Posted February 14, 2011
While the Women Are Sleeping :: Bone Fires :: Mapmaking :: No Space for Further Burials :: Recipes from the Red Planet :: El Golpe Chileño :: Touch Wood :: Invisible Strings :: Heterotopia :: Unbeknownst :: Earth Listening :: Lord of Misrule
Fiction by Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions, November 2010
Hardcover: 144pp; $21.95
Review by Elena Spagnolie
While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías is a collection of ten beautifully written short stories that raise questions about love, death, the afterlife, and the capability of people to be truly original. The collection opens with the title story “While the Women Are Sleeping” and highlights the interaction between two men—strangers and fellow beach goers—outside a hotel pool in the middle of the night: “Viana buried his face in his hands, as I’d seen him do from above, from the balcony, but not from down here, by the pool. And I saw then that this gesture had nothing to do with suppressed laughter, but with a kind of panic that nevertheless failed to negate a certain serenity.” However, tension mounts as their friendly conversation morphs into one man’s obsession with his girlfriend, and Marías creates intensity and suspense with amazing skill.
In the stories “Gualta” and “Lord Rendall’s Song” the main characters meet up with identical versions of themselves, one at a dinner party, the other after coming home from war, and begin to question which version of themselves is the real one. Marías writes:
I still remember the look of stupefaction on Gualta’s face (which was doubtless also on mine), when the headwaiter who brought him to our table stood to one side, allowing him to see my face for the first time. Gualta and I were physically identical…but it wasn’t just that: we even made the same gestures at the same time and used the same words…and in Gualta I saw an utterly repellent individual, capable of anything, potential firing squad material…And it was from that night, without even informing my wife of my intentions, that I began to change.
Beyond these stories, readers will meet the ghost of Emiliano Zapata, will be trapped in an elevator with a black-magic-practicing butler in New York City, and will explore the relationship between love and death. This collection spans four decades of his writing career, and his story “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga” was written when Marías was only 14 years old! His writing is elegant, and his work has the rare combination of being both simple and deeply philosophical. I especially enjoyed the elements of magical realism, and how Marías uses intricate details to develop his characters’ personalities—an absolutely haunting collection.
New and Selected Poems
Poetry by Mark Jarman
Sarabande Books, February 2011
Paperback: 304pp; $16.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Bone Fires by Mark Jarman is a collection of new and selected poems. The book begins with the 19 new poems, which carry on themes found in earlier collections of Jarman’s work—a keen interest in nature and the surrounding world, a love of family, and a struggle with the mystery of spirituality. Many of the poems recount incidents from his childhood. One such poem, “Mary Smart,” reflects on the life of a widow he knew when he was young, who told him “Mark, you know we are not our bodies,” referring to the spiritual aspect of a person that the author questions and examines throughout the book.
Another notable new poem is “Dispatches from Devereux Slough.” This poem consists of thirteen titled sections, each situated in the slough, some focusing on wildlife, like “Black Phoebe,” and others on seasons, such as “September Song.”
The collection’s title poem, “Bone Fires,” begins with a story about a bonfire on Guy Fawkes day that commemorates
a much older terror, the sun weakening,
Dipping out of sight earlier and earlier, Its worshipers panicking in the darkness
And forcing the darkness back, sending
A message through in a body of fire.
He draws a correlation between his poetry and these offerings, “offered like brides to lure the sun to return” to eventually “gather now around pyres of memory / Upon memory, bundled and stacked and ignited / At any time, but especially as winter comes on.”
These memories are further explored through selections from previous books, including poems from North Sea, The Rote Walker, Far and Away, The Black Riviera, Questions for Ecclesiastes, Unholy Sonnets, To the Green Man, and Epistles.
Bone Fires is an excellent representative collection of Jarman’s work, perfect for those who are longtime fans or reading him for the first time.
Poetry by Megan Harland
BkMk Press, November 2010
Paperback: 66pp; $13.95
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Mapmaking is last year’s winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, awarded annually by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s BkMk Press. Harland’s book was selected by Sidney Wade, who praises the book as “imaginative writing at its best.” These are quiet poems, by which I mean they are never ostentatious or particularly bold or inventive. And they do not pretend to be. They rely instead, and successfully, on powerfully insightful and compact instances of poetic precision and emotional and philosophical acuity. “Picture a New York gone infinite, // a little pearly,” Harland writes; understand a morning as having “a bird’s worth of restlessness”; and a fossil is a perfume; and walking on Clare Island, the poet traverses “a place that lived beyond its future.”
