October 1, 2013
Dark Times Filled with Light :: Duplex :: Moth :: The Virtues of Poetry :: Portuguese :: Birds of Paradise Lost :: A Wild Surmise :: Diadem :: Belmont :: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena :: Dissident Gardens :: Patterns :: All Standing :: The Wife of Martin Guerre
The Selected Work of Juan Gelman
Poetry by Juan Gelman
Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin
Open Letter, November 2012
Paperback: 187pp; $14.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
Dark Times Filled with Light is a brilliant collection of poems, spanning four decades, by Argentinean poet Juan Gelman. Virtually unknown to English-speaking literary audiences, Gelman is the recipient of relatively recent international acclaim, including a Cervantes Prize and Argentine National Poetry Prize, and his work continues to be translated into English. More impressive, however, than Gelman’s vitae is the sheer poetical power and pull of his work. Gelman’s poetry negotiates the boundaries between politics and history, between voice and borders, and gives an enigmatic narrative thread to the life and times of a poet in exile. It is impossible to not appreciate the sophistication and pathos that is etched in the work.
Dark Times Filled with Light draws its collection from Gelman’s previously published work; chronologically, Dark Times Filled with Light begins in 1956 (“Watching People Walk Along”) and finishes with excerpts from The Wages of the Profane (1984-1992). It is clear that Gelman is working with specific themes in the longue duree—most broadly, he focuses on the voice created through the inherent tension in the space between two antitheses. Specifically, Gelman plays with the pairings of presence and absence, of life and death; and the ideas of justice, mercy, and resolution.
The complexity and multi-layered meaning of Gelman’s work and his variations along these themes in several of his pieces manifest throughout the book. In “One Man’s Wake,” Gelman describes a man: “He goes around concerned more than usual / about time, life, other minor things like being, / dying without having found himself.” This brilliant play of words, a pun noir, if you will, illustrates Gelman’s exploration of the space between life and death and death and resurrection—where “wake” is an exploration of that space between the endpoints. In “Facts” (written as part of Facts in Buenos Aires and Rome between 1974 and 1978), one sees the despair and loneliness that a poet-in-exile wrote to:
this explains why so far no line of poetry has overthrown
any dictator or bureaucrat not even
a small dictator or bureaucrat / and also explains
how a verse can be born from the cross between a stone and a bright glow in autumn or
a cross between the rain and a ship and also from
other crossings no one would know how to predict / in other words
births / marriages / the
shots fired by neverending beauty
Again, Gelman’s brilliant play with double meanings of words, as well as the story within the poem itself, emphasizes the narrative role that he assigns to the poets. One might conclude that he sees the role of the poet to be a long and difficult one; one can feel Gelman’s almost despair in that the line of the poetry doesn’t immediately or completely overthrow corruption and “the regime’s legally established disorder”; the poet’s role is one that is ready with the foils of the hideousness of the corrupt regime. The poet’s role is one with “neverending beauty.”
Most poignant, perhaps, is the voice that Gelman gives to the “disappeared” within Argentina’s immediate history. In the introduction to Dark Times Filled with Light, the reader is told of Gelman’s family and the consequences that the Argentinian regime had for him, personally—his son and daughter-in-law “disappeared” and his granddaughter was given to a pro-government family in Uruguay. Gelman himself lived in Europe, the United States, and Mexico during his own exile. (Gelman was reunited with his granddaughter in 2000.) In “Alone” (written in Rome, in January-March 1980):
you’re alone / my country / without
the comrades you lock up and destroy / you hear
them slowly being emptied of the love
they have left / they loosen their grip
on their turn to die / dream they’re being dreamed / quieted /
they’ll never see other faces growing /
leaning out / continued / in this sun / some day in the sun of justice
Here, more than any other place, we can see Gelman giving a narrative voice to those that do not have one. Here, Gelman negotiates the lines between history and politics and provides an identity and sense of being and of purpose. Here, we are left to question if history and politics provide a place for justice and redemption.
A true sense of gravitas is inherent in Gelman’s work—a sense that he wishes the stories of Argentina told. And he wishes for us to listen. Dark Times Filled with Light is a necessary and essential read, and Juan Gelman is a necessary and essential poet.
Fiction by Kathryn Davis
Graywolf Press, September 2013
Hardcover: 208pp; $24.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
Kathryn Davis begins her novel Duplex with a tableau of children at play at summer’s end on a safe suburban street at dusk. Perhaps this is the early 1960s: no internet, television watched on a “console.” To immediately insert into this landscape robot neighbors and a Mephistophelean sorcerer complicates suspension of disbelief. Questions arise: if this place is not what it seems, what is it? What are the rules here? Who’s making the rules?
An unidentified narrator weaves two threads. One is the story of Mary and Eddie, childhood sweethearts, who live in a suburban complex of duplex homes, as does their teacher, Marjorie Vicks. They each are ensorcelled in different ways by Walter Ward, immediately identified as the sorcerer. He drives through the neighborhood in a silver-grey sedan. We learn that he’s put Miss Vicks under a sexual trance. Eddie briefly disappears and returns to become a star baseball player, but without a soul. Mary grows up and gives up on her love for Eddie. She marries the sorcerer, who arranges for her an idealized life devoid of creativity and feeling. Overhead fly the mysterious scows (perhaps from other universes) somehow related to the robot family that lives in one of the duplexes. The robots seem to take human form and try to “pass” by carefully studying patterns of human emotion and behavior. The past, present, and future fold around and through each other. In marriage, Mary gives up her art and tries to find satisfaction in sewing clothes and raising a not-quite-human, perhaps robot child who, as a teenager, rejects her. She is left to face the void.
Within this Faust-like parable, Davis seems to have an underlying subversive purpose. Mary’s dilemmas seem right out of The Feminine Mystique. As for the robots—in the suburbs how many of the neighbors might have been robots presenting a facade of conformity? The character of the teacher seems to sum up the basic conundrum: “‘What am I doing here?’ Miss Vicks wondered aloud. ‘Whose life is this?’”
The second thread is told by the same narrator who reveals that she is one of a group of pre-adolescent girls living in the duplexes. They spend their summers trading picture cards and listening to an older girl, Janice, tell stories.
Generally speaking the adults on the block considered [Janice] a liar. She said her mother beat her with a willow branch and she had the stripes on her back to prove it. She said humans had been right when they said the world was flat and round like a coin and you could fall off the edge.
Janice’s stories come between the chapters that follow Mary, Eddie and company. The listeners grow up, Janice gets a boyfriend, marries, divorces. But even as they age, they come back to the stories.
Janice tells them about the “Rain of Beads”: girls are seduced by handsome robots wishing to reproduce in the human way. “What happened next is too horrible to describe. . . . The information the robots based their plan on was poetry, which they are incapable of understanding.” The seduced girls are reduced to a cellular rain.
