Posted March 3, 2014
Mary & the Giant Mechanism ::
Shake Terribly the Earth ::
Melville as Poet
:: Hope Tree ::
Collected Poems ::
Let the Dark Flower Bloom ::
Trances of the Blast ::
A Long Way from Verona
Rigger Death & Hoist Another ::
I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out ::
The Year of the Rooster
The Artist's Library ::
The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad
Poetry by Mary Molinary
Tupelo Press, August 2013
Paperback: 80pp; $16.95
Review by Andrea Dulberger
One challenge with reading poetry that seems to be creating its own forms for what it is seeing and expressing is the tension between the urge to absorb the work as it is presented and an urge to search for clues—to go digging in, and perhaps between, the lines. On my first read through Mary Molinary’s Mary & the Giant Mechanism, I jotted little notes to myself and often thought, “hmmm . . .” On my second read-through, I mostly flipped through the pages at random, sometimes reading sections out of order, and thought “Ohh!” I think one of the successes of this poet’s first book of poetry is that it did compel me to go searching for larger “mechanisms” (to echo the title) that link the images and themes presented here.
The book is structured with two long sequences and two one-page poems that appear after each. Taken as a whole, the work casts a wide net, circling around themes related to time, perception, consciousness, war. Yet there is no treatise here; the poems gain their energy and suggest their questions from how they use imagery and narrative voice and lyrical language.
The first long sequence is titled “The Book of 8:38” and seems at first like a play on the medieval books of hours, which were illustrated Christian devotional texts. Molinary gives an epigraph at the beginning of the sequence from Rilke’s The Book of Hours, and the work does echo Rilke in that the narrator is deeply engaged in wonder about an invisible presence in daily life: here, that of the repeating specificity of time. One page begins: “How we inhabit this same space secretly / thrills me. Like Einstein. Time’s / little algorithms of glint & possibility.” Why focus one’s attention on the possibilities of one moment in time? “The most dangerous things are small . . . / miniature flame hiding in the wood . . .” And prior to that: “Given a theory of miniatures, 8:38 / is a weapon of mass destruction & to be feared.” This sense of time’s explosive potential, as well a vision of the future as a kind of flame unseen but in “hiding,” are some of the threads embedded in the sequence.
“The Book of 8:38” also has a fitting epigraph from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Breaking Open”: “Then I came entire to this moment . . .” I think of Rukeyser as a poet who was often contemplating relationships, especially between women and those in their lives or in regard to situations in the world. Throughout this long poem sequence, 8:38 is personified and brought into daily life with the narrator: “Tonight the relationships are clear. / 8:38 and I exchange glances.” The speaker shares what she’s learned about this one moment’s preferences—how it prefers tea and eggs to her coffee and toast; how it can be “so quiet” it seems like it is no longer in the room, “but elsewhere, / tumbling through the volume of itself.” These depictions are full of playfulness and surprise, an intimacy that the speaker isn’t entirely sure how to handle: “. . . 8:38 reads me all day, all day I can / tell it nothing.” The question “what is time ‘telling’ us?” is one undergirding the whole work. Here is a line where the personal interaction with 8:38 swings wide:
8:38 told me that the 21st
century will be not unlike the 20th
what with its 8:38s following
its 8:37s & all the stories
those with Names have told one
another to make themselves feel
The second long sequence in Mary & the Giant Mechanism, “Bird Signs,” moves with an urgency over a wide range of observations; there are birds, death, ancestors, migrations, photographs, a four-chambered heart pacing a stage. Some of these poems feel like sketches and others like layered paintings, so reading the author’s note at the end that this sequence is “in conversation” with many of the paintings of Morris Graves made sense to me. I was not familiar with this artist so I went searching to learn more: I found his iconic image from 1944 called “Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air” and learned that he saw his often wounded birds as symbolic representations of consciousness—which Molinary describes as “a reflection of the inner self” in her end-note. In Molinary’s poems, the birds are often witnesses of pain and devastation. In “Burial of the new law / bird singing in moonlight” she writes: “Thus did torture enter the common tongue & pop culture like a yawn / Thus was nevertheless a bird heard unseen in the weeping willow.”
The poems of the second sequence gather images and experiences with a sense that the full story is always just out of the picture. As the narrator of “War maddened bird following St. Elmo’s fire” writes: “What we cannot or dare not / see may be the truest things.” I find the second poem of the sequence, titled “Little known bird of the ribcage,” to be one of the grounding points for the whole collection, as its images and ideas loop backward to ones presented earlier and then forward into the rest of “Bird Signs.” When this section from the middle of the poem mentioned “The cell we have in common,” my mind went back to “The Book of 8:38,” and the idea of time’s repetitions as that cell felt close at hand:
The political prisoner
Awakes in the same
Cell with the same
First thought as yesterday
The cell we have in common
The target we share
What you believed once
Still holds: the body
Free or imprisoned
Your bird is your secret
A rod of carbon in an arc
Of light infinitely
Before we were fossils
We were merely
Hungry & chattering
There is a great deal to appreciate in Mary & the Giant Mechanism, from the rich imagery to the palpable sense that a lot is at stake here—whether due to the violence of war or the march of time in our daily lives or what we allow ourselves to see and remember. Mary Molinary’s first book engages with multiple themes in unique ways, and offers much to contemplate.
Stories from an Appalachian Family
Nonfiction by Sarah Beth Childers
Ohio University Press, November 2013
Paperback: 224pp; $24.95
Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson
The word “Appalachia” can call to mind a host of stereotypes: poverty, fundamentalism, environmental exploitation, backwardness. Each word conjures up a vague image of a broad region that many have never visited. By contrast, specificity and personal experience come to the forefront in Sarah Beth Childers’s debut essay collection, Shake Terribly the Earth: Stories from an Appalachian Family. Here, in linked essays that consider family ties, faith, and history, Childers reveals her unique understanding of West Virginia as seen through her eyes and the eyes of her family. Through careful attention to the personal, these essays gently argue for the validity of each person’s understanding of their own world.
The fifteen essays included in Shake Terribly the Earth present vibrant images of Childers’s world: dignified Fundamentalist Baptists in suits singing four-part harmony, family reunions where relatives “[load] cobbler onto their dessert plates,” a former train-engineer grandfather who “glided over bumpy brick streets” in “a long white sedan” (“O Glorious Love,” “Through a Train Window”). In “November Leaves,” Childers writes, “My family communicates in stories,” and specific details keep her stories alive.
Although these stories sometimes come from distant generations, Childers most frequently returns to the more immediate stories of her parents and grandparents, choosing instances that reveal the ways family shapes us. She considers her mother’s insistence that her daughters have long hair because her own mother forced her to keep “a mass of short, tight curls” through childhood and an embarrassing attempt to become a cheerleader because of her mother’s own failed desire to do the same in her youth (“Scissors”). In Childers’s essays, the actions of past generations manifest themselves in thoughts and appearances, beliefs and desires.
