Posted June 14, 2011
The Concession Stand :: The Convert :: In Which Brief Stories are Told :: Curses and Wishes :: Helsinki :: Coming from an Off-Key Time :: Come and See :: Privado :: The Requited Distance :: Silver Sparrow :: Leap :: The Autobiography of an Execution :: At the Bureau of Divine Music :: The Ringer :: The Goodbye Town
Exaptation at the Margins
Nonfiction by Arpine Konyalian Grenier
Otoliths, March 2011
Paperback: 84pp; $16.95
Review by Kristin Abraham
Arpine Konyalian Grenier’s fourth full-length book, The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins, is a genre-bending collection of what can best be described as lyric essays. In essence, the pieces in this book are enacting the exaptation that they advocate: the exaptation of language to connect with a collective identity, one that allows for new ways of communication that are not hindered by culture/hierarchy/power/history but are inclusive to all.
Often, Grenier’s essays are multifarious, employing English, Spanish, Arabic, and Turkish languages (to name a few) in exploration of the roots of language/meaning:
We are discussing yapmak (to make) versus etmek (to do). Nefret emtek (to hate) has been interesting for me because in Turkish, nefret (hate) becomes a verb only with the auxiliary, etmek. For the verb “to hate,” I prefer to utilize the auxiliary yapmak (have a poem titled, nefret yapmak) because I feel hate does not come from a natural action, that it takes effort to hate. So, “making” hate makes more sense than “doing” hate, I say.
At times, Grenier’s essays can seem disjointed and highly complex (if not “difficult”) and cannot (should not) be read quickly. Here, in the essay “Heritage Like Money Then: Risk to Reward,” we see such disjoint:
Identity, like money, is utilized then. Commemoration is needed no more. We are response-able then, after choices, not after burden or fault or blame or praise. We have no “truth” but a place to stand, a place of grace we give ourselves. We have power, elastic, interwoven. Then again, how do we come in? Lucifer, bringer of light, enlighten us to merge what is scholarly with what is literally, with what is human.
She also “splices” the essays with verse, which adds to the characteristic lyric essay “leaps”:
While the mist of philosophy hovers around art, there is a lag/space between cultural practice and its theorization, similar to the lag between poetry and literature. Personal and cultural histories linger in the body memory of the poet who is trans-national. There, histories fall apart as they come together, and they come together as they fall apart. There, a de-territorialization in space only poetry (art) can reach, matter passing into sensation , faceless, genderless, voiceless, awaiting a future that’ll be a new version of itself—a pattern, not the thread. Because one writes, not because of political or social systems, but because love and death are at the door, and hope. Hope from or for X, always. The trans-nationality of Celan gives Celan (the urge). How is that for me—beggar, gusto con justo.
if then you scrapped it all
love wills through still
long time bristled
no longer some slanted
sky elegy of more
in the form of
But, ultimately, Grenier’s use of repetition (insistence) helps to pull together each piece of an essay so that when it is considered as a whole, the essay connects to us and we find an understanding; thus, “the music flows, means what it does not say, the aspects are convincing.” This is the trademark craft of a lyric essayist, one who writes to make meaning only when the reader steps back to look at the collective: “a pattern, not the thread.”
The use of repetition not only occurs within individual pieces, but also among and between all of the essays in the book, so one could argue that the book itself is not a collection of separate essays; rather, it is one essay; the text itself has a collective identity.
These textual characteristics are what embody and enact the “exaptation at the margins,” Grenier’s call for us to denounce our language expectations, developed from culture, hierarchical rules and past experience, and expand into a new language that is not culture—or gender—specific. This, she writes, is the language of the poet, derivative of “a longing to negotiate the multivariate nature of realities, the elements, how divergent they are, where they are.”
There is genuine brilliance at every turn of the page: these pieces may not be read quickly; they need to be parsed out little by little, in order to allow the reader time to digest “that new song, that new language.” The Concession Stand opens a can of worms in the reader’s brain—we consume it when it aligns with our psyche, our understanding of our world (when it aligns with our memory, mirrors us, when the signifier connects with our signified). And it does so, taking a stand against Baudelarian theories of the lyric “being rarely in rapport with the reader’s experience.”
Grenier’s new lyric language takes us to “a new space-time at the concession stand,” paradoxically yielding to language and culture (history, memory) while maintaining a stand, an identity within the collective. It is “the paradox of locating the site of one’s dwelling in the world by embracing self-forgetting and celebrating one’s estrangement and otherness.”
A Tale of Exile and Extremism
Nonfiction by Deborah Baker
Graywolf Press, May 2011
Hardcover: 256pp; $23.00
Review by Ann Beman
Part mystery, biography, memoir, history, narrative nonfiction escapade, Deborah Baker’s The Convert doesn’t fit in any one category. Like its subject, Margaret Marcus/Maryam Jameelah, the book is a misfit. And like creative nonfiction should, it poses questions, and in wrestling with those questions, it jigs loose more questions, bigger questions, questions that tie you in knots, give you an unscratchable itch, or maybe incite you to hurl something not unlike a hardback volume across the room. In any case, it is a book you want to discuss.
First, you probably want to discuss Margaret “Peggy” Marcus, an American Jew born in Westchester County, New York. After coming of age during the postwar period, she converted to Islam, dubbed herself Maryam Jameelah, rejected America to spend the rest of her life in Pakistan, and became a well-known figure in the Islamic world. According to author Deborah Baker, Jameelah’s books “continue to influence the way the Islamic world thinks of the West—America in particular.” Her writings have been described as “broadly responsible for cementing the global cultural divide between Islam and the West.”
With your next discursive breath, you’re liable to want to cover Jameelah’s transformation from Peggy Marcus. In the lead-up to Jameelah’s relocation to Pakistan, land of her dreams, you’ll chat about Marcus’s commitments to New York psychiatric hospitals:
Margaret Marcus was not the sole misfit in the 1950s asylum. Artists, poets, homosexuals, communists, and unhappy housewives joined her.
Like them, Margaret found it impossible to comply with those little understandings, those slippery accommodations that made the world she was born into run smoothly.
