NewPages Book Reviews


Posted March 1, 2013

The Moon & Other Inventions :: Bibliodeath :: The Way of the Dog :: Y :: The Lighthouse Road :: The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker :: Purple Daze :: The Glimmering Room

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The Moon & Other Inventions coverThe Moon & Other Inventions

Poems after Joseph Cornell

Poetry by Kristina Marie Darling

BlazeVOX [books], August 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-60964-104-7

Paperback: 62pp; $12.00

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) has long been a favorite among poets and writers. His work first appeared in art shows and galleries advertised as surrealist, frequently accompanied by and/or incorporating text. In his own lifetime, he directly courted the friendship and patronage of poets such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. In addition, poets ranging in diversity from John Ashbery to Charles Simic have also written about the attraction his work holds for them and/or composed poems in his honor. Cornell also completed a number of various homages to poet Emily Dickinson. In short, there’s poems-a-plenty in existence that interact one way or another with Cornell and his work. By joining in such company, Kristina Marie Darling is taking the risk that her work be held to a similarly high standard. Or rather, in composing a book so directly addressing Cornell’s work, the assumption is that Darling herself is aware she’s aiming high and must be willing to hold her own work to these standards.

Composed entirely of footnotes, The Moon & Other Inventions is a book of poetry where suggestion transforms into demonstration. With page after page of ample blank white space above several footnotes for text and/or images that aren’t there, Darling pulls off an interesting book of blanks and misdirection. Early on, one footnote identifies “A commonly held belief about divine providence. For a more detailed exposition, see Appendix D.” Of course, there is no appendix D, only appendixes A and B—“Illustrations” and “Maps and Diagrams,” respectively. This book exploits cat and mouse tactics. There are footnotes for pages left intentionally blank, which refer us to missing appendixes, while those appendixes that are present contain images, rather than text. It’s more than a bit circular, as the reader spirals in and out of one textual dilemma after another.

For instance, there’s a run of footnotes where we are informed about a certain apparatus: “She placed the apparatus beneath her bedroom window,” and, “She assembled her telescope once the moon began to fade. The apparatus groaning as she fastened its lens in place.” This could perhaps refer to the spyglass of which a photograph appears in appendix A as “Figure 1: An Unspecified Sighting Instrument” (the second, and only other item in appendix A is what looks to be an astronomical chart under the heading of “Figure 2: Her Attempts to Document”), yet “apparatus” is later used in a such a way that it clearly refers to what must be some type of mechanical device: “She opened the cage when the shades were drawn. The apparatus buzzing beneath a plaster ceiling.” And flipping back to the first use of the word (only partially quoted above), this does seem the likelier case: “She placed the apparatus beneath her bedroom window. The little gears turning as the moon ascended a marble staircase.”

Cornell’s numerous uses of lunar imagery and frequent referral to astronomical tools and ideas have clearly inspired Darling’s book title, chapter headings, and appendixes. Darling’s chapters also refer to other familiar tropes from out of Cornell’s oeuvre. For example, chapter three is titled “Horology” (no doubt representing the use of clock faces by Cornell, perhaps symbolizing the suspension of time in art) followed by chapter four, which is titled “Ornithology” (Cornell favored cockatiels and birds and empty bird cages appear frequently in his work). It’s easy to find many more such references amply scattered throughout Darling’s headings and footnotes. The delight of a poet playing with the cultural knick-knacks fancied by Cornell’s imagination has never been on more rampant display. Darling’s Inventions are at once intimate and inviting, full of speculation and sure to inspire the imagination of readers in their own engagement with Cornell’s work. Darling sets up a mischievous textual game full of borrowed signs and symbols and invites readers in. For those familiar with Cornell, there’s much recognition while for those not, this book hopefully provides the spark to ignite their interest. Any visit to Cornell’s universe is well worth the trip.