Many of the most memorable scenes of Shake Terribly the Earth come in the essays focused on the author’s childhood in a Pentecostal church. Remarkably, Childers approaches her religious background with a candor that proves illuminating—she both expresses her doubts and affirms her continued faith. In “At His Feet as Dead,” Childers vividly describes her troubling failure with spiritual baptism at age ten:
Both Beryl and Ric began to pray in tongues, a rhythmic cacophony of syllables. They waited for me to hear the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost, for my face to bloom with cloven tongues like as of fire. The air grew dense. I felt my white hair ribbon slide down the back of my neck.
I began to cry. I felt overwhelmed by the significance of the moment and afraid everything had gone wrong. I knew unfamiliar words—grammatically accurate sentences from a foreign language—were supposed to rise from my spirit, glorifying and petitioning the Heavenly Father in ways beyond my mortal understanding. My job was to speak the words aloud. But I didn’t hear any words.
In this excerpt, Childers succeeds by providing the right mix of contextual information, internality, and memorable physical details. She continues to do this throughout the essay, melding the charismatic images of Pentecostal worship—swaying singers, shouting pastors, children crying out in tongues—with direct statements about both belief and doubt. “I was slain in the Spirit when I was thirteen years old, in an experience I believe was real,” she writes. But only a few pages later she parallels this with “I’ve prayed in tongues many times in my life, and I believe every word has been a fraud.” Childers’s honesty and keen eye for detail makes “At His Feet as Dead” the collection’s finest essay.
Although in many instances Childers proves her skill in mingling lively description and necessary explanation, several moments in Shake Terribly the Earth come out feeling flat because of heavy-handed statements. In “Through a Train Window,” an essay which juxtaposes Childers’s memories of childhood moments with her PaPa Ralph (the former train engineer) with her mother’s less-fond memories of him as a distant father, Childers writes: “I realize now that spending time with his grandchildren was important to PaPa, that he wanted to make amends for his workaholic past.” Throughout the essay, Ralph’s newfound understanding of the importance of time spent with family comes through clearly in memorable details such as clandestine trips with Childers to “McDonald’s, Jim’s Spaghetti House, and Captain D’s” after school, or savored details of The Lawrence Welk Show watched together. Childers knows how to bring memory alive, but in a few instances like this one, the essays might have benefited from a greater reliance on this strength.
Ultimately, however, Childers’s ability to select the right details and to weave together moments that throw one another into sharp relief make Shake Terribly the Earth a testimony to the importance of personal experience. She also advocates for gathering those moments and sharing them with others. “The Tricia Has Crashed,” the book’s second-to-last essay, does this clearly as it folds the grueling trial of driving her grandparents to Philadelphia to watch her uncle die from alcoholism-induced liver failure with cassette-tape voiceovers recorded by her father and uncles as teenage boys launching rockets in a field. In the car, as Childers’s grandparents worry about the last details heard from the doctor, Childers responds by “[rewinding] a few inches of tape and [pushing] play again. ‘Listen, Mark’s about to talk.’ Listen, I begged. Listen to your well and happy son. Out in a field in the morning with his brothers.” The stories told by her family, the moments recorded on tape or video, Childers’ own essays—each resurrect a crystallized moment of the past seen through each beholder’s individual eye. Shake Terribly the Earth presents these moments with noteworthy care and respect.
The Art of “Pulsed Life”
Nonfiction edited by Sanford E. Marovitz
The Kent State University Press, November 2013
Hardback: 256pp; $60.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
Call me inspired. Most audiences come to know Herman Melville through Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, Sailor—deep, complex narratives that swell with metaphor and allegory. Both have entered the classical Americanist canon of literature thanks in large part to the early twentieth-century “Melville revival” within academia. Melville’s writing, however, extends well past the White Whale, and for the latter half of his literary career, his publication efforts and creative energy focused on his poetry. In recent decades, scholarly interest has turned to Melville’s canon of poetry as a window into American history and the understood role of a poet. (“[Melville’s] pained ironic view of his position as poetry weighed upon him.”) Melville as Poet: The Art of “Pulsed Life” (a bit of an odd title, but better than Melville: More than Moby) explores the breadth and depth of Melville’s poetry through its emphasis on the history, narrative, and imagery of a unique, careful, and lyrical American poet.
Melville’s poetry carries many similarities to his larger projects of narrative prose. The style in his poetry is unmistakable as it builds allegory upon allegory and complexity upon complexity. The poems are puzzles of meter, meaning, voice, and rhyme that juxtapose history and then-contemporary events. This use of allegory allows his readers to unpack events (from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Clarel to his own account of Civil War experiences in Battle-Pieces) using history as an allegorical window where events and interpretation of events are stacked like transparent panes, refracting Melville’s lyrical irony back to the reader.
Melville as Poet is an extremely detailed, well-researched, and technical compilation of essays from a variety of expert perspectives. Arranged roughly in chronological order of the poetry’s publication, from Melville’s Civil War poems to his work of Timoleon, Etc., each essay works to parse various aspects of the poetry, providing the reader a glimpse of the subtle complexities of Melville’s historical voice. The most interesting, and unexpected, dimension—shown consistently throughout the essays—is the poet’s inexorable commitment to the power of imagery.
In Battle-Pieces, author Mary Bercaw Edwards analyzes Melville’s treatment of the most famous naval conflict of the American Civil War—the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. Melville’s “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight” and “The Cumberland” place the reader immediately in the battle (“The story’s known”) but still utilize commonly recognized symbolic tropes of sunrise and sunset, water and baptismal resurrection, and unfurling banners to make sense of the battle. Interestingly, Bercaw Edwards claims that Melville’s battle pieces do more than merely use image and allegory for their own sakes—Melville, instead, tells of metallic, harsh battles through “mechanized” sounding poems to parallel the mechanics and machinery of each conflict. Imagery, allegory, and metaphor are present, but deeply buried—they are tools and means rather than ends, as in “The Cumberland”:
She warred and sunk. There’s no denying
That she was ended—quelled;
And yet her flag above her fate is flying,
As when it swelled
Unswallowed by the swallowing sea.
Many of the poems in Battle-Pieces, however, do contain more overt imagery as they are interpolations of events captured through then-contemporary paintings. “The Coming Storm,” for example, focuses on the emotional state of Edwin Booth, the owner of Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1863 painting A Coming Storm and brother to John Wilkes Booth. In “Pictorial Intertexts for Battle-Pieces,” Dennis Berthold argues:
Had Melville not identified the painting and its owner, readers would be unable to tell that this poem, itself, was based on that painting. . . . Melville’s aim is introspection, not imitation, and he mentions the source of his ruminations only to let readers know that art can inspire reflections far beyond its representational surface. . . . “The Coming Storm” evokes emotions blunted by the thud of relentless newspaper coverage of a brother’s base deed and well-deserved death.
