Posted October 1, 2012
Riding Fury Home :: Half of What They Carried Flew Away :: My Lorenzo :: After Urgency :: With Blood in Their Eyes :: Rise :: The Branches, the Axe, the Missing :: Still Some Cake :: Sarmada :: My Marriage A to Z :: Apart :: Paradise Misplaced :: The Flood :: The Funny Man
Nonfiction by Chana Wilson
Seal Press, April 2012
Paperback: 384pp; $17.00
Review by Courtney McDermott
“I was the first child ever allowed to visit a patient at the private mental hospital where my mother was being treated. Before our first trip there, Dad said, ‘The doctors think your mother will get better if she can keep seeing you.’” The opening lines of Chana Wilson’s book illuminate the intimate, complex and soul-sucking relationship that she and her mother have throughout their lives, meanwhile plunging the reader into a sparse, transparent glimpse into the lives of women treated in 1950s psych wards. Wilson grows up with her parents as an only child, but at the age of seven, her mother is put into a mental hospital for her severe depression. She attempts to commit suicide numerous times, and the memoir jarringly opens up with the scene of Gloria holding a rifle to her head in the bathroom.
As a child, Wilson (who was born as “Karen” but as an adult changed her name to the Hebrew name Chana—a subtle indication of her changing sexuality and individuality) interacts with her mother through a mix of words and silence. She learns to love words from her multilingual, bibliophile, opera-loving mother. It is hard to read this book and not feel empathy for both Wilson and her mother, Gloria. Watching Wilson psychologically and physically supporting her ailing mother, when her father takes a job in Europe, is painful and beautiful—a child caring for her mother so completely. And though Wilson expresses anger and, at times even hatred towards Gloria, the effects of the electroshock therapy on her mother (such as wiping out her knowledge of languages beyond English) are sickening.
It is in Wilson’s early adult years—during which she comes out as a lesbian to her mother—that she discovers the root of her mother’s depression. Gloria was having an affair with another married woman, and the treatments and mental hospitals were attempts by Gloria’s own family to eradicate her lesbian tendencies. The two women begin a new relationship, sharing secrets, talking about their lovers, occupying the same space where both are mentally present in a way that couldn’t exist in the confines of Wilson’s childhood. And yet Wilson’s inner turmoil with this new relationship is clearly evoked and considered: “I imagined sobbing in my mother’s arms, but I couldn’t quite let go to this new mother who could now offer solace.” Wilson has to learn how to regress to a natural state of childhood—letting the mother soothe and care. It is a regression that she stumbles through, and perhaps never fully occupies, because her mother soon grows ill (this time with cancer), and Wilson is left to care for her once again.
In the shadows of the pages sit Wilson’s non-relationship with her father, who virtually disappears in parts two and three of the memoir, only to return at the very end, when a sort of reconciliation is reached. Wilson so skillfully evokes empathy for all of her characters—exposing flaws and sadnesses, weaknesses and triumphs—that although we may been angry with her father for leaving Wilson to take care of Gloria, we also feel sorry for his own pain at not having an intimate relationship with his wife and no one to confide in. As he told Wilson during the writing of this book, Gloria had asked him to live as brother and sister. Through this confession, Wilson begins to understand the pain her entire family suffered and reminds us that a tragedy that strikes one member of a family hurts the entire family.
More than a compelling memoir of mother and daughter, Wilson’s narrative depicts a changing political and social climate in America and documents the late 20th century sexual revolution. This book is an essential contribution to American lesbian history, especially to the lesbian radio scene in the San Francisco Bay area. Wilson interviews her mother for a radio show, and through this new medium, the rage and shame she bottled up as a child pour out anew. Yet, as one woman reminds her after the interview broadcasts at a lesbian conference: “If you never do anything else in your life, you have done something by sharing this story.” Wilson’s memoir certainly deserves a place in women’s literary history.
Wilson’s straightforward, clearly written scenes read much like radio programs, which is a nod to the ten years she served as a radio producer and host. In the later years of the memoir, Wilson rushes through scenes, jumping from one year to the next in much the same way she jumps from one lover to the next. The careful pacing and growth of part one and Wilson’s childhood are lost in the later chapters, but I find that the last moments with her sick mother, and her reconciliation with her father, help to counteract the sprint through her adult life. It is rare to say to our parents all that we wish we could say, and yet Wilson reveals that it may indeed be possible, that you can start new relationships with your parents, and that through writing, through art, can you begin to decipher the pain.
Poetry by Andrea Rexilius
Letter Machine Editions, April 2012
Paperback: 112pp; $14.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
All throughout Half of What They Carried Flew Away, Andrea Rexilius proves her command of words and sentences. Mostly, the process of her creating is hidden by its resulting prose poems and declarative stanzas. One passage, however, lifts the curtain: “These borders live on, interrelated. Between the body’s procreation and use. I have been told, it is unfair to say the word ‘body’ again. That’s fine. It’s easy enough to ignore.”
A writer may recognize these last few sentences as a defensive reaction to a workshop comment that could have referred to Rexilius’s repetition of a word or two within a single short poem. And one can’t help but recognize, too, the irony in her defense. Even as she punctuates “ignore,” the many repeated words, phrases and ideas in Half of What They Carried receive a spotlight beyond the glow given by a simple repeat.
Despite, or because of, the special attention given to the repeated words, it’s clear Rexilius has every right to defend them. Half of What They Carried Flew Away is a prime example of what a writer can do with repetition, whether within one tightly-spaced poem or across an entire collection. While one technique is swiftly spinning expansive leitmotifs, the other is undermining, stripping words of assumed definitions, adding more, beginning again.
The poem “There are two worlds . . .” helps to further explain how Rexilius feels toward words, as it deconstructs “blue”:
They are referring to negation, to the deepest blue. But it’s hard to get the blue of this sky, they say. Is it the same blue as that blue over there? It is true, they think, to question the language the blue has given them. . . . What is this blue called, they wonder. What is that blue.
(Also see the early lament, on page four, of language’s inability to capture an idea: “‘Please’ they cried: ‘we can’t really describe movement.’”)