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Bibliodeath coverBibliodeath

My Archives (With Life in Footnotes)

Nonfiction by Andrei Codrescu

Antibookclub, November 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-9838683-3-0

Paperback: 168pp; $25.00

Review by David Breithaupt

If you are reading this review, chances are good that books, those things with lots of words crammed between two covers, are probably an integral part of your life. You live with them, thumb through their pages, pass them on to friends, and—if you have enough—make furniture with them (as do I). If this describes you in any way, you will doubtless do yourself a favor by reading Andrei Codrescu’s take on the printed word both past and present, how it lives, where it goes, and the very nature of archives. Bibliodeath is also a portrait of a life lived with books and words. At the end of his tome, Codrescu states: “It is still possible, for as long it took you to read this book, to distinguish the quickly vanishing border between the real and the virtual. This essay is a history of how I got to that border, and how I moved to one or another side of it.” Indeed, Codrescu surveys with depth and humor this very transition we are living through, the digitization of our words.

Over the years, I have read most of Codrescu’s memoir pieces, and this book, to me, seems one of the most intimate—for when you reveal the nature of the relationship you have with books it tells me more about you than all the episodes that ended poorly with spouses, experiments with substance abuse gone amok, or whatever might be on your personal laundry list. Codrescu writes evocatively of his early youth, recalling notebooks lost and found, margin-scribbled books of poetry, books so imbued with the author’s DNA that these items ascend to the status of spiritual, holy-object talismans. It is precisely this type of object that Codrescu contemplates throughout Bibliodeath as the age of physical artifact merges with the arrival of the digital archives. He writes:

In these letters there are no smudges, no odd pauses of the keys, no whiff of tobacco or perfume, no ink blots, no erasures. The pain and pleasure of the writer are invisible. And that is in effect what a good old-fashioned archive preserves: pain, flaws, whiffs of bygone bodies, the evidence of the unseen surround flowing through the writer’s finger(s) unto the paper.

Codrescu delves into this parade of digitization into the archival realm and how it may affect us. “The machine will be holding all of humanity’s memory hostage, and there will be no remembering without praying to the info clouds that will release their data rain in accordance to the accuracy of the prayers addressed to it.” Just what will be stored and who will have access to it? Will the physical artifact become eclipsed and then extinct, like the passenger pigeon and two-cent cigar?

Bibliodeath considers the fetish-nature of the archive librarians who oversee the last of the physical tomes, ranking them as “super-pervs.” Indeed, what nature will the actual sweat-stained manuscripts take on as they become as rarified as a snow leopard sighting? “Paper from the past will be accessible to the uninitiated only via an unbreakable Da Vinci Code.” One of the book’s more visceral anecdotes about personalized manuscript material is the encounter by research librarian J.J. Phillips with a writing document by the late Richard Brautigan. While perusing one of his last manuscripts, she wondered about the brown specks covering the papers. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that these pages were witness to the author’s final act, his suicide. The brown specks were pieces of Brautigan’s brain matter. That final touch would obviously be lost in the digital process.

Codrescu traces a personal and public history of thoughts and how they are stored and how and why we may keep them. His storytelling ability is evident in this book and gives us his unique stamp on this biography of border-crossing writing in the 21st century. One warning though—the “Life in Footnotes” are copious and small, and, if you have old man (or old woman) eyes like me, these additional notes are a bit of a strain. But they are well worth the effort. If you go blind, these last notes will give you much to think about in your world of darkness. But you won’t go blind; rather, you will be enlightened. Read this book and wonder where we have been and where we are going. Both are always important questions, and Bibliodeath is an important attempt to address them.

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The Way of the Dog coverThe Way of the Dog

Fiction by Sam Savage

Coffee House Press, February 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-312-1

Paperback: 152pp; $14.95

Review by Courtney McDermott

Sam Savage’s narrator Harold Nivenson is, in Harold’s own words, a minor artist. Yet The Way of the Dog, though a slim novel, is anything but a minor work.

Nivenson is an old man on what appears to be the verge of death, who spends his time ruminating about his failed artistic life. As he mentally racks up his failures, he also charts the shifting personality of his neighborhood; once rundown and reserved for eccentric artists, it is now being gentrified, its personality glossed over. This book contains layers of interiority—Nivenson’s own aging mind, the interior spaces of the mansion he holes himself up in, the mysterious interior lives he imagines for the neighbors he watches from his windows. Nivenson is a voyeur, and we become a voyeur of his mind too.

