue through to the very end.
Central to Jones’ tale is the concept of time, for, of course, Pan has said he will never grow up. But right from the start, Wendy notices that even in Neverland, “Time had clearly paid a visit … [her] gown was too short.” Unbeknownst to Peter, and surely without his permission, she and the Lost Boys have been growing. At first, she hides the growth from Peter, but he realizes what is occurring and tries to stop it, offering their “little teeth in the bowl on his altar,” hoping that the baby teeth will be a fitting “sacrifice to the Spirit of Time.” The more that time passes and she matures, the more Wendy begins to want to grow up, against the wishes of Pan.
Her dissatisfaction with her life of being the mother to the clan of boys, of always having to be the responsible one giving medicine and tidying up, makes Wendy feel as though she is “living in the woods just like Snow White…that princess looked after a pack of dwarves too.” Wendy’s resentment lets Jones create a feminist strain within the novel, as Wendy strikes out on her own to become a real woman, creating her own terms, not living according to Pan’s rules. Wendy does still love Peter, desires him even, but realizes that this desire will never be fulfilled. As she tries to kiss him, she learns that,
There was passion there. There was, and it moved her. But it moved her backward. It beat in a subtle tempo, like Time. It reminded Wendy of birth, of mortality, and of death. The smell of the cavern turned dank in her nostrils. She drew away. She knew now. She would move forward, or she would die.
Wendy learns, to her dismay and her delight, that Peter Pan is just a little boy and always will be. Her passion and desires lead her elsewhere.
One of the more clever aspects of Jones’ novel, in addition to the way in which she handles Time, is her casting Wendy in the role of story-teller. Barrie, in the original, had her telling stories to the boys before bed, and creating Peter Pan’s tale as well. Jones picks up this idea with alacrity, having Wendy actively engaged in telling her own narrative, becoming a creator of her own world. Gradually, she realizes the power inherent in this role: “She had only to connect the segments and speak the tale.” Other people, the people in Neverland, “might be real or…might be a story.” In a delightful stroke, Jones has given her heroine creative control, empowering her far beyond the original tale.
If, at times, Hook & Jill reads a bit too much like a romance novel, if the lovers’ flashing blue eyes meet and sparkle with delight with alarming frequency, this artistic weakness is to be forgiven in light of the excellent pacing and clear passion that is evoked. There are heaving bosoms and slicing rapiers aplenty, but also wonderful lyricism to Jones’ prose. For those who wish to reengage with a childhood favorite with a mature mindset, Hook & Jill provides a colorful, rich, and enjoyable story.
Fiction by Zoe Zolbrod
Other Voices Books, May 2010
Paperback: 232pp; $16.95
Review by Robert Paul Moreira
This farang enjoyed Currency.
Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel is a fantastic, sensual romp through Southeast Asia. It is a novel of naïve ambition and desire. We get Piv: the street-hustling, smooth-talking Thai tourist guide who dreams of starting his own import/export business. There’s Robin Miatta, an American backpacking through Asia, maxing her credit cards, unwilling to go home, searching for meaning in her own life. Falling for each other, the two take advantage of lucrative opportunities with Abu and Volcheck, both Black Market dealers of endangered animals and artifacts. What follows is a tour de force portrayal by a serious author of the realities of modern-day smuggling and those involved in these activities. Currency not only succeeds in its scope and in-depth research, but also in its fluid, energetic, and intriguing prose.
Structurally, the novel’s chapter-by-chapter seesaw from first-person to third-person worked relatively well, though I found Piv’s first-person episodes the most interesting. As stated earlier, the prose of Currency is kinetic and vibrant, as this example clearly shows:
Everyone’s age seemed all wrong. The limbs of men poked out of boys who otherwise looked so young that they gave the place a freshman dorm feel, their pink ankles and wrists like puttied elastic, while impish patchwork caps sat atop faces creased into middle age by years of sun and drugs.
Zolbrod offers her own unique blend of allusion, splendor, and romanticism. She slaloms readers through exotic locales – Khao San Road, Bangkok, Ko Samet, Ko Phangan, Kanchanaburi – and introduces fascinating colloquial terms – farang (foreigner), jairong (heartless), suay (bad luck), su-ay (beautiful). We hold rare rhinoceros horns in our hands; hear the swish, the snap of stolen, treasured turtles; even learn the proper way to bundle snakes into stockings to form a bracelet, stuff them in our pants like Piv, in case we ever feel the need to smuggle reptiles onto a plane for some cool, hard cash.
In terms of characterization, it’s hard to swallow Piv as the dashing, Don Juan type that Robin falls in love with due to what she describes as his “cool beauty.” A Thai loverboy? Doesn’t work for me. In fact, his is a tragic character that ends up like Coleridge’s Mariner, forced back to his place of origin as the novel ends, cursed to tell his tale.
Still, if you’re ready to backpack through the grandeur of places such as Wat Si Chum, Phra Pai Luang, Sang Khawat; if you’re ready to fall in love, brave Interpol, deal on the Black Market with Piv, Robin – heck, dance the “Macarena,” even – Zoe Zolbrod’s Currency will not disappoint you.
