Posted April 1, 2013
Incarnadine :: The Hello Delay :: Swallowing the Sea :: It Becomes You :: American Dream Machine :: Out Across the Nowhere :: At the End of Life :: A Displaced Person :: In a World of Small Truths :: If a Stranger Approaches You :: The Dinner :: Percival Everett by Virgil Russell :: A Disturbance in the Air
Poetry by Mary Szybist
Graywolf Press, February 2013
Paperback: 72pp; $15.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Mary Szybist’s second poetry collection, Incarnadine, traces the ordinary and the divine in well-lit poems engaged in lyrical narrative. Although initially read as quiet, introspective meditations, these poems claim larger historical ground through interactions with and dissolutions of male-centric texts, including those of Nabokov, George W. Bush, and Byrd, and well-known female figures. With strong representations of Biblical female figures that further complicate the lineage and significance of women, specifically the Virgin Mary, Incarnadine leads the reader through a nuanced interpretation of gender roles and expectations.
Numerous speakers fixate on Mary and her role throughout the development of Christianity and religious culture. The angel Gabriel speaks to her in Szybist’s “Long after the Desert and Donkey,” telling her: “. . . I loved how dull you were. Given a bit of bark or the buzz / of a bright green fly, you’d smile / for hours.” Filled with regret, Gabriel continues on:
Already it’s hard to remember
how you used to comb your hair or how you
tilted your broad face in green shade.
Now what seas, what meanings
can I place in you?
This sense of frustration and longing is always present in the collection, turning to obsession in “Hail,” where the speaker confesses: “. . . Even now I can’t keep from / composing you, limbs and blue cloak // and soft hands.” The speaker remains self-reflective:
Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
The final lines of the poem, “. . . Mary, I am still / for you, I am still a numbness for you,” represent an ever-present turn toward constant reflection and awareness while being unable to abandon ritual.
A series of “annunciations” intersperses the collection, prompting the reader to closely examine ideas of forced domesticity. In “Annunciation: Eve to Ave,” a sonnet true to form, Eve addresses the reader in her developing relationship with Adam, noting: “And when I learned that he was not a man— / bullwhip, horsewhip, unzip, I could have crawled / through thorn and bee” as she remains “quiet as / eagerness—that astonished, dutiful fall.” The soft, almost sensual language blurs with an implied forced aggression. Similarly, “Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls” draws from BBC News reports of gulls feeding on whales as they emerge from the ocean. A steadfast voice describes the whale as “tender, pockmarked, full / of openness” while the gulls “eat her alive. For they take mercy on others and show them the way.” This subtle undercurrent of Biblical language and scripture permeates many other poems.
With a clear thread that tries to piece together and understand female figures in past and present political climates, Incarnadine demonstrates a deft use of language and voice while constructing a fully realized collection. Szybist has carefully approached potentially volatile and politically squeamish topics by linking them to the personal, showing how poetry interacts with and reacts to these deep historical and contemporary chasms of the rights and representations of women in religion, literature, and society.
Poetry by Julie Choffel
Fordham University Press, March 2012
Paperback: 88pp; $18.00
Review by Pia Aliperti
Julie Choffel offers a warning at the start of The Hello Delay, winner of Fordham University Press’s 2012 Poets Out Loud prize: “my poetry has no camera.” Photographs tell stories; their tableaus create the “‘everyone crying’ scene” or the “‘everyone looks elsewhere’ scene” (“The Sorrows”). Still, in a photograph’s version of reality: “mud is paper mud / the sky has creases in it” (“The Rain Falls as a Cylinder”) or “the sand is never real sand, but some uncatapultable feeling of / sand” (“The Sorrows”). Besides a natural disconnect between the image and the physical object, photographs have their own contexts, back stories, and intrigues that make meaning depending on the beholder. When the speaker of “The Sorrows,” for instance, gazes at a photo of herself, she “can only see [her] own eyes / seeking their place” and not the whole of the composition. Choffel’s collection resists “easy combinations” and singular definitions. In fact, her photography metaphor informs how the collection thinks about language: exploratory, changeable, and exhilarating.
I interpret “the hello delay” as a gap in comprehension. Consider that uneasy pause on the street as our brains work to identify the figure coming toward us with a smile and a wave. Between the greeting and recognition, we must connect what we see with what we recall. Who is this person? What is his relationship to me? A technological example of this remove is the telephone, a theme which reappears throughout the book. Choffel writes in “Public Service Announcement”:
Have you come around to listening to
the sound of your own voice recorded:
When messages repeat they delay their messages;
when messages delete they’re afterwards fixed
in time; how then the play commences.
Answering machines and voicemail boxes follow the same narrative impulses as the camera. A message freezes one version of things, one impression, one reading.
Choffel explores this disconnect between what we say and how it is interpreted all the way to the grammatical level. There is a cognitive delay on the street corner as a figure approaches before we give the pronoun “he” over to “Steven.” Just as the message stands in for the speaker, or the image stands in for the object, the pronoun is typically bound to its antecedent. Yet Choffel is interested in variations. In her collection, “Pronouns are disasters”; they are “essential words.” Their use and misuse speak to the concept that “containment / could pluralize us too, like life life life / in a fallout shelter.” Like a collection of photographs, pronouns can contain many versions of the self both perceived by and presented to the world, such as in the marvelous “How Do You Do”:
My sister and your layer cakes
you-hoos and formal
enchanté, glissade, my country
how many yous do I have to choose from
Similarly, in the first line of “Can I Be a Part of Your We,” she wonders, “Can I be a part of your me.” These combinations explore not only who we are to each other, but who we are to ourselves: “Can someone have a soda with herself? / My kisses are very brightly / on my mouth.”
