NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted September 1, 2010

Gospel Earth - Hold Tight - The Return - Kids of the Black Hole - Diasporas in the New Media Age - Brazil - All the Whiskey in Heaven - High Notes - Bar Napkin Sonnets - Shahid Reads His Own Palm - The Best of (What's Left of) Heaven

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Gospel Earth coverGospel Earth

Poetry by Jeffery Beam

Skysill Press, March 2010

ISBN-10: 1907489010

ISBN-13: 978-1-907489-01-3

Paperback: 242pp; $17.00

Review by Kimberly Steele

Jeffery Beam’s celebration of the “small poem” in his latest collection, Gospel Earth, diverts his reader from ambient noise, trims the excess from the natural world. His poems stand out because they whisper, infusing Gospel Earth with stillness and secrecy. Beam creates a quiet book in form and tone, filling the page with white space that emphasizes the solitude and fragility of his images. His aim is to observe the “wide silences that do not ache to be filled,” and he invites the reader to collude with his minimalist vision. His poems emerge like

Day’s eye
brighter
for clouds
breaking round it
(from “Treatise of the Daisy”).

They may not be loud, but they are effortlessly luminescent, so it is no coincidence that they so often concentrate on sunlight and nature, brilliantly describing the vicissitudes of daylight, from the brightest rays of midday to the subtle mist of dusk and twilight. But to reduce this collection to a treatise on nature is simplistic and misses the point. Instead, there is a darker, sadder lament tugging at the boundaries of these sparse lines – a sentiment that recognizes an intrinsic pain in detecting the unfiltered, unadulterated beauty of the world in all its rawness. Like Thoreau, Beam maintains a deep understanding of the life of “quiet desperation.” There is an extrasensory quality to his poems that enhances his mere word choice. In “To William Carlos Williams,” he praises that the older writer’s

poems sting with
innocence
gaiety &
passion.

This is a feature that Beam strives to bring to Gospel Earth, though he also wants his poems, like Williams’s, to “prick // sweetly,” rather than attest to observations. Observation requires a viewer, and this collection is devoid of egoism. The poems do not belong to Beam or a definite speaker; they are shared fragments of the world’s quietude. He infuses them with a kind of hushed, nonverbal eloquence that asks to be exhaled rather than read.

 

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Hold Tight coverHold Tight

The Truck Darling Poems

Poetry by Jeni Olin

Hanging Loose Press, May 2010

ISBN-10: 1934909149

ISBN-13: 978-1934909140

Paperback: 106pp; $18.00

Review by Sarah Rehmer

From the Morton Salt Girl to straight bois, the fever dream of Jeni Olin’s second full collection of poetry, Hold Tight: The Truck Darling Poems draws the reader into the solitary world of the personal: the private space where the ruminations and raw anxieties that dominate the human mind cavort. In this manner Olin explores identity and connection with an astute, pain-allied beauty in four sections of short poems.

The first and third sections of Hold Tight, “So Cold You Could Fence With Your Nipples” and “The Pill Book,” play with the weariness that stems from the self’s solitary separation from its more accessible visual form and the puzzle of human existence. In “Lamictal” Olin writes:

I felt my body take a leaf of absence –
the real “me” having absconded into a Swiss
waterfall, as glossy as the family silver or
a glimpse of Ibiza on which I sailed along
in a dream.

In “Mere Food Tubes Living in Isolation,” she explores the disconnect between the public and the private with lines like, “I am always reassuring people I am / not who I say I am.”

The second and fourth sections of poetry, “Sans Visa Sans Culottes” and “Like a Lake Touching 4 States But Not Getting Any Of Them Wet,” keep the previous philosophical subjects in mind while focusing in more acutely on the characters of the “you.” With a stark honesty Olin explores the unique insecurities and irrational forces that control one’s ability for human connection. In “Pillow Talk” Olin writes:

As an insomniac compulsively flips a pillow
to cool the cheek, I turn you over again & again
& again in my mind when I need the cold side
of the said affair to rail against
“the ruinous work of nostalgia.”

In “Teens of Daring, Cut the Tungsten Lights” the controlling hesitation that comes with the vulnerability of self-disclosure exists in lines likes like, “Anything I swear to you is an alibi / for something true.”

Whether it’s through “Ukrainian Roulette,” or cryogenics as “the study of tears at icy altitudes,” Hold Tight combines hilarious wit seamlessly with a cutting sadness, making the work both more surreal and accessible. Olin’s masterful use of iconic song titles, brand names, etc., further creates the perfect portrait of contemporary life, where one struggles to define the self while thrust toward living at an “elusive base-level reality.”

Hold Tight: The Truck Darling Poems is a strikingly open and gripping collection, and through it Olin has succeeded in comforting at least this one “soul-sick adult.”

