NewPages Book Reviews


Posted April 1, 2010

Sum of Every Lost Ship - Shoulder Season - If You Lived Here You'd Already Be Home - The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits - Pulleys & Locomotion - Where the Dog Star Never Glows - The Singer's Gun - 100 Notes on Violence - Dirty August - Primeval and Other Times - Father Dirt - In the Presence of the Sun - Unsound - Droppers

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Sum of Every Lost Ship coverSum of Every Lost Ship

Poetry by Allison Titus

CSU Poetry Center, November 2009

ISBN-10: 188083488X

ISBN-13: 978-1-880834-88-6

Paperback: 78pp; $15.95

Review by Sara C. Rauch

It is very easy to lose yourself in the brave, lonely world of Allison Titus's Sum of Every Lost Ship. Her spare and questioning aesthetic is pleasing, and her subjects bristle just enough to provide a wonderful chemistry. Throughout her poems, she maintains a careful beauty and distance, and she creates a unique world of displacement, longing, and ultimately, survival.

Sum of Every Lost Ship begins with the epigraph “There is a hotel in the heart of every man,” from Don DeLillo's Americana, and it is without a doubt a perfect opener; it epitomizes the uprooted nature of Titus's poetry. Despite the specific places her poetry inhabits, the narrator always conveys a sense of transience. This disjointedness feels very controlled; Titus does not give way to distraction.

Distance, both physical and emotional, is important in this collection. Part Three, which contains a sustained poem titled "From the Lost Diary of Anna Anderson,” plays with this idea of emotional distance. Found almost drowned in a river in Berlin, the narrator refuses to give her name or any personal information, refuses to admit suicide attempt or accident. Shuffled from hospital to asylum, the narrator tells us,

What keeps me living is knowing I once knew how,
and everything my body memorized:
I am strange among strangers the doctor thinks me insane.
But insanity does not know one's own name.
It has nothing to do with not telling it.

In keeping with the epigraph, motels make several appearances. In fact, there are four poems called "Motel" in this collection (all lovely little boxy prose poems). But besides that, motels are often the setting for Titus's poems. "Ice Storm" opens,

Somewhere ice is a room
to sleep in. A motel
halfway between
dusk and dawn,
an ailment pulled
from the cupboard,
what cure to repair
this indiscretion.

In "Vacant" she writes, "I am already / black strands of hair // on the flat white pillow."

There is also a hinted at broken heart; many mentions are made of "our one good year." Don't let the mentions of broken-heartedness fool you though; this is no overly emotional, static grief. This is a constantly moving and exploring sadness; it is a broken heart surveying the view of towns all over the country as it relives the hours and days of a life that held little in the way of traditional romance.

There is a sustained and affected dissonance in Sum of Every Lost Ship. At its best, it is cohesive and pleasurably disorienting. (As a disclaimer, I find nothing wrong with leaving a poem without really knowing what "happened" in it – that is one of the things I like best about poetry.) Titus's poetry contains a refreshing use of language, and because of her carefully constructed enigmatic storyline, a version of plot is deftly woven into the lines; this prevents the reader from unmooring during the flights of her language. In Sum of Every Lost Ship, the reader doesn't always know where the poem's language (or the poem's narrative, for that matter) will take her. And yet, in Titus's able hands, it is easy to give up the reins to this brave and curious vision.

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Shoulder Season coverShoulder Season

Poetry by Ange Mlinko

Coffee House Press, April 2010

ISBN-10: 1566892430

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-243-8

Paperback: 81pp; $16.00

Review by Christine Kanownik

Ange Mlinko’s previous books have earned her much praise and fanfare and it does seem like she deserves it. Her third book, Shoulder Season, is sharp, entertaining and engaging. Her poems are timely and important. There are very few poets who can accomplish this feat. She is grappling with the world as it is. The landscapes are chaotic but the messages are not didactic.

This new book is a constant re-working of a theme, filled with repetition and obsession. But her re-workings are no relaxing mantra – they are grappling and neurotic. She creates a bamboo-like texture of “living jointed segments.” Her poems obsessively feed upon themselves, rewarding a careful reading. This is the frenetic landscape in which we live. It is not without its beauties, for sure. But even the very young need to be prepared for battle.

Sometimes she loses us in her world or it gets a little ungainly. “Brigette Bardot lashing out at the leash laws in Zürich” seems to be resting on her laurels of cleverness rather than inventing new language. These wacky non-sequiturs don't delight or appeal to the reader as much as the image of a “penny squashed in a penny-squashing machine” or the brilliance of the first several poems of the book.

Mlinko’s poetry lives in the present and describes it with a chilling accuracy.