The artifacts of our lives, the places where we spend time (a nightclub, a deserted island, a childhood memory), the scenes we witness in nature, history and its monuments, are all markers, places of one kind or another on the maps of our lives. “Family is a shore never reached” (from “Nativity”). Emptiness is “the soaring inside of the church.” Myths are “tethered to actual place.” Limbo is a “motel room” (who hasn’t experienced that!). Time passing is a “coral reef / accreting tidal alphabets.” Our fate (our fortune) is a series of lines on the palm: “engraved with the wit of genetics.”
Harland’s poems are propelled forward by a kind of easy, fluid energy, but they halt themselves, periodically, in small, concentrated moments of lyric or philosophical intensity: “city metabolized my stories whole,” “travel is how love pretends to change,” and “now the story plagiarizes grief.” Harland is always restrained and cautious, seldom buoyant or despairing, but deep emotion is the fossil life of her poems, imprinted on every line, as evidenced in the book’s opening poem, “Ex Libris,” quoted in its entirety:
Here is the fossil as a perfume. Here is a bone
picked clean and whittled into a tiny tall ship.
Here are magicians teaching secrets
to contortionists. Here is colored glass on fire.
Here is scripture forged into the memory of water.
Here are rosettes, exposed wiring, teasings onto the brink.
Here is the full vista of an hour, and the sun.
Fiction by Feryal Ali Gauhar
Akashic Books, August 2010
Paperback: 209pp; $15.95
Review by Laura Pryor
You don’t have to know the political history of the many conflicts in Afghanistan to understand Feryal Ali Gauhar’s novel, No Space for Further Burials. In fact, the meaninglessness of politics in such a place is one of the key themes Gauhar explores. In an environment where survival is day-to-day—even minute-to-minute—and cruelty and suffering come from a myriad of conflicting sources, politics is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The harrowing narrative is told by a U.S. Army medical technician captured by rebels and thrown into an Afghan asylum. The asylum houses a motley collection of the insane, the disfigured, and the abandoned. Key figures include Bulbul, a young man who always wears a bright red scarf and wants the narrator to get him clothes from a decades-old Sears Roebuck catalog; Waris, the asylum’s caretaker; Noor Jehan, Waris’s wife; Sabir, a one-eyed, one-legged former professor disfigured by an acid attack; Anarguli, a beautiful young pregnant woman with a terrible head wound; and Hayat, a seemingly crazy, tattooed old woman with a long gray braid, into which she weaves all manner of debris.
As repeated attacks on the asylum (both from rebels and U.S. bombs) make food, shelter and other provisions scarce, the inmates must work together for their survival. The narrator is wary of the others at first, but gradually learns their stories, most of them tales of heartbreak, abuse, and suffering. Some of this suffering is a result of war, and some is due to strict codes of “honor” that, once violated, become a rationale for cruelty and abuse. The suffering in this country has become a fact of life, and the source of it is of less concern than the task of surviving it.
Gauhar’s writing varies from straightforward reporting of facts to more lyrical passages. Much of the lyricism occurs in the stories told by the other inmates. For instance, in this passage, Bulbul describes how his father was crippled by a landmine:
There was so much blood that even the thirsty earth did not absorb it. It was like the blood of the sheep the elders of the village slaughtered for the Festival of the Sacrifice. But this was my father’s blood, my own father, Sangeen Khan, a man made of hardest rock, broken into pieces like a crushed fruit.
Likewise, when a very old man the inmates call Noor Kaka tells of a journey he made with his father, he says: "At a certain place my father told me to drink long and hard, for we were about to enter the valley of shifting sand, the Reg Ruwan, where the earth is soft and the sky far, and water just a thread in a madman’s dream."
The tales of the inmates are often moving, but Gauhar goes a step too far when she tries to weave in tales of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., farm workers in the Depression, and various people the narrator assisted as an EMT in the United States. Compared to the histories of the people in the asylum, most of these stories fall flat, and slow down the pace of the novel. And since a large part of what the novel describes is the maddening monotony and tedium of captivity, the plot already moves slowly enough as it is.