 

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The Return coverThe Return

Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

New Directions, July 2010

ISBN-10: 0811217159

ISBN-13: 978-0811217156

Hardcover: 208pp; $23.95

Review by Michael Flatt

If you’re reading this review, on this website, you probably know who Roberto Bolaño is/was. You know he died at age 50, likely due to complications from drug and alcohol addictions. You know he was a poet who switched to fiction to support his family. You’ve probably read at least one of his two major works, The Savage Detectives and 2666, and probably a couple of the shorter works like Amulet, Antwerp or Last Evenings on Earth.

The question is, does The Return capture a significant portion of the virtuosic performance Bolaño exhibited in 2666? The answer is, in many ways, yes.

Bolaño tells his stories in such a way that one is convinced no telling of the story could tell the whole story as he has imagined it. Details are obscured by the narrator’s limited perspective. Time passes fluidly, at variable speeds. Often, he writes great portions of his stories in summary; sometimes, he summarizes so much that one feels he may have simply written an outline for a story and left it at that. However, the reader always ends up engrossed in a scene of incredible detail and imaginative force.

These scenes often bear the weight of transparent but nonetheless potent metaphors. For example, in “Another Russian Story,” a Spaniard finds himself being tortured by Russians who believe him to be a German SS soldier. When they begin tearing out his tongue, he screams the Spanish word coño, meaning “cunt,” which they take for the German word Kunst, meaning “art.” The Russians assume he is an artist, not a soldier, and let him live. The misinterpretation can be read several ways, but that a panicked vulgarity – taken for art – saves the Spaniard’s life places the reality of panic and the reality of vulgarity above the artifice of art.

Other mysteries of reality play a large role in the stories found in The Return. In the titular story, the narrator is surprised to find that life after death consists of an out-of-body experience of the soul exactly as it is portrayed in the movie Ghost. “I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable. But when my turn came, that is exactly what happened,” the unnamed narrator tells us. The narrator then watches his lifeless body become the subject of a necrophiliac romance, which the reader is surprised to find touching and honest. In Bolaño’s world, necrophiliacs are people too.

One noticeable difference between this collection and Last Evenings on Earth is the decidedly drastic uptick in graphic sexuality. “Joanna Silvestri” is the story of a porn star’s relationship with Jack Holmes (clearly a stand-in for John) after he has contracted AIDS. “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (the same Lalo Cura as in 2666?) is about a porn actor (not Lalo) who is not physically gifted in any way, but whose “vibrations” – it is unclear what is meant by this – make him thrilling to observe. The vivid accounts of sexual acts in these stories are at times erotic, at times amusing, and tend to contain the kind of human observations that make Bolaño’s fiction so crushingly endearing.

Then, however, there is the less-than-thrilling story, “Murdering Whores.” A young woman kidnaps a young man she sees celebrating after a soccer game in order to tie him up, torture him and to tell him things like, “The tears seem to be dripping from the ceiling. It doesn’t matter. The way things are, they might as well be spurting out the end of your dick.” This is a rare moment of cheap, antagonistic excess.

Bolaño’s language and his capacity for metaphor remain outstanding. Consider this passage from “Meeting with Enrique Lihn,” in which Bolaño, who plays the role of narrator, dreams of meeting the author with whom, in life, he had a correspondence:

And at that moment, I knew that Lihn knew he was dead. My heart’s given up on me, he said. It doesn’t exist anymore. Something’s not right here, I thought. Lihn died of cancer, not a heart attack. An enormous heaviness was coming over me. So I got up and went to stretch my legs, but not in the bar; I went out into the street. The sidewalks were gray and uneven and the sky looked like a mirror without a tain, the place where everything should have been reflected but where in the end, nothing was.

Though The Return may disappoint those looking for evidence that Bolaño’s well was so deep that every single thing he wrote revealed new realities, it has many touching moments and highlightable passages, and a handful of stories that will give one lengthy pause.

 

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Kids of the Black Hole coverKids of the Black Hole

Punk Rock in Postsuburban California

Nonfiction by Dewar MacLeod

University of Oklahoma Press, November 2010

ISBN-10: 0806140410

ISBN-13: 978-0-8061-4041-4

Paperback: 240pp; $19.95

Review by Caleb Tankersley

As a member of Generation X, I’ve often wondered what happened culturally in the mid-to-late 70s. Our society went from peaceful, late-60s hippies to the mass-market and watered-down kitsch of the 80s. Dewar MacLeod’s new book can explain it all.

Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California delivers what the title promises; multiple chapters hash through the slow rise of and major players in Southern California’s punk rock scene. Readers are given a plethora of interesting bands – along with their insane onstage exploits – to look up. (Some of the bands covered include X, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and The Middle Class.) The book follows the ever-changing minutia of a local music scene to such an extreme degree, the message almost drowns in the details. However, MacLeod is careful to point out that the anger and aggression of punk music does not rise out of a vacuum:

In its pursuit of “true rebel music,” [L.A. punk magazine] Slash articulated a hatred of the established music business. Anchoring its definition of punk in a “war” against the record industry . . . the “punk revolution” embraced the “dirty, primitive music that has little to do with the stuff music stations have been pouring in our ears for what seems to be an eternity.”

