Posted May 31, 2013
Appetite :: Matters of Record :: Salton Sea :: A Palette of Leaves :: Work from Memory :: A Bouquet :: I'll Drown My Book :: Bad Sex on Speed :: That Mad Game :: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction :: Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths
Poetry by Aaron Smith
University of Pittsburgh Press, December 2012
Paperback: 72pp; $15.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
Appetite, Aaron Smith’s second full-length poetry collection, is wide-ranging, unapologetic, and clever. Its five sections all include references to gay experience, but many poems also focus on popular culture—particularly film—as well as many other topics. The book’s title implies a desire for something, but to me, the dominant emotion of the collection is loneliness; this is not a bad thing, however, and Smith offers the reader a beautiful, thought-provoking journey through many facets of his speaker’s life.
The book opens with a section titled “Men in Groups.” The eponymous poem opens the collection with an eclectic list of all the things groups of men do, from the mundane “take their shirts off and chase basketballs” to the mournful “carry caskets.” The poem’s long lines move from the joyfully exuberant (and presumably queer) to the violent and threatening with a rhythm reminiscent of the Beat poets: “Men in groups take their shirts off and dance. Men / in groups carry guns. Are brave. Are cowards. Are solemn and crazy // and lonely.” Other standout poems in the first section include “Psalm (Queer),” one of several psalms in the book, and “Hurtful,” a lovely meditation on language and loneliness. Smith writes:
There are four words
in the English language that have
no rhymes: orange, month, silver,
and purple. I want more than anything
to prove that wrong, and the closest
I’ve come is hurtful.
The second section, “Celebrity Photo,” includes many poems about film, but it opens with a piece only tangentially tied to movies. One of the most powerful and raw poems in the book, “Sometimes I Want a Gun,” is a complex reflection of a speaker who has wrestled with his sexuality. This longer poem includes sections about childhood guilt, thoughts of suicide, the speaker’s parents’ religious homophobia, and his own disgust and anger at the privilege of heterosexual people making out on a train. The final section describes the speaker’s reaction after first masturbating to “a guy in swimming trunks / on the cover of J. Crew catalog.” At 16, he immediately feels guilty and damned to hell and begs God to forgive him. The touching final couplet expresses a different sort of appetite: “I said: Send me a sign to show you forgive me. / I would have called the slightest breeze his presence.”
The book’s center, its third section, is a single long poem called “I Love the Part.” With sharp observations and a tone that shifts easily between humorous and wistful, the poem uses anaphora with the title phrase to describe memorable moments from a wide range of films.
The fourth section, titled “Prodigal,” marks a shift toward a lonelier, older speaker. Most of the anger appears earlier in the book, and most of the active desire as well. The poem “Psalm (Boston)” reveals this through the point of view of a speaker leaving a nightclub after the friends he had come with had “paired off and gone.” He walks home at dawn:
Still jittery from cigarettes,
from pills that promised
escape, I fell inside my body—
the last place I wanted to be.
This loneliness is repeated very clearly in “Prodigal” as the speaker feels out of place in West Virginia, “one of three gay men in a tiny college town.”
The final section, like the collection as a whole, is called “Appetite,” as is the poem that begins the section. The poem details the speaker’s youthful recklessness, focusing on a summer of “Dance / music and AIDS tests / and married men.” The last three poems of the collection move to the present and all deal with loneliness in some way, with wanting something to change, wanting the handsome stranger to look at you. The penultimate piece, “West Side Highway (Meditation),” offers what feels to me like a summary of the book and of the speaker’s experience as someone who has exchanged his religious upbringing for an adult life as a single openly gay man:
Twilight’s only bearable in the city,
lights making something different
than daylight, little lies saying,
you’re not really alone.
This is the life we asked for,
and it’s everything we expected.
There’s nowhere else so light
and dark at the same time.
It is a beautiful image, as much of the book is beautiful but also lonely as much of the book speaks of loneliness. While Appetite covers a lot of territory, it all manages to fit together; Smith reveals his speaker’s past, his preoccupations, his loves and hates and fears and loneliness—in short, his humanity. It is an admirable achievement, and the book is a very rewarding read.
Poetry by Megan Roberts
Finishing Line Press, July 2012
Chapbook: 28pp; $12.00
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
The nineteen poems that make up Megan Roberts’s chapbook, Matters of Record, combine to offer readers a compelling narrative portrait of the lives of women and girls executed in the United States across a wide span of time (the earliest execution takes place in 1860, while the most recent is dated 2005). The book opens with an epigraph taken from Jean-Paul Sartre: “I say a murder is abstract. You pull the trigger and after that you do not understand anything that happens.” And in most of these poems, the murder itself does indeed remain abstract. Even the more graphically violent pieces, such as the eponymous “Matters of Record,” which describes how a young girl was “seven when whipped / to death and the scars / was tortured with a red hot poker,” does so with a curious sense of remove. The violence occurs in the passive voice, and the poem focuses on the young victim rather than on the perpetrator of the violence.
