Posted December 2, 2013
Russell Atkins :: There's a Box in the Garage You Can Beat with a Stick :: Cunt Norton :: Hollywood and Hitler :: The Pastor's Wife Considers Pinball :: Birth Marks :: The Story of a New Name :: Cloud vs. Cloud :: The Cranberry Island Series :: Soul in Space
On the Life & Work of an American Master
Edited by Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis
Pleiades Press, June 2013
Paperback: 210pp; $12.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
As an undergraduate, I majored in history and archaeology. I suppose part of the attraction to these degrees was an enthusiasm for the undiscovered and all things old. In Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master, part of Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series, I was introduced to a new poet and was reminded of that thrill of finding something undiscovered and underappreciated—an artifact or an idea that time had passed by. In this amazing assemblage of poetry and essays, Editors Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis work to acquaint readers with an American poet whose life and work are largely unrecognized.
Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master is a carefully curated collection of Atkins’s previously published and mostly out-of-print poems. However, Prufer and Dumanis do more than simply create an anthology of Atkins’s work. They carefully situate his life, his writing, and his music within a historical context—letting readers appreciate the incredible literati milieu, including figures such as Marianne Moore and Langston Hughes, that surrounded and intersected with Atkins’s work. The editors also include a good deal of biographical material, autobiographical reflections contributed by Atkins himself, and essays of a more academic bent. (Moore gives Atkins some tongue-in-cheek writing advice: “This [Atkins’s piece “Elegy on a Hurt Bird”] shows what you can do. The motion and mood are secure—eloquent. Only the words detract.”)
In the introduction, Prufer and Dumanis describe their own meetings with Atkins over the previous year. Atkins invites them to sort through boxes of his materials: poems, concertos, and letters—cardboard archives that held the tangible artifacts of his life’s work. Prufer and Dumanis sprinkle snippets of conversations with the poet throughout their book, and also include photographs of Atkins’s poetry and concertos. These gestures toward the full sensory experience of Atkins’s work (listening, seeing, understanding) invite the reader to be folded into the oral and archival history.
Many essayists argue that Atkins has been historically overlooked as he was fundamentally uninterested in writing to then-contemporary social issues of the 1950s-1970s. His work does not fill the overt social role that is easy to categorize as belonging to other contemporary African American poets like Langston Hughes. Atkins demonstrates an interest in experimental poetic structure and weaving together music and poetry for a broadly humanistic experience. Indeed, Atkins sees his piece “The Abortionist” as a poetic drama to be set to music, as it was originally published in 1954 by Free Lance, itself dedicated to poetry and prose. The book presents a reproduced copy of the sheet music that Atkins wrote to accompany the piece.
Atkins’s poem “Night and a Distant Church” is a fantastic example of the compositional components that he plays with. Originally published in 1950, reprinted in 1968 as part of Heretofore, and later reworked in 1976 for Here in The, “Night and a Distant Church” maintains naturalistic elements like the wind and motion (as argued by Evie Shockley) and a tonal ringing of the bells (speaking to Atkins’s commitment to necessity of the multi-sensory modes of poetry), as well as the experimental structure that shows the shape of the back and forth of the bell ringing.
Forward abrupt up
then mmm mm
wind mmm m
the mm mmm
wind mmm m
into the mm wind
rain now and again
the mm wind
However, we see Atkins’s then-contemporaries appreciating the significant creative space that Atkins did (and still does) occupy, as evidenced by Langston Hughes’s writing advice to Atkins:
If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about being a social poet. My feeling about poetry is that each poet should write as he chooses and not try and be something that he is not. Only if you think and feel socially should you try to write in that way.
Those interested in the vibrant world of mid-century experimental poetry and music would do well to examine Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master. Prufer and Dumanis have compiled a masterful collection that showcases Russell Atkins’s poetry, prose, and music—and their inclusion of autobiographical material and the analytic/historical essays provides a vibrant contextual backdrop for the reader. We finish the book appreciating the life and work of a spectacular American poet.
Poetry by Michael Teig
BOA Editions, November 2013
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Michael Teig’s second poetry collection, There’s a Box in the Garage You Can Beat with a Stick, is a romping book, full of syntactic (and synaptic) leaps. Organized in three parts, two of which begin with meditations on the possibilities of boxes, these poems hint at a diverse poetic lineage, possibly including James Tate, the New York School poets, and Sombrero Fallout-era Richard Brautigan. Teig finds occasion for poetry in chickens and waltzes and monkeys and hats, and the speaker addresses readers in a casual, friendly mode. The diction of the poems ranges from officious to fanciful, sometimes in the same intake of breath, which is at times both confusing and exhilarating.
