Posted January 9, 2014
We Come Elemental :: Begin Empty-Handed :: The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious :: The Palace of Contemplating Departure :: Twerk :: A Motive for Disappearance :: Circling Back Home :: Coming Events (Collected Writings) :: Dark March :: Love is Power or Something Like That :: Happy Mutant Baby Pills :: People on Sunday :: Why We Drive
Poetry by Tamiko Beyer
Alice James Books, May 2013
Paperback: 104pp; $15.95
Review by Emily May Anderson
We Come Elemental is Tamiko Beyer’s first full-length book; her chapbook bough breaks was published by Meritage Press in 2011. While bough breaks focused primarily on “domestic” concepts (gender, sexuality, motherhood, adoption), We Come Elemental draws from the entire planet for its topics. Water comprises the framework by which these disparate subjects are connected, just as water serves to connect all life on Earth.
It was tempting to read this book, the first two sections in particular, as ecopoetry. Beyer had previously contributed both the title poem and the book’s opening poem, “Look Alive, Dark Side,” to the Poets for Living Waters project. This poetry forum began initially as a response to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico but continues to publish ecologically-oriented work, motivated, according to their website, “by the belief that poetry helps release us from moral platitudes, returns us to our bodies, returns us to our senses.” The book’s title itself proclaims the human “we” as elemental, just another element, another part of the world.
Though it is indeed tempting, and easy maybe, to read We Come Elemental as ecopoetry, the book is much more than that. Throughout the first section, Beyer’s ecological sensibility is obvious but not at all simple. She writes about the island of plastics found in the Pacific Ocean in “Trash Sail,” a fragmented poem which breaks down words in the way that “every little piece of plastic manufactured / fifty years” does not. She writes not only about the Gulf oil spill, but also about Hurricane Katrina in “Wade,” which incorporates lines from former FEMA director Michael Brown’s Congressional testimony. Many of the poems in the first section also contemplate the connection of human to nature, a connection we often try to deny. The final stanza of “Look Alive, Dark Side” reads:
Beach walking we
who siphon the wet
step about dumb
in moonlight’s pull:
creatures the tide
abandons to the shore.
We are not at all like them.
Extinction also seems to be a theme: in the short poem “When All,” which begins, “Now the bumblebees and now the white-nosed bats. / All the colors. The disappeared frogs” and even more so in the second section of the book, the single long poem called “Dear Disappearing.” But those disappearing are much more than endangered species. The section’s epigraph refers to Antony Gormley, an artist whose “Another Place” project sunk a hundred sculptures in the ocean to investigate the effects of time and erosion; Gormley’s work is referenced, or may be referenced, in many places throughout the poem. Humans also are among those threatened by disappearance, threatened by pleasure and desire (“I give you cause / you give back loss”), by gender politics (“my body discounted in the war of many meanings”), by war (“did we not build / the bomb the big one the one to end all ones?”), by greed (“Children of pleasure we make and take we spectate / . . . Greedy our fingers thorn-scarred and still hungry”).
And yet, the poem ends in peace: “Hush / and we listen to that gorgeous / chest heartbeating ocean.” A connection both human and natural, and one which moves far beyond moralizing to pure experience.
Further complicating an ecopoetic reading, the final section of the book shifts attention more toward the human, the interpersonal, toward love and gender, but as with the environmental themes, not in a simple way. In “Continuity,” for example, Beyer writes:
And so gender becomes
an object. You want a looseness that makes me
nervous. I want to become the woman your parents
never dreamed for you.
In the final section, the poems invoke Deleuze and Guattari (in “Flickering Toward Definition”) and Walt Whitman (in both “Water East” and the final poem, “Talking Into Each Other’s Mouths”); such diverse influences are not surprising in a book that is both theoretical and expansive.
In spite of this expansiveness, Beyer manages to connect all the threads of her topics using the element of water; whether oceans, rivers, or rain, water is the current that moves and swirls throughout the book. Yet even the water is complicated by imagination; the final poem sees the speaker and her partner discussing ruin: “You say, ‘If the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupts, / half the island of La Palma will plunge into the sea and then . . .’” But the speaker of this book, despite all her fragmentation, ends with a heartening exhortation, grounded in imagination and love. “Draw up the sail, sweetheart,” she says in the last stanza. “Our room’s a tight box ship. We billowy milk and wet paper / take the hit and spindrift. We wave and wave and wave.”
What Beyer has created in We Come Elemental is a universe in miniature, a collection of lyrics encompassing the world, its degradation and its beauty both.
Poetry by Gail Martin
Perugia Press, September 2013
Paperback: 94pp; $16.00
Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson
While the title of Gail Martin’s second collection of poetry, Begin Empty-Handed, calls to mind a state of lack, it also implies a readiness to be filled, an openness to whatever might come to hand. This tension between remaining unburdened and delightfully accepting whatever turns up runs throughout Martin’s poems, as they both critique and catalog the world through the eyes of a therapist, daughter, wife, and mother. Winner of the 2013 Perugia Press Prize, Begin Empty-Handed crackles with wit and humor even as it considers loss and questions of responsibility in poems that clip along with intensity.
