NewPages Book Reviews

March 1, 2010

The Last 4 Things :: The Abyss of Human Illusion :: Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty :: Drag the Darkness Down :: An Unfinished Score :: How to Be Inappropriate :: Tourist at a Miracle :: Angel and Apostle :: No Blues This Raucous Song :: Meet Me under the Ceiba :: Silverstein and Me :: Mr. Worthington's Beautiful Experiments of Splashes :: Slaves to Do These Things :: Hudson River Haiku

The Last 4 Things coverThe Last 4 Things

Poetry by Kate Greenstreet

Ahsahta Press, September 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1934103098

Paperback: 104pp; $19.00

Review by Dan Magers

Kate Greenstreet’s deeply elegiac second full-length poetry book The Last 4 Things is an expansive meditation on a life’s moments and memories flashing before one’s eyes, but very slowly, each one lingering. The tone, wounded without being outraged, urgent but not desperate, gives the sense that what is being described is from the deep past. Some of it may be, but much of it is reflection also of how life should be lived, present tense. Descriptions are by turns elemental (“We worshipped these names as the names of our gods”) and domestic (“because we had the rakes, / we had to stop every little while and / do some raking.”). While the speaker and the characters drifting through the poems are artistic, they are portrayed also as earnest and industrious. Passages feel like they are pulled from black and white snapshots, yellowed pieces of paper, American rural life.

The Last 4 Things is two long poems – the title poem, which is over fifty pages long, and “56 Days,” a sequence of prose poems, about thirty pages in length. The formal irregularity of the poems themselves slow the pace, giving each utterance a measure of gravity. The book opens with the idea that normal ways of life suddenly feel chocked with portent. That existence is suddenly felt to be more precarious.

To leave home without making the bed,
it’s like building a house of cards.
You have to know what you’re doing.
Or be lucky. Or just very quiet.

Her first book case sensitive is by turns a noirish woman-on-the run account; family memoir; and forensic investigation. Her chapbook This is Why I Hurt You, released after her first book and before her second, scrutinizes the usefulness of art and lays bare the consequences of using one’s life as fodder for art – how it leaves you and the people you love vulnerable.

As in her earlier work, a lot of attention is given to art, but unobtrusively, whether detailing the joy of making (“We did some dyeing on my birthday / and took apart some slacks / and skirts from Goodwill, for the wool.”) or how it influences and focuses perception (“She considers a field. The lie the camera tells about that moment is a better reminder than the memory of the moment could have been.”). There is some unease in the line “A girl who is nine plays a nine-year-old girl,” because it suggests the poet recognizes that art has become the default mode for articulating emotion and desire, that everything is a mediated experience.

As “The Last 4 Things” progresses and throughout “56 Days,” there is a greater prevalence of religious imagery. Indeed, the opening canto riffs on St. Paul’s conversion: “The first leaves fell this morning / (my own eyes)”. Words like “mortal,” “proverbs,” “fate,” and “alms” begin to enter into the work. Unlike with the references to art, there is a lack of skepticism that is given to lines like:

One, effort to restrain evil.
Two, effort to abandon evil.
Three, effort to develop good.
Four, effort to maintain good.

which may suggest, ironically maybe, that in the world of these poems, religion is of an order lower than art. Religious utterances sometimes have an overheard feel in the poem, “Let us know our end. Let us know our end and the number of our days. This is how he talks to me, a tree losing its leaves.” For Greenstreet, religion may be emptied of its value as truth, but not its literary beauty, which the poet subtly and forcefully uses the way a painter would use a certain color to evoke a response.

Fissures between the lines and cantos give the book a non-narrative quality that should be familiar to the reader of contemporary experimental poetry. While meaning sometimes breaks down, the plaintive tone is always consistent, like hearing someone’s voice through a wall in another room without understanding every word that is said. One gets a sense throughout of the speaker remembering back to a time of crisis. The implication being that the crisis was not in the end fatal, but there being an indelible memory of how it made the speaker act and feel at the time.

The book comes with a DVD. On it, Greenstreet recites selections from the poems over footage of exteriors: trees, chimneys, trains and landscapes. If you have heard Greenstreet read out loud, you know it is worth the price of admission to have a recording of her reading her work.

 

The Abyss of Human Illusion coverThe Abyss of Human Illusion

Fiction by Gilbert Sorrentino

Coffee House Press, February 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-233-9

Paperback: 144pp; $14.95

Review by Alex Myers

The Abyss of Human Illusion is a novel only in the postmodern sense, consisting as it does of fifty short narratives. Though the prose in terms of style and diction is traditional, the form challenges literary standards; the fifty pieces progress in size from approximately 130 to 1300 words over the course of the novel, as if the author had planted some verbal seed early on that germinates and sprouts with each successive page. The composition and editorial process is also non-traditional, as Gilbert Sorrentino passed away before fully finishing the novel and his son, Christopher Sorrentino, finished the work for him. Christopher’s preface illuminates not only this particular novel, but his father’s writing process in general, serving as a fitting tribute to a notable career.

Sorrentino’s writing is marked by exquisite, and exquisitely unexpected, turns of phrase, such as when he describes mortar rounds tracking an army squad “across a valley floor with relentless, elegant, fussy precision.” His descriptions seem so right and so off-putting at the same instant. Similarly, his premises in some of the pieces are stunning for their ability to appear both familiar and impossible. For instance, the friend who says “that when he opened the paper each morning he would do so in the absurd yet overwhelming hope – perhaps even belief – that he’d come across a story in which he would figure as somebody, as anybody at all, as a name in the newspaper. He wanted, he said, to read some surprising news about himself.” At its best, Sorrentino’s prose weds the real with the fantastic, holding up some obscure facet of humanity to the light.