This is not to say that the poems themselves are abstract; on the contrary, they are largely narrative, as they seek to illuminate the personhood—or, at times, the motivations—of these executed women. The book opens with the last meal request of a condemned woman—“Karla wrote her request for a peach, / a banana and a salad”—and concludes with the hanging of a different condemned woman, as witnessed by a small girl, taking us as readers from the perpetrator’s final moments to the effect the death will have on the viewing public. Fifteen of the poems speak directly to or about specific women; fourteen of these do so by naming the executed person in epigraph form beneath the title of the poem, while one more, “Quiet Execution,” includes no epigraph but names the executed person by first and last name within the body of the poem itself.
Taken on their own, the poems are at times quite moving, as they offer readers precise snapshots, sometimes from the perspective of the women themselves, and sometimes from the perspective of their victims or the viewers attending their executions, as in the last poem in the collection, “Looking On.” These poems are quite good individually, and at times the arrangement allows the collected poems to echo each other.
For example, “To All the Daughters” addresses the children of incarcerated women, and a few pages later, the child narrator in “Looking On” is positioned so that she is waiting to view a hanging, recalling the girls a few pages earlier, “Little Mary Janes touching the curb, still waiting / for a car that never comes around the corner, / never shows up again.” Likewise, we are reminded of the last meal featured in the collection’s first poem when we arrive much later at the lines in “Quiet Execution,” which addresses Helen Fowler, and tells her that when “you died, you ate the same meal / as all of Sing Sing. You didn’t leave / last words; your name didn’t touch a single ear, Helen.”
However, the collection chooses not to take a political stance and makes no explicit statement as to the state of justice, or of womanhood, which seems surprising, given that the poems are so tightly focused around incarcerated, executed women. To limit a collection to such a specific demographic—particularly one that is positioned as historically marginalized in not one but two ways, as women and as products of the American justice system—and to leave this unaddressed will likely leave some readers unsatisfied. Let us return, then, to the words from Sartre that frame the collection, which in a sense seem to discharge the collection itself from the responsibility of larger understanding. Although the women who populate Matters of Record’s pages may not understand anything that happens after they pull the trigger, then at least they appear here in a portrayal that is sensitively and vividly constructed, so that we as readers may hope to begin to.
Fiction by George McCormick
Noemi Press, December 2012
Paperback: 103pp; $15.00
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi
In this collection, interstate highways are stoned with sad songs, while accelerating on The Stones. They speed towards motel rooms and roadside bars, sweaty in premonitions of tomorrows through the Mojave Desert, or swanky Palm Springs hanging out on tan lines and glamour that might turn off George McCormick’s characters. His are not L.A. types, hoping for alternatives to traffic jams, smog, or specters of road rage. But they are not rural either; they are somewhere in between, suspended in that vast space girdled by truck stops, railroads, dry landscapes, and coffee refills on Sunset Boulevard, before accelerating the 101 or I-5 towards midnight and beyond. They take anything outside the nine-to-five hustle, anything stable, to support a family, a budding romance, or dreams that might wake, glimmering, in their baby daughter’s eyes.
The thrill of having steady employment is palpable in the first story, “The Mexican.” For the first time, Jess gets paid “regularly, every two weeks, in checks,” as part of a crew that re-ices refrigerator boxcars that transport oranges out of California. Their routines involve one-hundred-pound ice blocks beneath inky skies. One night, Jess discovers a man in one of the cars. Unsure about the stranger’s background, Jess says, “the man—he was Mexican, I was sure—got up from his crouch and walked past me to the bulwark. He crawled over it and disappeared into the oranges like a snake in a river.”
In the context of racial difference, this encounter is an assault to the identities of the parties involved, and has a paralyzing effect. The incident becomes a secret, too private to be shared with co-workers and friends, like an affair. This silence protects Jess from forms of interventions that could disrupt his life and bi-weekly paycheck. Years later, this experience lives on in stories for his children. This time though, he masks the encounter with other details, with “images of a stampede, of animals running”: his best compromise not to talk about that encounter. Talking about it would validate whatever happened inside him then, or the level of assault it insinuated and inspired, that “he choked, and in trying to scream, moaned instead,” before “coughing a mouthful of bile that ran down [his] lips and onto [his] chin.” The social relation implied in the encounter is fragile in its savagery, as though it exists not only outside the law, but outside the history of segregation itself, sneaky as “a snake in a river.” Thusly, “Mexican,” here, signifies something remote, not yet inculcated and calculated in California’s historical narrative; nevertheless the term is highly accessible, a convenient synonym for otherness. However, the incident in the boxcar appears isolated, and too singular an event to distort Jess’s mythical image of the West, which excludes ice, oranges, and a Mexican. The story somehow begs for another dimension, or other detailed experiences besides the boxcar incident that can generate “a stampede of lies,” in Jess’s imagination, as a father raising boys.
