Posted July 3, 2014
Poetry Susanna J. Mishler
Red Hen Press/Boreal Books, May 2014
Paperback: 101pp; $11.00
Review by Andrea Dulberger
Termination Dust is the fitting title of Susanna J. Mishler’s first collection of poems. As this Alaska-based poet describes in a poem, “termination dust” is the name locals use for the first snowfall in autumn: it names the meeting point between seasons, and suggests an essential ending and beginning. Moments of such meeting-grounds—between humans, between the human and the wild—are key elements throughout the wide-ranging poems of this striking collection.
Saying someone is a ‘nature writer’ can elicit interesting responses that seem to relate to how we’ve experienced the natural world. A poet acquaintance of mine once surprised me with a view that poems from a well-regarded ‘nature poet,’ full of observations of non-human lives, were too simple. Perhaps the lithe lines full of imagery and idea found in the opening poem “Afterlife: Ursus arctos” would confound anyone’s expectations of simplicity. Describing a brown bear’s bones, Mishler writes:
Her skull halves meet in a suture that flows
like a meandering river, and
she without her skin and you
without yours are red cousins.
How confidently these lines move from a beautiful simile in the first couplet to unpeeling the connection between the bear and the reader under the skin. Observations of animals or other natural phenomena often are threaded into parallel observations the narrator is making about human life. In “Caribou,” a fast-moving herd of caribou appears to the narrator like “a bead of liquid mercury flowing / down the alpine valley.” The speaker imagines a scenario where caribou rush past her and her companion, the shocking closeness of these other lives, and a breathless feeling of “possibility, / our surfaces wet and new.”
Lyrical imagery is one of the main forces driving these poems—appropriate to the speaker in “Knock on Wood”: “The pupil itself is a hole / hungry for small beauties.” Equally key is the tone of watchful curiosity in the narrative voice behind these poems with subject matter as varied as a small universe. There are multiple poems that question death or disappearance from the world of the living, five of these with the word ‘Afterlife’ in their titles; there are several poems, written in third-person, which examine specific moments in the life of a young boy named Silas; there is a poem titled “Tired, I Lie Down in the Parking Garage”; there are poems in which tightrope walkers, missionaries, or gynandromorph butterflies play a role. Throughout, there is a fluid sense of wonder at what life offers and where it leads the imagination.
One area of mystery is scale and our shifting awareness of it as we go about our lives. The narrator of “Window Seat” is in a plane flying over a mountain range that looks “like sand pinched into piles” and the snowy peaks like a “meringue” whipped with someone’s spoon. “I am drinking / coffee with cream over all this fragility, feeling like / this metal tube with seats is no place . . . ” And then, for many lines, the narrator’s worries ride front and center—worries about the plane’s bumpy flight and whether others are “still swallowing their stomachs” and how glaciers “will be smaller when I land than when I left.” A swirl of moment-to-moment anxieties while she is “30,000 feet above the one thing I inarguably / belong to” surrounds her. Yet the real strength of the poem is how it moves from capturing this vulnerable experience to a glimmer of something else:
. . . and sometimes I feel the edge of my awareness
like the edge of a dime, a tiny perimeter
glinting in the dirt. Something too small to see from a jet window,
not even as it’s landing, when match-sized trucks
slide under . . .
The wobbly-ness of the narrator’s own thoughts and the space they take up emotionally is balanced against an image that has both precision and a ghostly quality.
This invisible line between the precise beauty and strangeness of the world and how it jostles our many perceptions and memories is where Mishler’s poems dwell. There are parallel lives here, and, as the narrator of “Note to Self: Parallel Universes” notes, “Everything comes true and / we will never shake hands with most of it.” Yet, the imagery and imaginative narratives of Termination Dust bring the possibilities near.