A Journey into the Great Plains
Nonfiction by Patrick Dobson
University of Nebraska Press, November 2009
Hardcover: 279pp; $29.95
Review by Ann Beman
Blue Highways changed my life. I read William Least Heat-Moon’s account of his journey along the back roads of the United States when I was twenty, and I’ve been looking to repeat that literary thrill ever since. Enter Patrick Dobson, whose Great Plains quest, Seldom Seen, seems to plumb the philosophy of George Clooney’s Up in the Air character, Ryan Bingham. “Imagine for a second you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. […] Feel the weight of that bag,” says Bingham. “Make no mistake. Moving is living.”
Having painted himself into a corner, literally and emotionally, the 31-year-old Dobson sets out with his own overstuffed pack and a gnawing sense of restlessness. A seeker, he’s desperate to find a deeper sense of self than he’s managed to cobble from a forty-hour workweek, evenings in front of the tube with a beer, and weekends-only with his three-year-old daughter. He leaves his job as maintenance engineer in a local hotel and takes two-and-a-half months to walk from his home in Kansas City, Missouri, to Helena, Montana: “Taking off across the plains struck me as the right and proper thing to do. I would inundate myself in sky and land. Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming…would show me a way to find a new life.”
People often think of the Great Plains as an in-between place – the flyover zone between the more-populous coasts. On his trek, Dobson stumbles even deeper in-between, to places like the corner store in tiny Randolph, Kansas, the unlikely organic tomato greenhouse in Gering, Nebraska, and the truck stop supper club of a former carny in Casper, Wyoming. Dobson can’t help but meet a troop of folks – some odd balls, others quite ordinary, some leery of a backpack-toting stranger, others drawn to him and his quest. “The pack’s like a business card of a person with a strange or exciting occupation,” he explains to a cook in Yellowstone National Park. “People can’t help but ask.”
No doubt Dobson took the opportunity to double-exorcise his demons – once on the trek itself, and again while reliving it through the writing:
I wanted to be free of what made me an unhappy, maladjusted person. [...] It was better to meet each day without a notion of what I wanted to happen, and instead live with what did…My business was to deal with things as they came…There was a long way to go.
Along the way, the author shares the stories of those people – kind and scary, generous and needy, “seldom seen by the rest of the world.” In the scope of Dobson’s hero’s journey, these people become his mentors, challengers, allies, and enemies. Thus, at the end, we readers are left with a real sense of the author’s accomplishment. Not only has he changed throughout his trek, but many of those he meets en route seem to benefit from connection with him. In Jackson, Wyoming, a South African boat captain turned elk-antler-chandelier-craftsman insists, “Walking into people’s lives does more good for them than they do for you, though it doesn’t always seem that way. This trip you’re on, it’s not all about you, regardless of whether you know that or not.”
The Great Plains backdrop succeeds as metaphor for what’s wide open before us. We just have to look up from our feet. Occasionally, though, the author lifts us to loftier heights than the book’s overall tone obliges. “Bud-filigreed trees scratched against the melancholy dimness of the day” and other such overwrought imagery threaten to derail the down-to-earth tone of the book. The story works best when the author chucks the lofty poetry for supple prose.
Another problem: no map. I imagine the author feels that if he provided a map of his journey within the book’s pages, it would undermine the pervasive uncertainty he wishes to convey. Relating to Oregon Trail travelers, he says,
The maps some carried were indistinct and uncertain, and could never tell their owners how the journey and landscape would make vast personal changes in them along the way. But if my trip had shown me anything, it was that once on a road, or a worn path, one is never lost. One may be disoriented or unsure of the direction he or she is headed. But a trail, a path, a road leads somewhere.
Whatever, Dobson, give me a map, a rough map, any map’ll do.
Maplessness and lofty snippets aside, nothing can diminish the heart poured into the overall narrative, with its regular people doing regular things, vast skies, open plains, and endless horizon. Every weighty step of Dobson’s Great Plains backpack odyssey teaches the author to winnow his load. He learns to keep in his pack only those things he most needs and values to keep moving, to keep living. So while I pine for William Least Heat-Moon, circumnavigating the blue highways of America in a van called Ghost Dancing, I am nevertheless pleased to encounter a backpack-schlep through the flyover zone with Patrick Dobson. I couldn’t help but enjoy that trip, too.
Fiction by Elizabeth Jolley
Persea Press, April 2010
Paperback: 568pp; $19.95
Review by Jason Hinkley
The Vera Wright Trilogy brings together Elizabeth Jolley’s three semi-autobiographical novellas; My Father’s Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges’ Wife. Set in England during the Second World War and it's aftermath, the trilogy follows Vera on her journey from an adolescent nurse in a wartime hospital to a comfortably settled wife and mother in postwar Australia with a medical practice of her own. Throughout the novellas, much space is given to the host of intimate relationships that Vera has with both men and women. These relationships bring countless emotional and material complications to Vera’s life – along with two children, a stint in a tuberculous sanctuary and a trip halfway around the world.