John Ashbery has described the subject of his poetry as “the experience of experience.” Choffel’s poems feel like that; at once abstract and precise, they are constantly in the process of making. Language builds upon itself (“like like like”), but, as with erasure poetry, there’s a scaffold, too, in the holes between words or between understanding: “nobody knows if nothingness has a form / but should it come, would we know it / or would it be our lack of knowledge” (“Plant Life”).
Choffel is wry about the poetic impulse to “make” in “Producing for a While,” which marries this craving with vague business jargon: “I think I’m done producing for a while. I know I can con- / tribute a lot to the overall production. But I’m done with pro- / ducing until I can get some input.” Similarly, Choffel repurposes popular song lyrics and sayings—“on the phone” and “how could you”—into something other, the way a word repeated becomes strange again:
as I stumble over you as an essential word
What is the recognizable form
What is the recognizable form
What is the recognizable form
The reader, too, may stumble because, as Choffel puts it, “Sometimes the very very very is unnerving.” There is supreme delight, though, in living in the present with this collection and in never surrendering to a fixed “canon of information.”
Nonfiction by Lee Upton
Tupelo Press, July 2012
Paperback: 220pp; $24.95
Review by Courtney McDermott
“This is a book about ambition,” Lee Upton writes in the first section (aptly titled “Ambition”) of Swallowing the Sea. It would seem that Upton’s own ambition with this book is to discuss writing as a writer, and yet the book does so much more. For anyone in love with writing, Swallowing the Sea is an homage to the delicate, painful, and (for some) necessary impulse to write. Upton explores the process of writing, the hurdles and frustrations along the way, and the fervor of being an avid reader, while employing personal anecdotes, literary criticisms, and poetical metaphors to make sense of writing’s place in our culture.
Upton takes us on a literary journey, opening doors into different channels of the writing process, which become the sections or chapters of the book: Ambition, Failure, Boredom, Bigamy for Beginners, Purity and Secrecy. “Bigamy for Beginners” was probably the most culturally relevant section, in which Upton tackles the challenging issue of writers who experiment in multiple genres, but identify firstly with one genre (whether by their own doing or that of the publisher/marketing department/audience). I admit that there is difficulty in writing across genres, and yet, I take a bit of issue with Upton’s stance. It isn’t cheating to write poetry if you have only published fiction, or if you self-identify as a playwright, for example. She uses the language of an “illicit liaison” to describe this movement, but I don’t think there’s anything cheating about exploring. I see the working in multiple genres as only natural; I don’t read one thing, so why only write one thing? Write in the mode that best tells the story.
“When I write I gain a recognition of both the boundaries of the sense and my boundaries as a writer, along with the hope of trespassing against those boundaries,” writes Upton. We see her trespassing boundaries in this work by not quite restricting it to any one genre. It is something beyond and distinct from memoir or a how-to on craft; it is a reflection, an ode to literature, a lyricism, a confession. In this way she takes up her own challenge of working across genres.
Upton’s sections on ambition, failure, and boredom seem to fit for a book on writing—writers can tell their own stories about these three qualities in their own works. But there is a less clear trajectory in the “Purity,” “Bigamy for Beginners,” and “Secrecy” chapters, which I found compelling. At times, though, I was turned around in her labyrinthine prose, such as in “Purity,” which moved me from Sylvia Plath to Elizabeth Taylor to the birth of Upton’s daughter without any sure direction. It is easy to be swept away in Upton’s lyricism, and for that I’ll forgive her for any slippery path she leads me down. In that sense, this book may not be (to use Upton’s words) a pure work, but as she reminds us: “absolute purity is unattainable and thus belongs to the country of the imagination. But so much depends on the quality of the imagination.”
Upton’s take on narrative nonfiction is certainly imaginative, and she makes even the topic of boredom—“an invasive species”—fascinating. Boredom has weight, she explains, and yet we can write about it, we can prevent it from taking over. Obsession can help defeat boredom, and exploring what bores one’s character can aide in the writing process (a tactic that I soon hope to try out on my characters). She makes a fascinating claim that Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz is an exemplar of a writer—steeped in her own boredom, she constructs the ultimate fantasy and use of her imagination. If I only I could construct an Oz when I am that bored!
The disjointed, fractured structure of Upton’s book is perhaps a nod to the poet in her (her “first” genre). Upton observes all of the nuances of writing—how it engages our senses, plays on our traumas, feeds our souls. She also fires up the reader in me—I left the book with an abundant reading list, later indulging myself in some Muriel Spark and MFK Fisher. Upton shows us to look with new eyes, fresh eyes, new vulnerabilities. She sees the literary in everything, even so far as seeing Dr. Frankenstein as a metaphor for a writer—a writer who needed to revise.
It is tempting to quote every remarkable line about writing in this book (for example, the line from which the title is taken: “whoever imagines swallowing the sea imagines powerfully”), but to do so would overwhelm this essay; it is a book to be experienced for oneself. Upton reminds us that the act of being a reader—of gathering these writers’ words and thoughts and presenting them in her own way—gives us some sort of ownership. Swallowing the Sea, then, is just as much about being a reader as being a writer.
Poetry by Dobby Gibson
Graywolf Press, January 2013
Paperback: 96pp; $15.00
Review by Theresé Samson Wenham
Dobby Gibson’s newest collection, It Becomes You, is his third book of poetry. His poems remind me of Billy Collins or Mark Strand: conversational and witty with themes of nostalgia and doubt. At their best, they reflect the sharp humor of Auden, who makes tight lines appear effortlessly conversational. From W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” Gibson’s best poems aspire to this same kind of detached philosophical clarity. He generally succeeds, but without the formal aesthetic pleasure.