But I think MacLeod’s title does not match the ambitions scale of his work. More than just a treatise on SoCal punk rock, this book explores and explains the wider youth culture of the time, the reasons punk rock emerged from the perfect storm of soft, acoustic hippie culture and remnants of the wholesome, prosperous, and suburban 50s. The disillusionment that characterized young people of the 70s manifested itself in punk music and reflected a darker and grittier American society. MacLeod gives a superb explanation of this transition:

In contrast to the idealism and socially oriented thinking of sixties youth, youth in the seventies embraced a radical individualism that was critical of pretty much everything. “From getting up in the morning to trust in government,” even “everyday existence” was “difficult to tolerate.” In the view of seventies youth, all social institutions lacked legitimacy, and arbitrariness seemed to be the natural order of things. . . . Punk [music] in postsuburbia did not recreate the youth culture revolts of earlier generations, but reflected instead the fragmentation, isolation, and individualism of the 1970s.

Kids of the Black Hole is a detailed insider’s perspective of the collapse and aftermath of youth culture in the 1970s, analyzing how this collapse manifested itself in a new and intensely energetic form of music. As a Gen X reader, I greatly appreciate the historical elements of this work. MacLeod is analytical, methodic (note the 20+ pages of sources), and starkly truthful about the past. Younger people could benefit from reading about and studying foregone generations, especially when that generation’s fragmentation and isolation so resembles our own. Given all the cultural relevance, Kids of the Black Hole could have just as easily been written about contemporary society and music. If you want to know where the youth of America have been and are headed, pick up this book.

 

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Diasporas coverDiasporas in the New Media Age

Identity, Politics, and Community

Ed. Andoni Alonso, Pedro J. Oiarzabal

University of Nevada Press, April 2010

ISBN-10: 0874178150

ISBN-13: 978-0-87417-815-9

Paperback: 288pp; $44.95

Review by Chey Davis

Once upon a time, I could really get into this kind of writing. The title intrigued me. The topic was captivating. The whole idea of merging the concepts of new media and diaspora was fascinating. And then, I read the book. While the compilation spans a great breadth of “diaspora,” and as such is an inclusive and interesting mix of authors and definitions, the mix also falls flat as the connections between the various communities and medias the contributors talk about are hard to hold on to. For example, looking at the Digital Diaspora of India as seen in the growing emergence of Bollywood caricatures and Indian-ness in Second Life (“3D Indian (Digital) Diasporas” by Radhika Gajjala), juxtaposed with the use of social networking and Orkut in the outlanders of Brazil (“Tidelike Diasporas in Brazil: From Slavery to Orkut” by Javier Bustamante). The overarching understanding tacit in most of the contributors’ writing was that societal bonds, while already tenuous in splintered or diasporic communities, may be further impacted by the use and creation of “virtual” communities that reify or overblow particular essences of the original community (especially in “Maintaining Transnational Identity: A Content Analysis of Web Pages Constructed by Second-Generation Caribbeans” by Dwaine Plaza).

Or even further, that digital community history can be seen to allow the . . .Yawn. I forgot what I meant to say. Let me be frank here (or Sally, depending upon what’s needed). This book has great potential for someone who might be researching community dynamics and the effects that could possibly come from this move into using new media to maintain and create community connections. This book is not an explanation of Facebook in the Hmong or Kosovar refugee communities worldwide. It does, however, point out some startling similarities in what is understood about these digital communities. It would seem that many of the contributors buy in to the concept of “McArabism” (“‘Cybernaut’ Diaspora: Arab Diaspora in Germany” by Khalil Rinnawi), in some form or another. In other words, communities of immigrants, émigrés, and other displaced people create and rally around symbols and habits that reify some of the most culturally visible iconography, whether or not that iconography meant something to them initially. It is the boiling down of culture to its most blatant. And that holds people together, when economics, politics, and conflict work together to tear people apart. The language is lofty. The concepts are often explained at length, but the book offers a platform for many different contributors to share their research into some very esoteric fields. And everyone deserves to be heard.

 

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Brazil coverBrazil

Novella by Jesse Lee Kercheval

CSU Poetry Center, April 2010

ISBN-10: 1880834863

ISBN-13: 978-1-88083-486-2

Paperback: 126pp; $9.95

Review by Ann Beman

My copy of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Brazil smells like Froot Loops, and I don’t mind one bit. The candy-fruit aroma only enhances the sensory snack that this novella serves. More than a snack, really, Kercheval’s short novel delivers dinner and a movie in the same timeframe in which most novels are just passing the hors d’oeuvres.