Martin works as a psychotherapist in private practice, and evidence of her professional experiences appears throughout the collection. In the poems that center on Martin’s work, the title’s sense of remaining unburdened comes through strongest. For instance, the speaker of “The Therapist Watches Birds” considers culpability in this way:
I don’t care deeply about birds. I enjoy them.
They raise questions in a casual way. I have found
them with their necks broken at the base
of my window. There are cats and fox and snakes.
Some nights are just too cold. I am not responsible.
This musing comes after stanzas which consider patients’ struggles—“The man who cut his hard cherry trees to pay / his hospital bills,” a woman who’d “been standing in the lake up to her neck / for a while to keep from hurting herself.” Like these excerpts, Martin’s poems tend toward plain speech, the rhythms of conversation turned into verse, no matter how startling their subject matter. With this even-handedness, Martin confronts us with the stark realities of what it means to professionally deal with mental illness on a daily basis.
Although Martin frequently chooses to write in a direct mode, she also peppers her poems with wonderfully specific images. The poems of Begin Empty-Handed encompass “Angus calves, / small black boxcars, their square heads / above the grass”; “white tulips in a crystal jar, // Japanese pearl divers, skirts flaring / in the light then becoming the light”; and a house like “a scarf where stitches got dropped / in the third row” (“Letters to an Invented Sister,” “Begin Empty-Handed,” and “Not a House You Can Live In, Cold,” respectively). These images hum with joy in their exactness—they speak to the poet’s attention, her ability to render the world both precisely and uniquely. Woven into poems that could feel cold in their directness, these memorable images shine through with the warmth of surprise.
Through its combination of directness and delight, Begin Empty-Handed presents a complex speaker’s vision of the world. Martin speaks with one voice—whether it’s exactly her own or not, these poems work to reveal a speaker who can describe her daughter (in “Hawaii Volcanoes National Park”) as being like
The way Gould begins to play the Goldberg
variations, then lifts his hands
from the keyboard laughing or talking
a bit to himself, interrupting what might
have flowed naturally from that point
When she also notes that “My mother told me she prayed each day she’d die before my father” (“Why the Therapist Loves Ironing”), Martin displays a willingness to include everything in her work—directness and figurative language, the professional and the personal, starkness and beauty. By casting a wide net, Begin Empty-Handed succeeds in creating what feels like a true picture of life, one that encompasses opposites and shows us how they ultimately come together into a whole.
Nonfiction by Lori Jakiela
C&R Press, May 2013
Paperback: 280pp; $19.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In her previous memoir, Miss New York Has Everything, Lori Jakiela—an adopted only child—wrote about leaving her childhood home in Pennsylvania to work as an international flight attendant based in New York City, hoping to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Jakiela, who directs the writing program at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chatham University, writes here about the next phase of her life, after her father’s death and leaving New York City, her job, and her boyfriend to return to Pittsburgh and care for her ailing mother.
Although Jakiela devotes most of her time and attention to caring for her mother, the woman’s harsh words and insults frequently wound her. For instance, Jakiela tells her mother she doesn’t like meatloaf, and the elder woman responds, “You think you’re too good for meatloaf?” To portray her immersion into her mother’s world, the writer explains that even though she rents an apartment near her mother’s house, she spends most nights sleeping in her childhood bedroom, “with a Donald Duck nightlight and a mother who tries to regulate [her] bedtime.” When her mother tells Jakiela to go back to her apartment, “You have your own things to worry about. You need your own space,” the writer realizes, “What she’s talking about, I don’t know.”
Jakiela empathizes with her mother’s frustration, grief, and rage at her failing health and the loss of her husband of fifty years, even though she’s often the object of this aggression, which exacerbates the ever-present tension that complicates their relationship. During one conversation, the mother shares her plans to go out of town for the weekend, and Jakiela assumes she will look after the house. But her mother insists that she isn’t welcome, reminding the writer of two important childhood lessons about adoption—to be grateful and to “know your place.”
Jakiela begins a relationship with her future husband, and her unexpected pregnancy before their engagement widens the chasm between her and her mother, who is ashamed of her daughter’s appearance and the situation, which she interprets as a social impropriety. For example, Jakiela relates a confrontation in which her mother says, “If I’d ever been pregnant, I wouldn’t have left the house for nine months. I wouldn’t go anywhere looking like you.” In another conversation, Jakiela reminds her mother that she’s not the only woman who’s found herself unexpectedly pregnant, to which her mother replies, “If a lot of people jumped off the Westinghouse Bridge, would you jump too?” The writer explains this reference to the titular landmark, which “as every Pittsburgher knows, is the bridge to take when things get serious, which means it’s the bridge to take when you’re serious about killing yourself.”
The writer doesn’t contemplate suicide; however, early in her pregnancy, she considers having an abortion but changes her mind when she realizes that, after having lost her father and facing the inevitability of losing her mother, she “can’t do any more loss.” She illuminates her eventual decision to become a mother by disclosing a memory of an experience on a plane while working as a flight attendant, when a pilot pointed out to her a sight, rarer than the Northern Lights: a sliver of orange light just above the horizon that “divides dark from dark.” The line, she recalls, was “bright enough to navigate by.” This light becomes a metaphor for her unborn child, who lights the path to her future.