This story, like others, echoes the parallel narrative thread. In an earlier chapter involving Mary and Eddie, the “Rain of Beads” turns up as the theme for their prom night:
which some teachers had objected to as inappropriate. . . . If it wasn’t possible to reinvent the past in such a way as to make it conform to the present’s cheerful view of the way things ought to have been why bother living? Red light for blood and yellow for plasma and blue for tears . . .
Janice’s invented mythologies and the alternative story of the duplex fold together.
This raises more questions: is Janice, the storyteller, describing a true past for this created world? Is she really the stand-in behind which the narrator hides? Why is this narrator so omniscient? Does the narrative connection between threads call into question her reliability? In other words, is she describing a world for which the reader should suspend disbelief, or should we remain aware that she is just making it all up?
Duplex explores the hinge between real and unreal, past and future, human vs. nonhuman: “everything that is and has been and always will be—became for a moment like a huge thick velvet curtain, and everything that ever considered itself to be separate from anything else no longer was but only just for that moment . . .” Davis does not makes concessions to the rules of speculative and fantasy fiction. She creates her own genre. In haunting prose, the work moves along with a provisional quality: a storyteller improvising; pieces of dream logic that don’t hold up when awake. Finally, the strands begin to gather together into a strange and poignant whole.
or, how I came to be with you again
Fiction by Thomas Heise
Sarabande Books, July 2013
Paperback: 165pp; $15.95
Review by Trena Machado
Moth; or, how I came to be with you again, by Thomas Heise, is a poetic narrative of three- to six-page chapters, by a fictional narrator writing his memoir who “may” be under doctor’s care for an illness in which he is unable to distinguish between “what was real and what was not”—a condition the doctors were so concerned about that perhaps “they might be diagnosing themselves.” These prefatory remarks likewise state that the manuscript had been lost and found and perhaps altered by himself or another and, once translated from the German into English, the original was burned. The book begins with an unreliable narrator and text.
This narrator has lived in many cities—Oslo, Copenhagen, New York, Prague, Berlin—and sent himself a postcard from Buenos Aires, a place he had never been. He relays to us his thoughts, which are of seemingly real facts: “I remember blurry light, rain on an awning, and then being lifted and placed in a red wagon . . . I remember a small, A-frame house, and watching the hawthorn wasting in an emollient sea wind . . . I remember a white door . . .” Then:
I remember wondering if other memories remained in the twilight regions of my mind where my failed loves were soil, and if soon someone would enlighten me to things I had done and then, years later, I would remember them as real . . .
He does not know for certain if his memories are remembered accurately or even if they are his or if he has made them up out of things people have told him. He lived through the second world war, a war not named in the book, with his mother and father who became absent, how we are never told. He was orphaned and is still alive today.
Heise uses the conditional tense, which creates a mood of suspended, counterfactual reality as the implacable placidity of the sentences lyrically move, the words a music score of melancholia. The “self” of the narrator is contained in an enmeshed, associated, fingering net of dreams, memories, loss, longing, anomie, imagination, fantasy—and feels recognizable as interior life. The undercurrent of irretrievable loss is accomplished by stoically repeated fragments about the mother, father, the red wagon, the A-frame house, the orphanage, his childhood—remembered, imagined or invented, he doesn’t know. The fictional narrator’s sense of self feels like a twentieth century everyman caught in a reality not taking him into account, nor can he find a mooring in the change experienced. Reality is not reliable with sequences of predictable familiarity. This effect is accomplished with sentences that segue from fact to a conditional unknown:
I would have noted that the point where the black seam of her dress expanded at her hip . . . and her pause on the stairs that coiled like a shell about to release her was due to the door revolving, though no one was in it. It rotated slowly, delivering from the outside voices of children, those who were about to depart, perhaps even her future self who, though gone, would continue to live on within her.
He questions what happens in his own mind as it applies to what he sees and experiences: “The mere recrudescence of a sign is no reason to ascribe it meaning and the recurrence of patterns of behaviour is, I feel, thoroughly arbitrary in most instances.”
And—yet, driven from a survival place at the very center of having personhood at all, the sense of personhood his own personal memory of who he is (or anyone is), the narrator keeps returning to his origins, remembering over and over, “a” past history of his parents—he knows must have been there because he is here. How I came to be with you again is the act of remembering that contains all his world and especially the minute, hazy, grasped-for fragments of his early childhood—he doesn’t quite know if they are real or not, he was so young when everything was lost:
The woman who would become my mother found me riding in a red wagon . . . pulled through the streets. . . . When she lifted me into the sky for the first time, it was my primal scene, one I would spend my life trying to repeat for that same level of spontaneous wonder.
In Heise’s hands, the narrator’s personhood is adrift on an indefinable sense of time, time as a metaphor-force filled with open-ended self-questioning . . . and yet “time,” whatever “it” is, holds memory together, the center of an individual’s personhood. Memory, which the narrator recognizes as unreliable, is what he holds onto as who he is, even as he struggles with alienation and that his personhood is a vacillating unknowable. New terms for consciousness, language and experience are used as commonplace: simulacrum, iterations, fractals, recursive loops, copies, repetitions, signs, traces—fictitious, unreliable narrator—lacy, statistical abstractions that disembody reality. The narrator says: “I have begun to suspect I am the final iteration of a degraded sign whose meaning will extinguish with me.” He wants to know his origins, his mother and father, his childhood, and to be “laid claim to, knowing that one’s existence was a matter of dire consequence for another.” He longs for what he imagines the “real” is. He wants to have a place.
Essays by James Longenbach
Graywolf Press, March 2013
Paperback: 192pp; $14.00
Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson
Critic and poet James Longenbach has a mission: to call writers back to the study of great poems. Although this mission has motivated Longenbach’s critical writing previously, it comes through most clearly in his newest book, The Virtues of Poetry, a series of twelve essays that each consider the qualities a successful poem might possess. Weaving together research, close reading, and unmitigated passion for the poems and poets he admires, Longenbach’s arguments prove convincing and insightful in this lively essay collection.
In the preface, Longenbach urges readers to move away from a manner-oriented approach that has led to writers “sequester[ing] themselves in one or another school room.” Instead, he counsels us to look at a poem’s virtues—a word he specifically uses with its older meaning of a “magical or transcendental power”—regardless of the poem’s particular school. Longenbach also chooses to look past more obvious poetic tools like the line, rhythm, meter, or sound, which he considered in The Resistance to Poetry, his 2004 collection of essays from The University of Chicago Press. Despite its title, The Resistance to Poetry argues that the technical aspects that make poetry a challenge ultimately constitute its wonder; in The Virtues of Poetry, Longenbach approaches matters less formally. Poetry’s virtues require more evocative terms such as precision, intimacy, shyness, excess. Longenbach works descriptively in The Virtues of Poetry, attempting to distill the potentially elusive qualities that make poems memorable.