Often the most effective passages are those that matter-of-factly report the horrors of this place. When a U.S. bomb lands on the asylum, killing twenty-three people, the survivors must face the task of burying them:
We did not dig separate graves for the dead. There was no time—burials have to take place here before sunset, and in winter the sun sets early. . . . There is no need for separate graves since many of the bodies were not even whole when we managed to pull them out from under the rubble.
Throughout the novel the narrator reminds us that madness, for all the people here, is just a thought away. Indeed, in the final pages of the book, the narrator’s tone changes from contemplative and despairing to acerbic, hateful and irrational. Reality and delusion converge as he hatches a ludicrous plot to escape the asylum. Like his original mission in coming to Afghanistan—to “liberate” the people—it is doomed to failure. Gauhar’s novel, on the other hand, succeeds: it illuminates the futility of this war, and the dignity of those who have endured it.
Fiction by Meredith Quartermain
BookThug, November 2010
Paperback: 127pp; $18.00
Review by Alex Myers
Odd. There is just no other word to describe Meredith Quartermain’s collection of sixty short pieces. From the title, and even from the comments on the back of the book, I expected Martians and food. And while the collection contains both, neither one is the driving force. In fact, even having finished this volume, I am still asking that question: what propels these pieces? What is the organizing principle here?
The only satisfying answer is love of words. This is a collection that is rich in imagery and language. Not just language, but language about language: “I donned moody sentences, full of boisterous reserve.” Quartermain is an author who can write about writing and not make it seem maudlin or precious. A recurring theme in these sketches is the narrator who steps in to ask questions, as in the piece “A Marijuana Stalk,” when
The woodsman jumps off the dock and dives under the grey brown water towards a steep bank of tangled snowy bushes, leaving the narrator wondering how she will speak to her character. Is a narrator to her woodsman like a king to his army, or a mother to a son. Devil to disciple, or god to bewitched. Like language to word, or planet to plant.
There are several levels of meaning here, tantalizing and beguiling. It is rare to find an author able to write so bluntly and so artistically about language.
As often as I found myself impressed by the book’s twists and turns, as often as the language was rich and subtle and suggestive, there were moments when Quartermain lost control of the meaning and gave in to the art, as in “Heat Haze,” which opens: “Hills heads say. Hills hands hold. Hills hug. Hills hostage. They hang. Hundreds of hills hand dull.” And so on for a couple of pages. Whatever the meaning, it is quickly lost beneath the monotony and obscurity of the language. On the other hand, there are pieces that clobber the reader over the head with the lack of obscurity. Take, for instance, “(Elevator)”:
I step into its gilded, fluted columns. Top floor, s’il vous plait. Wouldn’t you rather go down, says the operator, there are many floors in the basement. All the pink floors are down there. Up please, I’m renovating the apartments in the penthouse. Floor three has very nice blue and pink arrangements. I must work on my renos. But you can’t. Why not? This is the Patriarchal Hotel.
Okay. I get it. For a writer, and a volume, defined by subtlety and delicate texture, pieces like this are leaden and depressing, and there are a few of them.
But my despair over such moments didn’t last long. Sections like “He Imagined a Seawall” offered strands of narrative amidst the imagery. Characters and places come alive with just enough frequency to keep the imagery from becoming overwhelming. And, best of all, much of the writing is simply breathtaking. Piece after piece left me pondering word choice, puzzling over all that a single noun could mean. The opening of “The Bat Experiment” was one such instance:
Bats aren’t blind. They’ve got eyes. You’re the one that’s blind. I’m going to perform an experiment to help you see at night. Did you know that one quarter of all mammal species are bats? I’m going to put some bats under the bed-covers with you. Bats are not rodents. They’re soft and furry. Their hands are wings that touch and hold. I want to find out how they’ll fly in the cave of your sleep. What they’ll do in your belfry. Will they ring your bells? And if they do, will you clatter, gurgle and snap, or hiss, boom, clink and whisper? Don’t worry – if they bother you, call me on the bedside phone.
The ideas here are delightfully simple—no tricks—yet also open up new vistas.
In short, it was difficult to make sense of the collection. There were stories with main characters and action and plot. There were pages of nonsense. There was beauty and frustration. There were reminders of what language could accomplish and what the limits of language might be. This volume occupies that magical, liminal space that might by anywhere and might be nowhere at all.