This book portrays the evolution of Jakiela’s relationship with her mother, as well as her journey to a stable adult life as she experiences marriage, childbirth, depression, and her mother’s illness and eventual death. Jakiela displays numerous photographs of her deceased mother around her house and frequently talks about her with her two young children—the daughter with whom she was unknowingly pregnant when her mother died, and her son, who was a toddler when she died and who often claims to communicate with her. In one instance, he exclaims, “My old grandma was the best friend I ever had.” Seeing her mother through her son’s eyes and seeing the world through the eyes of a mother combine to soften Jakiela’s opinion of her mother and expand her perspective. Five years after her mother’s death, while baking bread with her daughter, Jakiela realizes that baking bread alone in the kitchen offered her mother the solitude that she enjoys as a writer alone in her office, that solitude that Virginia Woolf called a “room of one’s own.” In the kitchen that day with her daughter, the dough, and the aromatic freshly baked bread, Jakiela feels the weight of her mother’s love and the weight of her loss, and the reader recognizes the strong bond she is forging with her children. The writing is clear and original, and the story is moving without being sentimental. Readers will enjoy following this writer’s journey through adoption, motherhood, marriage, and grief.
Poetry by Brynn Saito
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 85pp; $16.95
Review by Theresé Samson Wenham
In her debut collection, The Palace of Contemplating Departure, Brynn Saito carries uncertainties and measures them out against the known and the unknown. Saito finds an enthralling voice for complex emotions about race, war, identity, scars, ghosts, family, and suffering. Her undeniable cultural identity is woven through the poems. Her parents are Japanese American and Korean American; their stories, of life during a time when being Asian was a liability in America, are retold here, while Saito’s own stories predominate throughout. She lets us get to know her in an equivocal way and then leaves us with a light hold of attachment and a fierce curiosity about meaning and significance.
The Palace of Contemplating Departure is an apt title for the tone of experience she renders in her poems. There are multiple layers of the theme of departing: leaving places, people, life, or attachments. There is a constant awareness of impermanence, the temporary and moveable, and how we cannot control what is changed or lost. Beauty as power: the beauty of the world so powerful that she is afraid to let it go, yet she seeks beauty over and over, along with love and the ability to let go. From “Autumn in the Garden with her Ghost”:
. . . I said, “I’m afraid
to let go of the world.”
She lifted a black stone
from the shallow pond
and palmed it–You think
that I’m asking
for you to renounce it.
I said, “I believe
that beauty is power.
Look how the ash tree
catches the light;
look at the jasmine.”
Occasionally a poem feels like scattershot of language when it ventures too far into the abstract and there is nothing there to tether us. However, some of those abstractions strike me as more than adequately intriguing: “. . . I learned something about / the beautiful blue vein of seduction / that runs alongside everything deadly.”
The themes, the haunting voice, the “gathering mind” of Saito resonate strongly with Louise Gluck’s work—in particular, The Wild Iris. Like Gluck, she is able to imbue the natural world with emotion and human purpose, to let it speak with complexity about things that words cannot explain alone: “Returning to the sea is like returning to a grave that’s been shot through / with sunlight. The sea is so full, we begin to float.”
In the end it is hope, perhaps as a motivator for all the questions and searching, that fills the pages of this book. Contemplating departure is not the same as leaving, yet it allows for that possibility. The Palace of Contemplating Departure creates the place for that never-ending discussion of endings and beginnings, and gathers to mind a delicate, fierce journey.
Poetry by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
Belladonna, April 2013
Paperback: 98pp; $15.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Latasha Diggs is a writer you have to experience, not read. Twerk isn’t a book to toss into the back seat of your car “for later” or a read-a-poem-here-and-there collection. With each verse, she sparks your curiosity and lures you deeper and deeper with her unique craft.
In her poem “metromultilingopollonegrocucarachasblahblahblah,” the words scattered across the page remind me of people waiting in line for the subway where you scan your card or put change in the machine to pass through the gate. It’s a busy page, with the words rushing around trying to find their mark. Yet they hit it perfectly; and it really provokes questions about how much we progress and achieve from all our rushing around. And that’s just the meaning I got from how Diggs chose to format her words on the page and the title; here’s a snippet of the poem itself:
the train is castrated by humdrum
is the aroma of piss and junkies
hoarse covers of lean on me
stand by me lean on me
there’s a reflection of water bugs’ wings
off Snapple bottles rolling back & forth
“gamin’ gabby” is dedicated to Syraniqua D’Voidoffunk and is a four-page poem packed with great lines, so roll up your sleeves and dig in:
trust your fields of prayers won’t summon this earth,
where mountains crash beneath an ocean’s thrust.
lonely words burn still days; you mime breech birth.
you flee before the dawn makes jest to trust.
what good are rainbows whispering surprise,
or waterfalls that dine with a tongues’s dreams?
this smile falls mute: all that’s left are toys and lies.
What is especially interesting about this poem is the poet’s view of religion. Describing the basic ritual of prayer as filling “fields” and being “lonely words” contrasts with her strong description of the earth’s natural formations (the mountains and ocean). She poses questions. To the reader? To herself? Wondering if the promise of something better after all this prayer and belief and hope is going to make good on itself. Reading on, she does answer the question, and each reader will interpret the answer as their own beliefs meet Diggs’ words.