Through anecdotes from poets’ lives and exuberant close readings, Longenbach illuminates his chosen virtues. Poems examined in the essays come from unsurprising choices easily recognizable by last name only: Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Moore, Stevens, Bishop, Ashbery. Longenbach considered many of these same poets’ work (and the same poems) in The Resistance to Poetry, but even this repetition doesn’t detract from the persuasiveness of Longenbach’s readings. In part, his readings persuade because they engage with the poems honestly. For instance, after describing a passage from Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” as “unacceptably leisurely” and “larded with unstressed syllables,” Longenbach doesn’t try to convince the reader that the poem succeeds in spite of these facts. Rather, Longenbach points out that, “Taken out of context, the passage may sound weirdly flat; in context, we experience the passage as an eschewal of artifice—an unexpected recovery of a world we thought we had to abandon in order to purchase the pleasure of art.” By approaching honestly the reader’s potential dismay, Longenbach allows us to experience his arguments as revelations, a natural outgrowth of deep consideration.
Many of The Virtues of Poetry’s most engaging and memorable passages are the anecdotes Longenbach relates about the lives of his chosen poets. He begins a chapter on doubt, presented through W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” by unexpectedly plunging the reader into the life of Georgie Hyde Lees Yeats: “The time is 1917, the place London. The war is on. You are a young woman, attractive, well-off . . .” Similarly, tensions between Emily Dickinson and her brother’s mistress embodied in a thank-you note enlivens the chapter about boldness in Dickinson’s poems, and scenes from the complicated friendship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop provide an engrossing framework for a chapter about reticence and revelation in their work. Longenbach wants to draw our attention to the poems themselves, but he understands equally the appeal of work placed in context.
Packed with compelling close readings and attention-catching moments from poets’ lives, The Virtues of Poetry does much to prove that the poems we love merit careful attention, and that what makes them great might best be described in mysterious words like inevitability or otherness. The word “we” here is important: much could be argued against Longenbach’s too-familiar selection of poets, but his book doesn’t aim simply to elevate these poets and the particular virtues of their poems. Importantly, this collection maps out the route to discovering what each of us could define as virtues in the poems we love: spend time with the poem, reading and re-reading it until you’ve uncovered its magic, its own singular virtue. “Poems produce such rich and complicated effects with such extraordinarily limited means,” Longenbach writes. “What’s more, the effects are infinitely repeatable, a beauty born each time we take the journey from the first word of a poem to the last.” The Virtues of Poetry succeeds by teaching us to look for that beauty, and to look until we can name it.
Poetry by Brandon Shimoda
Paperback: 100pp; $14.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Witty to no end, Brandon Shimoda writes smart-ass hipster poems. The title of his latest collection, Portuguese, stems from a first day of first grade childhood teasing incident on the school bus when he was mocked by a “a fourth grader, skinny, with grassy blond hair and the face of a horse” who drawled out “in a squealing voice, Portugueeese, Portugueeese!” Shimoda is not in the least Portuguese. However, the incident not only gives him the title of this collection but clearly shapes the irony and humor that run throughout, along with for better or worse contributing to his larger views regarding humanity. One way or another, the event led as well to his researching “words of Portuguese origin introduced into the Japanese language, mostly by Portuguese Jesuit priests.” The list is a curious wonder in itself, at once as much practical as fanciful:
those [words] for the underwear worn beneath a kimono; star-shaped candy; mummy; shaddock (fruit); sponge cake; cactus; (the Christian) cross; caramel; Christian (people); (religious) missionary; quince; soap; marbles; flask; (cigarette) tobacco; Jesus (Christ); and a certain type of small biscuit.
It’s also both worthwhile and interesting to note that Shimoda wrote many of these poems “while riding the 3, 8, 27, 36, 39, 66, and 70 bus lines in and around Seattle . . . inspired by their passengers—their voices and minds, their faces and bodies, their exuberances and infirmities.” He weaves these disparate voices and images into lines juxtaposing various perspectives with a chaotic seamlessness which suits today’s age, and he manages get in his digs against his childhood bully in “Black for Light Years”:
Do you know Marcel? Abir says he has a pussy!
Abir IS a pussy. You’re supposed to love him!
He’s supposed to fuck me with these clothes on
He’s SWAMP! I want to shoot him in his head
You can see black for LIGHT YEARS
That’s my cousin’s baby
That’s fucking MAN-WELL!
That nigga’s just big for NO REASON
Yesterday, MAN-WELL was like, That’s why you’re having a baby
She said my baby looked like a fucking monkey
I said, Bitch, Your baby looks like a MARE
And you look like a HORSE
Other poems expand beyond merely being documentation of found dialogue. When they do, Shimoda betrays that he believes in something further than his casual display of ironic detachment would at first lead readers to guess. In these instances, the poems engage with deeper sets of concerns than the jokey one-liners strung together that form the bulk of the work here. It’s possible to catch sight of Shimoda stepping outside of comfortable zones of displacement common to the hipster poem and entering into dialogue of a much larger order, as in “poems [ If we were all characterized as colors, and colors were insatiable ]”:
Children need art to better express the things caught within them. No
Children need art to better understand
That there are things that require expression. No
Children need art to better think their way toward understanding
Their faults, not those of their broken supplies
Nor the embodiment of the bisexual vegetable. No
Children need art to frame the battling crests of contemporary motion. No
Children need art to commandeer a sense of history
For their own senses. No
Children need art to outpace the bullish advances of history. No
Children need art to abandon the idea that history is an expression of things—
the saucers look nice, as do the wigs and Portuguese guns, but history as shown in this castle is nothing if not infinitely replaceable. Art, however, is eternally salient, gives not color to history but history to itself, and is what we have to represent both the radiation and shadow of history.
In the end, to no surprise, the “smart-ass hipster poem” style wins out here. Whether it ultimately wins out in the future of poetry is a different, yet-to-be-decided, matter. Shimoda’s playfulness with the form of the poems in terms of construction and his intriguing interest in weaving together what appear to be open-ended poem-series demonstrate his obviously promising poetic skill. Scattered sections/pieces/individual poems (it’s unclear how Shimoda conceives of and/or intends the arrangement to be taken) which share the same title appear throughout the book. Some titles appearing multiple times include: “The Grave on the Wall,” “for the people,” “from Yellow Picnic,” “The Cedars of Lebanon,” “poems.” This reads as a maneuver which is more than mere gimmick. Note that while these may be “hipster” poems, they are not slacker poems. What’s accomplished here is poetry well done. Shimoda’s no doubt a poet who speaks to the era in which we live.