Anyone who has ever attempted to make it in the art world will sympathize with Nivenson’s grumblings about never making it, about a life of wandering until he chooses to buy a house to “ground” himself, of living in the shadow of the nemesis masquerading as his friend. On first glance, Nivenson appears to be a crotchety sort: disgusted with his son, who wants to liquidate his artwork; contemptuous of Moll, the overweight caretaker of the house; and bitter toward his former friend, colleague, and rival Peter Meininger, now dead. But a closer, more careful read reveals a philosopher, a word artist, a sad old man with an eye for detail and a fondness for these people he so dismisses. His greatest fondness is toward his dead dog Roy, who pulled him out of his depression. “I went from a socially excluded, potentially suicidal person to a marginal character with a dog.” In a sad but amusing way, reflecting on the failure he had as a visual artist, Nivenson marginalizes himself as a character in his own life story.

One of the highlights of the book is Nivenson’s relationship with Moll, who at first glance appears to be his caretaker. It is a visceral, delicate, and raw relationship. There is perverse beauty in his depiction of Moll, even through his apparent disgust of her: “You look like Cinderella’s sister,” he remarks at one point.

Though much of the book is constructed of Nivenson’s musings, Savage carefully reveals surprises that we realize have existed all along—it’s just that Nivenson has not bothered to point them out so obviously. Savage has carefully constructed this narrative, swooping in and out of Nivenson’s thoughts, following the random, spinning trajectory of an old man’s mind. Savage forces us to contemplate life, and to ask: is this what it is like for a man on the verge of (perhaps) death? To account for his failures and anxieties and resolutions? To obsess over the suicides of John Berryman and Virginia Woolf? Would we do the same in Nivenson’s place? Are we all just failures in our own stories? But amidst the philosophy and self-torture, there is charm and dark humor in these pages as well, such as when Nivenson reflects that ugly people should be hidden away or how he imagines the lovemaking of his neighbors, “the tall people . . . will be slow and languorous, giraffes coupling in the hot African night.” Savage is undoubtedly a quotable writer.

Though Nivenson is a self-proclaimed minor artist, this book-length contemplation is his greatest work of art. “We can’t tell our own story,” he muses at one point, “We can’t even live it,” yet as a narrator he manages to tell his story, and as a reader I buy it.

Savage navigates the reader among dreams, memories and daily movements—eating, sitting, listening. In many ways, The Way of the Dog is reminiscent of Savage’s first novel, Firmin. Nivenson, like Firmin, is a memorable character bound to join the ranks of unforgettable literary characters.

When you put down this book, you’ll want to think about it. And then think about your own life, and soon you may find yourself in a Nivenson moment of self-reflection and critique, and then you may find yourself picking up the book again, scanning the pages for another mention of Roy or Moll. It will soon become apparent that you are now a part of Savage’s world, which is the great triumph of any piece of literature, and you will then realize that you have exchanged something with Nivenson that cannot quite be named.

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Y coverY

Poetry by Leslie Adrienne Miller

Graywolf Press, September 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-622-4

Paperback: 120pp; $15.00

Review by H. V. Cramond

I’ve been thinking a lot about masculinity lately, more specifically the particularly violent attitudes that have been swirled into recent discussions about mental illness, gun laws, sexual violence, and football. In this miasma, masculinity is presented as problem, as a relation of actions based on constructed ideals. But of course, a person is not a problem, or not only a problem, and especially not to his mother.

Y is Leslie Adrienne Miller’s sixth poetry collection. Miller, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes a series of poems that might seek to solve a problem but instead problematize an over-simplification. The collection’s 53 poems explore the object boy-child from angles maternal, genetic, vocal, and neighborly, careful to leave nothing out, not even the gaps: “yes, we say yes to everything.” Interspersed among the poems are 16 adverseria, dialogue-objects that “set . . . discipline-specific voices against each other, as well as against the poems themselves.”

The boy running through the poems is at his delightful best in the moment just before action, when he embodies these contradictions:

          . . . inclined to experiment
with the vagaries of narrative
sequence, entirely engaged
in the problem of whether to drop
the cork in front of the woman
or on her . . . 

A mix of delicacy and abandon, the boy’s inclination to revise the story mid-prank is a concrete representation of the book’s thematic concern with hearing and mishearing, photography and representation, and the body’s necessarily contradictory pulls. In “Notes on a Suprasternal Notch,” Miller examines the

. . . signature of the first ossification
the body knew, as well as the last
to collect its cargo of minerals
into a matrix of bone.