Paulo Silvas is a parking attendant at Miami’s Royale Palms, a pink-façade art deco hotel in which he has lived ever since his Brazilian father abandoned him and his mother there seventeen years ago. Yet, unlike Paulo, his mother has moved on – back into a single-wide trailer in the hometown in which she grew up. It is July 27, 1988, Paulo’s nineteenth birthday. We readers join him in a spendier bar than he’s accustomed to; the song “Brazil” plays in the background:

Where the songs are passionate,
And a smile has flash in it

Paulo and Claudia sit next to one another at the bar, yet we see each of them through an intermediary mirror. We see her reflection through his eyes. Claudia: thin and rich, wearing “a black dress so simple it had to be expensive and silver earrings like needles. Pretty good, but pretty old, in her forties somewhere.” She imagines he is a pusher. “I want you to treat me like a war,” she says in her Hungarian accent. She means “whore,” but the sentence incites us to leap toward a jumble of images: death, violence, destruction, havoc, guns, soldiers, uniforms, gore, explosions, fire, fear, line-ups, refugees, desperation.

A consummate poet, Kercheval asks us to make many such leaps in this novella, and she uses shards of overheard conversation to poetic effect as well. “My God, Henry, it’s Miami out here,” we overhear a random someone say as Paulo and Claudia exit the bar. Paulo’s inner existentialist agrees: “Transition into the real night was a shock,” he says, interpreting the overheard to mean that, in the real night we sweat, we’re human. We must survive, and we must do so outside the frame of a gilded mirror, outside of an air-conditioned room.

Escaping Miami, Paulo and Claudia launch a cross-country road trip through Florida and north to Wisconsin in search of what’s real. A steady stream of pills, cocaine, caffeine, sleep deprivation, and highway miles make our narrator less than totally reliable, yet we never doubt Paulo’s behind-the-wheel impressions. At Weeki Wachee, Spring of the Living Mermaids, a division of Pepsico, he observes that the theme of the mermaid show is Carnival in Rio: “Claudia squeezed my hand as if she was afraid the sound of the samba might make me cry. Maybe it should have. After all, this was as close as I’d come to Brazil.” For Paulo, Brazil has come to represent home, yet he’s never been there. Thus, the notion of home, just like the notion of Brazil, lives only in his head. Like the song lyrics say:

Brazil
The Brazil that I knew
Where I’d wandered with you
Lives in my imagination.

Jesse Lee Kercheval writes memoir, fiction, and poetry. Born in France and raised in Florida, her poetry books often read like novels, while her novels read like poetry. Her latest books are no exception. Brazil won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Award and the poetry collection Cinema Muto won the Crab Orchard Open Selection Award. Cinema Muto pays tribute to an Italian silent film festival, to silent film and film in general. The author herself describes it as, “Also about life, death, food, violence, sex – all the usual good poetic things.” All of the above make cameos in Brazil, too, as do the blurred concepts of love, family, and home. Kercheval incites us to ask, where is the real America, who is our real family, what makes a real home, and what makes home real?

On the road to Wisconsin, we learn that the enigmatic Claudia’s quest is similar to that of her young, half-Brazilian driver. She too is attempting to gain her sense of place in the world – her family, her home. We learn she was once abandoned in Wisconsin by the father of her baby, Sophia, a baby to whom she gave birth and then gave up for adoption. The house in which she gave birth, and in which the teenaged Sophie still lives, turns out to be Paulo’s dream house: “white, two stories with black shutters and trim, except instead of being in some suburban neighborhood, it was in the middle of a pasture.”

While in Wisconsin, we get a dose of all of Kercheval’s “good poetic things,” including one of Paulo’s more brilliant insights: “But I wasn’t bored. A burger I could have at McDonald’s, but with fries. Only people who ate at home got Tater Tots.”

Alas, Paulo’s dream, as well as the mother/daughter reunion, disintegrates when Claudia pulls a gun on the adoptive mother after Sophie herself declines Claudia’s invitation to live with her in Florida. On their way out of Wisconsin, Paulo and Claudia make one last stop on their road trip. Though a near-death tragedy unfolds, we nevertheless take away a sense of hope for both the Hungarian émigré and her half-Brazilian driver. Brazil reminds us that existence is a wild, spinning carousel, perhaps at Carnival, a fruit-sweet scent sambaing through the dizzying air. Better to have someone to hold onto sharing the ride.

