Posted September 3, 2013
Lake Superior :: Butch Geography :: The Witches of Ruidoso :: The Exchange :: On Sal Mal Lane :: Gathering Noise from My Life :: All of You on the Good Earth :: Meaty :: The Night of the Rambler :: You are Everything You are Not :: The Moral Life of Soldiers :: Young Tambling :: Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons
Poetry by Lorine Niedecker
Wave Books, April 2013
Paperback: 112pp; $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Once upon a time the young Basil Bunting came across a succinct expression of a central concept in his own poetic practice which Ezra Pound quickly promulgated as a crystalline slogan of the Modern era: “dichten = condensare”—‘to compose poetry is to condense.’ Perhaps no other poet’s work sets a clearer, finer example of this than Lorine Niedecker. As she states in her rather infamously well-known poem “Poet’s Work,” her grandfather advised her to “learn a trade” and she
. . . learned
to sit at desk
The publication by Wave Books of Lake Superior provides a practical and straightforward case study, presenting factors detailing in one example how she put this practice to use. Niedecker’s poem is itself a sparse thirteen sections long, taking up only the first six pages of the book. Immediately following is her journal “Lake Superior County,” documenting a vacation trip she took with husband Al Millen in 1966, driving up around Lake Superior into Canada and back from their home in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. It’s quite clear that the poem is a sort of condensation of the journal.
The inclusion of Douglas Crane’s “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime” excellently clarifies this, further documenting key source materials Niedecker drew upon while also firmly cementing her place within an American-British tradition of nature poetry written in English. Crane’s essay, first published in 1992, looks forward to the eco-poetics fashionable today, situating Niedecker’s work in a central position leading back to Emerson and Wordsworth while also advancing beyond them. And it humorously reminds that Niedecker’s allegiance to the preferred brevity expressed by Bunting and Pound came via Louis Zukofsky. As she alludes to in a letter referencing the verbosity found in the poems of New York School poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery: “Koch, Ashbery—there but for the grace of God and Louis Zukofsky go I.”
Following Crane’s essay are three letters Niedecker wrote to poet and editor Cid Corman. Being less formal than her journal and poem, these give another, looser version of her take on the road trip and other poetry business matters of the time. Her concerns are readily apparent: “I’m going into a kind of retreat so far as time (geologic time from now on!) is concerned” and “Strange—we are inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right.” A short selection of Corman’s translation from Bashō’s travel journal of prose and haiku poetry “Back Roads to Far Towns” comes after the letters. This is perfectly apt as Niedecker often writes in what is an Americanized version of an extended haiku. Correspondences between her work and the poetic traditions of the Far East have long awaited extended explication. This is at least a start in directly citing the connection.
The remainder of this slender volume is comprised of source materials which Niedecker drew upon and is heavily indebted to Crane’s diligent work. First is “Tour 14a” from Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, a WPA 1941 publication that Niedecker worked on. Next is Aldo Leopold’s classic naturalist text “On a Monument to the Pigeon.” Leopold worked under the WPA in Wisconsin during the same period as Niedecker. The placement of his work here invites readers to revel in the revelations of juxtaposition. The two final documents are excerpts from the writing of two initial early explorers of the Lake Superior area, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Direct reference to both these explorers appears in sections of Niedecker’s poem.
Throughout the book are reproductions of sample pages from Niedecker’s typed manuscript pages and notes. And, quite fittingly, two of the six total pages of her “handwritten geology notes” compose the rest of the book. As the first section of “Lake Superior” declares, geology is of visceral interest to Niedecker:
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
And her journal opens: “The agate was first found on the shores of a river in Sicily and named by the Greeks. . . . A rock is made of minerals constantly on the move and changing from heat, cold and pressure.” For Niedecker, writing is of such structure as the earth itself is formed. Her writing seeks to fashion itself in its “condensery” according to a manner which yields such a purity of ore that there is no waste. Lake Superior reveals with piercing clarity the fundamental depth of research combined with the alacrity of perception that Niedecker had developed an innate skill at later in life. This gathering of various documents provides the opportunity to come as close as possible to observing the poet at work in her own mapped-out space—a rare, intimate consolidation of all relevant available information concerning one terrific poem.
Poetry by Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press, January 2013
Paperback: 72pp; $16.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
As soon as I saw the title of Stacey Waite’s first full-length book, Butch Geography, I was reminded of a line from the poem “Solar” by Robin Becker: “The desert is butch.” Unsurprisingly, Waite uses this line as an epigraph for the book’s title poem. However, while Becker’s poem focuses largely on the geography of landscape, Waite’s book concerns itself prominently with the intimate geography of the gendered body and its relationship to the world and to others.
Gender is more than just a topic of the collection; in six poems spread throughout the book’s four sections, gender functions as a character, the “you” addressed by the poem. The first of these six “Dear Gender” poems concludes:
Gender, rise out, an exorcism, from our too-scared skin
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Here I am, gender. Tell me again the girl I should be,
please, just say it quietly, so no one will hear.
Throughout the book, gender is addressed, assumed, pretended, challenged, and questioned with touching honesty and thoughtful reflection.
Most of the book is very personal; many poems begin with specific experiences or relationships, including the speaker’s relationship with her parents. The parental relationship is fraught from the beginning of the book: “Self-Portrait, 1984,” for example, states: “Dad tells Mom I’ll end up a dyke / from playing ice hockey.” Later, in “When the Dead Ask for Maps,” the speaker says: “My father’s dead voice / wants me to say I am a woman.” The pressure to conform to an expected gender and sexual identity comes from both parents, but it feels more sympathetic from the speaker’s mother. In “Coming Out in Porch Light,” the speaker tells her mother she’s in love with a woman. At first, the mother doesn’t react, which does not seem surprising: “In this family, / we pretend not to notice.” But after the mother goes to bed, the speaker offers an explanation for her silence which I found immensely affecting:
her mind flush full with pastors
who pray hate for the damned . . .