In “The Coming Storm,” Melville offers:
All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim—
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
Fixed him and fascinate here.
Berthold’s essay acts as a guide for the reader—juxtaposing painting with poem and exploring the puzzling space between the two historically-inspired artistic moments.
Melville as Poet: The Art of “Pulsed Life” is by no means an easy read—it is technical, difficult, and packed with information and a wide spectrum of authorial expertise. In many ways, it assumes a certain level of familiarity with Melville, his life, and his prose. However, editor Sanford Marovitz does an amazing job of corralling and organizing the essays into a very understandable chronological arrangement, where analyses from one author easily lead the reader into the next aspect of Melville’s work. Melville as Poet is clearly a significant work to move Melvillian conversation past Moby and into Americanist poetical traditions. Here, Melville’s poetry comes into its own—no longer orphaned in the shadow of his larger narratives.
Poetry by Frank Montesonti
Black Lawrence Press, July 2013
Paperback: 90pp; $11.95
Review by Cindy Hunter Morgan
The front matter of Frank Montesonti’s Hope Tree asserts something interesting for an erasure formed from a how-to manual about pruning: “method / is unnecessary / to remove / the past season.” It is a fitting introduction to a book in which leniency and ruthlessness, and growth and death, are inexorably intertwined.
Montesonti’s work is an erasure of How to Prune Fruit Trees by horticulturalist R. Sanford Martin. Erasures—poems created from existing text by removing selected words and punctuation—are a kind of heavily pruned art, so it seems particularly meaningful that Montesonti chose a text about pruning from which to create Hope Tree. As with any erasure, it is interesting to consider how much of the original work is left in what is new, and how much of a work is inevitably unerasable. Montesonti’s finished work is very much about pruning, though it is pruning of a new sort—somber and metaphorical.
That Montesonti’s pruning of a text about pruning results in an erasure about pruning—even emotional or psychological pruning—might seem disappointing. The point of an erasure, it seems, is the wild surprise hiding inside, waiting to be rubbed open, waiting to be revealed. If a poet fails to trim enough, he risks winding up with something too close to the original text, and where is the wild wonder, then?
In Montesonti’s work, there are pages stripped of excess and exposition, as on one with just three lines: “be recognized / almost as though / burned by fire.” There also are surprises—enough to make this book feel like the revelation that poetry ought to be. But there are, as well, sections that feel insufficiently thinned. Even his nine-line erasure used as the forward might finish two lines too late:
I have hesi-
I was aware
I have tried to make
my instructions simple
providing one knows what
he is pruning for.
This commercial orchardist
owner of a few trees.
Admittedly, this does a disservice to Montesonti’s work. The lines are compressed, and the quote, consequently, is missing the ragged beauty of Montesonti’s erasure. Much of the strength and mystery of any erasure is in the white space. Nothing is entirely flush or centered, lines are staggered, and the space between lines—the vast whiteness—has a kind of musical silence. White space always matters in poetry, of course, but it seems to matter more in erasures. One page in Montesonti’s book has only two words: “ornamental” at the top, and “indefinitely” at the bottom. It feels like a kind of manifesto.
What Montesonti creates with the language he keeps, and with the white space he produces and protects, is an exploration of how we grow and why we blossom. Inevitably, what he creates is also an unflinching, unsentimental statement about the importance of removing what is dead in our lives. This, naturally, leads to a fair question: Where is the promised hope in a book which has moments such as this: “every winter / is simple / cleared away and burned”? Or this: “the sour types / are naturally very tall growers.” Where is the hope in a book that asserts the importance of “removing / the / least desirable” and later reasserts that Darwinian truth: “Remove the one which contributes / the least.” This work implores you to “Follow instructions / head down” and asks a reader to “consider / the dead / crossing branches, / rubbing one another / in an overcrowded manner.” Where is the hope in a book that concerns itself with blight and infection?
It is true that a kind of stern caution pervades much of this erasure. Over and over again, we are reminded that we must do that which is difficult. But hope, as Montesonti reveals it, is braided with the hard work of excising what is diseased or already dead. Hope is what remains after elimination, and what is renewed every season. Hope is given to us on a page with only nine words: “Valencia, There is time / to work your way inside.” And hope appears later in “an imaginary circle drawn around / the future.” There even is this imperative: “Keep / content as possible.”
Occasionally, there are inconsistencies in what Montesonti uncovers. Early on in his erasure, he reveals a lovely and fantastical image: “in the lower portion / blossom / the dead.” This specific hope is not corroborated elsewhere in the book, which seems, mostly, to assert the uselessness of what has died. There is a minor conflict, too, in the very act of pruning—in the tension between letting something become itself (“this work of individual shape”) and trying to control tangles and train everything “. . . into an / almost exact duplicate of all the others.”
Interestingly, Montesonti’s 84-page erasure about doing what is difficult ends in observation, with a two-line page: “live twig, and watch it / for a few minutes.” Here is the pleasure that comes after labor. Here is the satisfaction one sometimes feels after an act of severity, a word that has, in its beginning, the verb central to this book: sever. To end something is a kind of ruthlessness and a kind of hope. It is, quite often, the work of the orchardist, and the work of a human being. There is this to consider, and much else to savor, in Montesonti’s erasure.
The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939-1947
Nonfiction edited by Paul Herron
Hardcover: 440pp; $34.95
Review by Trena Machado
Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939-1947 begins with Anaïs Nin and her husband, Hugo Guiler, escaping the war in Europe to relocate to New York City. On the first page, she is also concerned about whether her two lovers, Henry Miller and Gonzalo Moré, would come to New York with her. They did. Also on the first page, she writes: “I am still baffled by the mystery of how man has an independent life from woman, whereas I die when separated from my love.” Four hundred and forty pages and a dozen or more lovers later, she is still in the realm of needing love, experiencing loss, and longing for the one love that will make her whole. Her lovers are the content the narrative is hung upon, but not the most interesting. There is very little written outside her desire for love, finding love, being in love, leaving the lover, very little written about the art of the day or even about the city of New York or the world that was at war. The drama here is within the psyche of Anaïs Nin.