The most frequently repeated words in the book are “they” and “I,” yet the ambivalent pronouns are also the most often defined:
They are from the early 1870s.
They move from house to house like windows.
They rise and fall.
They are a demonstration.
They continue to drift.
Their—the pronouns’—mystery separates the speaker from subject in a way that parallels the distance between a signifier and its signified, but it also suggests the complications in understanding and relating to other people, and to oneself: “I am yellow, or red. / I was asked if I am myself. / I am myself.”
Half of What They Carried Flew Away is two stories: it is people looking for identity, and it is the identity of words flaking off.
Poetry by Sébastien Smirou
Translated from the French by Andrew Zawacki
Burning Deck, May 2012
Paperback: 120pp; $14.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Impossibly pure poetry is a losing game. At best, a transient mood may be set by way of tone as the general weight of measured restraint from over-expression provides an atmospheric gloss of consciousness. This is the haunting of Mallarme. The desire to have the poem stand for more than is possible. Yet Andrew Zawacki’s translation of Sébastien Smirou holds up admirably well in the face of such challenges.
Jennifer Moxley’s introduction aptly describes the book’s structure:
Eight chapters, each consisting of eight pages, each page made up of two quatrains, one octave separated by a caesura—sixteen quatrains per chapter: sixty-four lines. All lines are typographically justified . . . Smirou’s stanzas are boxes . . . try as we might, we cannot read My Lorenzo as we would more traditional poetry. Nor can it be called prose poetry.
It is “an occluded narrative that tangentially refers to the life and thoughts of Lorenzo de Medici, called ‘The Magnificent,’ the famed humanist, poet, and statesman of Renaissance Florence,” which never settles into any dependable categorization. The writing itself being composed and structured in such a manner that, in Moxley’s words: “Smirou asks us to constantly realign our rhythms and move our emphasis about, depending on where we are in its composition.” Tangible, realistic imagery and straightforward narrative have no place here.
Punctuation is also absent. Parentheses alone provide for shifts in perspective and at points overlap in a matryoshka-doll mesh of complexity:
since moved by this water inside the eye Lorenzo inclines
to favor a dream (‘i already saw that (in reality (everything
is real) it’s guilano who’s wary)) he reclaims control of such
an island where to enjoy it and how long?' An angel passes
we can ask ourselves how the grand poet asked himself
lorenzo was living this loopy role of grand ambler shiftyeye
(grin of ladies whose hands on their knees crossed crossed
(better & less than in guido’s era & laugh & skin are bared))
Moxley also notes the “fresh articulations” Zawacki’s translation discovers as the need to find the closely counted measure of words to fill out the line forces his translation into splendid invention. For instance: rendering les idées louchent into “the doublecrosseyed ideas.” To give an idea of what Zawacki’s options were, a free online translator site Babylon offers the rather intriguing and expansive “the ideas are casting covetous glances” yet also identifies “louchent” as “v. be cross eyed, squint, skew”; meanwhile Google translates the entire phrase rather succinctly as “ideas squint.” Given these options, Zawacki’s “doublecrosseyed” is both lively and inventive. The talented translation work done here makes My Lorenzo a fascinating technical display of vaunted skill.
Poetry by Rusty Morrison
Tupelo Press, April 2012
Paperback: 71pp; $16.95
Review by Pia Aliperti
Many of the meditations in Rusty Morrison’s After Urgency—selected by Jane Hirshfield for the Dorset Prize—arise from nature where the poet comforts herself after the loss of her mother and father (“‘My dead,’ I’ve begun to call them”), who died only a season apart. How, now, to “live past” their deaths? How to go on; “how to stand still?” In “Appearances,” Morrison’s melancholy goes unanswered by the landscape: “Tree-line, water’s edge, places that borders will gather against. / What a body might verge upon, it can neither tame nor test.”
But, to Morrison’s intense gaze, nature’s “patternless order” that exists despite her grief holds lyrical solace (“A tightening sky teaches precision”).
In Greek myth, death—the underworld—is a kingdom, a place with borders and coordinates. In After Urgency Morrison tells us that if death is a border, then grieving exists between borders. Grief is a “friction” like her mother’s scarf: “As the past’s frequency and the future’s finality—the always / and the never again of my mother wearing her scarf—coexist here.” After Urgency is Morrison’s struggle to live in the present (“I try to walk lighter, while still occupying each step”) even as her mind flicks over and over the details of death and her loss. “Birth certificates, marriage license, news clippings, unfold only a little landscape,” she writes. Just as “In certain dusks, trees turn the smoky white of inherited furniture.”
Grief is waiting (“Yes, as though impossibility / . . . were at the end of all this waiting,” wrote Maurice Blanchot, whom Morrison cites in the epigraph to her book). And when one waits, Morrison writes, one’s mind “attunes.” Morrison’s beautifully crafted lines can freeze a pinprick of an instant—the wind on her earlobe, the ant suddenly on her arm, or the invisible movements of hummingbirds—just as she can give shape to logic or philosophy. (Often, her lines do both: “The yellow striation in wild irises is a wild I can’t narrate.”) Sorrow lends Morrison an “aroused sentience” as she walks through her landscape (“a dormitory of day-walking”) to see and be seen:
An attentiveness can excavate,
rather than fill,
the depths of its five senses.
An ear, as a cavity, might attune to its own
empty space, and thereby grow more familiar
with the resonances in other absences.
Here, her breath, her voice, and even her “quieting hand” interact with her environment just as the wind would. “I say ‘Father,’ the view roughens in reply. // I say ‘Mother,’ and the sandy shoal underfoot tosses and flows, schools of startled minnows.” A rabbit she encounters “fix[es] his stare to [her] stare.” Her need is to “fix on thing after thing,” Morrison realizes, “As though it would fall / to me to keep the world substantive and by sighting / upon it, hydrated.”
