Posted February 3, 2014
Poetry by Diane Raptosh
Etruscan Press, August 2013
Paperback: 72pp; $16.00
Review by Andrea Dulberger
How would it feel to suddenly find huge distortions in your memories of your own life, and then sense ripples of distortion when looking at the story of the world all around? The narrator of Diane Raptosh’s American Amnesiac speaks from within the swirl of such an ongoing confusion: “I’m a man without a past, like so many folks who’ve been expelled / from their own but dare not detect it. Shake your head no; nod your head yes. // There’s enough amnesia out there to kill a horse. . . .”
The interplay between what is out there in the world and what is in here in the storage of memory and detail in a mind makes for a unique book of lyrical narrative poetry. I love that Raptosh chose the book-length long poem form for this work, as the lack of titles feels well-suited for a focus on a character constantly engaging in new versions of the same quest to sort it all out. I picture him in a rehab center (sometimes a nurse named Roxanne is mentioned) with newspapers and puzzle books on his bedside table, both of which are the triggers for several poems. The narrator has been told a number of details about his former life that don’t really ring a bell with him, such as a past as an art historian and also as a financial consultant for Goldman Sachs, and such as his name, Calvin J. Rineheart. Yet he feels more at home with the anonymity of John Doe, saying, a few poems in: “Please don’t call me Rineheart, as I do not recognize / the name.” He does feel deeply connected to memories of times shared with his wife Lisette, even though he notes: “friends and loved ones have it that I never married.”
Raptosh creates a fascinating character since even with his own sense of holes and spaces in his own story, this narrator is passionately convinced of the memories he does have and cherishes the images and stories they’ve left him with: “My marriage was hidden from friends and family. / Ours was a wild domesticity . . . / Twice a month we’d slather each other in edible body glitter.” There is a richness of detail, and language is key to the whole endeavor of claiming bits of the past (or of the now) with any certainty. One section in the middle riffs on questions about this country the narrator lives in:
is the united states a christian nation
is the united states a corporation
is the united states a demo
is the united states a democracy
It breaks away from a long sequence of such apt phrase pairings with a comment like an aside in a letter to a friend: “Last night I was looking for bean recipes. I forgot how to spell fagioli. // The laptop came at me with its unease: Did you mean: fragile?”
“What means what?” in a country and time with its own unease and identity confusion: this kind of social/political question thrums along and under all of the other identity musings at the heart of this book. Early on, this thought bubbles up in narrator’s musings: “The corporation in its artificial skin, has gained rights once granted / only to natural persons. Am I, John Doe, one of them?” A question like that from a speaker who has fallen through the stitching of his own life makes for a fresh take on the concept of “the body politic.” What is anyone’s place in this country or even in our own lives? To quote Raptosh’s memory-ruptured narrator: “The rational mind’s the moon we trust—but through it / ululates mirage. No knowing is neutral.” Details of the past and present—from names of famous people with handlebar mustaches like the narrator, to news of a landfill floating in the ocean, to possible statements bloggers are sharing about the life of Calvin J. Rineheart—commingle on the page in surprising ways, and every page contained lines that resonate.
The wide net of wonderings about self and others in American Amnesiac is a riddle of lyrical music, richly layered and exhilarating as the narrator tries to make sense of it all: “O BFFs / from this unfinished planet, it’s such clean joy to curate who I say I’ll be.” The substance and form of this book-length poem, the third published work from this author, echo like a modern-day variation on Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Diane Raptosh has written one of the most strikingly alive poetry books I have read in recent years.
A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
Nonfiction by Janice Gary
Michigan State University Press, August 2013
Paperback: 246pp; $19.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In this memoir covering more than thirty years, teacher and award-winning writer Janice Gary expertly braids together her life’s themes and experiences, focusing on her fifteen-year relationship with Barney, a stray Lab-Rottweiler that she finds in a supermarket parking lot. Barney fulfills the prediction made during his first visit to the veterinarian: he grows into a very big dog. This presents a complex problem for Gary after Barney becomes dog-aggressive as a puppy when he’s attacked by a larger dog and subsequently attacks and injures several neighborhood dogs. Gary, a trauma survivor who at fifteen years old found her father’s body after his suicide and then four years later was raped at gunpoint in a dark alley, explains how Barney’s size and power initially provide her with a sense of safety and security, although, since he outweighs and overpowers her, she’s challenged to control him when other dogs are present. The writer wins the reader’s sympathy for this life-loving dog, whose emotional wounds mirror the wounds of his owner: “We were twins, the two faces of fear walking side by side.”