Many poems operate like Russian nesting dolls; whole, populated worlds exist beneath boxes and inside of people, and endlessness emerges repeatedly from the minute. Teig moves deftly back and forth between the sensical and the surreal. His work unmoors deictic words (like “this”) from their referents and toys with syntax, pairing words from different frames of mental reference as grammatically parallel, as he does in the book’s opening poem, “There is a day under a box.” Here, readers are told, “It’s very beautiful. There are delicatessens / and generations, and soon friends / and a little currency are sent in.”
Teig’s poems are filled with language play like this. At times, reading this book feels like a kind of low-level aphasia: established word order and parts of speech are consistently subverted.
These decisions make for poetry that is both disorienting and enjoyable, and somehow utterly right. The text lives up to the title’s invitation; the poems in There’s a Box in the Garage You Can Beat with a Stick are weird but likeable, and they make your brain feel all tingly when you read them. In fact, the operation of the brain is itself a minor thematic preoccupation here, as the book moves from the admission in “Optimal Brain Institute” that “In the pain-processing portion of my brain there is, at present, a / backlog” to a similar suggestion of brain dysfunction in the opening of “I Start Over By Simply Loving The Cat”:
When they say my short-term memory impairment
makes it difficult to say
if my working memory is working
I say, This is my retinue of donkeys and anthems.
As the suggestions of memory loss and its effects accumulate, the syntactic leaps take on heightened poignancy. However, the voice throughout is upbeat, and the moments of dissonance only heighten the book’s many occasions of loveliness in the form of offbeat epiphanic moments and surprising images. Take this moment in the midst of “Have I Forgotten Anything,” when, the speaker tells us,
One dog barks then
the spaces between them are barking
and then a hummingbird like
a tiny green zipper opens the air.
There’s A Box in the Garage You Can Beat with a Stick pairs charming, irreverent images with a sincere tone, making poems that at once are both accessible and elusive.
Poetry by Dodie Bellamy
Les Figues Press, November 2013
Paperback: 75pp; $15.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
The first piece of writing I ever read by Dodie Bellamy was an essay in an issue of City Lights Review concerning her on-again, off-again fucked-up hotel room romance with the poet John Wieners. Sex, drugs, and his rather poetically peripatetic mental state were the main highlights. After some reflection, after hearing Bellamy read and speak in public and becoming more familiar with her work, I came to the realization that this essay was in fact more or less a fictional story, a literary homage.
Bellamy’s latest book, Cunt Norton, marks a return on her part to a previous method of composition by way of the cut-up, which in her pro-smut, feminist, anti-gender-classifying, hard-talking, sex-laced manner she previously coined her own new standard expression for with the collection Cunt-ups (Tender Buttons, 2001). Bellamy deliberately uses “cunt” here because it is nastiest of the nasty terms that refer to female genitalia. She ridicules and challenges the tradition of such expression being deemed un-ladylike, reclaiming vulgar discourse from masculine culture and declaring right of access to explicit sex talk for women as much as men. She also queers the queer and out-Bukowskis Bukowski, dishing out some seriously illicit and ludicrous, as well as literary, descriptions of sexual acts.
The gist of the project is fairly straightforward. Bellamy takes the Norton Anthology of Poetry (1975 edition) and composes (“cunts”) a series of prose writings in response to some of her favorite (?) or perhaps, to her mind, noteworthy poets, one writing response per poet. After an initial salutatory opening gambit offering entitled “Cunt Norton,” which it would seem “cunts” via wordplay both the project as a whole as well as Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (there is no “Cunt Eliot”), the collection opens with “Cunt Chaucer” then continues chronologically by poet’s birthdate to close with “Cunt Hughes.”
Except for Dickinson, all the poets covered are male. Including Dickinson while leaving out any other women is interesting. Is it because she’s been so mauled over by men—the standardization of her work in printed form by editors such as Higginson, etc.—that she’s more or less one of the guys? Bellamy’s exclusion of any other women, whether they be Rossetti or any of the number of female Modernists, seems to argue the possibility.
In the foreword, the younger poet Ariana Reines makes a number of fairly high-blown declarations on Bellamy’s behalf. Among them, “this book is the greatest fuck poem” and “this could be the most joyful book on Earth.” There’s nothing wrong per se with the enthusiasm Reines expresses, but when this level of praise appears in the front of a book it is usually difficult, if not impossible, for the book itself to live up to it. Reines reports: “This book made me feel so good I laughed so hard I cried.” Which is totally great to hear, and is actually quite believable. The book will likely have the same effect on any readers who find they agree with Reines’s assessment that “it’s as though what Anglophone literature has really been saying all this time is what Dodie has finally made it say: ‘You are late in fucking me.’”
