Sometimes our best is not good enough. We make mistakes. The most painful ones are those that harm a loved one. Stress and grief leave us in agony, and we play our choice repeatedly wondering if we made the right decision. We cannot let ourselves off the hook either merely because we are human.
In Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead, Irishman Jack Hopper arrives home barely alive and without his brother. What could he have done differently? Guilt-ridden, he needs time to sort through the events in South America’s jungle. In the meantime, his mother and his brother’s sweetheart, Nora, nurse him back to health. They wait patiently to learn specifics of Bax, Jack’s brother. To make matters worse, Nora eased Jack’s pain and he liked it. He had always secretly cared for her more than he should have. As time passes and Jack heals, and the two grow closer until they take a trip to South America where Nora then learns the truth.
Schweighardt is masterful at historical fiction and Gifts for the Dead is an example of her skill. Not only does she entertain with accounts that examine the perplexities of being human with its heartening moments and struggles, but she also inspires thoughts about the human condition.
How does one justify bad choices simply because they are human? Why can we not be better than that, and what about the good that comes from bad choices as a result? Will Jack Hopper find that good thing?
Gifts for the Dead is a thoughtful and entertaining read, especially for those who enjoy historical adventure mixed with suspense and a little romance. A wild escapade that thoroughly entertains.
Review by Christina Francine
Christina Francine is an enthusiastic author of a variety of work for all ages. When not weaving tales, she teaches academic writing at the college level. She’s also a licensed elementary teacher. Picture books: Special Memory and Mr. Inker. Academic: Journal of Literacy Innovation.
Stepping back in time to 1960s-Manhattan, author and former supernumerary actor with the New York City Opera Company (NYCO), Edward Hower reminisces of sharing the stage with the magnificent, world-renowned coloratura soprano, Beverly Sills in “Echoes.”
Readers, performers, and devout season ticket holders alike are presented with backstage passes to one of the most opulent, velvet-covered theaters in the world. Hower’s recollections are so detailed that we can smell the sweat seeping through the make-up, pantaloons, and Roman breastplates.
Through a tender, adoring lens, Hower observes how Sills’s pianissimos float through the air forever, with descents so dazzling that guests are left liquified. Questions of purpose and place are contemplated in between the echoes of scales and vibratos: whom to love and how to love them, refusing to give up by giving in, and to what ends one must sacrifice for the sake of maintaining their integrity. As audience members we too may feel, as Hower expresses, “the tremor of applause rising through us” as we seek triumphant courage amid the tyranny of doubt on the stages of our own lives.
Review by Camille Sleight-Price
In the second edition of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2019), authors Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin provide 18 entertaining and motivating prompts that range from the light-hearted to the serious and challenging. Drawing on both traditional forms and contemporary experiments, the authors encourage the use of found text, song titles, facts, and quotations. They propose scenarios and invite a poetic response. They even show how to “translate” the text of a poem written in a language you can’t read! Each prompt is followed by suggestions for getting started and sample poems written in response. What distinguishes Poems for the Writing from other poetry-prompt collections is that most of the sample poems are by undergraduates, community workshop participants, and some working poets. The responses are fresh, energetic, and unexpected.
This is an excellent book for poets and for teachers of poetry. The authors, both poets and teachers themselves, have selected prompts that work well in the classroom—for poets at any level and just about any age. They encourage emotional orientations, helping the students to plumb their personal experiences—and with just enough structure to help students struggling to organize and articulate emotional responses. But all of this comes with a touch of levity. Like Fox and Levin’s own approach to teaching, the book is friendly, open, and eclectic. The results are a testament to the extent to which prompts can trigger new and imaginative insights and jog one out of a routine approach to the blank page. Prompts are entry points—doors and doorknobs, as the authors put it—to new rooms, new emotional and intellectual spaces. The results are likely to be both surprising and satisfying.
Review by Antonia Clark
Antonia Clark has taught poetry and fiction writing and is co-administrator of an online poetry forum, The Waters. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Smoke and Mirrors, and a full-length poetry collection, Chameleon Moon (2014, 2019), and the forthcoming Dance Craze. Her poems and short stories have appeared in numerous print and electronic journals, including The Cortland Review, Eclectica, The Pedestal Magazine, and Rattle, and she has reviewed poetry collections for The Rumpus, Literary Bohemian, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and IthacaLit. Toni lives in Vermont, loves French picnics, and plays French café music on a sparkly purple accordion.