She thinks of men who shove bodies
against walls at gas stations . . .
a busted lip on my boyish face.
The fear of violence and judgment characterizes the speaker as well as her mother, especially in the poems about childhood and youthful experiences. It is only as the speaker grows older that she is able to boldly assert: “I am after, I am post, post-feminist, / post-structuralist, postpartum, post-lesbian, / post-gender.” In this poem, both angry and playful in its use of language, the speaker continues: “I am posting up a sign and it says, / ‘Stand back,’ cause not every move I make / is the move of a woman.” This confidence is hard-won and inconsistent, but its presence illuminates the book.
One final way in which the theme of gender shapes the book is the inclusion of several poems that take their titles from moments of mistaken identity. The book begins with “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Boy by the Umpire in the Little League Championship” and includes several other poems based on those gender mistakes. But even if the titles begin the same way, the poems stand independently, and each one offers something different, a different part of the complex story of gender over the course of the speaker’s life. In the last of these mistaken identity poems, “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Woman by a Therapist in the South Hills of Pittsburgh,” Waite changes the format. In this poem, it’s not the assumption of masculinity that’s the error, but of femininity. “It feels wrong to be a woman,” the speaker says, an idea that’s appeared previously. The poem continues:
. . . I do not speak
the language of women, and the therapist
is trying to unwind me. She thinks, of course,
that I must know what it is like, that
somewhere deep inside me lives the life
of a woman, if only I would let her speak.
Although gender is never simple in Waite’s book, this inclination to let it speak, in all of its various incarnations, gives the book a great strength and relevance. Clear language makes the poems accessible (a word I use in the most positive sense), and a fluid motion between past and present, between masculine and feminine, makes them complex. All told, Waite has put together a valuable, fascinating, and beautiful first book.
Young Adult Fiction by John Sandoval
Piñata Books, April 2013
Paperback: 120pp; $12.95
Review by Patricia Contino
“The earth is much like a train with a destination unknown,” Beth Delilah tells boyfriend Elijah in The Witches of Ruidoso. Sadly, author John Sandoval’s journey ended with his death in 2011, making this his first and only novel. His bittersweet YA romance showed promise of him becoming an original storyteller.
With a pleasant, conversational voice, the now 95-year-old Elijah recalls his teenage years in the New Mexican territory. Sandoval makes it clear that there was nothing romantic about the West of 1895. His narrator notes the dual mythologies of Billy the Kid (showing “no signs of failing health”) and La Llorona (showing “no signs of wear and tear” as she continues looking for her dead child) that have grown up around him during his long life. While this particular western does not have gunfights, death is a prevalent presence (both Elijah and Beth Delilah are motherless), white settlers share uneasy relationships with their indigenous Mexican and Native American neighbors and the Civil War is a fresh, daily memory of pain for its veterans.
The other danger is child abuse. This issue is non-existent and non-detectable in famous examples of the western such as Jack Schaefer’s Shane or the films of John Ford. Señora Roja is one of two witches of Ruidoso. That she lives alone husbandless and childless is more than enough to raise suspicions in an unsettled territory, but the Señora literally runs with the wolves. She also drugs and seduces Elijah and performs an “exorcism” on the Mexican girl Rosa. The author refrains from commentary, keeping the incidents—uncomfortable as they are to read—strictly as plot development. Regardless, it is chilling whenever Señora Roja calls Elijah her “friend.”
Señora Roja’s potions and the “erotic mystery” she casts over the boy ends because he grows bored with her sorcery. Even without bank robberies or stagecoach chases, The Witches of Ruidoso has a standoff—for the other local witch is Beth Delilah. If Señora Roja is the Bad Witch, she is the Good Witch who communicates with animals and sees into the future. There is considerably less realism when Elijah recollects Beth Delilah, his first and truest love. He is bewitched without magic:
For she was fourteen years old, and with all that blond hair and that lovely white skin and those big blue eyes and dressed from boot to bonnet in black . . . black parasol opened above her against the sun, she looked like she had stepped down out of a calendar. Very Exotic. Very Pretty. Very.
Beth Delilah is also delicate and prone to seizures. Like nineteenth century literary heroines Little Nell, Beth March, and Helen Burns, she too is an “angel in the house.”
Partly as an escape from their negligent, broken fathers, the couple tracks Señora Roja only to discover that town gossip can sometimes lead to truth. Beth Delilah’s dislike for the “evil and vile woman” manifests in a dream where a raven attacks the Señora for no reason, and does so the following day. She also resorts to her own magic by creating a thunderstorm to delight Rosa and send a message to Señora Roja that, despite her fragility, she is a force to be reckoned with.
However, the supernatural is secondary compared the author’s descriptions of nature. The mountain range was “the first thing you noticed stepping out your door in the morning. And it always gave you the feeling that your significance was not very significant and that everything in this world—including itself—was temporary and ever-changing.” The couple absorbs this natural world around them. Elijah describes a shooting star as a “glowing orb” travelling “like a bullet.” Beth Delilah assures him that that it is “through space we sail” as well.
The same could be said of John Sandoval. His lyrical book is a noteworthy addition to both the western and YA genres, and it’s a shame this will be his only contribution to them.