Thus, outcast from the world into which she was born, Marcus sought another. In Islam, she found a world ruled by rigorous discipline, strict obedience of moral law, and struggle in service of the faith—the “one true path” from which one strayed not by the width of a single burqa thread. And through Islam, Marcus found Abul Ala Mawdudi, your next likely topic of discussion.
Celebrated throughout the Islamic world for his writings on Islam as well as his advocacy of an Islamic political order, Mawdudi invited the outcast American woman to live in Pakistan as his adopted daughter. This came about through correspondence initiated by Marcus before she officially converted but after she had begun publishing essays in English-language Muslim periodicals. Once she arrived in Lahore, Mawdudi discovered that her brand of crazy was more than he and his family could handle. He foisted her onto loyal followers before committing her to a Pakistani madhouse. One of his loyal followers, however, smelled money in her madness and took her as a second wife, thus springing her from the asylum, fathering her children, and continuing to support her as she published book after book rejecting the West’s evil ways.
Before you go much further, you’ll want to pause—as the author does throughout—and ask some questions. How and why did Islam become the remedy? When examining Margaret/Maryam’s life choices, do you look only at cultural biases (Islam vs. the West), or do social biases (lunacy vs. sanity) enter the frame as well? What was really going on between Mawdudi and Margaret/Maryam? It purports to be Margaret/Maryam’s story, but isn’t it just as much Baker’s? Ultimately, the lion of the desert’s share of your questions could address the author herself, specifically the author’s motives and methods. For this you might blast straight to page 225, “A Note on Methodology.” More often than not, if creative nonfiction authors have a disclosure, they often fess up in the end material, and Deborah Baker has just such a disclosure. But let’s say you’re in a linear mood, and you don’t like to read a book’s end material until warranted; that is, until the end.
Baker’s story begins in the New York Public Library archives, where she discovers the “Maryam Jameelah Papers,” containing letters Margaret Marcus sent to her parents, as well as her published articles. As the Pulitzer-nominated biographer tugs at the thread of how a woman like Margaret Marcus became Maryam Jameelah, eventually following that thread to Pakistan, she finds that small questions only lead to larger ones. The author writes:
Anonymity is my vocation. I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them. Behind the doors of my study, I wear them like a suit of out-of-date clothes, telling their stories, interpreting their dreams, mimicking their voices as I type. I find myself most susceptible to those tuned to an impossible pitch, poets and wild-eyed visionaries who live their lives close to the bone. Haunting archives, reading letters composed in agony and journals thick with unspeakable thoughts, I sound the innermost chambers of unquiet souls; unearth dramas no one would ever think to make up.
That is, until Baker attempts to sound the innermost chambers of Maryam Jameelah, who, it turns out, punctuated much of her own drama with made-up scenes, made-up props, and made-up lines.
I felt like a carpenter who, while he is dutifully milling old boards, sees his saw bite on a hidden nail, sending splinters flying in all directions. Only then did it occur to me that I had made the same mistake [Mawdudi] had made. From a series of letters I had conjured an entire being. I imagined I knew Maryam Jameelah.
A Brooklyn-based writer, Baker continues to follow the Marcus/Jameelah thread for personal reasons stemming from the 9/11 attacks. In the end, as she discloses in “A Note on Methodology,” she finds she must condense and rewrite Jameelah’s letters in order to make sense of Jameelah’s life, and to investigate certain questions about the world, as well as her own mindset. “Some readers,” Baker says, “might find this simply unorthodox, others may well feel misled.” You, on the other hand, might see this as one more way the author inhabits Jameelah’s life, mimicking her voice as she types. Either way, The Convert will give you lots to talk about.
Fiction by Phillip Sterling
Wayne State University Press, March 2011
Paperback: 134pp; $18.95
Review by Matthew C. Smith
Titling a collection of short stories In Which Brief Stories Are Told may seem rather obvious, but Phillip Sterling’s tales of loss, detachment, and mystery reveal the complications inherent in narrative and character, and call into question the relationship between narrator and audience. Throughout, he brings to life characters we ordinarily might not give a second glance: bystanders and passers-by who, like the reader, catch only glimpses of the greater plot in which they play a role.
Sterling likes to come at a story from oblique angles, lending an air of displacement to the telling. The title of the opening piece, “One Version of the Story,” sums up his approach, describing what appears to have been a hit-and-run accident through the eyes of not the perpetrator or victim, but the used car salesman:
As he told his story, I began to feel cold, like when Bob turns on the air conditioning too early in the spring. I first wondered if it was the coffee—I’d been drinking more than usual that week—or if it was because I hadn’t had enough for breakfast. But then I realized it wasn’t my stomach. It seemed to be coming from a place in my body that I didn’t know was there. A feeling I’d never felt before. A feeling of disbelief, perhaps. Or uncertainty.
He takes a similar approach in “What We Don’t Know,” in which the mystery of a man crying alone in his truck at an all-night gas station leads us into the lives of those who gather cautiously around him. It’s almost a sleight-of-hand; Sterling presents us with a puzzle—why is the man crying?—and then guides us into a different narrative altogether, leaving us satisfied that this is where we wanted to be all along:
There is nothing uglier than a crying man, it seems to me. It’s disgusting. There’s little that compares to the sloppy, grotesque effrontery of male tears. Even at my worse, in fact, even shortly after the accident, when I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time, and I knew that my life as I’d known it was over, that I would from that moment on be a figure of darkness and shadows, of third-shift employment and post-midnight shopping at twenty-four-hour Walmarts—even then, when I looked more hideous than any person deserved to look, I still would have won a beauty contest among crying men.
Many of the stories play not only with perspective, but also with time, sometimes leaping years ahead to reveal the tale’s outcome and then returning to study the character caught in the moment like a bug in amber, and at other times drifting backwards into hazy memories of lost years to seek answers for how we arrived where we are. In “The Small Bridge,” the author lets us in on the game, approaching a story of love, marriage, and loss, in an academic tone. “Let’s call him Will,” he writes, introducing the characters:
In opposition, as the framing of our narrative requires, the young woman standing beyond the small bridge shall be named Joy, apropos of her mother’s exclamation upon the announcement at birth of the child’s gender.
