Posted November 1, 2013
The Forage House :: War Reporter :: Paper Dreams :: New Stories from the Midwest 2012 :: Swoop :: The Consummation of Dirk :: Render :: The Year of What Now :: Dwelling in Possibility :: Scent of Darkness
Poetry by Tess Taylor
Red Hen Press, August 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $17.95
Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson
“[S]he could see her story going on, her people there in the past—a way of imagining that grounds her,” writes Tess Taylor in her debut full-length poetry collection The Forage House (“Meeting Karen White, Descendent of Jefferson’s Gardener Wormley”). While these words describe someone other than the collection’s primary speaker, they prove an apt summary of Taylor’s first book: in The Forage House, we witness a personal discovery of family history and how it colors the speaker’s present. Throughout the collection, Taylor’s first-person speaker finds herself immersed in the vivid reality of her family’s past, a past that spans a period from Thomas Jefferson to a Confederate soldier who survived Gettysburg to her parents’ early years of marriage living in a Brooklyn commune. The Forage House presents the simultaneous distance and unshakeable presence of history through poems that bridge research and imagination, the distant past and the lived present.
Taylor’s most notable ancestor—Thomas Jefferson—acts as the volume’s lynchpin. Two poems in, we’re with Taylor’s speaker as she inspects an archaeological dig in a field a half mile from Monticello. “Inheritors of absences, we peer / into the five-by-five foot ledge,” she notes, juxtaposing the bare reality of archaeology with lyrical description of what history makes of us (“Eighteenth Century Remains”). For the speaker, the things left out of her family’s history haunt her most, Jefferson’s slave children forcing her to reconstruct her theories. “Erasures are deliberate and accidental. Erasures are deliberate,” she writes, showing us the process of readjusting her thought based on what her research brings to light (“Meeting Karen White, Descendent of Jefferson’s Gardener Wormley”). In a long poem, “A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello,” Taylor’s speaker addresses Jefferson directly as “O hypocrite,” but by the poem’s end, he becomes “ambitious foundering father I revere & hate & see myself in.” Taylor doesn’t simply settle for either hate or reverence but chooses instead to show us both options, arguing that both have a place in our understanding of history.
Accuracy plays a key role in Taylor’s ability to see both good and bad. In The Forage House, accuracy takes the form of details, whether as a meticulous recording of objects or the use of historical documents, including family papers and oral histories. In “Museum of the Confederacy,” Taylor notes “tatters delicate as widows’ laces,” “Lee’s tarnished bowls,” and “the Davis boy’s toy musket,” but then juxtaposes them against the present reality of “the state hospital . . . / smelling like sour cafeteria pizza, sweat,” and the presence of smokers and freeways. Historical documents take the form of family papers or eyewitness accounts from living relatives, and Taylor uses these resources to astonishing effect. In “Oral History 1963,” for instance, Taylor recounts a violently suppressed march in Danville, North Carolina during the Civil Rights era and her grandfather’s attempt to stand up to the judge who sentenced the demonstrators to fines and labor. The poem summarizes a newspaper article on the demonstration and quotes her grandfather’s letter to the judge, conveying the horror of the situation and imbuing the grandfather with a sense of heroism. But at the poem’s end, Taylor admits that he “backpedaled,” and the poem concludes with the judge’s words: “Mr. Taylor, you should have considered your wife & children.” Taylor uses arrangement to her advantage, piecing together the scraps of experience to create a memorable whole.
Although Taylor weaves together scenes from the past with conviction, she also doesn’t argue for one authoritative version of events. In The Forage House’s final poem, Taylor’s speaker envisions her mother, in the past, moving from research in a library in India to elopement with the man who will become Taylor’s father. As in the poems throughout the collection, rich details fill this imagining: “a Maharaja’s crooked portrait” and “moldering civil servants’ maps, tobacco tariffs” give way to a landscape where “cows paw garbage fires at dusk,” and “prayers rise like minarets” (“Bombay Archive 1975”). However compelling these details, as the poem concludes the speaker’s mother gets the last word: “And, No, my mother says, you haven’t listened. / No, it wasn’t like that really—” For all the depth of research evident in this collection, Taylor boldly admits—and embraces—her potentially flawed position as a poet. She invites us to not only inhabit the past with her, but also to examine the impossibility of ever really knowing it completely. Because of Taylor’s candor, The Forage House succeeds as both historical record and a well-written poetry collection, a memorable combination that invites us to inhabit Taylor’s vision of the past.