Poetry by Sophie Cabot Black
Graywolf Press, May 2013
Paperback: 74pp; $15.00
Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson
“Poetry is my way to understand what is difficult. How one thing can be explained through another—is to get closer, to unhide what feels hidden,” explained poet Sophie Cabot Black in an interview last year with The New Yorker. The Exchange, Black’s third collection of poetry, delves into deeply difficult subjects, primarily the loss of a beloved friend to leukemia—poet Jason Shinder, author of Stupid Hope (Graywolf Press, 2009). Like Black’s previous two collections, the poems in The Exchange render their speakers’ worlds in tight descriptions rich with the play of a quick mind. In The Exchange, the realm of finance and the Biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac additionally play central roles, expanding the book’s lexicon of loss, gain, and worth. Using these three strands, Black crafts a cohesive collection of tightly woven, ruthlessly examining poems.
In “Already Broken,” Black writes, “You must write as if all along a flaw / Was on the bone, one place not quite right.” As the collection unfolds, these words echo as instructions to the writer: step back, look back at events knowing how things end, how loss becomes reality. Crucial to this approach is distance. As in her first two books, Black’s poems present scenes that feel both precisely observed and kept at arm’s length. “A motel kneels at the end / Of the parking lot; the ocean beats its head / Against rock,” observes the speaker of “Dark Harbor,” describing a desolate scene stripped of adjectives. As in this example, the weight of Black’s poems hangs on simple nouns like window, bed, bird, mountain. The world of loss comes to us concentrated into key objects and the sharply felt emotions they convey.
From Donald Hall’s “The Ship Pounding” (Without, Houghton Mifflin, 1998) written about his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon’s struggle with leukemia, Black picks up the ocean and ships as images and metaphors for illness. Unlike Hall’s “huge / vessel that heaves water month / after month,” however, Black uses these images on a smaller scale. The speaker of “You Said It Was Not” watches her lost friend “turn away and into / The wind the water the open boat,” lamenting “how you get to be everything, / Get to be what is gone and wanted back.” Life after a loved one’s death becomes a boat crashing “Through the tumbling ocean, her steering // Gone” (“Man Overboard”). Similar to her focus on simple, concrete nouns, Black’s use of smaller images—a boat, rather than a ship, flounders on the waves—strengthens the sense of personal loss.
Surprisingly, Black’s incorporation of the language of finance and the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac similarly adds to the collection’s sense of personal, rather than large-scale, experience. While both of these themes involve or bear upon large communities of people, Black examines them with a heightened awareness of the role played by individuals. “Somewhere in New Jersey Is the Center,” a poem about the New York Stock Exchange’s Data Center in Mahwah, New Jersey, shrinks this hub of activity to a haunted, lonely place where
Would hear as you run each formula
Into the night, examine what is wrought
In the cables, the ceaseless flicker.
Similarly, Black focuses on the personal interactions of father and son in the story of Abraham and Isaac rather than on the larger implications the story might have for notions of faith and sacrifice. For instance, in “Analysis,” after Abraham sacrifices a ram rather than Isaac, Black shows us father and son leaving one another and “how the mountain // Is revealed as each now descends a different face, / One toward any new land, the other home to bed.” By focusing on the personal as she examines finance and the Biblical narrative, Black allows these strands to resonate with the personal story of loss also unfolding in the text.
Although Black’s deftly woven scenes and sharp intellect make The Exchange a collection worth reading, part of what makes it so deeply compelling stems from her honesty about what loss entails—not only sorrow, but also anger and guilt. “Everything feels like payment,” she writes in “Pay Attention.” In “Dominion Over the Larger Animal,” the speaker confesses:
I know what will happen next, to leave the hill
As the body stiffens, to pass each blossom
Of blood in the snow as if I understood
All I was capable of.
In The Exchange, Black considers the meaning of capability—our capability to suffer, to deal with loss, to cloak our actions through terminology and narrative. These poems might keep you at arm’s length through spare writing and weighty ideas, but they also draw you in, asking you to look and to think with a direct gaze. The Exchange merits attention for the way it approaches deeply difficult subjects honestly, with a keen eye for the truth.
Fiction by Ru Freeman
Graywolf Press, May 2013
Hardcover: 408pp; $26.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane is an intense, in-depth portrayal of the years leading up to the Tamil Tigers’ demands for their own homeland and the chaos of that year, 1983. It focuses, however, on the children of a lane (not inside the capital of Colombo) and their playing and alliances with neighbors of different sects—Sinhalese, Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, and Burgher, as well as Tamils. With Tamils often wealthier than the others and Sinhalese often the poorest, the prejudice in the neighborhood is particularly against the Tamils. One main example here is a bully Sinhalese child, not recognizing his family’s mixed lineage, who fatefully hates his Tamil uncle. Conversely, two of the child protagonists make strong and unlikely alliances with individual Tamil neighbors. Thus the lane provides a microcosm of the outer society’s tensions, with the writer frequently warning us of trouble to come. This dead-end lane will not be left unscathed.
Freeman’s book is primarily a plea for tolerance, as when the Tamil houses are burned:
Imagine a place isolated by design, nobody there to cry out for help. Imagine fires unhurriedly set at two ends and a neighborhood uncomplicated by difference left to burn. Imagine a ghost town constructed entirely of ash. Imagine houses, still standing, but not one among them that displays signs of human struggle or salvage . . .
But the detail of this novel allows us to see the families and the children as they evolve. Whether a bully or a loving neighbor, the child is realistic in his complicated motivation. The glue for all these relationships is the love and protection given to? one child, the youngest, Devi (from a Burgher family, the Heraths, who move in and transforms the neighborhood). The high-spirited Devi is lovable, but her inauspicious birthdate foretells an early death. And for what happens to her, which devastates all, everyone is implicated.
