Posted April 1, 2014
Poetry by Rachel McKibbens
Organic Weapon Arts, March 2014
Chapbook: 28pp; $10.00
Review by Kris Bigalk
It comes as no surprise to the reader that Rachel McKibbens is one of American’s most accomplished spoken-word poets, having served nine times on the National Poetry Slam team and winning two spoken word championships. The strength of her poems lies in their strong, consistent voice—one that speaks with authority and uses the cadences and expressions of natural speech to create a natural tension that moves through each poem and the collection as a whole.
Mammoth, a collection of seventeen poems, centers on the theme of grief, specifically the grief upon the death and dying of the narrator’s niece and the compounding of that grief with other people and events. The poems are written in free verse, from different points of view, ending with the most poignant and moving poem in the collection. “Drifter,” in the voice of the now-dead child, includes these provocative lines: “If I had reached my second birthday, / would I have wished to be less temporary, / or to have never been born at all?”
Each individual poem is strong on its own merit, but this chapbook attempts to create a narrative arc—something not common to all chapbooks—and while that occurs through most of Mammoth, there are hiccups. The first two poems seem a bit out of place in the collection, and because of their placement, tend to confuse the reader about the true trajectory of the chapbook. This decision about ordering may be more emblematic of the more loose relationship between poems found in spoken word competitions, and most likely works better on a stage than it does on the page.
These first two poems relate the narrator’s experiences of becoming a mother, and losing an unnamed, vague male friend or relative, and do not contain the sharp focus on the topic that soon becomes the real theme of the collection: the death of the young girl from a kidney ailment. One other less topical poem, “Torch,” occurs in the middle of the chapbook, and though it refers to grief in a vague way, makes more sense in the arc of the collection because of its placement further into the book; because of its relationship to the poems that precede and antecede, its placement works.
McKibbens has a knack for connecting the inner life of the narrator with the real world through the use of scene and narration, rather than through bare allusive imagery. The ugliness of the experience of dying young, in a hospital, is represented unflinchingly in this scene from “Greetings From the House of Defeat”:
. . . she sat up for the first time
in three days, grey lids
painted in a Morphine fog
and pleaded only for water.
Later, McKibbens relates this scene that illustrates the raw pain of everyday interactions and thoughts that haunt for months after a death, in “Small Talk”:
. . . Do you need anything?
How about a little goddamn honesty. How about
calling it what it really is. How about stop
your fucking smiling . . .
Mammoth relies on “goddamn honesty,” and moves us with its rawness and its courage in tackling a subject usually handled with euphemisms and sentimentality, neither of which are much indulged in by McKibbens. The collection ends with two poems that bring the cadence of the chapbook to a slow close. “Salve,” the penultimate poem, encourages a new start for the survivors: “. . . your flesh is still yours. / What better power to have than that? None. / None.”
Rachel McKibbens’s Mammoth is a worthwhile read by a poet whose fearless intensity and skillful use of sentence and scene are both moving and memorable.
Keats at Work
Nonfiction by Dan Beachy-Quick
University of Iowa Press, September 2013
Hardcover: 190pp; $24.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
“Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” Mark Twain’s observation about biography reminds us that life-writing is nothing if not a tricky genre—where the clothes and buttons of a person’s life are cut, tailored, and assembled into a specific narrative. How a biographer weaves together the threads of the clothes heavily influences how an audience internalizes a person and his/her life.
However, not all biography needs to follow a, shall we say, “womb to tomb” narrative, and good biography can include writing outside of a strict interpretation of the genre. Good biography also includes critical reflection about the proper context of the subject’s life, whether that context is presented linearly through a life’s chronology or thematically through the poet’s own writings. (For example, in a brilliant twist of biographic sourcing, Herbert Leibowitz lets the American poet William Carlos Williams tell his own life story, through Williams’s poetry, letters, essays, and critiques, in Something Urgent I Have to Say to You.)