The perniciousness of Vera’s daily existence introduces the reader to anachronisms of lower middle class England, whose bleakness and austerity do not bring to mind the life of a people who just a half a century earlier ruled over half of the world. The constant consideration of black market eggs and boarding schools so frugal that some of the students and staff are on the verge of starvation will send shudders down the spine of many modern readers.
None of the details mentioned above are given to the reader in the readily accessible packaging of a linearly told, realist narrative. Instead, Jolley teases the stories out of Vera’s memory, often returning to seminal people and places at the slightest suggestion from the present. Many times, the space between two paragraphs separates events that occurred twenty years apart. Disconcerting at first, Jolley’s style jumps from past, to present, to future tense introducing characters and events along the way. As the fragments come together, her style builds it’s own internal logic and the reader begins to understand that instead of telling her story frame by frame, Vera is developing a collage from her memories; highlighting the people, places and moments that have contributed most to her being.
In a moment of soliloquy, Vera describes the narrative process of piecing these fragments together,
One of the greatest difficulties is the piecing together of people and events. This is often a blending together of the present with the past. One remembering thing leads to another. Some match with an exquisite naturalness and others have first to be hunted and caught and then fitted.
Such a conception of memory and storytelling allows Jolley to make the inner life of her protagonist the dramatic center of her work, giving the reader what often feels like unfettered access to the emotional and psychological impact of any given moment.
Restricting the narrative to Vera's inner conscious is a risky move – she is not the kind of protagonist that a reader will necessarily identify with right away. Fiercely independent and hopelessly romantic, her motives often seem equally selfish and self-destructive. Gradually however, one begins to recognize the odd mix of independence and desperation that defines Vera’s interaction with the world as a universal and inherent form of loneliness:
Mostly, most of the time, other people do not matter all that much but I could, if I had the chance, set great store upon one friend trusting that friend completely and needing, him or her, so much for what I think of as happiness -- that is, a contrast in feeling from sadness and a freedom from anxiety, a state which I can imagine then becomes happiness.
It is a hard way of experiencing life on a regular basis and, I suspect, a harder voice to express. Yet once given a voice, it is an uncomfortably recognizable form of melancholy which we all have felt, if only briefly and unconsciously.
and Other Stories
Fiction by Catherine Brady
University of Nevada Press, February 2009
Hardcover: 228pp; $25.00
Review by Sara C. Rauch
In the title story of Catherine Brady's new collection of short stories, the main character wakes up naked in a bathtub, hung over, and finds his guitar in the toilet. After he makes his way downstairs to ask his female roommate (their complicated relationship soon emerges) what happened, she says, "You got your hands on a bottle of tequila." After some teasing, their exchange continues:
“I don't drink that much.”
She considers this. “No, you don't. Drinking's just your excuse. Why remember every stupid thing you did to end up like that when you can be amazed instead.”
This line is a perfect summation for most of Brady's stories in The Mechanics of Falling. These stories do not belabor small details or delve deeply into what happened in the past. The past exists on the periphery, influencing each narrator in its specific way, without becoming the main focus.
These San Francisco-based stories each inhabit a small world, constraining the movement of the characters. Consider “Seven Remedies,” an odd story about a house that never should have been bought: it fights each move Laurel and her family make to tame it. Laurel's sense of home is mercilessly stripped from her as the contractors tear the house apart, and only partially put it back together. The basement floor is rotting from water damage, the gas pipes are all leaking, the list is endless. The perimenopausal Laurel struggles to keep it together, but as the reader, I couldn't help but feel she only walked herself in increasingly small circles. She exhibits a supreme patience when visiting her ailing father, but loses it while trying to help her teenage son with his homework. She offers to pay for her housekeeper's doctor's visits, but can barely get her two children dressed for school.
Brady's prose is beautiful, if hard to keep up with. It twists and turns and explores more than it first seems to. It is the type of prose that begs for more than one reading. With it, she creates impregnable and flawed characters, bringing them to the edge of their comfort, as in “Those Who Walk During the Day,” where the narrator, a man who gave up his career and family to serve Jesus, is confronted with a junkie's suffocating love for his dying dog. It is an intriguing look at how people derive their own worth, how people heal and move on, and what comfort means.
This is Brady's third collection of stories, and her mastery of the craft shows. She is very good at revealing only the requisite amount of information, and fitting her characters into the worlds they have created for themselves. Her stories pull you in and allow for no distractions. She deftly explores relationships, delicately peeling back the layers to expose some truth, no matter how inconsequential. She is especially adept at the mother-daughter relationship, as she shows in "Slender Little Thing" and "Wicked Stepmother."
The Mechanics of Falling is a beautiful collection, populated with real people with unknown motives, people who have come to terms with their survival. These stories are filled with complex moments in complex lives, but one never feels rushed or deserted while reading them. The prose carries along, remarkably, just like Brady's characters.