On the other hand, the rest of the collection is spared from this kind of speculation; but more so, they explore the fragile contours of relationships, its betrayals, corrugations, hopes, and weeping compromises. These are told in spare, accessible prose in “DC,” “You Are Going to Be a Good Man,” and “Birdy.” But the saddest relationship story among these—at least for me—is “Salton Sea,” which explores a longing for fatherhood: a solitary hope, since the narrator’s wife, Ramona, is committed to the vision both had forged before they got married, that they “would travel, or be artists, or inhabit whatever lives were out there that didn’t include the toils of rearing children.” It is a romantic vision, perhaps too idealistic for adult life and its desires. A trip back to the Salton Sea where the couple had honeymooned after tying the knot bookmarks Ramona’s new vision of their marriage, something cathartic for her and hopefully satisfying for her husband: “You can fuck me any way you want, just as long as you don’t talk anymore about wanting babies. Ever.” She knows how to keep a promise. But her husband’s longing for fatherhood is like what happened to the Colorado River when it was “diverted into a system of irrigations ducts and canals” that failed; the water found its way to the Salton Sink in California and formed an accidental sea in 1905, which drew a community of resorts that didn’t quite rival those in nearby Palm Springs. In the end, Ramona moves to Texas, while her ex still lives in Southern California. His longing to be a father has been diverted to a new girl named Amy; they are childless, but have a dog named Marlowe.
Chances are, if you are a Ramona type, a few swigs of this collection might feel like McCormick has gotten too deep under your skin, and you might feel like going back to California to take away your ex from Amy, because your friends now have babies, too, and your mother is begging you to give her a grandchild. But whatever type you are, whether you like The Stones or work on gallstones for a living, don't forget this collection at a rest stop, after reading it the second or third time beside a six-pack that's hardly unpacked. You might want to pass it on to a stranger at Barstow trying to avoid bad weather, as you're both whiling time away, baring your lives like you've met each other before, years ago, at a state university. Despite those years, your new friend across the table still feels short of success, sometimes so short that, as McCormick might say in one of his stories, "she has to stand on her college degrees to work the register." That's right. This collection has that kind of edge, too, wherein humor crawls with quiet confidence beneath the sadness "like a snake in a river."
Poetry by Edythe Haendel Schwartz
Mayapple Press, December 2012
Paperback: 72pp; $14.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
Edythe Haendel Schwartz skillfully employs ekphrastic poetry in her second collection, A Palette of Leaves. Through describing and responding to artists and their art—conception, process, and result—Haendel Schwartz focuses on the interplay of art forms in the face of tragedy, emphasizing a need for the written and the visual to interact. Divided into three substantial sections, the collection reads as events always in the middle of an action, adhering to process and memory rather than finality. While the mostly narrative forms vary from neatly organized, consistent lines to ones swaying across the page, these poems remain closely tied to the tangible things held onto through life.
Ekphrases continue to appear by holding the collection’s wide breadth of poems together. In “Release,” the speaker describes how, in Kiefer’s painting Fitzcarraldo (2010), “she stares at faults not hers / the woods before her riven by roots / studded as hobnail boots.” This kind of gritty language continues to take shape in “Edward Weston’s Pepper,” where
He set her upright
her cap lit
in grisaille, his eye
pressed to her skin like a palm
against each cell
While “Release” details a woman’s gaze, the latter poem is directly engaged with the male gaze. Providing what are almost interludes from the collection’s broader narrative, these ekphrastic poems still continue to relate back to the dynamics of family relations.
The vast majority of the poems in A Palette of Leaves deals with the loss of the speaker’s mother in the wake of illness by centering on domestic tasks to tell the narrative of mother and daughter. In “Apricot Crisp,” the speaker thinks of her mother baking:
Alone, she listens to her breathing
stumble over tumors,
layers crescent moons of apricots,
flutes the crust.
The mother figure is “Now only a blank nod—her hands clock / hours in pockets of her painter’s smock” with “hues that would document the last // hand she could lift against the growing black” in “Hands.” The speaker likens a woman “In Edward Hopper’s Western Motel . . .” to her mother, “her hand-drawn generations / of drosophila wing mutations, hidden,” who the speaker sees “slicing hearts of romaine to calm / the arugula, eyes longer / to dissect again.” The action of a body in motion juxtaposed against the physical body and mind in decline resonates with the high emotional tenor of these poems.
Laying foundations by rendering remembrance as an art object itself with the fluidity of language, Haendel Schwartz succeeds in stirring up and recreating these moments for the reader. With a painstaking attention to detail, the poems in A Palette of Leaves use the particular to construct a living memory.