The canon and compilations of John Keats’s poetry is, in a word, vast; library shelves fairly bend under the collections’ weight. To many, Keats is “that urn guy” they read in high school. To others, he is a talented poet and a tragic figure whose odes and sonnets only received critical acclaim after his death. To Dan Beachy-Quick, in A Brighter Word Than Bright, Keats is a creative work-in-progress. This treatment of Keats’s life and poetry is complex and thoughtfully provocative, and sits somewhere between traditional biography and analytical critique, making A Brighter Word Than Bright a poetry biography of sorts.
Beachy-Quick writes: “Sometimes I think a poetic presses down upon the poet’s mind as does a seal upon the soft wax that closes a letter.” A Brighter Word Than Bright focuses on Keats’s active writing years and the poetic trends within them. Through seven chronological portrait sketches spanning 1816-1820, Beachy-Quick illustrates the impetuses, the motivations, and the provocations of Keats’s work. Beachy-Quick is particularly successful through his short, reflective commentaries, neatly framed through vignettes from the poet’s life. In order to unpack the lyric complexities of, say, Endymion, the audience is given the context for “things of beauty” and why Keats would consider these things to be joys forever. To that end, letters from Keats’s correspondence (“There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet”) provide a temporal bounding. We see Keats take the challenge of fellow poet Leigh Hunt to write such a lengthy piece, and through the letters and analysis, we understand the inspirations and backdrop to the poem. We see how the poem, itself, came to Be in that aesthetic realm of Being.
Keats understands poetry not as presentation but as “a work creative of essence”—there’s an almost life cycle to poetry, itself, then. This life cycle of birth, life, death, and afterlife (or perhaps resurrection) juxtaposes the human condition with Romantic aesthetics. A poem—indeed, a poet—is never dead and the heaviness of that realization (that responsibility?) weighs on Keats in his writings. Indeed, in the re-imaging of ancient Greek literature, art, and philosophy Keats shows his audiences more of himself than might be expected, best illustrated in the portrait “Psyche; or, The Wreath’d Trellis of a Working Brain.”
Keats’s original “Ode to Psyche” (as reprinted in A Brighter Word Than Bright):
O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that they secrets should be sung
Even into thine own soft-conched ear.
Beachy-Quick reads this stanza as:
[Keats] has come to a sense of the poem—and more largely, of poetry—as entwined with fundamental ironies. Inescapable inversion seem a primary consequence of poetry as a phenomenal practice. Poetry, Keats has leaned, can keep no secrets; it shows the secret forth. . . . But a poem keeps no words silent.
Each of the seven Keatsian portraits connects readers to the mimetic realism and Romantic representations of four years of Keats’s writing. While certainly scholarly—through deep, careful, and thoughtful analysis—A Brighter Word Than Bright is more than only a measured critique of poems. The book shines as a means of writing good biography in unexpected ways. Notes, themes, and archival sources are the fabric of Twainian “clothes and buttons” in Beachy-Quick’s treatment of Keats, letting Keats tell his own life story, as it were. A Brighter Word Than Bright is a beautiful, meditative reading (and telling) of Keats and his life.
Fiction by Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press, February 2014
Hardcover: 292pp, $25.00
Review by Olive Mullet
The beautifully written novel An Unnecessary Woman, by Beiruti writer Rabih Alameddine, may be best appreciated by a mature reader, although any lover of serious books should enjoy this one.
Not a plot-driven novel, this is a roaming review of ideas defined by thought-provoking quotes from great writers, as explored by an old woman who is contemplating her life’s value. Seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Saleh, alone in her apartment, has lived through the Lebanese Civil War, mostly as background outside her window. Her apartment is full of books and translations she has done at one remove from the originals, translations of translations into Arabic. She was married unhappily and briefly once, until her husband pronounced, “I divorce you.” The only family she feels close to is her mother, who screams when she is brought by Aaliya’s half-brother to live with her. Aaliya’s only other male contact was a young man until he changed and disappeared into the army. Her one friend, Hannah, is dead. She keeps aloof from people, even her fellow apartment residents. With her mother’s screams troubling her and Hannah’s death too difficult to face until the end, we follow her thoughts as she zigzags across time and her beloved Beirut.