My own befuddlement revolves around concerns which I suppose might be deemed overly serious, or rather far too readerly (i.e. scholarly/traditional) of me. The primary one being why is Cunt Norton so slim when the Norton Anthology (even the “revised shorter edition”) is so damn thick? I’m a stickler for thoroughness I suppose. I would insist that Bellamy “cunt” every poet, not pick and choose her beaus as she does (how she’s able to pass on “cunting” Wyatt, Clare, Melville, Hopkins, Hardy, Jeffers, et al boggles the mind). This is awfully Anglophone of me, no doubt. I would also argue that little here is an actual cut-up. Bellamy rather simply scatters a handful of words and phrases associated with each particular poet throughout their own entry. As a result, the general tone remains quite constant, at times becoming near dull and given over to cheap shots against these men for being men. The cheap shots are usually well deserved, but I would prefer she fuck them harder with their own words, and their lives.
The odd nitpicking comment or two aside, Bellamy adds another rewarding commentary for readers of poetry, be they students, scholars, lovers, or just mere admirers. This is an entirely human book, which is an achievement that is not as easy as you’d think. She has picked up the reins of the Beats & Co., combining them with concerns of post-Language, New Narrative aesthetics. In 1981, in an unpublished transcript of a public discussion at New College in San Francisco, Beat poet Gregory Corso defended the justifiable grounds upon which Bellamy works:
Corso: Come on, wake up, the BALLGAME’S OVER. If you deny the asshole of human beings, you deny life.
Student: I think you’re shallow Gregory.
Corso: You think I’m shallow because I’m deep in the asshole. That’s not fair. You’re a delicate lady. That’s a great one to lay on me, “I think you’re shallow Gregory.” Let’s forget that you’re talking about me being shallow. I still love you, dumb ass. The banquet of knowledge begins.
Corso would assuredly welcome Cunt Norton to the banquet. He would just howl out “louder” and “more more more” throughout the reading. As do I.
Nonfiction by Thomas Doherty
Columbia University Press, April 2013
Hardcover: 448pp; $35.00
Review by Patricia Contino
In a period in which propaganda has largely reduced the artistic and entertainment validity of the screen in many other countries, it is pleasant to report that American motion pictures continue to be free from any but the highest possible entertainment purpose . . . Propaganda disguised as entertainment has no place on the American screen.
Such was the summation of William H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA, a.k.a. “The Hays Office”), in 1938. From 1934 until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America (the restructured MPPDA) established the ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17), domestic and foreign films adhered to The Motion Picture Production Code (“The Code”)—a list of behavior and avoidance techniques to be followed so as not to corrupt the audience. This is why Fred and Ginger never kissed except in a dream sequence or when playing a married couple, and great as Joan Crawford’s performance was, the onscreen Mildred Pierce is unrecognizable from the one in James M. Cain’s novel.
The Code is also responsible for the lingering distortion of history in American cinema of that era. Wild West towns were pristine settlements whose citizenry (cowboys sang, prostitutes had euphemistic job titles, Hispanics provided manual labor and comic relief) were perennially on the verge of attack from the ultimate non-White outsiders, the Indians. Dancing through the Great Depression was nicer than depicting it.
As for Hitler and the Nazis, their screen time came after the 1939 invasion of Poland and calculating moves from Hollywood insiders. The period when the American film industry ignored his intentions until it was too late is covered Thomas Doherty’s detailed and fascinating Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939. Equally a factual film history and an examination of the business of entertainment, Doherty never loses the big picture in his analysis.
There are no surprises in Hollywood and Hitler. The productions, policies, performers, and politics are well documented; the difference here is that they are accessible in one admirably researched volume. Post-World War I German cinema was experimental, decadent and brilliant. German directors and actors were valued influences and collaborators during the Silent Era and at the start of the talkies. The films each nation exported were profitable; an important aspect in understanding why the primarily Jewish-American studio bosses went along with The Code.
This mutual creative respect ended in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor. Fewer American films played in Germany; their censors even found Shirley Temple reactionary. Jewish members of the German film community that could flee did, with many coming to America. It is ironic that one émigré in particular, Billy Wilder, would push The Code to its limits . . . after establishing himself in Hollywood during and after World War II.
