Posted December 3, 2012
[Bond, James] :: A Long Way from Home :: As Long as Trees Last :: What Happened to Ivy :: The Madness of Mamá Carlota :: The Purple Runner :: The Posthumous Affair :: Butterfly Moon :: Space / Gap / Interval / Distance :: Lady Business :: My Only Wife :: Inukshuk :: 2500 Random Things About Me Too
alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography
Poetry by Michelle Disler
Counterpath Press, November 2011
Paperback: 120pp, $14.95
Review by Jeremy Benson
I have not yet seen it, myself, but I hear in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, Agent 007 may or may not cry. According to eonline.com, a tearful James Bond is a sin against the Ten Commandments of the James Bond franchise. When asked, Daniel Craig (the sixth official Bond, for those still counting) defended his character’s face-water: “He doesn’t cry, he’s sweating.” What’s funny is that in author Ian Fleming’s original dozen novels, the character Bond is found crying or sobbing about five times. His “heart lifts” a further six times; he’s rescued by a girl four times. I know this not because I’ve painstakingly read through all the books, but because Michelle Disler has—and has compiled her findings in the form of poems in [Bond, James]: alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography.
The book is very much like walking into a garage in which someone has obsessively disassembled an automobile—an Aston-Martin, perhaps—and has meticulously weighed, labeled, indexed, cataloged and cross-referenced each part and its purpose. They’ve sketched out how the parts could be reassembled in different patterns, replaced with alternate parts, removed completely, and still get the car to drive. Disler deconstructs Ian Fleming’s spy novels and short stories, word by word, gun by gun, villain by villain, and returns with the lowest common denominators, often a literal formula behind Agent 007’s conquests and adventures: “q=death threats (hot, deadly) s, w/q = bubbling mud bath (hot, deadly) x, n / q = lips for kissing (hot, deadly) a, z.”
In “Approximate Number of Times [Bond, James],” Disler’s first act is to boil Bond down to all his clichés and absurdities, found in each display of masculinity and of humanity referenced in the novels:
. . . sleeps the “shallow sleep of ghosts and demons and screams” 1; proposes to needle villain 2; proposes 2; needles villain 8; is needled by villain [6?];...shoves gun into trouser waistband 9; says breakfast is favorite meal 3; contemplates animal beauty [taut breasts, etc.] of girl [89?]; is annoyed villain isn’t more worried about him 1; cries, sobs [5?] . . .
Later, in “anatomy,” Disler copies verbatim each instance James Bond smokes—meaning, yes, almost four pages of “James Bond lit a cigarette,” and then, “James Bond lit another cigarette.”
The result of Disler’s dissection is, in one word, hilarious. She’s helped a little by Fleming’s Britishisms, cartoonishly foreign to an American’s ear and well-aged over the last six decades; but mostly, like a caricaturist on a boardwalk, the humor is in the exploded view of what we could already see so clearly. Of course [Bond, James] hits upon all the usual burrs of 007’s personality: his penchant for drink, his ignored-if-not-praised chauvinism, his Freudian love of guns, and the fine line between the political hatred for and the sexual tension with his villains.
But Disler’s condensation also enlarges the traits of Bond that the franchise has dropped (and I guess has only recently picked up again, if you concede Skyfall’s tears). Did you know he took amphetamines up to five times? He is full of doubt and questions, at least many more than any Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan would have you believe.
Still, what is interesting and amusing is how quickly the entire Bond franchise—except for GoldenEye 007 for the N64’s Multiplayer function—flattens and folds, and all it takes (at most) is for Michelle Disler to point it out.
YA Fiction by Alice Walsh
Second Story Press, September 2012
Paperback: 176pp, $11.95
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Alice Walsh’s A Long Way from Home is a compassionately told novel that straddles the line between children’s and young adult fiction, and the story it tells will appeal to younger and older audiences alike.
The book features three points of view. Rabia, a fourteen-year old refugee from Afghanistan who happens to be traveling to the US on September 11, 2001, is the story’s main protagonist. In Rabia, readers will find a character that is obedient to her family but perceptive of the limitations their situation puts on her future. As Rabia struggles to lead what remains of her family out of Afghanistan to the safer prospects of the US, she confronts her mother’s unwillingness to leave and the many dangers inherent in making the trip itself. However, her subsequent stranding in Newfoundland as US-bound planes are diverted in the wake of 9/11 serves the dual purpose of increasing the danger of her position—it is uncertain through much of the story whether she will in fact reach the US—and allowing additional narrative perspectives to enrich the story’s telling.
Colin, who offers the story’s second perspective, is an occasionally petulant American boy returning from a trip to London with his mother on the same flight as Rabia. As events unfold and his access to information is limited, he becomes increasingly worried about his father’s safety in New York. He predictably responds to the news of the attack on the twin towers by treating Rabia with hostility and suspicion, but his eventual sympathy for Rabia and her family complicate the story’s exploration of racial tensions following 9/11.