Nonfiction by Daniel Schreiber
Northwestern University Press, August 2014
Hardcover: 280pp; $35.00
Review by Trena Machado
The first biography since her death in 2004, Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber, gives a straightforward account of a very complex life. Sontag graduated high school at fifteen, married at seventeen, earned a BA from the University of Chicago at eighteen, had a son at nineteen, and was divorced at twenty-five. Sontag left the academic world, not completing a doctorate, as she explained, in order to explore the world intellectually on her own terms. She was a novelist, cultural critic, filmmaker, stage director, playwright, and political activist. She became an international pop icon and intellectual celebrity. She wrote about photography, illness, human rights, AIDS, media, minority rights, and liberal politics. When doctors told her twice she had cancers that were rarely survivable, she survived by her own efforts to find new treatments.
Schreiber organizes the material in comprehensible, short chapters on Sontag who lived several lives at once at the heart of the second half of the twentieth century uniquely on her own terms while engaging fully — and experimentally —with the era’s cultural changes. She defined and explored a “third aesthetic” she called “Camp,” an aesthetic “not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” She explored illness, challenging the view that a disease expresses one’s character which often leads to the attending association that one’s character causes the disease, e.g., cancer and AIDS. In Regarding the Pain of Others, she points out:
the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment . . . suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world . . . the dubious privilege of being spectators . . . of other people’s pain . . . consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war . . .
Her ideas challenged the status quo and defined the new processes in the changing culture.
There is a troubling underbelly to this biography. Schreiber presages the undertone he will take towards the accomplishments of Sontag at the end of the first chapter with, “. . . in her later interviews Sontag seems to have often fallen prey to the seductions of self-dramatization. . . ” and this kind of assessment is continued repetitively throughout the book. Schreiber’s attitude takes on “a questioning” of the motives and intentions of Sontag, usually by way of quoting others who claimed that Sontag went to the war zones of North Vietnam, Israel, Bosnia in order to gain media attention. He lets these stand without a counter balancing view. In the next to last chapter, Schreiber again lets a commentator, William Deresiewicz, give the negative interpretation of her intentions, “. . . While Where the Stress Falls won’t do much to enhance her stature as a thinker, never before has she made such large claims for her moral pre-eminence . . . she’s the first person in a long while to nominate herself so publicly for sainthood.” This analysis of Deresiewicz, the last words of the chapter, is left on its own as if it is an authoritatively correct take on this piece of Sontag’s writing, with the author standing in the shadows, letting negative insinuations stand unchallenged. Schreiber never questions these negative comments or what the motive was in writing such sarcastic commentary.
The other troubling aspect is the way Schreiber will interpretatively question Sontag’s choices. She did not choose to do the dissertation for the PhD from Harvard. She did want it, but chose to continue her own path. In her words about her decision, she said she had seen “academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” Not letting Sontag speak for herself on this, Schreiber interprets, “It is not difficult to discern behind this remark a pose of wounded vanity.” This add-on seems unnecessary when we already witnessed the conflict in her own words. . . . Another example is when asked about her divorce, Sontag says in an interview that, “She had to decide ‘between the Life and the Project’—the Susan Sontag project.” “The Susan Sontag project” is another add-on. As a biographer, why step outside her words to put in such a free-standing authorial interpretation? What was “wrong” with her making the decision of how to live her own life. . . .
Schreiber’s biography does an adequate job listing the complex set of endeavors Sontag initiated and the many avenues that she followed responding to life, but he shows little regard to her accomplishments against the odds of an impoverished beginning. In the first chapter, “Memories of a So-Called Childhood (1933-1944),” Schreiber tells of the emotionally difficult first years she had with a mother who was a depressed alcoholic who left Sontag for months at a time, from the ages of one to five, with a nanny while she and Sontag’s father lived in China taking care of his fur business. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was five and the family went into social decline. Her mother took Sontag and her sister to Tucson, Arizona where they lived in a trailer on an unpaved road until Sontag was twelve. During these years, her escape was reading. Schreiber does understand that Sontag invented herself through literature and writing even as a child, and yet, throughout the book there is little understanding of how that was a motivating force for the rest of her life, to keep breaking free by invention. Despite her “reported” flaws—the sheer thrust of her life force and insight shines through, and does so inspiringly as a woman determining her own life at the level of a conversation with culture. The romantic view of the vocation of a writer that she formed in early adolescence, she parlayed by sheer verve to clarify the world until the end.
