NewPages Book Reviews
July 1, 2008
Ed. Steve Almond, Nathan Leslie
Dzanc Books, July 2008
Paperback: 353pp; $18.00
Review by Ryan Call
At the heart of Dzanc Books’ anthology Best of the Web 2008 sits a quiet essay titled “Thirst and the Writer’s Sense of Consequence” by David Bottoms. In the essay, originally published in the Kennesaw Review, Bottoms takes for his starting point Walt Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” the language of which inspires him to explore “the whole question of artistic sensibility, more specifically, the sensibility that gives impulse to poetry and literary fiction.” Although it is a change of pace from the poetry and prose of the surrounding pages, for example, Christina Kallery’s poem “Swan Falls in Love with Swan-Shaped Boat” and R.T. Smith’s story “What I Omitted from the Official Personnel Services Report,” the essay gives the anthology a solid center from which the other pieces might develop.
The poet or the fiction writer who wants to touch readers on the deepest level is constantly seeking out those dots and trying to connect them, acting against desperate odds on the impulse of yearning to know. In this way, literature becomes a record of the ways the world moves us toward a sense of significance.
Here Bottoms likens the creation of art to the act of solving a connect-the-dots puzzle, perhaps not the cleanest of metaphors, but one that places great importance on connection. It is this idea that leads me to expand Bottoms’s cast of literary types to include Dzanc publishers Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett, Best of the Web series editor Nathan Leslie, and guest editor Steve Almond. Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2008 is the result of their efforts to connect the Internet's writing scene into a single, significant record of online literary writing.
What makes this particular anthology so exciting is the fact that it seeks both to improve upon previous anthologies and to begin what Dzanc hopes will become one of the most important and longest lasting series of online writing anthologies ever published. Leslie is especially clear about this goal. After politely nodding to other anthologies, such as the past efforts of Carve Magazine and the ongoing Million Writers Award run by Jason Sanford, editor of StorySouth, Leslie writes:
This is a wide-ranging anthology, eclectic, various and sundry. This anthology is built to, we hope, stand the test of time year in and year out. After all, this is the point of an annual anthology. It should be an eagerly awaited arrival, something to look forward to.
And Leslie is right. The anthology is expansive in its scope. In its three hundred or so pages, you will find poetry, fiction, and essays, all of which represent many different sensibilities and online journals, ranging from the widely popular Blackbird and failbetter.com to lesser known publications, such as the Danforth Review and The King’s English. Add to that Leslie’s introduction, a rather odd introduction by Steve Almond, four short author interviews, a list of notable pieces, contributors’ notes, and an index of online journals, and you have an ambitious overview of online literary writing.
A few of my favorite pieces include David Willems’s short short “A Girl Made of Glass,” Ron Tanner’s story “My Small Murders,” Justin Taylor’s short short “The Jealousy of Angels,” Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay on James Wood’s misreading of Don DeLillo, and Andrea Cohen’s poem “Still Life with Childhood.” These pieces deserve mention because they embody what I really like about online writing: its defiant and reckless energy in the face of what Leslie calls the “sometimes prissy, stuffy [. . .] print world.”
I was surprised by a few of the selections (and omissions) on the part of the editors. I recall reading several fantastic online stories this past year that did not make the anthology. The work of Kim Chinquee comes to mind. Equally surprising was the absence of a few journals. For example, despite receiving three nods in the Notables section, elimae did not have a piece in the main pages and the writing in DIAGRAM went completely unmentioned.
Despite my minor complaints, Best of the Web 2008 successfully does all that its publishers and editors could have hoped for. The book both recognizes a wide range of quality online writing, and gives its readers a comprehensive look at the field from which its contents come – two characteristics of a good anthology. As for the fate of the series, I do not doubt that it will continue to appear each year, given the tremendous success that Dzanc has had since its founding in 2006. Such a development could not have come at a better time for online literary publishing.