The structure of After Urgency mirrors Morrison’s preoccupation with how she “might live death all the way to the edge of its form.” Often Morrison’s long lines push against the margins (“Margins can be un-generous—the false calm / a trespassing body might take as welcome”). Sometimes her lines are padded in white space; others, often in the same piece, pool at the middle of the page. A collection of serial poems, After Urgency shuffles sections so that the poems “imbricate” (“Do our senses imbricate to offer us a wing of ascent?”) as form recalls Morrison’s layered observations.
For grief is also porous. When Morrison walks through the woods, through a subway car or through her own kitchen, the openness of her perceptions—their sudden “charges,” their quick pivots between outer and inner life—shocks the reader into her own trance of heightened attention. Each word becomes an “iconic ridge” for the reader to notice. Still, the boundaries between senses, between external and internal landscapes, between grief and experience, between Morrison’s observations and my own as I walk through these elegies, become blurred if not erased: “A lung may listen with more acuity / than an ear; a thing’s function / can obscure its worth.”
Fiction by Thomas Cobb
University of Arizona Press, September 2012
Hardcover: 224pp; $24.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
In the John Ford’s 1962 classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there’s a line or two that ring particularly true to writing about the West. After learning the truth about the shootout and the story behind outlaw Liberty Valance’s death, the newspaperman tells James Stewart’s character, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Arizona’s history is filled with stories that would seem to be nothing more than these historical Western caricatures—gunfights, sheriff posses, treks through unforgiving desert terrain in frantic attempts to reach Mexico, and individuals fighting for what they see as freedom against a federal government. These episodes—these types—have become ingrained, perhaps, in the identity of Arizona over the past hundred years of statehood and, perhaps, even celebrated as a means of that identity. In writing about southern Arizona and its history, it would be easy, simple, and perhaps in some ways correct, to write to those tropes—to “print that legend.” However, With Blood in Their Eyes, author Thomas Cobb successfully plays with the space between history and legend deeply rooted in southern Arizona, and we’re left with a cast of characters to try and make sense of.
In his historical nonfiction novel (as it is termed), Cobb takes his readers through the 1918 story of four lawmen from Graham County, Arizona, who came to arrest John and Tom Power for draft evasion and died in a subsequent gunfight between the Power family and the Graham County sheriff’s posse. The gunfight and following month-long manhunt for the Power brothers through southern Arizona as the brothers fled to Mexico are the real basis for the Power story—legend?—and their incarceration, trial, and eventual parole are simply a two-paragraph epilogue at the end of the book.
With Blood in Their Eyes begins dramatically. “Prologue: February 10, 1918. John Power woke to the sound of bells and horses’ hooves. He rolled out of bed, not quite sure what was going on, just that it wasn’t right.” Right away, this is a story of conflict, tension, and complex context. Right away, you realize that this is a story that is going to have as many layers and complex strata as the geology and the landscape of the rugged and inhospitable Galiuro mountains to Cochise Stronghold to the ever-elusive Mexican border. (As a side note, one of my favorite descriptions in the book was John Power’s attempt to rock scramble over the gargantuan granite boulders at Cochise Stronghold. As an avid rock climber who has spent time bushwhacking to find hiking trails to rock routes in Cochise Stronghold, there was an unmistakable air of authenticity that rang all too true to Cobb’s description of the desperation and frustration of Power’s frantic boulder scrambling.)
With its larger-than-life stereotypes of the American West, it would be easy to write a larger-than-life account of the Power brothers’ story. In other words, it would be easy to really play to an audience’s expectation about characterizations, themes, and for Cobb to tell the story in a predictable way. But he goes beyond a simple recounting of events or a trudge through academic archives—Cobb lets the backstory of the characters and their complexities, their motivations, and their contexts be told through flashbacks as John and Tom Power, along with the hired man Tom Sisson, make their way to Mexico. The story thus unfolds almost cinematically—the drama of the events is heightened as the telling of the story holds the reader’s anticipation.
Cobb’s use of this type of storytelling mechanics is a subtle nod to the type of practically cinematic episode that he is relating. The story, in this case in conjunction with the backstories, reinforces the actually telling. There is a fantastic symmetry to the craft and the story that allows Cobb to explore themes within With Blood in Their Eyes—themes like loyalty, identity, camaraderie, and culture that would be difficult without this type of storytelling mechanics. By the end of the book, you’re not sure whether you like John and Tom Power as characters—you’re not sure whether you’re looking at the Liberty Valance outlaw or the John Wayne tragic hero. It would have been easy for Cobb to spin a historical non-fiction novel that held them up and immortalized them as folk heroes defying the “federal man” or the “system,” and it would have been just as easy to write them as fugitives that did not appreciate or understand the changing nature of Arizona’s socio-political landscape as the law worked to validate its statehood. The real genius in Cobb’s writing is that you’re left with characters that you don’t know if you like—but you’re compelled to keep reading to see how their story unfolds.
With Blood in Their Eyes is a fantastic read for a historical nonfiction novel. The complexity of the story and its surrounding themes is belied by the seeming simplicity of the characters of John and Tom Power and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the character of Tom Sisson. What is really apparent, however, is that Cobb is deeply ingrained in the complexity of Arizona and the stories and people that gave frontier Arizona its character.
Fiction by L. Annette Binder
Sarabande Books, August 2012
Paperback: 168pp; $15.95
Review by Trena Machado
Winner of the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction, Rise by L. Annette Binder is a book of fourteen stories in which, with each story, we experience living inside a trauma from the subject’s interior eye level. Binder gives a no-blink portrayal of what happens to an individual and the person close to that individual as the trauma is lived and shapes their responses. She constructs her stories around traumas many of us will deal with at one time or another with ourselves or a loved one or collaterally from the newspaper: a child kidnapped at the mall, life lived around a birth defect, a child losing a parent to death, war with a malicious neighbor, molestation of a young teen by a parental figure, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, a driver hitting a child in a crosswalk. Once thrown into trauma that is life-altering, how do we reclaim ourselves . . . or can we?
