Posted August 2, 2011
Again the Far Morning :: Arousing Notoriety/Your Trouble is Ballooning :: The Great Lenore :: The City from Nome :: New California Writing 2011 :: The Brave Never Write Poetry :: They Could No Longer Contain Themselves :: Smith Blue :: The Wrong Blood :: Big Bright Sun :: Field Work :: The Archipelago :: Undone :: So You Know It's Me :: Thin Kimono :: The Stranger Dissolves :: To Make It Right :: Short Bus :: The Truth of Houses :: The Twelve Wives of Citizen Jane :: Dreams of Molly
New and Selected Poems
Poetry by N. Scott Momaday
University of New Mexico Press, May 2011
Hardcover: 152pp; $29.95
Review by Erik Fuhrer
The oral transmission of verse is an intrinsic element of N. Scott Momaday’s literary heritage as a Native American storyteller. Though his accomplishments in fiction, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn, are often more critically noted, poetry seems to come closest to his ideal expression of language due to its ancient relation to oral tradition. In his preface to Again the Far Morning, Momaday exalts the oral possibilities engendered by poetry’s primordial connection with the human voice: “We most often think of the poem as a composition in writing, but it may also be spoken or sung.”
There is something extremely satisfying and deeply spiritual about speaking poems into the silence, an act of creation that seems to link one with some greater being. I remember being in the audience at a reading sponsored by Cave Canem a few years ago, where Sonia Sanchez was a featured reader. The vocality of her poems was stunning, especially so when she abandoned the text of her poems for languid, haunting, sometimes incomprehensible, lyrical abandons that she described as the ancestors speaking through her.
Though Momaday’s poems are more controlled than Sanchez’s improvisational séances, they carry the bodies and songs of his ancestors with them just as powerfully. I always read poems out loud, but few poets have the ability to control the distinct rhythm of my speech as much as Momaday does. Often I felt as if he had a hand on my tongue, guiding me in my recitation of these often very haunting lyrics. I believe this was the first time that I actually sung out most of the poems. Below is the final stanza of the poem “An Honor Song in the Old Style”:
Where thunder rolled across the world
and rain rattled on the ancient trails
and on the shadows of origin
we danced the days of our dreaming
whole in the summons of life
whole in the names of our deities
whole in the radiance of the sun
whole in the silence of the stars
This poem is huge in its scope, speaking as it does in the language of creation. There is a wonderful incantatory element that makes it nearly impossible to read this piece silently, so rich is the texture of the rhythm. As is obvious, the natural world is an important feature. However, as the poem also demonstrates, Momaday’s verse is far more than just pretty descriptions of nature. Rather, he utilizes the natural environment to expose greater truths about human existence and experience. As Momaday writes in “Meditation on Wilderness,” originally from the collection In the Bear’s House, “There is more in my soul than in my sight.” In other words, his poems are about internal interpretation and transformation of the outer world, rather than mere observation of it. My favorite line from this book demonstrates this concept perfectly. The title of the poem is “The Wheel,” and it is among the many new poems published in this collection. Below are the final four lines:
Move among the spokes and cairns.
Then take your heart away, keeping
The beats of a Creation song, a paean
To the alien, savage swell.
The invitation to recede deeper into nature is followed by the suggestion that one rid oneself of the heart, the source of our life, and trade it for the primal beats of the earth. This poem is about more than appreciation of nature, or even becoming one with nature; it is about being transfigured by it.
Though I have been discussing Momaday’s more weighty, serious poems, Again the Far Morning features incredible range and includes playful, witty poems as well. These are mostly to be found in the section of newer poems. Funny and pithy, these lighter verses serve to temper the more elegiac verse common to an aging poet. Below is the text of “The Death of a Ceramist”:
Here lies the potter Tim O’Dea,
Who has himself become his clay,
And lest his mem’ry be forgot,
Recycle him into a pot.
These whimsical poems are a testament to the versatility and breadth of Momaday’s talents. They add a perfect balance to a collection that is brimming with grandiose spiritual themes. Again the Far Morning is a substantial gathering of an important body of work and an important contribution to the poetic canon.