What is refreshing from the start is that this is a woman with no self-delusions—“wrong as usual,” she says of herself. “I am alone. It’s a choice I’ve made, yet it is also a choice made with few other options available. Beiruti society wasn’t fond of divorced, childless women in those days.” She calls herself “Aaliya, the separated.” She tackles life’s hard questions and realities, the fact that people divorce themselves from other people’s bad events. Madame Bovary’s betrayals are not ours; hunger and violence in other countries “isn’t about you.”
Then we learn about the reality in her life. Her translations, which she starts religiously at the year’s beginning, are less faithful to the original, being translations of French and English translations of the originals. Beyond that, she’s never published! Committed to the process, not the final product, she “creates” and “crates.” Her favorite writer, Pessoa, justifies her actions in “The Book of Disquiet”:
The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.
She compares the process of translating to “a Wagner opera” where the “tension builds” and notes: “During these moments, I am no longer my usual self, yet I am wholeheartedly myself, body and spirit. During these moments, I am healed of all wounds.”
However, this woman, like everyone, has pretensions. The main difference is she admits them. She doesn’t want to be “normal, stupid,” but aims to be Miss Jean Brodie’s “crème de la crème.” From admitting “All I am is lonely,” she moves to Kafka and Pessoa and dreams of “being a speck, having a nonspeaking role in a grand epic.” Yet at the same time, she is “shattered by failures and shabby furniture.” She asks, “What is a necessary human?”
Whatever her life is, it is literature, or as she calls it, her “sandbox.” Her insights, such as that, are worth it. “Novels are scenes, or, more precisely, images,” and “life is “a collection of scenes.” She dislikes memoirs and epiphanies, and old people talking only of themselves, yet what is she doing? “Most of the books published these days consist of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies.”
This novel’s descriptions are beautiful as well, such as those of Aaliya’s home, Beirut, whose main streets “cut the city with a butcher’s cleaver” while an “ancient one wiggles its hips quite a bit,” whose “winter air is like bronze” and whose nighttime “sky puts on a darkening blue coat.” This is “the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” inefficient and offering a random life, especially for an elderly woman who cannot expect to find her apartment intact when she returns to it.
Admitting to getting off the track in her story, she finally faces her friend Hannah’s death. And at the end, crisis comes to her own life. However, ”destruction is an opportunity to break free from rules I’ve set for translation.” And so just when her safe harbor of isolation disappears, she admit to an epiphany.
This very literate novel will probably appeal mostly to a well-read and older reader. But I have no trouble defining the value of Aaliya’s life: she has re-stimulated our love of literature, and makes me want to read some of her favorite writers.
Poetry by Elizabeth Howort, Dawn Gorman, Leslie LaChance, Janlori Goldman
Toadlily Press, October 2013
Paperback: 69pp; $16.00
Review by Andrea Dulberger
The voices of four women poets are gathered in one place in the beautifully designed collection Mend & Hone. The title’s pungent phrase, suggesting the acts of both repairing and sharpening, intrigued me, as did a question asked on the back cover by the poet D. Nurkse: “How do we make ourselves at home on a stone falling through space?” All four writers in this book seem engaged in the work of finding and making a place for their lives, both within experiences of the physical/natural world and the world of human interactions.
Mend & Hone is part of an annual series published by Toadlily Press, the Quartet Series, in which four writers are presented together to create a conversational effect for readers. Each poet wrote her chapbook independently of the others, and I found it quite fun to see and hear the common threads amongst these distinct voices.
The first chapbook, “Turning the Forest Fertile” by Elizabeth Howort, is one long sequence, the only chapbook in this collection without individually titled poems. A meditative sense of wonder hovers over the work as its narrator navigates, locating a sense of home in the city, in the forest, with another, with silence. It begins within a dream-like place: “Inside a cloud, we rise at mountain’s peak. We lean toward and / talk creation- floorboards, ladders and lofts. We talk to the teeth / of time, feeling a hunger, a great mouth opening, slowly . . .” A couple of pages later, the ethereal shifts and the narrator directly presents her vulnerable struggle to live amidst the multi-tasking life of a city:
. . . I wanted to spread silence into the corners of the sub-
way, into the phone towers and schoolyards.