Novel by T.A. Roberts
The Permanent Press, April 2010
Hardcover: 176pp; $28.00
Review by Laura Pryor
Drake’s Bay is an old school mystery novel, the type of mystery that relies on intelligent plot twists and well-paced revelations to draw the reader along, rather than relentless violence and gore. There is a murder, but Roberts discreetly avoids graphic descriptions of the killing or the body, other than to say that it was a “brutal” murder.
The main character is Ethan Storey, a fifty-something history professor at San Francisco State, who lives on a boat with his longtime girlfriend Kay. Storey is offered the chance to catalogue a rare collection of historical books. After working on the collection for a while, it is revealed that the aim of the project is not just to catalogue and appraise the books, but to find the lost logbooks of Sir Francis Drake, which are supposedly hidden somewhere in the building with the rest of the collection. The logbooks, if found, would be priceless.
However, it becomes clear that the owner of the collection is not the only one interested in finding the logbooks, and after one former researcher of the collection winds up murdered (brutally), Ethan’s job is no longer the straightforward academic assignment it seemed to be. Sean Ballentine, the scion of a powerful academic family involved with UC Berkeley, begins to put pressure on Ethan, to get him to reveal what he knows about the collection. To complicate matters further, Ethan’s lover Kay, an attorney, has taken a job as part of Ballentine’s legal team.
One of the most enjoyable features of Roberts’s novel is that just when Ethan thinks he has the last piece of the puzzle – the truth at last! – something happens that changes everything he thought he knew. And Roberts feeds you these new pieces of information just often enough to keep you reading right through to the end (I read the book in just two sessions, which is no easy feat when you have three kids). His past relationship with his father, who turns out to have been a far more mysterious man than Ethan ever suspected, his difficulties with Kay, and the changes in his own personality that the adventure brings about, are all deftly entwined to make the novel more than just a mystery.
Roberts’s writing is mostly straightforward, well-written prose, with occasional lovely forays into lyricism. For instance, here Ethan tells how his father rarely spoke of his mother, who died when Ethan was very young:
[T]he few times he began a sentence with your mother and I. . . he would look at me obliquely as if searching for her in me, and his confused, inarticulate loving for us both flashed bright and brief as a strobe.
And here, he describes the mercurial San Francisco fog: “This was one of its best moods, when for some reason the fog burned off from below, lifting its skirts to show off a day of warm sun, under a diaphanous white ceiling like a wedding tent.”
Roberts clearly knows a lot about boats and sailing, and writes beautifully about nature and the sea. However, if you don’t know much about sailing or boats, you may find yourself perplexed by passages like, “A few minutes after we cleared the bridge, the wind slapped the trysail full with an enormous pop, and it heeled our tonnage over like a day sailer.” Apparently this is not a bad thing, because in the next paragraph they are still afloat. But don’t ask me exactly what it means. Unfortunately, Roberts either assumes you know, is unwilling to explain it, or both.
Fortunately, these passages are not critical to enjoying the novel and its many twists and turns. Roberts knows his way around a good mystery as well as he knows his way around a boat.
Poetry by Sarah Eaton
BlazeVOX [books], January 2010
Paperback: 93pp; $16.00
Review by Michael Flatt
Sarah Eaton’s Tough Skin is a fun, scary book of prose-y poetry. Most people would probably agree that “scary” is an unusual quality to find in poetry. I can explain, I promise. While a lack of attachment to extended narrative prohibits the contemporary poem from creating the aspects of story necessary to truly feel fear – empathize-able characters, anticipation/suspense, etc. – Eaton’s poems make gestures toward horror in narrative microbursts. Think of the campy, shrewdly written episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which don’t give the viewer time to truly care whether the main character is murdered, but give pleasure of fright in their 30-minute mime shows of horror-film dialogue, melodrama and plot twists.
As Hitchcock – or rather, his writers and directors – used the most adaptable elements of film to create his television series, Eaton focuses especially on two aspects of horror fiction to create her frightening verse: grotesque imagery and its accompanying humor. In this book’s best moments, the reader feels at once gut-shot and amused.
Her love for the amusingly grotesque is evident from the long (again, amusingly so) title of the first section’s first subsection, “The time-traveling inventor alternately contemplates suicide and torture while his blood baby slumps unattractively.” In the same moment that the reader registers the horrifying thought that a man is caring for a miscarried child, he or she laughs at the prospect of thinking of a miscarriage as a being whose attractiveness can be scaled.
Hopefully, you’ll forgive me for explaining the joke, like some condescending movie date, but this title functions as a microcosm of Eaton’s book. Within it, as stated, the most obvious elements are the vivid imagery and humor, but there is more. There is empathy for a man who wishes to care for his child – who he names “Peaches” – stillborn or otherwise. The instinct to laugh at content too terrible to embrace can only carry a poem so far. Eaton allows her poems’ speakers to make observations, requests, even pleas, of various measures of gravity. Ultimately, it is this third element that makes the book work.
Take these stanzas from the poem, “It’s almost like I invented love,” still in the time-travelling inventor sequence:
Did you know that I invented the wedding ring? Without it: rampant sexual collision. Also spoons with jagged edges for eating grapefruit.