Gibson calls on the Twin Cities for the time-tangled sequences his poems lead us through. He calls on the snows of the upper Midwest to evoke the tacit loneliness in his poems. He does this with wit and precise observation, all the while remaining detached. His poems are full of windshields, separating the speaker from the thing which is being observed:
At night, when the windshield darkens
and that strange state comes over me,
I drift from the present and into the great past,
back to a time before there was a man
to believe the moon was a man,
or a lone bone to comb a child’s hair.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about time lately, so I find it interesting to discover the ways in which others ponder our temporal relationships. In Gibson’s poetry, we are not caught in a moment, but in many moments simultaneously. An abundance of images melds into a chaotic version of being aware of multiple times. He seems to be reflecting on the past and imagining the future simultaneously:
You can’t change the past,
but in that past you could have changed the present,
so in the future you’re going to wish
you did something different now.
Once we become acclimated to this timeless flux, we can begin to appreciate the clarity of Gibson’s images and to align them with ideas. From “Waking in Someone Else’s Clothes” to “Charity Water,” the bombardment of images and confusion in time finally give way to thoughts and ideas captured in moments; a cohesion, a continuity of meaning, begins to develop:
we can relax a little and wonder whether
this is how the infinite begins,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
for though this is no longer sleep,
it still feels like something to wake from
Gibson uses winter in Minnesota, particularly the way our traces in the snow tell stories of solitude and unease, to build a sense of loneliness. Snow “paratroops” in, weighs down the glacier, erases our tracks, “smells exactly like nothing,” reminds us of ghosts, and holds together his house with its weight:
Stepping out into the snow, you feel cold.
Then you become the cold.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Only later will you assess your burdens,
Looking back in the opposite direction
in which you’re finally moving,
thinking now, this way:
two ruts define the snow road,
each exactly one tire wide.
A handful of character prose poems with provocative names imply self-consciousness of the speakers. “The Archeologists” is an observation of the ways people interact with others while only thinking about themselves. “The Pilot” and “The Explorer” each present a particular way of interacting in the world. These prose poems exist in a moment differently than the verse poems, and offer immediacy, because Gibson has allowed the voice of another to speak clearly in the present. These poems offer a glimpse of the real connection possible when Gibson wants to focus on one thing. Unfortunately, this is not how he approaches his verse. Awash in intriguing images, lost in thoughts of time, grasping for elusive meaning: I want to believe he will find a way to convey in verse another simple truth about his complex world.
Then there are the wonderful “40 Fortunes,” which originally appeared as a chapbook. Some favorites:
Desert crossings are impressive only if the desert has been given an ominous name. Go forth and name your deserts.
Do not reveal your deceit lest you reduce it to mere crime.
The dream state is the only beautiful form of suffocation.
I expect Mr. Gibson will write another book. Perhaps in that one he will step out from behind the screen.
Fiction by Matthew Specktor
Tin House Books, March 2013
Hardcover: 460pp; $25.95
Review by David Breithaupt
Matthew Specktor’s new novel, American Dream Machine, is set in LA and spans the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. My mind has pop-ups when I hear about a book that takes place in LA—I think Chandler, Fante and Mosley, not to mention all those black-and-white noir films. Never having visited, I prefer to keep my perhaps faux-romantic ideas of this location rather than be disturbed by the actual reality of Los Angeles. So, I wondered, what will Specktor’s book add to my at-a-distance relationship to this fabled city?
Plenty, it turns out. However, it leaves me more with a sense of an American family with all its risings and fallings than a deeper understanding of The Industry. I could easily file this book with works like The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead or The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West. Specktor has written the story of Beau Rosenwald, a man on a mission with true grit and gumption who lands in LA in the early 1960s. He is determined to fulfill his idea of the American Dream, and we want to root for him despite his flaws revealed throughout his story. Rosenwald works his way up in the movie business and finally helps found a new sort of talent agency called American Dream Machine. ADM is meant to be different from the others: ADM wants to care about its clients like members of a family. Soon, Beau’s agency has attracted a large scoop of the local talent and is off and running. Life in LA is good. You can create yourself here.
However, as any Buddhist will tell you, life is transient, especially life in the movie biz. Beau marries and soon has a son and daughter. The union is short-lived and begins to crumble and then explode when the daughter is accidentally shot and killed. Shortly thereafter, the mother disappears while Beau experiences the on-and-off meltdowns we expect people in The Industry to have. Another son appears, this one out of wedlock. Beau bottoms out, but as you might guess early on, he is nothing if not a survivor. His tale is narrated by one of his sons, now grown and himself a survivor of a sometimes difficult Hollywood upbringing. It is often a heartbreaking narration, wonderfully written and told from the safe distance of a lofty perspective, a tale of siblings and parents and their tragedies and celebrations. The relationships in this novel ring true and are the crazy glue which holds the book together. I felt as though I was living in the world Specktor described, that I could pick up a phone and call any one of the characters and ask them what in the hell they thought they were doing with their lives. Specktor has fulfilled the promise of his first novel, That Summertime Sound, which also mixed dreams and relationships into a moving drama.
“If you live long enough,” a character laments in this tale, “you get to play all the parts in the play.” Beau Rosenwald manages many of them by the end of American Dream Machine, which I was sad to finish. Take advantage of this history and read the book; with Specktor as your guide, you too can add more images to a far-away idea of Los Angeles.
Fiction by Amy Willoughby-Burle
Press 53, October 2012
Paperback: 110pp; $12.95
Review by Jodi Paloni
In her debut collection, Out Across the Nowhere, Amy Willoughby-Burle tells vast and vibrant stories (fourteen of them) in a scant (ninety-three) number of pages. Think bright and miniature, resembling the fireflies in her title story: “. . . like all the stars have left the sky to come roost in the tree limbs.” Think of their impact and largeness, and they make us feel that “We could swallow them and make little galaxies in our empty stomachs.”