After confining Barney to her house and yard for several months after he attacks a neighborhood dog, Gary begins taking Barney to the office with her, where her coworkers dote on him. Once Gary begins using a prong collar to control him, she finds the courage to start walking him in a nearby public park. Barney gives her the courage to walk unexplored trails, turn blind corners, and enter deep woods, and I felt my neck muscles tighten while reading her descriptions of holding Barney back and reversing course when another dog comes into view, when she freezes at the smell of cigarette smoke or a noise denoting the unseen presence of a possibly menacing stranger. When she and Barney encounter dogs off leash, her fear and frustration are palpable and understandable.
These daily walks in the park become a form of meditation for Gary, during which she observes nature and the changing of the seasons while pondering her life and future options. Trudging through slush and snow one day, Gary remembers the many things she’s frozen out of her life: “first dancing, then singing, then acting, then filmmaking, and finally writing.” Through these meditations, she gains clarity while pondering this line from a Mary Oliver poem that she’s taped to her notebook: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” When at age forty-eight, determined to find her voice, she applies to graduate school for an MFA in creative writing, she wrestles with fear and self-doubt—the same emotions she struggles with in the park exploring new paths and trails with Barney.
In grad school, Gary attempts to write a memoir about her years of playing punk rock music with various bands, disregarding danger and taking unwise chances with strange men, alcohol, and drugs, but her instructors insist that her writing is lifeless and stilted. As Barney ages and his health declines, his gait slows, forcing Gary to pause and experience her surroundings through the five senses, which in turn invigorates her writing. That sensory writing is the quality that makes this book special, its prose lyrical. For instance, on one walk, she sees “a shining slick of black water pooled beneath the sea oats,” hears “a weighty plunk, the splash of a toad heard but not seen,” smells stagnant water that reminds her of the odor of rotten eggs, feels a warm breeze on her face and the hard plastic dog leash handle in her hand. Exploring the world and her emotions through the senses helps her find the vocabulary for feelings long buried and helps her through the turmoil of her dog’s failing health, as well as her grief after his death. Walking in the park alone after he passes, she asks, “‘Barney, where are you?’ Perhaps he’s in the wind, in a Labrador’s breath, in the soft glow of afternoon light washing over the trees. Wherever he is, he’s still walking with me, maybe just out of sight up ahead.”
Dog lovers will enjoy reading about Barney’s playfulness, stubbornness, curiosity, and will to live, culminating in sadness at his eventual demise at the age of fifteen, finally succumbing after years of battling illness and disease. Writers will learn by example how to explore and describe the world on a sensory level. All readers will cheer for Janice Gary’s triumph over trauma, rape, and grief, as she poetically transforms her experiences to stories on the page.
Fiction by Kelcey Parker
Rose Metal Press, October 2013
Paperback: 208pp; $14.95
Review by Courtney McDermott
“Each material has its own message and, to the creative artist, its own song. Listening, [s]he may learn to make the two sing together.” Frank Lloyd Wright knew the art of crafting a structure that complements the space it inhabits. And as he suggests, artists must make music from the intersection of materials and messages. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s infamous Fallingwater (the setting for this book), Liliane’s Balcony is an architectural treat. Form and content are married perfectly in Kelcey Parker’s novella. Even the font and structure of the book were intentionally engineered. The font is influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and the time period in which he created Fallingwater, and each symbol beneath the chapter’s heading is taken from Wright’s own Prairie-style geometric patterns. The various narratives speaking throughout the novella operate like the various cantilevers and balconies of Fallingwater, allowing the reader to step out into a new narrative, but always ducking back inside to the narrative of Liliane.