 

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All the Whiskey in Heaven coverAll the Whiskey in Heaven

Poetry by Charles Bernstein

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 2010

ISBN-10: 0-374-10344-5

ISBN-13: 978-0-374-10344-6

Hardback: 300pp; $26.00

Review by Larry O. Dean

In some fundamental ways, and at this far-flung point along the literary timeline, it's hard to believe that this is the first Charles Bernstein collection issued by a mainstream press. After all, here is a poet and essayist who has been publishing steadily for thirty-five years, yet not only that, an academic of some renown whose reputation has only become greater over those almost-four decades. What perhaps makes sense of this delay in making Bernstein's poetry available to a potentially wider audience is his foundational role within the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school and his guilt-by-association with that movement's so-called “difficulty.” In fact, what All the Whiskey in Heaven makes abundantly clear is that Bernstein, anyway, is an immensely readable poet whose writing is varied, investigational, and quite often robustly hilarious.

Generally speaking, when compiling a selected edition, poets risk having their growing pains laid bare, or seeing dividing lines inscribed deeply between phases of their work. Picking up at random such a collection, readers may find themselves drawn to later, more 'mature' work, in lieu of earlier writing that plants the seeds for techniques, themes or ideas that eventually flower as the poet's career continues. Not so with Bernstein, who has been a rigorous and unflappable experimenter from the beginning. Just flipping through All the Whiskey in Heaven's pages it initially appears to be an anthology, rather than writing by a singular author, based solely on the amazing varieties of line lengths, stanzaic choices, and word movement/placement upon the page. More so, it's not as if Bernstein settled into one method of presenting a written poem at this juncture or that period – you're just as likely to find a poem comprised of, for example, single-lined stanzas, such as “War Stories” from 2002, as you would in “Dodgem,” from 1978. For Bernstein, what matters most is the words themselves, with conveyance secondary; which is not to say that such conveyance is an afterthought – a tic or a trick – to dress up the language of the poem, but an active ingredient that elevates the writing to a higher level of enjoyability.

Speaking of words, let's look at a poem from 1978, “'Take Then, These...'”:

Take then these nail & boards
which seams to lay me down
in perfect semblance
of the recognition, obelisks
that here contain my pomp
These boards come down
& stack & size me
proper, length-wise
in fact-fast struts
“here” “there”
Take then, push then
live, anecdotal
as if these sums
clot, congeal
sans propre, sans intent

This early work could stand intact as a random example of Bernstein's poetics. If there were to be some knee-jerk irritability by jaded readers to the impishness of Bernstein's punning, his deployment of ampersands, the slippery syntax, odd or contentious word choices (obelisks, pomp, propre), such complaining takes a back seat to the poem's overall effect, visually as well as aurally; listen to the locutionary beauty of “These boards come down / & stack & size me / proper, length-wise / in fact-fast struts / 'here' 'there',” then reread it as a whole, noticing how its “meaning” – for some the biggest bugaboo they'd cop to when criticizing (for lack of a better adjective) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry – eludes easy response. Like much of Bernstein's work, meaning is not so much nonexistent as in flux; and even if it were “nonexistent,” what at heart is the matter with that? Is an essential ingredient of poetry a fixed and stagnant “meaning”? Isn't one of its strengths the varieties of impressions it can conjure? I pity the reader who would limit themselves, and diminish their poetic experience by only seeking out poems that “mean something,” at least immediately.

Having said that, there would likely be detractors who would cite, for instance, the well-known poem “Lift Off,” included here, which Bernstein acknowledges as a transcription from the correction tape of an IBM Selectric typewriter. It begins:

HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineocpcv i iibalfmgmMw
er,, me"ius ieigorcy¢jeuvine+pee. )a/na.t” ihl”n,s

What appears, at first glance, to be 'nonsense' takes on more and more “meaning” as one continues to digest it. Since computer users today casually familiar with backspacing may not know about (or have conveniently forgotten) the methodology behind utilizing corrective ribbon, once they consider the piecemeal or fragmentary nature of “Lift Off”'s typed figures, accumulating into an aggregate of nebulous possibility, they may begin to see a narrative beneath its facade – words suggested such as observe, dug, Seine, occupy, me, us, ignore, and pee tease out implications from the collective subconscious. Even if readers didn't have the benefit of Bernstein's explanation of the genesis of “Lift Off” – which reverberates further the hilarity of its title – upon closer inspection and patient reflection they would find much more here to consider.

“Dear Mr. Fanelli,” from 1999, seems like another example of a “found” poem, yet it's not. Bernstein's facility with tone and voice is marvelous:

I have to admit, Mr. Fanelli, I
think the 79th street station's
in pretty bad shape
& sometimes at night
as I toss in my bed
I think the world's
not doing too good
either, & I
wonder what's going
to happen, where we're
headed, if we're
headed anywhere, if
we even have heads.

If you've made it this far but are still on the fence regarding Bernstein, he may be a poet you will never enjoy, which is a shame, because, as All the Whiskey in Heaven bears out, his work is varied, vigorous, and above all, vivacious. This is a welcome and long-overdue collection; its capacity for surprise diminished only by a stubborn reader's impatience or need for instant gratification.