Even here, however, where we travel back and forth from the initial meeting of the two characters to brief episodes in their future engagement, marriage, and the birth of their child, Sterling reserves omniscience for himself, obscuring events which will eventually tear the two apart. It unbalances the reader, who has taken on the role of detached, all-knowing observer only to be left in the dark along with the characters themselves.
Sterling explores his fascination with malleability of time in its most extreme form in my favorite piece, “Within an Inch of the Burnish Knob,” which dissects a split second of time, a moment of hesitation as a hand reaches for a doorknob, offering either history or possibility—what could be or what could have been, it’s not always clear:
He wants to reach and turn the knob and face the unknown, or he wants to turn away, it’s no good, it’s too late, nothing else can be done […] Hesitation is all he’s capable of. Or he’s not capable of hesitation. And he hasn’t hesitated at all, only his hand has hesitated when the groceries slipped as he was about to.
The author’s awareness of the complexity of lives modestly lived allows him to create fully realized characters within the confines of his brief stories and leads his readers toward the fleeting glimpses of truth which flicker through our own lives.
Poetry by Carl Adamshick
Louisiana State University Press, April 2011
Paperback: 64pp; $17.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
Curses and Wishes, Carl Adamshick’s award-winning debut collection, is driven by brief retrospective and introspective poems, compacting an overwhelming sense of loss in America. Adamshick at once laments and celebrates different ways of American life, ranging from small-town farms of the Midwest to the international scale of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following in the tradition of American poetry that engages with the American spirit, Adamshick transfers the fervor of Whitman’s long, sprawling lines into short-lined, energetic poems that make for a fast and invigorating read. Curses and Wishes will entrance any reader with concerns for the fate of the American landscape and its people.
These poems speak to what America as a country should be and what it has become. In “Our flag,” the speaker proclaims that the flag should have “a small branch / signifying the impossible song” and even claims: “Let it be insignificant / and let its insignificance shine” as a gesture to keep the American flag as a nonthreatening entity in the world. The deft and haunting lyric of “War as the cherry blossoms,” sings out:
We prepare the same ancient armature.
The deception of language
is that we are beautiful, that we give and care
as the cherry blossoms
fall in the high heat of noon.
Adamshick brings to the reader’s attention the cyclical nature of war, of how it reinvents and masks itself, like the blossoming of cherry trees in spring. These sentiments continue in the couplet poem “The emptiness,” where, as the speaker sees the gruesome images of war in the media, he tries to distance himself from the images. He recounts these images in the lines “I am not the body that dies naked, / swollen and torn, // infested with beetles” and “I am not the bombed-out factory, / its machinery covered in snow.” The speaker feels like his “face is a hole,” as a pervasive sense of emptiness fills him.
The final long poem of the collection, “Out past the dead end sign,” focuses on a speaker, a married woman living in a small town, by covering a vast span of her life in fourteen sections separated by “and.” As the woman walks through a field, she reflects:
Here. Here is where we begin again.
Change, find ourselves chest-deep kissing
in the wet moon. Here, now, we need
to silence all this waiting.
The sections begin to build upon one another as they investigate the speaker’s marriage, childhood, and emotions. These events create a mounting tension and pace as the poem moves to its final crescendo in the final stanza as the speaker proclaims: “I’m not the dreamy one. / I know exactly where we live. / I know what I take.” This final poem serves as the culmination of well-crafted poems that know exactly where they stand, situated on an American landscape and engaging the past while remaining firmly in the present.
Poetry by Peter Richards
Action Books, April 2011
Paperback: 90pp; $16.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Helsinki, as a collection, almost reads as one long poem. The poems are nearly uniform in length and line-length, all one-stanza, lacking punctuation, title-less. The poems are characterized by their drive, their unceasing motion that sweeps the reader along with it. It is the work of an author with focus; the collection’s themes are primarily on love and war. The love object, a reoccurring character, is Julia. The book first begins with discussing war and death:
In time I came to see death was the hay
binding one soldier to another and my own
death would appear partially lit as during
a nighttime operation the moon barely attends
Like his relationship with Julia, the speaker romanticizes death, creates his own more poetic and unrealistic death in his mind in order to confront the violence and unattractiveness of the death he sees, as a soldier, daily. Julia first appears in the second section (though there are references to a “she” in poems beforehand). The poem relates a fable type of tale for the origin of Julia, in Helsinki, the reoccurring setting of the poems:
[…] came her shoes well but not exactly like shoes
horses wear on Earth for one was named Julia
and as it came free of her hoof it too sprouted
wings from its own iridescence and like a naked
girl endlessly climbing a horse so Julia climbed
In the dream-like quality of the poem, Julia shifts from a shoe to a person, to, at the end, someone beside him telling him to “please go to sleep.” As the speaker remade death into a more fanciful, attractive version, so he remakes how he came to be with Julia, refashioning it into more of a myth or legend than possible and adding a mystery and magic to her as a person.
Helsinki keeps the reader captivated through its complex and surprising twists, the poems’ strengths in their strange and unexpected shifts.
Fiction by Bogdan Suceavă
Translated from the Romanian by Alastair Ian Blyth
Northwestern University Press, January 2011
Paperback: 212pp; $19.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Fallout from a real revolution can be worse than its cause. Mass murder, reckless replacement of proven agrarian practices, and imprisoning the educated are just a few documented aftershocks. Fictional revolutions and their resulting chaos can be equally atrocious, as it is in Bogdan Suceavă‘s Coming from an Off-Key Time.
Using the 1989 Revolution in his native Romania as the catalyst, Suceavă depicts a dystopian society caught up in religious and nationalistic fervor. If a book bled color, Coming from an Off-Key Time’s would be grey.
The novel’s central conflict is between two burgeoning sects. The Tidings of the Lord is a model of organized religion in the 21st century. It is no accident Tidings resembles a mega-church with its own cable channel:
The grammar of matter, this is what must be sought in the Bible, in the Old and the New Testament, and if we want to understand the world, we will require a church that is like a research institute, and research institutes will have to become churches. A militant church, which strives to solve problems, to research and study as if it were praying, a church that is organized like a Macedonian phalanx, like a Roman legion, like Hamburg University, like a mound erected over the footprints of the Lord God. It is no joking matter.