In Response to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Poetry/Prose by Dan Beachy-Quick and Matthew Goulish
Ahsahta Press, September 2012
Paperback: 96pp; $19.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
I’ve never read the work of Marcel Proust. Although I’ve always understood Proust to be an author everybody should read, I simply haven’t gotten around to doing so myself. This gap in my reading is admittedly a mild embarrassment, especially as I often find myself the antagonistic provocateur busily berating friends and associates over authors and key texts which they absolutely must read. Much more generous than I, Dan Beachy-Quick’s and Matthew Goulish’s Work from Memory doesn’t berate the reader for any lack of familiarity with its source text. Even without firsthand awareness of Proust’s work, there’s plenty to chew on here concerning reading, memory, ideas of “the book,” and how conscious or not we as readers remain in relation to ongoing and past experience. My understanding is that Proust sought to set down in writing the details of everyday life in as exact, excruciating detail as possible—not the bustling activities with which our lives are ever busily preoccupied, but rather the minutiae of time’s passing, or as Goulish phrases it, “the book project of a life.” Or as Beachy-Quick describes Proust’s protagonist: “The writer dreams of the book as a life.” Work from Memory turns round and round these themes.
Formalistically speaking, this is a pretty quirky, interestingly odd collaboration. Goulish’s prose and Beachy-Quick’s poetry never line up in any linear conversation with one another, yet clear echoes between the texts remain. Each is in pursuit of deep reflections upon their own perceptions as readers of Proust. Beachy-Quick’s poetry evokes an abstracted moodiness—“Who was his thought before his mind could think it / Little beating mind a pulse sounds like a footprint”—which Goulish’s prose mirrors at some points: “The life and the writing blaze the trail through the aporia, the roadless nocturnal countryside. They navigate the immensity of the labor by landmarks new and old at once, by virtue of similarity.” At other times, Goulish tends more toward an exacting account and commentary of information relevant to the focused inquiry at hand: “A brain, constituted of independent parts, synchronizes without an independent authority. We may liken the mysterious effect to an orchestra playing without a conductor.” In general, this book reads more like various sets of polished notebook jottings traded back and forth, rather than as a finished work.
There is, however, much merit to the project. Beachy-Quick’s opening line, “a life describes a book describes a life,” declares how much this is a book about “the book” itself. The remembered act of writing merges with the remembered act of reading, combining to form the innocuous target both authors direct their writing toward. Early on, Goulish announces that “books bookend the project of the book.” Work from Memory has no ending and no beginning. This is an endless reverie often found dwelling upon Proust but also frequently touching upon other texts and areas of interest ranging from the scientific to the philosophical and back to the literary as well as the musical. A book which in itself pays tribute to the act of reading, urging its audience to consider their own stories of interaction with texts. The haunting edges of desire, design, and memory possess an inescapable, fascinating allure: exploration of where identifications between author and reader blur.
Of Czech Folktales
Poetry by Karel Jaromír Erben
Translated from the Czech by Marcela Malek Sulak
Twisted Spoon Press, December 2012
Hardcover: 174pp; $22.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful and enduring genre than the folk tale. Few other literary types so completely cut across culture and time, artfully explicating the moral drama of humanity through stories and characters. While elements of particular folk tales are clearly specific to a singular culture, the narrative elements and arcs highlight a morphology of structure that demands engagement as it highlights a broader pattern. Indeed, in the space between folk tale, myth, and meaning lies the spectrum of the human condition—the foibles, the pettiness, but also the redemption. Undeniably, the folk tale operates in the collective cultural conciseness and history, demonstrating anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s point that “I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.” A Bouquet: of Czech Folktales by Karel Jaromír Erben is no exception.
Vividly translated, anthologized, and illustrated, Twisted Spoon’s publication of Erben’s classic compilation highlights the uniqueness of the Czech folk tale and juxtaposes it against the classic metaphoric allegories of other folk or fairy tales. In her introduction, translator Marcela Malek Sulak highlights the timeliness and relevance of this translation. She emphasizes the necessity of A Bouquet to the national Czech identity—as illustrated by the folk tales recorded in Czech (not Latin), thus linking Erben’s original compilation and recording of the tales to the broader movement of European Romanticism. Sulak walks the reader through the importance of the individual characters in various tales and the outcome of the moral (or even nationalistic) agendas that the folk tales articulate. From this, we see a valuation and a belief that suffering in the human condition can lead to redemption and that
. . . a loving and merciful Christian God can save a soul predestined to hell. Of course, the hero’s life on earth is thoroughly consumed in penance and trial, but he never complains of his fate. This story [“Zohar’s Bed”] may have had some resonance in Bohemia at the time, a land that was ruled by conquerors, for the lot [for “Zohar’s Bed”] is set in motion by a father who has sold his son’s soul to the devil in exchange for material wealth in the world before the tale begins.
Moreover, A Bouquet is considered to be one of three seminal works of Czech literature—Sulak’s is the first English translation, and her work aims to be true to the original prosaic cadence and poetry of Czech folklore. Indeed, it is more than apparent that her work fills both a scholarly and a literary void.