The Burgher Herath family are the newcomers and from the start transfix the neighbors with their beautiful singing of psalms. This family will offer great promise: Suren, the eldest boy, will inspire the neighborhood Tamil piano teacher with his musical talent; the teacher’s father, Mr. Niles, limited to his wheelchair, will find a son in the next youngest son, Nihil; and Devi will form the strongest affection for Raju, a deformed adult Tamil. Nihil was the first of Devi’s protectors but relinquishes that role to follow his dreams, and Raju takes over at both Devi’s and Raju’s peril. Love is at the heart of the story, though Mr. Niles notes: “Love is for the person who loves, not for the one who is loved.”
There are a lot of “what ifs” for what happens, but also there are no pure villains, not even the bully Sonna. His father beats him up, but Sonna tries to befriend the others and his father actually worries about him during the chaos in the neighborhood. Sonna recognizes himself “despite the unfortunate events that led him to be seen not as he wanted to become, a responsible, caring boy, but rather as he had been, a ne’er-do-well the neighborhood was forced to tolerate.” Even the supposedly most tolerant, Mrs. Herath, reveals her own prejudices eventually. As Mr. Niles notes, with the racial boundaries blurring, each has to figure out who has war inside him: “Nihil did not know what people like us meant anymore. He had thought that he belonged to the group he referred to as good people. But of what use were good people if they could not prevent the bad people from robbing their neighbors?”
After the terrible events in 1983:
If it were possible to look down from a great distance and see a pattern rather than individual losses, we could say that more people lived than died, more homes were saved than were burnt, more friendships endured. But at street level they were all irrevocably damaged, and down Sal Mal Lane that sense of devastation was wrapped up around Devi . . .
It’s this street level perspective that makes the novel so powerful. The children are as vivid as any in Dickens. We know this neighborhood, the houses on both sides of the road, the people’s struggles.
From 1979 to 1983, the children change as they would in real life:
The children were still children, full of wishes, wish-fulfillment still imaginable. . . . Each of them had moved away from a simpler past, one where nothing that happened beyond Sal Mal Lane had ever seemed to apply to them. Some had shifted a small distance . . . some much further . . . and still others, like Suren and [sister] Rashmi and Nahil . . . had traveled an even greater distance away from childhood.
This unsentimental novel is still incredibly moving, with its sadness of some of the characters like Raju, who tries so hard in vain, or even the misunderstood Sonna. We grow to love most of the characters and understand the suffering on one off-the-beaten-path lane in Sri Lanka.
A Camouflaged Memoir
Nonfiction by Donald Anderson
University of Iowa Press, September 2012
Paperback: 226pp; $21.00
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In his author’s note at the beginning of his book, Donald Anderson writes: “I concern myself in this book with matters of war, race, religion, memory, illness, and family, sources of humor and horror. And: boxing, which has been reported in literature from Homer on.” This diverse list prepares the reader for the book’s numerous intersecting threads of themes and topics. Boxing stands alone here, because in addition to being a theme for rumination, its images of bobbing and weaving, punching and ducking describe the book’s structure. As the title suggests, this memoir is not a linear narrative but a chronological series of memories, quotes, and data, some related and some seemingly random, that trace the writer’s life from his birth in Butte, Montana in 1946 to his current life as director of the creative writing program at the U. S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Anderson also writes in the author’s note that, “We are where we’ve been and what we’ve read,” and the seven single-spaced pages of works cited at the end gives veracity to his latter claim. Among those he quotes are poets, philosophers, military leaders, soldiers, novelists, politicians, essayists, comedians, athletes, scientists. For the first chapter, the book’s structure made it seem inaccessible to me, like a disjointed gathering of unrelated ideas, memories, and facts. For example, Anderson follows up a paragraph about the daredevil Evel Knievel with one about his high school gym teacher, a World War I U. S. Navy veteran and World War II U. S. Army PE instructor, who seemingly have no connection to each other. But I soon realized that this technique provides a window into Anderson’s mind, as well as his life. For example, Anderson reveals that the worst disaster in U. S. mining history took place in his hometown of Butte in 1917, when 168 men died after a fire that began in the mine ignited twelve cases of dynamite. He ends this paragraph: “In a more recent explosion, 168 people died at the hand of Timothy McVeigh when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.” Explosions and the number of dead provide the connective thread between the mine accident and McVeigh’s act of violence. Using this technique throughout the book, Anderson skillfully connects memories, thoughts, ideas, poems, book quotes, graffiti, statistics, and cultural and historical trivia to portray the life and mind of the writer, who grew up in a mining community, worked in the mines, spent two years in France as a Mormon missionary, and retired as a Colonel after twenty-two years in the U. S. Air Force, all of which led him to his current vocation of teaching.
Although Anderson speaks from a position of authority on many topics, he writes with empathy and humility, as when he proposes, “What are we but history with a small h in history with a big H?” As readers would perhaps expect of a book written by a career military officer, Anderson frequently ruminates on war and its impact on history and society. He includes excerpts from biographies on political and military leaders, testimony from court hearings and trials, statistics about casualties and damages. In one sobering statistic about the Vietnam War he writes, “May we remember that in addition to our losses—200,000 wounded, 58,000 dead—the Vietnamese suffered up to 2 million wounded and 3 million dead.” He also notes that “fewer people died at Pearl Harbor than at Ground Zero.” Anderson provides stark commentaries on our culture, as well as on war: “As of 2010, seven times the number of American dead in Iraq and Afghanistan have died in Mexico in its drug wars.”
As serious and somber as much of Anderson’s writing is in this book, he also frequently reveals his sense of humor. He writes, “One Notion of Hell: You’re duct-taped to a tree, forced to listen to Debbie Boone sing ‘You Light Up My Life’ forever” and “When you purchase your third clothes dryer, you’ve probably purchased your last. Think about it.” A brief summation of a section near the end of the book might describe a series of paragraphs, varying in length from five words to several sentences, ranging in topics from interior design to mathematical equations to the private lives of celebrities to family history to botany, but in order to understand how Anderson melds these diverse themes into a cohesive whole, the reader must explore this book for her/himself. Think of the boxer: bouncing, swaying, jabbing, feinting, weaving, punching, connecting blows that strike the reader’s mind and heart, leaving scars and questions that will linger long after the final page is turned.