Formatted like a play, “blind date” sucks you in straight from the beginning text: “FADE IN: / INT./EXT. Eddie Van Halen rock riff in background—DAY.” There are three main characters in this page and a half poem, half brilliantly crafted mini-play; though the Host is a mediator to push the plot.
We see PAUL GARCIA (30s)
sassy southern belle, open-minded pet photographer
likes men who claim sincere.
We see MACK ATTACK (40s)
divorced, fun-lovin’ wino, mid-life cruiser:
“goes for girls with a but.”
Parts of the poem read like a personal ad which gives the characters depth and history without the author having to launch into a detailed past. She nails language with concise, crisp words. Each is selected carefully and is essential to the success of her poetry. Her writing is clever and witty; it transports you into an entirely different mini-universe with each poem. The only escape is the final installment, and the hope for more from Latasha Diggs very quickly as she is a rare find.
Poetry by Ray Ragosta
Burning Deck, September 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $14.00
Review by Kelly M. Sylvester
Ray Ragosta’s refreshing style of writing in A Motive for Disappearance prominently features sparse lines in what are typically short poems. Upon a second read-through of this book, a few lines from two of the pieces jumped out at me as Ragosta’s built-in description of his own work: “Their tales, a perfect infection of memory” and
A voice tells me,
“You are playing at the borders,
straying into other fields.”
A cocoon grows around
and I inherit its living edges.
Ragosta’s work plays around the borders, embodies the edges, and infects its readers through the discovery process.
Part of the discovery includes fresh, seemingly simple descriptions that require readers to slow and savor their complexity. “Epilepsy of courage”: three seemingly simple words, and yet, they still grab my imagination. Another favorite of mine comes from the poem “Official North”:
The sky grays and your touch
is always your touch,
a little sweaty
but it still sends me into reverse.
On a less simple note, Ragosta’s poetry meets, and sometimes dances with, math, geometry, and physics. As a former math and physics nerd, I found this technique particularly pleasing. Even though terminology is prevalent, it doesn’t take someone well-versed in math to understand and delight in its usage. For instance, in the lines “The start and stop music plays / on this side of the equation / whose other half is half gone,” a reader doesn’t need to know about variables, distributive properties, balancing and solving equations to feel the disconcerting imbalance being expressed.
Ragosta’s accomplishment of this feat is a testament to his skillful control over his craft, and I would be remiss to not also mention the overarching complexities within the text. The heart of his work reveals itself through an intense, almost microscopic, look at “the borders.” Various elements are grounded in the everyday non-border world and then skew the norm ever so slightly. Two great examples of this come from one of Ragosta’s longer poems, “Now This Move”:
The crush of circumstance quickens.
Flowers line pathways to the possible.
Alternatives are closer than they appear:
A mirror reduces their size,
marking a rupture in wave.
Past navigates possibility;
all details are counted in,
but to find a recorder
with that kind of attention span . . .
may as well structure
accord’s final leap.
The final example from “Now This Move,” for me, also includes Ragosta’s awareness of the importance and challenge to have represented the borders through his collection. Ragosta created his collection of poetry with precision and clear attention given to his subjects. As a result, his readers can enjoy unlocking the puzzles within his poems.
A Plainswoman’s Journey
Nonfiction by Darcy Lipp-Acord
South Dakota State Historical Society Press, September 2013
Paperback: 117pp; $16.95
Review by Girija Sankar
What is home? Darcy Lipp-Acord asks. Is it in the prairies of South Dakota where she grew up? Or amidst the mountains of Montana where she attended college? Where does one truly ever belong? What is place? Lipp-Acord explores these and other timeless themes in Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey. In a total of thirteen essays, written over ten years, Lipp-Acord wraps the reader up in the intimacy of her marital home, her childhood home, her husband’s ranch, and the lives of her children. Lipp-Acord grew up in Timber Lake, South Dakota, on a farm where three generations of her family have lived. She now lives on a ranch near the border of Montana and Wyoming with her husband, Shawn, and their six children.
The essays are woven around the themes of family, ancestral legacy, ranching, and agriculture. In each essay, Lipp-Acord draws from stories of her maternal and paternal grandparents and, in doing so, connects the past with her immediate present. Life on the ranch is hard and harder still for a ranch hand, which is Shawn’s occupation for most of the narrative. But should she abandon the hard life just because it’s hard? Shouldn’t she, as her forbears did, fight for the lifestyle that she knows is the only true passion for her husband and that she believes will be good for her girls? And so they move from ranch to ranch, even taking a brief hiatus between ranching stints—Lipp-Acord as a teacher and ther husband as a construction worker for a phone company. But this hiatus only proves to reinforce their love for the open country, horses, and ranching, and so they move back. In a span of eight years, Lipp-Acord writes, her family had to move seven times.
Read with a feminist lens, though, Lipp-Acord’s treatment of her life, and the suggestion of the romance and charm of being a housewife, mother, and wife to a cowboy, might be a hard sell in 2013—especially to an urban, professional, female audience. This is not to say that a reader far removed from the author’s lifestyle cannot come to enjoy her writings, but rather that the proud espousal of the lifestyle may distance the reader from the story arc, as it did to me. And perhaps that is not a weakness of the author or the stories but my own cross to bear.