 

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High Notes coverHigh Notes

Poetry by Lois Roma-Deeley

Benu Press, April 2010

ISBN-10: 0981516394

ISBN-13: 978-0981516394

Paperback: 67pp; $16.95

Review by Patrick Michael Finn

Winner of the Samuel T. Coleridge Prize, Lois Roma-Deeley’s latest poetry collection High Notes tours the bleak, unforgiving world of jazz in the late 1950s with a cast of five dramatis personae who move through impoverished landscapes of bars, pawnshops, grimy hotels and police stations. Carrying burdens of regret and despair, death and rage, the figures who people High Notes pacify themselves with liquor and dope in the loneliest corners of Chicago, New York, Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, destroying themselves on the edge of hope.

Saxophonist Jake Delmonico essentially murders his two young sons as captain of a car accident while driving high. His common-law wife, Sugar Baby Hayes, a blues singer so wracked with the agony of losing her children (and unable to forgive her husband), is soon strung out on the same drug that contributed to their deaths, as though she is both numbing herself and reaching into her busted veins to find her boys and bring them back to life. “Not Yet a Junkie Whore,” begins with the result of Sugar Baby’s increasing deterioration and the little she has left:

I am afraid of the air
between midnight and
noon – afraid of running
out of cigarettes and
running out of booze.

Seven poems earlier, “Not Here, Not There,” Jake predicts through the same language of fear the junkie whore Sugar Baby will inevitably become, and how through both the past and the present he will serve as both cause and eventual perpetuator of her dehumanization:

I am afraid I am that man who finds strangers for you, brings them home.
I am terrified of the sound a zipper makes.
Rough fingers between your legs.
Of voices at our door.

And Jake knows he owes her – owes his dead children and himself – something that can never be repaid, his prison of futility most painfully expressed in section two of “After the Jam Session,” “Jake Delmonico, Jazz Man in His Dressing Room”: “I owe / money to the man for ponies who land, head first, in the dirt – / they die – right before my eyes – inches before the finish line.”

Blues singer and waitress Jasmine June seeks redemption and freedom from her battered existence by transfiguring her rage into righteous anger as a black woman who reflects upon both her cultural history and identity while she lives through the brutality that accompanies the Civil Rights Movement. In “Jasmine & Jazz,” she explores these sources of jazz and self, intertwined forces of sorrow and joy:

Open me –
You will find a Sunday afternoon in Congo Square.
Slave ships. Drummers. Brass Bands. Creoles
in the street dancing memory
into my blood.

Later, in “Jasmine Watches the Little Rock Nine on TV,” Jasmine June’s internal world gains the momentum of discovery – an understated epiphany – that she is more than a singer and waitress, but a participant in the struggle for equality:

Now I am counting my tips,
thinking of the last time I left home…
How my little brother begins to stutter
every time Mama grabs his arm and whispers
Emmett Till.

Rounding out the quintet are two figures that hover over and haunt the collection with menace and grace: hustler, dope dealer, and loan shark Harry Jones, and the disembodied Angel, who may be the ghost of Billie Holiday. While Harry controls Jake, Sugar Baby, and Jasmine June with his powerful shackles of money and drugs, “Now get down on your knees, / kiss the floor and believe / I will hurt you,” Angel blesses the wretched with hope, though too often they fail to see her:

The sirens in the street are rising.
She recognizes the sound
as something whole, perfectly round –
the ghost of high notes
touching the face of a late night sky.

Though the individual poems can best be described as lyric as opposed to narrative, High Notes as a whole is woven with a narrative trajectory often reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Though Slaughter, a novel in which poetry and prose occupy the same space, based loosely on the life of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Roma-Deeley avoids the pitfalls of laboring to describe the sound of jazz, but instead gives the music shape through the inner worlds of both its performers and those who cross into their lives with steady supplies of death and hope. High Notes succeeds in innumerable ways, particularly in how the book answers its own last line: “What story can contain us?”

 

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Bar Napkin Sonnets coverBar Napkin Sonnets

Poetry by Moira Egan

The Ledge Press, December 2009

Paperback: 24pp; $9.00

Review by Jeremy Benson

It’s odd to start a collection of poems by politely turning down a pick up line, but Moira Egan just comes right out with it in the opening of the first of two dozen sonnets: “A glass of wine, a napkin, and a pen / are all I need.” But something – the cadence or the spitfire wit of the delivery, or maybe the way I imagine the speaker looking up and coyly drawing a strand of hair behind her ear as she flatly rejects her suitor – the way I, like a bully’s toady, am drawn to rejection – causes me to push past her declination and further into a formal introduction of the chapbook:

(Oh please, why can’t he just leave me alone?
Do I look incomplete somehow, a yin
Without her yang, that perfume by Jovan,
– O stinky must, the Seventies defined! –
whose bottles, shaped like a woman and her man
fit well together, but looked weird alone?)