Many have called her self-absorbed, neurotic, narcissistic, immoral. But another way of looking at her actions is that she is driven unconsciously and overwhelmed from within by forces that she does not understand. She struggles to fight against “neurosis” or “the hunger” or “the illness,” as she variously calls these inward disturbing states by which she is compelled. She says she cannot go out alone without one of her lovers being with her. She rushes home by midnight to sleep with her husband after being with a lover—a husband she lies to, manipulates, and is supported by, whom as a partner she is not satisfied with, and yet who is the one who gives her a safe foundation to deal with what she is experiencing. She does have conscious glimmerings of what her husband, Hugo, is giving her at this fundamental level: “[Hugo] the haven I did not want. The fulfillment I perversely negated . . . the passion [with the many lovers] is not the marriage, but the illusion of union that never takes place.” The next five years of the diary, after this entry, consist of one young lover after another, passion ever sought as it falls short from one to the next. Her constant distracting pull is her father’s abandonment of the family when she was eleven. The diaries began as a letter to have him return; many of the allusions made about her lovers mention her father in comparison. The invisible here is “exactly what was her relationship with her father as a child?” Or, did Nin experience a trauma at a young age which her mind could never incorporate or give voice to . . . only act out in order to quell its inward destruction? We only have the circumstantial evidence of her actions to let this be a hypothetical possibility.
Leaving the lovers aside, she was keenly self-observing of what she was experiencing. As difficult as it is to apprehend the internal labyrinth she was struggling to traverse with all the lovers (the lies, secrets, double-lives, self-loss, suicidal thoughts)—“The only terror I have is to look into a space without a lover . . . I only exist in the body of the lover . . . I live only in passion, pain, depths, darkness”—she gives us the dynamics of desire, its different states, from the torture of it to its placating aspect for her:
I let the desire mount like a wave, surge, and then fall, foam, disperse. The new mastery, desire that is not a wound, a defeat, or a bondage, but an exquisite game to be played, an instrument of enjoyment…there is only a man seeking his soul, and a man with desire. . . . There is a point of desire, but without body.
Enabling her duplicitous life, she accurately details the functions of illusion, delusion, dreams and mirages for her, all states she is aware of that hold her drive to have love in its purity of escape and to assuage the endless, internal pain . . . mundane veracity a moot option as she was drowning:
I have never faced my own irrationality . . . I do not try to elude suffering, but there is a masochistic suffering masking deeper truths and terrors. Behind all my suffering lies a greater truth I have not yet faced—I am still amazed how a situation can arouse such passion, create such an intense mirage.
She is conscious of how her writing relates to her life:
It is only to save myself from melancholy, depression and insanity that I see consciousness again. . . . I write, to communicate directly with the emotions. There is mystery here. . . . The exaltation which takes hold of me even when I am in a physically low condition is too much for writing. It breaks the mold of words. That is why I have done so much bad writing, diffuse and oceanic.
Mirages is a challenging book, emotionally and psychologically. In the commentary about it, there is often partisan glorification, such as Kim Krizan in the introduction who is opposed to those heaping scorn on “Nin for daring to live by her own moral code.” But . . . is that what is happening? Nin is merely an artist living life her way? We don’t know, nor did she, what was driving her from within, but she was aware that it was from the “unconscious.” What we do know is that she was an intense observer of the energy she was consumed by and the dynamics of that energy were given expression with experimental writing techniques that she developed specifically to write her emotions, using association, the subjective and lyric sensibility. She writes that her “art is not artifice. The form of my art is the form of my life, not the artificial pattern of narrative . . . ” Madame Bovary, her fictional forerunner, women who revolt from within at the level of the psyche against social forces imposed on their lives . . . there is the sense Nin gave all in this diary. Overwhelmed at the level of the unconscious, she was seeking truth, another kind of truth, for herself.
Poetry by Ron Padgett
Coffee House Press, November 2013
Hardcover: 840pp; $44.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Many readers associate Ron Padgett with the so-called second generation of the New York School of Poets. He did, after all, edit, with David Shapiro, the multi-generational spread An Anthology of New York Poets (1970), was at one time director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Lower East Side, and has continued for decades to split his time living between homes in Vermont and Manhattan. He has also written intimate memoirs of, as well as edited works by, his friends, poet Ted Berrigan and artist Joe Brainard. And of course in the 1960s, the three collaborated on the infamously mischievous Bean Spasms, now a classic of collaboration from the era.
Yet Padgett has also translated several notable French poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Pierre Reverdy, written the go-to poet apprentice book Handbook on Poetic Forms, published a memoir of his bootlegger father that is as equally engaging as those on Berrigan and Brainard, reeled off numerous reviews and other short prose works collected in not less than two volumes to date, and produced numerous fantastic collaborations with visual artists and fellow poets (none of which are included in Collected Poems). In short, his overall output is quite prolific and far-ranging beyond any “school” of one sort or another.
Poet Noel Black’s interview with Padgett, published in Black’s zine LOG in 1998, has for years been among my all-time favorite interviews. An inveterate fan of Padgett’s, Black came to the interview well prepared, resulting in a detailed run-through of Padgett’s reflections on his work up to that point in time. Padgett speaks in depth of the strategy employed for writing one of his first longer poems, “Cufflinks,” and offers splendidly demure reflections regarding his early poem “Bartok in Autumn” (not included in Collected Poems, having been published during the 1950s when Padgett was in high school and editing the zine White Dove Review—for which, while still a teenager, he managed to successfully solicit work from Allen Ginsberg, among notable others). Throughout the interview Padgett throws out nifty, quotable summations, including: “I don’t think anything is taboo in poetry, which is one of the reasons I like poetry.”
Padgett’s poetry freely ranges through various forms and subject matter. His early work is near-Cubist in a fragmentary, cut-up juxtaposition of nervy spasticity. As he progresses, prose poems make regular appearance throughout the years, as do poems averaging several pages in length. All come across as delightfully spontaneous creations where leaps of logic mix with the illogical, while a frivolous yet sincere charm coats all. Padgett himself admits that in his poems he never knows what’s coming next as he writes, enabling him an uninhibited freedom that he’s naturally suited to as he goes. Humor certainly appears dominant throughout Padgett’s poetry. Yet a serious tone, straight-faced as ever, prevails. Padgett’s laughter comes with more of a grimace rather than carefree jubilance.
In the early summer of 1921, race riots erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I recently came across mention of these events on two separate occasions. One was NPR radio station KQED’s announcing an upcoming broadcast of an episode of the show “State of the Re:Union” that focused on Tulsa, promising “the program explores one of the country’s deadliest race riots, a story that has been suppressed for 90 years.” Who knew? Well, I for one had been reminded of the tragedy as a couple days before that I had been reading Padgett’s Collected Poems and had come across his piece “Radio” from the collection Toujours L’Amour, published in 1976! The second section of “Radio” (drawing upon language found in news sources) details the riots and the events which led up to them—a young black male “bootblack” accidentally stepping on a young white woman elevator operator’s foot and her subsequent accusation of being attacked by him.