Poetry by Dan O’Brien
Hanging Loose Press, July 2013
Paperback: 132pp; $18.00
Review by Kelly M. Sylvester
War Reporter tells a compelling story of war, conflict, and torment of the human spirit through a collection of poems based upon Dan O’Brien’s research, email exchanges, and interviews with photojournalist Paul Watson. Often the poems’ narrator is “The War Reporter Paul Watson on […]”. One of the most brilliant devices used in these poems is the heavy use of imagery. This comes as no surprise as these poems are being told from a photojournalist’s perspective. Very few poems from Watson’s narration read as his thoughts on a particular subject as much as they read like a series of snapshots through his photojournalistic lens to show his story. An example of this comes from “The War Reporter Paul Watson Considers the Peacekeepers”:
nothing. Nothing moves. I turn to the sound
of moaning. He’s maybe seven, lying
on his side in the street. While I’m standing
in a web of rippled gray mush. No blood
on him. The top of his head’s sliced open
like an eggshell. The skull’s completely white
and empty as if someone wiped it clean
with a cloth. A spray from a machine gun
blew his brains out. That’s what I’ve been standing
in. With his father lying beside him
facedown, an arm behind his back. He’s cut
almost in half. Bullets perforated
his belly. The moaning is a woman.
This excerpt also demonstrates the typical tone and sound present within most of the poems in War Reporter. My personal preference for poetry’s musical flow would seem ill-placed in conveying a war scene, where time moves abruptly in sudden bursts or momentarily halts into a freeze-frame or slow-motion sequence. These short, choppy sentences and line break structure create what one can only imagine as the feeling Watson experienced in those situations.
Another common convention throughout these poems is repetition. O’Brien masters the repetition of sound, words, phrases and the main source of Watson’s torment: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Given the subject matter, the pleasure derived from reading some of these sounds feels wrong, such as “Black men in thongs and sarongs flung grenades” and:
with the usual boys of summer shooting
slapshots like rifles. Puck-scuffed Plexiglas
rebounding off Paul’s gaze. The Somalian
kid in the chopper crewman’s goggles grins
And yet, as poems on Jana Schneider, on love and on war reporting seem to indicate, some unknown human need is being met through these horrific experiences. Take these excerpts from “The War Reporter Paul Watson on War Reporting”:
In the beginning it was just because
I felt insecure. I’m sure you used to
feel that way too, Dan. I wanted people
to say I was brave, and heroic. Then
I grew to hate it but I still needed
that fix of adrenalin. Where I am
today? I don’t need it. But now I see
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
it like a labyrinth. If you get the truth
you get out. But you don’t, it just gets worse,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As long as I’m safe I don’t need to do
a thing. You see, this is why I don’t talk
to anyone. People ask me questions
they don’t want the answers to.
Do not miss this opportunity to view a world unlike any other, to view the dirty business of war through the eyes of the Canadian who’s been there and then placed into pages of poetry from an American poet. Even though the messages within many poems seem pretty clear and straightforward reporting, almost every poem grabs the imagination and forces deep contemplation. The search for answers and for truth knocks on every page—“A rule / that’s always served me well: When your knock comes, / don’t answer,”—and yet O’Brien, united with Watson, attempts to finally open the door that has been closed entirely too long.
Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine
Anthology compiled and edited by Travis Kurowski
Atticus Books, August 2013
Paperback: 431pp; $29.95
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
In an opening piece (originally written in 2008) in Paper Dreams, Jill Allyn Rosser gives us “Reasons for Creating a New Literary Magazine,” beginning with, “There probably hasn’t been a new one created in the past six-and-a-half days.” Through this sarcastic piece, Rosser actually lists many reasons why you shouldn’t begin a new magazine. Among my favorites is, “There are serious, good, seriously good writers whose work is being completely ignored, and you are so nattily optimistic as to believe that literate people are going to read them in your new Yet Another Literary Magazine when they already have piles and unread piles of them . . .” Clearly, literary magazines are cropping up everywhere. And while there is an abundance of them, they are important in the literary culture.
Editor Travis Kurowski writes in his introduction to Paper Dreams that the birth of the literary magazine isn’t as easy to pin down as it is for, say, the automobile: “the literary magazine was not born at any particular time or place, but gradually emerged in fits and starts, thanks to the inventiveness of those working within the field and the demands of literary expression.” Through many of the early essays and the timeline in the appendix, you can read all about the different starts of the small magazine. And, in the introduction, Kurowski goes on to say that at their start, “these magazines gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers. They fostered a sense of belonging and purpose in addition to the individual literary offering they presented the reader.” And I think this perhaps still rings true for many editors and writers. But how to create that community of writers?
Broken up into sections that follow a sort of chronological throughline, Paper Dreams seems to be about the motivations behind the literary magazine, what makes one successful, and how to keep its success and move forward today. Kurowski has compiled a vast amount of important essays all offering up different advice, insight, and commentary.