Taking the firefly metaphor further, the light in these stories is compelling because it shines in stark juxtaposition to the darkness. What you sense as magic—fireflies—is what you come to understand as mystery in the way characters rivet their attention to their sorrows. Likewise, if sadness flooded the page without relief, it would seem flat or unworthy. Time and again, Willoughby-Burle’s characters see their choices reflected both by the light and the dark.
“Nobody Next Door” tells the story of shy love on the brink of fulfillment when tragedy strikes: “She moved to an apartment on the fifth floor to avoid seeing someone come for his things or to notice a new tenant. This way, she would not have to know and hopefully, she could encounter him in the future . . .”
The woman’s despair morphed into denial, along with our shattered expectations for their success (for they make such a sweet and odd pair) is tempered with the chance that perhaps it could work out for them in the end. If the character believes it to be possible, why shouldn’t we? There is always one final firefly lingering in the night sky.
Recently, I came across notes from a lecture, a list of questions to consider when thinking over the success of a story. The stories in Out Across the Nowhere seemed up for the challenge.
1) Ask why?
Why write “Stone Jesus in the Front Yard,” in which two young children await an absent mother’s return even though their “mother’s closet is empty and her new hairbrush is gone”? Why write “Hungry,” about a homeless mother who will do almost anything to feed and protect her children, but won’t let them go? Why write “Stepping Out in Front of a Train” and show the degradation a young girl would surely feel under the perverse authority of her preacher stepfather?
Why? Because doesn’t fiction serve a purpose to expand awareness?
Mark Twain said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities.” While the impossibility of the realities met by Willoughby-Burle’s characters doesn’t always include the one sparkling glimmer of hope in the end, her characters do demonstrate resiliency, blatant or otherwise tucked somewhere hidden in the narrative. If a conclusion is harsh, the reader may take heart that characters will go on. How? Willougby-Burle achieves it by responding to the next question in the positive.
2) Are the images imaginable?
In “Days Untended,” children are left to contend with a grieving mother who acts out her suffering in one extreme and unforgettable act. But it is a quiet moment that gives the reader a sense of her possible recovery. The moment is conjured by an image:
Some nights we’d catch her huddled in the corner of their closet where she breathed in blue overalls that he once wore, white shirts worn thin, straw hat with a hole in the back of the brim. We planted ourselves like tiger lilies outside her bedroom door when she cried—tried to spread out and make her happy. We were three little girls like stair steps, high enough to raise her up, too small to take her anywhere.
In “The Conspicuous Absence of Knowing” an adult daughter faces the reality of her father’s death when she gets a nose bleed and pulls over to a service station, the same service station where her father taught her how to deal with her first nose bleed when she was ten.
Now I sit here in that Texaco and close my eyes around the memory of the sweet soda that my father bought me after the bleeding stopped and of the handful of peanuts he gave me once we were all back in the car, peanuts from his jar, Daddy’s jar. The world warps out of perspective and for a minute I remember the magnitude of what small pleasure like that can mean to a child.
Not only do we see the handful, we smell peanuts and taste soda. We even imagine the blood though the bleeding has been staunched.
So far, these stories show both purpose and imagination that’s believable, but as for the prose…
3) How does it sound when you read it out loud?
There’s only one way to find out. Try this, from “Limbo”:
It’s not so much what he says as the way he says it—low and soft so you have to lean in, so that everything is intimate, so that should this be the last of it, you pull away with his breath in your ear like a passenger from where he’s stuck to wherever you’re going.
Eighteen s sounds and the gasps of a dying man are realized without the use of the word whisper.
I could go on with my list. Is it told from a fresh perspective? Yes. Can you map tension? Check. Count the decisions the protagonist has made. Mark agency. Define character. Feel rhythm. Distinguish voice. Amy Willougby-Burle hits every mark with concise generosity, firefly-like.
True Stories about How We Die
Anthology edited by Lee Gutkind
In Fact Books, April 2012
Paperback: 255pp; $15.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
The twenty-two essays in this collection were chosen from four hundred submissions in response to Lee Gutkind’s (editor of Creative Nonfiction literary magazine) call for essays on the subject of death. The book is a collaboration of Creative Nonfiction and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. While it isn’t a book one would choose for entertainment or casual reading, it is an important one that offers an expansive view, from various perspectives, on how we deal with death and dying.
Though death is the central topic of each of these essays, the narrators’ living voices transmit messages of courage, hope, and healing. In his editor’s note, Gutkind reveals that he initially agreed with his editor’s response that the collection was “completely depressing.” However, he explains that he now believes “the messages inherent in these essays are positive, demonstrating that people can die with strength and dignity and, even more to the point, that their loved ones can endure these deaths and go forward in their lives, with strength and dignity and even a sense of confidence and hope.” Francine Prose writes in the introduction that “Many of these narratives feel like messages in bottles, washed up on the shore—urgent communications whose authors hope they will reach the land of the healthy and the living.”
Each of these essays, whether written by an established, published writer or by a writer published for the first time, portrays a personal perspective on the topic of death. Among the contributors are mothers, daughters, sons, grandsons, physicians, hospice workers, a nurse, a 911 dispatcher, a lawyer, and a physical therapist. Two of the most heartbreaking stories are by mothers writing about the deaths of their daughters: one at age twelve, after a four-year battle with leukemia, and the other at age nineteen, hours after suffering a traumatic brain injury.
