NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted April 1, 2011

Kings of the F**king Sea :: If You're Not Yet Like Me :: Visitation :: A Fireproof Box :: Historic Diary :: Hank :: Our Island of Epidemics :: Nazareth, North Dakota :: Pictures of Houses with Water Damage :: Made-Up Self :: Metal and Plum :: Approaching Ice :: Make-Shift Instructions for Vigilant Girls

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Kings of the F**king Sea coverKings of the F**king Sea

Poetry by Dan Boehl, art by Jonathan Marshall

Birds, LLC, January 2011

ISBN-10: 0-9826177-4-8

ISBN-13: 978-0-9826177-4-8

Paperback: 112pp. $18.00

Review by Michael Flatt

The concept of poet Dan Boehl and visual artist Jonathan Marshall’s Kings of the F**king Sea feels like something thought up in an Austin bar after an MFA workshop, between their third and fourth Lone Stars. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s an appealing looseness in the execution of the book’s idea, which I’ve mentioned twice now without explaining. Jack Spicer is the captain of a pirate ship whose crew goes by the name in the book’s title, and includes Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell. The Kings face off against Mark Rothko, the captain and sole member of a rival ship called the Cobra Sombrero.

Amidst the utter absurdity (which, I suppose one should anticipate, given the title) there are moments of great poignancy, as promised in the book’s epigraph from Whitman, which bears repeating, especially these days:

I observe the famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d to
        preserve the lives of the rest.
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the
        poor and upon negroes, and the like.
All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
        See, hear, and am silent.

With this in mind, Boehl has concentrated his imaginative efforts upon the lines between life and art, and between war and life. He writes, in “(Shipwright) European Oils”: “He went off to war while the older ones, the alcoholics in khaki pants, dripped paint all over the place, worried about the redness of red and blackness of black.”

In lines such as these, one senses guilt, the kind of guilt Bataille describes as inherent to the artistic endeavor. That is, there is something that needs to be done, and meanwhile, the writer writes, the artist makes art. Sees, hears, and is silent, except for his useless words.

Boehl paraphrases Roberto Bolaño, “There is a time for art, and there is a time for fists.” The trouble, of course, is that these days, our hands are too busy putting food in the fridge to make a fist and join the protesters in Madison. At least that’s what we tell ourselves, right? So Kings of the F**king Sea at once poses and exemplifies the problem of art’s inability to touch or affect reality the way that, say, a bomb can.

Both writer and artist here obsess over amputation, hangings, and sea-based warfare. One of Marshall’s images is a video-feedback-laced still of Gregory Peck as Ahab. “(Armistice) Second to None” is based on a painting of Santa Anna surrendering to Sam Houston, with collaged silhouettes hearing out the surrender beneath a large tree, while more brightly colored silhouettes hang from its branches.

Boehl’s poetics integrates touches of Matthew Zapruder’s semi-surreal narratives, (“This is the part where the crane folds the people. This is the part where the swallow slays the dragon.”) with an ardency that reminds one of Rachel Zucker (“We let the kid shoot them down. After all, we’re all human.”). One can very much feel a young poet deciding on his aesthetic, resisting certain pulls. “Pickup (Gaza)” begins:

I took the package
and he said,
“Sell your cleverness
and buy bewilderment.” I guess
that’s what he thought
he was selling and I
buying.

Though, one could argue that the youthful feel of this book works against it. There is a definite machismo which permeates the text, and not always in very redeemable ways. “The war / will not be won / by clean-shaven men,” Boehl writes in “Decouverte des Malfaitures.” And that’s the whole poem. To be impressed by facial hair isn’t very impressive, and perhaps even less so in a book in which women are reduced to populating the ports the “Kings” visit, so as to make them “just littered with ass.”

The collection also seems to lose sight of its original intention, and gets a little heavy-handed while wrapping up its narrative. From “Island”: “Am I actually going / to die here / and there’s no fucking god?” Rather than diving into melancholy, one wishes the potential of Jack Spicer as a pirate captain had been realized, especially when one considers the resonation of this project with For Lorca, in which Spicer assumes the voice of the surrealist poet.

Kings of the F**king Sea promises youthful machismo, and delivers it for better and for worse.

 

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If You're Not Yet Like Me coverIf You’re Not Yet Like Me

Fiction by Edan Lepucki

Flatmancrooked, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0982034873

ISBN-13: 978-0-9820348-7-3

Paperback: 102pp; $11.50

Review by Tessa Mellas

Edan Lepucki is a master at characterization and humor. Her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, narrated by a pregnant woman describing to her unborn child the series of events leading to its conception, would likely be a sentimental flop if not for the enormous personality of its protagonist, Joellyn. Joellyn is a woman who boosts her self-esteem by gazing at her breasts in the bathtub faucet, whose reflection makes them huge, “the nipples wide-eyed, like they’d just walked into their own surprise party.” She is someone who imagined as a kid that she would grow up to be a Valkyrie, warrior-type woman, “vicious and beautiful, the roar of some exotic animal made physical.” She habitually imagines herself intimate with men she’s not attracted to and sleeps with them as good deeds, but wears the ugliest pair of underwear she owns on first dates to prevent herself from taking off her clothes too early.