Poetry by Ernest Hilbert
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 96pp; $16.95
Review by Theresé Samson Wenham
Ernest Hilbert’s second collection of poetry, All of You on the Good Earth, is an enlightening example of the revival of the sonnet. The poems are intelligent, topically indulgent, and extremely well crafted. The sonnets are capsules, compressing large ideas or expanding small ones, lined up in equal measure.
Hilbert includes subjects for a wide variety of tastes. He offers a concrete poem about eating soup and weevil-infested crackers, and then on the facing page submerges us in language that elicits only the sense of the thing because the thing itself can’t really be spoken of. Instead, he uses colors, sounds and seasons to conjure feelings about the regularity of death. He uses this juxtaposition of perspective regularly in the placement of poems within the collection, and how he arranges placement of lines and ideas within poems as well. In “Victorian” he describes the industry of menial tasks in revamping an old Victorian home, and then on the following page in “While You Were Out,” he describes how menial tasks can unwittingly waste one’s whole life:
She looks up from the desk to find light gone
Again; thinks of early friends gone distant,
Prospects departed, like an ending summer,
When in the chill, she could lie on the lawn,
Unable to recall how the months were spent,
When lightning poured rivulets of blue light
And ended, far off, before she saw it.
In nearly every poem he uses an unusual rhyme scheme, spacing the couplets three lines apart, which has the dual effect of softening the punch of the rhyme and making us wait for it. Some of the poems follow a strict, perfect rhyme, while others are looser. Many use the volta to great effect, while others don’t seem to employ the volta at all. There is throughout a heightened awareness of sound, not only in the rhyme. In “Levavi Oculos,” he hits the fricatives hard, especially the /f/ and /v/, which adds another layer of pulse to the poem:
Allow me, for now, to fail and pursue
As I must—small, awkward force, aimed at dust.
Naval captains, native chiefs, whether proud
Or poor, now form a vast weight under my shoes.
Overhead, a flagrant scuttle and rush:
Such extravagant, vagrant vitality,
Branches rebound; squirrels spring from tree to tree.
From the volta onward, as in many of his poems, this one also asks questions of life’s pursuits, regret, and futility, turning from concrete observation of the speaker’s body and the season.
Hilbert has a lot to say about the literary life and the literary world—including reviewers—but as an educated man and antiquarian book dealer, visiting professor, and writer, this must be a significant part of the world he lives in. One section of the collection, “From Grub Street to the Brill Building,” dwells in this literary world. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t struggle, but the speaker in Hilbert’s lines seems to be especially down on the times and himself. It is an aspect of the collection that is both depressing and invigorating. Without this honesty of character, we might not learn much about the perspective of the speaker and why we should pay attention—but the pall of negativity got occasionally wearisome to this reviewer. Yet, there is more to be found when reading Hilbert’s lines over again. The poems exist within the complexity and simplicity of a sonnet; we begin to fall into his rhythms, learn from his themes, and experience the resonance of his language.
Nonfiction by Samantha Irby
Curbside Splendor, September 2013
Paperback: 224pp; $15.95
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
When I received my copy of Meaty at an event for the ALA conference, I knew I was in for a different kind of reading experience. She signed my copy with fair warning that she likes writing dirty messages: “your vagina smells amazing. love, Samantha.” This is just a small sampling of the type of writing that you’ll see in her essays. Creator of the blog “Bitches Gotta Eat,” Samantha Irby tells it like it is, whether through the gritty details of her Crohn’s disease or through her unfiltered rantings of men and sex. It is written very informally, following the aesthetic of her blog, and inviting readers in as if Irby is personally conveying her stories and thoughts to them.
“So let’s talk some shit,” she says in the beginning of her essay “The Many Varieties of Hospital Broth.” She gives the inside scoop of what it’s like to be hospitalized for Crohn’s disease. But this doesn’t come without Irby’s wit. When her disease stops acting up, she links this to the fact that she hasn’t been dating anyone: “Celibacy cured my shit disease. Alert the New England Journal of Medicine. Seriously, man. It can’t be a fucking coincidence! . . . Swapping raggedy knuckle-dragging assholes for a clean bill of health for my own precious asshole?! YES, PLEASE.”
Irby, jaded by the “assholes” she has dated, has a romantic fantasy that has nothing to do with sex:
I don’t sit around fucking daydreaming about a dude going down on me for nine hours (BARF) or about riding some massive titanium cock for days at a time (GROSS). What gets me hot is all of the other shit. Dreaming about someone whose allergies I need to remember when I’m at the grocery store: that’s where the real romance is. Because I’ve had sex before. What a fucking snooze, my dude. Sex is so dumb and boring and unless you’re in really incredible shape or you have a ridiculous imagination and are into some really freaky shit, what you do and what I do is limited to a handful of very similar things. . . . Why don’t we instead dream up some motherfuckers who will set up the automatic renewal on our magazine subscriptions?
In addition to shit, men, and sex, Irby also frequently touches on the topic of food because, after all, “Bitches Gotta Eat.” One essay, “The Tapeworm Diet,” outright makes fun of various diets by first giving three reasons why she is a “massive, gigantic person” and then breaking the essay into diet plans ranging from the Twinkie diet to the baby food diet and finally concluding, “Don’t try any of this crazy fucking shit.”