Trauma has a tsunami pull on the psyche and, when not able to sequester it within the boundary of the everyday normal, Binder shows how the ones affected struggle to right themselves, to hold on, and how difficult it is for them to take in the concern and kindness of their various caretakers, mothers, wives, husbands, grandmothers, neighbors. In “Nod,” a wife wants to pull her husband back from his lostness by giving him a birthday party that he does not want: “She was thinking of a carrot cake and bottles of house merlot, and was there anyone from work he’d like to invite. There was a space for twenty in a big room, maybe twenty-five.”
On his end, in the same paragraph—each of Binder’s paragraphs a condensed fabric of everything . . . past, present, the room, the neighborhood, hopes, fears—he was dealing with an amorphous terror: “He should go back to bed. He should lie down beside her and pull her against his belly, but he stayed in front of the TV. He lay there, and it pushed down on him. The weight of all that air.”
“Nod” is a helpless looking on of what to do with someone unable to articulate what is happening to him, but another character’s efforts, as mundane as they are, are the persistent caring that pull him through. As the young boy in “Halo” says: “It’s good to have somebody who will listen even if they don’t understand.”
In “Shelter,” a story of violence between neighbors develops along a seemingly predictable path, but the ending is unexpected and, in the midst of destruction, makes an octogenarian couple’s whole life together the fulfillment of love’s power. Acts of caring and kindness demand as much hard strength to keep life in balance as the cruel human acts and random chaos requiring them.
The way Binder uses the breakage of trauma to explore the human boundary against “the stars in their strange patterns” lets us experience that curdling nerve of awareness of the universe’s blind eye aspect. In “Wrecking Ball,” a teenager entranced with making and setting off explosives, born from the death of his father, uses destruction to deal with his pain: “There was a reason his father had walked to lunch that day and a reason he crossed against the light. His mother said things were meant to be. They were printed on us before we were born.”
Longing for his father, when a father-figure molests him, he finds a way to retaliate without getting caught. He says of his mother, who had become a therapist after five years of work, study and sacrifice: “All the books she read and all the seminars, and she didn’t understand. Things happen for a reason, sure, but we make reasons ourselves.” While he is having his photo taken with his mother celebrating her graduation, his retaliation is taking place at a distance: “He wanted things to stop, and he wanted them to burn. He wanted his father back from the mountains. The flash was dazzling when it went off. It lit up the whole room.”
Over and over, Binder integrates the inner and outer as she uses coincidental events to capture the driving force within a psychic wound: it is “what” someone focuses on . . . the energy of wounds short-circuit to the world, finding phantom patterns (everywhere) that take on an ensnaring life of their own.
The characters in these stories deal more with “the strange” than “the mystery.” “Mystery” has luminosity, hope, vistas. “Strange” takes us to a dead point of inchoate terror and powerlessness, a down draft into quicksand. As excellent as the writing is, incisive short sentences that march on their own effortlessly, this is an emotionally difficult book: we fully get to glimpse the blind eye aspect and our heroic struggle with it. Some of the characters don’t make it out, as in real life. Some will struggle in a long night all their life, as in real life. Some are saved by rising to the best of what it means to be a human being. The story “Rise,” the book’s namesake, is a believable story of redemption, yet even with attentive human caring and the mystery of grace, redemption is a struggle—but possible.
Poetry by Charlotte Pence
Black Lawrence Press, June 2012
Paperback: 28pp; $9.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Charlotte Pence’s chapbook and winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, leads the reader through a sequence of unnamed poems. A brief narrative of a woman leaving her husband after a divorce and thinking about her homeless father is told alongside poems that address the development of language and social interaction among the evolution of humans as a species. Varied in form and length, each poem adds another link to the narrative chain that brings together a complex and sophisticated extended poem that dwells on our evolutionary desire to communicate.
Raw, yet scientifically laced poems speculate and trace the human brain’s evolution. Early on in the chapbook, the speaker renders this image: “We were born from wood and fire. Roasting small mammals as we sat / in circles”—yet “outside the circle: darkness.” These pools of light reflect synapses in the brain connecting to form evolutionary development, such as when the narrative continues throughout, claiming:
However the story began, we know
its middles, know
how taming fire kicked us
out of arrested development.
We, and no other animal, understand how to
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
with flint, chert, pyrites,
pocket link, feather down, pine moss, yucca
shreds, cedar bark, Bic.
A relationship between concrete objects and human understanding reveals a vital link to how people relate to the outside world and one another while also revealing the gaps in communication that can manifest over time.
The piecing together of a history of human development with the advent of fire is told alongside and in conjunction with a woman who must now live on her own. The speaker relates her story in fragments throughout the chapbook, linking her story with the depiction of early humans. In one poem, the speaker comments that
She does not know
the knowledge lost
before the mind
conceived of language,
conceived of sound
men cup couple of men.
The moment after we spoke
how did the world change?
Continuously obsessed with that first word spoken by our distant ancestors, the development of language and words and naming, the speaker attempts to speculate on that first moment of speech. The reader must now traverse these open-ended questions to piece the fragments together, to form some kind of individualized narrative.
While covering a plethora of other classic dichotomies, such as humans and nature or men and women, The Branches, the Axe, the Missing thrives in its constant retooling of how language impacts our understanding of our daily lives. Displaying a keen sense for nuanced storytelling while remaining in the realm of carefully refined poetic language, Pence creates multiple narrative lines within the limitations of the chapbook. Each condensation of language allows the reader to read and re-read the chapbook, piecing together new arcs every time.
Poetry by James Cummins
Carnegie Mellon University Press, January 2012
Paperback: 120pp; $16.95
Review by Joanna Kurowska
James Cummins’s volume Still Some Cake tells a story whose meaning unfolds gradually, like in a puzzle, as one pieces together phrases, motifs, insights, scenes, catchwords, central figures, and word or theme repetitions. Because it is a story, it seems advisable to read the collection as a whole, from the first to the last page.
Among the distinct themes that reverberate throughout the volume is that of partial knowing. It denotes the philosophical-existential state of incompleteness, as in “This Night of All Nights”: “Who can say / . . . why we are vulnerable / to dreams, and almost know.” The theme of “almost knowing” returns in the poem “The War of All Against All”:
It’s someone else’s dream, that we can know
each other. But nearly knowing the base
we build a life on, build a world.