It’s for these reasons and in this way that Joellyn picks up Zachary at a coffee shop, a man she describes as bland and invisible. She says, “The coffee shop boasts dozens of men like Zachary. They drink their coffee, they surf the internet, they work on their scripts, their cell phones waiting dumb on the table.” Yet Zachary is one of only two men she throws caution to the wind for, for whom she reveals her ugliest panties. It is on this first date, as they approach her apartment, that she becomes most vulnerable and human, thinking,

Empty wine bottles filled the recycling bin, as did—dear God—a broken-down box that had once held 40 super-absorbency Tampons. Probably, at this very moment, a cockroach was giving birth on my kitchen floor. That day, I had failed, once again, to make the bed, and my side table was strewn with used tissues, which suggested that I either had a snot problem, or that I cried myself to sleep every night. Or that, like a man, I masturbated into Kleenexes.

When she thinks of these things, she fears that Zachary will find her out, discover that her personality is a façade, after which the whole enterprise could fall apart.

The fragility of Joellyn’s self-made persona and of the narrative she keeps playing out, thinking it one she has control over, makes the novella appealing. It is an honest story told with an honest voice by a hopelessly flawed human being. Joellyn may be a self-absorbed, egotistical bitch, but it feels good to spend time with someone who is unapologetic about her imperfect past and her even more precarious future.

Lepucki pairs her novella with the story “I Am the Lion Now,” an apt companion piece which features Margaret, another expectant mother who enacts femininity unconventionally and covers up her insecurity with a fierce and confident roar. She takes baths in grimy bathtubs but doesn’t mind the filth, which won’t scrub clean: “She also kissed dogs on the mouth, didn’t wash her fruit. Let the squeamish suffer their fear.” As it turns out, it is her husband Toby who is the squeamish one, who yells “Holy fucking shit!” when a baby possum enters the house but later begs his wife to be allowed to keep and raise the infant pet. It is this gender reversal, Toby’s vulnerability and Margaret’s lack of tenderness, that makes the story poignant. Toby is the one who swaddles the tiny animal intruder in a towel and cuddles it against his chest, but it is Margaret who carries their own child in her belly, a baby that senses her unease. With an unusual omniscient point-of-view, Lepucki allows readers quick glimpses into the womb, where we see this couple’s child develop its own sense of worry and listen as its parents navigate marriage in the days before they become parents.

Lepucki has put on the page the narratives of two hugely memorable women who know exactly who they are but wonder, with motherhood looming, if they can continue to embrace their flaws when doing so might mean passing such flaws down to their children. But with enormous personalities and unavoidable quirks, it seems unlikely that Joellyn and Margaret could be anything but themselves. As readers, we can forgive them for that. We are just grateful to be with them to laugh at the humor they use to diffuse their anxiety.

 

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Visitation coverVisitation

Fiction by Jenny Erpenbeck

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

New Directions Publishing, September 2010

ISBN-10: 9780811218351

ISBN-13: 978-0-8112-1835-1

Paperback: 150pp; $14.95

Review by Caleb Tankersley

The latest translation of the German author and theatre director Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, Visitation, is a philosophical thesis on permanence/impermanence filtered through the lens of a small lake and neighborhood near Berlin. This lake, called Brandenburg, is the setting for the entire work. More specifically, the reader is introduced to a singular plot of land, from its very formation to the present day. Most of the book is constructed as a series of closely intertwined short stories, each presenting the viewpoint of a character inhabiting or interacting with this particular piece of land.

The novel opens with an incredibly wide scope, a risky maneuver that could give off an overly detached impression. But Erpenbeck knows what she’s doing. Simple yet precise, her words melt this detached concept of transience with a strong emotional connection to each of the characters, and even the landscape. Visitation’s preface, describing the geological creation of Brandenburg Lake, is the most compelling opening I’ve read since Blonde:

For a time this lake would hold up its mirror to the sky amid the Brandenburg hills, it would lie smooth between the oaks, alders and pines that were growing once more, and much later, after human beings appeared, it was given a name by them: Märkisches Meer, the Sea of the Mark Brandenburg; but one day it would vanish again, since, like every lake, it too was only temporary—like every hollow shape, this channel existed only to be filled in completely some day.

Not only does the preface serve as an exacting bit of writing that forces the reader to sympathize with a lake, it also provides a crucial frame to the following interactions and individuals, all of whom view Brandenburg Lake and the surrounding neighborhood as an immortal observer of their dramas. The ending impression is that, while nothing is permanent—even the ground on which we stand—permanence would be an undesirable state. Our temporary lives, our visitations give meaning to our joys and keep wounds from forever haunting our memories

Although the individual characters are less important than the wider themes, they ground the novel in relatable triumphs and tragedies. You’ll care about the fates of the Gardener, the Architect’s Wife, the Red Army Officer, and everyone else who lives and survives Germany through the early 20th century, WWII, Soviet occupation, the GDR, and reunification. Given the numerous plot twists, I’ll refrain from diving too deeply into the intrigues of life around Brandenburg. What I will note is how the trajectories of each character mirror the life of the land and lake presented in the preface, morphing until they disappear. The reader is left to question the meaning of the characters' existences, or existence at all. This theme is especially poignant in the perils of WWII, demonstrated here by the story of a Brandenburg area girl:

For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back…these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.