Furthermore, Leah, a Newfoundlander whose family volunteers to host the stranded airline passengers, gives a more neutral third perspective of the situation, and her good-natured sensitivity bridges the differences between Rabia and Colin and buffers the story’s tensions.
Much has been written about 9/11 in the intervening years since 2001, but this story uses the tragedy as the story’s occasion but not its focus. As Rabia, Colin, and Leah all worry about their own families—the personal, rather than the political—children who are not familiar with the political nuances of the event will nonetheless find the characters easy to relate to. Rabia’s past may, however, be upsetting to younger readers, as the hardships of being a young girl growing up in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are honestly and rather vividly portrayed.
Although the writing occasionally does feel like it is aimed at children—a bit too much background information is given here, or a line of rather forced dialogue appears there—the voice is generally clear and crisp, and the pacing of the story is fast. A Long Way from Home elegantly delivers readers to a place of understanding as the three young narrators are forced by circumstance to get to know each other and confront their own fears about the security of their families.
Poetry by Hoa Nguyen
Wave Books, September 2012
Paperback: 88pp; $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Hoa Nguyen, similar to Louis Zukofsky—another poet whose work indelibly again and again proves the apt suitability of the term when intended as sincere compliment and appropriately applied—deserves the title of A Poet’s Poet. Nguyen’s poems approach pure poetry. That is to say, there’s no shtick, no commentary, no gloss, or outside concern beyond what the poem is busying itself being as a momentary occurrence of heightened language use. Any intrusion or obscuration is absent. While it’s obviously possible to situate Nguyen within a historical English language poetic lineage (which would run something like: Chaucer, Wyatt, Donne, Shakespeare, the Wordsworths, Keats, the Shelleys, Dickinson, Hopkins, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Stein, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan, Kerouac, Whalen, Notley, Mayer, Kyger) her work exists in a timeless flow of language and song; daily routines, observances, and distractions carrying the poems along:
Keep the minutes
like that Rug smacking me
on the back to say
Wake up to this mountain of matter
Spent match in one shoe
Motors glug under
the sun of Sunday
The sun is spring
We read The Histories
“The discovery of iron is a bad thing”
—SPRING EQUINOX 2010
Nguyen is comfortable living with the poem. Anything and everything is allowed in for utterance. There are no gimmicks. When writing, she lets what comes have its way. Adhering to the poetic axiom of nothing broached, nothing gained.
Superman could just hold
coal and crush it
More men millionaires
I have thought for
a dirty starved circle
Thus began my habit then
of stealing certain things from men
Syllabic play: the language as silly putty on the page. Nguyen brings strength of integrity to stand back of any New York School jokiness or banter. Even at her lightest and airiest there’s a solemn throb as in prayer or sacred occasion.
One recurring totem appears throughout Long As: “chinaberry.” It’s in the title of two poems and is found in the body of text for several others. Nguyen is originally from the Mekong Delta, an area under French Colonialism during the 19th Century, the regime which of course gave way to the American proto-war for her generation of Americans: Vietnam. Given that the Chinaberry is a non-native plant (behaving more characteristically as a weed than tree) originally from Asia and brought over by a French botanist, it’s tempting to read some autobiographical symbolic graphing into Nguyen’s predilection for using the image.
Nguyen is clearly a poet of the lyric. But the line of song she’s hearing which sets the tune is ongoing and constant. Not consistent, constant. It rises and falls in the everyday, coming and going through her days as it does across this book. Encompassing her routines, her family affairs, both the political and the social, physical as well as mental landscape, it is both summation and a welcoming cadence of what’s yet to come into her surroundings. Something elemental and raw that is destined always to be around while also ever desiring to be found:
I hear the half-animal
half-unreal song in the leaves
of your gaze where the
The middle part playing
again and again
—CAN’T HELP IT
The pleasure of her discovering it anew arrives in poem after poem.
Young Adult Fiction by Kathy Stinson
Second Story Press, September 2012
Paperback: 146pp; $11.95
Review by Karen Seehaus Papson
David Burke may seem like an awkward, average teenager, and in most ways he is. However, unlike most teens, David spends a good deal of time looking after his severely disabled younger sister, Ivy. She gets all the attention, whereas David believes he’s practically invisible to his parents. It’s not surprising that sometimes David feels resentful of Ivy, and it is in one of these moments of frustration that Kathy Stinson begins this compelling family drama, What Happened to Ivy. Given that Stinson has penned more than thirty titles across many genres, it’s not surprising that her prose effortlessly captures the range of emotions encompassed in this story.