The boy is at once hardening and in a constant state of flux.

Similarly, Miller loads her usually even rhythms with alliteration, assonance, and near rhyme; then, just when you’re comfortably counting on your fingers, she craftily slips the rhythm like a child running from a kiss:

Whole word in French and Spanish,
Vertical axis of Cartesian three
Loaning its fragile branch to a boy
in theory. On y va. Let’s go There.
What happens to unrepaired sequences
in subsequent generations?

A book that ends with three pages of references on subjects ranging from choral music and feral children to Roget’s Thesaurus, Y is erudite without distancing the reader any further than Miller’s characters are from each other. For them, “there’s no accounting for the loneliness / of a journey we expected to share.” It is these clashing languages of these subjects and the silent spaces between them that allow the reader access into the personal.

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The Lighthouse Road coverThe Lighthouse Road

Fiction by Peter Geye

Unbridled Books, October 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-60953-084-6

Hardcover: 294pp; $24.95

Review by Olive Mullet

With its depiction of wintry weather along the shores of Lake Superior and even a view of Isle Royale, Michiganders (and Wisconsinites) will relate to Peter Geye’s novel The Lighthouse Road even though its setting is Northern Minnesota. Geye is a native of Duluth, and some of the novel’s action takes place there, but mostly it alternates between 1895-96 and 1910-37 in the lakeside town of Gunflint, near a logging camp called Burnt Wood Camp.

The book opens dramatically in November 1896 with a young woman, Thea, about to give birth. As a cook at Burnt Wood Camp, she has to be transported by horse-drawn carriage to the town’s doctor, Hosea Grimm. The first chapter ends with the prediction of her death. In this way, the two hooks of the story are introduced—how did she get pregnant and how did she die? The reader soon learns that she survives the birth, but not until the end do we learn how she dies.

Thea had been sent from Norway to Minnesota by her father, who realized her future would be bleak if she stayed with him. Though she was supposed to live with her uncle, who had a farm outside Gunflint, she was told after she arrived that her aunt had committed suicide and her uncle as a result had lost his mind. So instead, she goes to the nearby camp to become the cook.

Thea’s life at the camp is in a hovel:

. . . a den not seven feet deep . . . fortified [by] dirt walls with pine planks and the roof built the same. . . . Each day after Thanksgiving the hours of daylight shriveled until it seemed there was hardly any purpose to the sun rising at all. . . . The jacks returned for lunch and for dinner with frosted coats, their faces hoary as ash, wraithlike. . . . With the New Year came the cold. Colder even than the bitterest days in Hammerfest [Norway].

Geye does a wonderful job of reconstructing the life and language of that time. Thea’s fears of giving birth come from seeing stillborn children, most dramatically her own mother’s, who had “merely wrapped it in a blanket and set the corpse on the puncheon floor.” And Thea is covered in an eiderdown of goose feathers for the ride to town.

The surrounding wilderness is fraught with dangers, such as bears and wolves starving so that they risk coming into the camp. As a result, the camp is guarded by two huge dogs called Ovcharkas, “little mountains,” animals whose reputation was that they treed a bear.

The other drama in the novel, the story taking place more than two decades after the first one, concerns two men and a woman in between them. Odd is Thea’s son, a fisherman who builds his own boat in order to facilitate his job of whiskey running. He has been brought up by Grimm, who also has raised a girl named Rebekah. Grimm’s other jobs, besides being the town’s doctor, are his whiskey running, prostitution, and pornography. He rescues Rebekah from a horrible life in Chicago but holds her hostage from any other men while also using her. Although she helped deliver Odd when Thea gives birth, she and Odd fall in love later on. And when she becomes pregnant at the age of forty, she is afraid—not just from having assisted Grimm with many births, but also because of her age. And both Odd and Rebekah are afraid of Grimm’s reaction to their love.

Odd’s resolution to this problem seems extreme. And Odd, though he loves Rebekah, is as absolute in his ways as Grimm. Even with the truths gradually revealed from the past, Odd himself adds to the tradition of lies and deceit that he has suffered from.