In “Moses,” the fire (God) speaks to the poem’s title figure: “you know too much and too little, / to enter the land I promised you.”
It seems helpful to have identified this one among the volume’s several recurring motifs, because Cummins leads his readers throughout a thicket of themes, vistas, and modes. Sometimes we are invited to experience, together with the poet, things deeply personal: a father’s love for his daughter—a
serious first-born whose
carefree attitude hides
death-loyalty to her friends
or the difficulties of a marriage with a psychologically wounded person. Other times we are awed by the poet’s ability to grasp larger issues through his characters’ personal experiences, as in the poem “The Snipers,” which relates a conversation between two war-participants, a father who fought in Normandy and his son who fought in Vietnam. This poem captures the paradoxes of the “history of violence”—another frequent theme in Cummins’s volume. As each speaker depicts his experiences, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the horror underlying their exchange: “you would say it was a good job / to watch the melon of a man’s head / fly apart.” The poem captures the speakers’ entanglement in history and its legacy of aggression, of which they are both victims and executors. The son addresses the father: “I feel it was your sight along the barrel, / your heart I had to stop before I fired.”
American topography, history, and culture reverberate throughout the volume. For instance, the poem “November 22, 1963” depicts the time of the assassination of JFK. While sharing the general shock (“We’ll never get past this”), the lyrical subject asserts life: “I was fifteen: desire needed no abyss / . . . even hoary old Mrs. B—would writhe beneath me.” Written emphatically in the first person (from the boxer’s perspective), the exquisite poem “Brunch with Sonny Liston” tackles some of its title-hero’s biography, while echoing racism: “My own fork’s not good enough, right? Maybe some / black man’s saliva gets on a white guy’s salmon? / He’d die, right?”
The poem “Old Story” brings out another recurring motif, that of God. In his depictions of Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s wife Rebekah, Cummins poetically reinterprets the Bible’s “great narratives.” Abraham entertains his divine visitors, who have brought him the news of Sarah’s late pregnancy. Astonished, he notices that they resemble “a locust . . . / its wings dark in the sun.” Later in the poem, Rebekah discerns the locust in Abraham: “I swear the old man looked / like a locust himself—glittering, green, / black with rhapsody and rage.”
Eventually, God himself becomes locust; which echoes not only the Old Testament (or one of its “plagues”) but also bug-like aliens from modern sci-fi films; or even theories of the “alien insemination” of the human race. Befittingly, the part titled “Rebekah” begins with the invocation: “The locust is the Lord / The locust is the scourging Face. / The locust is the scourge of Elohim.”
“Old Story” tackles another recurring theme, that of the father. Because of his readiness to kill his son on God’s command, Abraham the father is in fact an anti-hero. Later in the volume, in the poem “Moses,” his act is identified as betrayal: “how does a son sit at a table, share / a meal with such a father, ever after?” This excerpt alludes not only to Isaac’s experience but echoes many other poems in the volume, with their recurring theme of a painful relationship with a father—the lyrical subject’s, his wife’s, Isaac’s with Abraham and God.
More themes can be discerned in Cummins’s complex, disquieting, occasionally accusatory, in many ways magical story. We could talk about time—where the past intertwines with the present, so that both lose their distinctiveness—or about place—where the sense of a locale becomes evoked through a detail (for instance a “country-fried chicken and mashed potatoes” as markers of a “small city in the Midwest”)—or about the ever-tentative border between self and another, as in the fascinating poem “War of All Against All.” All these and other motifs make Still Some Cake a rich and fascinating read.
Fiction by Fadi Azzam
Translated from the Arabic by Adam Talib
Interlink Books, May 2012
Paperback: 224 pp; $15.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
The novel Sarmada, by Fadi Azzam, is the story of the Druze village of Sarmada in the rugged southern mountains of Syria. The narrator, a journalist, has escaped his upbringing in this backwater for the cosmopolitanism of Paris and Dubai. In Paris he meets a woman who believes that in another life, she was a beautiful young woman of Sarmada, Hela Mansour, who in 1968 was punished for running off with a lover. The narrator goes to Sarmada to investigate this fantastic tale of transmigration. Interviewing village survivors, he learns of Hela’s five brothers and how their monomaniacal obsession to restore family honor forced the lovers to live as fugitives and pariahs. He learns how, out of exhaustion, Hela left her lover and returned to Sarmada to face the bloodlust of her family and how no one in the village intervened to stop the brutal death foretold. The narrator in his return becomes a seeker looking for “. . . clues to help me try to understand how I fit in with these people who made me who I am . . . who nursed me . . . with the waters of rage, fear, joy and gloom.” Foreshadowing the present convulsive awakening in Syria, with all the divisions and sectarianism, he portrays a place of myth and magic ultimately under siege by the forces of transformation.
In Azzam’s Sarmada, women are the subversive heart of the interlocking stories. They love inside or outside the bounds of marriage and find strategies to deal with loss and grief as the men with epithets like “Scatterbrain” and “Crackpot” disappear into the vague mists of war, revolution, vagabondage, madness, or emigration to far off and unimaginable places like Venezuela.
Soon after Hela’s death, Farida marries into the village, but her husband is killed at the wedding by a stray bullet. She becomes known as a black widow. As she struggles to make her own way, she evolves: chaste outcast widow and then village healer running experiments with “grief-milk.” With this magic fermentation: “She realized . . . it was her duty to reawaken joy in the village that was surrounded by sorrow, stones, and dark blue basalt.” Later she awakens to her own sexuality and proceeds to initiate every adolescent boy in Sarmada. One of the initiates is the youngest of Hela’s brothers with whom she conceives a son, Bulkhayr, born with two penises—a strange imagining perhaps meant to imply that unlike other men in the village, this character will be truly manly and potent. He ends as a kind of mad wandering poet. His visions and potency do not bring him any peace. Farida becomes a devoted mother and gives up her loose ways to follow a spiritual path as a Druze devotee.