The essays contain some startling statistics about current healthcare and funeral practices. For instance, Valerie Seiling Jacobs reveals in her essay “A Better Place” that: “71 percent of men admitted to nursing homes don’t last three months . . . 80 percent don’t last six months,” and Joe Primo estimates in “The Business of Grief” that we “use enough metal in caskets and underground vaults that we could rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge every January.” Eleanor Vincent’s essay “The Resurrection of Wonder Woman,” about her decision to donate her teenaged daughter’s organs, reveals that “more than 105,000 people await transplants in the United States today. Each day, on average, eighteen of them die waiting.” Although some of these statistics are frightening, the overall tone of the book is positive. I’m particularly encouraged by the compassion and conscience displayed by the healthcare workers. For example, a nurse participating in a clinical rotation in a hospital’s pediatric ward fakes the paperwork she submits to her boss to instead spend time playing with Matchbox cars with a dying patient. In another essay, a mother stands at her daughter’s bedside, courageously giving her permission to die, and when two doctors approach the room to perform lifesaving measures, the girl’s favorite nurse bodily blocks the door.
As expected given the subject matter, this collection contains an ample amount of sadness. But these writers deftly use details, metaphor, and lyricism to create art instead of sentimentality. In “Yellow Taxi,” hospice worker Eve Joseph describes a comatose patient, writing: “I remember looking at her pale skin and black hair and thinking she looked like Snow White in a Red Cross bed.” In another passage from this same essay, Joseph notes that “those who work with the dying must learn to think like the poet who reaches for language the way a child reaches for the moon, believing it can be held in the hand like an orange at the same time it shines on in the night sky.”
Although the subjects of these essays vary in age, background, ethnicity, and social status, they share several recurring themes. For example, the prevailing belief is that the dying need their loved ones to give them permission to die. Other recurring themes involve rituals, such as leaving the window slightly open to allow the spirit to escape and the ceremonial bathing of the body.
Many passages of this book are painfully difficult to read; however, the essays are also beautifully written tributes to the lives they portray. In “The Measure of Time,” Amanda J. Redig concludes that “what matters is not how we die but rather why we choose to live.” I agree with Francine Prose when she says that “we can only feel grateful for having experienced the intensity and the sheer amount of life that has been compressed and contained in a book about its end.”
The Later Life and Extraordinary Adventures
of Private Ivan Chonkin
Fiction by Vladimir Voinovich
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Northwestern University Press, October 2012
Paperback: 248pp; $24.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
A Displaced Person: The Later Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is the much anticipated finish of the Chonkin trilogy, told through a curious and unexpected Absurdist literary frame for our Russian protagonist. The story of A Displaced Person is fantastical dark satire of a Stalin-era Soviet soldier who manages to blunder his way from one adventure to another. This story, however, is also a wonderfully powerful philosophic commentary on the struggle for meaning in the confusing, conflicted experiences of a Russian Everyman. This detached existentialism that surrounds Private Chonkin throughout the narrative allows the author the opportunity for caustic commentary on Russian and Soviet moralism.
The story picks up where its predecessor, Pretender to the Throne, leaves off. We are re-introduced to Private Chonkin, Nyrua (his wife), and other American and Soviet bureaucrats, military officials, peasants, and chance-encountered travelers. Private Chonkin meanders his way through invented lives—Nyrua’s pretended stories from a letter Chonkin never sent her, and Chonkin’s guileless case of mistaken identity where Stalin declares it his mission in life to track down Chonkin. Voinovich leads the reader through Chonkin’s stint in the Soviet Army, his travels to the almost mystically described farmlands of Ohio, his second marriage to an American, Nyrua’s travels from a Siberian village to visit Chonkin in Ohio for dental work, and Chonkin’s anti-climactic return to the Soviet Union as an invited guest to talk about American farming. The reader can scarcely keep track of the byzantine plot twists through the novel.
Through everything, Chonkin meets each encounter with stock simplicity, unable to even rouse himself to a stoic acceptance of his fate. For Chonkin, life is not accepted—it is simply encountered or experienced. In fact, Chonkin’s almost idiot-like simplicity reminds the reader of the protagonist of another Russian novel: in Jaroslav Hasek’s classic The Good Soldier, Svejk, the title character is a bewildering juxtaposition of feigned idiocy or simple out-and-out incompetence—a state that allows him to passively resist his military duties, to the utter irritation of his superiors. Chonkin, not unlike Svejk, is a bumbling anti-hero who leaves the reader simply wondering about the state and the meaning of Chonkin’s inaction.
This bewildering juxtaposition perfectly situates the characters—and the reader—to grapple with the truly Absurdist themes Voinovich introduces in A Displaced Person. One of the clearest themes we see emerging from Chonkin’s adventures is the Absurdist dialectic struggle—the human need to make sense of and find the inherent meaning in life and the human condition, and the stark inability to do so. Voinovich highlights this Absurdist frustration most completely through his supporting characters—the American officer who wants to convince Chonkin of the “correct” politics of 1950s America; the advisors to Stalin within his inner circle, trying to make sense of Stalin’s political convictions and the implementation of his policies; and even in Nyrua’s Siberian villagers trying to identify a coherent narrative for her husband, Chonkin. It’s really only Chonkin, as an existential Absurdist anti-hero, who is detached from this metaphysical struggle and simply encounters life, unbothered by trying to make sense of it. Chonkin’s emotions are superficial, his experiences fantastical, and the meaning behind his life indeterminable. Indeed, even the historical setting for A Displaced Person perfectly aligns with the rise of Absurdism in existentialism.
A Displaced Person: The Later Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is a brilliant read. Vladimir Voinovich wraps up his trilogy of Ivan Chonkin—itself, perhaps, an ironic gesture toward triptych or an icon—and readers are treated to one final, enjoyable dose of Voinovich’s caustic dark satire.
Fiction by Ray Morrison
Press 53, October 2012
Paperback: 154pp; $14.95
Review by Ryan Wilson
Southern discomfort informs Ray Morrison’s short story collection In a World of Small Truths, yet the unease that permeates each story comes distinctly from the New South, nowhere near the traditional gothic trappings of Faulkner or O’Conner. Still, Morrison’s voice is that of an insider, often reflecting on a youth long gone, not unlike a more collective longing for those lost antebellum days.