Tidings’s spiritual leader is Vespasian Moisa. He is a “twice-born” 33-year-old with a map of Bucharest on his chest. He “sees” in the dark and reads minds. Suceavă compares Moisa with Christ but also makes him a modern-day Holy Fool. Unlike those poor souls in czarist Russia, Moisa is looked after and treated with respect—as long as he is useful.
Along with Moisa’s map, Tidings of the Lord espouses a Theory of Vibrations causing followers to believe that Bucharest is the New Jerusalem. Readers must be patient learning the Theory because it is revealed piecemeal. The Theory argues that:
In the world there exist vibrations left over from the time of creation, and we can reach these vibrations left over from the time of creation, and we can reach these vibrations via a suitable code. And this code, which unshackles and clarifies everything, proved to be the Romanian language.
Their rivals the Stephenists are more direct. It is a pure-race movement guided by the opportunistic Darius. He manipulates followers by evoking the legacy of Romania’s 15th century warrior prince Saint Stephen the Great:
What he did we too should do in every hour. Just as the hermit monks practice ceaseless prayer, so we too should ceaselessly live like Stephen the Great. All that he did let us do also. If he could move a church over a mountain in one night, then we too should be able to do it. If he could defeat the Turks, Hungarians, Polacks, Mongols, and the Wallachians of Bucharest, then we too should be able to do it. And let us thank our God, the God of the Romanians, that He will have helped us to victory. For the message that comes to us from the past is very clear: we need only open the history book and read. That is our Gospel. We ought to conduct Mass using the history book, to pray from it, to take communion with it.
Tidings of the Lord and the Stephenists are of the same mindset regarding the Romanian language, “the combination of the safe of the universe.” Unfortunately they are too suspicious of each other to realize it. Besides, the military, media, and Romanian Orthodox Church play off the two groups for their own agendas. Suceavă adds all kinds of historical, religious, and literary subtext to his Coming from an Off-Key Time but makes it clear his fictitious state is no different than Byzantium or Communism.
Everyone is so distracted fighting and posturing that no one can explain how a monument of “the sun with inwardly pointing rays” mysteriously appears in University Square…site of the 1989 Revolution.
Suceavă also incorporates a few devices common in dystopian literature. One common to imaginary and real coups is that victory is never claimed until the airwaves are secured. The dark humor of Off-Key Time’s debates and newscasts come from—not surprising considering the author’s emphasis on language—people not listening to each other.
Regarding communication, Suceavă cannot resist poking standardized Sovietized Russian, the USSR’s failed attempt at 100% literacy. At a Tidings rally, the speaker Lakatos apologies for his incoherence due to the “tragic” circumstance of “not being able to study in his native language” that was made worse when the army “forced him to learn the dreadful idiom of the majority.”
As in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, there is a hideaway containing contraband that miraculously survived mass destruction and censorship. The Tidings follower known as Saint Peter has little but:
in something resembling an air-raid shelter, there could be found the largest library in Bucharest, vastly superior in terms of its number of volumes to the Library of the Romanian Academy, which, according to the statistics of the Library of Congress, is supposed to be the ninth largest in the world.
Finally, talking animals are a sure sign things are Off-Key. Bulgakov’s Behemoth the black cat is a kitten compared to Suceavă‘s Lieutenant Trăistaru. Still on active duty, Trăistaru was literally transformed into a cat when the KGB was “preparing a new weapon, something based on cosmic rays, absolute vibration or the devil knows what they call it.”
Coming from an Off-Key Time is a disturbing and ambitious dystopian novel, which it should be. Suceavă blends Romanian history with universal fringe elements that conquer rather than comprehend. The scrutinized use and abuse of language makes this a unique read—though, as history demonstrates, a far from unique situation.
Poetry by Fanny Howe
Graywolf Press, May 2011
Paperback: 104pp; $15.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Fanny Howe’s latest work, Come and See, explores themes of spirituality and war with a concern for children growing up in the midst of war-torn countries. Spirituality, a theme that can be seen in Howe’s work as a whole, rises more in the form of a seeker, one questioning religion, rather than an adherent.
In “Hymn,” the speaker “traveled to the page where scripture meets fiction. / The paper slept but the night in me woke up.” The speaker questions the validity of the scriptures even while reading them—the questions rise up in her like “night.” She asks, “To what end did their shapes come forth? / To seduce or speak truth?” referring to the words in the Bible. The poem then moves into the vivid image of “birds…like pot-bellied angels,” combining the every day with the religious. In the end, she concludes vaguely “only that which exists can be spoken of,” leaving the reader to question whether she came to a decision on the validity of the scripture or if the questions still are within her.
While the majority of her poems tend to incorporate medium-length lines and remain on the shorter side, the last and title poem of the collection, “Come and See,” departs from this. It is a long prose poem, and, being at the end of the book, feels as if the author has relaxed her austere grip on language, pulled the readers closer, and let them in for a closer perspective. The poem begins with the description of a piece of art, a theme in this book. And, like her poems on spirituality found earlier in the book, she examines this art and questions it, asking “Did this really happen?”
Come and See invites the reader to come up close to spirituality and question it, examine it from every angle, as Howe has done once again, in this collection of poems.
Poetry by Daniel Tiffany
Action Books, April 2011
Paperback: 62pp; $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
With Privado Daniel Tiffany offers up a pop-cultural remix of sorts on, as he tells it, “cadences used by the armed services in marching drills,” so every “poem” or “section” here is titled “Cadence.” However, the nearest he allows for hitting a rhythmic stride is the oft repeated:
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoa, oh-oh, oh-oh-oh
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoa, oh-oh, oh-oh-oh
Other than such set instances of found refrain (which always arrive in italics), Tiffany resists having either rhythm and/or sense appear to take form in his clusters of lines. This sharp refusal is driven by a commitment that his “troops” be individuals and not blocks of droning dolts. His lines refuse to come together in “chorus” but rather howl out of turn:
Damien’s warped sensibility radiates
An ape-like curatorshiplessness.
A fine abandon.
Changes in game eroticism
Revive the medium of the album jacket.
Lie down on the grass.