In 1931, Ezra Pound writes about small magazines and says that right from the beginning the significance of the magazine comes down to its motivation: “When this motivation is merely a desire for money or publicity, or when this motivation is in great part such a desire for money directly or for publicity as a means indirectly of getting money, there occurs a pervasive monotony in the motivation.” Ultimately, the success must be derived from good literature and the desire to put forth that writing, not from selecting pieces that have the potential to make money. And while in today’s world, I hardly see money as the motivation behind a magazine (as I’m sure many editors would laugh at the idea of actually making any money for their work), it certainly still affects each and every magazine out there.
Later, in the fourth section, titled “Present & Future” (a section I found most compelling), editors of current magazines cite their struggles and motivations. Although it was at times hard to follow the conversation and remember who was who, “The Future Is a Magazine,” a roundtable discussion that took place in 2008, was stimulating. In this piece, conversation about the magazine hasn’t been stuck in an essay; here it is a dialogue where ideas can be thrown in and out. In response to the question “What is needed to maintain a literary magazine in today’s environment?” they all answer: “Money, readers.” But the money issue doesn’t seem to stop these particular editors from thinking of ways to gain readership and improve their own individual magazines and foster ideas for the future of literary magazines. In this piece, and others, topics of online versus print, ways to gain and keep readers, and magazine content are discussed.
In Ben Leubner’s “Some Thoughts on Poetry,” he states, “One wants to be on the cutting edge, but one also wants, or even needs, from a financial standpoint, at least, to be popular.” Magazines need readers to survive, but how do you target the audience when there are so many magazines for readers to choose from? Roxane Gay, editor of PANK, contributes “Too Many of Us, Too Much Noise” (2008) and suggests that perhaps one of the primary challenges in gaining subscribers is that there are just too many magazines to choose from: “Most of [the editors] are committed to leaving the literary world better than they found it but none of us want to admit that we’re running out of oxygen in the room.”
It is becoming increasingly easy for new magazines to start up without much required thought or planning beforehand: “You don’t need money. You don’t need experience. All you need is Internet access and a few people who are willing to let you publish your work,” Gay says. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that every magazine is going to survive, or even be good. “Sometimes, I think there are too many magazines,” she writes. “Everyone wants to be a writer, but increasingly, everyone wants to be an editor, too. Everyone thinks that they have some special vision only they can usher into the world. Almost daily, I get an email from an editor saying, ‘Hey, I’m starting a new magazine.’” And she isn’t exaggerating, as we experience the same thing at NewPages. Some go on to be great magazines, and some are dead after only a couple of issues. Perhaps reading Paper Dreams would deter or inspire these new editors as it is a valuable resource for readers, editors, and writers alike.
Compiled of essays ranging from 1687 to now, Paper Dreams is both a history lesson and a stroll into current events. To read this from beginning to end seems a daunting task. There is certainly a lot to read—and even more to digest—but reading even individual essays or sections can prove beneficial. I can definitely see this book being required in creative writing classrooms; there’s lots to learn and think about here. And while teachers may be able to make it required reading, I almost wish someone could make at least skimming through it required for those trying to start a “new” literary magazine venture.
Edited by Jason Lee Brown and Shanie Latham
Indiana University Press, March 2013
Paperback: 264pp; $30.00
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
The editors selected twenty stories from more than three hundred submitted by literary journals, magazines, and small presses and arranged them to make up New Stories from the Midwest 2012. Editors Jason Lee Brown and Shanie Latham explain that the goals of the series are to “celebrate an American region that is often ignored in discussions about distinctive regional literature and to demonstrate how the quality of fiction from and about the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) rivals that of any other region.” In the introduction, Guest Editor John McNally, born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Burbank, writes: “If all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill once famously declared, then so is all fiction. The best fiction, it seems to me, is always strongly rooted in place.” These stories are linked by place, specifically the Midwest, where fierce winds blow in off the plains, corn stalks tower in ubiquitous rolling fields, snow begins before Thanksgiving and lasts long into spring, and ice freezes summer lakes. While the landscape and weather provide the settings and common themes for these stories, their universal appeal lies in the characters whose lives inhabit them.
Brutal winter weather provides the backdrop for scenes of violence in several of these stories. In Brenda K. Marshall’s story “In Which a Coffin Is a Bed But an Ox Is Not a Coffin,” the female protagonist and one of her husband’s farm helpers seek shelter from a blizzard in an old cabin, where they find the original owner’s coffin bed. The next morning, delirious from cold, she imagines a friend’s voice calling from inside a slain ox directing her safely home. In “The State Bird of Minnesota,” Charles McLeod tells the story of a man who for years lives alone in a remote cabin on a lake. McLeod uses the landscape and weather to describe the man’s desperate isolation, preparing the reader for the moment when he commits several nationally publicized acts of violence.
Violence is also at the center of “The Five Points of Performance” by Christopher Mohar, in which two childhood friends struggle to cope with the aftermath of war and the death of a mutual friend. When one accidentally kills a fawn, the other comforts him, “There was nothing you could do. . . . There was nothing any of us could do.”