The first storyline is that of Liliane, the lady of Fallingwater. She lives in this beautiful home on the waterfall designed by her friend and architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, but underneath she suffers from the various affairs of her husband, Edgar. The second storyline depicts the thoughts of each individual of a tour group as they move through Fallingwater during present time. Parker sways back and forth between several of the tourists’ thoughts and memories, to Liliane’s experiences, to the letters of her husband, and advice from the famous Wright himself (in the book referred to as FLLW). Both FLLW’s and Edgar’s words are borrowed from historical documents, and I marvel at how Parker found the perfect snippets and phrases to enhance her fictional narratives.
Despite this being a slight book, a cluster of characters percolates in its pages, moving us through the house. This approach could be overwhelming or cumbersome in the hands of some writers, but with Parker’s skill, each character is an amuse-bouche—a treat to the literary taste buds. Yes, at times I wanted more, but I savored the delicate pieces I had.
Back to the cast: there is Liliane, the lady of the house, who “is given the premiere room, the gravity-defying balcony.” There’s Lillian, her child self who falls in love with her cousin Edgar. And Edgar—the husband who writes poetic love letters, though he has affairs whenever he can. He has an affair with the nurse, whom Liliane calls “Stoops.” And then the tourists. Amanda, who is on a trip by herself, after being ditched by a beau. Janie, who is drifting from her husband and feels, once standing in Liliane’s room, hearing the waterfall, that she has stepped through “the white noise of a womb, her empty womb.” There’s Josiah Quimby, a rough and tough biker; and Daughter, the teenage youth who encounters Liliane’s ghost. And who can forget FLLW—the famous architect himself, who writes: “Any house is a far too complicated, clumsy, fussy, mechanical counterfeit of the human body.”
Strangers come together, and their presence transforms Fallingwater into a living entity. The staircase, the balcony, the atmosphere of the home are shapeshifters, symbolizing different things for the different people who inhabit the space. The house allows the characters to dig deeply and find themselves, and to undergo—in many ways—a nearly spiritual transformation. Daughter, especially, is moved by the house. Daughter communes with Liliane’s ghost and decides that she will “be an architect, and she is going to design haunted houses with staircases that lead to wherever she decides. Down into a pig pen, or up to a bird’s nest. To the end of the rainbow. To a candy factory. To a ghost’s grave.”
Though at the end of the book, I was sad to leave the world of Fallingwater and wished at times to get more of Liliane, to hear more from the Daughter encountering Liliane’s ghost, the work itself was complete. Parker has convincingly established that the novella is a form worth reading in its own right.
Fiction by Joshua Isard
Cinco Puntos Press, March 2013
Paperback: 240pp; $16.95
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi
Even if you were only half-awake in the late ’80s and early ’90s and only occasionally watched prime-time shows on ABC, you may remember the nostalgic narrator of The Wonder Years and the young urban professionals in thirtysomething, which sparked the now-commonplace term and later earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. Both shows were framed in the imagination of baby boomers, the Clinton-Gore age group back in 1992 whose childhood memories of Sixties counterculture now feels muted, ironed out into designer suits and body language that secure career paths and retirement plans. You might get a whiff of those two shows in Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless, through the tone of nostalgia for one’s teenage years that, to some extent, acts as an element of restraint and caution about being pulled too fast into an upwardly mobile career in information technology. The narratives of urban alienation in Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain, MTV’s Daria, and Kurt Vonnegut are not mere artifacts in Nathan Wavelsky’s suburban world, but serve as imaginary sticky notes for a life filled with statistical reports, deadlines, and board meetings. Thus, Nathan accepts a big job promotion with trepidation and, knowing the ball is in his court, requests a few months off for something unrelated to his career: his condition for accepting the offer is that he starts working in his new job after climbing Mt. Everest.