Since Hollywood could not portray “friendly” nations negatively, one way Americans could learn something about Hitler was from newsreels. Both the Embassy and Trans-Lux in Times Square showed newsreels exclusively to sold-out, boisterous crowds. Regular viewers of TCM know that newsreels were primarily “light,” with the occasional hard news story (e.g., the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping and murder trial). Yet RKO, a studio constantly plagued with money and management problems, produced the groundbreaking March of Time (1935-1951, parodied to the hilt in RKO’s most famous release, 1941’s Citizen Kane). March of Time specialized in longer segments, in-depth reporting, and, like rival newsreel outfits (and their modern-day cable equivalents), re-creation. Their 1938 series Inside Nazi Germany was as close a look as Americans could get at that time. Of course, the worst was not yet public record, but Doherty points out that this was “the spellbinding news of its day, not grainy archival footage.”
A major studio broke the ban on Nazi films. Warner Brothers specialized in gangster pictures and sophisticated cartoon humor, thus making Hitler and his followers prime material. The first way Warners worked around The Code was to make a series of patriotic shorts leading up to Sons of Liberty (1939), the biography of American Revolution patriot Haym Salomon, a Jewish financer and friend of George Washington. Rather than the usual forgotten faces found in many “quickies,” Sons was directed by Michael Curtiz (an American citizen but Hungarian by birth, who came to Hollywood during the 1920s) and starred the elegant Claude Rains as Salomon. (They were reunited in 1943 for a film Warners considered an afterthought, Casablanca.) Because of the critical success of Sons of Liberty and the outrage and alarm over the German invasion of Poland, Warners was able to make Confessions of a Nazi Spy—the first studio film to depict Nazis and say their name. It was released in 1939, the same year as Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz.
Doherty’s writing is objective, with one exception. He begins his chapter on director Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) by describing her as the “lone shimmering star in a constellation of dim hacks.” Despite this compliment, Doherty does not sugarcoat Riefenstahl’s links to the Nazi Party—for once, the artistic merits of her Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) are not lauded or excused because George Lucas borrowed her shots for the Star Wars finale. Doherty regulates their status to that of big-budget propaganda made by an opportunist. With the Party’s blessing, she visited the US in 1938 with the hopes of releasing Olympia. This time Hollywood was not afraid of a Code or isolationist policies. The invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia were not easy to hide, and she was a pariah welcomed only at the Disney Studios by Uncle Walt himself. During her long life, Riefenstahl was unrepentant for her contributions to Nazism, and it is refreshing that he discusses her without reverential kid gloves.
Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939 is a fascinating overview of censorship and politics in a particular film era. It’s also a reminder that you can only keep an audience in the dark for so long.
Poetry by Nola Garrett
Mayapple Press, March 2013
Paperback: 74pp; $14.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
In Nola Garrett’s second collection, The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball, the speaker considers many things in addition to the classic game she imagines in the ten-part title poem. That long poem, organized into ten “games,” covers a lot of ground on its own: from the clear evocation of place early on in “Game 1” when Garrett writes “Here in the Rust Belt // our schools are all rules, our sons play air / guitar, // wait for the army recruiter”; to personal stories of grandfathers, friends, and neighbors; to contemplations of tragedy (“When an airplane crashes, / no one blames the sky” in “Game 2”) and God (described in “Game 5” as a “deist clockmaker”). Pinball, throughout the long poem, serves as both subject of the poem and metaphor for life:
How difficult could a game confined in
a rectangular box be anyway? Could
a rectangular box in any way confine
a difficult game?
the speaker asks in “Game 8,” and it’s a question that resonates with the complexities and surprising simplicity of life, as shown in the rest of the book.
In other poems, the pastor’s wife, alter ego of the poet-speaker, considers theology, the color gray, Inauguration Day, leap year, flowers, church suppers, and chaos, among other topics. While many poems refer to the pastor/husband, the church, or God, the point of view is bold, sometimes light, and anything but expected. In a poem titled “The Pastor’s Wife Considers the Hurricane’s Still Eye,” she wonders about the mind of God. The poem begins “After a hard day at the end of the prayer line, / Everything is too much, Yahweh must think,” but then the speaker imagines Him getting undressed, taking off “his sweater of many colors” and later “his cotton briefs.”
As bold as a poet must be to undress the creator of the world, what struck me as an even bolder move was a poem early in the book which figuratively undresses the character of the pastor as he looks at pornography on his computer. In “The Pastor’s Wife Petitions the Pastor,” he is described as leering “into the yielding / windows past women open as lilies, // . . . slick girls pierced by strangers.” The pastor’s wife knows his secret habit; in spite of it, she says, they compose themselves “Sunday after Sunday / into back-breaking black,” and continue on “like aging planes, their metal wings / obeying the laws of aerodynamics only as long as they can.”