Indeed, Stinson does cover a lot of ground in this novel. What starts out as a tale of David’s experience dealing with life in the shadows of his sister’s illness quickly turns a shade darker when David must confront his sister’s sudden death and the puzzle of what really happened to Ivy. In the midst of this confusion, David is also trying to come to terms with his overwhelming feelings of attraction to his new neighbor. Hannah is also in her mid-teens, but unlike him, she is cool and polished. Nevertheless, the two seem to be heading toward young love when Ivy unexpectedly dies in an accident on a family vacation, with David’s father, Stephen, as the only witness. David begins to doubt his father’s account of what happened when a prank phone call and rumors circulating around town won’t let him mourn in peace.
What is most refreshing about this novel is its honesty. So many novels with young protagonists shy away from giving characters real-life problems to negotiate. Stinson, however, rolls up her sleeves and really describes what it’s like to cope with a family member’s disability. She does this with great sensitivity, carefully yet frankly discussing the reality of day-to-day life. David’s love of his sister is subject to human failings, and he expresses that exasperation by indulging in self-pity: “So, big deal Dad was actually showing an interest in what I was doing. So, big deal it didn’t last because Ivy needed something. When doesn’t she need something? When isn’t she messing up something?” Impatient thoughts like these are often followed by feelings of guilt, which David feels in equal or greater measure. Stinson’s candor may earn her a few new readers, as according to the US Census, one in twelve children has a physical or mental disability.
While What Happened to Ivy will undoubtedly resonate with families coping with the demands of special needs children, it can also be enjoyed for the well-wrought story that it is. Stinson has created a very relatable protagonist in David. His unfiltered thoughts and feelings ring true, making his walk through the aftermath of his sister’s death a worthwhile trip to take.
Fiction by Graciela Limón
Arte Publico Press, April 2012
Paperback: 240pp; $19.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Her story reads like fiction. In 1864 Napoleon III and sentimental Mexican royalists re-established a Mexican monarchy, placing the Austrian Prince Maximilian and his Belgian wife Carlota as rulers. The move, in hindsight as grotesque as the gaudy art and fashion of Napoleon’s era, was extremely unpopular in the Americas. Following the Civil War, the American government supported an uprising spearheaded by lawyer/reformer Benito Juarez. The puppet monarchy was overthrown in 1867, and Maximilian was executed. Carlota escaped, never recovered from a subsequent nervous breakdown, and lived in a castle serving as an asylum until the age of 87.
With the possible exception of Juarez, a sentimental 1939 costume epic that proved Paul Muni (in the title role) could give a great performance in anything and Bette Davis (as Carlota) was more believable being mad than going mad, the possibilities of this emotionally charged story haven’t really been explored. Now Graciela Limón has provided this sad history with a backstory of cultural understanding—and genuine devotion—in her page-turning The Madness of Mamá Carlota.
Limón’s Carlota becomes a complete character thanks to two convincing fictional devices. The first are journal entries and interior monologues dealing with everything from a (rumored though historically unproven) lover to the impending disaster of “why those men had invested so much effort and capital in the empire only to withdraw it without explanation.” Hence, this Madness is refreshingly questionable; Carlota is an intelligent woman who is treated as insane because she speaks her mind. It is not known if this was true, but Limón—and ultimately her readers—can name many nineteenth century women who were treated as such.
The other device is the inclusion of three sisters who, thanks to magic realism, talent, beautiful singing voices, and most of all being in the right place at the right time, become Carlota’s most trusted ladies-in-waiting. The devotion of Chelo, Tila, and Lula Chontal isn’t just misplaced colonialism. It is through this strong-willed trio that Carlota discovers Mexico.
Another discovery Carlota makes is that of respect. Following a near-death experience, the Empress gives the sisters advice in diplomacy by warning them that poison is not merely physical, as it was in the Mexican court, but “found everywhere, especially in the hearts of evil people.”
It is within the Empress’s enthusiasm for her adopted homeland and the plight of the orphaned Chontal sisters that Limón very effectively introduces the undercurrents that would doom this particular misplaced dream of Empire:
What the mestizos (people of mixed heritage), as well as the prelates chose to ignore, and what Maximilian and Carlota were incapable of realizing, was that the throngs surrounding them were men and women who had not forgotten the Battle of Puebla nor that their country had been invaded. Among them were survivors of the Puebla battle and other conflicts, people who grieved that heroic actions had come to nothing because los franceses had returned. They, los indios, were once more the ones on the bottom.
Another, better historical aside is her summarization of Carlota’s brother, King Leopold of Belgium, who steals her inheritance and is best remembered for “his inhumane and brutal colonization in the African Congo.”
The Madness of Mamá Carlota is a historical novel that is convincing both as a recreation of an odd, unfortunate event and as an elaboration on the possibilities within the unknown and unwritten of those facts.