Collection by Julien Poirier
Ugly Duckling Presse, October 2010
Paperback: 120pp; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
Is the title page a subversive example of “golpe chileño” or a mistake: Peter Lorre Goes Buggy. A Biography. by Cem Çoker and issued by Gneiss Press (“on the dusty road to hits”)? According to Ugly Duckling Presse (from book publicity on the website) and a brief introduction in the book itself, golpe chileño is a form of street crime in Barcelona. (Spain’s major cities were, at one time, notorious for the many types of thievery perpetrated on tourists in the streets). So, perhaps this, too, is a trick—look over here (maybe you’ll think the book is in Spanish by the cover); no, look over here (this is a book about that odd classic movie actor, Peter Lorre). Gottcha!
Wait, look over here! The book is, of course, neither about street crime in Barcelona nor Peter Lorre. And it is not in Spanish. This is one big, happily messy, and—in a surprising way—very personal book of writings in a variety of configurations on the page, poems, prose poems, prose, drawings, photographs, illustrations, and graphics laid out in a variety of fonts and formations on large broad pages. The visual components range from the nearly elegant (a finely etched drawing of playing cards) to grown-up boy comic goofy (the “googly gang” predominates), deliberately weird, sometimes silly, sometimes perturbing. The poems treat a variety of themes, including the poet’s travels and places he has lived (New York); his relationship to poetry; the way artists see the world (the opening poem is “Degas 1, Degas 2”: “notice the brightness / of your life”); the poet’s friends (his colleagues at Ugly Duckling Presse, of which he is a co-founder); and a variety of related musings. There are poems in a series (“My Distant Relations”); and a short book in verse (“The Berkeley Book of the Dead”); a short cross-genre story (“Silent Films on Rainy Nights”); and a short memoir-style work “The Stolen Universe.”
While a lot of unconventional, cross and multi-genre, and hybrid work tends toward the disembodied and—often, as a result, impersonal—Poirier’s work is rather unusually personal. In a note at the bottom of a page, he shares his artistic process: “Here’s how I played magic tricks on my poems: With dice, typewriter, index cards, a piece of purple velvet. My main source (I was working with a lot of them back then) was A Pattern Language, a fat book about city planning with chapters like.” And here the note ends. In another note he tells us: “I wrote this poem and named it after a spice in my parents’ kitchen, which was under construction.” (I assume he means the kitchen was under construction, not the spice, but with Poirier, one never knows.)
In other notes he tells us where he was living when he composed a particular poem, or with whom he was associating. A long note at the back of the book explains these pieces’ lengthy publication history (the work dates from 1992-2010). I like the way the poet describes influences and works from which he has borrowed material: “‘Uncollected Introductions’ catches glimpses of poems by Greta Goetz and by Charles Plymell, tabbed in italics.” (Poirier’s titles are especially clever, “Uncollected Introductions,” among them).
As you might imagine, the work is quirky, strange, and provocative. There are moments of lyric insight, gritty description, casual dialogue, a sort of surreal philosophical pondering, pure image, pure story, and comic relief. Whatever you think of this work, you’ll certainly never be bored. So, I’ll conclude by quoting the poet: “Enjoy the flight.” And watch out for all those tricks.
Poetry by Albert Mobilio
Black Square Editions, January 2011
Paperback: 88pp; $14.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“[P]ropositions written broken-english wise,” the poet writes in “Average Reader,” a phrase that embodies this book’s essence and which characterizes what is most appealing about it, original syntax, a unique sense of what can be “english-wise.” Perhaps the poet imagines that this unique language is precisely what we need to survive: “you want to be saved,” Mobilio insists in the collection’s opening poem, “Touch Wood.” And how could we not be saved by such lines as “we lay down housed,” reminding us of the human capacity for invention, for creativity.
Mobilio is brilliantly inventive, exploiting beautifully poetry’s ability to make what we know unknowable and what we don’t know familiar, or at least recognizable: “I was reading out in the yard, / dyslexic sulk in place”; and “the whole of it is winged, this science / of speaking about large things”; and “we have / reason to tremble, and then alone”; and “a sudden mind / where all my war is done.” These poems convey a sense of urgency: “Don’t ask me // how much I need, how / purposeful I am”; and sometimes a muted sort of anguish: “my three maybe four ideas // under scrutiny, which isn’t / very desirable.”