Taken together, the stories are a great introduction to country life. The essays bring to light the vicissitudes of country living, of working and raising a family in harsh yet rewarding conditions. And as such, the stories are a great testament to the quintessential American values of hard work, risk-taking, adventure, and faith.
Cross-Genre by Susan Gevirtz
Nightboat Books, March 2013
Paperback: 176pp; $16.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Coming Events promulgates a non-linear reading practice. The form and content of these “collected writings” challengingly swerve back and forth between critical essay, poetry, and personal essay. When considered as a whole, the book’s tendency toward a deliberative structure of concentricity enchants, as individual pieces loop back on each other in ellipsoidal, interchanging depths of reading. The slow reader, returning again and again to the book’s pages, is justly rewarded against the too-eager skimmer looking for quick buzz-words and easily identifiable markers.
A significant portion of these writings occurred while Gevirtz was completing a dissertation concerning Dorothy Richardson’s work. She describes how she thus had three desks for writing: one for the dissertation, one for other prose, and one for poetry. “Three desks” becomes a reoccurring motif Gevirtz plays with. This juggling of concerns and ongoing interests also includes the demands of parenthood. Gevirtz rigorously interrogates the lines between her various writings and her life. Her writing blends a critical acumen with a bold embrace of embodied placement within the historical time of her social and creative relationships.
She asks: “Does, can a wounded and double-faced, doubt-filled, unfaithful to orders, faceless, full frontal critical writing exist?” and “Why do we even need to call this writing that enlists the wounded, double-faced, doubt-filled and faceless, something other than poetry?” Why indeed? Gevirtz offers an example of what writing might mean when it is freed of outside expectations. Liberated from her own hesitancies, given over to doubt as she claims, her writing is a beacon for future work. This mapping out of work yet to come is a whirling spiral of multiple texts, personal situations, and public dilemmas she spreads before readers, inviting participation.
Gevirtz sends us out to other texts, immensely enriching our reading of her own work. Her writing asks of us that as often as we pick up her book, we put it down again as we go in search of a text that she just deemed worthy of mention. Dorothy Richardson is the first such call to read, especially for those not familiar with her work, such as myself. Yet I also felt compelled to revisit Barbara Guest’s poems, the immensity of the looming importance of her project never having been in question. And I found myself wondering what Kathleen Fraser has been up to lately, if perhaps a nice large selection, even a collected works, might be appearing, not to mention simply new work. Then there are Gevirtz’s own poems, of which there are no doubt plenty more to come while a healthy “selected” will hopefully land in print soon. Gevirtz offers touching, yet appropriately rigorous tribute to these writers, along with the brilliance of Frances Jeffers. This is work about work, endlessly generative, vitally strong.
Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep
Fiction by Colin Fleming
Outpost19, June 2013
Paperback: 162pp; $16.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
Flesh-eating hagfish, blue bejeweled garages, animated art, and a moveable geography. Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep is filled with stories where sandspits are sentient, seagulls are cutthroat, and character conscientiousness is invariably fleeting. These hyperbole-infused short stories infuse ordinary settings with magic and imagination—they give just enough detail to be anchored in a possible universe but contain enough impossibility to buoy the characters above the predictable. Colin Fleming’s collection is pithy and witty, and manages to walk an interesting line between absurd existentialism, surrealist fantasy, and magical realism.
It would be impossible to describe the short stories in Dark March in enough detail to truly do them justice. However, the first in the collection easily typifies the themes that underlie the other seventeen—reduced to its simplest plot, “The Spit” is a story of an island that claims its own agency. The island begins as a swath of external factors. It is defined by its geographic form (weathering elements and the behavior of the surrounding ocean), its locale (it is simply the stage for other animals and their own dramas), and by the best term to describe the landmass (geographers and geologists become excited when the island becomes a spit, and are able to give themselves an important place in academic circles for its discovery). In short, the island-spit is the backdrop of the rest of the short story’s dramas.
However, and most interestingly, it is from that backdrop of external definitions that the island emerges to claim a story of its own—its own character, its own voice, its own place in the sun. When the geographer observes, “Don’t go anywhere, now,” the tossed-off phrase becomes more than a simple aside; the island takes the command as a challenge. And when it accepts that challenge, the setting morphs into its own character. Although the move from island to spit is a significant point, the detached narration of the story refuses to acknowledge the landmass’s newfound agency—the narrator continues to refer to the spit as an island.
“Yes, that is what you are,” [the geologist] declared, after a final day of study. “Connected to the land by a granite ledge that originates near the center of this . . . island. Pile of rocks.” The island, who was about to officially become a spit, wanted to thank the great man, for he assumed he could be no less than that. All of these years, and the mystery that he himself had no solution for, was at last solved. Was this exciting? Was this the point of all of the thousands of centuries?
And what can we make of such a story? A setting that becomes a character? A narrator that refuses to accept a setting-turned-character’s decisions? Minor characters that, while given more dialog and more colorful backstories, merely highlight the complex nature of character development that Fleming managed to create in a few short pages? We can certainly see different influences woven into the construction of each of the stories in Dark March—absurdist clipped dialog, magical characters that live past death, and surrealist non-sequitors that still provide a plot. In short, we see Fleming borrow particular elements from a myriad of genres and combine them into something uniquely his own.
Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep is an interesting and fantastical read—a collection of stories that makes you ask yourself, “Wait. What? What on earth just happened?!?” and backtrack several paragraphs to make sure that you read the story “correctly.” The collection does well in its ability to infuse the extraordinary into the everyday.
Fiction by A. Igoni Barrett
Graywolf Press, May 2013
Paperback: 216pp; $15.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
The characters in A. Igoni Barrett’s short story collection, Love Is Power or Something Like That, are linked to each other within the chaos and contrasts of Lagos, Nigeria in a nation cycling since the end of colonialism between democracy and dictatorship, reform and intractable corruption. They are dreamers and strivers who sometimes literally tumble into potholes of bad luck while living out the axiom that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The instinct to love is also part of the chain: a father struggling to save a sick infant daughter; a son trying to nourish a drunk, abusive mother; grandmothers who try to nurture neglected grandchildren; two feuding old women abandoned by long departed children who must rely on each other for mutual aid; cousins unable to resist an illicit attraction; a wife trying to placate a husband’s raging despair.
In the story “The Shape of a Full Circle,” fourteen-year-old Damié comes home from school to his hungry brother and sister and their mother, Daoju, in drunken disarray on the bed. The boy goes on an odyssey to get food for his siblings and drink for his mother. He witnesses the arbitrary violence of the powerful over the weak: an army sergeant beats a police officer trying to manage a traffic snarl, and the landlord forces Daoju to trade sex for rent. Damié participates in the violence of the weak over the weakest by joining a group of boys tormenting a local “madwoman.” Later, one of the boys, Eriga, asks him:
“Why you stone that crazewoman?” . . . His eyes were fixed on his companion’s hand—the long, tapered fingers, the bitten-down nails, the network of fine veins. . . . “Nothing,” he replied. But the image rose in his mind of his mother sitting in bed with her knees drawn up and her hands pressed against her ears.
Eriga is revealed as a ruthless pickpocket. Damié comes home empty-handed to endure the blows of his mother. The children seek refuge with Perpetua, their grandmother, though she is estranged from her daughter Daoju. We wonder at how far Daoju has fallen from the faded but still middle-class situation of Perpetua, her pleasant cottage now behind bolts and barbed wire.
In the title story, Barrett portrays a police officer struggling in a stream of predatory opportunism and violence, surprised by the rage his impotence brings, feeling the futility of trying to stand in the way. He comes home to the children he loves. He comes home to the wife for whom he feels both passion and guilt. “Estella was bent over the stove in the corridor. She looked up when a shadow fell across her cooking pot and, recognizing her husband, gave a cry, which was choked off before it could declare itself as fear or delight.” The corrosive feelings, symbolized by his uniform, combined with the lubrication of drink have caused past damage and threaten what is most dear to him. Estella creates his only safe place. Only she can remove his uniform and listen like a mother to his litany of miasmal despair.
Most of the stories are in a third person close narration. Barrett also uses first person to great and sometimes comic effect. In the story “Trophy,” the narrator comes to a provincial town to give a workshop for the “Front-runner’s Club” on Leadership. He becomes temporary friends with a local schoolteacher, Babasegun, distinguished by “tiger claw” tribal marks on his cheeks, who is charged with showing him the town. They bond over a Tupac ringtone on the teacher’s phone:
. . . a song I had learned by heart maybe twelve, thirteen years ago. At the time I was in my second year of university. I was a shave-my-head, pierce-my-nose hate-the-East-Coast-and-Biggie 2pac fan. I was still with Comfort, my first girlfriend. I used to rap the song to her, chopping the air with my hands, playacting my martyred hero. These days, whenever I listened to rap, I chose Kanye West.
He is the Lagos version of the global, khaki-and-linen, rising thirty-something middle class. The title, “Trophy,” refers to more than just a brand of local beer. Babasegun laughs at the visitor’s metrosexual use of deodorant, but they share the macho ethos of womanizing that applies not only to waitresses, but also to sixteen-year-old high school students. Events reveal the ambivalence and dependency beneath the rhetoric.
The characters in “The Shape of a Full Circle” return in “Godspeed and Perpetua.” The earlier stories become an ironic and tragic coda to the narrative that unfolds later, forcing the reader to reevaluate the complexity underneath the stark social realism. Throughout the book, Barrett locates the characters in their city, country, and continent, mired in history that constrains possibilities. He keeps his compassion even as he holds hope in abeyance.
Fiction by Jerry Stahl
William Morrow, November 2013
Paperback: 272pp; $14.99
Review by David Breithaupt
Just when you thought it was safe to move about the cabin, Jerry Stahl has unleashed a new novel. To the uninitiated, Happy Mutant Baby Pills has no exact genre except for Stahl himself.
It is quintessential Stahl but does contain elements of a romantic thriller, with a political intrigue aspect. But don’t confuse it with any writer like Tom Clancy. Let’s just say that if Hieronymus Bosch wrote books instead of painting his nightmares, he would have produced a novel such as this.