Visitation is a heady trip into the fleeting position of people and places, and how we learn to live with this reality. Morose yet uplifting, this complex work will be sifting through your mind long after putting the book down. I’ll leave you to unpack one of Erpenbeck’s numerous small-but-mind-blowing passages that exemplifies Visitation’s titular theme:

When the new person is to begin, he can only grow out of the old one. The new world is to devour the old one, the old one puts up a fight, and now new and old are living side by side in a single body. Where much is asked, more is left out.

 

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A Fireproof Box coverA Fireproof Box

Poetry by Gleb Shulpyakov

Translated from the Russian by Christopher Mattison

Canarium Books, April 2011

ISBN-10: 0982237677

ISBN-13: 978-0982237670

Paperback: 168pp; $14.00

Review by Renee Emerson

Unlike much poetry in translation that seems to lose its flavor and to blend together into the bland, uniform “translated” voice, Christopher Mattison’s translation of Gleb Shulpyakov retains his unique voice and undeniable cultural heritage. Some poems emphasize his foreignness, with references to Russian history and culture, such as, on page 17, when the poem references “Suvorov’s infantry,” “beards from Vladimir,” and the phrase “From Moscow to Podolsk no Pasternak could find / the way through such weather.” Leaving in these cultural markers adds an air of authenticity and believability to the work, and, most importantly, ensures the preservation of the poet’s original voice.

Shulpyakov speaks to the reader as a close familiar, a confidant:

A spring wind blowing for three days
snow turns black as an old chalkboard.
Smoke curls out from pipes to the north
floating endlessly, covering versts.
You’ve noticed that everything in March seems drawn
out and cold, even the windows begin to narrow.
What are these—pines? No, my dear, more aspens.
Puddles around you freeze waiting for the bus.

The tone draws you in from the cold Russian winter. He refers to your mutual friends and well-known places—Natasha and Sand Street, in this poem—and to your shared experiences. He allows the reader to eavesdrop on conversations, including dialogue in poems such as the section “Cherries” and “Djemma El-Fna.” Though, as an American reader, his references and experiences are foreign to me, the author affectively creates an atmosphere with which any reader can identify.

The images and metaphors used in this collection are often surprising, and strange in the way a poem should be strange; in the second section of “Cherries,” for example, Shulpyakov describes the beautiful day as “the sea flowed into the sky” and a mosque that “still shone, / like an éclair against a backdrop / of port cranes.” A Fireproof Box makes the unfamiliar familiar and the strange becomes the everyday.

 

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Historic Diary coverHistoric Diary

Poetry by Tony Trigilio

BlazeVOX [books], December 2010

ISBN-10: 1609640128

ISBN-13: 978-1-60964-012-5

Paperback: 115pp; $16.00

Review by Patricia Contino

That history and personal memory can become one and the same is nothing new. The Internet and Facebook are merely faster ways to gather fact and thought.

November 22, 1963 is a date noted in many an official, scholarly, artistic, and—this goes for those alive at the time and those not yet born—personal chronicle. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was one of the first news stories to unfold on television in real time. One of the events occurring over that long weekend was the first televised murder. On Sunday, November 24, suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was fatally wounded in the basement of Dallas police headquarters by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. (The President’s shooting was inadvertently recorded on the home movie Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder was making of the Kennedy motorcade.)

The description in the paragraph above is an example of combining the historic with the personal. The writer hopefully included enough facts about the assassination while choosing to emphasize the role of television documenting it rather than the incredulity of Ruby concealing and using a gun in a locked-down area. In his Historic Diary, Tony Trigilio uses something far more effective to convey this incident than a reviewer, historian, student, grating Lerner and Lowe musical, or Oliver Stone could: poetry. Trigilio uses this ancient art to present facts that read like fiction while exploring his feelings about it. As his opening lines reveal, “I’ve seen too many 1963 pictures of the Book Depository with that Hertz billboard and / clock squinting from the rooftop ‘Hertz Rent-a-Car. 12:30. Chevrolets,’” his personalized history is detailed and unobtrusive. Historic Diary is also an original, strong addition to the myriad of publications on the Kennedy assassination.

Historic Diary takes its name from the journal Lee Harvey Oswald kept during his 1959-1962 defection to the Soviet Union. While sources are identified in the Notes, the poet gives Oswald and key participants their own voice. The one interesting omission is the dead president.

Trigilio’s Oswald is an admirably self-taught but seriously misguided, volatile figure raised by a mother who “was so much / like Lee, wanted to be somebody.” A true lone gunman:

I first read
the Communist Manifesto
and 1st volume of Capital
in 1954 when I was 15.
I have studied 18th-century
philosophers, works
by Lenin, and after 1959
attended numerous
Marxist reading
circles at the factory
where I worked. Some
were compulsory
and others were not.

There was no poetry in his life or politics. The closest fictitious figure he resembles is Raymond the assassin in Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. The parallels Trigilio draws between the 1959 novel, its 1962 film version, November 1963, and the Cold War era are brilliant:

The Queen of Diamonds”? What did she mean, “The Queen of Diamonds”?
May I have the bayonet, please?
Have you killed anyone?
Do you know what we’re telling you?

And yet, Oswald learned enough Russian to translate the libretto of Tchaikovsky’s opera based on Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades. Ironically, he was encouraged by a Soviet official to return home because “USSR only great in literature.” Little did this oprichnik know that he was talking to someone who would inspire many words.