For many mountain climbers—including the less experienced—the Himalayas are the ultimate object of desire, the height of ambition that needles through their imagination, their nine-to-five lives. Though he has only been to one mountain range in Denver back in college with best friend Mark, Nathan has “had dreams about the Himalayas since [he] was a kid.” Unlike Nathan, Mark is “independently wealthy,” thanks to advancements in storing digital information that he had patented after presenting it as a college senior thesis; but more so, besides the tangible and intangible luxuries that go with wealth, Mark is spared the boundaries that constitute commitment in a marriage, the kind usually equated with mortgage payments and raising children. Thus, when Mark invites Nathan to climb Mt. Everest, after returning from China, the details of their hectic lives appear to collide, before simmering down into moments of nostalgia of the old days they’d soon burn with “a two hundred dollar joint” that mellows them out.
But the idea of Mt. Everest refuses to mellow out in Nathan’s mind and eventually seeps into his marriage life, in its daily plans and necessary disagreements, looking for ways to anchor its weight in the unknown and in fears of what might happen. Thus, when his wife Lisa hears about Mark’s invitation, she thinks of her child with Nathan as “being half way to orphanhood.” This is her perspective on Nathan’s commitments as husband and future father, an underhanded accusation of irresponsibility that quietly advances in their household, even though the baby does not exist yet. And so the mountain stands between Nathan and Lisa as something that must be dealt with, like an annoying third party in an affair: somewhere out there, but still in their midst.
In many ways, though, Mt. Everest also signifies lost youth, amidst Nathan’s stable and promising career path; this materializes in Nathan’s suspicious friendship with a pretty fourteen-year-old teenager next door named Rayanne, whose taste in music appears to match Nathan’s, as though the thirtysomething is channeling his high school “wonder years” through her. Now even though Isard is careful not to deepen the situation between Rayanne and Nathan, keeping it as platonic and non-physical as possible, he seems to understand certain “uneven desires” that burden our perceptions of adults in our culture who appear too friendly around minors. This element in the novel does not necessarily amount to something cautionary, nor does Isard imply about it as something pathological, but that, simply, these tendencies exist, part of a broad range of human emotions and experiences that flourish in our culture.
In some ways, Rayanne gives Nathan’s longing for lost youth a texture, a reality—on some level, he refuses to grow out of an innocence still spared from values and structures that organize adult life. On the other hand, Isard constructs compelling plot twists that try to usher Nathan out of that condition or emotional cul-de-sac, ever aware of a narrative arc, though perhaps not as sharp and pointy as the Himalayas.
A fellow mountain climber is indelible to those devices, a college student, the son of a computer mogul who freezes to death in one of the basecamps up there in Nepal. This weakens Nathan’s desire to continue climbing the highest peak of the Himalayas, as though suddenly that death inspires the death of Nathan’s childhood dream to climb Mt. Everest. Even though he does not make it to the highest peak of the world, Nathan fulfills that dream in some way by simply being there, attempting his climb. Indeed, he is a conqueror of sorts, an epithet that echoes the one applied to the main character in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film based on a Peruvian rubber baron of Irish-American ancestry who transported a ship over a mountain in the 19th century, and was dubbed Conquistador of the Useless. At times, the title sounds like the novel meditates heavily on the Sisyphean dimensions of ordinary life that structure America’s middle-class: interminable, repetitious, and always raging against boredom, against the uselessness of it all. But Isard refuses the clouds of Greek drama to hang over Nathan’s life, and manages to end his novel with something sweet and easy like a sunny, Sunday afternoon at the park.
How Cancer Becomes Us
Nonfiction by S. Lochlann Jain
University of California Press, October 2013
Paperback: 304pp; $24.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
It’s impossible to do justice to the breadth of literature that surrounds cancer. We can view cancer in a historical context through works like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies. We can read reflections from the medical community in Atul Gawande’s Complications. We can see literature through the decades—like Death Be Not Proud—take on the question of how to balance art and science in practicing medicine and what might determine what we would call “good medicine.” Countless examples shape how we, as a culture, think about and make sense of cancer. And at the forefront of all cancer genres is the personal anecdote: the story of experiencing cancer either firsthand or through a family member or friend. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us, by S. Lochlann Jain, takes the jumbled milieu of medicine, anthropology, culture, and history and tells us how we (broadly defined) think about cancer through the lens of her experience with it.