Stories by Donald Ray Pollock
Doubleday, March 2008
Hardcover: 224pp; $22.95
Review by Matt Bell
There’s no way I could start this review with a sentence better than any of the first lines in Knockemstiff, the debut collection by Donald Ray Pollock. Perhaps this one from the collection’s opening story, “Real Life," which starts, “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” Another, “Bactine,” opens with “I’ve been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.”
If that's not enough to get you reading, consider the first paragraph of the story “Holler”:
I woke up thinking I’d pissed the bed again, but it was just a sticky spot from where Sandy and me fucked the night before. Those kind of things happen when you drink like I do – you shit your pants in the Wal-Mart, you end up living off some crackhead and her poor parents. I raised the blankets just a tad, traced my finger over the blue KNOCKEMSTIFF, OHIO tattoo that Sandy had etched in her skinny ass like a road sign. Why some people need ink to remember where they come from will always be a mystery to me.
If the narrator is really that confused, perhaps he should ask his creator, because Donald Ray Pollock has spilled a hell of a lot of ink in pursuit of his own real life hometown of Knockemstiff. The characters in these stories are mostly rural, poorly educated, and addicted to everything from cigarettes to hard liquor, from fish sticks to stolen pharmaceuticals. Like the reclusive narrator of “Dynamite Hole,” who lives in the canyon beyond the town, these are characters whose desires are formed by watching their neighbors, by coveting their cars and their jobs and their women until something crucial snaps, thrusting them from inaction into whatever comes next.
In “Real Life,” Bobby tells the story of how, when he was seven years old, his father took him and his mother to see Godzilla at the Torch Drive-In. Bobby is a disappointment to his father, who complains to a friend, “I shit you not . . . this boy’s scared of his own goddamn shadow. A fuckin’ bug’s got more balls.” When Bobby and his father take a break from the movie to go to the bathroom, it ends with the father getting in a fistfight with another man, followed by their sons fighting too. Bobby hits the other boy as his father screams encouragement, until “bright red blood sprayed out of his nose.” His reward is the only bit of encouragement he will ever get from his father:
I scooted across the seat and sat behind my father as we raced home. Every time he passed a car, he took another pull from the bottle. Wind rushed through his open window and dried our sweat. The Impala felt like it was floating above the highway. You did good, I kept saying to myself, over and over. It was the only goddamn thing my old man ever said to me that I didn’t try to forget.
Other highlights include “Hair’s Fate,” about a boy named Daniel who hitchhikes his way into trouble, ending up in a trucker’s trailer that “smelled like a closet full of bad times,” and “Fish Sticks,” where the narrator details the advantages and disadvantages of dating a mentally handicapped woman: “Even though she was probably the best woman Del Murray had ever been with – gobs of bare-knuckle sex, the latest psychotropic drugs, a government check – he was still embarrassed to be seen with her in public.”
If it’s not obvious by now, it’s worth pointing out that most of these characters are so far from redemption that whatever hope there is for them lies beyond the scope of these very short stories. There are bad people in Donald Ray Pollock’s fictional version of the town Knockemstiff, and to expect them to come out the other side of their trials either saved or punished is to be disappointed.
In the end, this isn’t the kind of the book that’s going to save anyone’s soul, or show the redemptive possibilities of even the roughest characters. Instead, Donald Ray Pollock offers us nothing more and nothing less than the truth, even when that truth is ugly and twisted and drunk on cheap liquor or high on oxycotin. Better that than another story about people getting healed, another book about a community coming together after generations of failure and misery. Knockemstiff is too good of a book for any of that. It’s a great debut, and without a doubt one of the best books published so far this year.