The thirteen tales that comprise Erben’s Bouquet are elegantly simple, yet understatedly and fantastically complex. Twisted Spoon’s book design is beautiful, and the accompanying illustrations are hauntingly brilliant. Readers are reminded of the myth and meaning imbued into cultural narratives that surround folk tales and can easily appreciate A Bouquet’s characters, its stories, and the humanistic drama they enact.
Conceptual Writing by Women
Anthology edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne,
Teresa Carmody, Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, May 2012
Paperback: 455pp; $40.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
As an art school grad, I’ve spent my fair share of time staring at objects in galleries wondering about the artist’s intent. While I of course had my own experience with each piece of art, it was worthwhile to know that the pile of bones at the MCA was not a general memento mori but a statement about U. S. policies regarding “extraordinary rendition.” Frequently, I’ve thought that the idea behind the art was interesting, but the execution was unsuccessful, or even unnecessary. Rosemarie Waldrop, in the statement following her contribution to Les Figues Press’s I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, makes the claim that this frame is an inaccurate description of the work of conceptual writers. Unlike visual or time artists who leave their sensuous medium for the intellectual exercise of writing, Waldrop’s conceptual writing focuses more on the sensual than writing from other movements. She focuses on the “shape” and sound of words, the experience of the word itself rather than its use as signifier. Further, unlike artists in other meanings, there is no “optional execution”; one either erases words from a canonical text, or one does not.
Despite this problem with the label, established and emerging writers have contributed mostly previously published work to be collected under its rubric. While methods vary, there are concerns that tie the collection together. Editor Laynie Browne’s introduction explains: “Collective thinking is primary, reader participation is requisite, the ‘I’ when present is often an assemblage of voices and process is often primary and integrative.” Other writers echo the idea that writing is a recursive exchange with the reader. In “Phallus Philtre,” Lee Anne Brown says, “We who are language sensitive / with a deep capacity for melancholy / know its [sic] good shit if we want to write during it.” This relationship is particularly attractive as a subversion of what editor Caroline Bergvall calls the “status quo that must silence or symptomatize the female, minoritarian or differential writer.” Denied language, these writers appropriate the language of others for their own devices.
Readers need not sneak behind the curtain to understand these methodologies; they are invited. The underpinnings are laid bare and made visible. “These are just studies too,” Jen Bervin announces. The works contained in this volume are places for writers to follow their obsessions to the end, but not necessarily to completion. The result is what Yedda Morrison calls “muddy tracks in an English garden.” Freed from concerns of finished form, contributors engage in what Bergvall describes as “games as source of perception and knowledge. . . . Bliss is the gaping shirt, writes Barthes.” Like Morrison’s text, which erases everything but scenery in selections from Heart of Darkness and the excerpts from Harryette Mullen’s S*PERM**K*T that pick at the ads and packaging in our daily lives, texts engage with the unknown and investigative. This unmapped territory is the natural space of poetry; in “Emergence of a Fiction,” Renee Gladman writes, “Moving from the constellation of the single progressing line of the sentence [creates a] semantic delay [that] represents the slippage between what you are trying to say . . . and what you actually do say.”
In perhaps the most scatological afterward that I’ve ever read, Vanessa Place reminds us of the primacy of context and that the reader is the ultimate arbiter of the “the pure textual materiality.” Why a collection of conceptual writing by women? The act of collection is creation of meaning.
Fiction by Jerry Stahl
A Barnacle Book, February 2013
Hardcover: 160pp; $17.95
Review by David Breithaupt
Jerry Stahl’s new novel, Bad Sex on Speed, represents an evolutionary step in his prose style. It’s a bit like the jump William Burroughs made from his straightforward first novel, Junky, to his famous and less conventional masterpiece Naked Lunch. Stahl has written a book attempting to match his words to the hallucinatory state of mind of an amphetamine user wafting through a state of psychosis. It’s spooky, the way he morphs into the minds of his crumbling characters. This is a narrative born, I suspect, from experience, but who knew Stahl swung this way? Readers of his oeuvre will be familiar with his narcotic portraits and episodes of heroin, the very opposite end of the spectrum from the territory he explores in this novel. This book’s Library of Congress classification will still fall under the general heading of “drug abuse,” but you won’t find much nodding in this story line, though you may wish a few of the characters within would catch a few hours of sleep.
Bad Sex on Speed links a series of vignettes that portray the addled mind of a meth head running in high gear without much rest. This book might baffle those who have sampled nothing stronger than some Lipton tea, and if this is the case, you will have to trust Jerry Stahl’s vision of a world gone amok. “Memories on speed,” he writes, “are like little children running in traffic, only there are not enough cars to hit them all.” He has, nevertheless, managed to nail a few down.