The Kennedy assassination is one of the messier chapters in American history. Trigilio’s Diary is carefully arranged in five parts—an appropriate echoing of the five acts of tragic theatre. The first three sections look into the assassin’s background and the event itself; the last two are ghost stories in blank verse. “I’m Going to Bust this Case Wide Open” is a series of profiles on individuals with some connection to the assassination. Collectively, they are a cast of characters including lawyers, reporters, and mobsters. Individually, they all died strange deaths. Trigilio describes each one in rapid language that sounds like a rifle shot. This is columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, a powerful media personality of that era, who vowed to “bust this case wide open”:

Remembering the mysterious deaths of reporters
Bill Hunter and Jim Koethe, she
hid a copy of her interview
notes with a friend, Journal American
fashion editor and former JFK lover
Florence Smith, for safekeeping in the case.
She was murdered. Dressed and sitting
upright in bed, November 8, 1965,
Kilgallen was found dead of a drug
overdose, her case notes vanished – Florence
Smith, suffering from leukemia, dead
two days later (cerebral hemorrhage).

As Historic Diary closes but draws no conclusions, the unspoken obvious becomes apparent when Trigilio equates the Kennedy assassination with Greek tragedy. The phrase “three roads meet” is repeated again and again on the final pages. No one, except fictitious Raymond from Manchurian Candidate, is an Oedipus but all those connected to the assassination are a Greek chorus of sad souls. Whether tourists who visit Dealey Plaza, viewers who watch the Zapruder film on YouTube, or fashionistas obsessed with Jackie Kennedy are as well is for the reader to decide.

 

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Hank coverHank

Poetry by Abraham Smith

Action Books, October 2010

ISBN-10: 0979975581

ISBN-13: 978-0-9799755-8-5

Paperback: 132pp; $16.00

Review by C.J. Opperthauser

After reading only a page of Hank, I remembered the “point” of poetry. Or art in general, really. To make the experiencer experience feelings. That's it. Isn't it? Hank is good at that.

The book of poems contains no formal punctuation or stanzas. Each poem is a big run-on sentence, choc full (almost overwhelmingly so) of beautiful, memorable lines. Here is a snippet of a poem titled “@()#&#”:

and robert johnson's
lithe tangle wood soul
wood tree genuine wood
tree with fresh fish lines

And yes, each poem has a similar title of seemingly random symbols and marks. It seems the punctuation dried up and migrated to the titles. The poems flow seamlessly, somehow, from topic to topic, idea to idea, image to image. Each poem is like an unlikely chain of warm lines, softened by cooler ones, resulting in a pleasant average temperature, say 65 degrees.

The lines even become musical and repetitive at times, as in “!+#*”:

some sumo angel
did his thing in river flood sand
and then there was below
a devil in a french hat
smoke smoke smoke
and you never knew when
they would twist and you couldn't
trust them to switch out
the raveling rope and you wouldn't
want to referee the thing

The speaker's voice remains conversational and real-sounding throughout the book, not hesitating to throw in “shits” and “aints” and, once in a while, even a “cuz.” It looks, as a final glance, like the chronic ramblings of some poetic maniac. But really, it feels smooth to read it.

 

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Our Island of Epidemics coverOur Island of Epidemics

Fiction by Matthew Salesses

PANK, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-9824697-3-6

Paperback: 40pp; $10.00

Review by Gina Myers

In Our Island of Epidemics, Matthew Salesses presents a series of fourteen pieces of flash fiction which work together to tell the history of an island of, well, epidemics. On this island, one epidemic follows another and the community suffers collectively. While epidemics of oversensitive hearing, hunger, and farts may not be so appealing, the epidemic of memory loss brought immigrants to the island who “came, after a bout of suffering, to catch the disease and stay.” Other epidemics the island must suffer through include unstoppably growing hearts, bad jokes, insomnia, obsession, unrequited love, magic, lost voices, and talking to animals, to name a few. The narrator writes:

The epidemics were relentless, like the epidemic of laziness—during that one I couldn’t have even told this story, not that I am sure I wanted to tell it, not that I am sure I want to tell it now. The telling is relentless, too.

While the majority of the pieces are written from the perspective of first person plural—our and we—with some using the first person singular, the reader still meets some interesting characters, from the King of Unrequited Love; to the object of his love, Samantha, and her animal god carved from stone who comes to life during the epidemic of magic; to the community member who develops immunity to the epidemics and is chased into the hills.

Much like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Our Island of Epidemics is richly imaginative in its variations, as we see how affliction after affliction affects these islanders. And, much like the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the strangeness is not really all that strange. In “An Intervention,” which describes the epidemic of obsession, the narrator relays:

We started leaving our lives for the things we thought we loved: quitting our jobs for our hobbies, leaving our spouses for crushes, disappearing from our homes to go back to the places of our youth, dreaming the same dreams night after night. What we wanted was for what we thought we loved to last forever and for what we wanted to be the same as who we thought we were, and we grew obsessed with the epidemic of obsessing.

The Island of Epidemics makes for a quick read, coming in at only forty pages, which includes several full pages of illustrations. However, in these brief shorts, Salesses is able to render a fascinating world completely.