A Book of Postcards
Graphics by Cristy C. Road
Microcosm Publishing, September 2007
Paperback: 90 postcards; $15.00
Review by Sean Lovelace
As the name implies, the DIY (Do It Yourself) movement is all about self-sufficiency. The punk branch of this larger concept pushes the ideology even further, basically shouting to all: “If your activities (aka consumer services or items) exploit planet Earth or creatures of, then f—k off! We’ll do it ourselves!” This model is essentially economic, finding new (and theoretically purer) paths around consumer culture, from music production (David Ferguson, Michelle Branch, etc.) to advertising (the very successful Sticker Junkie, among others) to the local farmer’s market or garage sale (or dare I say eBay?). DIY innately lends itself to the sensibilities of art and the internet: blogs, zines, forums, the arteries and chambers of the underground, of buzz, immediacy and verve – the hiss and crackle of punk.
Author, illustrator, self-publisher, advocate for society’s underdogs, Cristy C. Road has been on the stiletto’s edge of self-authenticity and anti-authority for years, slicing and slashing her way forward. She is prolific (for a sampling I strongly suggest you visit her eclectic website of prose and drawings, CROADCORE). She is also consistent with angst as her subject. Road’s examination of alienation and anxiety goes beyond the simple teenage variety, the self pity that drives a young person to view the greater world and write about themselves. Instead, Road tackles edgier issues: sex and sexuality, mental illness, race, class, identity in the good ol’ (and often not so good ol’) U.S. of A. Clearly, Road maintains a larger view, a bit of Patti Smith, a touch of Banksy (before he sold out, right?), maybe even a shard of Valerie Solonas: grittier, more vividly political, and certainly more serious than any tear-stained diary.
Her new collection is an offering of 90 postcards. Actual postcards, perforated for easy removal and mailing: I should know – I’ve currently sent out 14 of them to friends and enemies. And what is a postcard to an artist? A formula of juxtaposition: A (an image) plus B (words) equaling C (the new and greater meaning of the two combined). Think of Rauschenberg's infamous goat-and-tire installation; or this spring’s Dave Eggers art show (he was curator of the event), a collection of text and images together (more than 100, including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Cohen, R. Crumb, and Kurt Vonnegut). Apparently, Eggers didn’t ask Cristy C. Road to submit for the showing. Not that she would have agreed to, this reviewer would hope. Her art belongs elsewhere, in the alley outside the gallery, or possibly in the storm drain, alongside an empty bottle of codeine cough syrup.
Images of the underbelly, city dwellers clutching beer bottles, pills, and hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes, all hunched below an ashy urban sky. Of biker women. Glam rock men. Of one woman proudly walking the street while wearing a strap-on dildo (I sent this one to my grandmother but haven’t heard back yet). Of youth, droopy-eyed, sullen, in hoodies and mascara, thick belts and jangling chains, as they leap concertina wire, make out in public, lug their perfectly beaten guitars from street corner to warehouse to dive bar. Does some of this seem stock? From the stage of Rent, the hipster hangouts of East Village? Possibly, but Road frequently takes things further, to the new and often startling, and this is where the art rises from the page.
One card depicts a woman standing below a towering skyscraper. Ravens spiral down from a pearly sky, and peck at her open skull, the gray matter of her brain. She reads the newspaper, apparently oblivious to her exposed cranium, the “open mind” as carrion. We glimpse only the front and back page of the newspaper. The headline announces JUST SAY NO. The back is a full-page advertisement for vodka. Now this is an America I recognize. This is an image that makes me question.
Another card is a young woman in a jaundice yellow bathtub. She has taken the long metal tubing of the shower coil and appears to sexually service herself with the showerhead. Her legs are spread wide. Her expression one of orgasmic self-satisfaction. But most fascinating is the setting. Below the sink a pile of dirty laundry (metaphor anyone?). The bathroom rug resembles a tangle of steel wool. And, captured in silhouette against the window glass of the door, a man, his face buried in his hands, grieving. Him. Her. Their closeness. Their distance. The pale wash of the grimy wall mirror. There is truth enough here about relationships to fill several novels.
Several other images in this book contain such compressed honesty. Such exposure. Such a lot, on a relatively small canvas. And isn’t this the purpose of postcards? Finally, Road’s work surpasses the cliché, and the postcard embraces its form and function: to fly, to transfer – to communicate. A message sent, for all to view along its passage. And then received. To grant a voice. To speak: This is the art and life of Cristy C. Road.