In “Mr. Scary,” which he dedicates to writer Richard Bausch, Charles Baxter writes about a Minneapolis woman who worries about her grandson—overweight, sedentary, a friendless social misfit and victim of his classmates’ relentless bullying, abandoned by his wild, rebellious mother—for whom she wishes a normal life. In the final scene, both are playing in a softball game, the grandmother in the outfield, worrying about the boy’s imminent crushing collision with the first baseman, when the boy glides into a quiet instance of “normal” as his fly ball floats into his grandmother’s outstretched glove. The lonely, grieving young widower who is the protagonist in Dan Chaon’s “To Psychic Underworld:” longs for a return to normalcy after his wife’s accidental death and moves with his toddler daughter to live with his sister in Toledo, where he finds several mysterious handwritten messages. The final scene reveals the depths of his despair, “all the little messages that the world was bearing away.”
Hope is at the heart of Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep,” about a Detroit boy born with a genetic heart ailment in 1914. Having outlived his life expectancy, he reveals his outlook, “the world will never run out of life. And we’re all very lucky to be part of something like that.” One of the bleakest stories in the collection, Roxane Gay’s “Down to the Bone,” set in the stark far northeast corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, also ends with a note of hope. In the startling opening sentence, the protagonist declares, “WHEN I AM FIFTEEN, MY FATHER rapes my best friend Shelby.” The protagonist reveals that her widowed father routinely rapes her, as he previously did her older sister, who committed suicide. The sister shares a cryptic dark secret before her death, about which the protagonist has an epiphany at the end. Though it will haunt her for the rest of her life, this secret gives the protagonist a sense of love and hope, and it will linger with the reader as well.
In “Drunk Girl in Stilettos,” Lee Martin writes about a mother’s love and forgiveness. Several months after a notorious DUI arrest, the protagonist and his friend redeem their reputations in a funeral home in a heroic act that reconciles the dead man’s daughter with her mother, after which the narrator reflects: “I can only hope that they finally saw the good. I hope my own mama knows it too.” In Christine Sneed’s “Twelve + Twelve,” the protagonist is a 24-year-old nurse, whose lover, the father of a friend who recently died in a car accident, is twice her age. As snow and ice cling to the landscape, the woman and her lover cling to each other for comfort until the climactic moment when they interact with a young man who is convalescing from a car accident.
The writers collected here deftly employ their settings, using the Midwest’s flat landscapes and harsh weather as sharp edges against which to hone the basic truths of each of their diverse characters. In demonstration of McNally’s former editor’s theory that “all anthologies, regardless of the subject, were just an excuse to celebrate the short story,” this stellar collection succeeds in reaching beyond geographical boundaries to explore the depths of the human heart.
Poetry by Hailey Leithauser
Graywolf Press, October 2013
Paperback: 80pp; $15.00
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
“If it could speak it would offer / you excess; it would / offer you more.”
Thus begins “Scythe,” the opening poem in Hailey Leithauser’s Swoop, the lines operating as a double entendre inscribing the essence of the poem’s scythe as a poetic mission statement for the collection in whole.
The book is constructed from several sets of poems that overlap thematically or tonally, including a handful of poems scattered throughout titled “From the Grandiloquent Dictionary,” which toy with words like katzenjammer and illaqueable and tragematopolist; a series of ruminations on sex (“Sex Fiasco,” “Sex Circumspect,” and so on); and several poems imagining inner lives for inanimate human tools. These tool poems in particular are standouts throughout the collection; where the Grandiloquent Dictionary poems sometimes serve the conceit of the book more so than as individual poems, “Brass Knuckles” and “Scythe” and “Crowbar” and “Guillotine” are all fraught with poetic tension, and their consistent short-lined free verse forms play well against the rhymes and repetitions.
There is evident lineage in Swoop to Marianne Moore; although Moore wrote more for the page than the voice, she put great care into making exacting yet lush experiences out of her descriptions, and Leithauser is similarly precise. Swoop captures the experiential essence of moods and words and shades of sex, enacting and rejecting the constraints of form as individual poems require. Formal sonnets bump up against villanelles and broken sonnets, and free verse poems adopt an AABBA limerick rhyme scheme for a verse and then move on to something else; these poems are virtual parades of rhetorical and poetic tricks. Leithauser’s poems should be read aloud—the insistent rhyming and repetition demand it.
Such phonetic fireworks displays may, at times, begin to feel like a little much, and a collection with so much excess can’t really afford to stray very far over the line between poem and tongue twister. Following the lovely ode-like “Boys of L.A.,” for example, “Voluminous Diva” comes across unfortunately close to a limerick, punch line and all. But the frequent hits more than make up for the occasional misses; “Scythe” and “Mockingbird” and many others are perfectly realized sonic romps that illuminate their subjects masterfully.