Let me give you a sample. In a chapter titled “American Girl,” we have a daughter describing her mother’s boyfriend and meth head, a man named Tonk (mom is also a user; it’s such a family-oriented episode). Tonk claims to be a spy, a CIA man. He carries a mysterious locked case he calls his “Hell Box.” Tonk hints as to the contents. There’s a gun inside, maybe. Or a grenade. Or acid. “It’s probably a clarinet,” the mother says. Tonk claims it is booby-trapped, and if you tried to open it, “rusty nails would blow out your eyes and leave scars so ugly no boy would ever be able to look at you without throwing up.” You didn’t know what was in it, says the daughter, just like “you didn’t know every time he slapped you—whether he was going to slap you again. Or if it was a warning.” Such are the moods and tales of a mother’s boyfriend on speed. “The meth sent his temperature so high his fingers scalded your face. He smelled pan-fried from the inside, five foot three of meat taint and screeching mini-lips.” Stahl shows you a portrait in prose only he could construct. In a classic juxtaposition, he contrasts the innocence of childhood with the hard-edged reality of drug culture. “When you were five,” recounts the daughter, “mommy let you make little lines of powder on the coffee table with an Uncle Wiggily Card.” This sentence alone is almost a novel and is typical of the mood Stahl sets throughout his book.
Tonk descends into the predictable decay and paranoia of the meth head. The daughter/narrator of this tale discovers the joy in the leftover powder crumbs of her mother and Tonk and thus begins her own journey. Another star is born. She leaves you with this thought, born from a stimulated consciousness: “Why is the world around you always crumbling, when you know, in your writhing heart, that you yourself could shine and shine and shine and shine and shine.”
The chapters in this novel, if not exactly linear in terms of character and storyline, are at least cohesive in their shared psychosis. It’s like driving through the bad part of your town. You may see people on the street who are unrelated, but after you have crossed the tracks you are left with a sense of having witnessed a unit as a whole. Stahl’s novel is like that: you are renting a room in the bad part of town. All your neighbors are tweaking. It’s community as novel.
Don’t avoid this book because it lives in a bleak world. It does. But Stahl tempers the darkness with his sleight of hand humor and a survivor’s instinct for shirking off the gloom. Remember, Stahl is a man who can look back and laugh at his own attempt to quit heroin by taking up crack. Some might not see the humor in that, but if you do, grab this book. It has your name on it.
Growing Up in a Warzone
An Anthology of Essays from Around the Globe
Nonfiction Anthology Edited by J.L. Powers
Cinco Puntos Press, September 2012
Paperback: 300pp; $16.95
Review by Denise Hill
That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone is a collection of personal essays from adults who survived childhood in various warzones around the globe. As much as this is a collection of stories about the atrocities of war, it is also, and maybe even more so, a collection of stories of hope for peace. Alia Yunis, in his examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict, comments: “A child can flee the war . . . or the war can stop. But in most cases, children become the adult voices in the background soundtrack of a new generation’s war.”
The adult contributors to this collection escaped the fate of becoming that soundtrack. Instead of being exiled, as editor J.L. Powers notes is the common thread among warzone children, these people find a shared identification and belonging that will become a part of the new story that “allows children to belong someplace new” and to “be a part of healing from war.”
Of the seventeen essays in this collection, most are singular in cultural/country origin, though few make geographical connections. In “A Separate Escape: The Chin of Burma & the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program,” the connections are physically traveled. Author Rebecca Henderson relates the stories of four minor-aged refugees as they escape Burma for Malaysia, with some able to seek refuge in the U.S. In “Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945),” David Griffith recollects his perspective as a fourteen-year-old in the U.S. watching the bombing of Iraq (1990) on television, while he learned about the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by playing Symphony No. 1 in his school orchestra. Only as an adult does Griffith make the ideological connection he missed before: how we justify our wars to make the resulting atrocities acceptable.
This is a collection steeped in global history. In her introduction, Powers recounts living with a family in South Africa in 2006. She explains their economic struggles, the challenges to create futures of hope, and she asks: “What does this have to do with war?” Her answer: “On the surface, nothing.” But then she looks back through South African history: apartheid, further back to colonialism, further still to war—back some 300 years. Every story shared in this book reflects a historical time of political upheaval. In addition to brief introductions for each essay that provide this historical context, each author relates this history as a part of their narrative. For some, they saw war change the world around them; for others, they were born into the aftermath and only know their world is the way it is because of a war that happened before.
Qais Akbar Omar’s “A Talib in Love” centers on the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan and the changes he witnessed in the ensuing years. High-school-aged Kabul boys found themselves facing Taliban of the same age but from completely different worlds of understanding. Omar recounts one Talib in particular, Mallah Ghafar, with whom he bonded. Being daring young teens, the Kabul boys eventually risk sharing their views with the young Talib, questioning the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law, their treatment of people, and exposing Mallah Ghafar to western culture: movies. Omar reflects:
We had first seen Mullah Ghafar as a Talib with a whip, but now we knew he was just a young guy from a village who had never had a chance to learn many things about the world. We were slowly coming to understand that many of the other Taliban were the same. Some did wicked things because that made them happy. But many of them just did not seem to know any better. Though it did not make me like the Taliban, at least it helped me understand them a little better.