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If You Lived Here You'd Already Be Home coverIf You Lived Here
You’d Already Be Home

Fiction by John Jodzio

Replacement Press, March 2010

ISBN-10: 0984418407

ISBN-13: 978-0984418404

Paperback: 180pp; $12.95

Review by Keith Meatto

In this debut collection, characters deal with pain in bizarre ways. A suicidal woman seduces a man in a coma. A lawyer drops pennies on passersby from the window of his office building. And in the title story, the teenage male narrator declares:

There are some things you should not do in the rich town up the mountain from yours and one of those is sticking your dick in their mail slots or dog doors and moving it around and thrusting your hip in and out and sometimes urinating…but this, this is precisely what my brother and I started doing one Saturday morning after our baseball season ended.

This mood is typical of If You Lived Here You’d Already be Home. Each of the 21 stories begins with a pop and then unfolds in a taut, colloquial style filled with wit and pathos. The intensity rarely wanes as the characters struggle with loss and alienation and stumble toward happiness. As a whole, the book reads like a meditation on grief.

Many of the protagonists are adolescents or adults who act like adolescents. And nearly all of them are desperate for love and acceptance. Their worlds are filled with failed or doomed romances, emotional and physical abuse, and dysfunctional families.

One highlight of the book is the way Jodzio lightens the tension with humor: from the woman with a barnacle stuck to her butt to the cancer patient who goes fishing with a steroid-addled baseball player. Even an archetypal love triangle story gets a comic twist; the rivals are a candlewick inventor and a pilot who skywrites to impress his beloved.

While no characters recur, Jodzio fixates on characters with dead mothers, absentee fathers, or both. There is also a recurrence of women who stalk girls, men who drive off bridges, and people with compulsions to swallow objects. And many characters look to animals to soothe their sadness. In one story, a boy steals an egg from a heron’s nest. In another, a veterinarian sews a hawk’s wings to a cat. And in “Monarchs,” a young man seduces women at his father’s butterfly farm with the pick-up line: “Have you ever gotten naked and had a million butterflies land on you at once? It’s like being kissed by God.”

Overall, the stories are rendered with imagination and insight into the human condition, with echoes of Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel. With all their flaws and hardships, the characters demand sympathy, but never pity. And the stories avoid sentimentality and happy endings. Instead, the payoffs come in moments when characters find reprieve from their pain, and, in the words of one, try “to use that feeling to get through the day.”

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The Bugging Watch and Other Exhibits coverThe Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits

Fiction/Poetry by Kim Gek Lin Short

Tarpaulin Sky Press, May 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-9825216-1-6

Paperback: 57pp; $14.00

Review by Jeremy Benson

The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits is under a porch, is between the fridge and the cupboard, is hiding among the coats and sweaters in the tilted closet above the basement stairs. Its shapeshifting and heartbreak is nightmarishly microscopic and horrifically asymptotical.

The series magnifies the lives of Harlan and Toland, a pair of raggedly mismatched lovers, presented through the observational “exhibits” and primary-sourced excerpts from their first-person datebooks. Their story is a commonplace arc: simpleton boy loves complex girl, without condition or apology, and their love is finally made concrete by her death (variations of the theme: Forrest Gump, Paul Simon’s “Lorraine,” Madam Bovary).

Harlan’s autistic world is centered on a reactionary hoarding of skills and tiny limbs and creatures, second only to Toland, whom Harlan holds on a high pedestal in the absolute gravitational center of his perception and care. Toland notes in her datebook,

I am the heroine, and from the time he sees me, Harlan sees nothing else. Many would, they say, but Harlan has “problems.” He finds a poof of curtain on an old rod, and he sees me. He runs to catch the bus, and the sidewalk is a rugged cliff falling into a flickering sea that is me.

Harlan’s attempts to save and maintain the “convalescing” Toland are excruciatingly scrambling and futile: “And in all the mason jars in the world set Harlan to cure his broken Toland, and lined up with labels the things Toland touched. But Toland touched everything, and all the mason jars were not enough.” Kim Gek Lin Short establishes the slow drift of realization as footnotes slowly outweigh and overtake the entries of Harlan’s datebook, titled “The Bugging Watch.”

Short’s prose poems have the exactitude of obsessive compulsion, yet the imagery and dimness of an opiate trip sponsored by Lewis Caroll – “And the tiny book became the word for rainbow and spilled into Harlan’s many gloved hands.” She frequently stretches the parameters of grammar, rearranging conventional syntax to just off kilter; her written style as surreal as her yarn-and-insect imagery. The result is a terrifying, ungraspable split-level love story: futile, sad and beautiful. 