The poems themselves – sonnets scribbled on cocktail napkins well into the sketchier side of the dinner rush – interlock like the retro perfume bottles, one ultimate line opening the next stanza; a bottom rolling over to become the top. (“They interlock like bodies in heat,” says blurber David Lehrman.)

The string of sonnets plays out like a dance. I might say tango, but that would be too sexy, especially when it’s actually a waltz. The cyclical chain of sonnets turns about the room – in sets of threes: “He’s married and I’m tired of that old dance,” Egan’s speaker sighs in Sonnet #15 [It’s not my place or his to want to fuck].

And like a good Strauss composition, a story is told throughout Bar Napkin Sonnets. Each sonnet, or movement, or frolic around the tipsy ballroom, reveals another layer of the story. The orchestra builds momentum toward the penultimate sonnet, which hosts a handful of climactic trumps: Helen Keller, Jesus Christ, fellatio, and the dreaded, “I love you”! – Before the final movement falls again to the story’s starting note: “I sit alone, / a glass of wine, a napkin, and my pen.”

 

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Shahid Reads His Own Palm coverShahid Reads His Own Palm

Poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Alice James Books, June 2010

ISBN-10: 1882295811

ISBN-13: 978-1-882295-81-4

Paperback: 66pp; $15.95

Review by James Mc Laughlin

Deconstruction of identity is a recurring motif in African-American literature. The exploration of the physical, emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery continues to haunt its characters be it in literature, poetry or music. The most dangerous of slavery’s effects is its negative impact on the individual’s sense of self. Alienation underpins much of Black American writing. Slaves were told they were subhuman and were traded as commodities, whose worth could be expressed only in dollars. Consequently the much criticized “one theme” of African-American writing (slavery) cannot be escaped. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, Paul D – a typical exponent – describes his heart as a “tin tobacco box.” After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Alfred, Georgia, he locks away his feelings and memories in this “box,” which has, by the time Paul D arrives at 124, “rusted” over completely. By alienating himself from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage. In order to secure this protection, however, Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by foregoing feeling and gives up much of his selfhood by repressing his memories. Although Paul D is convinced that nothing can pry the lid of his box open, his strange, dreamlike sexual encounter with Beloved – perhaps a symbol of an encounter with his past – causes the box to burst and his heart once again to glow red.

In “The Spanish Word for Solitude,” Reginald Dwayne Betts writes:

into a cell. Soledad is
     the six fingers
I need to remember
my felonies
     the bright orange
of my county
around my waist
     a yesterdays yoked
into my cuffed hands.

American prisons are the new slave ships for Betts. The image of a black man in chains and cuffs is an image that for many is much to contemplate. Here in this disturbing book of poetry Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Betts takes us back into the whole African-American Diaspora. A latter day Paul D, in ‘yesterdays yoked’ – the lid is rusted solid on the tragedy that is the Black man and woman’s experience in the new world. Slaves were laid in rows in ships and stacked like coffins to maximize profit. In “Red Onion State Prison,” the modern day slave ship sets sail:

A warehouse of iron
bunks: straight lines
and right angles.
flush against the gutted
side of a mountain
Inside, white paint…
a slender metal rod
then scrapes it against
concrete and stretches night…
years of sentences
beckon over heads and hearts,
silent, a promise, like mistletoe.

Unlike Paul D, Betts is the antithesis, a black man in modern day America shackled and very aware of its implication on the present: and this young man is trying to say something. He talks about his father who “never voted.” He tells us about trying to write poetry with chains and cuffs on. He gives a voice to the dispossessed, poorly educated and those on the margins of society. From his slave ship he takes his “two inch plastic pen” and tears at the flesh of that joke word conditioning. He asks why it is that Black men fill the new slave ships of America: is it that Black people are prone to rape, kill, steal and so on, or is it that being bought for dollars and treated as subhuman has legacy? From “Juvenile’s Letter”:

 bell on this table,
     sure as the no
I got from the parole
     board, my eighth turn-
down ‘cause the
board thinks thirteen
     years in a box isn’t
enough to turn the
     wildness in a man
whose father never voted
     into anything
but more rage, but a brush
     fire waiting to happen &
memories, those lies
     that fold my body
into a half-
     moon wrapped around
this desk & threaten to drown
what refuses to listen.

There’s Paul D’s box again. The new slave ships are full but there are people trying to set the human beings in them free. In his introduction – which is a poetry in itself – Betts gives thanks in this way which tells his real story:

This book has a long list of people who ushered it out of my head and onto the page. Thanks to everyone I met inside the walls of Fairfax County Jail, Southampton Correctional Center, Red Onion State Prison, Sussex 1 State Prison, Augusta Correctional Center, Coffeewood Correctional Center... Thanks to Elizabeth for making me think about what a long line I come from. Thanks to TSE for encouraging me to write a poem that moves in the world like I do... To everyone who has cared to believe me when I called myself poet. To Tony Hoagland, for responding to a letter written from a young man aspiring to be a poet despite handcuffs... Special thanks to my Moms, who wrote the first poem I ever read. And for my wife Terese and our son, Micah, who both give me reason to add to the song I sing.