But the city was loud, louder than ever before. I stood in the
crosswalk, brakes screeching, trucks pounding. I stood at the cen-
ter of the city, feeling my heart rise and fall, feeling my breath
saying silence, silence, silence.
How to restore and keep balance amidst relationships that may or may not stay together is one theme in the next chapbook, “This Meeting of Tracks” by Dawn Gorman. These poems are often situated outdoors in the poet’s native England. In “Revelation,” a couple visits a “ruined abbey” on a winter’s day where “Single cobweb strands link ancient pillars, / glinting like silver tightropes.” No words are spoken between them as they tour this ancient place with evidence of lives long gone. He watches her “trace Braille lichen jottings.” Yet this quiet visit has clarified something, since at poem’s end, “Everything is clear.” In other poems, like “Snatching the Story,” fragility is what’s clear as the narrator, hiking with a partner by stone walls on the “bitterest day / of the year,” imagines being blown away by the wind and notices that “Outside, it’s just / lovers perched / on the edge of things.”
Next, Mend & Hone travels to Tennessee, where Leslie LaChance, the author of the third chapbook, lives. Some of the poems in “How She Got That Way” are inflected with the lively sounds of speech. In “So, There It Is,” her narrator enthuses, “Oh, marry me like you would a river, / Geronimo-hollering all the way down the bluff.” The subjects and the voices shift like jazz in this chapbook. “Everybody’s Talks About It” focuses on summer rain that keeps not arriving: “Sky’s all pearled up like my pageant queen. // Tease. It’s a drought on. Couldn’t give a damn.” What’s wrong with the sky? “She all blue sarcasm, bleached and mean.” These words get right to the point, their direct imagery focusing my attention as a reader. This felt particularly true in “Properties Pastoral” when the narrator instructs: “Count the rustic / vacation homes sprouting / on the opposite ridge.”
The last poet in Mend & Hone, Janlori Goldman, has also created poems that are fully involved in looking and listening to the world around her. Her chapbook, “Akhmatova’s Egg,” also has imagery in which the natural world is a full presence. In “Winter Solstice” she describes the moon’s slow appearance behind shadows “as if sky were a gill / through which all things // flow in filter out.” One thing that flows through her work is a sense of immersion in troubled places, those where “mending” may be useful but not forthcoming. In “At the Cubbyhole Bar,” the narrator is listening to stories layered with trauma as a woman cop describes how her squad of World Trade Towers’ first responders are all getting sick, “in the lungs, the stomach, in your case, the breasts.” The writer of the poem is a listener, and in the last stanza, the storyteller describes a moment she heard great suffering and had to decide how to listen and respond. A woman was begging the cop to allow her to go behind a barricade and retrieve her dog: “she promised the risk was all on her. / You knew it didn’t work that way” but let her go with the words: “bring him this way / so he can lick my cheek.” That little undercurrent of hope is one of the pivotal strands of the urge to make amends for all the broken spots.
Though the voices in this collection were quite varied, their themes and imagery met up in interesting ways. These are poets who are really listening to the quiet as well as to the noise of their lives and the lives around them. I found that the title Toadlily Press gave the work brought questions that resonated throughout the pages: what sharpens us? What mends the breaks?
Fiction by Harriet Scott Chessman
Atelier26 Books, November 2013
Paperback: 144pp; $13.95
Review by Kirsten McIlvenna
The Beauty of Ordinary Things, Harriet Scott Chessman’s fifth title, charts the day-to-day battles faced by Benny Finn, having returned from serving in Vietnam, and Sister Clare, a young woman learning the trials and joys of committing her life to a convent. Isabel Howell, Benny’s brother’s gal and Sister Clare’s childhood friend, link the two of them, creating a friendship between Benny and Sister Clare that brings about a sort of healing and acceptance for them both. The beauty in this novel, as the title somewhat alludes to, is in the little things—in this case, elegantly crafted lines from Chessman.