Irby uses several different forms starting with an ode to her 30th birthday in which she lists all the things she can’t do, hasn’t done, should do, needs, and wants. She has an essay with a Q&A of questions asked on a first date (with very honest answers), an essay to an ex-boyfriend, a letter to a new boyfriend, a screenplay for the pilot episode of a made-up television show, and, in the end, even a few recipes (“Spiced Pork Tenderloin, omg”; “Beef Taco Casserole, WHAT”; “Skillet-fried Chicken, swoon.”).
But while her rants and quick-witted tongue are highly entertaining and often insightful, some of the most memorable pieces for me involved those where she reveals unique stories from her past, such as when she attended a dating class for black women and when she had to go to a kissing party in fifth grade dressed in a red dress with puffy sleeves, hiding a bag of off-brand Oreos under her coat. “My Mother, My Daughter” shows a more intimate side of her past as she explains that when she was nine years old, her mother got into a car accident, making her the one that needed taking care of:
I brought my baby home from the hospital a few days later swaddled at the wrong end, head and neck wrapped in thick white gauze and cotton pads. There was a long, red, angry-looking scar snaking its way from the left side of her forehead over her ear and coming to an end at the base of her skull. I would learn over the course of the days, weeks, and months to come how to mask how much I was hurting. . . . I was living with a person who could no longer properly take care of me. [The social worker] pushed me to betray a woman trapped in a baby body she couldn’t use who had done nothing but love me and try her hardest to make me feel special . . .
This collection has heart and humor, and Irby doesn’t hold back, not for a second. If you’re ready for something different, something gutsy, something not embarrassed by itself, definitely pick up a copy of Meaty.
Fiction by Montague Kobbé
Akashic Books, September 2013
Paperback: 256pp; $15.95
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi
The Night of the Rambler is true to its title. It tells a story of a revolution rambling with plans on how to execute a coup d’état on a young government, perhaps too young to transform and reconfigure policies inherited from previous colonial administrations. The transition is mired with problems, which is not unusual: young governments in newly decolonized territories are still learning the ropes of being free. Like youth itself, these fledgling states are high on new-found independence or semi-independence. In this novel, that mindset disables effective government. A territory that such a state governs feels neglected and excluded from basic benefits and services. Ironically, here, the lack of organized surveillance through bureaucratic standards—which gave colonial administrations immense control—becomes a form of oppression: political marginalization, a loss of sovereignty that opens channels for organized protests. However, there is a twist in the revolution Montague Kobbé has fictionalized, which is not necessarily in the protest itself, but what it wants in the end: it prefers direct administration from its original colonizer.
The government in question, in the story, is the tripartite state of ‘sister’ islands in the Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico: St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. Though self-governing to a certain extent, the state is still a territory or an associated state of Great Britain. Its capital is Basseterre, in St. Kitts, less than three miles away from Nevis to the south; Anguilla, on the other hand, is sixty-five miles of ocean-water away from the capital to the north. No doubt geography impacts the relationship between these islands. Physical distance in human affairs often leads to tribalism and isolation. Without proper mandates for inter-island communication and transportation, the state’s ability to govern its territories might be affected. Indeed, Anguilla appears to be a victim of that lack, and feels its distance from Robert Bradshaw’s government; on top of that, the island only has one representative in his government. Thus, Anguilla craves St. Kitts’ attention. As protests fall on shallow ears, Anguilla’s struggle to cut relations with St. Kitts and re-establish direct British administration intensifies in two momentous, mass events that mark Anguilla’s struggle in the novel: a funeral and a meeting. Thousands attend these gatherings. The funeral ritualizes Anguilla’s dead future in Bradshaw’s government, its depressed state. And for two months Anguilla huddles in doldrums of hopelessness, until one of its concerned citizens, Rude Thompson, organizes a mass meeting to ignite new hopes, in which “Anguilla put to practice a concept that for centuries had been studied and analyzed . . . the concept of Democracy.” Kobbé explores Anguilla’s history through Thompson’s life and his childhood friend, Alwyn Cooke, the leader of the island’s peacekeeping committee and also the loudest voice in the gathering: “Fellow Anguillians, is today we mus’ show St. Kitts how bad we wan’ break up wit’ ’em. Is today we mus’ determine how we go split wit’ St. Kitts for good.”
Kobbé’s italicized lines are his approximations of heard Anguillan English, thanks to apostrophes that, I assume, bring us closer to the music of the island’s tongue. In that respect, Kobbé tries to mimic the voice of Anguillan patois, which suits his storytelling style—the kind we hear in a campfire, when the storyteller is a carnival of voices and becomes his characters while trying to distance himself from them. Thus, sometimes I feel the novel’s tone has been transmitted from a gifted, albeit tedious oral storyteller; he widens his eyes or paces his voice a certain way repeatedly. You can feel the drama in the thirty-five foot sloop The Rambler—under Cooke’s command—when it struggled to find its destination at night. Words are thrown among the crew of inexperienced sailors, sixteen would-be revolutionaries trying to topple a regime. Later, three pages before the novel ends, Kobbé tells us: “It’s well past my bedtime, but we cannot allow the words that were left untyped back in page 20 to hang in literary limbo . . .” Kobbé has your attention, indeed, and looks too eager to entertain you with more thrills and surprises, which might turn off some readers.
The Anguillan struggle in the novel appears unusual, since it runs against the tide of what political struggles are about among territories colonized by European powers in the age of high colonialism. Their struggle rejects the dream of decolonization that saturated Caribbean politics in the 1960s, the stars of which were Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who were ruthless in overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s government in Havana in 1959. The wheel of movements underlines the spirit of that decade anywhere in the world, from the Algerian War, to the Paris protests in May 1968, to perhaps the queen of them all: the Vietnam War. The sixties was a hurricane of anti-imperialist sentiments.