Most ambitious are nine pages of linked poems “Letters from Mayhem,” all of which begin with a title/first line enclosed by a single right-sided half of a parenthesis, exhibiting the same muted anguish and searching as the collection’s other work: “In the temple of human reduction…I went unsought.” “Everything is difficult,” says Mobilio. (And these days, I admit it’s hard not to feel that way.)
I liked in particular the last poem in the collection, “Some Place, Same Place” which concludes:
I was telling you
about what I saw
in car windows,
about how we live
as if, and
I can think of no more apt way to describe the way we do live, or, in fact the way we read. As if a book of poems could change our lives, could save us (“you want to be saved”).
Poetry by Jim Moore
Graywolf Press, March 2011
Paperback: 104pp; $15.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Invisible Strings, Jim Moore’s sixth collection of poetry, is a collection of sparse, brief poems, focusing on single moments in everyday life. These snapshots are of ordinary events—his mother setting the table, a boy crossing the street with his father, a single car on a dirt road.
Moore connects the ordinary to the eternal and the inevitability of death. Often self-consciously observant, he speaks of his insecurities and doubts, while always placing them in context of the bigger picture. His self-consciousness at times drives him to look at the world through a filter or through the eyes of another. In “Triumphs,” the poem begins with a speaker analyzing his life while looking out the window at his neighbor “who rarely bothers to speak / now that her son has died.” Though distant, and unseen by the neighbor, the speaker identifies with her and causes her, and consequently, himself, to not be “alone.”
He employs a consistent form throughout the book; though in free verse, each poem maintains the structure of every other line, starting with the second line, being indented, causing a staggered, slowing down of reading through the poems. Each poem is written in plain diction, everyday speech, which pairs well with the everyday events illustrated in the poems. Some poems consist of only a line or two, such as “Cold Gray October Sky”: “I walk under it, head lowered, carrying four books I love.” These very brief poems do not have quite the sense of completion as some of the longer, less elliptical poems in the book. The majority of the poems are less than ten lines long, excluding three or four exceptions, notably the last poem of the collection, “My Swallows Again.” In this poem, Moore returns to the theme of death and posterity, stating, “The swallows are leaving; maybe going away is a thing I too can do with a little flourish and swoop at the end.”
Moore’s Invisible Strings is a collection of short poems of careful observations and equally careful silences.
Poetry by Lesley Wheeler
Barrow Street Press, June 2010
Paperback: 77pp; $16.95
Review by Carol Dorf
In Heterotopia, Lesley Wheeler considers the interactions of time and space—in particular, the space of Liverpool, England, and the time of her ancestor's lives, particularly her mother's, in that place.
We are used to the reconfiguration of historic space in the work of African-American writers, and in writers from non-dominant cultures. However, by foregrounding her English cultural background, Wheeler points out that one must consider the specificities of any time and place, rather than treating culture as an assumption.
In the first section of this book, "Elsewhere," Wheeler outlines these multiple intersections. The title poem "Heterotopia," tells the story of Liverpool in short sections that move back in time from the narrator's mother through a poem bringing forth the connections between Liverpool and slavery, and ending with two short sections—one defining both the word, heterotopia, and project of the book, and the other reconnecting us to the narrator's relationship to her material:
I have no right to write,
no visa to any clouded
country. A poem
is a heterotopia
of citizenship: these
are my papers, counterfeit.
are characters. I vote
in an obscure district.
I step through the glass
and leave white fingerprints
on the frame. I am sorry
for breaking things. I am
glad it is not real
to me. An accent
sounds like, but is not
really, a place to live.
Here, Wheeler draws attention to her uncertainties, and to the literary nature of what appears to be a biographical project.
The central poem of the book, "The Calderstones," is a near crown of sonnets which handles the formal constraints in a relaxed manner. In "The Calderstones," the poet connects present time to the mid-twentieth century past and on back through Liverpool's history. The formal nature of the project helps it seem as inevitable a part of the landscape as the Calderstones; however, even that is brought into question in some of the sonnets such as in the 13th where she writes:
is slower than we expected, streets changed, backseat
choked with carsick children. We snap pictures
[…]The imagination works that way. A strong
emotion juiced with texture or a scent is better
than a memory: rosier, tarter, wetter.
These lines bring life to questions about the links between memory, imagination, and emotion. It expands from literal images of snapping pictures, to how the mind processes sensory images.