“The Suit,” published in the Spring 2019 issue of American Literary Review, is an essay by Julie Marie Wade in which Wade questions, but never resolves, what it means for her to be born in a female body.
Much of the essay is set in scene and centered around a tight-fitting suit that Wade’s mother is committed to squeezing her husband—Wade’s father—into. When Wade’s image-obsessed mother is not home, her father splurges on James Bond films and hotdogs and explains to Wade that “every man wants to be James Bond,” even though he doesn’t believe he will ever be similar to the handsome agent.
Meanwhile, Wade’s mother encourages Wade to nominate her as “Most Inspirational Mother,” via a department store writing contest. Between scenes, Wade gives us drafts of her contest submission where she wrestles with representing her mother in “equal parts nice and true.” Wade tries to define her mother as a woman who “can see through who people appear to be and identify who they might be.” In these drafts, we understand that although Wade praises her mother, she also examines how her family relationships influence the way she approaches her own identity.
Through metaphor, shopping with her parents, and contest drafts, this coming-of-age essay is a story that explores gender identity in a home that explicitly encourages traditional roles.
Review by Alyssa Witbeck Alexander
David Salner‘s The Stillness of Certain Valleys is impressively sustained. I could quote memorable lines from every poem. "Beer for Breakfast" is a pitch-perfect opening poem, and the subsequent sequence "A Dream of Quitting Time" is very strong. Then comes the agonizing "Goodbye to My Big Toe." Salner writes with gritty authority about many kinds of work, including a stint as a cab driver in "Like Silver," as well as in steel mills and coal mines. Now that world is in a state of collapse, hence "water drips from a tipple / to wild strawberries sprouting from rail beds" in the title poem. I admire the moving way he evokes the dignity of a working man in "Horse Trailer with Beans": "nothing / but the dirt under his nails / and who he is." This first section concludes with the understated "Steel Lunch Pail."
The second section begins with a boy learning to be an artist, which could be the poet himself or Winslow Homer: "He creases uniforms, / inks the hollow of a gully. With purple shadows / he molds the blunt, half-buried stones." Then come a series of poems about major American figures: Whitman during the Civil War, Melville brooding on human pain, Frederick Douglass working at the dry docks in Fells Point.
The third section features poems about his grandparents and growing up, before returning to the world of work, which Salner always depicts with convincing precision. Near the end in “The Lakefront Closes at 8 PM," the poet notices as he walks to the parking lot how the weeds have "white flowers." It's that impressive eye for telling detail that make the whole collection a compelling and convincing read. Salner has been there, done that. As Whitman once said, "I am the man. I was there."
Review by William Heath
William Heath has published three books of poetry, The Walking Man, Night Moves in Ohio, and Leaving Seville; three novels, The Children Bob Moses Led, Blacksnake's Path, and Devil Dancer; a work of history, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest; and a collection of interviews, Conversations with Robert Stone.
Issue 19.4 of DIAGRAM gives us “Call of Duty,” a riveting essay that explores the juxtaposition of needing and wanting. In this piece, Amy Long shares her experience with the unintended effects caused by opioid addicts for those who truly need the medicine and the lengths she went to in order to find relief from her own pain. Through beautiful and sharp phrases such as “I’ve betrayed the one person who really trusts me,” “I don’t want to turn into that patient,” and “I don’t lose everything. I don’t lose anything,” we get a sense of the narrator’s pain and the mask that she puts on and lives with in order to keep the trust of the people who matter most to her.
As most essays in DIAGRAM, Long’s relies on form and structure to move deeper the fear of judgement and misunderstanding. The essay comprises words, printed and cut up, that have been scanned onto paper in unique designs. Glassine envelopes are replicated in the story as well, providing more words, thoughts, and stories that are kept safely at first, but eventually spill freely onto the page. Stories such as these cannot be contained. We see, too, that through the use of font size, italics, wisely placed words, and bolding, Long remains apprehensive about the revelation of such truths; she still struggles with making any sense out of them. Only by letting the story spill out of the glassine packet does she even begin to make sense of what has happened to her body, her health, and her future.