If I hadn’t invented the intercom and the binoculars, I could have slipped away so easily. If I hadn’t invented the elixir against scarlet fever. If I had invented disappearing without death. …
I can’t stop, Peaches. Dead or alive, your pulpy familiarity rests comfortably as my tongue’s target. Dead or alive, there is not much difference between what once was and what is.
Perhaps I am a sentimental being after all.
What I claim as my invention: You. Me.
Tough Skin is also highly dependent on form. The book is divided into three sections, two of which are divided into multiple subsections. The titular second section of the book looks the most like a traditional book of poems, with one line-broken lyric poem per page and no subsections. The poems comprising the sections which bookend “Tough Skin” are prose-poems and grouped in miniature, three-to-ten-poem subsections. Each section, in its own way, focuses intensely on the body, often in sexual or medical contexts.
Eaton demonstrates herself to be just as adept in the lyric as the prose-poem (which not all prose-poets can). In fact, the poems in “Tough Skin” are perhaps more bizarre than the time-travelling “What I Claim as my Invention” and “Rattlesnake on the bed,” which dedicates a section to each of three archetype characters, “The Midwife,” “The Candystriper” and “The Chaperone.” The lyrics in “Tough Skin” make more use of juxtaposition and truly strange imagery.
In “A perfect man,” Eaton writes, “Your drunken uncle likes to make macramé / owls and then shove planters in their mouths. / My drunken uncle likes to make / sweet love and then fall asleep.” In these poems, we see the traditional you/I construct of the lyric, but with youthfully sardonic wit, and a sense for the semi-surreal.
Tough Skin is a highly enjoyable read, full of lingual surprises and knockout lines, which are likely to elicit physical responses from their reader.
Novel by Selcuk Altun
Translated from the Turkish by Clifford Endres and
Telegram Books, August 2009
Paperback: 270pp; $13.95
Review by Christina Hall
Selcuk Altun’s novel is a page-turning adventure story, and miraculously one filled with mystery, despite the fact that every detail of the story is spoon fed to the reader via monologues. A self-proclaimed narrative of “a wild goose chase,” Many and Many A Year Ago follows retired Turkish Air Force pilot Kemal Kuray through various cross continental detective expeditions. While Kemal often feels as if a joke is being played on him through these sometimes fruitless voyages, the reader discovers early on the not-so-subtle meaning behind these quests. Through musical symbolism, Altun writes about the beautiful tragedy of endless love.
Every chapter unfolds another tale of a tragic love lost. We learn very early on of Kemal’s first true love: classical music: “I met the meaning of my life – baroque music… what I really wanted was to be a musician.” In the next chapter, following the tragic theme of unfulfilled passions, Kemal suffers a devastating plane crash and both his concentration and right hand are damaged, and he can never become the musician he always dreamed of. Although he cannot perform, music is still the heart of Kemal’s life, drifting around him in the living city, a part of his soul, and in every description: “I felt my soul glide from my body cell by cell as his Affetuoso soared into the room.” We, too, can feel the oxymoron of the overwhelming peace that affects Kemal as classical music fills his ears.
Kemal sees music everywhere, and Altun uses this musical symbolism beautifully, seamlessly. He describes traffic on the coast road as “symphonic.” At a doctor’s office with his friend, Kemal says Ali “patted his head and took his pulse like a virtuoso tuning his instrument.” A rising mist on the road becomes a “Byzantine choir rising to a crescendo in the hush after the afternoon ezan.” You can hear the music as you read, creeping up on you, tickling the back of your neck. It’s the first book I’ve ever read that feels incomplete without a soundtrack. The musical overtones are what give life to the tragic and often lonely mood of the novel. Kemal himself says, “Music shops breathed life into semi-deserted arcades.”
The sense of life and loneliness often personifies the buildings and streets of the antique cities. From the beginning, in Kemal’s poor hometown, Altun gives breath to his surroundings. The buildings are “god-fearing” and “soulless,” often “grew angry” with Kemal. The “weary” streets and “exhausted” buildings reflect Kemal’s own attitude as he wallows in his tragedies. Despite what seems like inevitable gloom, however, Altun is able to maintain a mysterious air of hope and adventure through the focus on undying love.
Every chapter is the romantic story of yet another character chronicling through fascinating and descriptive monologue how he lost the woman he loved through death, marriage, misfortune, misunderstanding. Love becomes almost synonymous with tragedy. The tragedies drive the book forward as we wait for Kemal to come to the realization that this sort of love is what life is about, this never-ending search for a love that never dies. One character tells him to “go out and look for love even if you know it’s going to end in disaster.” After all these tragedies, and despite the warning that “not every story you play a part in is going to have a prosaic ending,” we hope for a happy ending for Kemal, a love fulfilled.
Despite the melancholia ever present in Altun’s novel, Kemal’s story is a life worth reliving. Any writer, poet, romantic will envy the idleness that allows Kemal to live. To learn about others and himself through watching the people, listening to the tragic love stories, and becoming a part of the living cities. Altun’s novel is as alive as the classical music that flows through it and the love that never dies on its pages.