Farida’s story intertwines with that of her sister-in-law, Buthayna, bent on revenge against the “black widow.” Over time, they make their accommodation, but Buthayna seduces Bulkayr when he is a schoolboy, teaching him to write his letters with molasses on her body. Azzam portrays a culture with a deep transgression bent on undermining surface traditionalism:
His first year of school went by and the grape molasses lessons continued, even though her irresistible instinct to possess the child gnawed at her and her dream of becoming a mother constantly lashed at her soul. . . . Was she really just trying to get revenge on Farida by corrupting her child? . . . she resolved to stop regardless because her feelings of deadbeat guilt drowned the pleasure in sin.
In the course of these tales, Azzam gives us a panorama of history as the men go off to fight against French imperialism, to be lost or imprisoned in the ‘67 war against Israel or to become dupes or victims of the Baathist dictatorship. The framework of return creates a tension in the structure of the novel that at times gets in the way of the powerful conjuring of place. The narrator’s personal epiphanies sometimes intrude and distract. He invokes Scheherazade who enchants a king by disappearing behind her tales as they tumble out and over each other; he keeps promising the reader that he will step out of the way and let the stories and characters of Sarmada speak for themselves. He says: “Places like people, live and feel: they hate, they love, and the mood deteriorates.” The village, steeped in legend and tradition, resists and succumbs to the pressures of history and is both catalyst and witness to the fate of its inhabitants. The interwoven stories of Hela, Farida, Buthayna and Bulkayr twist and turn in ways that reveal a hidden politic within a mythic atmosphere. Sarmada is most compelling when the narrator keeps his promise.
A Big-City Romance
Poetry by Elinor Nauen
Cinco Puntos Press, May 2012
Paperback: 64pp; $9.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
Cinco Puntos Press has a great reputation, and this little book of poetry adds to its wealth of good literature in a big way. Elinor Nauen weaves a string of poems that read like a novel as we plunge into her relationship with her husband Johnny. The book, set up as a series of poems, is read like a dictionary (think The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan) with the titles of poems succeeding in alphabetical order. This book takes the dictionary idea a step further than Levithan; Nauen also includes words and phrases specific to her relationship with her husband that would not be found in a standard dictionary. It makes this book of poetry an adventure unique to their relationship.
The poems detail experiences, fights, and so many memories that we are privileged to entertain. Luckily, both Elinor and Johnny are poets and there won’t be any hard feelings after the book is widely read (which is should be). The poem “Beds” details an experience they have while traveling to a hotel and sleeping outside of their small New York apartment:
One time Johnny and I were comped at a very fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. Our room had the most enormous bed I’ve ever seen, a siamese king. In the morning Johnny told me he hadn’t slept well. “I kept reaching for you in the night,” he said, “and I couldn’t find you.” It’s one of those moments when you know you are inextricably linked. At home we have a double mattress, which we share with loads of books, pillows and a cat. We never aren’t touching. Hand to hand, skin to skin.
Sleeping in such strange territory must be strange for two people who are clearly so in love. Not to be confined to a double bed is a huge adjustment, and it just made me sigh learning that he didn’t like having to sleep so far away from her.
But it wasn’t always easy. Just like every relationship, there are struggles and hardships, fights and compromise. Nauen even admits to a series of breakups their first few years together. One part where I laughed out loud was reading about their wedding at City Hall. When Johnny is asked if he will take Elinor to be his wife, she hears him say:
YES. When he asked me, I thought, “Wow, that’s a pretty big question. I’m not sure I can answer till I think this through a little. I mean, if I say yes, I’ll be married. That’s scary but the thought of losing him is scarier, isn’t it? I mean—” Johnny’s throat-clearing jumped me off the cliff. Later, he said he was jealous of my comic timing. He’s never believed I was finally deliberating on what the heck I was doing.
Though there was that initial panic, the narrator had Johnny holding her hand to help her leap. And the photo in the back of the book showing the two grinning together on a beach dissolves any question of whether they should be together. Towards the end of the book, her poem “Wedding” explains why they went to City Hall rather than plan a lavish, expensive day: “I want to be married, not get married. / Hence City Hall.”
One of the last poems contemplates “‘Y’ we got married.” I want to leave with you with a few of her thoughts: “I craved my friend’s platinum ring but couldn’t see shelling out $750 unless I would be wearing it for a long, long time.” Another familiar obstacle: “My 10-years-younger sister was getting hitched a few months later and I thought I’d better get there first.” And finally, a similarly honest reality that made me smile: “I wanted to be connected to Johnny in every possible way.”
Also included in this book is artwork by Sophy Naess. All of the drawings are grayscale, with the exception of a few red accents that make the pieces come to life. In the drawing opposite the poem “Beds,” as considered above, two faceless people are lying in bed, tangled up in sheets and each other. The only color included is their red lips. While illustration is considered to be an important companion to writing, My Marriage A to Z demonstrates this to a T. There are many more things I would love to include in this review, but you will have to just pick up this gem of a book yourself.
Nonfiction by Catherine Taylor
Ugly Duckling Presse, April 2012
Paperback: 160pp; $17.00
Review by Pia Aliperti
The pendulum image, from the prologue to Catherine Taylor’s Apart, could swing neatly between “prose and verse” or between “faith and doubt, black and white, change and stasis, self and other, amnesty and retribution . . . poverty and wealth . . . alien and citizen” in a book that investigates the realities of post-apartheid South Africa. Instead, in a hybrid work that fuses the lyric, the documentary, and the memoir genres with Taylor’s scholarly inquisition, Taylor tells us that the pendulum system “doesn’t just swing back and forth . . . inscribing simple opposites” but that “it leaves a trail of ever-shifting ellipses.” Like the periodic sentence, the people of her country “move forward, want resolution, seek conclusions, note parallels, but they, of course, reach no final revelations, no concluding periods—no time with an end, no discrete clause of history, no full stop.”