 

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Nazareth, North Dakota coverNazareth, North Dakota

Fiction by Tommy Zurhellen

Atticus Books, April 2011

ISBN-10: 0-9845105-6-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-9845105-6-6

Paperback: 212pp; $14.95

Review by Aaron M. Smith

What if the Messiah hadn’t been born yet? What if we never had Jesus? Or, what if he had been born in an insignificant town in North Dakota? Well, history would certainly be different, and Nazareth, North Dakota tells us how it may have happened in modern times. Tommy Zurhellen weaves a story of biblical intrigue, giving an age old story a new spin. Zurhellen makes it truly easy to step into a foreign world, but a world that has been known since childhood by many.

Sam, the future Messiah, is abandoned by his real mother and is raised by Roxy who cannot bear children—in a sense, a virgin birth. In a modern world, where a woman being pregnant is not a life or death situation, Zurhellen weaves in the shame and disgrace of a Mary-type figure by having Roxy (the adoptive mother of Sam/Messiah) be an accomplice in a murder. She runs from the law and makes it all the way to Cairo, Illinois from somewhere in North Dakota. Here in a small town, she meets Joe. Joe isn’t her normal type, but she starts falling in love with him. The problem is she hasn’t told him about her sordid past yet, but, luckily, Joe starts piecing information together. He finds out that the only person who had been looking for her is now dead, and they both happily move back to Nazareth, North Dakota along with their children.

As the story goes along, we don’t learn much about Sam except a few instances that parallel occurrences within the Bible. Sam, instead of spending all day talking with Rabbis, debates with an ethics professor at a university in a neighboring town. He also is baptized in a muddy river by his preacher cousin, and at his baptism the supernatural occurs, potentially symbolizing his divinity. The story seems to favor the views of Roxy, Sam’s cousin, and the sheriffs of the town over Sam himself.

Zurhellen is an artist with his words; the internal and external dialogue is simply outstanding. The dialogue truly allows you to enter into the world of the characters. The opening monologue, written from the perspective of the devil, works as an effective example” “I ain’t no storyteller; I’ll leave the tale to folks who want to tell it. Only thing I want is revenge. In the old days, they used to call me Accuser or Adversary.” The opening chapter hooked me so fully, that I was not able to set the book down until I had finished it.

Structurally, the book is framed by the devil talking to the reader, telling him or her that this is the real deal, that he is risking it all, and that he isn’t going to be easy on the Messiah. Next we start moving into the story of Roxy and how the Messiah grew up. We never get a direct view into the Messiah’s head, which could be symbolic of how we have no direct word in the Bible from the Messiah. We only have the recollections of those around him. I believe that this indirect way of introducing Sam almost makes him more aloof and foreign to the reader, bringing into the forefront his divinity.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, although I’m not sure everyone will get all of the references to the Bible that are within this book. Some of these references are worked in so well that they are barely visible. I’ve had to sit and reflect on many aspects of the book in order to realize how masterfully the parallels were woven in. Considering that this is one of the world’s most well-known stories, Zurhellen makes it completely his own. This is the kind of book that will sit at the forefront of your mind for days as you analyze all the intricacies and subliminal messages. Pick up this book if you want to think in new ways, if you want to find a book that challenges you, and if you want to grow as a reader or writer.

 

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Pictures of Houses with Water Damage coverPictures of Houses with Water Damage

Fiction by Michael Hemmingson

Black Lawrence Press, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0982520425

ISBN-13: 978-0982520420

Paperback: 173pp; $16.00

Review by Matthew C. Smith

The short stories in Michael Hemmingson's Pictures of Houses with Water Damage offer a disturbing, sometimes harrowing, portrayal of human relationships. Like water seeping down behind plaster walls, once the problems come into the open, it's already too late.

Hemmingson’s language is terse to the point of evasiveness. He forgoes physical description to focus solely on dialogue and interaction between his characters. The style is effective, creating a detached tone of resignation and bewilderment which permeates most of the stories yet still delivering emotional impact.

There is an element of hard-boiled noir fiction in Hemmingson's writing, strongly evidenced in one of his earlier novels, Wild Turkey, a tale of murder, deception and sex. In this collection, we're dropped into a similar world, where every character seems to be holding a drink, drugs, or a gun; your spouse is always cheating; and the only way out is down. But whereas Wild Turkey reveled in genre conventions for their own sake, the narrow focus of these short stories gives them added impact; the violence and sex only rarely feels gratuitous. In “Looking for Wanda Beyond the Salton Sea,” for example, a disappearing wife plot straight from Hitchcock ends in a disturbing twist which deflates any pretension of masculine heroics:

No one knows a Wanda, has seen a Wanda.
He gets drunk and angry.
Maybe she doesn’t exist, a bartender says just before David is 86’ed out.
What? What’s that? David goes.
Maybe you made her up, says the bartender, I mean, really, dude, what kind of woman would want to be with a loudmouth asshole like you?

Ultimately, it serves a greater purpose, giving the reader a view of the world in which social conventions are only a thin veneer over the unending, almost primal struggles of human interaction. The family unit, in Hemmingson's world, is always under threat, mostly from within. Husbands and wives are trapped together and each looking for their own way out. Children are the result of bad decisions. Hemmingson's protagonists, usually male, are useless when it comes to dealing with the problems that confront them, displaying at best a certain passive-aggressiveness. Forgiveness is used as a weapon.