These are complex characters, Rebekah loving Grimm as the only father she had and Odd in his solitary love for his son, whom he talks to as a babe:

I built this boat for all the wrong reasons, Harry. . . . My problem? I never know what the wrong reasons are until it’s too late. Same goes for your mother, rest her soul. . . . See, I built it so I could run more whiskey. Catch more fish. Get more. But now I got all I want . . . 

Thea is never allowed to talk to her uncle on his farm and where she was when she was about to give birth. Geye does not give us two crucial months in 1896, the time between Rebekah noting Thea’s pregnancy in August, when Thea is staying with the doctor, and the book’s dramatic opening at the camp in November. Would she have been sent back to the camp in her condition?

Despite these questions, this novel is riveting from beginning to end. The Lighthouse Road is a dramatic story of rough living in the harsh climate that informs the two main male characters’ dominant personalities.

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The Memoirso f JonBenet by Kathy Acker coverThe Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker

Fiction by Michael du Plessis

Les Figues Press, December 2012

ISBN-13: 978-193425436-3

Paperback: 102pp; $15.00

Review by Trena Machado

This book of thirteen short essay-stories, The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker by Michael du Plessis, is dense with conflated cultural images that construct an alternate unreal-real reality of consumer America. The story’s location is Boulder, Colorado, in a a snowglobe, the kind bought at a “cheap airport gift store and stuck at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.” Boulder is also the place where JonBenet, a six-year-old beauty pageant queen and possibly one of the narrators, was murdered on Christmas Eve in 1996. The other possible narrator of this “fiction inside a fiction” is the dead writer Kathy Acker. Then, there is another narrator, as JonBenet and Kathy Acker discuss: “Somewhere a narrator still worries, almost like a grown-up.” These narrators “out” each other and often call attention to the narrative as a narrative.

In the first chapter, Kathy Acker says she has “turned into JonBenet, a grown-up doll who looks in the mirror, sees nothing there, and likes it like that.” This, of course, happened, perhaps due to the invisible, hidden, amorphous realm of a toxic culture: “An accident of radioactive waste, a side effect of tampering with gene codes? A mistake of military technology, wafted on the wind from Colorado Springs?”

Kathy Acker, as JonBenet, tells us she is not really JonBenet, and then she tells us she is not really a JonBenet™ doll—“but anything can happen in Boulder”:

I’m a dead writer trapped in the body of a plastic doll.
I’m a plastic doll in the body of a dead writer.
Both of us are trapped in a snowglobe.
I don’t know who is writing this, Kathy or JonBenet.

The dolls, JonBenet™ and Kathy Acker™, images based on the dead, are replicas, copies; they are plastic, twelve inches tall, with a string in their necks that when pulled makes them talk . . . they have an interior life, they date, fall in love, have infidelities, look for true love, go to doll school, have doll friends, take doll Valium, have dollgasms. We see ourselves with their eyes, and our created products, in ventriloquism, say no to the lifeless life of “totalitarian capitalism” the “real” represents. Kathy warns JonBenet about the Blue Fairy who wants to make them real, but they are not like Pinocchio or the Velveteen Rabbit, they don’t want to be real: “for only what can die is real.” They’ve already done that and are now on the other side, free to make something new. With the transforming spontaneity of a dream, of a fairy tale, we are immersed in Boulder as a replica of all America and its production of mind-numbing territories of replication—“the creeping, omnipresent, utterly inescapable fungus of the beige wall-to-wall carpet” everywhere and:

Structures of the 1970s, they promised the good life of the American Bicentennial in the raw materials—particle board, polyresin, reinforced Tupperware, drywall, polyester, pressed wood shingle, polyurethane—the flammable and cheap fabric from which the American Dream is spun.