The book provides this insight in every essay. Can you understand how someone might end up the way they are given how they have grown up from childhood? This doesn’t mean accepting or condoning their behavior, but understanding it is the first step to peaceable solutions, to creating change, just as Omar did with Mallah Ghafar, who left his post with the Taliban to return to his family.
That Mad Game stresses how important it is that we acknowledge the impact of war on children. Powers cites the 1996 U.N./UNICEF report, “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” which recognizes the transformation of war tactics, bringing armed conflict “to the core of civilian life” and including children: as targets, as actors (suicide bombers), and as aggressors (soldiers). Powers includes data from Charles London (One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War), “that there have been 14,000 wars in the last 5,600 years, and at least 160 wars since 1945. Children are far more likely to experience war at some point during their childhood than they are to grow up without it.”
Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), Xiaomei Lucas (through writer Becky Cerling Powers) tells how Chinese government harnessed the vulnerability of children: “Fortunately, the violent stage of the Revolution was over by the time I became a Red Guard in middle school. I never saw people being beaten to death like my older brother did. I attended meetings and wrote slogans. Being a Red Guard was expected. If you wanted to be considered a good child, you joined. We knew nothing. We were just kids.”
In “A Separate Escape,” the teens are no longer just kids, and sixteen-year-old Lian and his friends resist being conscripted yet again by the Burmese army to porter supplies through the mountains. Having heard the cargo would be live ammunition, they decide they will risk an escape attempt. Two of the boys tackle a guard while Lian and the others flee. After finding himself separated from his friends, Lian realizes “that he hadn’t thought ahead to what he would do if their escape were successful. He wept on the banks of the river while the reality of this situation set in.” He later learns that two of the boys had been captured; one was beaten to death, while the other remained missing.
Lian’s story, with that of Chum and Mang as told by Rebecca Henderson, details the desperate situation of many young Burmese, abducted (drafted), tortured, abused, forced into labor for the army. Of those who can escape to Malaysia, there is no refuge. Living tens to one apartment, they cannot receive proper papers, are abused as slave labor in the city, thrown in prison, and often deported to the Malaysia-Thailand border where they are further detained, trafficked, or deported back to Burma. Organizations exist to help, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but even their work is thwarted by the government. Resettlement in the U.S. is made possible by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement working with the UNHRC, but the needs of tens of thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs) worldwide is overwhelming.
For some, while leaving is an option, their choice instead is to stay. In Fito Avitia’s “From Fear to Hope,” he explains the challenges he and his wife face raising their two young daughters in Juárez, Mexico—the deadliest city in the world. “We try to be very careful with what they see and hear so as not to disrupt their innocence. . . . It’s a risk, but we want them to be normal kids. Our girls are children, and they need to feel the sun and experience the world outside. We treasure the joy we see on their faces, even more so in a city at war.” When criticized by those who think he should leave Juárez, Avitia defends his choice to stay: “We moved from fear to hope. We sense change coming to Juárez now—good change—and we want to be a part of it . . . people began to realize, If we don’t do anything, it will get worse and become hopeless.”
In many of these stories, it’s not a matter of staying or leaving, but of returning home. For Mutassem Abu Karsh in Alia Yunis’s essay “My War and His War,” the Shriners Children’s Hospital brought him to Los Angeles to re-do a botched amputation after his leg and fingers were blown off in an Israeli bombing in Gaza (2005). While he appreciated his new surroundings, when asked if he wanted to stay in L.A., he declined without hesitation. The day he boarded the plane to return home, Yunis recounts: “If he wasn’t worried that we’d think him rude, he probably would have run to that plane, back to his soundtrack, his home—come war, come peace, come sun, come rain.”
It’s impossible to read these essays and not feel a changed perception of the world around us, to have a deeper and more connected understanding to the news we hear on the radio and see on television. That Mad Game includes the very stories that need to be told and heard—over and over again—and louder than the political media soundtrack playing so prominently in our daily lives. Instead of talking about the need for war, we must shift the narrative to the effects of war—on ourselves, on children, on our futures. Pick this book up, read it, share it with others, start the conversation now, today, and do whatever it takes to keep it going, keep the soundtrack playing over and over. Loudly.
Ed. note: J.L. Powers is a NewPages contributor.
Anthology edited by Dinty W. Moore
Rose Metal Press, September 2012
Paperback: 180pp, $15.95
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Rose Metal Press’s respected Field Guide series serves a literary need by focusing on less covered genres, such as flash fiction, prose poetry, and now, flash nonfiction. The press’s most recent addition to the series, The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, provides a number of examples of elegant flash nonfiction pieces, as well as context for thinking about the form.
Edited by Dinty W. Moore, a well-respected figure in the genre, the book offers advice and musings on the form, and is at once practical and inspirational. In a chapter on voice, for example, Jennifer Sinor writes: “You don’t ‘find’ your voice; you make it. While the intimacy of a chosen point of view or an author’s style or tone is important to voice, the real work of creating strong voice is work that takes place off the page. It requires focusing on two aspects of writing internalization of subject and vulnerability in approach.” Advice like this does an excellent job of offering a clear definition for an aspect of writing that may seem murky to many. Much of the advice in this book, while geared specifically toward writers of flash nonfiction, will nonetheless be useful to writers in every genre—and also to those who teach them.