The voice in these poems is reflective and beautiful in places (in “The Mail From Tunis” she claims “All my mountains will be young, / rugged and colored orange, and close to sapphire / lakes and emerald plains”), while wryly humorous in others (in “Super Tuesday” she describes the azaleas as “Dolled up with too much lipstick” and says that they “must be the old ladies of spring—they / vote every year”).
Many of Garrett’s poems play with formal elements; there are several sonnets for example, including the lovely “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Economy.” According to the biographical note in the back of the book, Garrett’s first full-length collection of poetry was a book of sestinas (The Dynamite Maker’s Mistress, David Robert Books, 2009); on learning that, it came as no surprise to me that the sestina included in The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball was one of my favorite poems in the book.
The sestina, broken on the page and without the traditional triplet at end, is called “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Her 57th Birthday.” It begins with a reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses: “I’m no Molly Bloom, but I’ll say yes / to another year.” It is, as the title indicates, a poem about growing older, and is also, as clearly as any poem in the book, very much about the speaker’s role as pastor’s wife. “I’ve said yes and yes and yes / to the tangled yarn / of congregation and parsonage,” she says in the second stanza, and articulates a sometime longing for something more, “a champagne yes, / one not uttered by me in my borrowed yard.” Yet, by the end of the poem, the speaker reflects back with joy on
those bundled seasons turned to years—
shared in the congregation’s house and yard
with a man more Yahweh’s
than mine. All his flowers are tied with the yarn
of love’s duty, and yet like yeast
he rises, loves me . . . well, and thoroughly, and shouts, Yes!
Garrett’s speaker may not be a typical pastor’s wife, and this book’s subject matter may not be to the liking of all poetry readers, but The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball won me over with its boldness, its unexpected approach, and Garrett’s subtle formal skill.
Poetry by Jim Daniels
BOA Editions, September 2013
Paperback: 120pp; $16.00
Review by Kelly M. Sylvester
A poet of the working-class and city streets, Jim Daniels’s fourteenth poetry collection travels from Detroit to Ohio to Pittsburgh, from one post-industrial city to another, across jobs and generations. Daniels focuses on the urban landscape and its effects on its inhabitants as they struggle to establish community on streets hissing with distrust and random violence.
This promotional description led me to Birth Marks by Jim Daniels, and although the description is completely accurate, the collection was unlike what I had expected. My expectations placed more weight on the words “establish community” and envisioned a collection singing the triumphs of the human spirit despite desolate times. A few poems in the collection brush against this assumption. The most notable example appears in the B side poem of “45 RPM: Side A/Side B” which starts by quoting Yoko Ono: “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I.” The narrator reflects on a girlfriend, walking readers through memories and music of the time, before concluding with these six powerful lines:
and Barry’s name was briefly erased
from the blackboard of our young lives,
and as I turned to watch her walk up
the steps to her house, her hair
trailing behind her, I could,
I could see the wind.
Seeing the wind and other glimpses of beautiful moments are not the focus of the poems or the people within them. Who are the people in these poems? Who are the inhabitants struggling to establish community?
My Two Aunts
work at Burger King and McDonalds.
One in Newark, the other in Memphis.
My two aunts married two drunks—
one died, the other disappeared.
My two aunts are two alcoholics,
recovering. One dates a blind man.
The other dates memory:
her husband’s final day
breathing his own blood.
Their alcoholic sons
have married and divorced.
Their children are sad and overweight
they are tall and stutter
they have imaginary illnesses
they blame their fathers
they blame their mothers
Other inhabitants include students trying to get away with plagiarism or trying to commit suicide, an addict nephew, and a drunk-thief-TV repairman. Daniels applies overt wit throughout his poems about the various characters and the backdrops they inhabit, especially when the narrator is commenting on his own experiences. For instance, in “Riding the Bench” the narrator goes through a series of clarifications to more accurately describe the expression we use colloquially:
perhaps you never rode
the bench. Rode implies skill, as in rode a horse.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I warmed the bench,
not really riding it, though if riding were involved,
I would’ve said Whoa, boy! or Heel, boy!”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I never saddled up
the palomino. I was riding the jackass express
into the quicksand of bad grades and miscellaneous misdemeanors. Put me in, Coach, I should’ve said.
I scored one point the whole season.