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Pulleys & Locomotion coverPulleys & Locomotion

Poetry by Rachel Galvin

Black Lawrence Press, September 2009

ISBN-10: 1934703729

ISBN-13: 978-1-934703-72-4

Paperback: 62pp; $14.00

Review by Kate Angus

Pulleys & Locomotion, Rachel Galvin’s first full-length collection, finds delicate grace balancing on that titular ampersand. As pulleys are a tool of motion and locomotion is movement itself, so this collection asks us to stop and consider not just the trajectory, but first what enables it to occur.

The book begins with a sort of master plan, an untitled poem which instructs us to “Consult” three photographs while we “tour the region.” These described photographs contain a zoetrope purchased in the marketplace, a dybbuk hovering by the speaker’s shoulder, and a “knot of amber” under the speaker’s tongue. In essence, Galvin has given us the tools required to decipher her poetry – the work of a writer who listens to a restless spirit, carries a symbol of eloquent speech hidden in her mouth, and whose book itself functions like the “flammable” zoetrope, in that it too provides the illusion of motion from presenting a rapid succession of static pictures.

Galvin’s strongest poems are those that inhabit villages whose names seem transcribed directly from fables (“Village of Pulleys & Locomotion,” “Interlude in the Insomniac Village,” “Village of Twice-Salted Seas,” etc.) or are populated by archetypal folkloric figures such as a traveling peddler and a baker whose arms are inscribed with phrases denoting his mother’s and his father’s souls. The poems that detail a perhaps more personal history are among the book’s (thankfully few) weaker moments. This is a strong debut which, at its best, makes the zoetrope’s illusion “luminous, blurred” and real. 

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Where the Dog Star Never Glows coverWhere the Dog Star Never Glows

Fiction by Tara L. Masih

Press 53, February 2010

ISBN-10: 0982576056

ISBN-13: 978-0-9825760-5-2

Paperback: 143pp; $14.00

Review by Alex Myers

Tara Masih’s short fiction has appeared in a number of well known journals for over a decade now, but Where the Dog Star Never Glows is her first collection of fiction. It does not disappoint. With seventeen stories, variety is the best word to describe this slim volume. The settings range from colonial India, to present-day Dominica, to the ‘60s USA, with lots of side roads taken. Though the prose style is consistently traditional – form is played with only slightly, and reality is always, more or less, real – the characters, themes, and content vary pleasantly, creating a dynamic and interesting collection.

The highlights of the collection are, in this reviewer’s opinion, the flash fiction pieces. This comes as no surprise, as Masih is the editor of a well-regarded guide to writing short-short fiction. In these petite stories, she manages to encompass a whole world with elegant precision, such as the woman who speeds down a road in “Suspended” and notices an animal crossing her path “in one of those moments that escapes the careful assumptions of the unconscious, something that should not be there is there.” Or the father in “Catalpa” who wages an endless battle against the tree that drops seed pods and sticky flowers in his yard, yet who also never fails to notice the tree’s leaves after a rainstorm, “the water spilling, so that it looks like it is raining liquid sunshine only under the catalpa, not anywhere else on Earth.” There is a precision in her prose that manages to capture the larger essence of character, of world and worldview, in a single stroke.

Even in the longer pieces, when Masih has time to relax, as it were, she retains this precision. In one of the more surreal pieces in the collection, “Ghost Dance,” the main character is a lonely divorced man who has become the caretaker of an old mining town turned tourist attraction. Living alone amongst the empty buildings, after hours,

He would roam the dirt streets and wooden boardwalks. He hopped the acrylic barriers that kept tourists from entering too far into the store or house. He tried on hats, poked around in old tobacco containers and pipes, continued the game of solitaire left unfinished on the saloon table. On night when his cabin walls threatened to close in, he’d take his dinner of scrambled eggs or stew to the fancy house and eat at a mahogany table set for twelve, over which hung a working chandelier, or to one of the cabins and eat at a wooden table set with a humble bread board and pewter pitcher.

In short, he becomes part of their world, a ghost in a ghost town. Masih’s description is haunting and captivating, hitting that precise note where action and description are melded. Again and again, she accomplishes this sort of wonderful accuracy, this imagistic veracity, like the character Bridgette, who plucks the heads off black-eyed Susans as she walks, such that “a ragged path of petals, already browning in the sun, trailed behind her.” This is a perfectly balanced image of the young woman, coming at the start of the story and foreshadowing the events to follow.