As a Tulsa native, Padgett obviously has a somewhat vested interest in the events along with their subsequent suppression. However, he passes no personal judgment in the poem; instead it lets the events speak for themselves. In 1976 this poem must have come as a shock to readers, or at least it’s easy for today’s readers to feel it should have. While it’s rather atypical of a Padgett poem to delve into historical events outside of those more personal to himself, family, and friends, especially ones rich with seemingly unavoidable political ramifications, it is not at all surprising to be surprised by a Padgett poem. Padgett regularly deals in realms of the unexpected. Just when you think you know what to expect next he jolts your expectations. The Collected Poems definitively convinces that there is no such thing as a stereotypical Ron Padgett poem. There is no label to place Padgett under other than Padgett, and even then he’s sure to surprise himself.
Fiction by Norah Labiner
Coffee House Press, April 2013
Paperback: 384pp; $16.95
Review by Wendy Breuer
In Norah Labiner’s Let the Dark Flower Blossom, the character Roman Stone, a writer, says, “A story is a map to the underworld and how you follow that map is, of course, entirely up to you.” This story is cut into different patterns of back-story and forward motion, and point of view shifts from first person to third, character to character. Stone, a celebrity novelist, has been murdered. The news is shocking but not really a surprise to the lovers, enemies, and friends who have revolved around him, seemingly helpless to get out of his orbit. What the reader learns about Stone comes from the retrospective memory of the others. He appears to be the monster in the center of the labyrinth.
Initially the exposition seems to take place behind a glass barrier. This is a self-conscious meta-fictional work about literary ambition, hidden evil, competition, and guilt. Its characters—writers, readers, and academics—exaggerate the self-consciousness. They constantly discuss: What is the story? Who owns the story? What are the rules of story-telling? Who breaks the rules? How does the story end? Is the novel dead, and who killed it?
Sheldon Schell and Eloise Sarasine are twins. Their history with Stone goes back to their freshman year in a small Midwestern college. They are fleeing tragedy: the death of their parents (possibly murder-suicide) and the destruction of their childhood home (possibly arson). Roman is rich, decadent, and upper class. Eloise becomes his lover, and Sheldon his roommate. Roman writes a precocious and successful novel on Sheldon’s typewriter, betraying his friend doubly by appropriating his story.
Sheldon’s is the voice that dominates. Later in life, he lives on an island in the Great Lakes as a failed novelist and hermit. Also on the island is an old doctor dying of dementia. Sheldon tells him over and over about his guilt, about crimes he may or may not have committed, about Stone’s betrayal knowing that each time, the old man will not remember.
I never wrote my story, no.
I told it again and again. Perfecting it—
To Dr. Lemon.
Infecting him with the sickness of the words.
He is thrown into a crisis when another writer ferrets him out on his island to plunder his knowledge of Stone and to rehash the story yet again. Schell slowly undermines his own reliability as details are revealed about a murder/rape of a hitchhiker involving the two roommates in a winter landscape long ago.
Eloise is a wife in a doll’s house with her lawyer husband, Louie, who makes his living undermining the credibility of memory in the courtroom. Her dialogue and thoughts are interwoven with literary references. “Eloise looked up from her horoscope in the newspaper. ‘Snow is general,’ she said.” She sleepwalks through her upper-middle-class life as she recalls the past, sifting through, and avoiding and confronting facts.
Her rooms were quiet. In her coffee, she stirred cream and spooned sugar. Snow fell and was falling. . . . And though she had certain theories about why the caged bird sings, she was undecided as to whether existence preceded essence. Or why it so happened that year by year, as there was more to her, there was less and less of her.
She starts an affair with her first husband, Zigoullier. Susu, Eloise’s daughter from that marriage, runs off with Stone despite the possible efforts of her mother to protect her from being drawn into his web. It is Sheldon who introduces Susu and Stone. Susu speaks to the reader in the aftermath of her affair with Roman, in an unspecified Mediterranean location.
He told me a story. It was not a story. . . . It was a body. It was not a body. It was the chalk outline around a body. It was not a story. . . . And the last morning on an ancient island with the birds and oranges . . . he asked me if I believed him. We stood on the balcony, he scattered bread, and he told me that when it came round to it, I would turn against him.
A soap-operatic tangle of incest, betrayal, and revenge unravels, involving Susu, Eloise, her first lover, Roman, and Zigoullier. Eloise may be the conscience of the “story” when she speaks the line that gives the novel its title, a reference, perhaps, to Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter: “It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may.”
Labiner’s writing has a perseverative quality, like an incantation. The reader has to spend much energy determining the nature of the game, but this effort pays off as the intrigue deepens. Story and memory become characters in their own right, malleable and unreliable. The novel is either a map or a maze that leads into a fractured gothic tale of guilt, crime, and the distortions of reality and memory.
Poetry by Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, October 2013
Hardcover: 136pp; $22.00
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
“What is the code for happiness?” Mary Ruefle asks in “Trances of the Blast,” a poem that comes midway through her book of the same title, but is as good a place as any to begin:
What is the code for happiness?
At one time
Now it is another time
Whether “Blackberries forever” is the code for happiness or not, it’s unquestionably evocative of a poetic history, priming readers to recall Whitman’s blackberry adorning “the parlors of heaven,” or Plath’s “Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,” or Robert Hass “saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry,” or maybe all three, among infinite others. Ruefle constructs sentences—or, in this case, paired questions and answers—that shift direction midway through like schools of fish. The seeking of happiness in her hands becomes a matter of poetic history, which is dismissed—“Now it is another time”—almost as soon as it is called forth, leaving echoes of that history to reverberate as the rest of the poem charges ahead.
Ruefle operates similarly at the phrase level; consider, for example, the opening lines from “Mimosa”: “Pink dandruff of some tree / afloat on the swimming pool.” The “pink dandruff” deglamorizes flower petals as an image, while the generalized “some tree” makes the move feel almost offhand, until the second line refocuses on a specific place, visually pairing the pink with the presumably artificial blue of pool water, while locating the tree by the pool.
Trances of the Blast features 75 new poems, and follows Ruefle’s 2010 Selected Poems and her 2012 essay collection, Madness, Rack and Honey. All three were published by Wave Books, and it would seem remiss not to mention the careful typography and clean aesthetic of this book in particular and the press’s titles in general: Wave makes beautiful books that feel classic and modern at the same time.
But beyond its pretty packaging, Trances of the Blast is full of good poems. Ruefle’s unmistakable voice connects them enough that no structural conceit is necessary. And yet the arrangement isn’t haphazard; the poems comment on each other in order, as when “Sawdust,” “Broken Spoke,” “Fall Leaf Studies,” “Platonic,” and “Woodtangle” collectively disassemble a tree into its parts.
From the very beginning, the poems work to suspend time, and then dismantle the world within that suspension. The book opens with the lovely “Saga,” which begins,
Everything that ever happened to me
is just hanging—crushed
and sparkling—in the air,
waiting to happen to you.