Little holds the fifty narratives together except the title. Each piece probes a different human illusion: the author who has lost the ability to write, the painter who believes his talent is exceptional, the newly-weds who think their love is forever. Sorrentino enters the world of the “Evangelical Christian, complete with closed eyes, raised arms, enraptured visage and a well-burnished hatred of Satan….who coveted his friend’s wife.” These characters embody dichotomies, the uncomfortable edges that allow for no relief, so that ultimately, the best they can realize is “it’s going to be a nice day, but not a portent of days to come.”

But life looked at through Sorrentino’s lens is not as bleak as the preceding quote might suggest. He finds a way to look with candor, if not humor, at some of the foibles and illusions that humans hold dear. His volume is most successful on this score when he adopts an almost conspiratorial tone, of the reader as trusted confidant. For instance, he begins one narrative with, “more stories than we care to acknowledge are poignant yet wholly banal and perhaps those that we insist on as poignant are not that at all, but are, rather, bathetic, sentimental, saccharine, or, even more dreadful, creakingly ‘worldly.’ Perhaps this one fits the mold, if it can be called a story.” Sorrentino’s habit of breaking the story’s fourth wall, as it were, draws the reader into pieces that would otherwise be disarming or even alarming.

However, I found the most effective and compelling section of this volume – and here I must admit my bias towards the obscure, towards the footnotes of life – to be the “Commentaries” section included at the very end. Here, certain turns of phrase are illuminated. For instance, a bottle of French dressing that appears in one of the narratives is given its own gloss: “no one has ever discovered why this dressing, with its odd tang of sugary vinegar, was and is called ‘French.’” Other comments are simply quirky, filling in that the peanut butter a character eats in one scene is “the A&P’s own brand.” Throughout these little notes, I kept laughing aloud, delighted by what Sorrentino had selected to expose and expand. The final section is a quick glimpse into the profound world behind each of the very brief narratives.

Those looking for a typical novel experience with sequence, plot, and character would do better to find another volume. But for any reader who likes to explore form, who is willing to forge connections and can handle fragmentation, Sorrentino’s final work will offer delightful possibilities, exposing both the darker and the lighter sides of the human capacity for illusion.

 

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty coverUnincorporated Persons
in the Late Honda Dynasty

Poetry by Tony Hoagland

Graywolf Press, February 2010

ISBN-10: 1555975496

ISBN-13: 978-1555975494

Paperback: 100pp; $15.00

Review by Larry O. Dean

One lingering aesthetic argument posits that popular culture has no place in poetry – that by adding references to current movies, TV shows, or common-day jargon – to things as disposable as Styrofoam or SpongeBob – the poetry itself runs a risk of becoming outdated, or perhaps worse, inevitably obscure. But what ultimately matters is how skillfully the poet chooses to use his or her referents. Tony Hoagland is particularly adept at incorporating pop culture into his poems. Like one of those jugglers who keeps their audience on edge by tossing knives into the air, Hoagland regularly risks injury as well as insult, often with dazzling results. Even the less successful of Hoagland's poems are better than average; what they might lack in verbal oomph they make up for in readability, and what they all evince is a sincerity of emotion and purpose that is as rare in modern literature as it is thoughtful.

Hoagland’s fourth full-length collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty doesn’t divert from his usual formulations. (If it ain't broke, don't fix it.) Few poems exceed a single page; stanzas from one to five lines are the norm; and yes, popular culture looms large in the design. Perhaps the most blatant example of the latter is “Poor Britney Spears.” If ever there was a title to scare off the high society snobs, this is it. However, Hoagland’s poetry – and arguably, his entire raison d’être – is based on a kind of prestidigitation, where the author draws your attention to one thing while working his discreet magic to create an unexpected end result. “Poor Britney Spears” begins, mock-frankly apologetic:

is not the beginning of a sentence
you hear often uttered in my household.
If she wants to make a career comeback
so her agent gets a spot on the MTV award show
but she can’t lose the weight beforehand
so looks a little chubby in a spangled bikini
before millions of fanged, spiteful fans and enemies
and gets a little drunk beforehand
so misses a step in the dance routine,
making her look, one critic says,
like “a comatose piglet,”
well, it wasn’t by accident, was it?
That she wandered into the late-twentieth-century glitterati party
of striptease American celebrity?

Hoagland primes his poem's readers for an extended junk culture backhand, starting with his own admission that any professed pity for the titular pop tart is not often uttered on his turf. Yet after the first five stanzas comes the patented Hoagland turn – a shifting away from the expected direction, and down a different path:

First we made her into an object of desire,
then into an object of contempt,
now we want to turn her into an object of compassion?
Are we sure we know what the hell we’re doing?

What’s great is how Hoagland takes the whole issue of objectification, and its inevitable sociological/sexual baggage, and plops it onto our plates. Do we know what the hell we’re doing? Why vent either our fantasies or our frustrations over poor Britney Spears? Hoagland is that rare writer who effectively shudders at Spears's cultural cache, yet also genuinely feels a fatherly compassion for her wobbly place in the universe – as well as defensiveness against the indifferent powers that put her there – a split-personality that is evinced in the poem's closing stanzas:

with one of my voices I shout, “Jump! Jump, you little whore!”
With another I say,
in a quiet way that turns down the lights,
“Put on some clothes and go home, Sweetheart.”