The organization of the book appears a bit daunting from a quick perusal of the table of contents, and some of the formatting decisions made here are confusing; thematic divisions are made apparent in the table of contents only, for example, and thematic sections are not delineated between the chapters. In terms of content, however, the book offers a thorough examination of flash nonfiction; it is at times technical and at times lyrical, and many of the established experts of the genre are well represented here.
Moore’s introduction provides a mini-history of flash nonfiction and then maps out the reasoning behind the book’s organization. His writing style is clear and compelling, and the book proceeds from there to discuss the genre in general, the compression it requires, and technical aspects of writing. There are chapters dedicated to voice, point of view, and use of visual detail and sonic language. The advice offered is generally excellent.
Each chapter is comprised of three parts: a brief essay on an aspect of flash nonfiction’s form or craft, a writing prompt suggested by the chapter’s author, and an exemplar flash nonfiction piece, chosen (and sometimes also written) by the chapter’s author. Standout chapters, in terms of offering clear, compelling advice, include Carol Guess’s contribution on compression, Jennifer Sinor’s chapter on voice, Barbara Hurd’s thoughts on the potential for musicality in prose, and Eric LeMay’s piece on word origins.
Because there are so many authors behind the collection, there are instances when comparisons from chapter to chapter begin to bump against and conflict with each other. Moore acknowledges this in his introduction, when he follows his metaphor comparing flash nonfiction to fire with Judith Kitchen’s comparison to snow compacted into a snowball. “Fire or ice?” Moore asks. “Either way, the air changes.” These conflicting comparisons are most noticeable in the opening chapters, however, where several authors offer different takes on the flash nonfiction form itself, and as the book proceeds into more focused examinations of particular aspects of writing, the discussion from author to author remains diverse in scope yet becomes more unified in tone.
The feel of the book is part inspiration, part technical craft talk—some chapters feel geared toward beginners while others feel more appropriate to advanced/more experienced writers—guaranteeing that the book will well serve writers of every experience level interested in flash nonfiction.
Poetry by Sholeh Wolpé
University of Arkansas Press, February 2013
Paperback: 72pp; $19.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
In Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths, Sholeh Wolpé meditates on loss through succinct, tightly crafted lyric poems. Divided into four sections that call back to one another, Wolpé’s second poetry collection garners strength from its devotion to the quietude and magnitude of simple, clean lines with poignant yet oftentimes harsh imagery. With a keen understanding of how to create startling images, Wolpé provides access to a wider array of readers wishing to gain insight from these poems’ emotional clarity and depth. Although the majority of these poems are brief, their impression lasts.
Intimacy laces the collection as the speaker tries to navigate relationships between lover, husband, and children. While sometimes these relationships are related through narrative, the most powerful poems rely on poetic devices such as simile and metaphor. In “Matrimony,” the entirety of the poems reads:
The sheer curtain she hangs between
two open windows becomes
the tongue of the wind—
a dialogue between landscapes.
But the windows close,
and the curtain falls
into an unbreakable hush.
By employing only metaphor to describe these abstract and complex terms, the poems do not sink into the explanatory or sentimental; instead, they read as true. In “Divorce,” a brief five-line poem, the speaker describes “the wide-eyed Barbie, / the deflated basketball.” Objects take on their own lives and significance by just existing, and existing can be difficult.
In turning to childhood and adolescence, Wolpé employs emotional turmoil in the same kind of brief lyrics with short, tight lines. In “Best Friend,” the speaker claims “She is violent with her skin.” At the poem’s end:
her body still,
soul numb-cold as a river,
forever keeps on
Similar to “Best Friend,” in “Footnotes of a Sour Savoir,” the speaker says: “Death is a bearded vagrant pushing a cart / and love is but a shadow, / coreless and crumbling, like purity.” And “God is always leaving, leaving.” This sense of departure and movement carries significant weight without feeling too heavy or difficult for the reader.
The final poem sequence, “Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths,” is described as “A Nowruz Sonata in 7 Movements” and is accompanied with a glossary of Persian words and key figures. Through the lyric-narrative, the speaker describes her mother’s “haft-sin table for Nowruz,” complete with “A goldfish in a crystal bowl; an egg / that will roll when the bull tosses / the world over to its other horn” in “1st Movement.” By the “6th Movement,” the speaker’s tone has altered, claiming:
How I tremble
before this table, a shimmering reflection
in a thousand mirrors of a tall
Noting the passage of time, the speaker begins to view this table setting that marks the New Year as older, no longer childlike and unassuming.
Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths maintains its nuance and dedication to craft through transforming emotionally fraught meditations into small poems retaining the significant of those events. Nothing is diminished.