The final poem in Heterotopia, "The Forgetting Curve," connects this book directly to the process of memory, bringing in sensory and kinesthetic detail. It gives us much hope for our narrator, when after introducting a girl on a swing, Wheeler writes:
The first line on the graph falls almost plumb
with just a little forward kick at its base,
the kind a child makes one summer dusk,
as if the child is pumping now, leaning in
and back again in the rhythm that makes a swing
travel. It teaches a girl that if she dips
into the past, over the weedy paving stones,
the leggy pansies dimming, she will rock
with corresponding force into the future.
the stars are flowers torn from a branch—
suspended in the blue breeze as notes
on a staff, preserved until they can be sung.
In Heterotopia, Lesley Wheeler recreates a time and a place, and connects that site to the present, singing of the Liverpool history she has uncovered.
Poetry by Julie Hanson
University of Iowa Press, March 2011
Paperback: 84pp; $17.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
“I love this book,” is this book’s opening line from a poem titled “Use the Book,” and while the poet is not ostensibly referring to her own book, the combination of the self-referential title and this first line are impossible to separate from the book we have in our hands. This is not to say that the poet means she loves her own writing, but that she loves the act of writing, of creating poetry, of offering us her book. One way or another, we’re meant to make the association between the book she loves and the book we’re holding in our hands. “Take this,” the poem ends. How can we think otherwise?
Hanson’s poems are casual in tone and style (nothing formed to draw excessive attention specifically to their linguistic or visual shape), reporting conversations with others, offering up moments of observance and insight in daily activities, and circumspect and understated for the most part, even when they broach more metaphysical themes (“Life without language would be / a registration of the sensual: / sunbeam, warm, move onto rock”). Departures include a series of poems based on Sappho fragments (which seems to be a trend right now, Tupelo Press received more than 1,000 poems for its Poetry Project Web page of new poems inspired by some of the same Sappho fragments from Anne Carson’s recent translation that Hanson uses here); and several more emotionally or linguistically heightened moments: “A family of three or four is too complex!” the poet writes in “Instead.” I admire that exclamation point, which turns a seemingly casual remark into poetry.
There are several poems which treat the theme of a troubled relationship with a brother; a small narrative of spending time seated next to a woman in obvious distress in the airport; poems that exploit the garden-as-a-metaphor-for-life convention; musings on the meaning of family; and poems on the “dance” of marriage. I appreciated, in particular, Hanson’s emotional restraint, even when her themes might lead one to sloppier sentiments.
“Just tell me the truth, I kept insisting,” Hanson writes in “Right This Way, This Way to My Heart.” Despite the book’s title (Unbeknownst), truth-telling appears to be what Hanson expects from others and what she demands of herself.
Poetry by Becky Dennison Sakellariou
Hobblebush Books, October 2010
Paperback: 55pp+CD; $15.00
Review by Sima Rabinowitz
These are lovely poems from a poet who has lived for a long time in Greece (she also maintains a home in New Hampshire) and writes with grace and elegance about the natural world in its relationship to human stories and histories. Her verse is more restrained than effusive, more controlled than lush, rendering the landscapes of her geographies, her (our) history, and her mind in sharply etched lines:
The words in my mouth
are the tides and sands
of the Ionian Sea,
the feathers of gulls
turning east along the tidal flats,
the slight wind puffing the soft gray down of their heads.
My traces sounds
to a time of no measure
where women were buried
in narrow earthen tombs…
Sakellariou’s preoccupations (and whose are not?) are the aspects of the human condition that cause grief and/or confusion about grief (“I pull the gray hood of grief over my head”; “I am still not clear about this dying thing”; “How do we do this thing called living?”). She is a poet who searches: “our human seedlings / which lean against the earth / searching for signs / of what we have been told”; who worries about her legacy: “Who will come? / Who will call my name?”; who believes there may be joy in the world, but cannot be sure of it: “I too have heard about joy, / how it arrives in a thousand hymns.” She approaches joy, exuberance, optimism, but feels herself removed from it: “Could it be that this table / is the last that we will set?”.
Always in her poems personal history and the natural world are inseparable, as seen here in the first stanza of “Traveling North”:
I have suddenly become serious.
I no longer write of betrayal.
Instead, I travel north
through clear pond country, south
toward almond trees
that line the inland sea.