Other motifs occur across Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty's three sections: aesthetics (“Description,” “Hard Rain,” “Jazz”), race (“Expensive Hotel,” “Hinge,” “Foghorn,” “The Story of White People”), family (“My Father’s Vocabulary,” “Sentimental Education”), desire (“Romantic Moment,” “Love,” “Visitation,” “Not Renouncing”), consumerism (“Food Court,” “Big Grab,” “Plastic,” “At the Galleria”), and death (“Confinement,” “The Story of the Father,” “Rhythm and Blues”). But these are randomly applied modes of organization – many of these poems are thematically cross-pollinated, resisting easy categorization, and that complexity makes reading them a treat for both heart and mind.

Tellingly, Hoagland’s unostentatious titles – such as “Poor Britney Spears” – are just the tip of the iceberg, with much more to discover if you’re willing to dive beneath the waterline; and once you do take that plunge, you're rewarded with playful language that is complex without being stodgy, smart, maybe even smart-ass at times, but never pejorative or condescending.

 

Drag the Darkness Down coverDrag the Darkness Down

Novel by Matt Baker

No Record Press, July 2009

ISBN-10: 0-9789808-9-1

ISBN-13: 978-0-9789808-9-4

Paperback: 212pp; $10.00

Review by Keith Meatto

Odom Shiloh is not the most successful or ambitious guy. He’s pushing 40, his second marriage is on the rocks, and he works as an Assistant to the Assistant Coach for a miserable high school football team. And life only gets worse when Odom runs over a French bicyclist and, inexplicably, flees the scene of the crime.

So it comes as a “wholesome distraction” for Odom when his suicidal sister Bridget, a.k.a. Birdshit, runs away with her new boyfriend. Determined to find them, Odom hits the road with a private investigator named Blakey Flake, who seems more focused on his next cigarette than on cracking the case. As the duo bumbles through Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, their journey becomes an existential quest that forces Odom to confront his past. Ultimately, Drag the Darkness Down deals with how childhood experiences shape our lives, as well as the challenges of making adult choices.

Beyond the zaniness of this road trip meets hard-boiled detective story, Matt Baker’s debut novel is a portrait of a man in pain. Odom is a loner, a misfit in midlife crisis. He wants to save his sister from her demons, but needs to save himself. He narrates with a cool detachment that ignores or downplays the damage in his soul. In a typical moment of reflection, he compares his first and second wives:

I think I really like Brianna because she doesn’t ask too many questions about my daddy or what my family does or why whenever I quit a job I don’t sweat it. Why sometimes I sit on the couch for days on end staring out the window or go a week without uttering a single word. Mona picked up on those things; she knew there was something I wasn’t telling her. I promised to tell her. But I never did.

Similarly, Odom keeps secret the conspiracy theories he inherited from his father, a world of black helicopters, crime syndicates, and disdain for the U.S. government, which he calls “Red, White and Blue, Inc.”

While Odom tamps down his feelings, his sidekick never fails to speak his mind. Blakey cracks jokes, picks fights with cops and preachers, and pontificates on everyone from Spinoza to Oprah Winfrey. Along the way, he takes verbal target practice at such pillars of American culture as television, evangelism and Wal-Mart.

The novel gets a lot of mileage from the conflicts between the two characters and their lifestyles. Odom abstains from cigarettes, booze and sex. Blakey lives for them. Odom wants to plan every aspect of the hunt for his sister. Blakey has more unorthodox methods. Yet despite their differences, the two men are allies. In this way, they seem like updated, middle-aged versions of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the sensitive wallflower and the charismatic rebel.

Overall, Drag the Darkness Down is a fun ride. Baker succeeds at capturing the energy of the odyssey and builds suspense as the mystery unfolds. Meanwhile, the playfulness of the dialogue, with “engagement rings the size of Blow Pops” and characters as “dumb as a roll of nickels,” balances the seriousness of the storyline.

At times, however, the novel loses steam or slips into heavy-handedness, particularly during the climactic revelation. And given the twists and turns of Odom’s journey, the briskness and conventionality of the resolution may come as a letdown.

Still, there is plenty here to keep the reader engaged. Baker, who was born in Indiana, raised in Kansas and now lives in Arkansas, writes with grace about the charm and the bleakness of Middle America. He has a knack for finding comedy in tragedy and vice versa. Above all, he establishes sympathy for his damaged characters. They may never fully heal, but they endure, and sometimes they even fight back.

 

An Unfinished Score coverAn Unfinished Score

Novel by Elise Blackwell

Unbridled Books, April 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-936071-66-1

Hardcover: 272pp; $24.95

Review by Sara C. Rauch

An Unfinished Score is not a novel to get lost in. It is a tough novel, well-written, with major and minor rhythms coursing through it to carry the plot. It is broad and narrow at the same time. It is an exploration of grief, the history of music, being an artist, the concept of hearing, and the emotional life of a woman torn between her every day and a fantasy world.

The novel quickly establishes its rhythm, starting from the first two lines “She hears the words on the radio. It is the radio that announces her lover’s death.” At times stark, at times labyrinthine, Blackwell’s prose works like a symphony – some lines seem purposefully disharmonic, as if to add to the uncomfortable, yet familiar, struggle that the protagonist, Suzanne, goes through over the course of the book.

By the end of the first chapter, it is more than apparent that the world this novel inhabits is not typical. Suzanne and her husband, Ben, share a home with Suzanne’s best friend, Petra, and Petra’s young daughter, Adele. Adele is deaf, and Suzanne, Petra, and Ben are all musicians (viola, violin, and cello, respectively). By the end of the first scene of the novel, after Suzanne learns of her lover’s death, and the quartet share a relatively uneventful dinner, the reader can cut the tension within their household with a knife.