But there is something that keeps pulling us back, something which needs family, companionship and love, no matter how irrational. In “Why Don’t You Use Your Parking Space,” keeping a baby is a spark of defiance in the face of an ugly, violent world. Elsewhere, the men who flee into dark fantasies of drugs and rape rather than face the responsibilities of fatherhood sometimes do come back, albeit reluctantly and always keeping one eye on the door. Much of Hemmingson's work revolves around an unspoken and desperate need for love and these stories address what goes on in its absence, in the yawning void between what life should be and what it is.

In “Solid Memories have the Life Span of Tulips and Sunflowers,” Hemmingson displays a gift for the surreal and it imbues his tale of recovered memory and regret with a certain tenderness (a gift also on display in “It’s Very Cold Down Here,” but in a wholly comic vein). The narrator, David, seems to travel on a different plane from everyone around him, not cynically detached but simply out-of-step. When his girlfriend tells him she's been seeing someone else, his calm is almost heroic:

“You're not bothered?”
“Only by my memories,” I said. “Sometimes I wonder how accurate they are.”
She had an incredulous look on her face. “I could be leaving you!”
“I know.”
David,” she said.
“Yes?”
“If we'd gotten married,” she said, and said no more.

The tension and despair of what could have been and what could have been lost carries more weight when left unsaid. But ultimately, Hemmingson's characters find a way to navigate the shallow waters—to cope, to compromise. It's the struggle he finds admirable, the seeking after of something greater than ourselves. As he writes in “Forbidden Scenes of Affection”:

I put my head on her stomach and felt her baby kick. I heard sounds in there. “Life,” I said, because I didn't know what the word meant. “The garden and the fruit.”

 

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Becoming Weather coverBecoming Weather

Poetry by Chris Martin

Coffee House Press, March 2011

ISBN-10: 1566892597

ISBN-13: 978-1566892599

Paperback: 138pp; $16.00

Review by Renee Emerson

Becoming Weather is introduced by a quote from Nietzsche that describes the shifting changeability of the collection—“That the world is not striving toward a stable condition is the only thing that has been proved.” Like the weather, Martin’s poems can quickly change from light to darkness, frigidity to a blazing heat. The writer explores this movement and the act of writing about movement—in poem 3 of the first section, “Disequilibrium,” he states:

So is it
the infinite or
the instantaneous
quality of movement
that frightens us more?
Do verbs only betray
the impossibility of not acting?

The poems speak of abandoning the physical entrapment of the body for pure movement, perhaps using writing as a vehicle for the abandonment, seen in poem 27 of “Disequilibrium,” with the memory:

we realized a knife
is a pen when it’s
inside the body
You ask me to conspire
against the trap
of the corpse

The poem concludes with the speaker still trapped inside the body, despite the pen, and his thought of “the poem / to a ripping point,” as the speaker “find[s] it / taut again.” “Disequilibrium” ends with a prose poem, “A Short History of Order,” which is a dramatic change from the sparse, short lines and short stanzas of the previous 37 poems. This poem reiterates the themes in the section, focusing on the body and how it “disappeared because it was always moving.”

The second section, “The Small Dance,” contains 29 poems that are even more dispersed across the page in form, again ending the section with a prose poem “Toward Corporeal Order,” which focuses more on movement than the body, though the body is still a concern of the poem, as it “in moving, removed so much unnecessary thought.”

“This False Peace,” the third section, contains poems that seem to be a hybrid in form between the prose poem and the spaced out, lyric poem of the second section. Rather than line breaks, the author incorporates extra spaces between phrases, lending a halting, telegram-feel to the poems.

The collection concludes with the section “Coda,” which consists of one poem, “Being Of,” where the author finally determines the “answer” so that “soon / enough we can return to / our entanglements.” Whether the entanglements of our lives are less than the entanglements and philosophical musings of the collection is hard to say; Becoming Weather sweeps up the reader into the tumultuous, mind versus body, world of the speaker.

 

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The Made-Up Self coverThe Made-Up Self

Impersonation in the Personal Essay

Nonfiction by Carl Klaus

University of Iowa Press, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1587299135

ISBN-13: 978-1587299131

Paperback: 147pp; $19.95

Review by Ellen Sprague

If personal essays are supposed to be nonfiction, then how can essayist and teacher Carl Klaus begin a scholarly book of essays with the following premise?

The "person" in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts—the sound of its voice a by-product of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts, and feelings arising in one’s consciousness.

In part, he is taking up Virginia Woolf’s oft-quoted observation: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.” While these statements may cause some readers to feel justified in their skepticism regarding the line between fiction and nonfiction, we need not worry. In The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, writers and readers will find well-conceived and lucid answers to some of the more difficult questions that arise regarding the treatment of the “I” in this kind of nonfiction.

In the first two of the four parts of The Made-Up Self, Klaus, who had been writing and teaching the personal essay for about a half-century when he retired from the University of Iowa a few years ago, explores the ways “structure, style, and voice determine the nature of a persona and one’s perception of it.” He begins, as one might expect, with a study of Montaigne who, in crafting self-portraits through language, brought to the essay form a focus on following the mind at work and showed “the inextricable relationship between the motions of his mind and the movement of his prose.” From this foundation, Klaus includes critical essays that tackle such questions as the uses of “The Mind and the Mind’s Idiosyncrasy: The Singular ‘I’ and the Chameleon ‘I’” and the use of pseudonyms (particularly Charles Lamb’s “Elia”).