Fiction by Paul Christman
Aqueous Books, May 2012
Paperback: 397pp, $16.99
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Solian Lede is a New Zealand runner who possesses a wealth of talent but who lacks sufficient discipline to excel at her sport. As Paul Christman’s The Purple Runner begins, Solian strives to become a winning professional runner, but she expresses ambivalence about the possibility of fame, the need to give up partying in order to focus on her running, and her frustrated attempts to find a partner who takes the sport as seriously as she does. Meanwhile, Chris Carlson is a television news editor working in New York City, whose true lifelong passion is for running, and Warren Fowles is a thirty-six-year-old San Francisco lawyer who seems to possess fortune in spades. Warren has good looks, a comfortable trust fund, and natural running ability, but what he lacks is the impetus to focus: whether on his running or on his creative dream of finishing a substantial poetry manuscript. As The Purple Runner develops, the narration moves between these three characters, and all three find themselves moving to London in order to fulfill their individual dreams.
As Solian, Chris, and Warren begin to settle into their new English surroundings, their stories begin to intertwine as they encounter each other on training runs, at races, and in pubs. Furthermore, the English heaths offer a cast of eccentric local runners and running enthusiasts whose support and competition enriches the story. Critical among these runners is Billy, the story’s namesake “purple runner,” recognizable to the others by his purple running gear. Billy’s identity and purpose are a mystery to the characters and to readers of the book as well, but his running times are unbeatable. One by one, the protagonists encounter Billy out on their training runs, and all of them wonder at his mysterious identity and his remarkable speed.
As the Greater London Marathon draws near, Solian and Chris focus on their training, while Warren remains steadfastly sure of his own natural abilities, and all of the runners begin to anticipate their odds of completing—and perhaps winning—the race.
Naturally, the appearance of Americans abroad offers a ripe opportunity for cultural commentary, and although the book occasionally indulges in discussing the behavioral tensions and cultural differences between the Americans and the English, the story treats the subject gracefully, and with a thankfully light-handed touch so that this seldom impedes the plot. The Purple Runner is mainstream fiction, and although at times the plot’s movements feel a bit contrived, the writing is well paced and clear. The book clocks in at a hefty 397 pages but the story moves quickly, maintaining a sense of momentum as the characters each grapple with their own hopes and insecurities.
This is a story that will certainly appeal to runners. The characters’ focus on training and their experiences as runners are told in vivid detail. Yet the writing avoids heavy technical jargon and the running scenes serve to move the plot forward rather than distract from it, and so the story is likely to appeal to a general, non-running readership as well. What distinguishes The Purple Runner from other novels is its ability to convey the experience of running with fresh, genuine enthusiasm and a sense of breathless excitement.
Fiction by James Friel
Tupelo Press, May 2012
Paperback: 252pp; $16.95
Review by Olive Mullet
The “Little Man” and the “Fat Princess,” as children in the spring of 1880, trail a red balloon—a “swollen heart”—across Washington Square. And thus begins James Friel’s The Posthumous Affair, a beautifully written and unique, daring love story. Even the end is a risky stand on the part of the author.
The mother of ten-year-old Daniel takes him to meet Grace Cooper Glass in an elegant house on Washington Square, occupied not only by the large nine-year-old girl but by her three reclusive maiden aunts. The two children couldn’t have been more different, he small for his age and beautifully dressed in “high hat, a topper of soft gray felt . . . his waistcoat the blue of his extraordinary eyes.” And she is “already woman-sized” and encased in a corset, her ginger hair pulled tight against her scalp and her dress an orange gown with many underskirts. According to her aunts, “she was too full bodied. Freakishly huge, she must be trimmed and tamed.” But when Daniel’s balloon enters Grace’s hands, for the first time she feels light, as though floating like the balloon does, right up into the sky.
In spite of their differences, they fit into each other perfectly, he hardly reaching her shoulder. “They will be the most important person in each other’s lives. They will anchor one another . . .” Yet Daniel from the start finds: “She was too heavy. . . . She was too much for him to bear. This might always be just so.”
Rebellion is in Grace’s background in this quirky fairy tale: Grace’s mother married a large red-haired Irishman, Grace’s father, only to starve to death with him in a Utopia that no longer existed. On the day he meets Grace, Daniel loses his mother, strangled by the red scarf Grace’s aunts have given her. In time, Daniel’s formerly brutal father, as Grace’s financial advisor, tells her of her immense wealth. This frees her to do whatever she wants, and so she goes traveling, never to return to America.
The novel traces Daniel’s and Grace’s brief reunions, cut short by Daniel’s admission that he cannot love her. Because of his cruelty, Grace wants “to be mind alone.” Corset-less, “she was a voluptuous ‘O’ . . . a globe again . . . a world, a planet. She was no man’s moon. She was sufficient unto herself. It must always be just so.” She collects people for their varied information, not great people but intellectuals on the fringe, like Johannes Zorn Nils, who introduces her to Adam’s three wives:
She was intent on knowing all Nils had to tell her. If she could have opened his head, she would have drunk his brain like soup and never been quite sated. The image, as it came to her, appalled and excited her. It was the kind of thought Lilith might have had.