An Unfinished Score begins slowly, exploring the terrain of Suzanne’s grief-stricken mind, as she processes the death of her lover, Alex. Alex, a well-known conductor with whom Suzanne has been having an affair for four years, dominates Suzanne’s mind and motivation for much of the novel. She holds close, perhaps too close, her memories of him, which in turn impairs her ability to see and her judgment. Throughout the novel, she is moving through a world that she never fully interacts with: “Suzanne does not remember the dream, yet waking feels like escaping someone else’s brain, as though she’s been imprisoned in another head and is running down a foreign tongue, panicked to breathe fresh air before she is closed in forever.”

The first section of the book delves deeply into her psyche, moving nonlinearly through Suzanne’s life: her poor childhood, her mother’s struggles to support her, her father’s emotional abandonment of the family, her time as a music student, meeting Petra, meeting and marrying Ben, falling in love with Alex. Some parts of the first section meander in an unfocused way, forcing the reader to wonder where to story will go.

The second section opens with Suzanne meeting Alex’s widow, Olivia, a well-bred and formidable character with revenge to enact on the woman who almost stole her husband. From here, the story becomes a vortex, pulling the reader in, sometimes moving at great speed and disorienting the reader, other times moving carefully over the landscape of creativity, love, heartbreak, loss, and ultimately coming to a crescendo of truth.

Though Suzanne dominates the story, the other characters are well-drawn. Petra, an “old-fashioned Swedish beauty” provides comic relief, and a subtle edge to the story. She feels like she cannot raise Adele alone, and because of this, distances herself from her daughter, leaving Suzanne to stand in as the mother figure. Adele’s quiet presence, and the looming possibility of her receiving cochlear implants, constantly evokes the concept of what hearing is. Her frustration at not being able to “hear” the music her mother and Suzanne play is artfully rendered. In one scene, Suzanne and Petra bring Adele to a concert of Ben’s, and Suzanne watches Adele’s reaction “A deaf child at a concert many adults couldn’t sit through, she looks not bored, but rapt. Her chest rises and falls slowly with her deep breathing, and her eyes open fully to take in the darkened scene”; as the concert progresses, “Adele is smiling and indeed looks to Suzanne as though she, too, is suffused by the music she cannot hear.” As for Ben, his presence is more felt than known, and could be likened to an absence as well. He is both there, and not there.

The music theme of the novel certainly lends to its success, but at some points, it also seems to hold it back. Petra’s endless viola jokes, Suzanne’s reliving of each concert hall and concert she sat through with Alex, the histories of composers woven throughout – these details sometimes distract from the actual story. A reader with no concept of orchestration, composition, or music theory might find themselves confused by the references.

An Unfinished Score is an emotional novel. It is a book that asks for sympathy and contemplation. Exploring the complexity of classical music, the lives that create and perform it, and nothing less complicated than the inner workings of the human heart, the book is ultimately an orchestra of its own, beautifully composed and richly textured.

 

How to Be Inappropriate coverHow to Be Inappropriate

Essays by Daniel Nester

Soft Skull Press, October 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1593762537

Paperback: 260pp; $14.95

Review by Steve Caratzas

“All my life I have acted wrongly, very wrongly,” Nester opens this collection, threatening us with a voice that suggests a morose combination of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe. The tone is confessional, and not a little self-hating, and perfect. For Daniel Nester is the rarest of humorous essayists: he’s actually funny. He also happens to be a fine poet, and a keen authority on popular music, and his writing in How to Be Inappropriate radiates the kind of intelligence and insight that inspires a reader to conduct his own self-examination vis-a-vis inappropriateness.

The book is something of a Nester’s greatest hits, containing various pieces written over the years (I’ve personally come across “Revising the Footlicker Story” at least thrice now), each concerned with the thematic question: Just how far is too far? Less of a How To and more of a How Did, in How to Be Inappropriate Nester frequently places himself at the epicenter of that question by exploring the boundaries of the inappropriate via his own participation in the oddest of situations.

Nester bravely includes the flinch-inducing tale of the author arriving in New York City to become a writer and finding himself living next door to the college girlfriend he frequently came to blows with. There’s a hilarious attempt to place a curse on a creepy dog owner who refuses to clean up after his pony-sized canine on the mean streets of hipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Elsewhere Nester takes on The Catcher in the Rye, reimagining Holden Caulfield as a non-English speaker, and revises the infamous NPR interview of Kiss’s Gene Simmons, substituting the spoutings of a chat-bot for Simmons’ dialogue – to eerily similar effect.

“I tell these stories to explain why people stop liking me,” is how Nester concludes the introductory essay, “Notes Toward a Definition of the Inappropriate: An Apologia….” Which is a laugh in itself, because coming as it does but three pages into the book, Nester has already won his reader over with a refreshing brand of archness that is never cloying and always very likable.

 

Tourist at a Miracle coverTourist at a Miracle

Poetry by Mark Statman

Hanging Loose Press, January 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1934909164

Paperback: 88pp; $18.00

Review by John Findura

Mark Statman’s first collection of poetry, Tourist at a Miracle, is an enjoyable read filled with Frank O’Hara-ish observations of the everyday, or perhaps more like Bukowski sans booze and racetracks with a little James Schuyler thrown in. Statman’s book is filled with poems that are not to be feared, but instead quench a thirst for big ideas stated simply, that anyone can understand and ultimately use.

Statman uses a pared down language that somehow accentuates the enormity of his subjects, from family to New York City itself. In “A Thousand Words” he writes:

someone asked will you bring me
a meteorite stone from Las Vegas?
I said,
but I’m not going to Las Vegas
but if you do
you can find them everywhere

Like the meteorite stones, seemingly easy lines are found throughout, but when viewed closer they share a sense of being deeper than first thought. With the above lines, for instance, are the last two lines spoken by the “someone” or the poem’s speaker? Depending on the view it changes up not just the meaning, but has repercussions that bounce around for the rest of the poem. Later we find:

I arrived in Las Vegas
(…)
the meteorite rocks
crumbled in my hands
each time I picked one up
it fell away

Statman uses enjambment and stanza breaks (or the lack thereof) to great effect, letting ideas run into each other, creating a small disharmony in an otherwise easy flowing style. In “The Bad Screenwriter” we find “it wasn’t who you’d been / ever wanted to be” crashing into each other like trains on the same track.