The primary landscape of the book is one of words and moods, ethereal stuff. The poems operate sometimes literally as poetic definitions of rare words, as in the “From the Grandiloquent Dictionary” poems. Although less explicitly referent, the majority of the other poems offered here are similarly preoccupied with defining; words like “Schadenfreude” and “Rescue” and “Memoir” are detailed in odes rather than departed from as occasions for narrative. Leithauser takes evident care to render the intangible on the page, and in general does so to excellent effect.
References to canonical writers and figures appear here as well as more idiosyncratic ones; there are borrowings and oblique references to lines from Herman Melville and Marianne Moore, as well as contemporary poets and painters, and the Grandiloquent Dictionary, a quirky online project cited in Swoop’s endnotes that reads like a highlight reel of the Oxford English Dictionary. Obsessive interest in words and wordplay is everywhere here, and even the common words show a poet’s care. Consider, for example, the book’s title—Swoop—a single word that makes both an elegant glyph on the page as well as a gracefully onomatopoeic sound when voiced.
As the book opens with a declaration of excess, so its final poem “Zen Heaven” closes with an abundance of negatives, playfully offering readers “no melon, no lemon, no scone, no crumb,” and a few dozen more non-offerings. This is an overwhelming book, so rich that it is probably best dipped in and out of rather than read cover-to-cover, although the careful arrangement of the poems will certainly reward those who do begin at the beginning and read straight through to the end.
Swoop is Hailey Leithauser’s debut collection, and winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson First Book Award. Wide in scope and playfully serious in tone, Leithauser’s poems are excessive in the best way possible.
Fiction by Jonathan Callahan
Starcherone Books, April 2013
Paperback: 328pp; $16.00
Review by David Breithaupt
When I began to write this I suddenly realized that in order to review Jonathan Callahan’s debut collection of short stories, The Consummation of Dirk, I’d have to invent a whole new set of adjectives. The writing contained within these covers is imaginative, wrought, out-of-the-box, and perhaps bordering on the avant-garde, all of which have been said about many works of literature and which, in the long run, tell you little. Yet, while reading his stories, I had a sense of the traditional narrative undergoing a transformation—I pictured Bruce Banner changing into the Hulk. These are stories trying to punch their way out of the bag. They are written with some edge and share varying degrees of foreboding.
The title story is a collage portrait of Dirk Nowitzki, a pro basketball player whose career is apparently composed of letdowns and comebacks. Along the way, he has developed a sort of cult following. The portrait that emerges in this story is a 360-degree scan; we witness Dirk from all sides, including takes from former lovers, coaches, and Internet podcasts. My favorite is simply a marriage proposal in sky writing. Even Callahan enters the fray, allowing himself to be interviewed about the very book he has written about Nowitzki, The Consummation of Dirk. This is a mixture of fact and fiction that Callahan seems to favor in other of his stories. We watch as Dirk retreats from fame, looking for answers that are apparently not available. The final portrait of Dirk reminded me of those landscapes David Hockney created with his Polaroid camera, using dozens of single shots to make up a whole. Callahan has certainly Polaroided Dirk. The story left me a little dizzy.
Worth the price of admission is his story “Cymbalta.” Once again we have a mixture of possible fact and fiction. The narrator, possibly Callahan himself, is working in Fukuoka, Japan, as a teacher while trying to focus on his personal writing ambitions. We find our hero struggling with a drinking problem that is beginning to peak, and his prose reflects the frenetic paranoia that substance abuse episodes wreak on the psyche. Amidst this turmoil, the narrator has engaged novelist Rick Moody in an email correspondence asking for advice on his writing. Moody is encouraging. As the narrator’s life begins to unravel, he attempts to promote Moody from lit critic to “life coach.” The pace and quality of the narrator’s emails to Moody becomes frightening and obsessive and begins to approach the creepy borders of stalking. Next up is the deterioration of our narrator’s relationship with his fiancée. She says to him, “I’m telling you you need to get some help.” The narrator’s reply? “I’m taking the fucking Cymbalta!”
It’s a classic substance-addicted response, wanting to cure one drug problem by taking another drug, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It reminded me of Jerry Stahl’s (of Permanent Midnight fame) attempt to cure his heroin addiction by switching to crack. Cymbalta aside, our hero begins to place all of his hopes on Rick Moody, life coach. Alone on Christmas Eve in a faraway country with his fiancée gone, he begins to wonder: “I started thinking about Rick. I wondered if he’d write me on Christmas Eve—how could he not—except the thought occurred to me I’d finally said too much.”