Open the pages and you will follow the varied travails of Lloyd, who will be your hero throughout this book. Lloyd has an interesting résumé, including copywriter for pharmaceutical warning labels, a convict, an habitué of heroin, again a copywriter for a Christian singles dating service, and a script writer for a currently popular TV show. We find Lloyd in the big house doing his time when he is mysteriously released early, most likely from the string-pulling of the prison’s own minister, Pastor Bob. The Pastor has earmarked Lloyd as a useful team member for his Christian singles (Swingles!) dating service, owing, of course, to Lloyd’s fluency with side-effect prosody. Lloyd is a natural for this gig, working with two others (also with esoteric résumés) to lure the faithful but lonely singles of Christendom into a satisfying life of fulfillment. Alas, in a tragedy that could have been crafted by Shakespeare himself, the boys plot a pharmacy robbery which fails terribly, forcing Lloyd to flee the scene in a Greyhound bus. Destiny steps in and introduces Lloyd to Nora (young, lovely, and troubled), who is also riding the bus and, like Lloyd, is more fleeing a scene than arriving at another. You can hear the soundtrack from Casablanca as Lloyd begins to fall for Nora while passing through a landscape of noir, ultimately arriving in LA (noir capital of the world).
Nora lets it be known that a man sitting in the back of the bus is following her and is most likely trying to kill her. What won’t a man do for love? Upon arriving in LA, Lloyd follows the man in question to a bathroom stall in the Greyhound station and kills him with a paper clip to the forehead (no easy thing). Having proved himself, the romantic adventures of Lloyd and Nora officially begin.
We soon learn Nora is a woman on a mission when she reveals her past romantic association with a high-ranking CEO for a major chemical company. Like Lloyd, she has a penchant for poetic copy and contributed a wildly successful tag line to the company, for which she received neither credit nor money. Nora claims to be pregnant at the hands of the CEO and is outraged by her treatment and how the large companies such as Dow and Monsanto inflict a host of five-star carcinogens upon the trusting public every day. Her plan? To give birth to her child as a media event to publicize the dangers from these common toxins (expecting her child to be born deformed) and to humiliate her ex.
Nora exposes herself to a bevy of noxious chemicals to ensure deformity, and her practices are not for the faint of heart. The two of them experience various exotic mishaps as they travel together and find new ways to poison themselves with mood- (and body-) altering ingredients. They settle in for the end results after Lloyd lands a writing job with the TV show CSI. What is finally born to Nora is something you must find out for yourself.
These pages can be dark, let me warn you, but no one weaves the comical with extreme darkness as does Jerry Stahl. An underlying current of pain runs throughout all of his books, which are paved over with his trademark “silver lining” outlook. It makes for an odd combo, and I find myself embarrassed for laughing at his tragedies while wondering if something is wrong with me. I hope not. It is simply the power of Jerry Stahl luring you into his world, like it or not.
Whether you laugh or cry or throw the book out the window, Stahl is serious when he describes what he sees as the daily contamination which industrial corporations knowingly inflict on consumers each day, everything from PCBs in our flame-retardant furniture to microwaves frying our inner organs to food additives that act as cancer fertilizer. I contacted Stahl and asked how this concern of camouflaged poison came to be of interest to him. “Having a pregnant wife and being told the trial drug for Hep C [Stahl underwent a non-interferon-type treatment for his hepatitis] I was taking was so toxic it would cause the kid to be born purple with wheels if I so much as touched her when I was on the stuff. That was the impetus for the pharmaceutical obsession.”
As if anticipating the reader’s sense of irony regarding his character’s campaign for a toxin-light environment while at the same time indulging in every known narcotic ever milked from a poppy, he begins a final section of his book with a quote from Romanian writer E. M. Cioran: “In my fits of optimism, I remind myself that my life has been a hell, my hell, a hell to my taste.” Indeed, Lloyd and Nora have done well, crafting a hell of their own. Followers of Stahl’s works will be pleased with his latest and new readers will be introduced to a world never encountered (I hope).
Poetry by Geoffrey G. O’Brien
Wave Books, September 2013
Paperback: 128 pp; $18.00
Review by Kelly M. Sylvester
Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s People on Sunday took me a long time to finish because his poems thrilled me so much. Many pieces in People on Sunday demand an immediate reread upon completing the final lines. Often O’Brien tucks clues, hints, and foreshadowing into his poems. These hints blossom with much more depth and meaning during the second (or third and sometimes fourth) read. My fingers could hardly turn the pages backward fast enough to satisfy my urge to devour some of these poems again.
O’Brien’s reread-ability should land this book in the hands of many poetry lovers; however, that is far from the only reason to enjoy his work. He seems to effortlessly stretch and challenge his readers with his diction and selection of poem subjects. For instance, “D’Haussonville” could stand alone as a beautifully crafted poem. It opens with the following lines:
A town no one lives in
Must be everywhere around us
Accounting for the hysteria
Of any pose. As we see into
The laugh of things fields or folds
Of wrinkled blue appear divided
Into secondary propositions
Of a primary fact, that fronts are lighter
Than backs because attention glows
Since I was unfamiliar with the subject, what I believed I was reading about is quite different than where O’Brien leads me throughout the poem and up until its delightful ending:
Like the dream of seeing hidden things
And the hugest process therein
The blue only refers, is “of,” genetic
And hard to kill off. It is 1845
Forever when the painting is completed
Though she herself is no longer
Twenty-Four or anatomically
Incorrect as he has made her here.