Character and plot are strong points to this volume, to be sure, but the vast array of settings is completely breathtaking. The coalmining town of the 1920s is just as believable as the surfers’ paradise in the Caribbean, and both of these settings quickly transcend any notion of stereotype. I was most taken by the four page story “Memsahib,” set in colonial India, a quick sketch-like piece that describes the wife of the British governor of a province who sets up her easel to paint the streets of the town. Narrated by a local child who follows and watches this mysterious, almost god-like white woman, the story takes on the challenging theme of colonialism. The child watches the white woman paint a street scene, complete with beggar and stray dog, and, when the child gets too close and is scolded by her bodyguard, realizes that the woman “belonged where she was, on the outside looking in, the observer making her statement on the provincial scene.” The narrator grows up to paint in his own right, “mountains…a Hindu temple…a stream or valley,” scenes from the post-colonial world that has emerged. In this action he finds a bond with the white woman, a bond of art and an appreciation of what it means to observe and to have a viewpoint.

In this and other stories in the volume, Masih demonstrates that short fiction doesn’t mean small ideas. This is a global collection that uses culture as more than color. Asking what it means to be a tourist, to be ruled, to belong, she crafts stories that delve into the essential questions of human nature that are never overly dense and are always pleasant to read.

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The Singer's Gun coverThe Singer’s Gun

Novel by Emily St. John Mandel

Unbridled Books, May 2010

ISBN-10: 1936071649

ISBN13: 978-1-936071-64-7

Hardcover: 304pp; $24.95

Review by Laura Pryor

Anton Waker’s parents are dealers in stolen goods, and his devious cousin Aria recruits Anton’s help in setting up a business forging passports and social security cards. But all Anton wants is to be an ordinary corporate drone, living a simple, lawful life. He quits Aria’s business, gets himself a fake Harvard diploma and snags a job at Water Incorporated, determined to go straight. He gets engaged to a beautiful cellist with the New York Philharmonic and looks forward to a mundane, middle class existence.

But Emily St. John Mandel’s newest novel, The Singer’s Gun, clearly illustrates that you can’t escape your past, no matter how good your intentions. A background check at work results in Anton being demoted from an eleventh floor manager’s office to a file storage room on the mezzanine level. His access to the company computer system is denied, all the employees that he used to supervise report to someone else, and he is given no work to do. Inexplicably, however, he isn’t fired.

Very gradually, Mandel parcels out background information; scenes she described earlier in the novel take on new significance as we learn more about Anton and his past. Anton is being investigated by Alexandra Broden, an agent from the State Department. His fiancée cancels their wedding twice. He is contacted by his cousin Aria, asking for his help with one last illegal deed – on his honeymoon.

Any further description would spoil the fun, or at least the mystery/thriller portion of it. Mandel’s novel is hard to categorize; it’s more reflective, thoughtful and well written than the typical thriller, but has more intrigue and action than a strictly literary book. Anton Waker is no one’s action hero; he is the most passive main character you will ever find in a suspense novel. He stays with his fiancée even after she cancels the wedding twice; he falls in love with his secretary but marries his fiancée anyway (third time’s the charm). He lets his cousin bully him into illegal activities, and he waits around for a new position at work even though he is obviously persona non grata at Water Incorporated.

The novel is carefully crafted, revealing, layer by layer, the formation of Anton’s personality, as well as his cousin’s. It raises intriguing questions about the difference between illegality and immorality; as Anton’s mother tells him, “Most things you have to do in life are at least a little questionable.” Who is more immoral: Anton’s cousin for instigating illegal activities or Anton for passively acquiescing to her demands?

Mandel’s writing flows effortlessly, which makes for easy reading. Though readers may be tempted to read quickly to find out what happens next, it would be a shame to rush past some of Mandel’s lovelier moments, like this description of Anton looking for his lost lover’s reflection in the windows of the building across from his:

Sometime after seven his office window began to appear faintly on the surface of the glass tower outside, like a photograph rising out of liquid in a darkroom. An hour later the image was clearer, and by nine o’clock – damn these endless summer evenings – Anton could see almost every window of his building reflected on the side of the hotel . . . Anton stood close to the glass, looking from window to window, but none of the brightly lit squares held Elena.

While Anton is a sympathetic character, I did find myself wishing he would do something, take some sort of initiative, especially towards the end. And there was one plot development (again, I can’t describe it without giving too much away) that was so predictable it was disappointing. These defects would be more damning if Mandel’s book was strictly a genre novel of mystery and suspense, but because she explores so many other themes, the mystery element felt more like a pleasant bonus than the main purpose of the story.

The Singer’s Gun is full of complex, believable and very likeable characters; even the most irredeemable character has a pitiable background that provides some explanation, if not justification, for her behavior. Even without the intrigue, they would all be compelling; with it, they make The Singer’s Gun the best kind of page-turner: one you wish would go by a little bit slower, but can’t help reading in one sitting.