Statman’s speaker is extraordinarily human and relatable, not to mention likeable, giving these poems more weight they might otherwise appear to have. It is the mundane day-to-day things that make us who we are, and ultimately end up being the most important. Referring to the song “Those Were the Days” in “Music Central,” Statman writes:

It’s a song from when
I was young
When really there weren’t any days
To remember or regret
The way there are now

We all have a natural tendency to regret, but Tourist at a Miracle leaves us with plenty to remember.

 

Angel and Apostle coverAngel and Apostle

Novel by Deborah Noyes

Unbridled Books, October 2006

ISBN-13: 978-1-932961-29-4

Paperback: 204pp; $14.95

Review by Alex Myers

This debut novel from Deborah Noyes is a must for any fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne closes his story with Hester Prynne returning to New England’s shores while her daughter, Pearl, remains overseas, with wealth and a child of her own. It is from this moment of possibility that Noyes undertakes her own mission, to remove the ambiguity about Pearl’s character and explore the actuality of that closing scene.

Noyes starts within the time-frame of The Scarlet Letter, picking up the story when Pearl is child living with her mother on the outskirts of Boston. While much in the novel hews to Hawthorne’s romance – the devilish doctor, the saintly minister, the spurned adulteress, and the pixie-like Pearl – within the space of the preface, it is made clear that the author will turn the original story inside out. Thus, while Pearl is still a wild girl who can feel “defiance build in me like the March wind” and Hester is a “bloodless figure carved with infamy,” the secrets that drive the original – the hidden sin of the minister and Hester’s corresponding silence – are absent from this narrative.

Though it takes a while, Hester eventually recedes from Noyes’s story and Pearl emerges as the main character. And this is the moment where the novel truly becomes Noyes’ own creation and not just a reimagining of another author’s work. As Pearl develops her own life in England, becoming, to her astonishment, “a lady – with four new gowns, none made by my hands or mother’s,” so too does Angel and Apostle acquire life and pace of its own, freed from its mother-text. By the middle of the book, Pearl’s own loves, passions, and sins determine the pace and drama.

Noyes does a wonderful job with the time-period. I was taken in almost instantly by the early description of a servant who is cleaning a chimney by means of lowering a goose, tethered to a rope: “the goose echoed in the chimney, honking and flapping inside the brick well,” which is then dropped and quickly shooed from the house, “out waddled the disoriented animal, black and indignant, trailing a soiled rope from its ankle.” The novel sparkles with details such as this that bring the reality of daily life, the setting, and the characters to life. Noyes anchors the narrative with actual history, such as the great London fire of 1666 and reference to the death of Cromwell, among other characters; she has done her research well, yet it does not slow down or interfere with the narrative.

As a long-time admirer of The Scarlet Letter, I was keen to read Noyes’ volume to see if her vision of Pearl’s life accorded with my own. I had always pictured Pearl happy, content, able to be the woman that her mother was not. Noyes provides no such fairy tale conclusion, however, and I was at first disappointed with the darkness that continues to envelop her character. Yet, Noyes does offer some salvation, as Pearl returns to her native New England wilderness with the manuscripts of her story in hand as well as her mother’s “red letter,” which she resolves to “bring…ashore at Salem Town…keep it close…and use it well and often.” In short, she is sowing the seeds of her own literary future and in that there is much hope.

Indeed, as rich as the characters, the setting, and the drama of Noyes’s novel are, it is not a volume that exists solely to tell a story. In Angel and Apostle, Noyes makes a commentary on fiction, on what is the truth, and whether it resides in the events that happened, the memories that hold them, or the emotions that resonate for years. Pearl herself, after years of living in between the real and imagined, declares herself “impatient…weary of fiction,” yet she is also the one who ultimately resolves that the “half-familiar” story of her own life “was neither truth nor a lie.” This is the middle ground that Noyes stakes out in her vision and re-envisioning of this classic novel. In taking on a classic work of fiction, she is challenging what it means for a story to be true, to have a life of its own. And though I wonder whether Hawthorne would appreciate this fate for his “wild child” Pearl, modern readers would do well to pick up this volume and enjoy the rich world Noyes creates.

 

No Blues This Raucous Song coverNo Blues This Raucous Song

Poetry by Lynn Wagner

Slapering Hol Press, December 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1-9820626-2-3

Chapbook: 32pp; $12.00

Review by Sara C. Rauch

I don’t usually fall in love with a book before I’ve even opened its cover. But it just happened with Lynn Wagner’s chapbook, No Blues This Raucous Song. This is a jewel of a collection – albeit a tiny one. From the deep red cover, to the gold and ivory pages, to the crisp letters and evocative poetry inside, every element of this collection is beguiling.

As the title hints, Wagner’s poetry is musical. Populated by jazz musicians, dead female poets, lepidopterists and circus performers, each poem sings. The language here is taut, seductive, imploring.

One of my favorites, “Ninety-eight Degrees,” begins, “My tongue an iris bent low to your body, / stem whitening in the crease. / To be broken like that, having // green bleed away so that by June / the flower’s gone, succumbed / to summer heat, long-sleeved,” and moves through the hazy heat of summer with such despair, such passion, summoning Billie Holiday’s voice, God, the moon.