Thus while there are plenty of directives given there’s no clear direction being headed and little or no encouragement to follow along. Tiffany’s resistance to the very form he seeks to exploit is clear, as he explains “these training songs” are “chanted in formation by recruits for lengthy periods” but the only “training” anybody is doing here is one of resistance and that includes the resistance to “in formation”(al) tools. There is no “form,” no “informing,” and no “information” of use included. The poems may take place within, and possibly intend to celebrate, “the colorful realm of living beings” but any such celebration is presented as random, rather trivializing convergence of competing sounds and images dedicated to resisting meaning, narrative or otherwise. It’s a pity because when the “Goons gone home, / Black cat bone” song has done, the wind blows lonesome as ever.
Poetry by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Sheep Meadow Press, February 2011
Paperback: 124pp; $14.95
Review by Stephanie Burns
In Greek mythology, there is perhaps no myth so painfully evocative and morally instructive as that of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, the brilliant architect of the Minotaur's labyrinth, constructs wings of feather and wax so that he and his son can escape their imprisonment. They are almost successful, until Icarus, forgetting his father's warnings, flies too close to the sun and his wings melt, plunging him to his death. Rachel Eliza Griffiths's The Requited Distance mines this myth, as well as the other stories related to Daedalus, for their rich and mournful underpinnings. Griffiths presents the conception and birth of the Minotaur, the construction of the labyrinth, Daedalus's attempted murder of his nephew Perdix, and Icarus's fatal flight through many different eyes (including that of a watching fig tree), capturing profound emotions with her lush descriptions. Throughout, we witness the cost of unwieldy desire and ambition.
Beginning abruptly and memorably with Pasiphae's lust for the white bull (given by Poseidon to Minos, who fails to sacrifice it), Griffiths enthralls us with her startling depiction of Pasiphae's physical experience of bestiality, a rough and punishing satisfaction to her desire:
my ribcage exposed enough
to be shattered Twist my neck
to feel the animal's bristling So hard
to bear this Flying then apart
Here, the words seem to split in sympathy with Pasiphae's body. Daedalus has facilitated this mating by building Pasiphae the wooden frame of a cow to seduce the bull. His first foray into emulating the animal form therefore foreshadows the tragic result of his later attempts, as it results in violence and the subsequent birth of a monster, the Minotaur. Daedalus sympathizes with Pasiphae:
Lonely, I too turn away
from the companionship of
my own form
The frailty of moral
desire is bewildering—
In these lines, Griffiths places Daedalus in the same position of transgression as Pasiphae and thereafter each act of invention or creation seems as dangerous as Icarus's upward trajectory.
In Griffith's poems, the relationship between Daedalus and Icarus is troubled and distant, doomed by Daedalus's obsession with his work, “My father loved wings more / than my life.” As Daedalus speaks out in poems full of mourning and regret, Icarus seems to have an existential crisis as he probes the circumstances of his shortened life and abrupt death, “Here I am, widowed / by my father's happiness.”
Increasingly, Daedalus seems like the classic tragic hero, undone by his own need to create. His attempt to murder Perdix when his nephew threatened to surpass him as an inventor might have served as a warning to Icarus: “His brilliant dreams / can only harm you.” Still, Griffiths finds beauty in the yearning that Pasiphae, Daedalus, and Icarus all display. Each character seeks the extraordinary and reaches it, even though they are later crushed by the equally extraordinary consequences:
This is how you made us better,
dreams of flying men
formed through fire,
blue clay, wingspan.
The way that Griffiths structures her book, placing both Daedalus's and Icarus's laments before recounting their flight, leaves us on that note of absurd hope—the exuberant arc of Icarus's ascent.
Fiction by Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books, May 2011
Hardcover: 340pp; $19.95
Review by Alex Myers
Atlanta in the late seventies and early eighties, two women, two daughters, one man: such are the major players in Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. Delicate and tender without being cloying, this novel explores not only the strangeness of bigamy but also what it means to be a wife, to be a sister, to be a family. The premise of Jones’s plot is straightforward: James Witherspoon, a black man who runs his own limousine company, has married two women and fathered a daughter with each. Only one wife, Gwen, and her daughter, Dana, know of the existence James’s other family (Laverne, the wife, and Chaurisse, the daughter).
Identity and belonging rest at the heart of this novel. The first half of the story is narrated by Dana, who speaks in the voice of a knowledgeable woman who can remember what it is like to be a naive child. Jones balances the voices of innocence and experience masterfully, as when James tells the five-year-old Dana that she can’t talk about his second family:
“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him. He put me down from his lap so we could look each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.” …I felt different…my skin stayed the same while this difference snuck in through a pore and attached itself to whatever brittle part forms my center. You are the secret.
Dana’s narrative is dominated by the psychological impact of knowing she is secret, and while she surreptitiously observes her sister, she grows more aware of what it means to be accepted, to be acknowledged. Her sister, Chaurisse, becomes ever more the focus of her life—how to avoid her, how to find her, how to be like her, how to be better than her.
Midway through the novel, Jones switches to Chaurisse as the narrator. The effect is tremendous: suddenly a world that has been speculated on and assumed about is opened up. And like any reality, it is both more complex and more mundane than imagined. From Chaurisse’s perspective, her domestic life—a beautician mother, a chauffeur father—is normal and boringly happy. When she does encounter Dana, (who is to Chaurisse a stranger, while to Dana, on a botched “surveillance” attempt, recognizes Chaurisse as her sister) she sees in her a “silver” girl, “girls who were natural beauties but who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar. It wasn’t just how they looked, it was how they were.” In short, to Chaurisse, who is round and plain, Dana is the enviable other. The story that follows is at turns humorous, at turns painful, filled with gentle tension as Chaurisse and Dana begin to grow close, one in blissful ignorance, the other in painful awareness.
The strength of this novel goes beyond the relationship between the two sisters, however. Each character, from the mothers to the father and his almost-brother Raleigh, is fully-realized, leaping off the page. Jones weaves backstory together with the main plotline without slowing down the pace of the narrative. The personal history of each family emerges through the daughters’ patient telling.