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100 Notes on Violence cover100 Notes on Violence

Poetry by Julie Carr

Ahsahta Press, January 2010

ISBN-10: 19310311X

ISBN-13: 978-1-934103-11-1

Paperback: 116pp; $19.00

Review by John Findura

“I almost fainted with desire and fear” writes Julie Carr in her 2009 Sawtooth Prize-winning 100 Notes on Violence, and in doing so sums up the experience of reading the 116-page collection. In fragments, lists, quotations, facts and chunks of prose, Carr offers up a reflection on not just violence, but on protecting ourselves and our innocence from it.

Carr has given us a poetic look into the violence of American culture in way that is uniquely hers. It reads almost like a poet’s response to William T. Vollmann’s massive Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means, which Carr indeed cites as a source for some of the quotes scattered throughout. But unlike Vollmann, Carr’s main concern seems to be the children, the innocent:

An 8-year-old in Arizona on trial for killing his father and his father’s friend.
“Vincent Romero was no stranger to guns / The avid hunter reportedly asked his priest whether he should buy his young son a firearm.”
“That child, I don’t think he knows what he did,” said the Very Rev. John Paul Sauter.
“It’s an unusual case,” Murphy told Maggie: “We hear about 8-year-olds accidently shooting a gun. This was execution. So I venture it’s fair to say // there was something pretty awful going on behind closed doors.”
I venture – Fair to say – Give a child a gun and you might get shot

Part poem, part journalistic inquiry, part common sense, Carr manages to weave her sources and quotes into a carefully fractured narrative that is as beautiful as it is frightening.

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Dirty August coverDirty August

Poetry by Edip Cansever

Translated from the Turkish by Richard Tillinghast,
Julia Clare Tillinghast-Akalin

Talisman House, December 2009

ISBN-10: 1-58498-067-2

ISBN-13: 978-1-58498-067-4

Paperback: 96pp; $14.95

Review by Larry O. Dean

It's an understatement to say that Edip Cansever isn't very well known in poetry circles (whatever those are), nor any more so in the specialized area of Turkish literature. Reading the introduction to Dirty August will give you some helpful background on the latter, but to appreciate Cansever's poetry one has only to peruse Julia Clare Tillinghast-Akalin and Richard Tillinghast's translations. While I can't vouch for their fealty to the native language – that would be an issue for a different kind of review, couched in quibbling over semantics – I can say that what Tillinghast fille et père have kindly bequeathed English language readers, through these eminently readable translations, is a beguiling peek into the work of a “Second New” wave poet (who died in 1986), one espousing a secular vision more philosophically aligned with European existentialism than with Ottoman empiricism. The Tillinghasts are long-time aficionados as well as scholars of Turkish idiom and culture, and their love for Cansever's writing is readily apparent in this slim, yet potent volume.

I first encountered Cansever serendipitously, reading perhaps his best known poem, “Table,” which begins:

A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.
He put his eggs and milk on the table.

The imagery here is simple and direct enough – the keys, flowers, eggs and milk on the table, staples of anyone's everyday existence – yet more than that, we know that this man is “filled with the gladness of living.” We ask ourselves, does his gladness precede his arrival home, or do the simple pleasures of his life beget that elation? Before we can venture a guess, Cansever swerves away from kitchen sink drama and into a different realm entirely:

He put there the light that came in through the window,
Sound of a bicycle, sound of a spinning wheel.
The softness of bread and weather he put there.
On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.

What makes this singular poem so astonishing, and so captivating, is the deftness with which Cansever draws us into its deceptively ordinary milieu. The titular furniture isn't just a plateau for activities of daily living; it's also a place where the main character – and by extension, the reader – lays out the miraculous intangibles that sometimes defy description. What is especially stunning is how plainspoken the poem is, yet how much vested interest we have in those abstract things, and ideas: light from a window, sound of a bicycle's spinning wheel, the softness of both bread and weather, the machinations of a mind.

Cansever deliberately refrains from specificity, from pornographic ornamentation; it's not that “Table” is chaste, immaculate, an ode to minimalism – if anything, it infers a maximalism that is rather staggering. So when it reaches its final stanza, not too many lines further on, it's no surprise to find the satisfyingly subjective exclamation, “Now that's what I call a table!”, made, not by the glad man within the poem – unless the speaker was that person to begin with, or has become him – but by a not-so-neutral observer, whose attention shifts from the items stacked there to the table itself:

It didn't complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.

Cansever personifies the table, which tacitly accepts the man's actions: they are in cahoots with one another. He will keep piling; it will remain standing. So it goes. To draw comparisons to Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus here, in both spirit as well as general tenor, is not exactly accurate, since with Cansever there is additionally an abiding melancholy, as well as an oft surreal prescience in his poetry that further distances him from the French intelligentsia. (Come to think of it, the Camus comparison may be apter than I originally thought, since Camus was Algerian.) Still, as evinced by “Table,” as well as the other poems here, with their fleeting references to Bedouins, camel-drivers, and desert sands, native Istanbulian Cansever seems like a happy stranger in his own city, in that his inspiration seem less parochially dictated than drawn from pan-European observations. However it is achieved, the effect is mesmerizing.