Poems about Washington, DC
Edited by Kim Roberts
Plan B Press, December 2009
Paperback: 160pp; $20.00
Review by Kimberly L. Becker
If anthology means a “gathering of flowers,” then Full Moon on K Street: Poems about Washington, DC is a resplendent bouquet accompanying editor Kim Roberts’s “love letter” to the City. 101 contemporary poems by current and former Washington residents honor the literary diversity of a city rich with history: “all these centuries we drag into the next century and the next,” writes Sarah Browning in “The Fifth Fact.”
Roberts states a fascination with poems that “celebrate the built environment,” and some poems delightfully subvert iconic landmarks: “the Cathedral entrance, like a page torn from / the Playboy version of Genesis” (Terence Winch, “Three Addresses”); “The angel Moroni […] aghast in the sky, / gilded and trumpeting. / How many accidents on the Beltway has he / embellished?” (Ann Darr, “Temple on the Beltway opens to the Media”); “With your cell phone, / I photograph the monument / so it comes out of your ear” (Regie Cabico, “DC August Love Songs”).
Still, many poems invoke the natural world – a “plateau of green” in a public park (Donna Denizé, “Pulpit Rock”); “yellow / chrysanthemums / lining the streets / tell a story of / power and greed” (Robert L. Giron, “Shadows Fall on Washington”). In another poem, “Family Jewels” by the late Essex Hemphill, flowers tell a far different story:
I want a cab
to take me to Southeast
so I can visit my mother.
I’m not ashamed to cross
the bridge that takes me there.
No matter where I live
or what I wear
the cabs speed by […]
My mother’s flowers are wilting
while I wait.
is cold by now […]
Flowers often signify grief (“the dizzy ways we mourn” writes Jane Alberdeston Coralín in “For Black Girls Who Don’t Know”), but “flowers cannot / mask the scent / of mourning,” according to Samuel Miranda in “Bacon’s Funeral Home, 13th Street.” Flowers may appease – “please the ghosts / cast the flowers” (Thulani Davis, “Rogue & Jar: 4/17/77,”) – yet they can never quite ease the “song for a mother unchilded” (Fred Joiner, “Song for Anacostia”).
Flowers at public memorials highlight the dual nature of Washington as both a city for tourists “who see with the eyes of pilgrimage” (Sunil Freeman, “The Cinematographer’s Dream”) and residents who might appear as a “blurred figure passing through” in tourists’ photographs (“Washington Days,” Patricia Gray). “Hush Now, Don’t Explain” by Joel Dias-Porter is set at the Vietnam Memorial:
We round the corner,
find the headstone of an era,
an eternal funeral.
Who knows if the sudden quiet
Is reverence or shame.
Roses, wreathes and carnations,
bright as fresh blood
lean against the stone […]
Slowly, the reflecting pools
of our eyes fill.
Many lines bloom with the beauty of perception – “how do we endure being full of these felt / moments: flares of brief joy, heart cut by birdsong” (Michael Gushue, “Big Ben’s Liquors”); “those eddying moments that close the day” (Sharan Strange, “Saint on the Southbound S2: Ode to a Bus Driver”); “polished fruit / picked by people / who knew what it meant / to bend” (Joseph Ross, “The Universal Artificial Limb Company”); “the tense space between a man and a woman” (Yvette Neisser Moreno, “The Slow Passage to Anacostia”); “Grief seemed a form of patience I should learn” (Richard McCann, “Banners”); “Somehow the dead never leave us” (Christina Daub, “In the Metro”) – yet in every bouquet there are showstoppers, stargazer lilies that assert their presence. “Sharp Glass” by Minnie Bruce Pratt is one: “broken bits of kaleidoscope, / or […] crystals spilled from the white throat of a geode.” “I Saw Her Rise” by Ramola D is another. A woman exits the Metro, rising from the “dusk and violet” of the stairwell, “her body leaning / forward into / that stemmed chaos of lilies, / her body working furiously / at arrival.”
There are many younger writers in the anthology, suggesting that while the literary history of Washington is proven, the future is likewise promising. Meanwhile, present readers will likely feel “extremely lucky / to have been looking there / from the right angle / to that place / at that time” (Tina Darragh, “cliché as place – rainbows”).
“Live where you are,” O.B. Hardison, Jr. enjoins us in “Pro Musica Antiqua,” even if it is where “pain sprouts at the edge of joy” (May Miller, "The Washingtonian”).
Poetry by Suzanne Frischkorn
Main Street Rag Books, March 2010
ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-226-2
Paperback: 57pp; $14.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
If I selected reading material by title and title alone, I admit I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read Girl on a Bridge by Suzanne Frischkorn. The phrase “girl on a bridge” carries a lot of overdramatic weight with it, baggage my friends and I would like to leave with our overdramatic high school selves – or at least, left with blocked-up Hollywood writers in need of a setting for their coming-of-age climax.
What’s ironic about the book’s title is that the poem sharing it is not in the least bit dramatic. In fact it uses the assumption of its cliché title to its advantage:
– And she tossed the red beret
into the Seine turning her back
on Paris forever. No she didn’t.