For instance, take the tale of Gwen, the secret wife, meeting James when he comes to ask her to giftwrap a carving knife, which is an anniversary present. She can’t help but laugh and then apologizes, “‘Forgive me, sir,’ she said, and she really was sorry. ‘It’s just that most men buy their wives something a little bit more romantic. Like perfume.’ He looked at the carving knife. ‘This is a g-good present. It cost twenty-three dollars.’” To Gwen, James is a lost soul, floundering in a marriage without love.
But later in the novel, when we hear the other wife’s story, we find a fourteen-year-old girl, seduced by a seventeen-year-old James and, once pregnant, married in “her Easter dress, lilac cotton with pressed pleats. At the time, this dress was her greatest achievement.” The novel constantly questions where truth lies: in perception, in experience, in memory, or in desire? That it does so subtly, through story and voice rather than exposition, makes it all the more delightful.
Silver Sparrows is a unique offering, a window into a distinct time and place and a peculiar setup. For all that, it tells a story most familiar, which is what good literature should do.
YA Fiction by Jodi Lundgren
Second Story Press, March 2011
Paperback: 217pp; $11.95
Review by Audrey Quinn
Oh, the teenage years. Insecurities, fights between friends, disagreements with parents, first loves, and broken hearts. Leap by Jodi Lundgren has it all and more. Natalie Ferguson is a fifteen-year-old who finds herself battling drugs and drinking, body issues, insecurities about dating, the struggle to hold onto childhood friends all while coping with divorced parents who are ready to move on with their lives. The amount of things on her plate would be overwhelming for anyone and through diary entries the reader goes through it all with her. Natalie’s one savior is her love of dance though she finds herself at odds with her strict dance teacher. While she explores a newfound love of modern dance, Natalie comes into her own and finds confidence in her ability to handle all of the crazy things life has thrown her way.
Lundgren’s prose shines when she creates the dance scenes. It’s clear that she loves dance and that she wants her readers to feel the same way about it. Not knowing anything about dance doesn’t matter at all because her descriptions are so vivid and so clearly filled with passion for it: “As the music started and the curtain rose, I disappeared into the piece. For eight and a half minutes, I melded with the movement, the other dancers, the wooden boards under my feet.” It would have been nice for dance to take more of a center stage in the storyline.
As the story progresses, dance becomes Natalie’s saving grace but her true love for it doesn’t come until she finds modern dance. Hints of why she had loved it before under a dictator-like teacher would have helped the reader understand the impact it had on her earlier in life, especially during her parent’s divorce which is an integral part of the story. There are a few points in the book where hints of Natalie’s past, or her relationships with people before all of the drama unfolds, were needed. Her best friend, Sasha, who we learn is dealing with her own family troubles, quickly spirals out of control and is terribly mean to Natalie. It would be expected of anyone to miss his or her closest friend, which Natalie does for Sasha. However, the reader never really gets to know the Sasha that Natalie grew up with, so when they almost make up a few points through the story one can’t help but wonder why Natalie still wants to be friends with her.
Questions like that could have been cleared up in Natalie’s diary entries but instead of the introspection one expects to find in a diary it is mostly a play-by-play account of Natalie’s experiences. Without seeing the dates and times at the beginning of each entry there rarely would have been anything distinguishing them as diary entries. As a protagonist Natalie is likeable but her voice isn’t consistent. At one point she’s using all capitals and punctuation markers and at the next she’s dropping bits of prose that seemed far too elegant for the fifteen-year-old the reader had gotten to know:
The sky blazed fuschia. The disc of sun slipped, second by second, behind purple hills on the horizon. Clouds sponged the light and the sky shimmered peach, pink, yellow, and even green. A plume of airplane exhaust twisted vertically, like a tornado. With every breath, the colors changed. The brilliance faded, slowly, and left us standing in the dark.
At one point Natalie calls a fight a “rumble,” and that one word leapt off the page because it seemed so out of character.
Lundgren balances a web of storylines, and it is a miracle that Natalie is able to carry herself with such poise at the end. There will be something in this book that everyone is able to relate to because Lundgren exposes Natalie to such a wide range of issues and tests. Despite the fact that Lundgren’s prose can be inconsistent, the protagonist that she creates is realistic and it’s impossible not to root for her in the end.
Nonfiction by David R. Dow
Twelve, February 2011
Paperback: 273pp; $14.99
Review by Maurice Chammah
In the past decade, death penalty defense lawyers have taken to the practice of outlining the life history of their clients to juries, including the circumstances that led to the murder for which they face death. The goal is the jury’s sympathy, the hope that they might spare them from death. I always wondered about whether these same juries end up with sympathy for the lawyers themselves. A life of death penalty defense, with so many sleepless nights and last-minute scares, often seems like a sadomasochistic, or at the very least, all-consuming career choice.
At the same time, the complexity of the law can make it easy to give up trying to understand what it must be like to get involved. The process of appeals, as it unsteadily lopes through the courts, sometimes over decades, is so labyrinthine that all of the emotional aspects, the fact that it is fundamentally about life and death, can get lost in the language of "evidentiary limits," "procedural requisites," and a whole mess of Latin.
David Dow, in The Autobiography of an Execution, manages to balance these poles of complexity and emotion, legality and sympathy, by way of confession. Unlike Dow's earlier written work on the death penalty (Executed on a Technicality), this work is an impression-heavy, emotionally sophisticated narrative of the experience of a death penalty defense lawyer as his client nears execution. In Dow's reflective prose, the story of the legal battles is woven in with disarmingly intimate accounts of his life with his wife and son, and his guilt over spending so little time with him.
Random events from his relatively typical middle class experience are interspersed between the fever pitched moments of intensity that pervade the legal process around the death penalty, execution dates, hearings, and last minute stays. With almost no warning, the mundane jog in the early morning, the glass of whiskey, the briefest interaction with his son, become powerfully invested moments because they are placed so close to the “dreadful anticipation” surrounding each of his clients. Dow expertly guides us through his multiple worlds: a stable, though occasionally tense domestic life, a frantic law office, the crushing environment of Death Row, without cheap juxtapositions. We feel the transitions, are compelled by the contradictions, and walk with Dow as he retreats to his home office at 3 a.m. to write down ideas for cases.