Morrison’s “haunted” characters gracefully transform from the generic to the specific. In “Calvin Bodenheimer and the Dalrymple Bull,” a long remembered boyhood crush transfers into a codifying adult satisfaction for staying put in one’s hometown. In “Allison Tarleton’s Jar,” memories of an eccentric mother of a childhood friend eases the painful complications of family planning. The retiring dentist in “Extraction” still clings to the forgiving letter of a mother whose son died the previous year from surgical complications.
Like the letter, forgiveness readily appears in most of Morrison’s longer stories. This would feel repetitive and forced if the guilty weren’t so well drawn. A racist, violent father in “Who’s the Victim Here?” simply isn’t capable of knowing how terrible he is, so his son must accept him for the basic care he once provided as a father. In the exquisite “Family Tree,” another grown son must forgive himself for simply handing his alcoholic father the sled with which the father plowed headfirst into a tree. When his older brother buys the old family house years later, the son subconsciously finds himself taking a hatchet to the tree, as if blaming the oak: “the tree’s rough, cracked bark was unblemished in any way that would show the world the result of its unforgiving hardness.”
Morrison demonstrates his own “unforgiving hardness” in a few short violent tales. In “Lenny and Earl Go Shooting off Their Mouth,” the two titles characters go full Tarantino on each other, a la Reservoir Dogs, after their heist goes bad. In “S,” a suicidal father dresses as Superman and heads toward the ledge after surviving a car crash that has taken his wife. “Spring Planting” references the resting place for a cheating husband, but only after his wife confronts the cuckolded husband with a shotgun.
As visceral as these brief flashes of carnage can be, they can’t compete with Morrison’s two best stories, each distanced, measured tales about the mysteries that surround the New South.
“Cityscape” artfully discards the traditional short story form, providing a three-part vision of an unnamed Southern metropolis. The first tracks the tensions accompanying evangelism in an everyday neighborhood. The second tackles wealth and political privilege in contrast to extreme urban poverty. The third and culminating part considers how a rural shack, home to an old man living out of the time with the 21st century, can exist tucked away amidst suburban sprawl.
This theme returns in the collection’s highlight, “A House Divided,” in which a high school history project on Abraham Lincoln transforms a local lawyer’s daughter into a figure from the Civil War. At first the community is simply amused, then worried about her, and finally offended so much that the lawyer begins to lose clients because of his daughter’s penchant for wearing corsets.
The father’s touching resolution to this conflict is as good as any statement yet made about how the New South possesses the ability to simultaneously transcend and honor its glorious, if contradictory, past—a concept Morrison illuminates superbly in these stories.
Fiction by Laura Kasischke
Sarabande Books, March 2013
Paperback: 184pp; $15.95
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
In Laura Kasischke’s first collection of short stories, she grabs you from the beginning, making you catch hold of your breath in anticipation. And I mean from the very beginning. The first line of the first story (“Mona”) reads: “They’d all warned her not to snoop.” Already, we are just as curious as the mother in her teenage daughter’s bedroom. What will she find? And in addition, what will we, as readers, find between the pages? This collection speaks of the unknown. What is your daughter hiding from you? What are the lives like for the people in the houses you pass by each day? What will happen when you grow up and are no longer a child? What lies ahead of you after death? And yet, what we find isn’t necessarily answers to those questions. I found arresting images, ones that allow both the darkness and the light to live within the same text.
I had never read Kasischke’s prose before, only her poetry, but I found that the alignment of images and memories alongside each other carried the story more than the plot. Certainly there are interesting situations: a father attends a birthday party for his daughter at the house of his ex-wife, whom he is still in love with (“Melody”); children hide their father each time the officials come because he has lost his passport (“Our Father”); a daughter must tell her father he is going to die (“You’re Going to Die”); and a man travels to Florida to meet the mother of his fiancée—a fiancée who is fourteen years older than he (“The Flowering Staff”). But what I found even more compelling was the back-and-forth of imagery. Kasischke’s prose is the perfect example of the idea of showing, not telling.
In “The Barge,” for example, the young female narrator has a coming-of-age of sorts (unlike any other story I’ve read with this theme). A barge gets stuck under a bridge, and the children are entertained all day by it. The narrator carries around a rag doll, old and ugly. Her friend Rachel’s older brother wants to throw it onto the barge:
Once, this boy had snatched a piece of watermelon out of my hand and eaten it in front of me while I screamed. Once, he’d grabbed the tail feathers of a dead bird in a ditch, and flung it at me. Once, he’d stuck a handful of snow down the front of my pants—keeping the hand there as the snow melted, staring into my eyes as if he were seeing into my brain.
That bird he’d flung managed to fly, flapping its wings mechanically over my head for a few seconds before it fell in front of me in a soggy heap to die a second time, and the soggy heap of that bird was what he saw inside my brain.
Here, Kasischke doesn’t need to tell us how the narrator felt about the situation, she simply shows it. And what’s more fantastic is how this weaves right back into the main plot without the reader realizing it had ever strayed. In all of her pieces, she seamlessly makes the transition between the main narration and the past events or memories from the characters.
The story from which the book gets its name, “‘If a Stranger Approaches You about Carrying a Foreign Object with You onto the Plane,’” is a perfect example of all of these ideas. Kathy Bliss is in the airport waiting to board a plane to Maine. While simultaneously worrying about her sick baby at home with her husband, she is approached by a man who asks her to do exactly what the announcements at the airport advise her against: he wants her to take a small gold package on the plane with her. “Oh my God,” she says, “All these years I was wondering if anyone was ever going to ask me that.” She decides to take it with her to deliver to his brother when she gets off the plane, but after she boards, she gets a phone call that her baby is in the hospital. Long after the child is healthy again, she finds her bag from the trip:
She got down on her knees and pulled the bag to her, and removed the umbrella, and the pink makeup bag, and then the folded black sweater, the brother’s name, Mack Kaloustian (but hadn’t the stranger said he was his mother’s only son?), and saw it there, the box, in its gold paper, and recognized it only vaguely, as neither a gift nor a recrimination, a threat or a blessing.