Venice, so different from New York, is the most successful of Grace’s and Daniel’s reunions, yet suggestive of their differences:
They had met first as children in a dream-bright New York, a city on the cusp of new maturity, a city intent on straight lines, a rigid geography, mappable, knowable and cognizant of law. Here, they were in another island city, a soft irregular city, dismissive of straight lines and certain ways, dizzyingly circular. Here space was trimmed but went untamed. It was jumbled and crosshatched. Here all was languorously mortal, in love with its own dying.
Grace moves from reading to writing novels—successfully. With Daniel also writing novels, eventually revelations about each other’s work show the borrowing from life and insights about writing itself:
This, for each of them, is how they make use of life. They unpick and rearrange it. From its jumble, its dense cross-hatchings, they might take one line, and follow that. They will pretend not to know where the line is leading, but the writer always knows. It leads to the reader. The line must loop about the reader, and the reader who accepts the bond becomes a happy prisoner.
The novel’s controlled structure is evident, with the above foreshadowing the end’s risky appeal. And of the would-be lovers: “They must part. Otherwise, there will be no more story. An acceptance now would end the tale. A refusal continues it. This is the account, after all, of a posthumous affair.”
The characters appear real. Yet the book approaches the allegorical, the physical paralleling, the mental in writing, and their approaches to love. There is a surprise at the end—the gothic dark end, in the House of Death, which Daniel must web his way through to find out the truth about Grace Cooper Glass.
This book, a perfect gem where everything fits, is enthralling, poignant, and brimming with meaning.
Fiction by Anita Endrezze
The University of Arizona Press, September 2012
Paperback: 176pp; $17.95
Review by Trena Machado
The short stories by Anita Endrezze in Butterfly Moon are a hybrid of myths and folklore, mostly with a contemporary setting. Many traditions—Native American, Norse, Greek, Romanian, Transylvanian—are used with appearances by guardian angels, gypsies, witches, familiars, shadows, a vampire, the three fates—and a Jungian therapist. The breadth of her reach is not surprising as her father is a Yaqui Indian with roots in Sonora, Mexico and her mother’s roots are in Slovenia, Germany, Romania and Italy. For all the elements combined, the stories run smoothly as they take place in psychological space where we want answers about ourselves in the world. With the prominence of interior space, the drama is within the personal field of the characters . . . and in this personal field of hopes and desire for mercy, human beings haven’t changed much over the millennia.
Through storytelling, using material from many cultures, we see what a rich collective heritage we have in terms of literary structures to express our experience. We see also how our modern attention has shifted. In the mythic way of seeing, there is the archaic layer of our anthropomorphizing nature and the earth that we have lost in our Western culture of commerce and science as we strain the limits of the earth’s balance. Nature has its-own-life-to-itself for which we were once more attuned, held reverence and enlivened by: “The house was a forest remembering itself. The pine trees that held up the walls dreamed of stars dwelling in their needles. Jointed, branched, rooted, the trees still listened to the wind.”
In this reverence and attunement to nature’s aliveness, we had envisioned, in those early times, intercessory figures of angels and witches we made supplication and bargained with in order to get help with unpredictable forces:
I am a being from the Other Side, as you call it . . . .I stand by the Temple of Reedy Rivers, its doors made of shifting sand and yellow canaries. There are many doors; I am one of them. My eyes can be as glittery as dragonfly wings. Or they can be as piercing as a cop’s.
Myths provided a framework for the psyche to cope with life’s breakage. In “Constellation of Angels,” a child lost in a miscarriage because of the father’s alcoholism and his physical abuse of the mother was left too deformed to live. The child is cared for by the angels:
Mary . . . could see ashen-faced spirits reaching out their transparent hands, their black palms pulling out the dead fetus and unraveling the cord of life. The baby rose up and looked down on her mother.
She smiled, now beautiful and whole.
Myths and folktales, as with Endrezze’s stories, deal with psychic fears of the most ultimate kind. In “Owl Woman,” Belle, a twelve-year-old girl, doesn’t know if her mother killed her father when they were fighting: “If she killed him, then the police would’ve taken her to jail. But she’s still here, so he can’t be dead. Yet he’s not here. Mama says he doesn’t care about me, but I know that’s not true.”
The characters’ explanations humanize difficult, often overwhelming, events happening to them by using their hopes, wishes, dreams. In this land between the real and our attempts to construct words about our place in reality, we often have no firm place to stand. In “The Snow Queen,” Joy says to her therapist: “It’s the enchantment. The spell must be broken, or I will never return.” But—“the spell” was what was keeping her in this tangible world away from her wishes . . .