Literature, as we have known it, is denuded; Steinbeck, Roth, Updike, Hemingway, et al. are “transparent pseudonyms of Stephen King!” The Great American Novel is nothing more than “a conspiracy that permits the conspiracy, the belief in the great American Empire.” The images and products we have made have taken on voice and look at us, and, of course, “they” are looking at us, projected ghosts and golems we have created, engage us back from their location outside us . . . “we” are their referents. Thankfully, they are not real from “their point of view.” JonBenet and Kathy in a wide-angled eye look at us, indicting the culture. They say they don’t want to be real, that what we, on the real side, have is death. The doll Kathy Acker™, replica, copy, simulation, product, says of us: “ . . . the Unreal that maintains steadfastly, arrogantly, unstoppedly, that it is Real.” These dolls, these replicas, these products, these concepts as 3-D images, don’t find enough life here. They experience a waffling center with no one at home, and they decide to leave and not carry on the legacy of “this” culture, as there is no life left to live for. Our thoughts in the shape of plastic dolls don’t want to stick around; they don’t want to be there to turn off the light at the whimpering end. Then, of course, this is the heart of a fairy tale, a Stephen King ending . . . JonBenet-Carrie, the doll that the Blue Fairy made real and died, is on her way, resurrected in a dream, to take her revenge: “You can’t keep a good doll down.”

The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker is composed by way of many postmodern writing techniques: metafiction, writing calling attention to itself undermining the author’s authority; synecdoche, Boulder representing all of America; metonym, Stephen King representing traditional literature of the modern era and its demise with the best-seller industry; questionable narrator, multiple points of view with JonBenet, Kathy Acker (we are inside their wants and desires) and the author (feeling caught by surprise of how the narrative moves, and, yet, concerned for them); irony, the dolls created by a world they reject; genres and subjects combined, outside the bounds of legitimate subjects for literature with social critique inside hyperreality (life lived as information, not distinguishing reality from a simulation of reality) inside a fairy tale, that permits believable, spontaneous conceptual turns; and the serious subject of JonBenet used in a Mad Magazine way showing consumer culture’s debasement of childhood and Kathy Acker, as a doll, doing what she did when alive, undermining consumerism’s (snowglobe) anesthesia. Du Plessis, in clear and sparkling prose, has left us in a queasy space of our products and processes looking back at us as referents for them. Experientially dizzying to be shown this with animatronic-flavored images. The “self,” created by consumer-oriented capitalism, now a referent for products and processes. After all, they now come with names like, “iPod.”

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Purple Daze coverPurple Daze

Young Adult Fiction by Sherry Shahan

Running Press, July 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0762446094

Paperback: 224pp; $9.95

Review by Karen Seehaus Papson

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, pick up a copy of Sherry Shahan’s book Purple Daze and smell the incense and peppermints. Equally appealing to readers who lived through the 1960s and to those who didn’t but want to know what it was really like, Shahan has created a compelling chronicle of a single tumultuous year: 1965. This particular window to the past is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, Purple Daze features not one main character, but six. Ziggy, Mickey, Cheryl, Nancy, Don and Phil are a group of friends growing up in Los Angeles. The second thing that sets this book apart is the fact that Shahan has chosen to write much of the novel in verse. Our protagonists share their stories through poems, notes, letters, journal entries, and song lyrics. While this format might seem an odd choice from the outside, Shahan’s skill and range engenders a level of intimacy with each character that is surprising given the brief snatches of information shared in a given moment. The reader feels the drama as the paths of these six friends diverge and darken with the weight of the year’s events. Ziggy writes:

34 people died in the riots
1,000 injured: 90 cops, 136 firemen,
10 guardsmen, 23 people from government agencies,
773 civilians and protestors, including Don’s dad.
I know because Bubba tore out newspaper articles

Shahan uses his words to transform an event like the Watts Riots from an entry in the history books into a tragedy that was intensely personal.

Purple Daze underscores the events of the year by opening and closing with twin poems, “It’s 1965” and “It’s 1966.” The change that the country experienced in a single year is reflected not only in the stark differences between the two poems, but in how the characters themselves have transitioned from fun-loving kids into world-worn adults in that same year’s time. As Cheryl writes, “Ziggy storms in like the good old days,” Shahan’s readers feel the loss of innocence just as keenly as Cheryl does. The fast and harrowing ride that was 1965 leaves readers breathless, recalling that Malcolm X was assassinated, the United States sent the first combat troops to Vietnam just as students everywhere began to protest the war, the Civil Rights Movement got a boost from the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Executive Order 11246, and LSD was not yet illegal.

If readers have any lingering doubts about just how personal this book is to Shahan, she has included as appendices a timeline of notable events of the year, a playlist by which to read the book, and a personal interview along with photos from her own life. Her revelation that the character Don is based on her own real-life high school boyfriend—also named Don—seals the deal. For readers, both teens and adults, with an interest in the 1960s, this is an indispensable book that is lovingly crafted by someone who was there, who lived it, and who survived.