She didn’t open it, but imagined herself opening it. Imagined herself as a passenger on that plane, unable to resist it. Holding it to her ear. Shaking it, maybe. Lifting the edge of the gold paper, tearing it away from the box. And then, the certain, brilliant cataclysm that would follow . . . She’d been a fool to take it with her onto the plane. It could have killed them all.
Or, the simple gold braid of it.
Tasteful. Elegant. A thoughtful gift chosen by a devoted son for his beloved mother. And she imagined taking the necklace out of the box, holding it up to her own neck at the mirror, admiring the glint of it around her neck—this bit of love and brevity snatched from the throat of a stranger—wearing it with an evening gown, passing it down as an heirloom to her children.
But Kasischke doesn’t allow us to find out what’s inside. She gives us portraits of the many unknowns in life and reveals the raw human urge to discover those mysteries.
Fiction by Herman Koch
Hogarth, February 2013
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Hardcover: 304pp; $24.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The Dinner, a bestseller in Europe, is funny, intense and discussable for its morality. Two brothers and their wives meet at a topnotch Amsterdam restaurant to talk about their fifteen-year-old sons. One brother, Serge, is a politician, a shoo-in for prime minister, and the other, the narrator Paul, was a high school history teacher. At first the novel is funny due to Paul’s acerbic comments on the restaurant’s pretensions and his brother’s obvious love of being in the spotlight. But then when we learn of the crime perpetrated by Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick, and we learn more of Paul’s background, the book grips us with its surprises.
The Dinner is divided into the various courses of the meal, from Appetizer to Dessert. They each leave a bittersweet taste, especially as we approach the unexpected end.
Many of Paul’s observations about fancy restaurants will resonate with readers:
I know someone, an old friend, who spent a few years working in “top restaurants.” Their tactic is to actually force as much wine as possible down your throat, wine they sell for seven times what the importer charges for it, and that’s why they always wait so long between bringing the appetizer and taking orders for the entrée: people will order more wine out of pure boredom, just to kill time. . . . The appetizer arrives quite quickly, because if the appetizer takes too long, people start complaining. They start to doubt their choice of restaurant, but after a while, when they’ve had too much drink between appetizer and entrée, they lose track of time. [My friend] knew of cases where the entrees had been ready for a long time but remained on the plates in the kitchen because the people at the table in question weren’t complaining. Only when there was a lull in the conversation and the customers started to look around impatiently were the plates shoved into the microwave.
We chuckle at the manager’s pinkie being too close to the food, the explanation of the origin of practically every leaf of lettuce, and the revelations about Serge—now a wine expert, but who once drank huge amounts of cola, “knocking back an entire king-size bottle at dinnertime” and producing “belches that lasted ten seconds or longer.”
We enjoy his observations, such as those about his students (“All these heads into which everything disappears”) and other truths: “Within the last minute, I had heard my own first name repeated—how often?—six times. It’s my experience that when people go on repeating your first name, they want something from you and it’s usually not something you want to give.”
And there’s the truth about getting used to the old ludicrous politician: “. . . like a stain on the wallpaper. A stain that seemed simply to belong there, and which could only surprise you by one day not being there at all.”
Paul is irresistible in his exposure of hypocrisy, but the dark cloud of Michel’s and Rick’s for-a-long-time-undefined crime looms in the background, along with Rick’s mysterious and not so innocent brother, the African adoptee Beau.
And Paul, our narrator, seems unreliable in his fierce obsession with maintaining the image of the happy family. His actions throughout his life are described as being out of line. He refuses to tell—because it’s “nobody’s business”—the name of the restaurant, or his former place of employment. But more troubling is the source of his own problems, and his son Michel’s name for him, “Dear old Dad,” becomes more and more chilling.
And while Serge is not as bad as Paul depicts him to be, he and wife Babette are equally obsessive about his political future. In other matters, they are naïve, for instance in their view of the French attitude towards them and their fellow Dutch homeowners in France:
[Serge] seemed at ease among the French, each and every one of them just regular people, after all. Regular people were his specialty in Holland, so why not here as well? [He did not see] the nods and winks that spoke volumes concerning the despicable boorishness of these Dutch people.
However, their naïveté towards their adopted son Beau has more serious consequences.
The only problem with this novel was its bits of implausibility. Would a family discuss such private matters in a public restaurant where they could be overheard? And would Paul’s outburst at the restaurant owner be overlooked and ignored as it is? And the lack of identity of Paul’s ailment causes us to question its reality—though then we can question his morality. Perhaps most surprising of all, we care about these unpleasant people. In fact, we are riveted until the very end.
Fiction by Percival Everett
Graywolf Press, February 2013
Paperback: 256pp; $15.00
Review by Trena Machado
Percival Everett’s narrative model is vacillating like our thoughts, changeable as our awareness that inhabits the present as we are ever forced to find meaning by telling ourselves what is in front of us. Upfront in Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Everett constructs the perch from which the book is written: “language was a great failure or deceiver . . . that it could not be trusted” because the Ontological Argument for God’s existence was logically, but not factually, sound. “A=A,” a logical proposition, is not the same as “A is A,” pointing at existence. Once we are in the territory of “is,” the otherness of life as its own force enters, and with the acknowledged unreliability of language comes a different kind of narrative than the narrative forms we have acclimated to in the modern era. All the techniques of postmodern narrative, a merged narrator of at least seven voices, intertextuality using literature elements from more than two thousand years, the narrative looking at the narrative as it is being written, nonlinear time, mix of high and low subjects, and varied writing styles are used to give us a story pointing beyond language . . . and Everett does accomplish this. The postmodern techniques, as deranging as they are, take a backseat to the “heart of the matter.” Yet the techniques let us experience our struggle for the incomprehensible knot it is.