Novel by Solveig Eggerz
Ghost Road Press, May 2008
Paperback: 284pp; $19.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
In Seal Woman, a historical novel by native Icelander Solveig Eggerz, Charlotte is a German wife and mother fleeing war-torn Berlin and the ghosts of her memory. One of more than 300 people responding to an ad for “strong women who can cook and do farm work” in Iceland, Charlotte hopes to live in a land without war memories – one she hopes will prove a refuge from the difficult recollections of her missing Jewish husband and their daughter.
With wit, precision, the ring of authenticity and an arsenal of emotional truths, Eggerz weaves her native lore into the fabric of the novel. Seal woman derives from Icelandic legends revolving around a seal, or selkie, who transforms herself into human form. While human, the seal woman falls in love, marries and has human children, but in time she must return to her aquatic form to rejoin her pups in the ocean. It is not an easy decision for her to make, and she may feel torn for the rest of her life.
For Charlotte, the seal woman holds special significance. Her strong-willed artist husband, the son of a prominent department store family, is not exempt from the hatred propagated under Hitler’s regime. After he responds to a letter summoning him to a concentration camp, the decision Charlotte makes to protect her daughter will be one that roils within her across oceans and decades. She has to remind herself: “The hillside was better, better than the Germany she’d left after the war was finally over – no work, nothing to eat, the best people dead or gone.”
Missing her native, pre-WWII Berlin is a constant for Charlotte. Not knowing what has become of her daughter while attempting to learn the strange language and customs of Iceland weighs on her always. But there are unexpected gifts in the strange tundra.
The family she starts with, the farmer of Dark Castle, becomes her reluctant future. Like the seal woman, Charlotte is torn between her past and present. The sea is a means of transport, escape or certain death. As such, its transformative potential is as great as the conductive powers of water.
Transformation is not always a process people go through willingly; sometimes it happens because it has to. Even before the war, Charlotte and Max, both painters, know this through the practice of their craft. With the needless devastation of cultures, ideas, futures and families happening all around them to an unprecedented degree, they struggle with how to respond to a body politic that forces itself on its people.
There is a time when Charlotte and Max are painting, literally, in direct response to what is happening outside their door: “On the Kudamm they passed broken windows of Jewish stores, places where Jews had been beaten up. After that, Charlotte set up her easel in Max’s studio. In yellow, red and blue, she painted the police chasing the demonstrators over the square and the dead woman.” It is an unfortunate fact that uncountable lives, minds and works of art and creation were smothered in eternal silence by the megalomaniac hatred of Hitler’s deteriorated mind, and Eggerz paints the picture of this devastation and its far-reaching effects vividly. She later writes of the creative process, a way in which the artist can concretize and transfer emotional unrest: “She was learning that a painter did not absorb pain directly but broke it down into parts, integrating it gradually into his soul, often blending it with his own pain, then giving it back – in oil – transformed.”
Eggerz’s choice of subject matter is still very much in the worldwide social conscience. She masterfully weaves the complex historical themes into a novel about one woman’s struggle with change, identity, family and acceptance so that it speaks to the experiences of many, bringing home what it must have been like for them. The ending, while not what the reader wants or expects, is one that does justice to the unfortunate reality of the many lives impacted by the Holocaust. Charlotte is served many unwanted decisions that will linger much longer than the time it takes to fill a cattle car.
Poetry by Erin M. Bertram
dancing girl press, 2007
Chapbook: 31pp; $6.00
Review by Karyna McGlynn
I picked up Erin M. Bertram’s Alluvium less on the reputation of its writer, whom I knew little about, than that of its publisher. Kristy Bowen’s dancing girl press is an enviable little operation that publishes handmade chapbooks by a veritable who’s who list of emerging women poets, and I was curious to check out one of its latest offerings.