The one-liners Klaus quotes from essayists of both today and yore are not trite but insightful and encouraging for essayists of the twenty-first century. In the chapter on “Ideas of Consciousness in the Personal Essay,” Klaus brings together such voices as John D’Agata, Alfred Kazin, and Cynthia Ozick as if in conversation to better express such complicated ideas as how writers go about capturing the mind at work on paper in ways that suggest “the movements of a mind were more compelling than its matter. As if the play of ideas were more important than the ideas themselves.” Klaus brings to bear on the conversation Phillip Lopate’s statement that “the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the [essay’s] plot, is [its] adventure.”

And for anyone who has been wishing for a study of segmented, mosaic, collage, or other essays that could be called “discontinuous,” Klaus has a chapter for you, where he makes sense of and validates the potentially powerful sub-genre. Such essays are not simply playful or inherently cheap or incomplete. Rather, he says, they offer “a uniquely appropriate form of seriously engaging matters about which one remains profoundly uncertain.”

Whereas parts one and two focus on the emphasis given to persona in terms of consciousness or interiority, parts three and four explore personality and exteriority by looking at the ways point of view, content, and voice are used. Klaus examines the effect of split point of view—both “I” and “we”—in George Orwell’s “A Hanging,” an essay that depicts Orwell’s split observation and participation in a hanging in Burma. He also touches on the way cultural consciousness is portrayed through various points of view in essays by writers from a number of backgrounds. Klaus demonstrates how the “I” is defined in terms of the writer’s treatment of “they” in essays by James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, and Richard Rodriguez.

One of the most engaging features of the book is that it is actually an essay collection, albeit scholarly, that features Klaus in as many personae as he can summon. In his words, the essays “embody some of the different selves that various essayists and issues have called forth in me.” Where possible, he mimics the features—be it structure, use of persona, or style—of the particular point he’s trying to convey. This is evident in the second chapter, where Klaus makes use of what he calls “special effects” such as digression, flashback, memories, and juxtaposition while discussing them.

In an essay, where the narrator is the author, writers can struggle to clarify just what version of the self is thinking or acting. Klaus’s varied and engaging essays in The Made-Up Self can help. Readers will better understand how personae are functioning in personal essays, and writers will gain strategies for crafting the most effective personae for their works. The persona is a construct, but not necessarily a creation. Woolf correctly identified this as a “problem” almost a century ago, and Klaus takes great strides in solving it in this volume.

 

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Metal and Plum coverMetal and Plum: A Memoir

Nonfiction by Andrei Guruianu

Mayapple Press, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0932412966

ISBN-13: 978-0932412966

Paperback: 124pp. $16.95

Review by Ann Beman

Soccer balls, crusty heels of bread, Grandmother’s hands, fishing poles. Andrei Guruianu’s Metal and Plum: A Memoir is strewn with such images, such scraps—scraps of metal, scraps of food, red brick, fence posts, gypsy tunes, and scraps of words, language, and memory.

In the introduction to the memoir, the author is fishing, ostensibly for carp, but also for a sense of self, of belonging, of home:

If you could taste the word home, it would probably taste like baked peaches soaking in warm cinnamon syrup. It would taste wet, a fresh rainstorm straddling the mountains, piercing dirt that was more than dust and broken ground. It would ring like a gypsy tune that makes muddy sounds, thick with longing and lost love, happiness bordering on the insane.

Guruianu’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Bucharest, Romania. The author was ten years old, an age at which you’re too old to forget you come from another world, and too young to firmly root your remembrances there. He writes:

What does a ten-year-old boy know of the loaded meaning of home, of what his parents meant when they used one word to cover it all, dor—love, passion, desire and sadness, a painful longing for a place so familiar it feels like another limb? The word has no single translation in English, no easy way to go home.
And for me it was never more than a distant dream as I grew up in Queens, playing the good immigrant son. It was only a word, a vague idea like a shadow in the dark.

Founder of The Broome Review, and the first Poet Laureate of Broome County, NY, Guruianu has written three poetry collections. He is foremost a poet, a savorer of words—words such as home and dor, or metal and plum, two disparate words that somehow coexist in one glass of home-stilled Romanian moonshine. In Metal and Plum, words often focus on the concept of the outsider, on a sense of straddling two unlike worlds, always the visitor. Composed as a series of vignettes, the book breaks into four parts, with the first describing life immediately before and during the Romanian Revolution of 1989, in which the communist regime and its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu were overthrown. Part II brings the Guruianus to Jamaica, Queens, New York, where the family must adapt to life in the U.S., while Part III takes the author back to Romania for the first time since the move. The author uses this present-day trip to reacquaint himself with family. It also offers the opportunity to revisit his childhood—at the spring market near his grandparent’s farm, summers fishing his favorite lake, Grandfather’s stories, and the old man’s distilled tuica, tasting “somewhere between moonshine, rubbing alcohol, and plum-flavored vodka”:

I wanted to drink to remember something of which I had no real memory, only one that I built from scraps. That night I wanted to drink the coarsely filtered alcohol like grownups used to during bitter cold Eastern European winters when heaters trembled and coughed out of tune. Back then they drank to burn away the chill that silenced their throats, to put misery to sleep, and shed the workday from their bones. They drank to trick laughter into existence. Back then I simply slept, cold.