Apart begins in “jet-lag dreaminess” upon Taylor’s return to South Africa after an absence of twenty-eight years. Traveling with her son, who has been raised largely in the United States, and leaving behind her lover, known as “A” in the book, Taylor wants to believe in “the fantasy” of Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation.” In the marketplace, amid the blooms plucked from a landscape of “sick, visual abundance,” Taylor seeks, along with some of the sellers at the flower-stalls, a common identity within the country’s new power structure (“We are all black,” one black seller proclaims to a colored woman’s derision). To Taylor, “this seems like a good slogan. I’m getting ready to raise my little white black power fist in the air when, without hesitating, [the woman] says, Oh. How about we’re all colored. . . . No? How about we’re all white? . . . See. We can all be black, but not all colored or all white.” Taylor continues: “the categories unravel and resolidify. The power of claiming black clear for him and maybe for her, but troubling when it comes to white me.” So begins a pattern in a book where there are neither uncomplicated truths nor clear victories, where history does not conclude: “A constant oscillation: ecstasy, shame, ecstasy, shame.”
“Apart,” for Taylor, can mean exclusion; it can mean complicity. The title alludes to her family that lived in relative comfort in the beautiful country of “corpses.” It alludes to Taylor’s childhood memories, which often circle around her mother, a sometime member of an anti-apartheid women’s organization the Black Sash. The group’s activities again enact Taylor’s pendulum (“at once ineffectual and humane, complicit and resistant, irrelevant and necessary”). “Apart” can refer to Taylor’s mother who fled her homeland with Taylor in tow shortly before the 1976 Soweto protests, or to Taylor’s choice to remain in the United States, separated from her cousins, her aunts and uncles. The title can refer to Taylor’s subsequent homecomings to South Africa, to her acts of reportage, and to her present separation from her beloved “A.” The title can refer to the ideology of “truth and reconciliation” removed from present-day reality (“the end of race as the legal category of exploitation—but the abysmal material conditions of the majority of people living in South Africa” left “untouched”). “Apart” can refer to Taylor’s mother living as a child of privilege under the apartheid regime: “Sheltered. Not sheltered. I wonder when the innocence of those white childhoods ended and when denial or complicity or escape or resistance became choice.”
Taylor questions throughout the work how to tell this story. What grammars and structures are at her disposal? Her own reminiscences are vivid yet incomplete (“A tipping in my head; everything in my story slides down the shelf of memory”). Taylor challenges the arc of storytelling down to the sentence level: “Grammar may be a structure of domination’s nation, but just because it sutures subject to object or predicate or property doesn’t mean disruptions jump the fence without any consequence.” Conscious of “narrative exclusion” on the part of the storyteller, Taylor lingers over the selection and arrangement of her materials (archival text, landmarks, repurposed lines by George Oppen or Rosmarie Waldrop): “How my mother’s life looks one way when I think of her as the girl in our family photo albums. And another in the light of history. And how I always see that history in the light of my mother.” As she writes to “A”: “This week, I wrote you an essay that can’t seem to come together. I wrote another, more unified, version, it felt like all that integration was a lie. So, here’s a piece that perversely insists on keeping worlds apart.”
Ultimately, Apart is a book of glances (“A glance is all we’ll get of moments far apart”). Taylor seems to favor the haibun form and often caps her essays and letters with dreamy prose poems that repeat and reinterpret words and phrases plucked from the preceding text. Taylor ends a letter about a visit to the University of Cape Town Archives with a prose poem: “in the archives, boxed documents. Acid-free or not. . . . Paper, tissue, ash. Come for me at closing. Cover me with clippings.” The raw beauty of her country is a constant touchstone for Taylor as the pendulum swings: “Look how we have learned to love the wreckage.”
Mexican Eden Trilogy, Book I
Fiction by Sylvia Montgomery Shaw
Swedenborg Foundation Press, April 2012
Paperback: 304pp; $15.95
Review by Mantra Roy
In Paradise Misplaced: Mexican Eden Trilogy, Book I, Sylvia Montgomery Shaw invites readers to a world of Mexican upper class etiquette, power, intrigue, romance, passion, murder, and yearning for forgiveness. In the book’s opening pages, the reclusive patriarch of the Nyman family, General Lucio Nyman Berquist, is found murdered. From then on, readers will find it impossible to set the book aside, through the trial of the general’s youngest priest-son, Samuel, to the entrance of the dashing Captain Benjamin Nyman Vizcarra—Samuel’s twin—and his incarceration in the premeditated murder of their father. The pace at which the events accelerate and the way the attractive characters present themselves—the three sons of the deceased, the estranged widow, the only daughter, all impressive in their nobility and grandeur—grab readers’ attention and curiosity. When Benjamin attacks his beautiful American wife, Isabel, in his cell for cheating on him and his family, readers will be eager to learn about the relationship of the “Gringo” with the Nyman family, the wealthiest in Mexico, in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Benjamin, after his incarceration, is brutally beaten and crippled and left as a life-long invalid in his cell. Only the power and wealth of his family assure him royal treatment with the finest linens and delivery of expensive food. Gradually, as his nerves revive and his friendship with El Brujo, a silent Shaman, gains strength, he commits himself, as an act of soul-searching, to write a book about his family, his estate, and his Isabel. He calls the manuscript “Paradise Misplaced.”
The second part consists mainly of sketches of people in Benjamin’s life: his parents, his siblings, his special relationship with his twin Samuel and with Isabel, his elopement with her, his house, San Serafin, and his childhood. The first person narrative voice is seldom interrupted by scenes of Benjamin and El Brujo taking their morning runs through the prison courtyard and their emerging plan of escape. Sylvia Shaw’s skill in manipulating voices is evident in the distinct tones she uses in the two voices. When Benjamin narrates his own life—his frustration with Samuel’s decision to join the clergy; his compassion for Isabel, the beautiful granddaughter of an American painter, whom his brother Rodolfo wanted to marry; his confession of love to Isabel and their elopement; his determination to join the revolutionaries; and the apparent betrayal of Isabel—there is a deep sense of nostalgia, honor, love, compassion, and respect for beauty, mingled with youthful impulsiveness, honest affection for family members, and blatant arrogance about his lineage. But the third person narrative voice, when it interjects to remind readers of Benjamin’s location in the setting of the novel, is quick to point out when the time is up for Benjamin to finish his manuscript and mail it before his premeditated date of escape with El Brujo.