Fiction by Andrew Lam
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 216pp; $15.95
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi
While reading Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost, I kept thinking of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED speech, back in 2009. It was titled “The Danger of the Single Story”; the subject echoed the project of challenging master narratives from the previous century. That challenge germinated revisions in university reading lists, back in the late seventies, as the war in Vietnam approached its final phase. Adichie underlines the role of power cultivated in a single story, and how it insinuates, then calcifies, subterranean borderlines through stereotypes. On a Virgin flight from Lagos before her talk, Adichie heard an announcement about charity work in “India, Africa, and other countries”; however unintentional this categorization of Africa as a country was, the remark was not isolated. Adichie was clear about that, that the comment signaled pernicious perceptions about Africa, the kind that framed the continent in a stereotype: that its economic situation is prime destination of numerous charities from the First World. On the other hand, Adichie’s problem with stereotypes “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete[;] they make one story the only story.”
Lam’s first short-story collection contains a resounding, single story; it is about a journey, of a people, from one territory to another. They fled Vietnam for the United States and other places, and along the way help was offered through charitable hands. Their blood is infused with varying degrees of displacement and contradictions, often spurned by memory, nostalgia, and longings for the motherland on the other side of the Pacific. Lam’s single story, in this collection, is the immigrant story; the pursuit of the American Dream is indelible to its narrative, the struggle that transforms, meditates, and forges new ways of being in a new land. Through clear, accessible prose, Lam tells that story over and over again convincingly, unapologetic no matter how stereotypical the characters in his stories might appear to be, crowded with characters who have done well in North America. But the more Lam repeats that rhythm and the deeper he takes us into the lives of these characters, something gives and fades, which blurs not only the dimension of stereotype we perceive in them, but also the line between their Vietnamese and American identities. And, too, quite surprisingly, Lam sometimes burns that line with humor, the kind that begs for a live audience at any late-night chat show with respectable ratings.
“Yacht People” is probably the funniest story in the collection, which sounds like a sketch from John Leguizamo’s early days as a stand-up comic, delirious with one-liners, and extended tenors of bathroom jokes. Through humor, Lam subverts the horror of being in a very crowded refugee boat: “Crowded is, if you bend down looking for your plastic slippers, you’d lose your cherry.” The journey from the Mekong to the Philippines, through the South China Sea, is infested with Thai pirates, or “opportunistic fisherman with knives.” Starvation heightens the horror on the boat. The nameless narrator remembers how his mother saves his dying, three-year-old baby brother; she cuts one of her fingers, so the baby can drink her blood: “It was gross. It was awesome, man. Mama fed him like he was Vampire Lestat.” The baby survives, now six feet tall and “handsome as Bruce Lee,” but wrecked with “emotional baggage . . . wrapped around [his] mother’s finger.”
The refugee boat is not simply an element of transition in Lam’s stories, but the embodiment of hell itself, a sort of Rubicon that must be crossed, an experience that refuses to be exiled from memory. Thus, in “Sister,” real estate broker Ivory is ambivalent about visiting Vietnam; she lost her parents in a shipwreck but survives with her brother Jaden, now an MIT student, preparing to visit their homeland. “Hunger” appears to stand out among the boat stories in the collection because it deals with cannibalism. Lam’s sense of empathy shines here. You can feel Mr. Nguyen’s and his daughter Rose’s pain and suffering: “Some nights she wakes up crying . . . and holds his precious in his lap on their creaky bed as they watch their combined shadows dance on the wall.” The trauma of sharing Mrs. Nguyen at sea with other passengers is now eating them alive in San Francisco, which profoundly affects Mr. Nguyen’s ability to better his life. Occasionally, little Rose derives maternal comfort through a large African-American lady next door.
The collection magnifies the world of an American community. Lam attempts to cover its complex dimensions: from Mr. Le, who works in a gay adult bookstore in San Francisco; to two grandchildren who ice their 94-year-old grandmother when she suddenly drops dead on them; to street-smart Tammy who loathes the presence of Steve, the G.I who ends up bringing back her father’s ashes to America, in her family’s restaurant ; to the father in “Birds of Paradise Lost” who meditates on “how [America] snatches immigrant and refugee children from their parents’ bosoms and turns them into sophisticated, razor-tongued strangers.” The title story attempts to calibrate the tension and gap between two Vietnamese immigrants, father and son; the son’s biting op-ed piece about his father’s best friend immolating himself in Washington to protest the communist regime in Vietnam underlines their perceptions on patriotism, family, and individualism. Their divergent views on these matters illustrate how the immigrant condition soon splinters into divergent lives. The son’s disagreements with his father insinuate a map for his own future, which, no doubt, would be an American story, different from what his father might draft with ambivalence.
In many ways, Lam understands the single story Adichie was talking about. The collection is his salute to the one he knows well, the immigrant story, one that, in itself, is composed of numerous stories. Perhaps the other danger in the single story is not simply its perception of singularity, but more so, the listener’s or reader’s narrowed and insistent perception that there is only one story in a single story—when, in fact, organically, any story is a universe of narratives.
New & Selected Poems & Recordings
Poetry by Eloise Klein Healy
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 248 pp; $19.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
The beauty of a “new and selected” book is that it can provide a wide-ranging introduction to readers unfamiliar with a poet while serving to remind familiar readers of all the reasons they loved the poet’s work in the first place. The risk sometimes is that drawing from a poet’s entire career can yield too diverse a book, one which lacks cohesion. That is not the case in A Wild Surmise. Although it includes poems from throughout Healy’s long career, the tone of the book is consistent—from the opening acknowledgments to the closing poem, the tone is celebratory, grateful, and entirely current. Whether a reader is already familiar with Healy’s work or not, the poems are engaging, the presentation is savvy, and the subjects (love, death, nature, urban life) are both timely and timeless.
A Wild Surmise contains selections from Building Some Changes (1976), A Packet Beating Like a Heart (1981), Ordinary Wisdom (1981), Artemis in Echo Park (1991), Women’s Studies Chronicles (1998), Passing (2002), and The Islands Project (2007), along with new work. It also, according to the title, contains recordings. In an introductory note, Healy discusses the contemporary debate about the future of the book in this electronic age and explains her choice to take advantage of technology by including QR codes with some of the poems. Any reader with a smartphone can download a free app, then scan the code and hear Healy reading the poem. As a poet who enjoys reading and hearing others read, I found this to be a lovely addition to the text.
Although the books represented in A Wild Surmise are all unique, there are also certain themes and topics that carry through them all. Many poems deal with love. There are poems of initial infatuation, such as “I Spent the Day With You,” which begins, “I spent the day with you like a drunken sailor / wanting you tattooed inside my life.” There are breakup poems: “The Words ‘Begin Again’” for example, which ends:
I know that what she took from me
did subtract from these bright wonders
and left me with a bitter wish
that hope counts
from an empty place,
and only from an empty place
does hope begin again.