Fiction by Maceo Montoya
The University of New Mexico Press, February 2014
Paperback: 224pp; $19.95
Review by Audrey Quinn
After reading the title, I had a feeling that The Deportation of Wopper Barraza would be about someone named Wopper Barraza who, for some reason, was deported from the United States. (Clearly, astute powers of deduction were at work.) However, after the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure whether or not we would be following Wopper or if he would be a symbolic figure since the early chapters aren’t actually told from Wopper’s perspective. What soon became clear was that the narrative structure of the novel was going to be an experimental, often playful, journey through the minds of people affected by Wopper’s deportation, including, at times, Wopper, himself. What I originally thought could be a clunky narrative style quickly proved to be a delightful, multi-dimensional foray into the immigration experience from both sides of the Mexican-American border.
When Wopper, a young man in his early twenties, is deported following his fourth DUI, he finds himself in a country that he hasn’t lived in since he was a toddler. This happens to many people around the world from countless countries, not only in the US immigration system. The beauty of The Deportation of Wopper Barraza is that it tells a relatable tale without overtly trying to preach to the audience about immigration laws, illegal alien rights, or any of the other number of worthy causes applicable to the novel. It is, at its core, a novel about a boy becoming a man by being forced to leave everything he knows, which his father predicts early in Wopper’s journey:
And wouldn’t it be strange if Wopper went there to become a man, just as I had to come here? But if that’s true, I often thought, then he should never come back. He should never return to Woodland, because then he would have to live with the boy he left behind.
This is where the strength of The Deportation of Wopper Barraza lies. Montoya writes of a common situation that has gotten literary treatment many times over but his novel doesn’t lie specifically within the experience of a deported immigrant. It tells the story of communities on both sides of the border, particularly that of the small town that Wopper moves to in Mexico. Wopper grows during his experience, but he serves, successfully, as our portal into the world of small-town Mexico and diaspora while the various other narrators serve as our guides.
If there was one thing that I wished for while reading, it was that Montoya had committed more to the varied narrative voices that he presented in the novel. Each narrator was well defined, but, for a novel with so many varied characters, the narrative voice didn’t always seem to commit wholly to each character. The shift between Wopper, his ex-girlfriend, his father, and the domineering Mexican businessman was often indicated best, initially, by the plot and timeline shifts between the characters rather than their voice. This isn’t to say that the characters weren’t well developed. I felt I got to know each character well, but they still offered surprises that were welcome and seemed to fit within the world that Montoya built.
A Novella & Stories
Fiction by Bonnie ZoBell
Press 53, May 2014
Paperback: 192pp; $17.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Bad Things never choose their location. A storm’s path is traceable but its final destination can be wider and more destructive than projected. Earthquakes, tsunamis and twisters strike without warning.
Humans cause Bad Things too. The real-life event that connects the stories in Bonnie ZoBell’s unsettling What Happened Here is the kind of Bad Thing that receives attention when it occurs, on anniversaries, and when something equally terrible happens. In 1978, Pacific Southwest Flight 182 collided with a private Cessna plane over the San Diego neighborhood of North Park. The Cessna’s pilot failed to inform air traffic control of their course change, the other pilot was unable to see the other plane on the radar, and air traffic control ignored the alarm that the planes were heading toward each other. The result: 137 people from both planes were killed, seven died on the ground with nine more injured and 22 homes destroyed. It remains the deadliest air disaster in California history.
ZoBell’s connected short story collection takes place decades after the accident. Edgar has a sense of self-importance about witnessing it. “Nobody else understands what we went through back then,” he tells his former neighbor in “Dear Sam,” one of the best stories in the collection. What he either does not realize or admit is that his letter reveals lingering post-traumatic stress syndrome—something not discussed openly or researched thoroughly in 1978. While readers can make this assessment, Edgar and those around him never will.