Although the stories are in flesh and blood, tangible reality, whether in the sixteenth century or now, the characters are encased in the author’s omniscient wisdom space of telling, not showing. This sense of “generic characters,” even as they are in a real life setting, stands out because of our modern sensibility that the individual may be alienated, ill, suffering a tragedy, but it is “the individual character” who handles the problem and the author also awaits for the character to speak. Readers will make their own decision whether this kind of omniscient retelling of myths and folklore works for them. One thing is certain, these stories let us see clearly how the dominant materialistic culture has lost the reflex that all of life is connected and how our individual life has a dimension that is not just of a disconnected time and place: we belong to the past and the future. Endrezze reminds us that humanity is a collective enterprise. In “White Butterflies,” an Indian child in 1530, whose village is decimated by smallpox brought by the Conquistadores, captures the vulnerability that animates the space of myth: “Everyone was sick and I was too young. I didn’t know enough. I tried to heal them with my hands, but my blood felt like corn popping in the fire.”
Poetry by Judy Halebsky
Sixteen Rivers Press, April 2012
Paperback: 35pp; $10.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
In Space / Gap / Interval / Distance, Judy Halebsky draws the many strands of her life’s arts together, braiding the leaps and bounds of expression into a fantastic set of ekphrastic poems.
As Halebsky explains in her notes, the book comes out of the experiences of crossing into literal and figurative regions of other languages, beginning with her early life in Eastern Canada: “I walked each morning through a gate into a French-speaking world . . . at 3:15 I crossed back into the English-speaking world of the bus and my neighborhood. Years later, when I came to study Japanese as an adult, I carried with me that experience of moving between languages and trying to piece them together.”
Many of the poems dwell on the way new languages twist and open new realms of thought, especially as Halebsky examines the strokes and meanings of Japanese alphabet. “Rad. 22,” which borrows its style from a numbered dictionary of Japanese characters called radicals, is the first poem I’ve ever read that adequately describes the power and emotion shared in the human eye:
Amigashira: crown. Variant: net shaped like eye.
I ask Joey how far the human eye can see
he wants to say forever
but he says, you can see stars, right?
I know then that he will never leave me
The poems are further influenced by the teachings of the late Kazuo Ohno, who co-created butoh dance, “a dance form that rejects established dance traditions and searches for untrained movements of the body.” I have a hunch that Halebsky is rarely content with the usual clichés of expression, and so spends her energy diving into all forms of art and communication, to find some thing, or an amalgam of things, to satisfy the need for “untrained movements.”
“Out of the Gate” lists such experiences—“I have breathed into a thousand balloons // put my fingers in so many cakes”—and demonstrates how Halebsky eschews the usual constructions and expectations of the English language. It ends: “there’s a snail who thinks he’s climbing Mount Fuji // the racetrack is filled with stars.” (An essay for another time should examine the presence of cakes and other baked goods in Halebsky’s work.)
Space / Gap / Interval / Distance reads as if the person who wrote it is quite comfortable in her command of language; I wouldn’t be surprised to find Judy Halebsky at her notebook, continuing to twist the unexpected out of her words.
A Celebration of Lesbian Poetry
Anthology edited by Bryan Borland
Sibling Rivalry Press, August 2012
Paperback: 144pp; $16.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
From Sibling Rivalry Press, publishers of Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, comes a new contribution to the GLBT canon. This one is a collection of lesbian poetry from both established and new authors. Before the poems, a paragraph or so provides details about each author. While usually this information is found at the end of a collection, here it sets up the reader for what he/she is about to read. This book includes a nice assortment of poems, and it was refreshing to read such a wide variety of works from each author. In this collection, there is no “one and done.” Through their poetry, the reader is truly able to get to know each writer before it is time to move on to the next.
Sally Bellerose’s work was a bit repetitive, but some of her lines are pure works of art. The imagery really pulls you into the poem and makes you re-imagine the title. In this case, the title is “Lily Pad:”
This poem is no haiku
It’s a fantasy
of frog-thighed lovers
There is no punctuation and the words are so simple, yet I found myself entranced by them. For me, it illustrates how lovers are lost in their own world, almost disappearing from the normal world and losing their grounding on reality. We barely notice what is happening until the lovers are gone.
Brit Blalock writes a very interesting and engaging poem, “While Bisexual is a Dirty Word or My Mother Tells Me to Put Down My Torch, So I Write This Poem Instead.” It is about the dynamic between the narrator and her mother after coming out to her family. The poem also compares the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement, which is a truth I have also observed:
While I want to be angry,
somehow I am grateful
that she at least believes
it’s OK to be a gay person
because I have friends
who still aren’t allowed
at Christmas dinner
because their parents
think Jesus will smite them
right there at the table
as someone’s passing
the cornbread or sweet tea.
While there is obviously tension and argument in their relationship, the narrator is able to put her own experience into perspective. Some people are not as lucky, and when they come out, they are shunned from their families for religious or other reasons. There are also problems with her parents’ relationship and we get a 360 view of this narrator who is so grounded in this relationship.