By trading in chapters for randomly lengthened anecdotes separated by dividers, Dow is able to capture his own loose vision for an autobiography that is only partially about himself. The clients sometimes bleed together and the legal threads often become obscure, but the result is not an ocean of information so much as a tight web of impressions. One can choose whether or not to trace out its complexities, while still unable to help being enveloped by Dow's synthesizing prose, terse as Hemingway, which takes emotionally harrowing turns with powerfully little notice. The most effective moments are when he is communicating with his young son:
On Thursday morning, as we were finishing our pancakes, Lincoln said, What are we going to do when you get home today, Dada? It was the day of Green’s execution. I told him that he was going to have to hang out with Mama today […] He said, Are you trying to help some person? I told him that someone else was trying to help the man. I was just going to visit him. He said, Why can’t you help him too?
The innocence of Lincoln’s understanding is a powerful device, and Dow utilizes it to reflect on his role in the complex legal processes with a poignant simplicity. Along with a lack of documentable facts, voices like Lincoln’s make Dow's story a dreamlike walk through experiences, and indeed he mentions the stories of various dreams with nearly as much detail as the real world. Following with rules of legal ethics (and an appendix by another scholar explains these rules), he cannot tell us exactly which facts go with which cases, and his archetypal death row defendants are such abstracted in a fashion that allows him to describe his life with collage-like impressionism. Trips to the supermarket, long drives to Death Row, his son's baseball games, and lying in bed chatting with his wife all form a kind of landscape in his mind that may be imprecise, but is far more beautiful for it.
As a result of these limitations, Dow's work reflects much more accurately the way people actually remember things. Events are chronological only when the chronology itself has meaning, emotions and experiences are more powerful than facts, the interactions with judges and other lawyers more powerful than the facts of the cases. We are left not with a step-by-step account of Dow's life and work, but rather with the fragments of horror left by it.
Poetry by Michael Heffernan
Wayne State University Press, March 2011
Paperback: 71pp; $15.95
Review by Larry O. Dean
Cribbing from Leo Tolstoy, poets of place are all alike in how that particular locale obsesses them, whereas poets from Detroit are uniquely autochthonous. Jim Daniels, Toi Derricotte, Robert Hayden, and Philip Levine are four writers who come to mind, and each wears their (sometimes bittersweet) affection for Detroit like a permanent tattoo. Michael Heffernan, along with the above poets, has spent more time away from his native city than within it, yet no matter where he goes—Kansas, Washington, Ireland, Arkansas—he totes Detroit's DNA along with him, whether he chooses to or not.
At the Bureau of Divine Music is Heffernan's ninth book, published as part of Wayne State's Made in Michigan Writers Series, and its browser-friendly Library of Congress cataloging gives co-credit to “regional interest” as well as poetry. The cover, a triptych picturing the Lee Plaza Hotel's decimated yet still eerily beautiful ballroom, forges a connection with the not-unpopular notion of Detroit as a ghost of its formerly industrially mighty self. Still, At the Bureau of Divine Music operates less as a well-pinned map than as an MRI of a Detroit state of mind.
Heffernan is a poet whose work is plain-looking as well as plainspoken. That Detroitish self-effacement is reflected within the aesthetic credo coined by architect, Louis Sullivan—form follows function—meaning that Heffernan is less interested in how his poems appear on the page than with what they have to say. (It's true that form and function can also live in blissful harmony, but Heffernan adheres to the separation of church and state.) Technically, he prefers to write in longer-lined, single stanzas, diverting from that principle pragmatically, such as in the first of a few persona poems, “The Way You Do,” where stanza breaks give the reader a moment to pause, and the poem itself a place to shift its interior focus. One mode of Heffernan's technique is its intermittent obliqueness; for example, it takes a few lines for the reader to discern that “The Way You Do”'s speaker is definitely not Heffernan, and not even male:
You caught me at a bad time, when things were weird,
and bound to get weirder with you around.
What you call love can make me really crazy.
My ex did that, only in a different way.
He would come home to have sex at lunchtime,
no matter what was going on with me.
Such confessional chattiness is engaging, and pulls one easily into the narrative. But without any formal notification, the use of the masculine pronoun causes the reader to stop, and reevaluate what is being related by the speaker. The next few lines further develop that speaker's personality:
The kids could be frying cats in the track-light sockets,
after turning the broken bulbs into kitty food,
in case they couldn't kill them some other way;
or crucifying a neighbor kid in the backyard,
or using the custom-built treehouse as a gallows
for each other; or I could be doing laundry,
and he'd walk in and lead me to the bedroom.
“The Way You Do” is an engrossing psychosexual portrait, appearing early in At the Bureau of Divine Music, and one of the best poems in a uniformly well-calibrated collection. While others, such as the five that precede it, are good as well, they more so support the book's overall tone and add counter-balance to its leitmotif. The next poem to jump out, “The Message,” thematically echoes “The Way You Do,” right down to the now-explicitly female voice that begins it:
My husband had a knack for knowing things.
I don't know how he knew about Jack and me,
unless he had me tailed. I think he did,
though he would never say. All I know is
one day the Company security
came by and told me to clean out my desk
and head for the parking lot.
Again, this speaker's cavalier attitude, and the scenario Heffernan lays out makes for compelling reading. “The Message” is the book's lengthiest poem, yet it doesn't feel long-winded or desultory; if anything, with its left-field ending Heffernan smartly refuses to neatly conclude an unresolved (or unresolvable) situation. However, readers shouldn't think that the author's emphasis is solely on fabricated characters here. “The Art of Self-Defense” is, if not admittedly attributable to the poet himself, a vehicle for a contrastive point of view and wholly disparate temperament:
Another day's stint in the free world
begins here in the donut shop. Standing in line
wondering how many cheese Danish and apple fritters
as well as donuts I should buy, while the creamy girls
in their summer dresses are licking their profiteroles,
I see myself as a boy in the summer of 1953
salting sliced tomatoes with my grandfather
in the white shirt he wore.
One is inclined to appreciate this poem as autobiographical, as evinced by its reference to one of Detroit's dailies, and the sense that it comes from a personal place lends even more credence to its quietly devastating conclusion:
I was eleven. I wasn't fast or clever. This was the autumn
after the summer they fried the Rosenbergs.