This book is disturbing. Technically it is solid and very American in shape. Its themes are clear, to the point, and very accurate. Alienation and deconstruction of self fill almost every line. I found myself concentrating not on poetic style but on what this poet was saying – and perhaps this is where poetry has to be made to turn to, or perhaps it is just another facet of the form that adds to its richness. I must admit I threw a bit of prejudice at this book when I first considered it, but on reading I just became more and more disturbed. I or you could easily, very easily, with one bad choice be inside that slave ship, a ship that really needs to be cast adrift and sunk round about Guantanamo Bay. That America’s prisons and legal processes are an affront to its ideals and incredible gifts. And Betts takes us onto the ship and lets us experience something – just something of the reality of despair that is the lot of too many African-American men and women. And that the deconstruction of Paul D and others is still dreadfully tangible. And given grace to retrace the story continues (that one theme) from the work of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce and Nugent Aaron Douglas. It can be found in the songs of Simon, Dylan, Wonder and many more. It can be seen in the novels of Twain, Morrison and dozens of others. It can be seen everywhere in America and beyond as in a young gifted and black who threw his Olympic medal into the river questioning his alienation and rejection. That a country that promises so much to the individual, except if you come from the slave ship. And out of personal tragedy Betts takes that euphemism conditioning and historical neglect and turns it to fine art. And as Langston Hugh’s said in 1926 in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in the Nile when I was old
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hats off, bows low, steps back.

 

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The Best of (What's Left of) Heaven coverThe Best Of (What’s Left Of) Heaven

Poetry by Mairéad Byrne

Publishing Genius, March 2010

ISBN-10: 0982081359

ISBN-13: 978-0982081358

Paperback: 208pp; $14.95

Review by Gina Myers

Thursday, January 01, 2004
Dammit more champagne.
Friday, January 02, 2004
Dammit no more champagne.

So goes the opening poem in The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, Mairéad Byrne’s new collection which brings together in book form poems that were originally published on her blog, Heaven. The opening poem is part of the “calendar” section, which contains poems concerned with days, months, and seasons, and it sets the tone for the book, which ranges from light-hearted and funny to more serious and somber poems. However, they are all marked by cleverness and a spirit that seems to approach life with enthusiasm. Even when Byrne writes about daily routine and the mundane, the reader gets the sense that Byrne’s life is anything but routine or mundane. Take for example, “Learning to Ride the Bicycle of My Life”:

I’m doing it!
I’m doing it!
I’m doing it!
I’m doing it!
I’m doing it!
I’m doing it!
I’M DOING IT!!!

This repetition and playfulness marks a number of the poems throughout the collection, but this is a big collection of poems at over 200 pages, so picking out a couple of representational poems is a difficult task. Byrne disagrees with this assessment, however, in her poem “Donald Hall Would Hate Me,” where she claims her poems take ten minutes to write and that she has no interest in being great. She offers this take on her work:

My poems are usually brief
they resemble each other
they are anecdotal
they do not extend themselves
they make no great claims
they connect small things to other small things

In the closing couplet, Byrne concludes, “I just want to kick the leaves / & have done.”

The poems are arranged into sections based on theme. In addition to “calendar,” there is “everyday lunacy,” “found,” “interviews,” “numbers,” “war,” “family,” “poetry,” “providence,” “dedications,” “instructions,” “everything is unlikely,” and “everything else.” Besides the table of contents, the only demarcation of section change occurs in the bottom corner of the page, which nicely allows for the reader to pass from one section to the next without being interrupted.

There are so many noteworthy poems from this collection, whether for their humor – like in “Tip”: “Here is something I do when I have to get up: / I go back to sleep” – or for their anger like in the war poems. There are also a number of tender poems, like in the dedication “e-mail me” written for kari edwards. “Everything is Unlikely” captures the absurdity of it all – everything is unlikely, from simple tasks like eating and sleeping to the more incredible and horrible things that happen in our world. Byrne (who emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in 1994) writes:

My whole life is unlikely. What is America? Why am I here? What happened to the other country? Where did my sisters’ houses go? Why am I here – in this house – in this world – which also holds a man screaming as other men saw at his neck with an inadequate knife?

This troubling image raises the questions: how is it possible to live in this world? How is it possible to go on? For Byrne, the answer seems to be to face the absurdity. To take it all in. To crank up the music (as she instructs in “Always the Right Thing to Do”). To live fully. And to laugh.

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