The poems move between narrative and non-narrative modes, pairing big abstractions with minute, specific things in surprising ways; dolls and schoolhouses and Mickey Mouse and Basho and squirrels and henna and malarkey are all at home here, and to great effect. However, there are occasional off-notes, when Ruefle perhaps pushes the lawless diction too far. In “Mimosa,” for example, the speaker says, “I’ll xanax myself to sleep,” and although downplaying the proper noun as a lowercase verb prevents it from sticking out on the page visually, the Xanax reference pins specific ideas of social class and adulthood a little too clearly on a speaker who otherwise appears to hang near-perfectly between childhood and adulthood, innocence and worldliness.
This suspension is part of what gives Ruefle’s work such power—the poems are paradoxically both evasive and intimate at the same time, and a deeply felt sincerity pulses through lines that seem on the surface to be toying with words. The linguistic tricks at work in phrases like “trances of the blast” are balanced by an emotional tension that makes the poems memorable beyond their inventive language. Loneliness and a particularly bereft mode of yearning to understand the incomprehensible crop up repeatedly, beginning with the very first page of the book. “Everything that ever happened to me / happened to somebody else first,” Ruefle tells us in “Saga.” “I would give you an example / But they are all invisible.”
Fiction by Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, November 2013
Paperback: 208pp; $16.00
Review by Olive Mullet
To read a Jane Gardam novel is to be sorry when it ends. In this country she is best known for her non-chronological Old Filth trilogy: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Final Friends. But this early (originally published in 1971), seemingly autobiographical novel, A Long Way from Verona, has the same Dickensian, odd, well-defined characters. Her wit comes through as usual, in spite of the sometimes obscure British references.
This novel follows Jessica Vye from ages 9 to 13, during the war in a small seaside town called Cleveland Sands, as she begins recognizing herself as a writer. The war moves from sidelines to foreground occasionally: from the mention of beach mines and a strange silent classmate sent to the country to avoid the London Blitz, to meeting a prisoner and being especially affected by an air raid. Mostly, the spotlight is on Jessica, with the background of her eccentric family and friends and the school’s odd but recognizable teachers. In the first section, “Maniac,” Jessica’s rebellion gets her in trouble with her teacher, but a visiting writer declares, “JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT!” This is the “violence” this budding writer self-consciously refers to in the very first sentences of this book:
I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point.
She defines herself
. . . in three parts. Tripartite. Viz:
1. I am not quite normal
2. I am not very popular
3. I am able to tell what people are thinking. And I might add
4. I am terribly bad at keeping quiet when I have something on my mind because
5. I ABSOLUTELY ALWAYS AND INVARIABLY TELL THE TRUTH.
This might be a young adult book, except perhaps for the fascination with vocabulary like “antediluvian.” However, Gardam captures the age group perfectly, especially Jessica’s defiance of one teacher, which may have led to her expulsion but for the protection of Miss Philemon, another eccentric teacher in charge of older students.
As is the case with other Gardam novels, the reader can’t skim or she will miss the humor. For example, after the family has moved to this part of the country, Jessica notes: “The way they plugged on at things at this school! It takes them ages to get on and do anything. There is a lot of Danish blood on this part of the coast my father says, and the Danes tend to stand about rather. After all, look at Hamlet.”
Like Dickens, Gardam creates a character with the sounds that character makes. In the second section, “Boy,” which has to do with Jessica’s being invited to an upper-class house party, she comments on the other adults she meets:
. . . aunts and friends of their mother’s called things like Auntie Boo and Lady Pap-Fisher (honestly) and they thought I was one of them and Auntie Boo who was in Red Crawss (you have to call it Crawss) uniform with a mouth like a safety pin . . .
In this section Jessica meets her hostess’s son, who looks like her favorite poet, Rupert Brooke. But Christian, “the boy,” has strange ideas, while trying to act older than he actually is (the same age as her): “He raised an eyebrow and the side of his nose. He was what my mother calls loving himself.” His goal to educate Jessica by showing her a slum comes with consequences he doesn’t bargain for.
In the final section, “The Poem,” Jessica discovers her independence from her favorite people, including Rupert Brooke and Christian, as she sees their hypocrisy. And with the help of Miss Philemon, she also discovers her talent as a writer. This wonderful section shows the very real birth pains of a writer, starting with the discovery of the bad writing of her mentor (the writer, interestingly called Hanger, who recognized her talent). And she’s almost derailed by Thomas Hardy’s depressing novels, dependent upon the protagonist’s missed meetings. “If he [Jude the Obscure] had [met someone] who knows, says Hardy, then all might yet have been well. Then he adds, but this did not happen, this good fortune, BECAUSE IT NEVER DOES.” Hence her hometown becomes lonelier: “As I’ve said before, Cleveland Sands is the deadest town in the whole world—streets and streets of houses with heavy old curtains . . . and never a soul.”
But what Jessica fights against, really, is accepting her good fortune and her talent. With the end’s resolution, she is uplifted, and so is the reader.
Poetry by Laura McCullough
Black Lawrence Press, October 2013
Paperback: 80pp; $14.00
Review by Emily May Anderson
The best word to describe Laura McCullough’s newest book might be “fearless.” This may seem strange, as many of the poems deal with the horrors and threats of the world. These are not poems without fear, but poems that directly confront the speaker’s fears, and in so doing, they offer a way through.
The poem “Saturation,” from the second of the book’s three sections, articulates this impulse clearly and exemplifies some other common features of the collection as well. The poem begins with a plea to the over-saturated, neon modern world: “Intensity! Oh, immutable hue, do not assert yourself. / Why even gray has differences in lightness or brightness, / and who lives in anything less than vividness?” The first blocky stanza covers ecological territory (“New Jersey spring days, / cast in a toxic glow” and “Murky water, dark wall paint, / the VOCs eating out your brainstem”) before the poem turns to television, “that cliché of self-medication.” Where it gets really interesting, though, is when the form shifts to a more spaced-out line and a stanza that staggers across the page. McCullough asks:
Does anyone howl anymore? About anything?
Oh, Corso! Oh, Ginsberg!
Oh, Patti Smith at his knee
all elbow and jawbone
and hair-product-less hair singing
Frederick, not afraid to say name of care
night of wonder
wings of a dove,
yes, scream, dance, fuck, sing,
call the sky
a neo-fantastical-dream-of flight
The desire to howl at the injustices of world is a motivating force for this book, but the poem also takes a jarringly beautiful turn at the end. “Paint the sky with the forgiveness you owe,” McCullough writes, “punch a hole through this saturated life / and step right through.”
The invocation of other poets, both past and present, is a lovely, although occasionally mystifying, feature of this book. McCullough converses with many different writers, some on a first-name basis. Expressing a similar idea to “Saturation,” the poem “There Were Only Dandelions” declaims: “Not all poems are meant to entertain, / like Jericho said,” referring to a poem from Jericho Brown’s first book, Please. Later the poem references both Williams and Stevens, big enough names that they are easily recognized.