Lenora, the narrator of the first and title story, did not live in North Park at the time of the crash. Still, she does not spare the gory details of “scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways.” Yet the crash finds its way into her life. Her husband John starts drinking and behaving erratically when his newspaper starts planning coverage of the accident’s 30th anniversary. Their neighbor Archie, whom Lenora describes as a “ghost,” is only too happy to assist with the research:
“See right there?” Bending ninety-degrees beside my window, he pointed to a photo with our house on it. “Right by the carport?” he continued. “The people before you tore that down. See the crater or your lawn? Who knows what landed there? See?”
Even those who leave cannot escape the bad karma. But one resident both escapes and embraces his environs. “Sea Life” is a beautiful coming-of-age story. Surfer-dude Sean is at very loose ends after college graduation. He does not internalize the crash; he simply hates North Park. “I wish another one would freaking fall out of the sky so I can move on and do what I want,” he tells his parents. What bothers him most about North Park is its location “fifteen miles east of the beach,” something seasoned surfers equate with coming from “Kansas City.”
His surfing naiveté leads to an epiphany. The large fishes that circle him in the water are not sharks, but dolphins. Relieved, he resolves to “forget about his hunger for understanding life.” Then a mother and calf dolphin examines him as carefully as he examines them:
He reaches his palm into the liquid velvet, launches himself and his board further away from what he knows, toward the horizon, realizing this dolphin is less menacing than many of the humans he knows.
The dolphins and water symbolize a baptism, not a trial by fire. Unlike his neighbors, Sean finds the courage to escape. “What is there to stop him?” asks the last line of the story.
ZoBell hints at what next happens to him—and the others. Every neighborhood has its landmarks and secrets. Those contained in What Happened Here add dimension to a landscape that already has a story to tell. These burn too but they do not all have to be Bad Things.
Fiction by Douglas Watson
Outpost19, April 2014
Paperback: 182pp; $16.00
Review by Audrey Quinn
There are a few things that make A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies feel like a modern fairytale: its decidedly lyrical verse, the pithy unseen narrators, and the fanciful notions of people dropping dead upon seeing one of the most beautiful women to ever live. The structure of the novel, however, is what lends the book most to this form. As is common with fairytales, perhaps because they seem to follow a particular formula, the reader knows, more or less, what is going to happen before it even begins. A moody fellow, who is moody and whose name is actually Moody Fellow, does indeed find love and then die. Moody begins as someone with a rather naïve impression of love: “One thing Moody was sure of, though, from books: love always brought out the best in people. Poor Moody. He really wasn’t cut out for the world as we know it.”
Along the way, he tries to discover what love actually means, particularly in terms of its relationship to sex. It’s partly this relationship to sex that permeates the novel and makes it feel like a postmodern fairytale. Moody spends a lot of time, along with a beauty named Amanda and a struggling artist named Chad, trying to figure out what his place is in the world. We follow him through the big points of his life, as we do with Amanda, particularly during their college years. Watson definitely plays with the increasingly popular idea of the Quarter-Life Crisis and the wonder and worry that plagues young adults about what their lot in life is supposed to be. This makes a set of characters who are rather fanciful much more relatable. We can all empathize with Moody’s insecurity about sex and relationships. The novel, in some ways, becomes just as much about loving oneself as it is about finding love with someone else.
If there is one thing about the playful nature of the novel that may detract from the strength of the connection with the characters, it would be that while reading I at times felt much more intrigued by the narrators. They constantly offer up small quips like:
Halfway back to his dorm, Moody came very close to being murdered by a bolt of lightning. Indeed, we were in the mood to see him killed, but it occurred to us that he hadn’t found love yet, which meant that according to the terms laid out at the beginning of the narrative, he had to be allowed to live a little bit longer – and so we nudged the lightning bolt twenty feet to Moody’s left, where it slammed into, or rather through, a chipmunk, poor thing. Who now would provide for that former chipmunk’s family?