Alluvium is an aptly chosen title for a collection that, indeed, feels sedimentary and made up of a variety of materials: prose, litany, Q&A, epistle, quiz, inventory, travelogue, incantation, etc. The diversity of forms, however, feels a bit heady for 30 pages of poetry, and I often found myself awash in a river of words, grasping for any life-rafts or bits of rope I could find – a state of affairs Bertram almost seems to predict in her dedication: “for those fumbling through & those who make it to the other side.”
Alluvium’s launch is a tricky one to navigate. Bertram presents a post-dedication onslaught of potential obstacles for the jaded or impatient reader: quotes by Jeanette Winterson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a first line invocation of Keats (“Darkling, listen.”), a potent one-two punch of antiquated diction and alliteration (“In torpor I tarried”), followed by something that sounds suspiciously like an adolescent eating disorder (“stretched hunger’s jaws wide”), and a litany of aimless self-definitions and redefinitions (“am coalesce, racked & eager. Am surfeit, black & rising”). There are birds, trees, hands and rivers. “There is a story trapped inside your body.”
There is also the realization that all her titles utilize what I’ve come to call “hipster brackets,” a trend which originated with D.A. Powell, who uses bracketed titles traditionally, in that his “titles” are actually his first lines standing in as titles (e.g. Powell’s poem “[You’d want to go to the reunion: see]” which begins with the line “you’d want to go to the reunion: see”). It’s ingenious really. But it’s not completely consistent; in a few poems he employs a bracketed title that isn’t repeated in the first line of the poem (e.g. “[12-line poem, seemingly out of place]” which begins “then the vehicular manslaughter took place: a tornado”). The fad this practice gave rise to, however, has gotten completely out of hand with titles bracketed willy-nilly, regardless of whether the title is the first line or resembles any other sort of information which might conceivably belong in brackets. The result – and I say this lovingly, as someone who has been guilty of hipster bracketing – is that we have pointless hipster parentheses cropping up within pointless hipster brackets in titles like Bertram’s “[Travelogue (Breviary)]” and I think it’s high time someone called for an armistice.
But I’m horribly unfair. In torpor I tarry on Bertram’s first poem, when, in fact, I know that the first poem in a book is one of the worst places to judge its worth. The fact is that by and large Bertram’s poetry is darkly sparkling, adroit, well crafted, painterly, vital and sonically rapturous:
God has nothing to do with it. Do the math.
The sacral, the diurnal, the sacred, the dead
. . .
You’d wake the next morning in sweat, taste mint & mineral.
I had wanted to make clear to you the velvet within.
The black smoke, the contour of fire. To describe.
to you a world, the world, to you. Is what I mean.
It’s easy to fall under the sway of Alluvium’s verb-heavy fragments and repetitions: “am adrift. Drifting,” “The snaps, like so, adjust. / They adjust,” “The form thrown, / cast. The figures cast out.” And Bertram’s flair for interlocking images and verbal play feels natural and highly potent: “Gazelle still, no commentary in British tongue, / Just the faint sense of choking back / What otherwise might spread like groundcover.
The ways in which Alluvium can occasionally flounder are by no means terminal. At worst the poems sometimes stray into awkward self-awareness, overindulgence, and a tendency to thesaurusize – not because Bertram uses particularly big words, but because the words she chooses often feel unnecessary, anachronistic, or striving. Does “truth” for instance need to be “burnished” and “hewn?” Isn’t “mantra a splicing of incredulity with sequined allure” gilding the lily a bit? Yes, but I want to stress that I hope Bertram never forces a muzzle over these inclinations. Better to have an overabundance – which will, I’m convinced, learn to temper and regulate itself over time – than to try to coerce poetry out of some imaginative void. I look forward to seeing what Bertram does in a full collection, given more legroom and less rope.
[*Editor's Note: Erin Bertram has contributed literary magazine reviews to NewPages in the past. However, reviews are not assigned, and this book was selected voluntarily by the review writer.]