– And you’re a fool if you think
she would toss a perfectly good
beret ($23.95 on sale at Saks)
into a filthy river.
“No she didn’t” brings the Traveling Pants moment on the bridge to a screeching halt, and throws the poem into reverse, peeling away from the assumption and the cliché. The girl isn’t in Paris at all, just Greenwich, Connecticut, on her way to NYC (which, okay, might make the poem just a tad typical after all – but, in a surprising way).
The poems are primarily about girls and women – some on bridges, some not, but all existing in tumultuous lives, making decisions that would normally be frowned upon, if anyone thought to take notice. Although the characters and their stories occasionally approach exhaustion, Frischkorn's writing keeps them relevant, adopting specialized forms (like the abridged list in “Dick and Jane Get Divorced: an Index”) or, just writing well.
Which is the main thing: poor title or no, Girl on a Bridge is full of good poetry.
Fiction by Boris Pintar
Translated from the Slovene by Rawley Grau
Talisman House, December 2009
Paperback: 138pp; $17.95
Review by Laura Pryor
Boris Pintar’s Family Parables is not light reading. Don’t take it with you to the beach or on the airplane. The stories, most of them dark and sinister, need your full, undivided attention. And even then, you may find yourself asking: what just happened?
It’s not that Pintar’s prose is difficult to read. Translated from the Slovene, Pintar’s writing flows easily. Occasional allusions to Slovenian figures and legends are glossed in the back of the book by the translator. Yet Pintar seems to enjoy being mysterious, keeping the reader wondering (does he really mean what I think he means?). He also makes use of sudden, shocking statements that jolt the reader awake. For instance, here’s a passage from the story, “An Open Society,” in which the narrator describes the memorial service for his deceased mother:
At least she’s no longer suffering. She’s in a better place. To everything there is a season. . . Thus the survivors cheer up those who have come to cheer them up, and try to create the feeling of a birth taking place. The heavenly birth of our mother. We sold her brain to science; in this way Mother lives on.
“We sold her brain to science” is like a slap in the face, especially in the context of the story (his mother is described as a woman entirely subservient to her husband, without any opinions or life of her own – not someone who had any interest in science, or whose brain would merit great scrutiny).
Most of the stories feature homosexuality; often characters view homosexuality as something that can be “corrected” or “cured.” One odd recurrent theme is that of women scientists trying to manipulate the sexuality of homosexual men through scientific methods. In the novella “Family Parables,” Magda falls for Adam, a homosexual man “who was later heterosexualized through a demanding course of therapy” by her psychologist sister Ana. Magda and Adam marry and have children, though Adam continues to have homosexual affairs. The cold and manipulative Ana (who is extremely similar to the main character in an earlier story, “The Symposium”) persuades Magda to let her “take charge of the children’s sexual development.”
Ana somehow directs Adam’s sex life as well, monitoring and manipulating his every move. Pintar is vague as to how she accomplishes this, and what exactly she is doing; there are also references to “operations” performed on Madga’s son Sebastijan, after his leg is broken in an accident, but we get the feeling these operations have little to do with correcting his leg. Ana is concerned that Sebastijan may become homosexual as well, which of course, must be “corrected.” Pintar gives us Ana’s philosophy: “In children, the treatment must start before the disease develops if one is to avoid any seasonal outbreaks later.”
As you can probably surmise from these descriptions, Pintar’s tales are about as far from heartwarming as you can get. They’re chilling, perverse, and sometimes downright unpleasant (don’t read the story “Blossoms of Autumn” too soon after a meal). But they’re also fascinating, unpredictable, and thought provoking. When you get through reading Family Parables, you won’t say, “That reminded me of . . .” Pintar is definitely one of a kind.
Novel by Carol Sammy
Heinemann, January 2010
Review by Alex Myers
Carol Sammy’s debut novel, Dilemmas of Deokie, captures the spirit and culture of Trinidad through the story of the young woman, Deokie. Though Deokie is too old for this novel to properly be termed a coming-of-age story, it is certainly the tale of a coming-of-self. Gradually, over the course of the novel’s anecdotes and scenes, the character and quandary of Deokie emerges: a young woman who loves her country and wants to make it better, yet feels helpless to do so.
The strength of the novel rests in its ability to evoke place and setting. Sammy, who grew up in Trinidad, has a masterful knack for capturing the dialect of the region. She does so in a manner that feels authentic rather than condescending, as when one character criticizes Deokie for holding herself aloof from a party: “Like you’s a Trinadad tourist, or what. Like you don’t have time for we kind o’ thing. Is here you living, family. You can’t turn up your nose at it. This is what we is all about. Loosen up yourself li’l bit, you not better than anybody else here.” The speech, honest and patient, goes a long way in creating character in the book.