That point is this
The play on common expressions and humor is throughout almost every poem of Daniels’s, which helps ease the reader into the content of the poetry. Additionally, Daniels writes in a vivid and very direct way, making it easy to grasp his meaning. A prime example of this appears in “Elegy for the Nasty Neighbor”:
across the street who died at last. I’ve already
forgiven myself the relief—that fast,
that mean. Her last words to me,
a complaint about red mulch
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The mulch matches exactly the color
of their shingles. Still didn’t keep the weeds down
as claimed. I’m out on my hands and knees, not praying.
I’m digging, and the daughter says something about working
the earth bringing you closer to God. She wouldn’t know God
if he broke off the side-view mirror and turned it into a set
of dazzling silver teeth. I wouldn’t know God if he turned my mulch
into gold nuggets. But we’re thinking about him, wondering
if he’s a real dude, what he’s doing with the old bitch about now.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Her name was Mrs. Kearns, and that’s all anybody
called her. Okay, I sometimes called her The Mouth,
her voice injecting bile into my veins.
In “Foundation” Daniels writes a pointed question-and-answer stanza which serves as the foundation for the entire collection of poems in Birth Marks. “Why did we have such a crush / on cruelty? It held us up. / It had our back. It never let us down.” As readers explore the very heart of Daniels’s urban landscapes and the working-class experiences within these communities, they should reflect on his keen observation.
Fiction by Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions, September 2013
Paperback: 480pp; $18.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante is the second volume of a trilogy. It is a novel of a complex friendship between two women, Lenú and Lila, that goes forward with intellectual intimacy, competition, loyalty, anger, and excruciating love. In the first book of this series, My Brilliant Friend, Lenú, in her sixties, learns that Lila has disappeared. She recreates their girlhood sharing fairytale dreams to escape a post-war Neapolitan neighborhood bleeding from fatalism and old betrayals. Lila, risk-taker and quick study, and Lenú the striver carry on friendly competition in school. Lenú is allowed to continue her education while Lila is compelled to work with her shoemaker father. Lenú begins rigorous secondary studies. Lila pulls herself into middle-class comfort at sixteen by marrying an ambitious grocer. The second book picks up at this point.
The novel is a subversive exposé of the way patriarchy damages both men and women. Lenú, the self-deprecating outsider, navigates between “school” Italian and rough neighborhood dialect. She envies Lila’s marriage as the solution to material hardship, though she has witnessed the casual wedding day betrayal of Lila’s trust by the groom, Stephano. When Lila returns from her honeymoon, she avoids Lenú to hide signs of abuse. “We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.” Sometimes female in-laws function as accomplices to enforcement. Yet both Lila and Lenú maintain enduring ties with male friends from the neighborhood who illustrate the capacity for deep love as a counterpoint to violence.
Lila has followed along with Lenú’s studies, mastering Greek and Latin, using her autodidactic intuitions to help her friend excel. As a married woman, she takes up this role again: “She seemed not to realize that her capacity to learn effortlessly remained intact. But I knew. I saw for example, that chemistry, so boring for me, provoked in her that narrow look, and her few observations awakened me from my apathy, excited me.” Lila belongs with Lenú’s mentors, all women: the schoolteacher who lends books, the professor who pushes her to leave for University up north. But Lila, feeling left behind can be tellingly dismissive even as she is a covert marital renegade:
She closed the book abruptly. . . . “Because I’ve had it, it’s always the same story: inside something small there’s something even smaller that wants to leap out, and outside something large there’s always something larger that wants to keep it prisoner. I’m going to cook.”
Tensions reach a climax in a competition over Nino Sarratore, Lenú’s long-time crush, who escapes the neighborhood. He becomes the star intellectual at school and Lenú places him on a pedestal. We glimpse him showing off verbal muscles. At a professor’s social gathering another young man asserts that only blood and violence will change the world. “Nino responded calmly: Planning is an indispensable tool. The talk was tense, Professor Galiani kept the boys at bay. How much they knew, they were masters of the earth.” Lila, who has come along to this gathering, feels ignored and out of place. She excoriates Lenú: “You, too, want to be a puppet from the neighborhood . . . to leave us alone in our own shit . . . while all of you go cococrico, cococrico, hunger, war, working class, peace.”
In an ironic twist, Lila reveals how shallow Nino’s idealistic rhetoric is. The affair blows up the security she has chosen and creates a huge rift with Lenú. But she accepts the consequences of her imploding choice and does what she has to do to survive.