Wagner’s poems are funny, like “My ex-lover comes back into my life” which compares an ex-lover to a stray dog; and they are sexy, like “So What” (presumably a take on the famous Miles David tune) that pulses, “Playing // around the woman’s thigh / or lips // brushed any which way // slow.” Despite its size, No Blues This Raucous Song is filled to the brim with beauty and heartache and rhythm – the very things that make poetry so enjoyable. Wagner’s is not a complicated aesthetic, but she captures each moment with expert precision. Her poetry conveys desire so perfectly that the heat fairly rises from the page. The opening poem, “Unjust Spring,” turns bunches of flowers into objects of worship:

The irises
in the flower man’s white plastic bucket
shrivel and frill. They miss Costa Rica and are all bruised tongue.
Even the daffodils disappoint – their deep trumpets
soundless, fiery stigma and anthers
pining for honeybees. There is never enough.

It’s true, there is never enough, especially where chapbooks are concerned; they are such a tease – an amuse bouche in the world of poetry. Nonetheless, No Blues This Raucous Song, in all its tactile, rich, rhythmic glory, beckons to be savored.

 

Meet Me under the Ceiba coverMeet Me under the Ceiba

Novel by Silvio Sirias

Arte Publico Press, September 2009

ISBN-10: 1558855920

ISBN-13: 978-1558855922

Paperback; 240pp; $15.95

Review by Elizabeth Townsend

This was a book where the narrator expressly stated that he wanted to tell the story of the last moments of Adela Rugama’s life. For some reason I had it in my head that this was going to be a murder mystery and was a bit surprised when I found out it wasn’t. So within the first couple of chapters the reader knows Adela Rugama is dead, knows who did it, and also has a vague idea of the reason behind her murder. Even though there was no mystery to figure out, the book kept my attention. I was impressed with the way a seemingly simple story about a woman who was murdered kept me reading longer than I intended.

Meet Me under the Ceiba is based on the real life murder of Aura Rosa Pavon, a lesbian living in the homophobic nation of Nicaragua. The story is told by a fictional professor who is spending his summer teaching in a nearby university. He had known Adela’s family from a previous visit and was shocked to learn of her murder, and that those responsible only spent three years in prison. The narrator takes the reader along on his journey to find the motivation behind the murder. In the process of learning about Adela’s life, the professor learns about her relationship with Ixelia Cruz. Ixelia had been the mistress of a wealthy landowner who was one of Adela’s killers. The town widely believed that he killed Adela because he couldn’t stand the humiliation of his mistress being lured away from him by a lesbian. All of the narrator’s investigations lead to his piecing together the last moments of Adela Rugama’s life as best he can.

Silvio Sirias did a wonderful job in recreating the small town of La Curva. The descriptions of the people of the town, the houses in which they lived, and their way of life in general showed that these people were poor. Sirias described the house that Adela lived in, saying:

Her dwelling had three rooms: a living room, a bedroom, and a spare room that she used for storage. The kitchen, which was outdoors in the backyard, consisted of a sink she used for washing both the dishes and the laundry. Close to the stove she kept an unpainted wood table, on which she prepared the food and ate afterward. As with the other houses in the neighborhood, the outhouse was in the backyard, in the corner farthest away from the stove and the house.

Yet no one ever seemed to let their financial situation bother them. It was just the way they lived and had always lived. He described how Adela had worked hard in order to help pay for her nieces and nephews to attend high school. Adela herself was not well educated in the sense of a school education. Sirias sums this part up with a simple sentence, “At a young age, then, Adela learned everything she needed to know to earn a living, except how to read and write.”

It seems almost obvious that this story could not have a typical happy ending. Adela is dead and her killers spent minimal time in jail for the crime. For a time the people of Nicaragua put aside their normal prejudice against homosexuals to stand together during the trial of Adela’s murders. Perhaps that trial helped to ease tensions in the country between homosexuals and heterosexuals. It certainly seemed to be heading in that direction. I think that is the one bright spot in such a tragic story. But for those who were close to Adela, as well as her killers, “Adela’s murder drastically marked the remainder of their days.”

 

Silverstein and Me CoverSilverstein and Me

A Memoir

By Marv Gold

Red Hen Press, June 2009

ISBN-10: 1-59709-151-0

ISBN-13: 978-1-59709-151-0

Paperback: 208pp; $19.95

Review by Christina Hall

When I began reading this, I was expecting a biography, although a closer inspection of the subtitle, “A memoir,” should have clued me in that Silverstein and Me was not a typical biography. And how could it be? Marv Gold tells us “he was an outsider and a loner.” Silverstein only did two interviews in his lifetime, both to the same university magazine, one of which is included in its entirety in the memoir. Writing an “accurate” biography of someone completely open is complex as it is, but given the “recluse” status that Silverstein earned while he was alive would make writing his life story utterly impossible. But Gold does a fantastic job of evoking Silverstein through his anecdotes, and we are able to get to know the famous author through Gold’s words as well as anyone probably could have.

While Silverstein was best known for his children’s story The Giving Tree or his collections of poetry, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, he was also a cartoonist for Playboy magazine for almost fifty years, wrote several plays and movies, and was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame for his songwriting. In fact, it is to Silverstein’s singing that we are first introduced in the memoir. Gold starts off with an atypical, unbelievable story: he hears his friend’s voice singing to him after Gold learns of Silverstein’s death. Gold even cites talking to his wacky character of a psychiatrist about it, who suggests he sing back to Silverstein. This crops back in randomly throughout the book, acting as landmarks, grounding us in the fact that this version of Silverstein’s life is simply that: a friend remembering the life of a friend, what Marv Gold saw and heard and knew of Sheldon Allan Silverstein.