Review by Tyler Hurst
In “Bought and Sold,” Issue 30 of True Story, author Renata Golden locates herself in the complicated history of the American West after inheriting two half-acre ranchettes outside of Deming, New Mexico.
Purchased in 1969 by her father, a man ready to leave the ordeals of the Chicago Police Force behind him, the land promised a “welcoming warmth.” Fifteen years after his death, Golden steps on ground that had been handed down to her as the American narrative of land leading to wealth and a better life. Instead, the barren landscape and hard crusted earth force her to confront “how primitive land could be.”
Though her father believed the winds of the West “carried a hint of hope instead of despair,” as Golden mines the history of her inheritance, she discovers the injustice, violence, and death inflicted on the natives and land grant owners who first called the land home.
Despite framing each scene of the essay with excerpts from historical documents, Golden writes, “I know that some voices have been lost to the winds that carry a palpable sense of grief. I do not know the truths of the past. I know only the stories told around campfires and corrals, in letters and ledger books, that have survived. Stories repeated became history.”
Review by Emily James
Although published in 1951, any person serious about literature would do well to read or reread Nabokov’s captivating autobiography, if not for the rapture of his complicated life, then for the beauty of his syntactical architecture. A master of form devoted to meaning, Nabokov relays the truths of a man twice removed from his home country of Russia, once by revolution and again with the rise of the iron curtain. He renders through complex but clear sentence structure the pains of diaspora and the call to home which he can never truly answer. Within this beautiful prose he also provides insight into his master works Lolita, Despair, and The Gift. He dangles before the reader a maze of sentences each providing a decadent feast for those who value—above all—the meaning-making capacity of provoking syntax.
Even his first sentence tells the reader more about his lost home and life than many lesser writers could conjure in a length of chapters, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Although he plays at the duplicity of life and death, so does his opening sentence relay the pain of a man who can never truly return to the womb of his mother country nor escape its call through death. Nabokov rewards the keen reader. He displays the full power of a prose master and does so with all the beauty of a life richly lived.
For those readers who seek reward through art, no writer has ever provided as much in their autobiography as Vladimir Nabokov.
Review by Justyn Hardy
Exploring the complexities and absurdities of grief, Book of Mutter is a lyrical text that will leave readers returning to its textured fragments of memory and meditation again and again. And each time, those moments will reassemble into something new and incisive.
Kate Zambreno, whose previous book O Fallen Angel won the Undoing the Novel—First Book Contest, reflects on and interrogates her relationship with her dying mother in this 2017 publication. Her mother proved such an invasive force in her life that Zambreno couldn’t help but turn to writing as the only hope she had to “expel [her] from my body.” With some photographs, spent lipstick tubes, hoarded kitsch, and a gardening journal, Zambreno sorts through these “ruins” in search of both a connection to and deliverance from the long shadow of a troubled relationship.
Far from conclusive or definitive, Book of Mutter offers something tragically beautiful and genuinely vulnerable to the perennial struggle of grief. While every page is not filled by text, they are all complete with curious and inviting moments of anger, confusion, peace, and yes, absence.
Review by Mark Smeltzer
Shanan Ballam’s newest book, Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Papers, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company in 2019, pushes the persona poem to its most shimmering and starved limit. Blending her voice with the perspectives of a depraved wolf, a blossoming girl, and a wilting grandmother, Ballam continually smashes wide the familiar fairy tale and trades reader comfort for animalistic truth. What empathy can be had for the predator? Is there a love story folded into the sheets of Grandmother’s bed? Would Red Riding Hood slip into the wolf again? Continuing the work begun in her 2010 chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers and furthered in her 2013 book Pretty Marrow, Ballam writes deeply into new velveteen layers of the aged cautionary tale.
Divided into six parts, the childhood world is rewritten for an adult understanding of intimacy and separation, ecstatic connection and pain. Through her passionate mastery of syntax and imagery, Ballam pulls readers deeper into a psychological landscape as sharp and mesmerizing as a kaleidoscope. The new Poet Laureate of Logan, Utah, as well as current faculty of Utah State University, Ballam writes with the bone-deep need to reclaim the story of monsters and naughty little girls into a truth more complicated and warm. Wholly driven and new, Ballam’s tangled reimagining of the condemning Red Riding Hood fable will mark up the mind.
Reviewed by Brittney Allen