Ferrante shows us deeper layers of the friendship with the complexity of light in a prism. Ambivalent, avoiding work on her thesis, Lenú discovers her writer’s voice: “One morning I bought a graph paper notebook and began to write in the third person. . . . Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to wield the world around her, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch . . .”
Then she rediscovers a fairytale Lila wrote when they were schoolgirls. “Her child’s book had put down roots in my mind and had, in the course of years, produced another book, different, adult, mine, and yet inseparable from hers, from the fantasies that we had elaborated together in the courtyard of our games.”
Lenú is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Lila is a portrait of the thwarted creative soul. In the final volume, what new layers will Elena Ferrante reveal in the adult phase of this friendship? She has created so much more than just a coming-of-age story; it is an epic that creates with intimate, small strokes a broad panorama of social displacement.
Poetry by Ethan Paquin
Ahsahta Press, March 2013
Paperback: 117pp; $20.00
Review by Trena Machado
Language let loose: in Cloud vs. Cloud, Ethan Paquin gives us the poet as a fleeting point. His universe is one of words—not a social universe, not the natural world. We are in the quickness of thought, of seeing at the level of language. The author is talking to himself, bending language to a penetrating look at the surface, a surface that bounces him back. All is surface, including his own experience: “What is known, nothing . . . nothing can be articulated.”
In this universe of language, we are given glints of loss. “The unknowable length of time has left a marriage, one / so strip-mined and soured you lose all hope in forgiveness / of self?” The cogent assessments of emotional life lie blank looking on; the loss is not a privileged primary as personal life is equal to all else—another impenetrable surface. There is a sense in this writing of a fishing line: throw it out, let it unspool high into the air, see what is caught. We are in language, language as qualities, sound, connection . . . generating drifts of words that make the reader stop. The words are there for themselves, surface pointing at surface, each word its own location. Words are the poet’s horizon, in “Endearment”:
automatic nope freshet static narrative
is all about the words is all about words
the love of words the scent of words
the build of words the prime of words . . .
Language breeding out of language, both internal to itself and a part of being in a lineage, in “Exeunt”: “Ashberian cocci narrative strands” and on to “post-O'Hara / . . . cloud versus cloud sad's an overlap / . . . cloud’s / mirage no promise,” bringing the poet no sense of well-being:
I remember words coming
. . . and now after years of
plying them, I feel no better or better off than
I was before . . .
Paquin’s language doesn’t rise above language to point anywhere—an emotion, insight, joy, sorrow—but we do fully feel loss, the scraping undertow of being alive in this medium of a word-universe . . . anomic, impenetrable yearning. Language unmoored from the material universe is executed by grammar unhinged, the image sundered. In “Spring Ex Machinae,” the thaw that comes at the beginning of spring is broken into pieces; it is not a natural process: “silk streaming flowes and airs and snows of whites . . .” The substance of the world is not there in and for itself, but arrogated by being in the throes of how language can split into pieces, leaving our clichés and expectations of the familiar with nowhere to fall—effective in getting across that a language-constructed universe is subject to the power of language to shred our perception.
The physical book itself and typesetting excitingly fits the writing. As these forty-nine poems are a unit, language experimentation keeps it afloat. Where can language take us . . . . Language as surface. As the horizon. Language is its own thing and can feed off itself. Yet there is a cleaver here; an aperture, a blindness seeing. In “First Poem,” the word net of awareness is thrown vaporously wide along an unwalkable escarpment, the bones of language broken—the edge of our power.
Cross-Genre by Donald Wellman
Dos Madres Press, December 2012
Paperback: 106pp; $17.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson continue to inspire, by way of example, many off-shoot projects by poets who came after. Olson’s intimately grand gesture was scooping the local, immediate concerns of Gloucester, Massachusetts onto the historical and mythic world stage, while devoutly insisting the context remain personal. This gave both the permission and encouragement for numerous similar endeavors by poets seeking to weave broad, historical scope into autobiographical material. The most successful of these projects are ones similar to Donald Wellman’s Cranberry Island Series, where the poet steers clear of overly emulating Olson’s work (in terms of the “projective” form it takes across the page) and person. Wellman creates a work shaped according to its own needs assuming a form wholly its own.
The Cranberry Island Series is a meditation on place. Moving back and forth between prose pieces and sets of poems, Wellman unveils an understory study of residency on Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine, where he grew up and lived much of his life. He describes how “several decades of writing” make up the book. He’s folded “historical documents into the fabric” of the poems, while oral histories, along with “soul journeys” and “documentary fragments, images, words, and characters” all serve to further flush out the personal record presented within the prose. Wellman documents his perceptions surrounding the events and relationships swarming round within his memories of the island. At times, certain elements presented are imaginary, invented in the act of writing. The creative text verges into historical facts, enhancing the connections Wellman explores.