In what I imagine was a printing error, Part IV is actually listed as Part V—the vignettes in that section written upon the author’s return to America. They serve as tributes to family members who have passed and those growing old. He writes, for example, of how he can trace the changes in his grandfather’s notebook-paper missives: “There are misspelled words, letters, or entire words missing, and even Grandfather’s signature is sometimes slightly off.” Perhaps the mislaid Roman numeral is yet another elegy. Perhaps Part IV remains, hovering, somewhere over the Atlantic, somewhere between Bucharest and New York’s Susquehanna River. Perhaps Part IV is simply missing, keeping good company with some of his grandfather’s words. In any case, Metal and Plum reads like more than the sum of its parts.

 

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Approaching Ice coverApproaching Ice

Poetry by Elizabeth Bradfield

Persea Books, February 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-89255-355-6

Paperback: 112pp; $15.00

Review by Alyse Bensel

In her profession as a naturalist, Elizabeth Bradfield (Interpretive Work) uses a writer’s attention to detail and research. Approaching Ice, her second collection of poetry, captures the frozen climate of the poles, exploring not only the external packed snow of the Arctic and Antarctic but also the internal “climate of the heart.” Her poems resonate with a need to discover what lies beneath the ice, such as when she echoes John Cleve Symmes’s longing to find “another earth / within our earth, more perfect, richer,” to claim our planet’s last unexplored frontier.

Employing narrative, lyric, and prose poems, Bradfield matches each poem to an essential task. Some narrate the lives and adventures of 19th and 20th century polar explorers, whose lust for discovery led them into “blue contours of freeze.” A series of seven prose poems, titled “Notes on Ice in Bowditch,” chronicles Bradfield’s investigation to redefine polar vocabulary, creating a native lexicon inherent to the book. While the similar diction sometimes grows repetitive, Bradfield invigorates images of white and gray snow with the colorful characters traversing its lengths. For example, after color film comes to the polar regions, she describes a “grease ice melon with algae” and “petals of ice flowers.”

Bradfield recasts widely held notions of human and natural history by questioning tenuous claims of human ownership upon the land. In a portrait of “Polar Explorer Carsten Borchgrevink,” she writes: “But what slim hold / history has even here.” She questions our limited human knowledge with the “space-age trilling” James Weddell hears from the animals occupying the shifting ice. She constructs a disorienting world for the explorers, who must travel through the wind’s “directionless swirl / and the compass’ doubtful arrow.” Readers follow blindly into the whiteout, ending any previously held notions of grand adventure. With a few pages, readers understand that these explorers tread the perilous ice, at the brink of death with every step.

Despite its bleak themes, Approaching Ice radiates warmth toward its readers. The accessibility of these icy poems comes from Bradfield’s personal connection to her subjects. She investigates the complicated notions of exploration by inserting herself into the book as an armchair explorer and a sympathetic partner to lonely wives. Thus, in “Wives of the Polar Explorers,” Bradfield knows how separation affects those who leave and those who stay. She knows that “trying to understand // through the strange dialects discovered in separation / of solitude, of companionship” becomes frustrating and lonely, as her partner leaves on another long journey.

Powerful images of “Glaciers capping the hills / like false teeth” map connections across the narrative arc of polar exploration. Such imagistic poems remind readers of the “strange, cold dream” Bradfield constructs with precise craft and conviction. Novice or long-time readers of poetry will appreciate Bradfield’s depiction of the ever-shifting yet permanent ice caps and the visitors to and habitants of the Arctic. All serve as poignant reminders of the ice caps that melt today.

 

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Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls coverMakeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls

Poetry by Erika Meitner

Anhinga Press, February 2011

ISBN-10: 1934695238

ISBN-13: 978-1-934695-23-4

Paperback: 98pp; $17.00

Review by Stephanie Burns

Erika Meitner's Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls begins with sexual awakening and its inherent perils and ends just short of marriage, its poems trading in both nostalgia and uncertainty. Meitner deftly tackles lust, harassment, dating, death, alien abduction and the ever-important life skill that is filling out a form, all while rendering her images in clear and unique ways.

In “Elegy with No Shoe-Leather Enfolded in a Love Poem,” the narrator mentions “the plastic dolls I loved childhood-fierce, // whose bitten, thick-skinned cheeks held no marks,” a description so vivid that it immediately conjures not only the narrator's exploratory early years, but also the complicated and sometimes violent relationships we have with toys. These relationships with toys are perhaps not that different from our relationships with other people, as Meitner's collection goes on to illustrate.

Still, Meitner's collection is strongest when reaching beyond the nostalgic or the literal, to the possible and the inevitable. “Quiseira Declarar” is a poem full of the many possible answers for a customs form, each answer acting as its own journey, but all combining to a poignant effect. In the end, these “makeshift instructions” seem most vigilant in “Elegy that Returns with Souvenirs,” when describing

[…] What
measures we take—have always
taken—to evade danger,
her fugitive bowl of rocks
by the door, everything stopgap,
everything mortal.
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