While the book’s first section covers many different topics, the second and third focus heavily on the speaker’s role as mother, particularly as a mother to sons. One example of this appears in “They Dream of AK47s,” a poem which focuses primarily on the speaker’s son’s experience in a gun club. When he tells his mother about how a friend of his fired a gun into the body of a dead deer “to see what buckshot can do,” the speaker says that she thinks, “of cats, of women, the cave everyone wants to enter, / the need for damage dropped frogs, / boys told not to cry like a girl,” and then after referencing William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark” (also about a dead deer), she comes down to thinking of “the inadequacy of language / poems / do I have to say mothers?” This fear of not being enough, of not being able to defend her sons from the violence of the world, is echoed through several poems, but there remains also a sense of hope and love. “They Dream of AK47s” ends with the simple couplet, “Everyday, I tell Hunter I love him. / Everyday, he says, Hush ma, I know.”
The violence depicted in this book is difficult to absorb at times. News stories from around the world haunt the collection with violence, death, and injustice, and some linger long in the reader’s memory. What lingers even longer, however, is the sense that facing these horrors in words is a way to deal with them. After stating that poems are not meant to entertain, “There Were Only Dandelions” continues:
no, not entertain, but sing just the same,
a polyphony of song
birds in the morning,
snow geese aflight, guns rocketing,
barrel out, sound through
the beating blood,
bleating animals, beseeching
all those river gods
for some respite from this suffering.
The moments of beauty in the book, the moments of love and hope, provide such a respite from the suffering of the world.
True Stories of Becoming a Nurse
Collection edited by Lee Gutkind
In Fact Books, April 2013
Paperback: 278pp; $15.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation enlisted Lee Gutkind, the editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, to choose these twenty-one essays in this new collection from the two hundred submissions sent in response to a call for manuscripts. Gutkind, who in the past two decades has written five books about the medical world, reveals in the introduction that he has a clear memory of the doctors and patients in his stories but not of the nurses, who remain semi-invisible to most of us, even though there are over 2.7 million of them working in the United States. The purpose of this book is to bring nurses out of the shadows and shine a light on the difficult work they do, as well as to educate readers about the demands of this challenging occupation.
The writers featured here are all nurses or former nurses, some nurses in training establishing their place in the medical hierarchy, and others having left the field, looking back across time to reflect on the vast changes made in the profession. While each writer focuses on a different aspect of nursing, using their patients and experiences as examples, the reader will notice several common themes. Gutkind identifies the overarching theme: “No matter how difficult nurses’ lives or how secret their suffering, becoming a nurse entails movement into another dimension of strength and character and persistence; it is a path of irreplaceable and often unacknowledged service to society and humanity.”
These writers share rare glimpses into the joys, sorrows, and challenges facing nurses every day in hospitals, home care sites, doctors’ offices, and nursing homes all across the country, stories that have mostly been kept secret, because of privacy laws and because nurses prefer to spare their families the pain and suffering they’ve witnessed and “leave the pressure and the scars of their profession behind them when they leave work at the end of a shift.” These stories reinforce the notion that nurses are the ones who keep the medical care system running, or as Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Pittsburgh Regional Care Initiative, writes in the foreword: “Good health care is built on good nursing.”
Several of these writers explore the wavering line between compassion and detachment. As Laura DeVaney, an RN on a radical head and neck unit in Indianapolis, writes in “Becoming a Nurse,” “there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy, and a good nurse solely empathizes. I haven’t figured out how to be that kind of nurse, yet; honestly, I’m not interested in learning.”
In “Healing Wang Jie’s Bottom,” L. Darby-Zhao recounts being called to a poor family’s home in rural China to treat the middle-aged matriarch’s Stage IV bedsore, after a motor vehicle accident left her paralyzed. Darby-Zhao raises funds to buy the woman a wheelchair. Twelve years later, the woman periodically calls Darby-Zhao to catch her up on the latest family news, because “In her eyes, I am still her nurse.” Josephine Ensign, who develops a close personal attachment to a dying AIDS patient, writes that she was taught to remain emotionally distant from patients, but admits: “It sounds good in theory, but there’s no way to teach the location of that boundary to someone else, or to know where it is for yourself.” She attends her patient’s funeral, all the while worrying that by doing so she’s crossed a professional line.
As a matter of course, death is a rite of passage in this world. The most poignant and heartbreaking passages in the collection are those that describe the deaths of babies. One young nurse cares for a dying infant, whose parents are unable to hold him. The nurse cries as she holds the baby, before and after his death and as she carries him to the morgue, explaining that she’d thought it would be unfair to let him die alone. In “Becoming,” Lori Mulvihill recounts caring for a newborn with anencephaly, who lives only a few hours. After the baby’s death, Mulvihill describes hugging the parents and crying with them, reflecting, “I am present for a sacred moment; present, physically and emotionally” and “I am a witness to overwhelming love and loss.” Home hospice nurse Kimberly A. Condon feels embarrassed for sobbing when an infant she’s caring for dies in his mother’s arms, but later she concludes, “I had been absolutely present with them in that agonizing, priceless moment. It was the best I could do.”
The book’s title comes from the essay “I See You” by Tilda Shalof, in a paragraph that summarizes her description of a good nurse: “Most of all, you need moral courage because nursing is about the pursuit of justice. It requires you to stand up to bullies, to do things that are right but difficult, and to speak your mind even when you are afraid. I wasn’t strong like this when I started out. Nursing made me strong.” I’m encouraged, as I’m sure most readers will be, to have these smart, compassionate practitioners as patient advocates who stand up to doctors, administrators, and the health care bureaucracy in order to care for their patients, and I hope through the power of these stories they’ll no longer feel invisible.
Poetry by Noah Eli Gordon
Ahsahta Press, May 2013
Paperback: 144pp; $18.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
The Year of the Rooster, Noah Eli Gordon’s eighth book, examines a crisis of faith: a poet-narrator who questions his impulse to write and not write, the trappings or usefulness of theory and craft, and the very ability of poetry to signify. Gordon, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he directs Subito Press, also founded chapbook publisher Letter Machine Editions with Joshua Marie Wilkinson in 2007; they both co-edit The Volta as well. Gordon is a writer fully immersed in a poet’s life, but his narrator questions the impact of such an immersion.
“Diminishing Returns,” the first section of this collection, starts with a 14-line poem; each subsequent poem gets smaller, eventually stilling to a single line in the last poem. The long lines of this section are an examination of music and of stillness: “If I stand still long enough, someone will walk around me.” The result is equal parts postmodern cerebral experiment and Whitman-esque sound-and-image-driven manifesto on contemporary life: “There’s nothing like the present, like the president, like a precedent leaking / in analog its continuous signal. Life on Capitol Hill is calamitous! cries the paper.”