The contrast between Benjamin’s life in 1911, amidst the splendor of his family’s wealth and his brief love affair, and his life in 1912, confined to a prison cell where he recovers from nervous and physical damage, reminds readers of the Fall in Eden and of the loss of paradise. His exercise in soul-searching gives him an opportunity to reflect on his life—wealth, happiness, arrogance, humiliation, loneliness, remorse—and Shaw takes an opportunity to remind her readers that good moments are fleeting and can be lost by a single stroke of bad luck. Shaw’s language is very lucid, crisp, and engaging; her scenes are tightly-knit; her characters are as well-done as they should be in the first book in a series; and her plot thickens to such a point that readers will wait eagerly for Book II of the trilogy.
Poetry by Molly Brodak
Coconut Books, April 2012
Chapbook: 28pp; $10.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
One doesn’t have to know Paolo Uccello and his paintings to appreciate the quiet, lingering poems of Molly Brodak’s chapbook The Flood, a series of poems transfixed upon Uccello’s little-known life and works. Breathing life into Uccello through a distinct voice as well as elucidating his paintings through ekphrastic and descriptive poems, The Flood provides a concentrated illumination of how the written word can interact with and respond to visual representation.
While lyrical and visually spare, poems voicing Uccello highlight fragments of his biography. Before the artist speaks, however, “Awful Paolo” details the words of a critic who calls the painter a “half artist,” elaborating: “half-eaten by perspective, his pet machine, / existing halfwise in cramped breathing, / with lime-burned palmed and powder gestures.”
In “Barber Surgeon Father,” five spaced lines, some complete and other fragmented, dwell on a blade’s sharpness, ending with the address “I’m telling you, universe, // I shouldn’t say I knew you.” The speaker continues to play with language in “Said So,” claiming “I had to hate my hand to rot. But brains bash, // and cope without a second thought / and caught without a slot to talk, new words grew.” With each of these poems, this strong voice interacts with representation through language and painting.
Alongside poems illustrating the artist, and perhaps more plentiful, are ekphrastic and descriptive poems that detail some of Uccello’s paintings and the process of painting itself. “A painting is whether you can finish it,” claims the speaker in “Detail,” expanding on the minute details that comprise each painting, until finally concluding that “There is no answer: / a hundred leaves stand in for a million, in suspense, / in ferocious grids, begun long before you looked.” The speaker begins to comment upon Uccello’s depiction of a monastery in “Scenes of Monastic Life”:
Cyan walls recede into gestures,
unconscious gorges, painted in colors he knew people hated.
Like cadet blue, incisor yellow, which is to say he had Ethics;
he had one intelligible hand and one injured hand.
In one language and out the other.
In trying to discern the painting’s meaning, the speaker tries to reckon with words, with description, while figuring out how to render each detail in the painting with the limited arsenal of language.
Tightly crafted and engaged fully in how language functions to give voice to art, The Flood’s eighteen poems flesh out Uccello’s work and life. Brodak’s thorough and careful attention to the minute yet greatly underestimated makes this chapbook an engaging, thoughtful reflection on how all art forms interact and respond to one another.
Fiction by John Warner
Soho Press, October 2011
Hardcover: 284pp; $24.00
Review by David Breithaupt
With a title such as The Funny Man, I was expecting John Warner’s novel to be about the dark side of comedy. I sensed some sort of irony. Having known a few local comics while living in NYC, I was surprised by the flip side of their comedic faces. Many of them were depressed, bi-polar, damaged by childhood abuse or simply born unstable. All, it seemed, were self-medicating with humor.
The book did not let me down in that regard, though the plot line kept jumping in unexpected directions and sucked me in. The Funny Man has no name and is known through the book only by his title. His story begins with his court trial in which he is charged with shooting an unarmed man six times and finally killing him. It isn’t until the end of the book that we learn the true details of this event. His lawyer pleads him “innocent by reason of celebrity.” As the trial proceeds, we learn of the rise and fall of The Funny Man’s career. We read of how he grew to fame with his tag bit, stuffing his entire fist in his mouth while mimicking perfectly a bevy of popular celebrities. He becomes weary of this act but it’s all the crowd wants to see. He hires on to a movie, which in the end he deems so bad he wants to hide. The film, however, turns out to be a smash hit.
Now his marriage begins to fail. He is falsely accused of a tryst with his love interest in the film. A therapist prescribes him some wonder pills which he abuses, thus curtailing his parenting abilities (he has a small child), all of which earns him bad press while his trial continues. The Funny Man’s stock begins to plummet.
Enter the “White Hot Center.” The Funny Man, while under house arrest during his trial, receives a mysterious invitation in the form of a business card which appears out of nowhere. He calls the number on the card only to be asked “if he is ready.” Ready for what? He isn’t sure. Shortly thereafter he is escorted from his building by two men who place him in a van and drive him to an unknown destination. The Funny Man spends the next few weeks in a sort of new age Shangri-La where his addictions are removed and personal defects eliminated. This is the world called the White Hot Center.
So is this real? Has the Funny Man lost it? I’ll let you decide. I enjoyed this excursion to non-reality. I think I need to go there. So what could be better than getting your personality dry cleaned? Finding love. The Funny Man meets a celebrity female tennis player who is also doing time at the WHC. The two of them hit it off and grow close. The Funny Man begins to fall in love.
Upon his return to the real world, The Funny Man finds that his wife has divorced him and his therapist doubts the reality of his time at the WHC. He is left to follow the exploits of his new love interest, whom he watches zealously on the Tennis Channel.
It’s a sad story overall and the moments of comedy within fall into the category of black humor. Yet for me it was a believable story of an unbelievable life. You feel for The Funny Man; he reminds me of a tragic Shakespearian character, but his ups and downs are the story of Everyman. I won’t tell the ending. If you are interested, take the plunge with The Funny Man. I’m glad I did.