Being exposed to a poet's work through such a magnificent poem as “Table” invites disappointment. Thankfully, however, that is not the case here. These forty selections are uniformly engrossing, and if nothing else were to ultimately have the depth charge-like effect of “Table,” that doesn't mean that other poems here aren't worthy of scrutiny on their own merits. I'm telling you that they are, and if anything, they instigate enthusiasm for a much deeper appraisal of this poet's oeuvre. Dirty August is comprised of work from four earlier volumes, and makes no claims at being a collected edition; as I said, it is, relatively speaking, a slim volume. In addition to the introduction, which delves briefly into Turkish history, modern Turkish poetry, Cansever's life and that of his contemporaries, it includes an autobiographical sketch by the author, as well as a few (helpful) pages of notes, and finally notes on the translation itself. The Tillinghasts have provided an absorbing introduction, then, not just to a poet but to a whole under-explored school of poetry.

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Primeval and Other Times coverPrimeval and Other Times

Fiction by Olga Tokarczuk

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Twisted Spoon Press, April 2010

ISBN-10: 8086264351

ISBN-13: 978-80-86264-35-6

Paperback: 248pp; $15.50

Review by Lisa Dolensky

For me, it’s rare for an author of fiction to accomplish “soul-touch,” but Olga Tokarczuk does just that with her captivating spiritual imagery and layers of characters that touch the heart-depths of readers’ imaginations. Primeval and Other Times is an award winning novel (first published in the 1990s) that takes place in a mystical Polish village guarded by four archangels through the 20th century. One particular passage woven within her mythical tale that stands out is almost a summarized subtext of Tokarczuk’s mastered, descriptive sensory writing style:

For animals, God is a painter. He spreads the world before them in the form of panoramic views. The extent of these crude pictures lies in smells, touches, flavours, and sounds, which contain no meaning. Animals do not need meaning. People sometimes feel something similar when they dream. But when they are awake, people need meaning, because they are prisoners of time. (from “The Time Dolly”)

Tokarczuk is a painter of words and dreams who writes with meaning. She challenges readers to question/discover the layers of God, story, and characters’ souls through symbolism, mentions of authentic Polish Easter customs, and vignettes featuring the complex labyrinth journey game of life choices divided into eight worlds/spheres. The latter might be considered an opposite, modernized structure that compliments Dante’s Inferno and is something I hope Tokarczuk will consider expanding in the future. Perhaps in a sequel or trilogy.

She also cites the profound significance of foursomes in everyday life, from seasons to an interesting examination of fours in the Bible from the prophets in the Old Testament to the four horseman of the Apocalypse. She includes listings of random foursome elements that literally floss your brain in wonder from the four elements according to Aristotle to the four bases that construct DNA. It’s amazing how reading about a microcosm can expand your own universe, thanks to Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s excellent job of translation. So in line with foursomes and “4” being the best, I give this novel 4 stars.

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Father Dirt coverFather Dirt

Poetry by Mihaela Moscaliuc

Alice James Books, January 2010

ISBN-10: 1882295781

ISBN-13: 978-1-882295-78-4

Paperback: 84pp; $15.95

Review by John Findura

Few books can be called “page-turners,” and even fewer books of poetry can claim that sobriquet, yet that is exactly what Mihaela Moscaliuc has managed to do with her debut collection, Father Dirt.

Moscaliuc’s poems center on her years growing up in Ceaucescu’s Romania, where “orphans grew up and disappeared below the earth” and suicide was preferable to donating another worker to the state. It sounds funny, but these poems almost give off the smell of the damp earth, the dirt that eventually covers everything. Moscaliuc has managed to take great suffering, which most readers of poetry are accustomed to, and turn into art that refuses to let you turn away from it, even the horror of Chernobyl, where “those babies were born / and we hoped this was no longer God.”

Between abortions and bestiality, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the images the words produce. But Moscaliuc also manages to inject humanity into an inhumane world. Perhaps it is because she was there to witness it that makes it enough that these things haven’t been forgotten or ignored. When we hear about tyranny and repression, Romania is not the first place that comes to our mind. Maybe it didn’t get enough airtime in the 80s, maybe it wasn’t as trendy as Tibet in the 90s, but Moscaliuc’s Romania becomes an unforgettable and real place in Father Dirt, and perhaps that is the only thing that can overshadow these poems.