Thus is a tension between retreat and the crow of the rooster announced: “During the intervening successive moments, I’ve / decided to exclude myself from the conversation, as it too is in its entirety / a single instant in which I’ve already moved on. Here’s me heading back.”
Additional tension is found in the clever impulse behind allusion to Gilbert and Sullivan to “fearful symmetry” and liberal use of the ampersand, and the impulse behind an earnest discussion of music and balance, “sentimental as an anecdote driven toward self-deification.”
The second section, “The Year of the Rooster,” is a relief at this point. Here, Gordon switches to shorter lines, to changing shapes and to what can be read as a long poem or a series of untitled poems. Compared to the previous section, these poems appear disjointed, transitionless: “They gave me a trumpet & I think of the movies / & loneliness like a bottled up doubt.”
The conflict here: “You’re not presenting an idea; you’re stating a problem.” This section is looser, with occasional waterfalls of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, anaphora, slant. It is playful and looking for something new:
dressed in grammar
as clamorous as a walkon’s
wish for a few words
a deadening idea
to whatever I’ve been
trying to get across
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Blah, blah, blah—the body
La, la, la—Lacan
Gordon here seems almost disdainful; received knowledge and theory are presented as nonsense. As he transitions into the next section, he interrogates the risks of poetry:
A poem runs the risk
of being meaningfully
a little case study
one can fit inside
The poet, too, can be a casualty, sacrificing “real life” for a view from the sidelines:
Call it the long afternoon made longer when one’s attempt to eke from it some
modicum of joy, however intangible, gives way to the internal pressure of
having to produce a monument to the same effort
. . . if you wouldn’t have been better off biting into the apple
without the burden of accounting for how you’d later abandon the core.
But of course, the book is rounded out with “Returning Diminishments,” which grows from a single line to the fourteen we started with. “Routine will return you there,” Gordon exhorts. The writing itself is the meaning behind the writing, and we understand it by doing it.
A Field Guide
Nonfiction by Laura Damon-Moore, Erinn Batykefer
Coffee House Press, May 2014
Hardcover: 213pp; $23.95
Review by Patricia Contino
There are few surprises in The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide. Author-librarians Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer do not have to convince bibliophiles that the library is hallowed ground. What they set out to do, and accomplish nicely, is offer ideas for becoming a more resourceful user regardless of intent.
Library and arts funding are not priorities in unstable economic times. Elected and self-appointed Neo-Cons label them elitist and unnecessary. . . unless their kids attend Ivy League schools or study at a prestigious arts conservatory. When confronted with choosing snow removal or renovating the library, what would any small town or large city pay for first? Any lobbying in The Artist’s Library is on behalf of the utilization of the available to guide the possible.
The book is both a summary and continuation of the authors’ “Library as Incubator Project.” An outgrowth of their work at UW-Madison School of Library and Information, the Project website offers ideas for use on- and off-line to “promote and facilitate creative collaboration between libraries and artists of all types, and to advocate for libraries as incubators of the arts.” The authors generously define “artists” as “professional artists and writers,” someone “testing out a new artistic skill,” or “creative hobbyists who simply enjoy the process of art-making.” This encouragement is an invitation to both patrons who actively use their library and those who have not done so since school.
In keeping with the spirit of fostering a community, an especially helpful guide to the different types of libraries is included. Any basic search starts with the local public library to locate material. If the library does not have the book, recording, document, etc., an inter-library loan from a member library is possible. Rare and/or non-circulating items are located in special collections such as those in a larger public library (like the specialized branches of The New York Public Library), a university (such as Princeton, where the Scribner publishing archive is kept), or individual special collections (two famous ones are The Folger for Shakespeare folios and the John F. Kennedy Library for Ernest Hemingway’s papers). Some of these items are available to view online. If closer study is desired and the request justified, an appointment can be arranged. It takes time, but the rewards are many.
The authors condense their ideas in seven chapters:
Exploring the Library as Subject
Finding Inspiration in Library Collections
Using the Library for Creative Research
Using the Library as a Space to Work
Using the Library as an Arts Venue
Creating Successful Programming Partnerships with Libraries
Using the Library to Build Your Arts Organization or Business
Each chapter features a “Library as Incubator” artist to illustrate how his or her project used the technique described. For example, one artist studied 18th century medallions commemorating Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia to create her own history of the continent in a series of drawings, and another is working on a photo archive of libraries built by Andrew Carnegie (there are 1689 in all).
As the book’s subtitle is A Field Guide, exercises are included at end of each chapter for the reader to explore. They range from exploring library space for solitude or work and objects to exploring a favorite or—even better—new area of interest. All aim at demystifying those perceived distances between a borrower, the borrowed, and their caretakers.
The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is the best kind of self-help book—the library providing intellectual and artistic growth on a personal level.
Nonfiction by Adam Gnade
Pioneers Press, September 2013
Chapbook: 59pp; $7.00
Review by Katy Haas
Normally, I’m not one to gravitate to self-help or how-to books, but something about Adam Gnade’s 2013 chapbook drew me in. Maybe it was the cold winter months looming over my shoulder or, probably more likely, it was the blunt, unignorable title spread across the cover that led me to Gnade’s Do-it-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad.
Part book of lists, part miniature memoir, Gnade shares self-pep-talks to readers in a light, casual tone that makes his chapbook feel more like a conversation with a friend than your average self-help book does. As the title suggests, Gnade isn’t afraid to carry his profanity into the body of his work; “Don’t let the assholes win,” as he suggests in one list, makes the advice feel more real and less polished or forced.
With lists including “Guide to Not Freaking Out All the Time” and “A Rough Guide to Surviving the Unsurvivable,” there’s bound to be at least one piece of advice any reader can take away from Gnade’s guide. However, he doesn’t wear out the novelty of his lists by cramming the entire 59 pages with only those. Instead, between the lists are small bits of memoir that further serve to guide readers out of the “Big Motherfuckin’ Sad,” creating an easy flow to follow. These memoirs, including a vision of George Bush throwing a football, also give a good personal look into Gnade’s own Sad until it feels like a friend helping to pull readers from the sludge of sadness. Or if a reader is seeking to cheer up a friend, there’s even a small section in the book titled “Helping Your Friends Get Through It.”
A short read, The Guide can be finished in one sitting or plucked from the shelf to read one list at a time. Opening to the center of the books reveals the message “EVERYONE GOOD IS NECESSARY” before continuing to the regularly formatted pages. Even reading that one sentence when in a low mood makes owning The Guide worth it.
Whether you’re in need of some help shaking the winter blues in preparation for spring or you’re just seeking reminders to be happy, Gnade’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad is definitely worth dipping into for a quick pick-me-up.