The narrators, or one narrator who refers to him or herself in the plural, have a personality all of their own. It was nice, for a change, to feel like I was being told a story. The lyrical aspect of Watson’s verse quickly lulled me into a comfortable relationship with A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies. That being said, there were moments where I wondered whether the experimentation was too much at once and whether it detracted from some of the very clever turns he made. Watson’s playfulness with style extended to structure and form as well, particularly in his lack of quotations.
Moody was a rather successful protagonist who was likable, despite the somewhat rushed amount of time it seemed we had with him. Amanda was someone who it took a bit longer to warm to as a character because I wondered whether there was anything to her other than her unnatural beauty. Perhaps, had the experimentation with style and form been more selective, the character development could have been expanded upon. That being said, Watson deserves respect and A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies is absolutely worth reading, including for the willingness to buck traditional expectations of narration and style.
Fiction by Takashi Hiraide
Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland
New Directions, January 2014
Paperback: 144pp; $14.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat is nothing like the usual cat book. Takashi Hiraide is an acclaimed poet in Japan, and this novel resembles a poem, recreating the immense world in small images, opening up to life with love and loss. It’s short like a poem, but though nostalgic and moving, it is not sentimental. The end of The Guest Cat indicates this novel evolved as a reshaping of a collection of essays and journal notes about the narrator and his wife’s relationship with a neighborhood cat Chibi, meaning “little one” in Japanese. This is a quiet, reflective, even philosophical book, which can appeal to more than cat lovers, since it is about how a relationship can change a person, how a communal animal can make one question who owns the animal, and how loss can reveal not just grief but resentment. By the end of The Guest Cat, the narrator notices and loves more, even extending his love to a house he doesn’t own.
In the beginning, the narrator and his wife have a magical world where they can look out a frosted window pane and a knothole to people passing in an alleyway who seem closer than they are, and upside down. Just as theirs is a view outward from and towards a narrow space, their life is small and ordinary—both working at home editing others’ works, living in a rented guesthouse of the next door manor. Enter ordinary-looking Chibi, who opens their life with a sense of freedom, doing what she wants. The animal-loving wife explains:
What’s interesting about animals is that even though a cat may be a cat, in the end, each individual has its own character. “For me, Chibi is a friend with whom I share an understanding, and who just happens to have taken on the form of a cat.”
Inevitable change is forecast through Machiavelli’s ideas about Fortune which “dominates at least half our lives, while in the remaining half or a little less, human strength and competence attempts to counteract it.”
The couple has always known that the cat belongs to the neighbor with the five-year-old boy. Yet, Chibi making herself at home with them causes them to wonder if Chibi’s true home is with them or their neighbor. Eventually the narrator can interpret the cat owner’s resentment of their secret relationship and as the couple come out of their narrow life, they become close to the old lady owning the manor, loving the gardens and house as they loved Chibi. Hiraide briefly but beautifully charts the change of seasons, giving dates and touching upon the emperor’s death, the year supposedly ordinary, though obviously not. One day in early spring, 1987, the husband opens the windows:
The house quickly became a hollow cavity for the wind to race through…Through the slanted skylight, a few rays of sun would pierce for a moment and then vanish…everything timed to the rhythm of illumination and concealment.
After both the manor owner and the cat are gone, all the life and charm of the place vanishes, the dragonflies and even the despised praying mantis not returning.
The novel captures a cat’s behavior perfectly. Even though cats are generally mysterious, Chibi’s mystery cannot be replicated. This novel is extraordinary in showing the slow, painful regeneration after loss and the need to cling to the past until one finds their own way. This small novel covers so much. It is thoughtful and resonant and will remain with readers.
Poetry by Jeffrey Bean
Paperback: 32pp; $6.00
Review by Brian McKenna
Four lines into the opening poem “The Bread” from Jeffrey Bean’s award-winning new chapbook Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, the speaker recounts the defining experience of his life: sitting down at a restaurant table with a girl. Doling out description with subtle music that captures the slowly evolving intimacy of the situation, the stanza quite literally sets the table for the flash of love’s bittersweet onset that occurs in the stanza’s final line. While the straightforward description of the scene details the outward circumstance of the meeting, the allusion to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” captures the true scope of the meeting’s importance:
The bread, the salad, simple, oiled.