I began to wonder about Rick too. The story had the ring of a factual memoir, and I pondered where the fiction began and the reality stopped. Is it allowable to use real people in your fictional settings unless the fiction is a little too real? Tom Wolfe played with this in his books, such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (the prominent subject of the book, author and prankster Ken Kesey, said 98% of it was true). Of course the big-name public figures are always fair game, but what about our slightly lesser-known literary icons? Rick Moody politely declined to comment on this story, so I assume any gripe he may have had, if he had one, was worked out with the author. No writer was harmed in the creation of this story, and all ended well, I hope.
Regardless of whether he is blending autobiography and fiction or not, Callahan takes the reader in new directions with each story, and I will be curious to see where he ends up later in his career. I didn’t know what to expect when I began each new episode between these covers. If you are in the mood for such journeys, I suggest you give The Consummation of Dirk a try. Let’s hope his imagination never hits a wall.
Poetry by Rebecca Gayle Howell
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, March 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $15.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
Rebecca Gayle Howell’s debut collection was selected by Nick Flynn for the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. In his foreword, Flynn writes: “To enter into these poems one must be fully committed, as the poet is, to seeing this world as it is, to staying with it, moment by moment, day by day.”
The poems in Render see the world sharply, see its patterns and its violence, the roles played by humans and animals. The poems are based in a rural setting and detail the moment by moment, day by day chores that must be done on a farm. Beginning with the first poem, “How to Wake,” the speaker addresses the reader directly. “Learn your lesson / from the calf,” she advises at the beginning of the poem before giving further advice on milking, the chore that must be done upon waking.
Two poems that pair together in the book are “A Catalog of What You Have” and “A Catalog of What You Do Not Have.” The first lists “The offal // the slop, swill – pitiless / river – the beak the bone,” all the parts of the butchered body (what type of animal the reader doesn’t know), the parts separated and broken down until, at the end of the poem, “what is there to name / but the lye and the burning clean.” It’s a rather bleak list of possessions; the second poem emphasizes this. It reads simply, after its title, “Enough.”
This sense of lack, of missing something, continues through the book, even during periods of abundance. In “How to Preserve,” the speaker details the process of canning:
before packing the jars
But it is not an easy glory; the produce has not grown itself, as the poem emphasizes at the end. Shifting from the direct address, the final lines turn to the fruits of the speaker’s labors, an utterance of gratefulness, exhaustion, and awe: “O Harvest, / Hard won // and terrible,” which rings familiar to any farmer or worker of the land.
As is evident in the four lines quoted above, Render is an extremely spare book, reflective of its subject matter. The short lines, sparse punctuation, and straightforward language fit perfectly with the raw natural world represented in the poems.
Although in a literal way, Howell’s poems are clearly about the labors of survival, they also see the world of human society as well. In particular, “How to Be Civilized” and “How to Be a Man” reflect social conditioning as well as animal. “Make the pig think / she has a choice,” the speaker says in “How to Be Civilized.” And in “How to Be a Man,” we are told that “There are rules,” resulting in “the other men / jeering at you.” The poem ends with the inevitable victory of man over animal in the
black dawn air
cold and mean
The wet fog your breath
Or is it hers
The boundaries between human and animal continue to blur, and a dialogue develops. In “How to Be an Animal” Howell writes, “Forget you are an animal,” and a few lines later, “Forget you ran with them.” This poem opens the door, and the pig begins to speak in italics in the next three poems. Although she is dead and we are instructed how to cook her, it is she who gets the last words. “How to Cook the Brain” ends with an address that could apply to every living creature: “Squeal Squeal for more.”
Render concludes with the multi-part poem “A Calendar of Blazing Days.” Haunting and harsh, this poem maintains the tone and subjects of the book while appearing on the page in longer, more regular, lines. One section offers a description of the human that seems to sum up the vision of the book. “But you are / the complicated animal hairless and shining / You are the one with reasons.”