The primary narrator is a merging of father, son, grandfather, Murphy, Gregory Lang, Murphy Lang, Nat Turner, and Billy (Virgil), with descriptive elements of each of their stories interjected into the others’: “Your old man posing as you in a voice that is at once yours and at once mine and at once neither.” The survival-pressed, vulnerable egos of these narrators reflect the struggle to be human. In their reaction of cynicism, saturated with sadness, they ask the question many times in one way or another, Does it matter? Why do anything? They ask if there is meaning, purpose, and eviscerate meaning of themselves by referring to their so-called life and what we choose to call the world. The hydra-headed narrator is amorphously hovering but with a tangible grip. The narrators are believable as one voice. And Virgil, writing at the time Rome became an Empire, akin to the American Empire, had an underlying sad pessimism, yet he worked at writing the Aeneid for eleven years. And Bertrand Russell wanted to ground mathematics in logic. Language is what we use to know where we are standing in life’s onrush, even if but for a moment. For Everett:
. . . language remains always a step ahead of us . . . all we ever do is circle where we think language might reside, guessing like we guess about the location of electrons, about positrons and pions and muons and kaons and leptons and quarks and imaginary ducks, using it without pause, without thought, knowing that we cannot live without it, that we define ourselves with it and by it, but it is not ours . . .
The fraternal twins, language and existence, aren’t the same. Per Everett, this could have or have not happened in this way specifically in this story, but did at many points in America’s history, as we are told the stories of the black father and son. When the father was lynched by the Klan, the son says: “I could see my father’s expressionless face telling me to run. . . . They put the rope in a tree, a tree that sank its roots deep into everywhere, deep into yesterday, deep into my blood and theirs.” This son, now in a nursing home, makes friends with Billy. The orderlies do a bullying shakedown of Billy’s room, and Billy hears the one photo he had of his dead daughter break onto the floor. At ninety, he falls as he runs to save it and dies from the fall. Six of the residents decide to rebel and take revenge for Billy’s life; “What will that do for us? It might satisfy us.” And the son, when he is thirteen, of “this” father and his white mother, listens on the stairs as he witnesses the chaotic, hard core of his parents’ marriage . . . that is about power and love and not being loved . . . and if the father “is” loved by his mother who just had an affair that was her own cry of not feeling loved.
We crash into existence at the edge of our humanness and it is unquantifiable and unknowable and we are left dangling with nothing resolved. Everett does not let the reader escape in a story that has an arc of resolution. He steps us down into the dark pull of meaning—and, “is” there any . . . and the questioning brings cold-stop anguish. Not only is the novel format ripped open by removing the accustomed modern-era literary techniques, but a narrative model is made dealing with language itself that is unreliable and what we are left with is “knowing” by way of the human heart . . . as he says several times, “I do not want to know the human heart.” Yet he cannot escape the “maps of our plans and stretched all things to their limits the budding disleafing and felling of trees . . . forced me into that perplexing jungle that deep root-riddled tangle of wilderness that was myself.” The human struggle matters as much as we question the language that describes the struggle: “Things are not as elementary as they seem.” The six forming their rebellion in their eighties and nineties, the same blind sword to push forward as youth, because of the needless cruelty resulting in Billy’s death, their humanity aroused: “The fact that Billy was so old did not, would not, cause us to mourn his death any less . . .” Here is the “heart of the matter.”
Poetry by Michele Poulos
Slapering Hol Press, December 2012
Chapbook: 31pp; $12.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Michele Poulos’ debut poetry chapbook and winner of the 2012 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition, A Disturbance in the Air, embodies a meditative, emotive lyric in finely crafted poems that deal with the complexities of interpersonal relationships. In examining lives through a historical veil, various speakers narrate and reflect on historical events surrounding Greece and other places, prompting the dead to speak and even return.
The presence of history and historical retelling are prevalent in most of these poems. The three-section poem “When the Wind Falls” links together significant historical moments in Mouriki, Greece. In the second section, 70 years after mid-World War II, the narrator claims:
And if I refuse to point a finger,
it is that such fears are useless
as a cracked baseball bat
kept under a bed
or shutters fastened against the night’s slow shuffle.
The speaker continues to narrate these scenes of struggle, and, by the third section, reflects on the same space in contemporary times as she remembers her aunt in 1941 “terrified by the round belly of the plane, the spray / of bullets that shattered the spell around her.” The act of remembering continues through the creation of the poem.
Poems that narrate moments of intimacy recur throughout the chapbook, simultaneously examining the nature of physical closeness and love enacted in youth. In “Everything I Wanted,” the speaker explains how
. . . If my jaw moaned
open even once, he’d push it back
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
into place, silence wide
as the hem of the low country
and even describes her body “. . . at twenty // still new, dumb as the hitchhiker / whose sign reads Wherever.” A coupled sense of abandon and resistance permeates these poems as each moment grows heavier through the act of remembering.
Although brief in length, A Disturbance in the Air is a dense chapbook packed with strong narrative and well-crafted detail. Owing a strong allegiance to the power of observation, Poulos’ poems engage with a historical sense of tragedy and loss in language that does not become overindulgent. Rather, detail enriches each scene, such as in “The Ruins at Missolonghi,” where a female figure thinks of bodies as “a field of poppies / the wind no longer shudders against, / the sky a pouch of gunpowder cinched shut.” In navigating through these moments of loss, the reader can begin to piece together the remnants of history Poulos has so carefully collected and reassembled.