The two met when they were five and six years-old, living in the same lower-middle class, Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. Gold relates several colorful all-American boy stories of their childhood: baseball, bullies, sex and girls, school, sneaking into movies. The stories are at first disconcerting; it seems as if Gold is telling stories from his own childhood and throwing in Silverstein as the awkward, tag-a-long nuisance for relevance. Gold tells us that he was basically Silverstein’s first friend, even being the one to teach him to ride a bike.

These first few chapters feel more like Gold’s memoir than Silverstein’s, but they do several things very well. First, they are extremely visual and nostalgic. It is one of the first of many moments where you feel like you actually are part of Shel Silverstein’s life. You can picture being in that neighborhood, swimming in that pool, flipping through those comics, with pesky Shel by your side. Second, you are immediately drawn in.

The entire memoir is entertaining and one of the few I’ve ever read that I could not put down. And last, while the beginning of the book lacks any deep insight into the life or mind of the famous author, the writing style evokes him from beginning to end. The words feel like Silverstein’s. The illustrations look like Silverstein’s. Gold does a fantastic job of truly making this memoir feel like Silverstein’s story while being completely honest and forthcoming about the fact that he can only tell us what he knows.

Gold tells us that it isn’t until late in high school that their friendship of “convenience” evolved and a “bond replaced the five-foot pole” that was between them. Even after then, however, despite the fact that they go to college together, get expelled together, go to the Playboy Mansion together, and work in the same building, Gold writes that at times there was “an abyss” between them. There are, after all, huge chunks of time that Gold can’t account for and knows nothing about. There were two years where Silverstein disappeared abroad; he has no stories about Silverstein’s time in Korea in the armed forces, and they would go months without talking in the later years of his life. Despite this somewhat on-again, off-again friendship, according to Gold, Silverstein eventually appointed him “his go between [to the media] with one proviso, ‘Tell them nothing’” And thus (and yet?!), we have this memoir.

Biographies are by definition faulted. You can never truly know someone without actually being that person, but the normally subtle problem with a biography is glaringly obvious here, especially when the subject is Shel Silverstein, a reclusive someone with the mantra, “Gotta have my space.” Gold’s constant use of the pronoun “we” rather than “he” may be unconventional, but it is a necessity. It makes the memoir more honest and accurate. The most you can hope for in the retelling of someone’s life is to get to know them as well as anyone close to them did, and Marv Gold does a brilliantly entertaining job of introducing us to Shel Silverstein.

 

Mr. Worthington's Beautiful Experiments of Splashes coverMr. Worthington’s Beautiful Experiments of Splashes

Poetry by Genine Lentine

New Michigan Press, January 2010

ISBN-10: 1934832227

ISBN-13: 978-1934832226

Paperback: 70pp; $10

Review by John Findura

Reading Genine Lentine’s collection is like drinking deeply after a hike through the desert: refreshing and shocking in the way you didn’t realize how much you needed it until you had it. From concrete poetry to lines shaped likes the ripples of swords cutting through the air, Lentine manages to create an immediate and personal world within the pages.

Lentine starts off with the devastating “Looted” and its closing lines, documenting the contents of “the sixth floor supply cabinet” in the oncology ward of Bethesda Naval Hospital:

What     are these cool white

waffle weave cloths      , each folded

into its own cello     phane bag?

(good for drawing?     ) But wait,

why is this one        closed at both ends?

Why this long        zipper?

Why this zipper         the length

of y      our mother’s body?

The break runs through the poem like that zipper, or worse, like that familiar white scar running along the body in that horrible ward. It takes courage to begin a collection with a poem that will no doubt hit many readers hard, but if you have trouble with death, you will have trouble with life, which is found in equal abundance in other parts of the book.

Humor also plays a role in poems such as “Molt,” “Depends,” (yes, it’s about urinating while wearing the adult diaper) and “Softsoap,” where Lentine ponders the metaphysics of the product of the same name and tries, quite successfully, “to be spared / from the jaws of death / (…) by a liquid soap.”

Equal parts experimental (“Interview with the Pear Tree”) and provocative (“you mark my page, / you urge my legs / open”), it is all approachable and enjoyable without being the dreaded “E” word: easy. Even the straight-ahead “Unbreakable” and its image of a small girl trying to “bend the un- / relenting spine” of those familiar black combs reaches a satisfying conclusion when “the atom / of its lie split”.

In “Upon Your ‘[Un]consolable Sadness,’” Lentine asks, “it’s not so bad is it? Being alive?” No, not when there’s poetry of this quality being written.

 

Slaves to do These Things coverSlaves to Do These Things

Poetry by Amy King

BlazeVOX [books], November 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1935402312

Paperback: 100pp; $16.00

Review by Caroline Wilkinson

The epigram for Slaves to Do These Things brings up the quiet matter of love. In the poem that King quotes – Charles Baudelaire’s “Beauty” – the poet likens himself to “a dream of stone.” His hard breast is made to evoke love from other poets. This love, being “mute and noble as matter itself,” is one with the body it has inspired. In “Beauty,” the matter or subject of poetic love has merged with the matter or atoms of the body. The meeting place of atoms and ideas is familiar territory for King whose poems explore the line between the concrete and abstract. In King’s poetry, however, matters of all kinds – intellectual, material and political – are not always noble, and rarely are they mute.

If they don’t speak, it seems more a matter of choice than of necessity. In “The Always Song,” the name of a forest leaves behind silence when it “walks through tall brown grass.” The word by going into the opposite of what it means – a treeless field rather than the woods – loses its purpose. In its wake come questions about the power of language. Can words really further our understanding of the world by naming its parts? King could address these doubts – “I could say / much about the part of not knowing” – but ultimately doesn’t. After offering a few descriptive lines about the woods with its “tracks and traps,” the speaker moves on to different matters. The explanation offered for this sudden exit is brief: “But I am savage, outside.”