As one might imagine (considering the inclusion of a soon-to-be nun), this novel includes many breaches on the topic of religion and Christianity. Benny, raised in a Catholic household, isn’t sure where he stands on the subject, especially after witnessing the violence of the war and the loss of his comrade and friend. Instead of laying out his views or uncertainties in what could become a preachy passage, Chessman instead brings the lens back, setting Benny in a scene where we can see him react:
I also took a picture of this crazy guy who always wore a hat made of tin foil . . . We were on the street outside a Greek deli, and I asked him about his hat. He bummed a cigarette off me before answering, like a deal we’d struck. Then, taking little puffs, like sips, he told me the tin foil protected his mind from the gods, who kept trying to send him messages. What messages? I asked. I could have asked, what gods? He squinted at me as I took the picture, and then he scuttled away, his silver hat glittering in the sun.
The novel is broken into two parts, each chapter switching back and forth between the view from Benny and the view from Sister Clare. The first section almost feels like a love letter from the both of them to Isabel. Benny meets her when his brother brings her home for a visit, and he gets to know her better as he becomes her daily ride to work. After months of talks on the commute, Isabel reveals that she is pregnant and doesn’t know what to do. Benny has fallen in love with her, but hasn’t made a move out of respect for his brother. But at this vulnerable moment, they both briefly lose control: “I can’t tell you what Isabel meant by that kiss. I didn’t want to think about it, honestly,” he says. “I was drunk, but not like it ever felt, drinking.”
And Sister Clare has a deep care for her childhood friend: “Isabel has gone through so much. Sometimes I feel more like her older sister than her friend. Sometimes I even feel like a mother. She thinks of me as so strong, and so confident in my goals.” But Sister Clare’s own struggle is in deciding if she’s ready to commit her whole life to God and the convent.
Luckily for Sister Clare and Benny, the two meet in the second part, and through their time spent together (Benny volunteers his time at the convent, working outside) each of them finds confidence to stride forward. “After a point you start to see that you can survive your own feelings, and the day dreams and nightmares that come to you,” says Benny. “They don’t have to pull you off course.”
My only complaint was that with such a short book, I was surprised by how often I was lost as far as the time/setting is concerned. It flashed forward and backward frequently, and I got lost several times on the jumps.
Overall, this novel is a well-written piece, something I was fully immersed in and read in one sitting. Certainly it’s about religion and faith, but it’s not a testament, and it doesn’t claim to hold any answers. It’s a story of love without the romance, and it’s a tale showing that we all must find acceptance with what was, is, and is yet to come; carry on; and find the “beauty of ordinary things.”
Fiction by Jonathan Grimwood
Europa Editions, October 2013
Hardcover: 320pp; $26.95
Review by David Breithaupt
Jonathan Grimwood’s debut novel, The Last Banquet, takes us to France during the mid-1700s, when the gap between the haves and have-nots widened and set the stage for revolution. The landscape is surreal, with bands of roaming citizens scouring the countryside for food—it’s almost an 18th century version of Road Warrior, minus the gas-powered vehicles and villains in strange get-ups.
It is amidst this setting that we meet our hero, Jean-Marie D’Aumont. He is orphaned, his parents apparently dead from starvation. Jean-Marie has survived, presumably due to his prodigious instinct for gastronomy and an openness to experience new taste sensations. He is discovered by a nobleman and his entourage who pass through Jean-Marie’s village as he contemplates the consummation of various stag beetles. He is questioned by his visitor:
“You like eating beetles?”
“Black ones,” I said, pointing to the line of chewed carcasses that dried to sharp crackle in the summer sun. “Brown ones taste sour.”
The stage is thus set for Jean-Marie’s career of culinary adventure. The nobleman preempts Jean-Marie’s hardscrabble life and sponsors him in a school for young gentlemen. Our young hero is a natural and quickly makes friendships crucial to his rise in the world. One such friend is Charlot, whose father is a duke and lives in the Chateau de Saulx. Eventually, Jean-Marie wins the approval of the duke and his daughter Virginie’s hand in marriage. Jean-Marie is growing up quickly.