So, too, does the place itself. From the opening pages, which describe the houses and social strata of Trinidad, it is clear that the island is going to play a huge role in the novel. Deokie lives in a rural area, though not too remote, and her world is filled with colorful neighbors, dense jungles, and brothers who catch and try to tame wild creatures. Into this distant setting, the present-day intrudes in strange ways: Lydia, a girl-friend of Deokie’s, has an email relationship with an American man that pulls her away from the island; characters take out cell phones to make calls; and Deokie’s mother at one point says, “‘You don’t see how this weather gone crazy?’ Mrs. Ramoutar asked him in friendly consternation. ‘Global warming,’ she declared miscellaneously.” At times, these pieces feel like interruptions into an otherwise timeless world, a reminder to the reader that technology and Western culture have made deep inroads in most places.
The plot does not manage to center around one conflict, but, as the title promises, a series of dilemmas. Much of what Deokie faces are the problems of any young woman in any place, and so, when her epiphany comes, her desire to “fly off to a place where life could be grand, was not a situation one witnessed every day,” it feels rather flat, like the novel hasn’t built up to anything new. Her revelation that “it was her duty to contribute to her society in a way that was wholesome and meaningful, but she must find the way first,” emerges as less than earth-shattering and certainly less than unique.
The rewards of this novel are not to be found in its main plot-lines, but in the sub-plots and details. Sammy’s writing is full of subtle humor, as when an overweight neighbor laments the current skimpy fashions, the “‘thin piece o’ string women calling costume nowadays. You could imagine me jumping up in that? Like you want all o’ Trinidad to suffer seizure or what.’” Or the delightful character of Cornbird, an aimless young man who walks with “long, jaunty, half-crazy strides, his floppy arms swinging.” There are many such lovely pockets of description, like the men who “swigged back the rum as they played, the lighted cigarettes protruding between their fingers as they handled their cards with masculine delicacy.” At many turns, Sammy finds just the right words to capture a defining image.
Overall, Dilemmas of Deokie is filled with too much overt telling and not enough tension to make the main arc of the story captivating. But the novel is otherwise rich – in its dialogue, in its setting, in its ability to create character. For those not acquainted with the culture of Trinidad, this is certainly a book to check out.
Selected poems by Alfonsina Storni
Translated from the Spanish by Orlando Ricardo Menes
Paperback: 197pp; $19.00
Review by Lisa Dolensky
I recently found myself submerged in unexplored waters discovering the selected and celebrated works of the late Argentine poet, Alfonsina Storni. My Heart Flooded With Water is a captivating collection of translations from Spanish to English by Orlando Ricardo Menes. In fact, Menes practically makes his own artistry appear as effortless as floating. I especially enjoyed the companion reading format, i.e. Spanish text of each poem on the left and the translated English version on the right.
Storni was prolific and her feminist poetry was, and still is, very empowering. One of my favorite pieces is “I Want.” The essence of this short poem expresses the vulnerability of going back to a simpler, pure time without self-consciousness. Ironically, her candor, wisdom and word choice reflects an inner strength while contemplating surrender.
Despite more than 70 years passing since she lived, Storni’s gift for refreshing the senses with thought provoking imagery lives on. She’s a master of surprise from the playful shapes in “Zoo Clouds” to the comparison of a child’s voice to a watered violoncello in “Beach.” There’s a particular line in “Two Words” that seems almost autobiographical in terms of Storni’s longevity, talent and ability to renew readers time and again with: “Words so old they are new.” The spiritual tones and water themes throughout personally reminded me of an old hymn, “Come to the water.” So I encourage you to dive into this treasure trove read during the summer. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Poetry by Matt Jasper
BlazeVOX [books], August 2009
Paperback: 81pp; $16.00
Review by Christine Kanownik
The first poem in Matt Jasper’s Moth Moon is one of the best poems I’ve read recently. It is called “Flight” and it describes two people watching a group of black birds fly towards the moon. There is a shift in the last two lines with the fear that “all of the light in the world will be blotted out forever.” This poem is four lines long and complete and moving. I even enjoyed the next few poems in the book as well; however, I detected an unsettling trend in the second half of the book.
In the poem “Fusillade” a pregnant girl is blown up “until enough of her spatters down.” The next poem is called “Venus at the Shell Station” and it describes a beautiful pregnant woman “bulging / with my seed.” The next string of poems continues this narrative thread. The pregnant woman has the baby and at least one other. Then she abandons her family and they all seem lost without each other. The poems and the emotions are raw. Jasper is a talented poet and his pain echoes through the reader. He quickly changes subjects to the more light-hearted “The Tip of the Iceberg,” where he smugly transcribes the ramblings of a mentally unstable love interest.
Jasper has a poetic alter ego: a sentient dog that shows up in a couple of poems. This dog is surly and vindictive and buries a group of bridesmaids that “miscarried twins / of themselves” at the dog’s own aborted wedding. To be fair, no bodies or body parts are stable in Jasper’s world. Arms float away from the bodies they are attached to and hands remove themselves so they can bury the arm in a shallow grave. I merely find some of it harder to swallow. “Proposal for a Third Wife” seems to be a playful exercise in misogyny where the speaker traps his new wife and humiliates her in a variety of ways. Of course, Jasper does not want to kill pregnant women and of course this poem is in jest. But there is a cruelty directed specifically towards women that is problematic at best.