It’s hard to not have a mental model of cancer. It’s a diagnosis. It’s a disease. It’s a status. It’s a metaphor. It’s a meme. It’s a character. It’s distinctly personal and culturally distant. Malignant gives us the framework to appreciate that the explanatory schemas that Western society has come to use to understand the disease mimic, in fact, the disease itself. The book is a rare combination of first-person experience with cancer (the author acquaints us with her condition at the beginning of the book) and scholarly reflection. Malignant is rare in that it offers intelligent yet accessible analysis of cancer. Jain takes many literatures and many experiences and “translates” those experiences to a broader audience.
However, Malignant has a darker side to it. The book is profoundly uncomfortable to read—it causes the reader to reflect and to worry about cancer and oneself. This discomfort, though, is an interesting narrative technique that forcibly invests the reader in the narrative and compels the reader to take active ownership of one’s own opinions and experiences with cancer. Jain is fully and poignantly aware that for most readers, making sense of cancer is something that we’d simply rather not do. We’d rather not think about what it means and how we engage with it. Malignant strips us of that luxury—or perhaps highlights that intellectual laziness—through its deeply personal and anecdotal stories, its medical grounding, and its dark existential rigor. This darkness is perhaps best noted in the contempt, disgust, and (perhaps?) glimmering compassion directed at the medical community and the medical machinery that is the business of knowing, diagnosing, treating, and engaging with cancer between the doctor and the patient.
Something else came to my attention while I searched for information on my treatment course. I read a trial report written by one of the doctors, a pooh-bah in the oncology world, who had misdiagnosed me. An erupting chasm seemed to physically tear the papers from my hand as I realized once in the category “diagnosed,” I was useful. I don’t mean that I became an interesting case in any way. On the contrary, I was a statistic. But as a statistic I bolstered the gravitas and significance of her world. That recognition of the gap between the counter and the counted caused the rupture.
Malignant does not dwell in darkness, but neither does it let us avoid it. The narrative voice feels like something out of a Camus short story—someone with an observation about humanity to convey with detached exhaustion. In other words, the only meaning that the world has is the meaning we give it. To that end, we feel the personal experiences of the cancer patient(s) in Malignant creating the character of cancer, just as much as we feel a broader cultural milieu (be it scientific, medical, or societal) forming a definition of “what cancer is” and “how cancer is experienced.” The book’s dark almost-nihilism of the cancer experience is not easy for the reader.
But Malignant is, fundamentally, a good book—and perhaps more significantly for the author, an important one. It does not claim to be “the” voice of cancer, but rather, an enterprise whose fundamental thesis lies in the plurality of the cancer experience. If philosopher William James wrote about cancer, one gets the feeling that he would champion something that highlighted this plurality that Jain puts to her readers. In the growing literature of intelligent, reflective analyses embedded in personal experience, Malignant is an expressive and important work.
Poetry by Stan Sanvel Rubin
Lost Horse Press, September 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $18.00
Review by Andrea Dulberger
The beautiful cover image for this book of poetry—a painting by an artist named Linda Okazaki—features an animal, probably a fox, alone on a bridge over a vast expanse of water, with trees and mountains in the distance under an orange-red sky. There is a mythical quality to this painting that matches the energy of the best poems in Stan Sanvel Rubin’s There. Here. In this fourth full-length book by Rubin, I find an author who sometimes muses about life in direct, observant narratives and, at other times, offers images with the compression of Zen koans.
The two poems that open the book are titled with one of the two words of Rubin’s succinct title. “There” has this great, bold beginning: “In that century, nothing much happened,” and goes on to describe how there weren’t plagues, violence, “drought or dogma” in that unnamed far-away time. “There” ends with the narrator deciding that “It was pretty boring, really, this imaginary / century” which was “cursed only by remaining ignorant / of how terrible any day can be, how unforgettable.” I see Rubin implying that we tell ourselves stories about the past that gloss over the real experience of living, of how challenging the present moment can be. “Here” arrives at that challenge and includes the reader in its tumble of beautiful, dark imagery:
When we wake, we are a morning of despair.