Soon, Jean-Marie’s travels have him sampling the offerings of whatever edible materials are available. Improvisation is often key. Our young man perfects his creations as he explores, including his recipe for Pickled Wolf’s Heart. In Marseilles he learns to cook arudi (best fried swiftly with garlic or cooked slowly in a fruit stew) and how to make the perfect redingotes Anglaise (soak the caecum, which is the pocket between the small and large intestine, in fresh water for a day, changing the water twice). At this point I realized this is a book best reviewed by Anthony Bourdain. In a sense, this novel is a history of taste, of how flavors were forged before the advent of the much later industrial age and the standardization of food processing.
Grimwood does not forget to remind Jean-Marie of how the other half is living. On a carriage ride home to the Chateau de Saulx with Virginie, he views the passing countryside. “Cows lay dead in the fields. Crops had been trampled. In a town square on the way home a half-naked woman was being whipped, her rags ripped from her shoulders and her breasts bare to the jeering crowd. . . . A small child at her feet sobbed loud enough for both of them.” Unfortunately Jean-Marie does not take this experience to heart.
Grimwood’s prose is elegant, verging on the Dickensian, and his storytelling ability is compelling. The panoramic scope of this tale includes appearances by Voltaire and the American Francophile, Ben Franklin, who imports to Jean-Marie some wisdom from the Swedish ambassador—“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” a sort of twist of Hemingway’s later tag line, “What is true at first light, is a lie by afternoon.” Both are ominous pieces of advice in this adventure’s case. And what book on this era would be complete without an appearance by the Marquis de Sade? Jean-Marie’s adventures work overtime keeping the reader on his heels; we even follow him to his participation in the Corsican War of Independence. Along the way, the reader will find a bevy of rare information including the intricacies of making condoms from lamb intestines (thank God for modern-day drugstores) and how to cook flamingo tongue. I can’t leave this review without noting Jean-Marie’s proclamation of his alligator stew: “tastes like leathery chicken.” Maybe Campbell’s can work on that.
But what, you may ask, is the last banquet? Of course I won’t spoil it for you, but here’s a clue—the book ends with the arrival of the French Revolution, and you know what a party that was. My appetite for history, adventure, and cooking were certainly sated as I read the last pages. Jonathan Grimwood has given us an amazing gift. I had no room for dessert.
My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew
Nonfiction by Sue William Silverman
University of Nebraska Press, March 2014
Paperback: 232pp, $18.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
This essay collection is by noted memoirist Sue William Silverman, who was one of my mentors at the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. While normally such ties between reviewer and author are discouraged in NewPages’s reviews, the exception was made for two reasons, one being the import of the subject matter of the essays: Silverman explores her extended spiritual identity crisis from growing up Jewish in a Christian world and includes a continuation of focus from her two previous memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, in which Silverman recounts being sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood and her resultant sexual addiction and recovery. While tremendously important social issues to be brought into the public dialogue, it’s much harder for such books to be given much, if any, review consideration. The second reason for the exception is precisely that my relationship to Silverman affords me the ability to comment on her craft, as she taught it, and assess her own ability to “walk her talk.”
Unlike the straightforward narrative form she employs in her previous memoirs, this eclectic collection contains lyric essays, a simulated screen play, and a radio drama script, with interspersed missives addressed to the “Gent(i)le Reader” that contain exposition and provide contextual cohesiveness. The book is structured around Silverman’s three personal encounters with the pop singer and Christian icon Pat Boone, with whom, as a teenager, Silverman developed a lifelong obsession, perceiving him as the safe Christian antithesis of her abusive Jewish father.
The title spotlights Silverman’s obsession with the man to whom she always refers by his full name, a signal that it’s the icon she’s obsessed with more than the man. She first meets him as a teenager, when he autographs a book for her, but being in his presence renders her speechless and unable to carry out her plan to ask him to adopt her. Yet, he continues to offer her hope, as Silverman explains: “I conjured him into the man I needed him to be: a safe father. By my believing in that constant image, he did save me.” In the title essay, Silverman describes her second encounter, when she gives him a letter describing his role in her life. Touched by her story, a year later, he invites her and her partner backstage after a concert. Silverman shares excerpts from her and Boone’s correspondence to portray their ongoing friendship.