Wellman refers to the book as “autoethnography” and acknowledges its indebtedness to Olson’s time in the Yucatan. During this period he claims Olson “practiced an ethnography that responded to cultural differences and deep similarities between self and other.” Wellman continues on to offer the following definition of the term: “Autoethnographic poetry is an investigation into the nature of self and ego as a phenomenon that arises in the interactions between the one and the many, the body and the polis, the moment of apprehension formed by the in-swirling of cosmic and historical forces.” He revisits specific fields and roads, the buildings and the individuals with whom he shares a lineage of connections whether through family or friendship. Water imagery predominates throughout the book, and several photographs depicting views from the island shores are included, which is rather fitting for “Wellman is water man.” Ultimately, this is the personal saga of Wellman’s coming to terms with his past.
Olson does in fact surface as a tangential character within Wellman’s life story, primarily via connection through Olson’s first wife, Connie. Her second marriage brought her, along with Olson’s daughter Kate, to live on Cranberry Island. Wellman states: “I did not realize that Olson’s daughter Kate Bunker was a playmate of my younger brother William and my sister Margaret, a child and woman who was often in our house on Cranberry.” Olson’s initial visit to the island, however, was spent with Robert and Helen Hellman, Robert having been an instructor at Black Mountain College: “Olson visited the Cranberry Islands three times: first in 1957 because of the connection with the Hellmans and then again in 1967 and in 1969.” The sorrowful tale Wellman relates of Kate’s subsequent lapse into alcoholism and her early death is a too-familiar reminder of consequences wreaked by family tribulations upon notable individuals of promise.
Wellman notes: “I have learned to write by reading.” While he is an academically trained medievalist (he includes here his own translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” and also frequently mentions the importance of Pound’s work providing clear directive for his own), much of his prose shifts away from a formal and professional tone to a distinctly informal and idiosyncratic presentation. This lends a certain amount of unevenness to the end product. Yet Wellman’s unbridled commitment to setting down an emotionally, spiritually attuned and accurate record credits the book with an honesty that’s rarer than most. Where he ranges further into the personal than is advisable, he does so with an ever steady directive to locate “provisions for the homeward voyage, / his drum, his canoe.” There is little gained by faulting him in this regard, especially when he’s mid-voyage, as it were.
Poetry by Noelle Kocot
Wave Books, October 2013
Paperback: 144pp; $18.00
Review by Kelly M. Sylvester
Soul in Space by Noelle Kocot challenges its readers. Within the first few poems, I recognized Kocot wasn’t going to provide footholds to guide me through her words of whimsy, which hint and glimpse at an uncharted world. I fought for meaning and felt lost in space; I surrendered to the experience, and suddenly Kocot’s vividity sang from the pages.
Kocot displays her gift of imagery, metaphor and imagination in delightfully surprising ways. Sometimes she accomplishes this through simple and beautiful sounding language, such as these lines from “March Scene”:
Like bees out of breath.
Starting to walk away, starting
To answer, you wait until
the last notes wilt into the cribs
And infant lids, like petals, close.
Other times Kocot employs very specific, multi-syllabic words such as “To greet the xanthophyll sorrow / Splattering over the provocative // Wash of the day.”
Kocot’s varied approaches and poetic devices seem in tune and consistent with this world she’s created through her poetry. A world consisting of earth and yet also the weightless flight of the soul—orbiting and searching:
Now we have reached the super-meadow.
The long fat cows graze in the cool, tall grass.
The meadow is for their pleasure, not ours.
We like to go there when the day is thick
As soup, and we glean wild honey
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sprinkling trails of entropy
On your weedless, wedless grass.
Kocot opens “Nude Ants” with the lines: “Talking about oneself is rarely / Intimate. The birds fly off / Somewhere, the lichens follow.” In “Poem” she writes, “I keep my distance like the tines / Of a fork from one another.” Distance and lacking intimacy are far from the reader’s experience, which could be more akin to the strange sensation of buoyancy while simultaneously being swallowed into a friendly sea with no clear understanding of what depths await and when the sea will release its hold. Even through uncertainty the reader finds assurances, as in “Dealing with the Incandescent”:
This feeling of being saved
I cannot shake tonight, the pure
On top of the pure stacked upon the pure.
Traffic lighter now than it was,
The sole survivor of yesterday’s wreck
Always has more to say.