We comb our hair out with crumbs,
we suck sleep from long spoons
until dizziness takes us back to the dream
we walk through all day. If we head up,
we go down. If we go down, we go
all the way down, to basements we didn’t realize
and farther. We step on stairs made of bodies,
an escalator of ruin keeps us moving.
The dream-like music of this poem continues for several more lines before swerving around with something like humor at the poem’s end: “Surely someone / will recognize our innocence, and love us.” This theme of looking for surprises amidst the struggles of daily living is one that seems central to the six sections of There. Here.
As a sequence, I was particularly struck by the second group, which features thirteen poems with titles such as “Beach in War Time,” “Coyote in War Time,” “Neighbors in War Time,” “Pine Nuts in War Time.” They are each stark encounters with ways “war time” is and isn’t present in daily life for those who are not in the field of battle. The war is outside of the direct content of these poems, yet its presence lingers above in the titles. The narrator of “Mail in War Time” is relieved at the “customary cheer” of the daily delivery of catalogs and other unnecessary items: “The little truck is good to see, / weaving the houses / into place.” That sparse line ends this short poem with a resonance that comes from selecting less words to suggest more than what is on the page—in a time askew with fighting and uncertainty, the familiar postal truck becomes an anchor. Sometimes the suggestion of violence invades the imagery, as in “Radishes in War Time”: “Bright little bombs, hard / as knuckles of the dead / under a collapsing sky.” Mainly, these poems are threaded with quiet observations and deep listening to what’s happening in a world linked by an amorphous “war time.” This line from “Conversations in War Time” feels more expansive each time I have re-read the poem: “There are lives everywhere / despite the essential silence.”
The variety of life that Stan Rubin hears comes across in how his subject matter comfortably combines observations of phenomena such as crows, mosquitos, a field in winter with a range of perspectives on human emotions. In “Nasty,” the narrator wishfully admits that “The crows brawl the way men / want to, loud, arrogant, yet / in control.” I think this poet also achieves a certain range in his writing by using a full spectrum of points of view: sometimes there is a third person observer-narrator; at other times, the narrator is in first person or a combination of first and second, or only second (“You walk in snow and leave tracks / and the tracks follow you as far as you go” begins “What’s Possible in Winter”); and a few times toward the end, the “we”—so prominent in the earlier poem “Here”—makes fleeting appearances. One of my favorites in this collection, called “The Education of the Animals,” has a point-of-view switch that speeds through primate evolution: “They start to imagine us.” Now they (we), “sit all day in airless cubicles / the width of branches,” and “Music keeps them going the way hunger used to.”
I enjoyed that music often kept these poems moving along, sometimes in long spools of punctuated phrases and at other times with short, sparse lines. Here are narrative poems that are often centered on the challenges and elusive mysteries of life, some of which really stopped me in my tracks and led to rewarding re-readings.
Poetry by Dexter L. Booth
Graywolf Press, November 2013
Paperback: 696pp; $15.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Scratching the Ghost is Dexter L. Booth’s first full-length book, though he has been published in a variety of literary magazines; this manuscript was the winner of the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. From the first stanza to the very last, I found myself reading like I had an addiction to his prose, and I just couldn’t put the book down. The beginning to one of his Abstracts:
like a scar after
the sweet kiss
Most of the poems appear to be biographical and the deeper you wade into the pages, the deeper your relationship and understanding of the narrator becomes. One of my favorite poems is titled “Anniversary” and is dedicated “for my mother.” The poem begins:
She puts on her wig like a smile
thrown sideways with the tilt of a little child’s head.
I watch her adjust it like an expression
or a tie, the temperature in a freezing room.
Inside she is worn
like the pages if my favorite books,
her teeth yellowing at the edges of each word
The descriptions are so real that I am in the room sharing a very intimate moment with the narrator and his mother. The poem has a dark edge to it, the reality that as we grow older and as perceptions change, everything changes. No matter how open you are to understanding and trying to get to know someone, some people will always be an enigma, and the future will always be doomed from the start.