In the Presence of the Sun coverIn the Presence of the Sun

Stories and Poems, 1961-1991

N. Scott Momaday

University of New Mexico Press, October 2009

ISBN-10: 0826348165

ISBN-13: 978-0-8263-4816-6

Paperback: 144pp; $18.95

Review by Carol Dorf

In the Presence of the Sun brings N. Scott Momaday’s work to a new generation of readers. Momaday, a novelist and poet from the Kiowa tribe, combines the mainstream modernism of American poetry with an oral-language inspired reference to Kiowa and other Southwest Native American traditions, particularly the Navaho.

In this book, we shift between layers of reality. The poems in the sequence “The Colors of Night,” are about what appears and disappears: a son who has been killed, a tree, the appearance and disappearance of a child. In the fourth poem, “Red,” a man creates a partner and then loses her because of his own violence:

by means of this medicine he made a
woman out of sumac leaves and lived with her for
a time. … But the man abused her, and so his medicine
failed. The woman was caught up in a whirlwind and
blown apart. Then nothing was left of her but a
thousand withered leaves scattered in the plain.

This book consists of a selected poems section, a new poems section (as of 1991), and two chapbook length poem sequences, the title poem and “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid.”

“In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields” tells 16 parables of Native American culture and history in the framework of the Shields of the Plains Indians. The prose poems involve a world of characters, including a courageous man, a cowardly man, a hermit, and someone who buys a shield from a store.

“The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid” mixes forms and times. There are sections in prose, in lines, and in verse. It begins with what seem to be biographical poems about Billy the Kid:

Billy the Boy at Silver City
Already, in the sultry streets,
the mean quotient of suspicion
settles at his crooked mouth
already, in the sultry streets,
he resembles himself in death.

Time shifts, and the narrator who has already identified the year as 1946 and himself as a young adolescent rides into a time where he begins “my life with Billy the Kid.” In spite of Billy’s killer nature, he has several varying relations with women and some lyric moments:

Trees and Evening Sky
He saw the black trees leaning
In different ways, their limbs
The clouds rolling on themselves;
A wide belt of four colors,
And stars in the tangled limbs.

This lyric occurs all in one long sentence. Like the poem “The Colors of Night,” color and the motion of the winds create their own narrative, bringing the reader into the moment of the poem.

The inevitable occurs, and the Killer is executed. The series ends with a coda, contextualizing the attraction of Billy the Kid to the narrator as a boy, and now as a poet telling the story:

Two figures
These figures moving in my rhyme,
Who are they? Death and Death’s dog, Time.

Momaday also incorporates myth from the European tradition. In “A Fire at Thule,” he illuminates the way ordinary life, or “ordinary commerce,” can be transformed into the landscape of loss:

For weeks now the sun has risen and set;
There has been an ordinary commerce.
The city sounds. . . .
The streets are colored with cartons and cans.
My little daughter speaks of you. She says
You are sad. You have done with make-believe.
The having done is hard to my ear, my
Having done with the urgency to lie.
Make believe. Imagine the sky becomes
The sea, a fire at Thule, your having been.

The power in this book rests in the stories that are told. They were essential stories in 1969 when Momaday’s first novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and they continue to be essential stories in our literature. In the Presence of the Sun is an essential book for both readers and teachers.

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Unsound coverUnsound

Poetry by Jennifer Martenson

Burning Deck Press, April 2010

ISBN-10: 1936194015


Paperback: 62pp; $14.00

Review by Christine Kanownik

I must start here by proclaiming my love for the publishers of this book: Burning Deck Press. I have nothing but respect for the press and the great poets who run it. There are many presses operating today, but Burning Deck is refreshing for its consistent integrity and taste, and Jennifer Martenson's first full-length collection of poetry, Unsound, is another strong release. The politics of Martenson are well-thought out and exciting, and her poetic forms are fresh and unexpected. Most of the poems in the final section of the book have vivid imagery and a strong voice, though I do wonder if the poet occasionally relies too heavily on visual tricks rather than engaging language.

The second section, “A priori” is a two-page long prose-poem/political statement. There are three different font styles and sizes used throughout the piece. This is a tactic that I find distracting and unmoving. For me, the last section is the real heart of the book. Martenson explores the relationship between space, sound, movement, time and reality in fascinating ways. She opens her poem, “Intimate Conversations,” by saying, “Scattered hues of green do not amount / to a body of water, and yet here we are, / skipping stones on it.” This is a truly wonderful poem, both smart and beautiful. It is poems like this one that makes me excited to see of what else Martenson is capable.