In the novel, Anguilla is in that storm. But whatever the size of that storm is to its revolutionaries, it crashes into them with more comic power than cosmic power, so that its leader—Alwyn Cooke—is surprised when the hundred-man force he expects on the shores of St. Kitts to help him overthrow a government is nowhere to found: “It had not dawned yet on Alwyn Cooke that Dr. Reynolds’s folder full of numbers contained not so much an optimistic overcalculation but rather a vulgar lie based on nothing other than speculation.” Unfazed, Cooke attacks anyway, with less than twenty men, whose knowledge of warfare can be summarized in one of their colleagues’ failure to use an M16, because he couldn’t unlock its safety.
However unusual this revolution is, it is a prelude to Anguilla’s eventual divorce from St. Kitts and Nevis, before becoming a separate British territory; its unconventional LOL factor could diversify an elective college course on revolutions with something bloody peaceful.
Poetry by John High
Talisman House, April 2013
Paperback: 118pp; $16.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
You are Everything You are Not represents the conclusion of John High’s lyric narrative trilogy of books he began with Here and A Book of Unknowing. The characters of a mute girl and one-eyed boy return, joining in with a circus man, blind monks, ghosts, and assorted unspecified masters in a journey more spiritual than psychological, across an un-named landscape of trees, wind, streams and rivers, which often brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Or, as Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno describes it in his preface, “a realm as magically realistic as any found in a García Márquez novel.”
Insofar that it is decipherable, the journey here seems to be a Zen-inspired investigation into the nature of The Self. Sawyer-Lauçanno points toward High’s engaging of Dōgen’s The Genjōkōan, which contains statements such as “To study the self is to forget the self.” Under the lens of this reading, You are Everything You are Not is an endless loop of reoccurrence between symbolic identities of character. There is no end, there is no beginning. This is a state of affairs held up and attested to by statements in the book. Lines such as “so you discovered the beginning & / you inquire about the end?”, “we arrive back at the beginning,” “In a story there is never a beginning / & end,” and “this beginning: / born into always beginning” offer an easy enough presentation of the wheel of narrative returning in on itself.
High’s lines tend to mirror lessons found in Zen koans; for instance, “Go inside a question and your life becomes a question.” This tendency doesn’t do much to heighten their effect in terms of being poetry. Something (or perhaps various some things) is happening within this book, but a clear indication of just what it might be is never given. Although at times the clarity of an imaged moment is peculiarly attractive in its passing beauty: “pigeons & crickets all the way to the capital / letter of no separation. / walking into words there was only an echo.”
Ultimately, High fails to convince one way or the other that this book leads anywhere. Or rather he refuses that it should be so expected. And that’s okay, especially if, after all: “Everywhere we are not appears as a dream. / But it is not a dream.” Then where we are is in the real world. If the scene appears unfamiliar, excessively estranged from day-to-day reality, that should be no sort of hindrance to the reader’s identification with the writing, as Sawyer-Lauçanno explains: “To practice the Way is, in itself, enlightenment, yet High is careful not to insist that enlightenment is somehow superior to being. They are one and the same.” The value of this work accrues over time in multiple ways. There’s nothing to decipher. Instead there is much to accept, sit with, and mull over.
Fiction by Jerome Gold
Black Heron Press, February 2013
Paperback: 270pp; $16.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
The Moral Life of Soldiers is a collection of five stories (one novella-length) and a novel that fans of author Jerome Gold might recognize from previously published collections, such as Of Great Spaces and Prisoners. This collection is told from the perspective of an older soldier, Paul Donaldson, taking stock of his life and his experiences in the Vietnam War. The organization of the stories speaks to Jerome Gold’s commitment to the practical means of arranging the pieces—favoring a series of myopic encounters of ambiguous moral distinction rather than a longue durée quasi-biographical story of his main character.
Although some of the characters in the stories carry over from one sketch to the next (Paul’s father and uncle), any real continuity in the collection comes from the ubiquitous themes of conflict, intolerance, authority, power, and personal agency. The stories (“Paul’s Father,” “Dead Horses,” “John,” Concealments,” and “Paul and Sara, Their Childhood”) and, of course the novel (“The Moral Life of Soldiers”) show the contexts in which Paul tries to make sense of how decisions of others impact himself. He works to make sense of a chaotic, bizarre world where, on the surface, it would appear he has little active agency to focus the directionality of his own life.
This tension of Paul’s fatalism is fantastically played out in “Dead Horses” and “The Moral Life of Soldiers.” In the former, Paul is a younger teenager, out shooting guns with friends in the Mojave Desert. They encounter an abandoned homestead ranch—the corral adjacent to the ranch also abandoned, with dead horses lying decimated and decaying on the ground. The reader is forced, as is Paul, to resolve the events of the unexplained and unmarked deaths of the horses as Paul and his friends actively seek to shoot some large animal in the desert. Paul’s response is to declare that he isn’t interested in shooting any more—the reader is curious if this is Paul’s way of exercising some agency (e.g. to decide to not kill any animals on that shooting trip) in response to the death and mayhem that he is powerless to control (the corral of dead horses). Paul, as an individual, is juxtaposed against an incredibly stark backdrop of a fatalistic world, yet it would appear that he exercises choice where he can. The reader almost expects Camus and his “Myth of Sisyphus” to pause with the uphill stone-rolling and cheer.
The second story that grapples with these themes of agency and fatalism introduces the third element of authority, drawing on Paul’s experiences in the Vietnam War. In what is perhaps the most significant exchange in the book’s dialogue, he states: “I am a soldier. I go where they tell me to.” This fatalistic observation seems to divest him of any personal responsibility he wrested from the experiences of his childhood. The reader, like Paul, must reconcile that the battlefield of Vietnam is a parallel to the corral of dead horses—only here Paul has no action, no decision however small, to exercise over his surroundings.