In his poem “Waste,” we get more snippets from the narrator’s childhood. It is separated into three parts, this the first:
In first grade, I might have pissed myself because Ms. Jackson said I
could not leave, because we were testing and I might sneak out to a
friend and borrow their book. Maybe I might have sat with my legs
crossed, waiting for the bell to ring, tapped my foot against the chain
of the girl in front of me until she thought I was flirting, and smiled.
I might have pissed myself, I might have been the last kid to the
bus, lying and telling the boys in the back a sprinkler went off under
my crotch. Maybe I said, that smell is from Jerry in science class. He
doesn’t bathe. He farted on my leg. And maybe that’s the truth.
You can just imagine this kid in elementary school cooking up this elaborate story because he doesn’t want to get made fun of by his friends. Even as an adult, the narrator still presents the story without owning up to any realness—just a “maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t, I’ll never tell.” As readers we can all relate to an embarrassing moment of our youth that we fudge the truth on just slightly as we laugh about it in our adult lives. Because deep down it’s still supremely embarrassing, and if we can’t make it out on top, we at least don’t want to be at the very bottom of the pile like Jerry from science class.
Through the book of poetry we see the narrator face many obstacles, navigate through different types of relationships, and mature as a person. One of the final poems, “Queen Elizabeth,” considers not just race, but destiny and who you truly are. Booth presents Ethiopian tradition that some readers might not understand. And with lack of understanding comes fear and judgment. Like any family, humanity has disagreements about religion, race, and other cultural issues—some members so devout in their beliefs, others nonchalant, and others merely questioning. One night at a reading, the narrator runs into a kid who said he doesn’t “want to be a black writer.” And this makes the narrator angry.
But while reading this book, race wasn’t an issue for me at all. I never thought to check the picture on the back of the book to see what color person wrote these brilliant words. Because the entire time, it was all about getting lost in the raw moments. After finishing these 96 pages I found myself cut off from some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time, without a library of work to feed my incessant need for more Dexter Booth. Here’s to hoping he comes out with more entrancing work in the near future.
The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men
Nonfiction by April Moore
Craven Street Books, July 2013
Hardcover: $16.95; 251 pages
Review by Patricia Contino
The backstory of Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men would make a pretty good book of its own. Author April Moore’s great-great-aunt Betty, a “fiery redhead” who worked in Los Angles nightclubs, was married to Tom, a professional gambler and bookie with ties to LA and Las Vegas crime syndicates. If that wasn’t enough to keep family phone lines and dinner conversations buzzing, Tom had photos and dossiers of all 93 men executed at Folsom Prison between 1895 to 1937. Why he had them is a mystery; they came into his possession following a visit to the prison to collect a debt from a prisoner. After Betty’s death, the author acquired, as her grandfather labeled them, “the ugly mugs.” Moore follows this irresistible film noir of an introduction with straightforward accounts of how the condemned went to the gallows.
Each chapter includes a profile of a prisoner with details of his crime (or crimes), trial, and date of execution. The method of execution was always hanging. Moore filled in what the photographs and brief descriptions do not reveal with a history of Folsom (possibly written by an unnamed prisoner) that Uncle Ted also had, as well as through newspaper articles, police records, and court papers.
The matter-of-fact detailing of events in the entries does not make for dull reading. These individual stories are not only mini-biographies but also an informal history of California. The San Francisco that came into existence out of the Gold Rush was a culturally diverse boomtown attracting the rich, poor, migrant, and immigrant. The transition from agrarian to urban brought with it problems of settlement rights, land development, worker exploitation, and immigration that major cities all over the world confront. In 1880 Folsom, located 20 miles northwest of Sacramento, became home to the second oldest prison in the state and one of the first maximum-security facilities in the nation. (According to the prison’s Mission Statement, Folsom now “primarily houses Medium Security General Population Level II male inmates.”)
Folsom is also part of music history thanks to Johnny Cash’s classic “Folsom Prison Blues” and his 1968 concert performance there. However, not even The Man in Black can disguise the prison’s substantially documented history of harsh treatment and conditions—the primary motivation behind two riots in in 1903 and 1937 that resulted in murdered guards and escaped convicts.