Silverman recently explained that she hadn’t intended to write a book, but after she published several of these essays independently in journals, she realized they fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In each, while focusing on diverse situations and details, she explores her spirituality, trying on and abandoning various identities as she looks for one that fits, finally identifying herself as a “first-generation Russian American atheist liberal Democrat.”
Although many of the topics and themes in these essays are somber and sincere, Silverman’s ever-present humor sets a self-deprecating tone. In “Swimming Like a Gefilte Fish,” Silverman compares herself to one: “All evidence of its fishness—its true identity—gone. (Which is probably why you’ve secretly identified with gefilte fish all these years in the first place.)”
When I studied with Silverman at VCFA, she emphasized the importance of using sensory details to explore and reveal emotion, and this book is a study in what she calls the “slanted detail.” For example, in the title essay, she recounts studying a black-and-white magazine photograph of Boone, his wife, and their four daughters straddling a tandem bicycle. Drawn in by the whiteness (his “white-white teeth” and spotless buckskins), which she interprets as immaculate and safe, she imagines herself living in the photograph with them, his wristwatch freezing them in time. She finds hope in “His milky-white image. That sterile pose.”
Silverman employs the second person in some of these essays. The technique serves as a subtle detail delivery system and allows her to move seamlessly back and forth through time. For example, in “Swimming Like a Gefilte Fish,” she begins, “The Jews are coming to visit” and, “They arrive at your house smelling of musty Brooklyn or Bronx apartments where (you know because you’ve been forced to visit) closets smell of damp wool and lox.” In “Galveston Island Breakdown,” the second person POV draws the reader in close to the emotional heart of the story while eschewing melodrama, as in this passage in which she considers reuniting with her estranged husband: “Maybe he can still save you, though you don’t know from what. Your need is indefatigable as waves.”
Readers will relate to these stories, for while they’re directly about this writer’s spiritual journey, they’re also about the universal feeling that one doesn’t quite belong, and the fact that Silverman has survived, recovered, and discovered her true self gives hope to the rest of us. In the final passage, Silverman recounts a dream in which Pat Boone, in a dazzling halo, discusses with her the political aspects of the Terry Schaivo case while rescuing her from an alligator. She asks, “What would you do to keep me alive?” to which he replies, “For you . . . I would iron the night.”
Poetry by Joshua Beckman
Wave Books, September 2013
Paperback: 91pp; $18.00
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Joshua Beckman is an editor at Wave Books, and The Inside of an Apple is his seventh poetry collection. At its best, his poetry is composed of whimsical snapshots, reminiscent of haikus, as in this moment halfway through “Being in ways”:
You cut a scallion and there’s
a little green circle
it’s like a field the smell the grass makes.
You cut a piece of straw, it’s gold.
Beckman mixes nature images with modern slang. His philosophical ramblings taper off mid-thought, and sometimes remain incomplete. There’s a slippery, lilting voice at work here, pulling fragments from everyday speech as well as the work of Proust and Henry David Thoreau, and the casual phrasing can suggest deceptively simple chains of logic, as when “The Plant” proceeds from foot to sock to thought:
around my mind a thought
the foot means I am like a person to a thought
and the thought means I am like a plant to the sun
The earth feels made to the sky, no?
As the poem shifts unexpectedly in a new direction, it becomes unexpectedly lovely.
The poems that make up The Inside of an Apple are light-hearted even when they’re sad. They’re also fragmentary, appearing without titles, blurring where one poem ends and the next begins. But this is by design; the poems’ sentence fragments are highly visual, and show great care for sound.
The use of underlining in lieu of bold text visually suggests a typewriter manuscript, a conceit supported by the way many poems eschew regular margins. Instead, the lines trickle this way and that across the pages, or normal justification is broken occasionally by indents, as if the book has been pecked out by hand on a typewriter with its carriage jangling loose.
The Inside of an Apple is flawlessly presented, like so many of Wave Books’ releases; as an object, it’s a sound argument against print books ever going extinct. Comfortably pocket-sized at 5 x 7.5 inches, the paperback is printed on quality paper, and the typesetting and design show great care; the font is ornamental but prioritizes readability.