Gramps walked me down to the corner to get the Free Press.
The photograph showed their bodies on the front page.
He tugged my hand and kept me from seeing it.
We mark these solitudes throughout our lives.
This is not simply about things as they are.
This is about donuts, profiteroles, and straw hats.
Things cannot be as they are in this country.
These declaratory, end-stopped lines evoke a stammered litany of thoughts, memories, and feelings clearly crucial, perhaps even influential to the speaker's evolution. Here Heffernan is justifiably solemn, but At the Bureau of Divine Music is not without moments of levity. In fact, he can skillfully temper even the most intense revelations with comical underpinning, such as in “Do We Never Tire of This?”:
You had redone the dining room again.
I came downstairs to find my father's urn.
It wasn't under the set of Chinese dogs
on the knickknack in the corner where it was
with the Flemish compote tureen under it
on the Amboise table, and I was miffed a little.
Like the die-hard Detroiter he is, Michael Heffernan finds humor in places where the geographically-challenged would spot only death, disloyalty, and destruction. His poetry is all the more industrial-strength for it.
Fiction by Jenny Shank
The Permanent Press, March 2011
Hardcover: 304pp; $29.00
Review by Elena Spagnolie
Right off the bat (no pun intended), Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, appealed to me. The story takes place in the Mile High City, Denver, Colorado—a location I still consider to be home even though I haven’t lived there in eight years—and I was looking forward to being transported back to the wide-open skies, to the dry, thin air of the Rockies, and to the familiar sights and streets of my youth. And I wasn’t disappointed. Shank’s sense of place is strong, and throughout the novel I experienced many wonderful moments of nostalgia and recognition—Hey! I’ve eaten at that restaurant! I know that newscaster! I remember the daily, summer thundershowers!
I also remember the real-life news story that inspired her novel. In 1999, a Denver SWAT team entered the home of Ismael Mena during a “no-knock” drug raid and shot and killed him, only to find out later that they had the wrong address on their warrant; they had killed an innocent man. In her novel, Shank alternates in chapters between the perspective of Ed O’Fallon, the police officer responsible for shooting Salvador Santillano, a Mexican immigrant living in Colorado, and the perspective of Patricia Maestas, Santillano’s widow. She takes the time to create whole and complex characters and breathes life into believable portrayals of human suffering and love. For example, Ray, Patricia’s twelve-year-old son, teeters between being an angry, distant adolescent who constantly rebels against Patricia and the innocent, confused, and sensitive boy she remembers from years past.
“This is a little two-step,” she said, “your grandfather taught me it when I was your age. Watch my feet.” She demonstrated the simple dance, right foot behind the left, back to the center, left foot behind the right, back to the center, repeat, putting a little shimmy into every move. Ray’s big puppy hands sweated as he concentrated. She wondered how many more Saturday nights she’d spend with him, until he started begging off to go see a girl. He was as tall as she was now.
“You’re a natural dancer,” she said, watching Ray pick up the step with almost no effort.
“So was Dad,” Ray said, looking straight at her.
Likewise, Ed O’Fallon isn’t simply categorized as a trigger-happy cop; he is a father of three kids, and a fallible human being:
Ed saw the muzzle flash and he fired again, but the sound was distant, muffled. He wasn’t hearing right, he wasn’t seeing right, just riding the wave of his training, his body having memorized what it was supposed to do… He stared at the man on the ground, unable to comprehend that he, Ed, had done this.
I appreciate that Shank isn’t afraid to put her characters in difficult situations; Patricia has to decide whether or not to take the lawsuit to trial (and make an example out of her husband’s death) or if she should settle out of court and accept a sum of money that could pay for her kids’ college, Ed has to figure out if he should identify himself to Patricia when he discovers that Ray and his sons are in the same baseball league, and both parents have to learn how to deal with the guilt caused by the loss of Salvador Santillano.
Murder, however, is not the only thing that links the two families; baseball soothes them, creates a much-needed distraction, and even brings the families together in understated and beautiful ways. You can tell that Shank has an appreciation for the game that goes beyond the average sports fan, and it comes out in her writing.
The structure of the story is strong as well, though at times the pacing feels slow because the most climactic moment takes place within the first twenty-five pages. But overall, I think that structural choice adds to the realistic nature of the book; recovering from a traumatic event is often gradual, not something that can be resolved quickly or easily, and is steeped in memories and uncertainty. The ending of The Ringer respects that process and does not try to reconcile everything at once; however, it takes a dramatic turn that (given the pacing of everything before it) feels mismatched with the rest of the novel.
While not overly literary, Shank’s novel is a solid, well written, and enjoyable summer read, especially for fans of baseball…and homesick Denverites.
Poetry by Timothy O’Keefe
Oberlin College Press, April 2011
Paperback: 76pp; $15.95
Review by Alissa Fleck
Timothy O’Keefe’s The Goodbye Town is brimming with small, intricate images, stacked piecemeal upon one another to create the brilliant and sensuous world of each individual poem. Space is not only put to remarkable use by the poet in a structural sense, but is a complex recurrent theme as well. The occupation of space and—conversely—absence, are ever-present throughout O’Keefe’s work. The poems’ people are shadows and outlines or fleeting memories captivated only by the noises they produce.
In “Meditation in Red, Blue, and Violet” O’Keefe writes, “We’re kept alive / by the spaces we’ve fled / like the reversed ridge of a spine / in the couch cushions,” and in “Little Understanding,” “some mauve-and-butterflied space of youth / now soured with rye, a humdrum faith, / an abscessed tooth.” More often than not O’Keefe’s speaker feels completely inaccessible to us as he describes the absence he personifies.
O’Keefe alternates between longer and more staccato phrases, exuding the coldness that leaves the reader at a distance from the speaker. The poet weaves his stories through parataxis; rather than flow across the page, they chop like a blade; no word ever feels superfluous. The Goodbye Town paints an image of fleetingness and disillusionment relying heavily on the engagement of the senses, particularly auditory. “The trouble with memory / is that it’s always / today,” writes O’Keefe, which speaks to this marvelous collection’s attempts to come to terms with the past, the perpetual goodbyes of life.