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Droppers coverDroppers

America's First Hippie Commune

Nonfiction by Mark Matthews

University of Oklahoma Press, May 2010

ISBN-10: 0806140585

ISBN-13: 978-0806140582

Paperback: 233pp; $19.95

Review by Joel A. Lewis

"But we have sensible reasons for not breaking out into the huge freedom of irregular shapes – once done we would no longer have the aid of our machines, tools and simple formulae." Steve Baer, a fellow-traveler of "the droppers," wrote these words in 1968 to describe the unorthodox architecture at Drop City, but the same quote can be applied in hindsight to the social experiments occurring there. Droppers provides a comparative look at Drop City and other communal ventures in America's past. Mark Matthews asserts that Drop City failed because it did not attempt to learn any lessons from past communes. The droppers intentionally charted out a new society without utilizing the "tools of history"; the commune took on an "irregular shape" that ultimately led to its destruction.

Matthews's book is both a history of communalism and a biography of Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, the founder of the first hippie commune of the 1960s. His story is part of a growing historical literature linking the "old Left" of the 1930s with the "new Left" movements of the 1960s. Like many of the new Left, Eugene and his brother, Karl Marx Bernofsky, grew up in New York City as "red diaper" babies. Their parents were Jewish immigrants who raised their sons on communist literature and a non-conformist outlook. In his youth, Eugene dreamed of being a writer and escaping the city; he randomly disappeared for days on his bicycle with only a pocket full of change and his typewriter.

Eventually Eugene's adventurous spirit led him to the non-adventurous destination of Kansas University (KU). At KU Bernofsky met a young artist by the name of Richert who was obsessed with pacifism and the abstractionism of Rothko. This Jewish and Mennonite duo challenged the mundane conformity of Kansas life, smoking grass and pulling off eccentric stunts; their favorite artistic act was "dropping" random objects out their loft window tied to a rope to observe people's reactions. These exploits gained them the nickname of "droppers."

In the winter of 1964, Eugene settled on a small farm with his wife. Instead of raising children as was expected, they grew marijuana. After harvest time, the couple relocated to the lower-east side of Manhattan to find a market for their crop. Eugene was assisted in his "capitalist venture" by his poetic neighbor, Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg helped to fill the coffers of Bernofsky's finances and imagination. Following his "faith in the cosmic forces," Eugene took his $10,000 of drug money and set out to build a new civilization, intentionally rejecting any lessons from his elders or the past; the future was now and needed to be charted in a new and youthful fashion. Hence, on a pocket-full of hash cash and illogical idealism, Drop City was born.

In May, 1965, Eugene and his wife bought a five-acre desert plot in southern Colorado. Bernofksy and Richert set about building geometric domes constructed completely with found materials including bottle caps, car rooftops, chicken wire, railroad ties, and used nails. Starting as just two couples, the dropper community grew to over thirty artists and restless souls. The commune centered on naïve notions of freedom and self-reliance. Order was not enforced through rules, but by a leadership of "quiet example."

New participants took advantage of the non-hierarchical structure of Drop City to promote their own agenda. In 1966, a young writer nicknamed "Peter Rabbit" joined the commune. Rabbit was a dominating figure who wanted to "market" Drop City on an international level. Initial droppers were happy existing in obscurity as a "gentle nurturing home where creative people could make art for life's sake"; Peter felt otherwise. Without members having any rules in place to stop him, Rabbit dominated the commune's newspaper to promote his own vision of Drop City. In a tragic tale reminiscent of Lenin and Stalin, Eugene sat by paralyzed as Peter essentially hijacked Drop City.

Peter's efforts culminated in the "Joy Festival" during the summer of 1967. The festival attracted random burnouts and hippies from around the world. This week of festivities destroyed two years of hard work; Drop City was transformed from a mutual-aid community into a transient camp of bongs, booze, bums, and overflowing latrines. Eugene and his wife left immediately. Although Drop City grew in its numbers, without Bernofsky its spiritual grounding was missing and it died within a few years.

Drop City's mythology laid the foundation for over three thousand other communal projects over the next decade. Despite this, Bernofsky ends his story cynically, describing communal living as "a batch of bullshit" (a sentiment the reviewer can relate with after a disastrous PBR summer on a punk commune). Almost metaphorically, Eugene argues that if he and Richert had simply built "regular shacks" instead of domes, that Drop City may have survived; sometimes societies have "regular shapes" and "simple formulas" because the past proves that they work.

Matthews's book is an engaging and refreshing reminder that America has been no stranger to cultural and social experimentation. Matthews's own experimentation in chapter structures was also refreshing. To contextualize each section, Matthews opens with 10-12 random Time Magazine excerpts from the period as well as older stories on America's past. His quotes capture the restless spirit of conflict and alienation that inspired young people to seek out social alternatives through communal experiments. He compares dropper participants to communal leaders of the past, highlighting similar character flaws as well as idealistic outlooks. Overall, Droppers was a well written and passionate examination of an often misunderstood phenomenon in American history that should be a fascinating read for young people or nostalgic baby boomers.

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