This is the kind of poetry that makes for ideal summer reading: it’s short, whimsical, and easy to dive into on any page.
Fiction by Elizabeth Spencer
Liveright/Norton, January 2014
Hardcover: 208pp; $24.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Ninety-two-year-old Elizabeth Spencer, with fifteen works published over the course of seven decades, is known as the “Grand Dame” of Southern literature—yet she addresses contemporary family problems as sharply as any younger author. Her best-known work is the 1960 novella Light in the Piazza, as it was made into a Broadway show. It’s been more than a decade since her last book, and her new short story collection, Starting Over, is worth the wait.
These nine stories are written in unadorned prose, at times conversational, as with the expression, “he went all the way around elbow to thumb.” Most of the stories have to do with children coming back to visit their parents, children often from a previous marriage, who disrupt the present marriage. Or the child, now adult, is visiting and confronting memories or even illusions inspired by the past.
For instance, “Return Trip” renews a marriage from the threat of an unexpected visit from an old beau and the visit of their son, who looks like the beau. And still the wife finds pleasure in the past: “It was then she heard the Mississippi voices for the first time. She knew each one for who it was, though they had died years ago or hadn’t been seen for ages. . . . She knew she would hear them always, from now on.”
The past plays a big part in these stories—in “Boy in the Tree” it is the adult who visits his mother. His illusions, unexpectedly, are less real than his mother’s, though again, inspired by the past, they give him pleasure: “He watched the line of the woods where the property ended. There the girl with silver hair would appear, the tiger walking beside her. He was happy and he did not see why not.”
This is tied to other insights about happiness:
In routine lies contentment . . .
He wondered if happiness always came in packages, wrapped up in time. Try to extend the time, and the package got stubborn. Not wanting to be opened, it just sat and remained the same. You couldn’t get back in it because time had carried you elsewhere.
Often the endings, seemingly happy, are tinged with sadness. Yet they are satisfying, because the characters are starting over, reconciled to their lot, having learned or benefited by the visits. “Sightings,” one of the most moving stories, has to do with a reconciliation of father and visiting daughter. She had, unintentionally, partially blinded him when she was a child, and the father hadn’t fought for custody of her. But they become a renewed family at the end, via finding the father’s dog.
“Blackie” (the name of a dog) is another dog story with a similar reconciliation at the end, yet different from “Sightings.” Blackie is a retriever of objects and at the end retrieves a divorced woman’s son, who reveals horrible truths about this remarried woman’s stepchildren and her father-in-law. However, the woman loves her new family and is willing to sacrifice her son to remain with the people that depends on her. Love is defined realistically:
“I don’t know if anybody can love equally. . . . I love just the way it is.”
That was the way she felt too. Day followed day in what you might call harmony. That was to say that expected things happened as expected.
So she makes peace with her second husband, which is possible from what she has learned in her first marriage: “‘Oh, I’m still here. Honest ones have to stick together.’ She smiled encouragement, knowing they had entered a new chapter. She had had, after all, so much practice.”
The last story, for me the best. “The Wedding Visitor” has a nephew going back to the family home for his cousin’s marriage. This story shows Spencer’s approach of telling sparsely what happens, with much left off-stage. From previously feeling on the outs with his uncle, this nephew turns out to save the day and is rewarded by his uncle. He has found a father and now realizes what he came for.
Spencer deals with unstable situations that become stable at the end. Her style includes occasional deliberate ambiguity suggestive of the lack of stability in life’s major turns. For instance, “they went out together” could mean a date or just exiting the building.
Many of Spencer’s stories deal with divorce. They reveal truths about that “wobbly” situation, as it’s referred to in “Rising Tide”: “There was a thin line of small quarrels between them, sometimes apt to go on indefinitely; it often vanished altogether, only to return. . . . Changes often took place when other scenes and people took over.” And the story “Sightings” notes: “What is separation, together or apart, but one long silence?”
Wisdom, they say, comes with age. It certainly does with Spencer, and her readers are the beneficiaries.