Overall though, the love poems in A Wild Surmise are the poems of a long-term relationship, one that has lasted through many trials. In “Love Poem From Afar,” dedicated to Healy’s partner of twenty-five years, the speaker begins with the lyrical declaration “This morning I’m more lonely than the sky, / that flattened tray of tin and rain,” before describing all the things she wishes she could tell her lover about. “This would be another world / with you in it,” she says in the penultimate stanza, then corrects herself: “No—you are the world.”
Healy expresses her love of the natural world as well; the book includes several poems about her dogs and other animals, and in “Dividing the Fields” she also speaks lovingly of trees: “Plants would get most answers right / if left to themselves.” Another topic that surfaces throughout the collection is the poet’s life in Los Angeles. Healy writes about the city with both love and irony and often juxtaposes the urban with the natural world. In “Artemis in Echo Park” for example, she says, “The life before cement is ghosting up / through roadways that hooves and water / have worn into existence forever.” The awareness of the city’s history and the life that went on before it inform Healy’s love for the place.
Death also makes its presence known in several sections of the collection. Healy writes about her parents’ deaths, her partner’s cancer, the deaths of other poets, and, in the final section of new poems, her own mortality as well. In “What Does Death Want From Me?” the speaker says, “Death already has the best part, / mom and dad and my dogs. // So, death is shopping me now.” In spite of these losses, the book does not lose its joy. In the new poem that gives the collection its title, Healy writes of the long life she has shared with her partner. “No one else, no one else can claim us, / only the expansive and beautiful world // always before us.”
It is difficult to do justice to such an expansive and beautiful collection as Healy has put together here (I feel particularly remiss in not discussing the selections from The Islands Project, a book with which I was already happily acquainted), but reading it was a joy. Whether one is already a fan of Healy’s work or a new reader, A Wild Surmise is well worth adding to this fall’s reading list.
Poetry by Marosa Di Giorgio
Translated from the Spanish by Adam Giannelli
BOA Editions, October 2012
Paperback: 169pp; $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Despite a several-decades-long history of publication in the poet’s homeland of Uruguay, prior to the publication of Diadem: Selected Poems the only published translations into English of Marosa Di Giorgio’s work were her 1965 collection The History of Violets (Historial de las violetas) (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) and a selection of her work in the anthology Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay (Shearsman, 2011). This is slim representation for a poet who, as translator Adam Giannelli relates in his introduction, “like Whitman . . . expanded the same work throughout her career,” ultimately gathering fourteen books as her collected poetry in Los papeles salvajes (“The Wild Papers”) which in “the most recent version appeared in 2008, and gathered in a single volume nearly seven hundred pages of poetry.”
Diadem goes a long way toward offering a fuller range of Di Giorgio’s work to an English audience. Even if it represents only a small fraction of her overall output, this collection clues in those not already in the know. Giannelli pulls poems primarily from out the latter half of the poet’s life, reproducing little of anything that has already appeared in English translation while covering a two-decade span (1965-87) of publications. Giannelli argues that although he’s drawn from half a dozen books published over nearly twice as many years, “the book can also be read from cover to cover as an interrelated series.” And this proves to be quite true—no doubt largely due, as noted above, to Di Giorgio’s consciously composing her individual books as forming a larger whole.
Di Giorgio’s poems are written in a lucid prose that suits the quite dreamlike and ultra-real landscapes described. Threads within poems from separate books connect. While none of the poems are full narratives, they do contain narrative. Gianelli refers to the Alice in Wonderland quality found in much of the work, and indeed one collection he selects from here is entitled The March Hare. Di Giorgio often references her family and her childhood home outside of the city. Insects and flowers are predominant fixtures in the poems alongside the narrator and an array of magical-seeming creatures and events.
In one poem the speaker declares she might perhaps “eat a butterfly”:
The daytime butterfly won’t do, it’s too light; it’d be like trying to quench thirst with a few drops of dew. The night butterfly is very special; it’s firm, plump, entirely edible; eyes, legs, wings; all of it. Sometimes, it tastes wretched; other times, it doesn’t; it’s like herbs, fresh meat. But how is a butterfly born, anyway? A tiny egg on a “daylily”? a flower? It cracks open, lets out the nun, the little carcass. I think it only takes one morning for it to become an adult and fly around and about the flowers. That must be the process. Towards nocturnal butterflies, I admit, I harbor some reservations. But it’s best not to think of it. Oh, God! It just fell! While I was musing on all this, it fell. It’s big, almost like a bird; it’s beige with wide black wings: perhaps . . . a bit monstrous; but at the same time it looks like little Saint Teresa; I’ve snared it.
Later in life Di Giorgio began to offer staged readings of her poems. She “performed recitals across the globe” and “a version of the show was released in 1994 and included as a compact disc with the title Diadema inside her last book.” In her own words: “The word diadem occurs within the recital, but it’s also a garland of poems selected from different books.” Giannelli locates this as the source of his title, noting Di Giorgio’s Catholicism, how she claimed her first poem came as a vision from the Virgin Mary, and that “The Virgin continually appears throughout her poems, and the diadem serves as an image of authority and femininity. A full circle it is also a symbol of plenitude, and of eternity.” As Di Giorgio describes in a poem:
I wander through the old orchard—Isabel, Ana—through the old houses; I’d like to be a woman in one of these houses, a city woman, but I’m the Virgin; they don’t realize; I search for another deserted village, other fields of hemp. The wind whistles. The wolves are eating the lambs. On my diadem fall stars like tears, fall roses and gladioli, black dahlias.
Having the original language on facing pages further enhances the quality of the book. Di Giorgio’s work is well treated, and Giannelli has taken obvious care with his presentation. Hopefully either he or others are at work translating the rest of her work, the poetry as well as her novel and three books of erotic tales.
Poetry by Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press, June 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $15.00
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
While it is generally a mistake to assume the speaker of a poem is the poet himself, Belmont is an introspective book featuring many overtly autobiographical gestures. Taking its title from the Massachusetts town where poet Stephen Burt lives, the collection explore the pleasures of adulthood and the security of home through poems that are fixed in definite times and recognizable places and often refer to specific people. Objects, even, have specificity; in “Over Wingaersheek Beach,” readers are told that “Nathan’s kite shows a pattern of angelfish, coral, and sea stars,” taking the vivid description so far as to denote possession—the kite in question is Nathan’s—and in fact Nathan and other family members are mentioned by name frequently in the book, lending the collection the narrative specificity of a memoir.