Teresa De La Cruz uses her poem “Because of a Few Poems” as a sort of confessional. She brings us right into her lifestyle from the very beginning:
Because of a few poems
women have taken their clothes off
They like to rub
all over their naked bodies.
It makes them smile
in their own different ways.
De La Cruz does not just identify as a lesbian in this passage, but as a writer. Each identity is just as strong as the other. The image of a woman rubbing words all over her body is extremely unique, and it is so refreshing to read different descriptions and fresh poetry. She also admits that while the women love her words, the words also love them. De La Cruz has an interesting thing going on; her love life meshes with her writing so completely that it appears they are dependent on each other, or at least feed off of each other. This author also has a poem titled “My Glossary of Terms.” Two inclusions that stood out to me were “ribcage (noun) 2. Evolution put all my important organs under the ribcage, thus I put all my important things there too (i.e. you).” as well as the final stanza: “instructions (noun) 1. I did not purposely throw away the instructions for loving a man, but I did not purposely keep them either.” Though straightforward, the entries are heartfelt and made me melt a little inside.
Andy Izenson crafts some beautiful poetry, but my favorite is her poem “Strawberry.” It starts out with the narrator noting that once, while she was in college, a professor of hers claimed that every poem is a love poem. I may have heard this rumor before, but she sets out to challenge that statement:
I don’t fall in love
and I don’t write love poems.
So this is a tangling of fingers and biting away of moans poems,
a kissing strawberries from your mouth
in a dark stairwell poem,
an eyelashes against my cheek poem,
a poem for you holding me down and holding me down and holding me,
and a poem for your dimples when I call you mine.
Rather than crafting some sappy poem full of “I love yous,” Izenson wants to slam the audience with how powerful love is. Love is not dainty or soft, it is powerful, remarkable; it’s that song that you just can’t get out of your head. The authors in this book prove that love is love and really make you wonder what all this discussion in politics is about.
Fiction by Jac Jemc
Dzanc Books, May 2012
Paperback: 194pp; $15.95
Review by David Breithaupt
Jac Jemc has written a novel so wonderful that if it were a dish served at a social event, I would ask the hostess for the recipe. If I were to place the various ingredients which make up this book I might say a dash of Kafka, maybe a pinch of those new wave French writers like Robbe-Grillet, and a tablespoon of Andre Breton’s classic “A Mad Love.” Mix it all up and place between two covers. Become horizontal, relax, and serve.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a surrealistic tangle of verse, but rather a straightforward narrative by a spouse who comes home to find his wife packed and gone. The narrator gives himself no name, and his one-time wife is known only as “my wife.” The lack of such specifics lends a slightly surreal air to the husband’s story as he remembers in a series of vignettes the life of his wife, rather than wondering, as the rest of us might have done, where in the hell she ran off to. The book is, in effect, a sort of obituary of a relationship which came off to me as detached and yet strangely loving and mournful at the same time.
Jemc writes beautiful sentences which construct the interlocking snapshots that constitute the entirety of this book. The narrator’s wife is an interesting woman, and you keep wanting to know more about her so as to solve her enigmatic nature. She works as a waitress and as an artist of sorts who likes to encounter strangers and record their life stories. She keeps her recordings archived in a locked closet which is off limits to her husband. She lives in her own world yet at the same time, remains her husband’s wife. Her enthusiasms and their sometimes sudden reversals made me wonder how long she would be content within the confines of such a traditional arrangement as marriage. That sense of restlessness adds a certain tension to the story and in the end I was not surprised by her departure. The wife is on to the next big thing and like the husband, the reader is left with a series of memories that almost make you utter aloud, who was that masked woman?
Enjoy this dish at room temperature; serves all who come. Goes best with red wine. Dig in.
Fiction by Gregory Spatz
Bellevue Literary Press, June 2012
Paperback: 192pp; $14.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Gregory Spatz’s well-written novel Inukshuk involves two alternating and to some extent paralleling stories: a father-son story and an historical recreation of the last days of 19th century explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew members on the ice-bound ships Terror and Erebus, trying in vain to discover the Northwest Passage. The parallels come first from the same names: the father is named John Franklin and his son, who is convinced he is related to the explorer, is Thomas, a name he shares with a crewmember. The father has moved the two of them to Alberta, Canada to be closer to his wife, who is on her own Arctic observation exploration. And both the explorer’s wife and the father’s wife are named Jane. What really links the two stories, however, is the thirteen-year-old’s escape into the world of the explorer’s expedition in its last days. Meanwhile, the modern John Franklin escapes into his poetry and fascination with the selkie myth (a shape-shifting myth of seal to man and back again, like the father’s own alternating myth with real life). This is a story of the danger of obsessions, the father’s and son’s coming after mother/wife Jane’s abandonment of them for her own obsession. Father and son each suffer alone, especially Thomas, the outsider in his school.