This brings us to an interesting note about the title. The Moral Life of Soldiers. It offers a sense of the singularity of experience and the singularity of what moral life there could be for a soldier. There isn’t a William James-ian “variety of war experiences” that would emphasize that each soldier’s experience is unique and specific to only that soldier. Rather, the emphasized and, indeed, expected singularity of experiences gestures toward the fatalistic world that Gold’s titular piece paints. This is what seems to stand in contrast to the individual experiences of Paul’s childhood in the short stories—the reader sees flashes of choice, even in the starkest situations. By arguing for the singularity of experience in how a moral life is constructed and lived through the soldiering experience and the circumstances of war, Gold would appear to reverse his argument and worldview in the novel.
It strikes me that The Moral Life of Soldiers—its themes, its characters, its questioning of the world and its attempts to establish a view on the role of agency—would resonate well among those who share Paul Donaldson’s experiences. Namely, it would seem that the short stories and novel would echo well among veterans and active soldiers. The insistence of the sheer universality that surrounds the “moral life” of soldiers might make it difficult for those outside the experience to look in. The questions, however, that the themes ask about agency and authority are ubiquitous among audiences.
Poetry by Kate Greenstreet
Ahsahta Press, February 2013
Paperback: 165pp; $20.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
Kate Greenstreet, painter, graphic artist, and poet, has published two previous books of poetry with Ahsahta Press: case sensitive (2006) and The Last 4 Things (2009). The back cover of Young Tambling, her third outing, is stamped “Based on a true story.” Fittingly, the first of its six sections, “Narrative,” begins with a retelling of Young Tambling, a Scottish ballad wherein the hero is not Tam or Tambling or Tom Line. Instead, the story belongs to the girl telling it, driving it: “for once, the hero is the girl and her point of view and actions are primary.” This story frames the mixed-genre artist’s memoir; also serving as a frame are epigraphs, each of which is printed at the beginning of a section but erased so only the section is visible, and later in the section, fully legible. Greenstreet’s black and white paintings, photographs, and lists round out the collection.
Like so many discussions of art, Tambling shows us the lens through which the writer (or her created persona) sees the world. In this case, the portrait is from somewhere other than center: “Ten brothers sat for a portrait / I was behind them / For so long.”
The hero of Tambling gets to move the story, but she is also sometimes in the background, observing, cataloguing, fighting to be heard:
Breaking things because I couldn’t hold onto them.
like everyday, what’s missing,
What she tells is often fragmentary, misremembered or partially heard. This is more honest because the purpose is not beauty as we traditionally represent it but “to learn. To represent a life.” The forms, such as prose paragraphs, dialogue, couplets and caption, as well as the language she uses are both accessible and fantastical. Like the protagonist, the reader is two places at once:
Later, when we were walking, I could see that she
was spelling, in her mind, the words that we were
saying, and from time to time she stopped to write
one down if the letters were right.
At once, the words of a writer, observing her world and striving to capture it correctly, and of a fairytale witch, above the action and bending it to her, Greenstreet gives us the strange power of a girl struggling for human connection and creating space for it in an oppressively mundane and already hectic world.
Fiction by Tara Laskowski
Matter Press, January 2012
Paperback: 87pp; $10.00
Review by Karen Seehaus Papson
When confronted with an awkward situation that falls outside the bounds of social etiquette, modern women and men may find themselves in a quandary over what should be done. Never fear, etiquette devotees, for a new volume has explored this uncharted territory and created a guide for those hapless sailors who find themselves adrift in such unfriendly waters. From adultery and infertility to illiteracy and obesity, Tara Laskowski has carefully documented the dos and don’ts for these sticky circumstances in Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons. How fortunate for the current generation to have such wisdom readily available! Emily Post never addressed the faux pas to avoid when choosing to elope. Miss Manners never opined on how to scout a location when engaging in recreational arson. And neither one discussed the missteps likely to occur when conversing with soon-to-be victims of homicide. In short, this is a necessary volume for the considerate psychotics and kindly sociopaths among us—and for those of us who are in search of an amusing read.
Laskowski injects this short volume with many bons mots, each clever turn of phrase imbuing this offbeat collection with energy and humor. Readers will find that this book is closer kin to The Worst-Case Scenario series than to manners and etiquette books. The friendly tone and practical advice read more like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Murder or Adultery for Dummies than Emily Post Does Adultery. For example, when advising would-be mistresses of married men, she urges: “Never say, ‘Am I better in bed than your wife?’ Instead, try, ‘God, you are so hot I could have sex with you three or four times a day.’” There is always a dose of reality in Laskowski’s writing, and her counsel and resulting recommendations remind readers that for some people out there, these situations are quite real. The lonely adulterer faces the prospect of spending birthdays and holidays alone without the companionship of her or his lover. These special days of the year represent the most dangerous and emotionally fraught time in what Laskowski infers to be an already precarious situation. Like a loyal friend, she dishes practical advice for such emotionally explosive days as New Year’s Eve: “When everyone else at the party your friend dragged you to is pairing off to smooch at midnight, closely examine an imaginary stain on your designer jeans and drink your champagne quickly. Toss back your hair and tell yourself next year will be different.”
Each one of the brief chapters—there are ten in all—holds a full book of satire waiting to be written. Laskowski herself seems to acknowledge this in an indirect way, as she makes endless mention of appendices that aren’t there and notes that don’t come. It’s a funny trick, but it also belies how much more there is to be discovered in each short section. While some may question the demand for a fully developed book of etiquette for arsonists, there is real potential in such a tongue-in-cheek volume addressing obesity or elopement. Let’s hope that Laskowski takes her talent for caustic comedy and expands one of these little jewels into a stand-alone gem, because after reading this volume, readers will be ready for more well-mannered bad behavior.