Novel by Cory Doctorow
Tor, April 2008
Hardcover: 384pp; $17.95
Review by Matt Bell
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is his first young adult book, but don’t let that put you off reading it. This is perhaps the first essential book I’ve read this year, the first novel that feels important enough to recommend it to every single person I discuss books with. While it will resonate best with teens, who will identify closely with its protagonist and his friends, the issues covered over the course of the story are important enough to matter to every American reader.
Little Brother is narrated by Marcus Yallow, a seventeen-year-old student and amateur hacker who goes by the internet handle “win5t0n.” He and his friends find themselves apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security following a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus is eventually released and returned home. He’s shaken by what has happened, but also committed to defeating the Department of Homeland Security and the privacy-hating police state that’s replaced the San Francisco Marcus loves.
Without giving away any more plot points, it is worth noting that Little Brother is always engaging – moving quickly from chapter to chapter while also explaining the complexities of modern surveillance, terrorist “prevention,” and, in one of the novel’s most chilling chapters, torture techniques such as waterboarding used by the American government against its so-called “enemy combatants.” Doctorow manages to make discussions of internet security, RFID tags, and cryptography not only interesting and understandable but also organic parts of the book’s plot. Even better, he makes them part of Marcus’s life and the lives of his friends and family. As Marcus defeats one surveillance method after another, he learns that with each victory come consequences that affect not only himself but also everyone around him, giving Marcus’s struggle an urgency that propels the reader forward.
Marcus narrates the story with the wisdom of a hyper-intelligent teenager, explaining his theories and concerns in a friendly, articulate voice, as in this section taken from the chapter where his privacy is first invaded by the DHS:
There’s something really liberating about having some corner of your life that’s yours, that no one gets to see except you. It’s a little like nudity or taking a dump. Everyone gets naked every once in a while. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There’s nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you’d have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you’d be buck naked?
Even if you’ve got nothing wrong or weird with your body – and how many of us can say that? – you’d have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you.
Marcus provides similar arguments against teachers, DHS officers, and his father, all of whom ask variations of the same question: “Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” Arguments like these have become a familiar part of our cultural conversation, along with the idea that “if you don't have anything to hide, then you have nothing to worry about” when it comes to invasive searches or government data-mining programs. Doctorow manages to show that the argument is false, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that these programs just don’t work very well at catching terrorists, no matter how many guarantees their proponents make.
The arguments and information in Little Brother are what make the book important, but it’s the story that will keep you turning the pages. Despite the occasional plot hole or unrealistic rendering, probably caused by the young adult target audience (like the DHS officers and police who never fire a bullet or seriously hurt any of the teenagers during several riot scenes), the overall story is quite believable. Written like a teenager’s version of 1984, Doctorow’s Little Brother is a smart tale for all ages, and his version of teenage life comes across as a realistic blend of insecurity, idealism, hormones and experimentation. These are real people putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good, and it is impossible not to be drawn into their lives.
As entertaining as it is informative, readers will find themselves cheering enthusiastically for Marcus and his friends while subconsciously soaking up how-to lessons on detecting secret cameras, defeating gait sensors and thwarting internet surveillance programs. If you only have time to read one more book before the revolution comes, Little Brother should probably be the one you pick.
Poetry by Warren Woessner
Backwaters Press, March 2008
Paperback: 96pp; $16.00
Review by Roy Wang
The Midwestern voice has been with us long enough now that sometimes we forget that, like all innovations, it once required inventing. The Chinese capacity for understatement is something that I have also taken for granted, not remembering that such stances would be considered a departure from our American ancestors of Whitman and Dickenson. Warren Woessner recently reminded me of this unexpected connection between the Minnesota miller and Tang aristocrat in a brief interview below his Minneapolis law office, eloquently providing his own juxtaposition.