The coats on hooks, exhaling winter smoke.
The hand that was mine, the knuckles, the table, smooth oak.
The girl I’d come to meet, the sky behind her hair, shook foil.
Later in the same poem, when the speaker candidly states, “I had been lonely, I had been hungry as a rat,” there is a sense of discovery in the admission that feels fresh, as if finding love has made him reconsider exactly how he’d been hungry for connection and the bizarre ways that hunger had manifested itself. Whether considering the fevers of adolescence, the art of an Old Master, or the concerns of family life, the poems in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window deal with that desire for connection and the unsettling reality that the connection, once found, can’t last. By turns, tender, funny, sobering, and surreal, Bean’s poems are pulled into surprising territory by the sound of their saying.
The chapbook’s three poems based on the paintings of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, of which the title poem is one, are prime examples of this. Vermeer’s paintings, with the tranquility of the domestic interiors and scenes they depict, provide rich subject matter for Bean’s clarity. In just a few opening lines from “Vermeer: Woman Putting on Pearls,” Bean captures the warmth of the painting and the expression on the soon-to-be mother’s face as she enjoys a moment of true contentment alone in her light-filled room: “Sometimes you get a minute or two, / nobody needs you for once, your body’s buoyed / by that grass-and-river feeling after lunch.” Astutely arranged within the chapbook to resonate with its loose progression from youthful experience to parenthood and family life, the poems elicited by Vermeer’s paintings provide some of the chapbook’s most meditative moments.
I’m not surprised, having had Bean’s instruction in graduate school, that the joy he takes in word-play, non-sequiturs, moments of apt surrealism, and the challenges of form, present in his first book, Diminished Fifth, shows up again in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. While Diminished Fifth overflowed with these tendencies, the poems in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window make more sparing and integral use of them to undergird the poems’ deeper meanings. Whether writing a sonnet or a list poem, Bean creates a conversational tone. An attention to emotional coherence and intellectual clarity, paired with a will to be weird, gives Bean’s writing a wholesomely unhinged quality. Whether his speaker is considering the moral of a parasite’s plight: “Everybody knows the lice are lonely. / And yet we go baring / our hairy necks in the park,” noticing that his daughter “claps the way Chuck Berry plays guitar,” or deciding that geraniums smell like “a cloth that cleans guns” and his “brother leaving for the lake,” the strangeness feels apt.
Bean’s ability to fuse humor with a sense of pathos is on full display in his poem “The Joy of Painting,” which finds the poem’s speaker peering over the shoulder of PBS’s own old master, Bob Ross. Watching television before bed, the speaker is drawn in by Ross’s enthusiasm for painting. The speaker’s enjoyment, however, takes a poignant turn when he notices the sun spots on the artist’s hands and remembers Ross is already dead. From this realization, “an old, tired thought” about his own death and the eventual death of his sleeping family deepens his art appreciation:
tonight on TV Bob Ross is happy
and alive, using odorless paint thinner, saying
let your imagination run wild and let it go,
here, you can do anything that you want to,
and he’s making a huge mountain struck by light,
and in the face of this and the death all over
his hands, I’m drinking warm milk and hoping
I can drift off to sleep without trouble. And Bob
is washing his brush now, and drying it, saying,
just beat the devil out of it, and now he’s painting
a happy little tree, almost like the one he imagined.
In the photographic update of Vermeer’s painting that appears on the cover of the chapbook, the casually elegant ingénue reads from a tablet rather than a handwritten letter, and the light filters through the window’s vertical blinds rather than draperies and leaded glass, but the human drama remains unchanged. The quotidian is made luminous and psychologically complex by the photograph’s composition. In the poems of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, the commonplace is rescued from inconsequence by Bean’s imagination and ability to show the movement of thought on the page. Whether the speaker is finding the happy little tree of immortality, recalling family life through a free-association about the smell of geraniums, or considering the meaning of love and lack, the compositions lead the reader to the matter’s beating heart.