Although I quickly turned the pages back for an instant rereading, I also researched the painting, town, and people before embarking on my third, and much more fully developed, reading. To my knowledge, I had never seen the painting before, and if I had, I am almost certain I wouldn’t have seen it quite the way O’Brien captured it in his poem. Even so, after reading his poem, it seems to me as if I will always see this painting through his eyes.
Similarly, O’Brien often represents the world in the most strikingly uncommon way. His own words will do this phenomenon the most justice, so here are few examples I found particularly intriguing. “Give no credence to initial thoughts / That round things love form more / Than angled ones.” “Amazingly, they are in the same apartment / Reading parts of one paper / By the inadvertent clock of a faucet / Leaking.” In reference to an exerciser upstairs, he writes, “She goes longer and longer, / Mastering her fear of being out of breath.” Tucked within the lines, in almost every poem, readers can find jewels similar to these.
For poetry and language lovers, O’Brien’s interpretation of the world gives an added rush. In a few of his poems, he writes about poetry, poets, or poems. Even in this niche, his work can stand independently or be enhanced by familiarity with the work of the people who appear in the poem.
As for lovers of language, his observations, such as the one in this passage, made this linguistically trained reviewer pause in appreciative reflection:
She is upstairs which means I have no choice
But be downstairs in the present-past,
Which is the difference between affect and effect
Before pronunciation lets you know
Whether either is not the other or a verb
Cleared for takeoff but second in line.
From language play to enriching subjects, O’Brien has mastered an artist’s (or poet’s) dream—making the audience want more. Fortunately for his readers, more is as simple as turning back the pages and rekindling the spark.
The Past, Present, and Future of Automobiles in America
Nonfiction by Andy Singer
Microcosm Publishing, August 2013
Paperback: 160pp; $13.95
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Microcosm Publishing’s Why We Drive: The Past, Present, and Future of Automobiles in America is an image-rich examination of the dominance of car culture in the United States. “I am an advocate for car-free cities, car-free city sections, and car-free living,” author/illustrator Andy Singer states within the first few introductory pages. The text proceeds from there, detailing the disadvantages of arranging urban and suburban life around cars rather than people. This is followed by a succinct history of highway politics in the United States, and Singer concludes with a call to action, offering suggestions for individuals who wish to live car-free and strategies for funneling more money into public transportation at the state level.
Why We Drive is a difficult book to categorize; more than half of its pages are devoted to photographs, cartoons, and infographics, while the text functions as a persuasive and generally well-structured argument. The book bears similarities to a manifesto, a graphic novel, and a zine, but it isn’t entirely any of these things.
Visually, this is an appealing book. The photographs are well chosen to support the text, and Singer’s line drawings are excellent, with a clean, high-contrast aesthetic that reproduces well. However, a few typographical missteps detract from the readability of the text. From page to page, the text is formatted in a jumble of typeface sizes and styles, frequently with inconsistent page breaking and centering. Some pages contain single paragraphs, as if they are merely captions accompanying the preceding image, while others run full text, making it easy to misconstrue some information as erroneously more important than the rest. On some pages it’s also difficult to visually discern the footnotes from the text itself. The lack of consistency is distracting, and a more unified style would serve the text better overall.
Regardless, Singer makes a well organized argument, beginning with a series of examples detailing the varied ways cars impact people and neighborhoods. His writing style is generally clear and well paced, aiming for pertinent and interesting arguments rather than scholarly detail. Footnote citations and a bibliography back up Singer’s claims and statistics and will allow interested readers to pursue the subject matter in further detail. Some points made early in the book feel a bit predictable (doesn’t everyone know by now that cars cause air pollution, and that driving rather than walking/biking can be a factor contributing to obesity?), but the research on less commonly reported effects of automobile use in the United States pays off handsomely. Much of the information is very compelling, as in the discussion of the impact of cars on the American landscape, creating urban dead zones and suburban sprawl.
As Why We Drive moves on to the topic of highway development, the text becomes more thorough. The history of highway development in the United States is detailed and very interesting. Singer discusses strong-arm tactics used by the automotive industry in developing highway systems in the 1930s and 1940s, the systematic dismantling of existing public transit systems, and the financial and social systems that perpetuate highway construction and inhibit public transit funding to this day.
The book concludes with suggestions for reducing the impact of cars in the future, ranging from large goals like amending state constitutions to allow gas tax flexing to individual steps like joining bike advocacy groups. The tone of the conclusion is encouraging and optimistic rather than negative, and several pages of alternative transportation groups and resources are included after the bibliography, offering an excellent starting point for readers interested in exploring car-free options or advocating for public transit.
Singer’s graphics are engaging, and his message is explicit and well researched. Published by Microcosm Publishing, a self-described “small, charming, and radical publishing house” based in Portland, Oregon, the pocket-sized Why We Drive occupies a liminal space between zine manifesto and political cartoon, making it difficult to categorize but refreshingly atypical and accessible. Casual readers will find much to enjoy here, and readers with mixed feelings about cars and car dependency will come away from Why We Drive with a great deal of food for thought.