Modesty, he notes, is a key descriptor of the similarities between these disparate traditions. This allows for a rich density of meaning in simple, conversational lines as irony and implication render the line heavy. In the poem that opens the first section of the book, “The Men Who Fish,” Woessner describes employees who have suffered nerve damage at the dye factory and are allowed to fish instead of work to avoid lawsuits:
Good dye, it stuck
to skin. In the showers
we scrubbed with permanganate
to burn it out, then bleached
purple skin with Clorox
to get white again. Clean
as the river, as the fish
they caught, threw back,
Woessner uses his chemistry background to good advantage, accenting the bleakness of industrial ruin with matter-of-fact use of jargon while continuing traditions generally associated with Midwestern voices: epistles and elegies, factoids, and a sleepy-hazy dreaminess carrying over into low-flying fantasy.
Along the way, we encounter our fair share of wry humor and mystery. Based on real impressions, the scenes he paints serve as guideposts to remind us of the arduous journey we each make through this land and life, squinting for meaning just out of reach. Sometimes Woessner may reach too far, falling prey to the common pitfall of forcing meaning into every breath and scene, as in “January 1st,” “Then an eagle is overhead, / almost too high to see. / But they see it and are up / all at once, beating upstream. / Silence. Six degrees / below zero. Time / to move on.” When not overdone, we have some great effects, as in “Hidden Beach”:
By noon, pickups
and junkers crowd
the lot. No fee
less beach –
Around the bend of inlet
dozens of Horseshoe Crabs
the clear water
with milky sperm
Oblivious to the taker.
fast to bright beach
where, like birds, crabs
or kids, I can see
a long way off.
The humor Woessner uses can be ironic at the “expense” of city folk, and has its fun moments, such as “You were all warm / and curled up to me / like an otter I said / Otter you said / that’s some kinda rodent / isn’t it? / Yes I guess / I meant to say / mink / City girl / doesn’t mind / mink”
The rhythms of these poems are deliberate and generally well conceived, but can feel unpolished. This can work well in tandem with the irony or humor, but Woessner sometimes overdoes it, as in “High Summer,” “Cattails surround the pond. / Ducks and turtles loaf on logs. / Songs slow in the woods. / Herons stand still.” The lines successively lose a syllable, but when combined with the surrounding text, provides at least one slow line too many. For an example of better control, “The Loon” starts with a few strongly rhyming lines and then degenerates, changing the tenor of the incantation:
The loon’s three-note cry
cleaves the water from the sky,
stills the night on the lake,
and turns my dreams around.
Years ago, on the Sound,
the foghorn on Eaton’s Neck
unerringly found me,
shivering in Grandpa’s cold bed.
Then I imagined schooners
ripped apart on the reef.
The loon song is better news
for the North – clean water,
enough food and room –
all clear for now.
The collection starts with some sensual, jazzy notes set in New York City, which, when combined with a Midwestern presence, produces a picture of a complex, wandering soul carrying his words around to whomever would hear. This is amplified by the many moments that unabashedly call up Leonard Cohen, such as these lines from “Letter to Hilton from Madison”: “I’m not sure if I’m lonely, / But I’m going to stick around and find out.” More of these unbalancing modulations would have been welcome, but instead Woessner entrenches himself ever more solidly in his clean, northern landscapes, finally coming around to a solid, if expected, conclusion.
Poetry by Matt Schumacher
Wordcraft of Oregon, March 2008
Paperback: 104pp; $12.00
Review by Micah Zevin
Matt Schumacher's first collection of poetry is an otherworldly journey of linguistic inventiveness that keeps you directly on this earth while simultaneously transporting you to locations that at first glance appear strange or surreal but become familiar once you peer into their profound insides. These poems make up a cosmic parade where you will meet cowboys from Venus, pizzas that fly and ghosts who haunt spaceships. Ultimately, these poems are about the redemption of humanity in spite of the obstacles you have to overcome and the distances you must travel to arrive at familiar, yet alien, destinations. The poem “Old West Town Discovered on Venus” takes the reader on a journey to one of these planets:
No moon. Not even one saloon.
Poison sunrise in the west.
Pressure hissing like a rattler underfoot.
Better wear your hat brim low,
Because the sun alone will kill you.