The speaker—Burt, readers will generally assume—journeys occasionally to the DC area and Mexico and elsewhere, but remains mostly in the greater Boston area, finding occasions for poems along Storrow Drive, in Kendall Square and Porter Square, and in Black Ink, a small curiosity shop in Cambridge. Belmont, a small town situated between Cambridge and Waltham, is described here both in specific detail and as a generalized suburban locale where the speaker has settled down to raise children. “Sing for us whose troubles // are troubles we’re lucky to have: / cold orange juice, and cold coffee,” the speaker intones. The word “cocoon” does not appear in the book until it finally comes along several times in part 3, but poems throughout the book suggest a speaker cocooned by comforts of family and middle aged prosperity, and Belmont often finds occasions for poetry in domestic objects: tea towels, a stapler, and an illuminated globe, among others. Writing about the suburbs is dangerous territory; there are limitless ways one can come across as self-indulgent or privileged or out-of-touch. Fortunately, suburban life is treated here as less an occasion for self-congratulation than for reflection, and these poems are frank about the comfortable tameness and uncomfortable complacency inherent in the world of the poems, demonstrating awareness of how fortunate so many suburban denizens are, and how tenuous that fortune can be. “Gentle” serves here as both a descriptor and a prayer.
These poems show the sensitivity of a critic, and Burt’s tone balances levity and rumination well, as when he describes Heaven—someone else’s version of it, he says—as “half a moon, / laughter through the quad, and cloudlessness,” admitting a few lines later, “How finely weighted in my favor / most of our contests in this life have been;” or when he calls the soul “Easy to recognize in its costume / made up of Sunday puzzles and Scrabble tiles.”
Belmont is structured in three parts, with one poem prefacing the three sections, and epigraphs from Shakespeare, Willa Cather, and Octavio Paz. Part 1 describes life in Belmont in terms of preoccupied insularity, with the main event being the birth of the speaker’s son. The poems here seem to gently move back in time, hour by hour, proceeding as the section progresses from “Poem of Nine A.M.” to “Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.)” and so on, leading readers step by step into an early morning dream state.
As if taking up the matters of dreams for section 2, the book proceeds to wander through deep yearnings, uncertainties, and questions about sexuality, transposing these worries with pop culture icons and bits of chatter and childhood TV shows, with “microfiber and leather,” and “opalescent plastic buttons.” The poems in the middle of the book offer a kaleidoscopic jumble of images and textures and emotions but often hint at a curious lack of agency, conveying less the sense of a freeze frame than of a deliberate stalling out.
The scope widens in the last section and returns to more narrative concerns, and in the third section the poems also travel away from New England. Some of the poems here moralize heavily on matters such as the dangers of taking things for granted, and the lack of environmental stewardship in contemporary life, but these are nonetheless balanced by lighter moments and lyrical descriptions, as in the lovely “El Nido” and “Butterfly with Parachute.”
The strong organizing structure supports the thematic and circular congruencies of the poems, as when sesame seeds appearing in the book’s opening poem are invoked again when “the little boys throw seeds” toward the end in “Living Next To The River.” Belmont is filled with echoing images like this, and Burt likewise has adept sonic sensibilities. “The geese alight / at ease, a scatterplot,” he says in “Helplessness;” clipped lines like these present a striking visual metaphor and simultaneously reward the ear with the slant rhymes in geese and ease, and the consonance of paired l’s and t’s in “alight” and “plot.”
With lyricism and a finely tuned temporality, Belmont offers readers a world that is cushioned, cocooned. Yet the security of such a world is tenuous by nature and, Burt gently admonishes, “We should never look down / on what gives strangers comfort, / on what we learn too late that we might need.”
Fiction by Anthony Marra
Hogarth, May 2013
Hardcover: 400pp; $26.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Against the background of bad press about Chechnya—from violent rebel attacks like that on a Moscow theater and, more recently, the Chechen connection with the Boston Marathon bombers—Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena manages to right the balance on Chechen/Russian violence. For those of us who know little about the Chechens’ struggle for independence, from the first page on, we see the brutality of the “Feds” (the Russians) and their continuing efforts to obliterate any chance of the country’s unification. The two main female characters, sisters Natasha and Sonja, are Russians; their family was encouraged to move to Chechnya to help keep the country Russian.
The novel is, however, a human story, not a political one. The plot involves five Chechen neighbors barely surviving the violence in a hamlet damaged by war, plus an 8-year-old child, Havaa, who needs protecting after the Feds take away her father and burn their home. Not far away, one of the Russian sisters, the doctor Sonja—really the only doctor—works in the area’s safest place, the ill-equipped hospital. Akhmed, a friend of Havaa’s father, Dokka, brings her to Sonja for shelter, and Sonja immediately hires him as a doctor out of extreme need. Sonja’s own desperation, the reason she returned to Chechnya from London, comes from her sister Natasha’s disappearance.
The novel’s structure and beautiful writing do much to make the reader feels the characters’ pain and final exultation. Amazingly, the main chronological events take place in only five days in 2004. But Marra, starting then, zigzags back repeatedly between 1994-2004, interrupting the linear progression to fill in why certain things happen. The message seems to be that there are painful, often horrendous repercussions for one’s actions. Eventually we get the full powerful picture, with its devastating effects on the characters.
Akhmed has to leave his invalid and demented wife to travel carefully around patrols in order to work in the hospital and see Havaa. The details of his care for his wife, Ula, tell their sad story:
When he . . . stripped the linens from the mattress, he found her tawny silhouette sweated into the fabric. The musky darkening was so particularly, irrevocably Ula that he would hesitate to wash it. But then, scolding himself for being sentimental, he would fill the basin with soapy water and submerge her outline and watch her disappear. He was losing her incrementally. . . . As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.
The oldest neighbor, Khassan, wrote a complete history of Chechnya but was allowed to publish only the first book, Origins of Chechen Civilization: Prehistory to Fall of the Mongol Empire. He does not talk to his son, the informer Ramzan, who caused the gentle and kind Dokka to be taken away by the Feds. Khassan, also a humane person, takes care of feral dogs left behind by “disappeared” neighbors. Burning the rest of his manuscripts, he decides on one final writing, which turns the tide at the novel’s end:
Not a history of a nation that had destroyed history and nationhood. Something smaller. A letter to Havaa. His recollections of Dokka, his favorite memory, then go back to the first time he had met him, and end with Havaa’s birth. It would be the first true thing he had ever written.
This is a world of secrets—Khassan’s and Akhmed’s—and even the tormented Ramzan’s understandable reasons for becoming an informer. But the “national industry” is “disappearances,” here experienced by Sonja:
At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.