I breathe in the calling clouds,
my lungs lined with white, blue,
two landscapes dug
into the jigsaw of my bones.
The water’s curve brings relief,
the grove, a grasp of edged shadows.
The book comes with CD of the poet reading her poems. However, I did not listen to it. Her distinctive, intelligent, and elegant voice comes through loud and clear in these poems.
Fiction by Jaimy Gordon
McPherson & Company, November 2010
Hardcover: 296pp; $25.00
Review by Olive Mullet
National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, inspired by a summer job she had during her college years, reveals the world of the rundown horse stable/racing operation full of sore, over-run horses, cynical, sometimes drug-taking groomsmen and criminal owners. Indian Mound Downs in West Virginia has a number of such characters, with the most sympathetic of the humans being seventy-three-year-old black groomsman Medicine Ed, hobbling on his “froze-up left leg, the result of being run over by a big mare” and a newcomer with “frizzly” pigtailed hair, Maggie. But it is appropriate that the chapters have the names of horses, since the animals get most of our sympathy. The story involves the back-and-forth ownership of horses, culminating in the destruction of some favorites, caused perhaps by the meddling of “Medicine” Ed mixing up his unknowable potions.
Tommy and his girlfriend Maggie show up with the horse Mr. Boll Weevil who, like the song says, is trying to find a home. This is a refrain in the book, especially with Medicine Ed’s dreams of settling down quietly in his old age. When Boll Weevil wins but is injured in the process and at the same time the horse-track owner Zeno dies after claiming the horse, Tommy takes over and his red horse the Mahdi becomes his favorite. Medicine Ed calls Tommy the “young fool” with no experience, and indeed this college-boy is unstable and even violent with Maggie. Meanwhile Maggie comes into her own, getting close to another horse, Little Spinoza, whom she calms by rubbing him for hours. This horse, having attacked the gangster owner’s stupid and violent son, must be handled carefully. When a perfect jockey is found for “Spinny,” Maggie switches allegiance to Pelter, an older champion horse cared for by Medicine Ed. When Pelter is stolen from her by the gangster owner Biggs so that he can lure her into his clutches, at that point the book gets into full gear.
Don’t give up on this book. It may take more time than some books to get into this world; in fact, it may take close to 200 pages of an almost 300-page book. That happens because of the constant switching of points of view, the dialect and the lingo of the horse track world. A glossary might have helped for terms like “claiming” and “on the cuff.” Every perspective is given, including the horse’s:
Little Spinoza looked around for Maggie, his handmaiden who made it her job to shape the world comfy or even ecstatic. Where she was no pain. And here she was, but getting smaller and weaker while waves of something hurtful and chaotic, some harsh old world he dimly remembered, were getting louder, faster and taller.
Gordon does an incredible job of bringing this world to light. Her visual details are unforgettable, so that a person’s special details stick. The setting is also immediately established: “Inside the back gate of Indian Mound Downs, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round.” According to Medicine Ed:
the going-nowhere contraption must be the lost soul of this cheap racetrack. It resembled some woebegone carnival ride, some skeleton of a two-bit ride dreamed up by a dreamer too tired to dream. There’d been no rain all August and by now the fresh worked horses were half lost in the pink cloud of their own shuffling. Red dust from those West Virginia hills rode in their wide open nostrils and stuck to their squeezebox lungs.
The thumbnail descriptions are inventive and precise. Maggie’s uncle Two-Tie, who is not allowed around the grounds because of some infraction, nevertheless knows everyone. Deucey Gifford with her crew-cut hair
was an old broad-browed retriever dog, faithful to the death. The doggish part was how she never let go. Once she thought something belonged to her, or didn’t, her jaw clamped down and her gaze flattened out and she could get stupid, very stupid. Jojo Wood, leaning back on the sofa with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, was the commonest dog around the racetrack, a square-headed beagle mutt who padded around the backside, nose low to the ground, hoping for that pizza crust or dropped hamburger, without a clue or a plan.
Earlie Beaufait was “smarter than Jojo, but twitchy as a Chihuahua in repose.” These dog associations with humans are appropriate from someone who has the most faithful actual dog companion Elizabeth, one of the animals the reader may shed tears over.
The gangsters do seem clichéd, and the cinematic ending is like a gangster movie. But the racetrack world is fully realized.