It’s a town better kept
At the far end of the telescope,
Left to a ruffled sheriff who’d given up long ago,
Who’d be the first to mutter lawless hellhole,
But here you are, chasing tumbleweeds
And imagining sage amidst these dried-up seas,
Dreaming of rodeos
In “The Ghost Ship Chronicles,” Schumacher delivers an epic narrative poem, set on a ship of the dead where the crew does not seem entirely aware of their predicament. Are they alive or dead or in some kind of limbo where souls are forced to roam endlessly? In part IV of the poem, the ghosts revisit the paradox of the ocean as they first viewed it:
Today the ship’s deck parted like a cloud
And the world appeared crystalline again
As it was in the beginning:
The ocean, a deepening mystery,
The sky, tranquil and cerulean,
The bright and forthright invitation of the sun
The ship rushing forward aboard sparkling waves
For the horizon, a mosaic of auspicious fire
Painted by great angels blowing in our sails.
Each face expressed a serene, fearless bliss.
This moment I hold frozen in mind
For that instant I most dread,
The time my very eyes must disappear.
Poems like this show just some of Schumacher's many capabilities in this daring and absurdly serious collection, which has its many subjects ensconced in singularly human mythologies that are not merely tales but adventures of transcendence and redemption. The main point of these narratives is to make the reader or the character within its confines see what has been seen before in a different way and be better for the experience. Mathew Schumacher's poetry challenges the reader to imagine a rich, dreamy world where the improbable is never impossible, and the impossible is brought to life by the author, a puppet master with convincing zeal for all that is alien about being human.
Stories by Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2008
Paperback: 192pp; $12.00
Review by Matt Bell
For many American readers, Etgar Keret’s 2006 collection The Nimrod Flipout was the book that first introduced them to this excellent Israeli writer. With his short, fable-like stories combining a fantastical whimsy with the political and social realities of the Middle East, Keret’s stories felt like they burst onto the scene from nowhere, while in reality it was his second American book taken from the five collections already published in Israel. Like its predecessors, The Girl on the Fridge contains a wealth of Keret’s short stories, including some that will truly amaze the reader at how much power he can pack into a two- or three-page story, or, even more impressively, into a one-paragraph story, like the opener “Asthma Attack,” quoted here in its entirety:
When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones – those cost you, too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could be ambulance.
Like all of his best stories, “Asthma Attack” shows off Keret’s ability to make every word count and to employ simple phrases to often grand effect. The story also reads like a manifesto when placed at the beginning of a collection of stories, an argument for the concise brevity of the work contained within The Girl on the Fridge. Unfortunately, readers already familiar with Keret through The Nimrod Flipout and The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God will likely be disappointed by the bulk of this collection, culled as it is from the last remaining stories of his early Hebrew collections, which have already been raided for the two volumes already available in English. Many of these stories display Keret at a seemingly earlier stage, one where he is more clever than profound, more cynical than satirical. His powers as a writer have grown immensely since the bulk of these stories were written, and so, despite their many merits, they are simply not as strong as the stories already familiar to his American readers.
Comparisons aside, there are still a number of strong stories collected here, and the best will be welcome additions to the collections of readers who have already devoured Keret’s earlier books. Highlights include “Hat Trick,” about a magician who reaches into his hat at a children’s party to pull out his rabbit Kazam only to come up with just the head, and the relationship story “Crazy Glue,” narrated by a man whose girlfriend glues herself to the ceiling of their apartment as a way to solve their problems. Overall, there are more successes than failures, and even the duds will still offer the occasional laugh or witty insight. The core of what makes Keret a great writer is always there, even when the packaging isn’t quite up to snuff.
Now that his back catalog has been more or less exhausted, readers can look forward to whatever comes next from Keret. Six years have passed since his last Hebrew collection, Anihu, was published, and we can only hope that a new volume is coming soon, followed in short order by an English translation. For fans ready for the next phase of Keret’s career, that truer sequel to his early works can’t come soon enough.