The novel’s title comes from The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians: “Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” This is ultimately a story of life prevailing. Neighbors find love: “For months they’d run their fingers around the hem of their affections without once acknowledging the fabric. . . . She was his home. The only land that bound him.” Characters grow and adapt. “Maybe we find them [the people we love] in other people. In kindness and generosity, those things don’t disappear.” Thus there is no surprise at the “spinning joy” at the end of this powerful, beautifully written novel.
Fiction by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, September 2013
Hardcover: 384pp; $27.95
Review by David Breithaupt
Dissident Gardens begins in Queens during the post-war years, when the romance with Communism was still fresh. There was a brief window of time before McCarthyism when, as Allen Ginsberg wrote in his famous poem America, “everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was . . .” In some circles, revolution was in the air. There were cell meetings, communiques from Moscow, Bolsheviks in the bathroom. However, the narrative informs us:
By 1959 nobody said “I am a Communist,” except in a Hollywood flick, either a swarthy heavy making a dying confession, expiring words from a body riddled with FBI lead, or some tubercular, misguided kid, maybe Robert Walker or Farley Granger, facing up to consequences of his treasonous acts.
It is into this atmosphere that Dissident Gardens unfolds. The centerpiece is Rose Zimmer of Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, known as the “Red Queen.” Rose is hell on wheels. Few within her radius escape her sway. Early on, Rose is expelled from the party for a romantic alliance with a black city cop. This does little to temper her beliefs. Rose’s husband, Albert, has been packed off by the party to East Germany and they are divorced, but not before Rose gives birth to their daughter. Enter Miriam.
Thus begins a multi-generational history, with Miriam coming of age in the 1960s while at war with both the government and her mother. Miriam’s marriage to songwriter and performer Tom Gogan, son of a famous folk singer, leads them through the village at the height of Bohemia and beyond. Miriam gives birth to their only child, their son Sergius, a future player in the ongoing family saga. Lethem paints the history very well, evoking the ambiance of the times with colorful precision using a cast of characters who weave in and out during the story, creating a tight cross-stitch design. We have cousin Lenny Angrush, a one-time chess hustler and numismatic who nurses a lifelong crush on Miriam; the presence by absence of Albert, Rose’s ex-husband, now repatriated in East Germany; and also Cicero Lookins, the gay, brilliant and overweight protégé of Rose and son of Douglas Lookins (Rose’s infamous black cop lover). Careful readers will note a cameo appearance by P. K. (Perkus) Tooth of Lethem’s Chronic City (2009). Finally we have Sergius, who grows up to untangle the wreckage that these lives have strewn across his adolescence and adulthood like storm debris. Everybody, it seems, was not so angelic.
I suspect Dissident Gardens will be compared with Lethem’s equally ambitious novel Fortress of Solitude (2003). For me these two books are his most personal writings as they draw upon the myths and memories of his beloved Brooklyn. Lethem is in full command as he orchestrates history with his own intimate knowledge of his turf, creating a sprawling tableau that reminded me both of Tolstoy and John Irving—Tolstoy for the generational foibles of family history and Irving for that more contemporary feeling of sadness and tragedy many families seem to end with in his novels. Few are left standing in the garden in the end. Rose ends her days in dementia with a fantasy life involving Archie Bunker as an intimate. Sergius loses his parents as they venture out on a mission in Central America. How will those left behind cope?
Sergius returns in his adult years and seeks out Cicero, now a professor at an Ivy League college, to help unravel the inheritance of Rose’s influence. Both have been stamped and molded, for better or worse, by Rose and have fallen short of exorcising any demons imposed upon them by the Red Queen of Sunnyside Gardens. Cicero and Sergius are at a loss to pull one another out of the Rose Hole. Her legacy is intact.
Reading Dissident Gardens is a reminder of changing obsessions, beliefs and fashions. It is sad and a bit scary to see causes and movements that were so believed in, certain that they were the only solutions for our ailing society, dissipate into the masses as if they were merely a fickle fashion like bell-bottoms. The conclusion? “Rose existed. Communism, not so much.”
I wonder what current obsessions will be swept away by the oblivion of replacement info and events, like an old album of family Polaroid shots with no relatives left to inherit them. Jonathan Lethem has captured the essence of an era, how it was lived, what it felt like, in a way that only fine novels can, showing what historical texts can only portray in flat images. If you weren’t alive during the times he describes, read the book and you will be. But don’t expect angels.
Make ’Em and Break ’Em
Anthology edited by Robert F. Lawson and Carol S. Lawson
Swedenborg Foundation Press, March 2013
Paperback: 272pp; $15.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
The Swedenborg Foundation’s annual Chrysalis anthologies were first published in 1984, for the purpose of examining themes related to the universal quest for wisdom according to the teachings of scientist-turned-spiritual-visionary and writer Emanuel Swedenborg. This, the final volume of the series, contains essays, stories, poetry, and illustrations focused on the theme of patterns. It contains more than seventy pieces and numerous illustrations by poet laureates and prominent and award-winning authors, as well as some new voices, and is divided into five sections: “Breaking Patterns,” “Perpetuating a Pattern,” “Stuck in a Pattern,” “Patterns in Progress,” and Making New Patterns,” in addition to the preface and epilogue.
In “Part I: Breaking Patterns” the teenage narrator of Abigail Calkins Aguirre’s “C’est l’Heure” has begun a year at a Swiss boarding school when a family tragedy forces her to return home to the U. S. As the title reveals, Aguirre weaves the theme of time throughout this essay, ending with “It is time. Time to leave.” In “Theopoetics of Healing,” Patty Christiena Willis writes about a woman born into a family of holistic healers who has a crisis of faith when she’s unable to use her gift to heal, and she wonders, “Does the stone keep the miracles inside, the resurrection, the healing, locked from view?”
In the story “Manila, the Noble City” from “Part II: Perpetuating a Pattern,” Alexander N. Tan Jr. tells the story of a poor man, who dreams of his childhood home while his three daughters nag him to sell the current house for money to improve their lives. The narrator reveals the irony of this pattern’s perpetuation when he encounters the women still living in the same house after their father’s death. As one sister explains: “This is [our father’s] house, but we would not sell it, and we have kept it as a shrine to his memory.” Will Wells uses the structure of a sonnet, which he describes as written by a poet “who barters scraps and pieces of experience with his audience” like his grandfather in the poem, who employed these same skills as a junk dealer.
“Part III: Stuck in a Pattern” includes the essay “I Am Elizabeth Proctor” by Kristin Troyer, in which the writer juxtaposes her experience playing the eponymous character from The Crucible on stage with learning about her father’s cancer diagnosis. The writer worries about her inability to cry, either for her ailing father or her dead on-stage husband: “you would think I could muster up a tear.” In “Building the Perfect Nest,” Stephen Graf explores the topic of fatherhood as a man observes a pair of Eastern bluebirds building a nest in the tree outside his bedroom window as he processes his grief for his son, a soldier recently killed in Iraq. The weather turns cold, and the man turns his nurturing instincts toward the birds’ fledglings, renting an outdoor heater, like “the ones they use outside bars and cafes.”