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The Glimmering Room coverThe Glimmering Room

Poetry by Cynthia Cruz

Four Way Books, October 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1884800979

Paperback: 79pp; $15.95

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

Have you listened to those early songs by Cat Power where the speaker lists the names of friends from her youth who grew up abused, turning to sex and drugs way too early in life? These poems by Cynthia Cruz are just like those songs. I’ve discovered that Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) never quite had friends with those exact experiences or went through all that miserable hell herself. It doesn’t bother me too much either. The songs are still damn good. Powerful, moving, and quite evocative, the poems of Cynthia Cruz equally match all the grime and dark foreboding of Cat Power’s best licks. The Glimmering Room hits the same raw nerve, again and again:

The shame of being
Seen consumes me.
And I fight back,
A landowner warding off
Leagues of feral thieves,
With fire, hand-held torch, burning back
The onslaught. In grade school,
Listening to the same Blondie song in my bedroom, over
And over for hours, days,
For years. No friends
But the one: silent, and sitting
In my head. Running laps around
The house for five, ten, fifteen
Miles, counting
Calories of everything put
Into my mouth—desperate to ward the onslaught
Off. Until I am nothing
But a body.

Cruz hits a steady stride for speaking out the frustrations of youth. Whether it was Blondie or Bowie, such angst-filled suffering by way of self-identification consumed just about everybody of her generation at some point; just as now Ke$ha and Lady Gaga fill similar gaps in suburban nightmare hellholes for many teenaged gritty-truth-yearning searchers. You are ultimately alone in life. You must deal with it.

These poems might have come straight from the notebook of the character Samantha Mathis plays in Pump up the Volume as would-be girlfriend to Christian Slater’s pirate-radio disc jockey character:

A slumland of the mind. You must know
How this body has failed me. Chronic,
In ripped red stockings and gold
Glitter ballet leotard.
White headscarf with the rising sun, and holding
My stuffed Snoopy. I have this fever,
I can’t tell anyone. But I promise I will
Love anyone
Who will talk to me.
     —“The Great Destroyer”

The opportunity for readers to engage in emotional identification runs rampant throughout this book. What’s lacking is any sense that there are far more diverse and distant worlds from the ones conveyed by these poems. The speaker went through some serious shit, but apparently now has moved on or else is capable of somehow gaining lots of free time and mature headspace to reflect on all the horrible things which plagued her adolescence. There’s an imbalance that never gets sorted out, let alone addressed; the state of mind is raw, yet the craft is miraculously perfect.

The clear precursor here is Sylvia Plath. Yet Plath was literally living through what her poems express while still using her art to attempt to keep the greatest of personal pain at a distance. Cruz appears to usually be working in the opposite direction:

Daddy, I am spit
Pasting junk and shit into glittering
Black pink pearls and beads of apathy.
Track down the pony
Trapped on the carnival-like barge
Lit in key lime green like a California
Ferris wheel to the Rhine,
Back to my Germany
Where this awful song began.
Give me back my Ritalin.
Give me my shock
Of medicine. Make sure my spine
Is still living. Mommy,
Slip the black eel
Back in the sealed aquarium.
Christmas time in Germany,
Mommy’s got me laced in some French
Magic. Some burlesque, some circus, and some queer,
Candy ass. Now we can pretend I am
Daddy’s blonde princess. Give me my
Medicines, Mommy, so I can forget.
     —“Strange Gospels”

These poems do work well up to a point. For Cruz, and no doubt for many readers, this point may be as far as they look for poems to go. Cat Power’s latest album, Sun, veers off into some new territory. The music is much spacier than ever before, filled with bright light chasing away what little gloom takes a chance at appearing. If anything, it approaches something similar to a not-as-talented shot at something like Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Chan Marshall, it appears, appreciates the value in turning a corner and keeping things going. Art itself demands nothing less of the artist: at some point, no matter how eloquent the display of gratuitous details recounting past trials and hardships of youth (whether real or imagined), it isn’t enough to compel the audience up on Mount Parnassus. Cruz is on a corner, but the question remains open as to whether she’s going to turn down the next street and keep going.

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