Spatz is particularly effective in indirectly showing the pain of both father and son, opening with the father, who is a teacher at Thomas’s school, intervening when a bully attacks his son. He wants to save Thomas, a foreshadowing of his attempt to do the same at the end, at the eleventh hour.
It is hard to believe the book’s events take place in a little more than two days, because more time seems to pass in the explorer’s world and because so much happens to the son over this period. The deterioration of both father and son seems gradual. The father in his pain also dips into that nineteenth century expedition, picturing Lady Jane, the explorer’s wife. Like his son, he goes beyond picturing—he knows the reality of the scene:
So he had his own picture of Lady Jane . . . staring out to sea from a deserted pile of wave-encircled rocks after Sir John. For him, it was not just more lore of the explorer: He’d seen those rocks and heard the gulls and looked straight north to nothing but more and more open sea.
Thomas keeps track of his scurvy symptoms, which he experiments with
to experience some part of it [himself]. . . . call it a failure . . . call it my deal with the dead sailors. my way of giving them a little honour and respect so I can put them in the movie. anyway i’ve got it so totally under control. . . . anything major bad goes down I can reverse it all in like ten days tops with vitamin supplements. i’m on target. all’s well. recurrent bloody nose (yes!). corkscrew hairs: negative.
Failure of the explorer reflects failure in the modern scenario too, with potentially deadly consequences: “Failure as a commander to find the passage, failure to break out of the ice, to follow orders and keep the men alive, failure to get back home. Failure, period. And then death. No, first suffering, and then death.”
Thomas first envisions the crewmembers moving out of the movie frame into his own dreams, and then they appear around and in his house. At the same time, Thomas’s Alberta winter merges into Sir John Franklin’s ice and midnight sun Arctic world.
This later world really comes alive, first in a general overview:
No way of gauging distance, really, with all that wind and ice and blowing snow like static. Blinding snow light. Sound of one man’s breathing, hard breathing, and then his face right in the camera. Black with frostbite around the nose and cheeks, eyes rimmed all around by ice. . . . Eyes bugged from hunger. Sepulchral voices . . .
Finally Thomas focuses on lowly crew member Edmund Hoar: “Dressed as he was—sleeping clothes and jacket, scarves, mittens—he could survive hours, days even, if he were careful and kept moving. Or he could die. Walk into a whiteout, fall through a crevasse, or just stumble along, ice-blinded, disoriented . . . ”
And then he could become the Inuit “Inukshuk. Stones placed to resemble a human form, marking the place. Signifying, Someone was here; You are on the right path.”
This enthralling, tense book should lure not only fans of extreme weather novels but also those who admire a good, traditional structure and a satisfying and meaningful resolution.
Nonfiction by Matias Viegener
Les Figues Press, October 2012
Paperback: 246pp; $15.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
This is a book for the era of Facebook, memes and all. Matias Viegener heard about a spate of peeps posting Facebook lists of 25 Random Things about themselves and decided to assign himself the task of creating such a list for 100 days, posting each daily to Facebook. Thus he ended up with a total of 2500 ‘things’ which not surprisingly proves more than enough to fill a book.
There’s a little bit of everything in here: personal diary, autobiography, confessional tell all, updates on the general health of Viegener’s dog Peggy, ars poetica, sex, travel diary, family history, professorial stumping, random sex, bragging, and plain old gossip. Viegener’s not at all famous. There’s no reason for him to be and that’s perhaps the one significant feature of the book. It gets boring (a la John Cage). And he acknowledges it. That’s something. It also becomes repetitive and Viegener’s likely well aware of that too. Many of his 2500 Random Things appear more than once, having been ever so slightly re-phrased or with additional detail added. He also mentions more than once how he becomes ever more greatly conscious of what gets listed.
For those expecting the Facebook version of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, don’t because you’ll be disappointed. Viegener is decidedly no Joe Brainard. Which should be obvious, but in addition to that fact he also set himself this writing assignment in such a manner that he ends up, oftener than not, coming across as being more busy with completing a task rather than accomplishing anything too artistic—or being very entertaining for that matter. Where Brainard wrote to amuse himself and/or his friends, Viegener is usually just writing here. Sometimes it’s heartfelt or amusing or sad but quite a bit of the time it just is what it is.
Vigener’s a professor at Cal Arts and a sometime conceptual artist of sorts. As a statement of Facebook aesthetics, and perhaps a kind of social commentary, his book finds a place. He’s admirable at times for how unflinching he allows his statements to be and he never displays any truly bad habits— although this may perhaps be the most significant failure in the book. I frequently found myself thinking he’d get along famously well with my sister who also happens to be an Arts professor in Southern California.
This book is probably about as insightful as being friends with somebody on Facebook gets. Viegener also has the good/bad luck of the additional fact he was good enough pals with Kathy Acker to be present at her death. His reminiscences of her as well as those regarding his deceased mother, combined with his continued coping with his dog Peggy’s final weeks, prove to be the most memorably significant Random Things he records.