Several of the condemned confessed without coercion. James Berry not only told acquaintances that he shot his wife Alice, he willingly turned himself in. During his trial, he said would “blow her up” again if given the chance. However, others were sentenced due to hearsay, inconclusive testimony, racism, or in the case of Chin Hane, all three. Chin’s facial scar matched that in the description the widow of a murdered merchant gave the police. The press found him guilty before the trail due to his “villainous” appearance. Despite testimony not placing him at the crime scene, which took place during a neighborhood disturbance erupting in gunfire, he was hanged.
The 1905 San Francisco Earthquake did not affect Folsom. Nevertheless, as Warden James Johnson observed, it temporarily “scared the sin out of some people.” Ways of committing a crime change. While not foolproof or incorruptible, forensics, checks and balances on local and federal law enforcement, the Miranda Rights Act, and testimony from social behaviorists have made interpreting the impulse to harm slightly easier to understand. Adolph Julius Weber might have benefitted from modern psychiatry. Convicted in 1906 for murdering his family and setting their home on fire to make it look like an accident, Weber displayed signs associated with paranoia (delusional, loss in primary interests, increased physical activity, egotism, mutilation of animals, violent outbursts) . . . findings not made public until two years after his execution.
Wyoming and Missouri are considering the return of firing squads to carry out the death penalty with the valid arguments that the drugs needed for lethal injection are costly and do not work quickly. Would a firing squad further romanticize the practice as in paintings and movies, or be the next step in the (de)evolution of reality television? Supporters might want to heed the words of James Johnson, who served as Warden not only at Folsom but San Quentin and Alcatraz as well. “Every execution upset me, I could not get used to them . . . not even when it seemed the logical ending to a lawless life.”
Whether changes in carrying out the severest form of corporal punishment are made or not, it is important to consider all parties involved. Even the bad guys deserve that, and the forgotten criminals in this book are worth learning about.
The Sentimentality of Post-9/11 Pornography
Poetry by Amy Sara Carroll
Fordham University Press, March 2013
Paperback: 104pp; $19.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
Poetry is often viewed as a respite from the noise and violence of the “real world.” A podcast that paused to lament the anti-intellectual culture of American politics talked of a book of poetry at a president’s bedside in the same breath as vacation and exercise. These things are necessary, or productive even, but not of the same world.
Not so Amy Sara Carroll’s Fannie + Freddie: The Sentimentality of Post-9/11 Pornography, the second poetry collection from the University of Michigan assistant professor. Winner of the 2011-2012 Poets Out Loud Prize, selected and with a foreword by Claudia Rankine, the collection’s layered hybrid texts slam the reader into a cacophony of strike-throughs, images of text, overlapping letters, and repetition that mirrors the information barrage of contemporary Western culture.
Yet Fannie + Freddie is not the buzz of a neon sign. It has a body, which breathes and talks but perhaps more importantly struggles to reproduce itself and maintain its autonomy. It ovulates and watches TV sometimes:
Is this my mini-epiphany regarding an ethics of listening, a poetics of has something to do with the sea-cum we are all swimming through. I ask myself, What leaves you the radio, the computer, the television, after I am force-fed a barrage of reported carnage.
Carroll’s language reflects the competing systems that form a mind: the rarified language of an academic ripping at the softness of borrowed lyrics; the analytical harshness of medical diagnoses interrupt the soft grunt of the breastfeeding mother. Subprime mortgages covered with bodily discharges. And throughout it all, media, media, media. Interruptions of interruptions:
Be careful what you wish for. A penny for your thoughts. I know not what I’ve done. Meanwhile, back at the split-level ranch, the gravity of the situation eludes elucidation. You got peanut butter in my chocolate! (Some Coke-laced memento experiment, boy-meets-girl skin flick.) Like cutting teeth, it’s a re-release, Don’t bite the breast that feeds you.
The result is a tangling of the domestic and political, a critical burning light turned on the intersections of events a world away with events in your own bedroom, events from which the reader cannot escape or even look away. Carroll’s text listens, even when the sounds and signs can no longer be processed, only catalogued, lovingly shelved next to each other for the archeologist of our wreckage.