This explanation on the surface doesn’t make sense. What is more savage than giving voice to “not knowing” in a forest where the wild and hermetic live? The word “savage” is rooted in the Latin silva meaning “forest.” But for King, the civilized thing to do would be to follow the “tracks” of the poem and go to where the lines appear to lead: into a meditation on doubt within the realm of nature. Instead, she wanders from the obvious path in this poem and throughout much of Slaves to Do These Things. Her words, far from seeming enslaved, keep veering off unexpectedly, dropping their given tasks. In “This Coffin’s Bucket of Soil,” verbs move in new directions to give us “a tooth biting down / the street that pierces / the row-boated brain.” The connections in these lines are at once sharply precise – this street, being unforeseeable, does pierce – and strongly confusing. The lines cause a laborious action, like a rowing of a boat, in the mind. At the poem’s end, the verb “to go” turns from the expected adjective to head for a noun, leading “wherever the foot goes ghost.”

Clearly, King is trying to reach a new reality in these poems, but the past haunts the old words that she must use to get there. This familiar conundrum for innovative poets shapes both the frustrating weaknesses and wonderful strengths of this notable book. When the words, taking sharp turns, don’t get enough momentum to make new connections, the result can be cumbersome. The words begin to seem like things – mere excess matter – barricading any path into the poem. In “Bleed Another Mouth,” for instance, King gives us a stanza of over fifty lines that contains a plate

of pork fat and greased potatoes
sunk through a sea below
the reaches of ankles,
dull hooks, and coffee punctured
floats into hardened coral,
an ossified limb some jetty
past pig-like remorse

The downward movement from the plate to the sea, rather than being dynamic, feels like the obvious effect of heaped-on images weighing down the lines. The poem ends up more dryly hallucinogenic than compelling.

But when King does succeed in turning words into new matter, she immediately pulls us back into a world that turns with an absorbing contradiction. Her world seems new, and is, but it moves in the same incongruous way as the real one, turning swiftly while appearing to stay still. While turning, it draws us in without inflicting the pain that Baudelaire speaks of in “Beauty.” His breast of stone bruises those drawn to it; in the translation from the French that King quotes, his chest is “where mortals come to grief.” The successful poems are kinder, being fashioned not from stone but from the moment. They are also closer to immortality than any isolated statue will ever reach since the moment, when it comprises all matter, holds the future in its entirety.

In King’s moving poem “Cows,” all time is held in a single night. A woman is beneath the moon. The speaker, in proximity to her, has “milkweed impulse / to smell her hair within.” Into this scene come cows that “shock” those “closest / in clover.” With the shock, language begins to turn, drawing the reader into a youthful “we”: “Turning to me, / turning to girls / we were sudden, innocent.” This “we,” as it turns from the past to the present, begins to fall apart. The matter that has gathered around the speaker – the night and sky – disperses:

Quiet with eyes,
could I explain
anything at all –
by the night
of the rain
I sparrow, then fall.

The speaker is one with the night as a sparrow, a new verb, that falls. We – what the word means at its most capacious – have come together and now must fall apart with the night.

The book often moves like this sparrow, going from ethereal realms to material ones with a sudden fall. None of the poems settle in one place long, being quick like birds. In its scope, the book is as wide as a sky above a field. What unifies the poems beyond style is a question that repeats in between the lines: What really matters? Jesus said God sees every sparrow fall, but King’s poems sometimes give the sense that no one who “matters” is watching. In these moments, the people who take care of matter – the body and its needs – have been isolated from meaning and power. This sense of isolation comes in “State of a Nation” as a theatrical show comes to an end, the curtains closed:

We hold on to the value
of a vote, a soliloquy, a sword,
and the lights after curtain.

When King successfully lets go of and transcends the “value” of this theater, the poetry takes flight. The language moves into a moment, profound on the page, where the sparrow is being watched and is watching.

 

Hudson River Haiku coverHudson River Haiku

Poetry by Helen Barolini

Slapering Hol Press, August 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0-9820626-1-6

Chapbook: 32pp; $12.00

Review by Lisa Dolensky

What’s this? A miniature gift book? That’s exactly how smug and loved I felt Valentine’s Day weekend when I opened up my NewPages reviewer envelope and discovered a novelty postcard-size stowaway jewel: Helen Barolini’s Hudson River Haiku. I was immediately transported to a mind getaway with Barolini’s simple turns of phrase, striking verbs, knack for colorful, condensed descriptions and the beckoning watercolor illustrations of Nevio Mengacci, an Italian artist. The reading experience is also textural since it’s printed on stippled watercolor paper stock.

A sensual passage from page 23, pulses the atmosphere right through readers:

Three hawks are swooping,
an airborne dance on warm gusts
ruffling the river.

Barolini and Mengacci successfully partner to create word vision and art that demonstrate a typical Hudson River view with an extraordinary viewfinder perspective, as seen on pages 10-11:

Like a half-submerged
crocodile skimming surface,
a black ship glides by.

Speaking of perspective, whether reading this upon the actual Hudson banks or just pretending to be there, the following Japanese short forms practically prompt one to reflex swat at a mosquito or dodge a sputtering dragonfly. Barolini “brings it” with her craft and takes us there. Her verb choice, use of simile and metaphor are seductively haunting as she conjures images on companion pages 12-13:

Steely, smoothly gray
the river after rainfall
lies hushed as a pool.
One small sailboat –
a ghostly fragile silk moth
skimming the Hudson.

Clearly, this chapbook is a great escape and place to take a cerebral drift for welcomed imagination meandering. Sink or swim? It swims.