Poetry by Brian Russell
Graywolf Press, July 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $15.00
Review by Kelly M. Sylvester
The poems in The Year of What Now by Brian Russell can catch an unsuspecting poetry reader off-guard, much like a sudden illness or the meeting of your future significant other. Within the opening two lines of the book’s first poem, we discover we will not be eased into this experience: “your hands were stained the urgent shade / of blood when I found you.” As readers continue, they will uncover sections of humor, as well as soft assuring language and soothing music within the poems. Every poem is written without any punctuation marks, except apostrophes. This tactic, although noticeable, doesn’t interrupt the flow or create uncertainty and confusion; instead, it makes the message clearer, helps readers directly connect with the narrator’s thoughts and share the narrator’s sensation of uncertainty. Readers are opened to accept the music of the moment with comforting sounds like “clack of keys,” repetition and rhythms like, “born from smoldering / Rome came crawling,” and unexpected rhymes like:
I’ve stopped asking every name
tagged person if you’re going to be okay I sure hope
so that’s what they say I’ve come to accept
it doesn’t do any good to expect
The moments and emotions within The Year of What Now turn as quickly and unexpectedly as reading the next line. An excellent example of this occurs in “Preface”:
we should talk about what
you want to wear
I can’t finish the sentence
I don’t want to think about it about going
through the closet through all the clothes
I told you you didn’t need I know I’ll find the
black and blue dress you wore
just once I never understood why you kept it
new year’s eve in Chicago my god
do you remember how cold it was that year
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
warm with whiskey the pure
happiness of being young but old
enough to know it
your tears froze in black streaks on your face no
I’m sorry how can I possibly choose
the last thing I’ll see you in
This one passage takes the reader on an emotional journey starting with a conversation no one ever wants to have, to chuckling over those little bickering moments between a loving couple, to a fond memory of their love, to a looming and unfaceable future. The range of emotions conveyed and felt within a single poem, and throughout the entire collection, speaks volumes to Russell’s ability to reach his readers. Personally, every laugh and every tear surprised me—too immersed in his words to notice they were coming. Russell’s unfiltered narrator’s perceptions speak with an admirable honesty—an observational voice void of judgment as he seeks to understand. This narrator seldom comments directly on these moments of being a witness; he simply shares with us readers the smallest details he notices and recognizes as demonstrating significant changes. Instances of this occur in “You’re Welcome”:
now that you’re not dying
faster than the rest of us you want
to spend every waking
hour outside in the very same
kind of garden you once described
as the biggest waste of time and energy
our idiot hippie neighbors ever devised
I don’t say a word
and “Our Hour of Suspense”:
I know which window is yours I know more
than I’d like to I’ve memorized
the channels we watch the shows we used to hate
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
we look forward
to our hour of suspense
two partners in a police department’s
sex crimes unit
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
this time they’re unlocking a boy
from shackles in a maniac’s basement the boy is shaking
the mother is frantic but strangely almost impossibly calm
maybe it’s bad acting or maybe
I don’t know how it feels to
hold the one thing you love and know the worst
These emotional journeys help readers identify with the narrator’s vulnerabilities, his brutal and keen awareness of how fragile and miraculous life is. These revelations don’t jump off the page and smack the reader on the head; they’re fresh and subtle, hidden in the smallest of phrases, or another quick turn in the lines. As a result, these pockets of wisdom occur in surprising ways, like in “By Now” when the narrator sees his love’s fingers twitch in her sleep—the narrator comments on how this is “one of a million things / I never noticed / when I loved you too / easily.” Russell’s debut book, which could have easily been poems about dying and cancer, transcends the disease and warms the heart with a deep appreciation and celebration of life’s smallest marvels, like when your partner’s “fingers twitch / in a syncopated rhythm.”
Searching for the Soul of Shelter
Nonfiction by Howard Mansfield
Bauhan Publishing, September 2013
Paperback: 238pp; $22.50
Review by Lydia Pyne
It’s hard to imagine a trope of Americana more ingrained in the public conscientiousness than purposeful living in New England. In Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter, Howard Mansfield takes Thoreau’s call to “live deliberately” as a demand to examine the nature of shelter and the circumstances that create a home. These themes, he argues, are how people can engage with their culture and how they live in their spaces. Dwelling in Possibility, one could say, is Mansfield’s answer to “putting to rout all that is not life” (Walden-Pond-style) by calling direct and specific attention to what he sees as humanity’s un-purposeful living in their dwellings.
The compilation of profiles offers the reader sketches of different living situations. These range from commentaries about Hurricane Katrina—where inhabitants lost and repurposed dwelling space—to New England ice storms, where people live without the comforts of modernity. Mansfield’s sketches ask the reader to consider: What is purposeful dwelling, and thus, by proxy, living? How does modern American society achieve that within a connected, cluttered, cultural context? And how does our cultural humanity reflect in how we live? To answer this, we see Mansfield sketch the evolution of a fire hearth, the presence of FEMA in natural disasters, and the ironic state of what he calls a “Wi-Fi refugee” in post-disaster scenarios.
When I read the introduction, “House Hunting,” I had to laugh out loud. Last month, I became a first-time home buyer and the description of frustration and desperation that surrounded Mansfield’s own experience rang all too true. There’s a certain shared emotion, a sort of pan-domicile-owner feeling if you will, that Mansfield’s wry, deadpan humor completely nails.