Michael Barber’s story “Baghdad Blues” in “Part IV: Patterns in Process” portrays a soldier’s struggle to assimilate back into life at home with his family after a wartime deployment. The writer reveals the soldier’s recovery when he writes: “In the rising orchestration of wind and water, I felt something else emerge, something I hadn’t felt in a long time—joy.” In “The Power of Words,” Dr. Bernie Siegel emphasizes the power of a physician’s words to her/his patients when he writes: “‘wordswordswords’ can become ‘swordswordswords.’”
In Karen Corinne Herceg’s “Knitting in Transit” in “Part V: Making New Patterns,” the story’s narrator, mired in the drudgery of work and a daily two-hour commute, opens her heart to the possibility of happiness after a chance encounter with a woman on a train. When the woman dies and leaves the narrator a handmade scarf and mittens, she says: “I thought how warm I would be in my sweater, scarf, and mittens when the skies grew dark and cold as I waited for the bus next winter.” In “Two New-Church Patterns,” Richard Lines presents research detailing how Swedenborg’s followers split and followed two different spiritual paths.
The editors do not explain how they decided which pieces to assign to the various sections, and at times those delineations were unclear to me, but as a whole this volume is packed with poems, stories, and essays that will give the reader much to consider. Familiarity with Swedenborg principles is not a prerequisite to enjoying this volume, and anyone with an interest in human emotions or spirituality will find this an enlightening book.
Nonfiction by Kathryn Miles
Simon & Schuster/Free Press, January 2013
Hardcover: 256pp; $26.00
Review by Courtney McDermott
All Standing is history with a pulse. Kathryn Miles, in a heroic feat, attempts to unravel the threads that lead to the success of the Jeanie Johnston, a famous Irish famine ship that never lost a passenger.
Miles construes the world of the Potato Famine for her readers in a haunting manner, providing necessary context and backstory. Her opening chapter displays a frightening scene: “The stories [the farmers] told were as apocalyptic as they were consistent: a strange cloud of mist hanging over their fields, the overpowering stench of something rotten, beds of healthy potatoes turned into rivers of putrefied slime.” I had never considered the smell before, but Miles pushes all of the senses to consider the impact of famine. She unearths an image of famine that is raw and festering, one where potatoes rot below the earth like carcasses, but she also explores this fetid imagery with scientific explanation: botanists surmise that a destructive pathogen infected the potatoes. Miles surprises further by explaining that the pathogen is so destructive it was once considered as a biological weapon by the USSR and the USA. Her research is careful and thorough, and yet she never forgets that she is telling a story with this research. “Life was now marked by the kind of pestilence and plague suffered in the Old Testament,” she writes, using language that is well crafted without being overwrought.
Miles constructs her narrative through the stories of multiple characters, including a young farmer, Daniel Reilly, and his pregnant wife Margaret, who gives birth on the Jeanie Johnston. The birth of their son Nicholas shines as a beacon of hope throughout the book, as Nicholas’s story as an adult emerges time and again, juxtaposed against the journey it took to get him to America.
The forces behind the creation and success of the Jeanie Johnston paint a fascinating picture, and Miles is careful to consider all the hands that were involved in the ship’s magnificent feat. There is John Munn, a conscientious Canadian who built the ship; Nicholas Donovan, the capitalist who decided to buy a ship and make it his mission to get immigrants across safely in order to make a profit; James Attridge, Donovan’s cousin and one of the best sea captains around; and Richard Blennerhassett, an intelligent doctor who looks out for the lowly. Miles examines what makes these individuals so pertinent to the success of the Jeanie Johnston, and through her analogies and character sketches, it seems to be that a sense of justice, of rightness, motivates these men.
And though these men would sever their ties to the Jeanie Johnston through circumstance or death, and the ship met her own fate during a deadly gale, Miles’s book is a testament to both the unquestionable tragedies and hard-earned triumphs of the famine ships. It is a testament to how my forefathers got to America, and for that, I am greatly impressed.
Fiction by Janet Lewis
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, August 2013
Paperback: 112pp; $9.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Life choices were nonexistent for Bertrande Guerre (née Rols) in sixteenth century France. Her marriage to Martin was arranged between their wealthy peasant families when they both reached puberty. A distant husband, Martin grudgingly comes to respect Bertrande when she sides with him against his cruel father. To prove her love, she covers for Martin when he runs away. “Eight days” turns into eight years, and Martin returns a changed man . . . that is, if it really is him . . .
Janet Lewis based The Wife of Martin Guerre on an actual court case. The questions the sensational trail left unanswered have inspired numerous retellings. The most notable are the 1996 musical by the Les Misérables writing team of Boublil and Schönberg; a 1982 film starring Gérard Depardieu (yes, he was once a genuine leading man) and New Wave muse Nathalie Baye; and Sommersby, the 1993 Jodie Foster and Richard Gere vehicle with the distinction of being one of the most unromantic films ever made. Lewis wrote her vibrant novella in 1941 as the first in her Cases of Circumstantial Evidence trilogy, which Swallow Press has brought back into print. The mystery here is not Martin’s identity, but why Janet Lewis remains obscure.
As the title indicates, Martin is not the main protagonist. Rather, his actions are Bertrande’s life. The girl neglected at her wedding by all but the family dog and servant becomes an intelligent woman with “a manner of gracious command.” During her husband’s prolonged absence, Bertrande changes in another way by gaining a “greater, more mature beauty.” Lewis gives her an inner history neither a transcript nor ledger provides. Her contemporaries Kathleen Winsor (Forever Amber) and Anya Seton (Dragonwyck) did the same admirably in their historical novels but over the course of hundreds of pages, instead of less than 100.
Embellishing the few known facts allows Lewis to tell them within an adventurous narrative. At first Bertrande is pleased when Martin returns. However, his newfound kindness towards family members and tenderness as a lover makes her wonder if she sees “the flesh and bone of Martin Guerre dwelling in the spirit of another man.” The Guerre clan’s reaction is to doubt her sanity. They would rather have this new, improved Martin back in the fold as family patriarch than not have him at all. And if family comes first, the Church is the last word. The parish priest dismisses the “shadow” of her thoughts to “a great change in his spirit;” a miracle best left alone.
The Wife of Martin Guerre is void of grand scale. This matter of public record with the recorded testimony of 150 witnesses retains an intimacy throughout. The author’s final words of judgment are not of sacred or secular law, but a warning that “when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.” A woman like Madame Guerre who knew and accepted her place deserved better.