However, the book feels scattered and uncurated. It’s as if we’re in an attic where everything is a complete hodge-podge. We see the book flit from topic to topic (and writing style to writing style) in ways that are difficult to follow. The questions and themes that underlie the topics can be difficult to pry out of the poetry, the journal entries, lists of observations, and the assorted stories. Snippets of philosophy and cultural criticism are sprinkled throughout the manuscript but are used to merely justify some kind of claim rather than as a means to explore a theme. We feel a departure from the invitation to purposeful living imbued in Thoreau’s Walden Pond, as Dwelling in Possibility feels sentimental, conveniently nostalgic, and irritatingly moralizing. Also, the book’s acrimonious anti-modernism does not appear to be a reflective conclusion of purposeful living—rather, Dwelling appears to pine for cabins long past, preaching a historical narrative completely constructed.
The questions that are scattered throughout Dwelling in Possibility are certainly ones that ought to be asked. How we live and make sense of how we live are, undoubtedly, anthropological underpinnings within modern culture. Despite the book’s lack of structure, Howard Mansfield’s clear commitment to his own New England living shows that he considers these questions worth pursuing—it would seem that he, at least, has found the means to dwell purposefully.
Fiction by Margot Berwin
Pantheon, November 2013
Paperback: 240pp; $16.95
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi
This novel’s title and cover image, of reddish curls of smoke, inspires assumptions that another vampire story is lurking in our midst, quietly digging its fangs on an ever-crowded genre dominated by pale, gorgeous characters, 500-year-old blood-suckers whose sense of smell defies any human standard of keenness. In the novel’s first paragraph, the narrator’s revelation of a loss—of “something very special . . . running through [her] veins like a blessing, or a plague”—appears to support that impression, that perhaps she is referring to properties in her blood, of being trapped in the vacuum of eternity itself. Even the narrator’s name—Eva—has strong kinship to blood, old blood, the origin of blood, fallen, cast away from innocence, purity. It’s hard to say where our impression of vampires eventually fades in the story; Margot Berwin’s canvas is filled with shadows, quiet rooms with creaky doors, cloudy skies, and lonely roads, whether Eva is in the mountaintop town of Cyril, New York where her grandmother Louise lives, or in the tropical weather of New Orleans, where Eva shacks up with her boyfriend Gabriel after Louise—an aromata, a master creator of scent—passes away.
A chunk of Berwin’s plot blossoms in that southern city, a city that, to Eva, appears an alternative to reality itself: “like a dream [she] couldn’t control over, with stories coming from everywhere that just kept moving forward and changing . . . no backtracking, no thinking things over, only movement that was slow and dreamy but forward nevertheless.” Eva’s senses are highly receptive to this aspect of New Orleans, because of what is already in her, the scent her grandmother had created back in Cyril. Contained in a ruby vial, Louise has forbidden her granddaughter to open the container through a note saying that, once exposed, the scent can change Eva’s life: “It can rip your heart or bring you peace. But it can never stop being what it is, Evangeline.” The story hinges around this vial. Louise’s message presents a dilemma, which echoes the biblical dilemma of temptation in the Book of Genesis before the fall. And just like her biblical counterpart, Eva moves beyond the boundary of the forbidden, and leaves hesitations and indecisions behind. Eva opens the vial, and inhales a liquid fog. Although she recognizes “the scent of jasmine from the south of India” in it, and the “unmistakable scent of leather warmed by a slow-burning fire,” her summary of the complex mixture from the vial is burdened with mystery and intrigue: “scent of darkness.”
The scent transforms Eva. Other human beings gravitate to her. They can feel something in her, an incomprehensible desire for her body. At a local concert in Cyril with Gabriel, Eva is mobbed with concertgoers, and has to run away. Even Rayanne, the other girl who harbors feelings for Gabriel, wants to lick Eva’s neck. But it is Gabriel’s friend in New Orleans—Michael Bon Chance—who becomes the gravity of Eva’s attentions. She is awed by his knowledge of what might be in her: “It’s like your soul is on the outside of your body, and now I’ve got some of it for myself.” She shares extracts of her blood for his paintings, a new element in his creations that aspires to revive his career as an artist and widen the possibilities for fame. Besides Louise, Bon Chance is the other artist in the novel that bookends Eva’s life, in the context of scents; he, too, understands the nature of scents, their ability to change and influence moods and feelings, or how its seeming nothingness impacts the body’s sensual nature. Indeed, lust is not a passive but an active element in the novel; it underlines the body language and dialogue of its beautiful people.
Berwin weaves a convincing fable about a scent bleeding with dark sensibilities. You can choose to wake up in that dream and put the book aside, to rest from the thread of ever-looming shadows and scents spreading around you; even Cyril’s local priest, Father Madrid, has a scent, the scent of a fig: “a scent of someone who gives it their all but does not succeed.” But you’ll pick up the book again, because the story refuses to be that scent, and wonder who among Hollywood’s beautiful people might play Michael Bon Chance and Evangeline for any future screen adaptation of the novel. Soon, the darkness in the coffee you’re sipping smells darker, as you step into Eva and Michael’s final moments together, in which their bodies greed for something that can never be quenched or consumed.