Poetry by A. Minetta Gould / Amber Nelson
Publishing Genius, January 2011
ISBN 13: 978-0-9831706-0-0
Paperback: 80pp; $10.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
This is a flip-over book, i.e. Gould's poems run through half the book, then flip it over and Nelson's poem runs through the back half. In the middle, between the two works is a portrait by—it is assumed—cover artist Kelly Packer, of a gentle-looking antlered beast which serves as a somewhat puzzling yet soothing centerfold: aside from having no clear connection to the poetry, the artwork stands in rather jarring visual contrast to the harsher, more abstract-leaning cover art. However, this does turn out to be a good pairing overall, especially since while the poets share in common a penchant for swift lines full of vivid imagery, each work diverges from the other when it comes to subject and concern.
Gould's half of the book takes off as a masque of imaginary (at least in part) tortured lovers and friends with names such as Banjo, Bear, Bow Tie, Half Organ, Russia, and Strong Heart who are set at odds in varying landscapes, as in "Upon Strong Heart Noticing Russia's Beauty":
Everything about us revolves
around sex & eczema. Your coffee
mug is cracked & broken. My eyes are cracked
& broken. These poetries are
cracked & broken & ugly & naked.
Nelson’s half, in turn, folds and unfolds language in a long poem-series of eight numbered sections of four parts each, testing reasoned argument against colloquial play, as in this excerpt:
Illuminated meaning and unblinking rivers join colorless,
welcome to collecting secrets. But secrets
break quickly, and not as extended villainy or the whispered fuse
but as streets shadow by numbers, seeming lightly and ignored. ("6.4")
With each poet, the line break functions as a focal point at which, in what seems ostensibly to be the case, the feel of the poem is advanced by way of witty declaration. As Nelson crowds her swallowed vowels, "the hem that gullies in / my gulping pockets" ("4.1") or "You're an untenable, modern decadence / & I am drastically horny" ("2.2"), Gould turns out such twists in her openings as "Having no sense of / words" ("Mirroring Old-fashioned Love") or "I am a hitchhiking love / Song" ("Half Organ"), the poems putting forth an advance on the merit of somewhat tongue-in-cheek semantics overtly driven against expectation.
There is no key to unlocking the dazzling sleights of word choice made in these poems. The poets write to entertain and entice with little concern for sense or meaning to be made. The commitment is to the attempted exploration of new use of language.
Fiction by J.M. Tohline
Atticus Books, June 2011
Paperback: 204pp; $14.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Maybe women saw Lenore and despised her at first, because she was lovely to such an unfair degree. But they met her, and she was the opposite of any negative attribute they could possibly have ascribed her. She was everything they wanted her to be, and she was everything they wanted to be themselves.
Only a guy could make a statement like that. Women know Lenore. She’s the girl your parents spoke of lovingly at dinner while you were spooning up your second helping of mashed potatoes. Puberty never scarred her with fat rolls. Her grades were better. So were her SATs. The one with the job and the corner office that goes with it? That’s her. Guys have fallen under her spell since kindergarten. Her sole value to you is that she’s always been good storytelling material for you and your equally unblessed friends. Now J.M. Tohline introduces The Great Lenore, a woman possessing all those unattainable qualities parents, teachers, camp counselors, bosses, and boys adore, but who, as we girls know, is best at causing trouble.
Lenore is seen through the love-struck eyes of narrator Richard Parkland. A novelist, he is house-sitting his college roommate’s family summer home in Nantucket for the winter. Banucci Manor is no beach bungalow, and neither is the neighboring Palace, where Lenore’s in-laws, the Montanas, live:
There is nothing about the house or the view or the landscaping that says, “Look at us, we’re rich and important! We’re trying really hard.” The house is massive, and its grounds are like heaven. The view could knock you out even if you saw it every day. And nothing about it seems remotely out of place.
The set-up, between the earnest young man of working-class roots and the old-money clan—whose pretty daughter Cecilia is eager to become more than Richard’s neighbor—is already intriguing. The Montanas collect money and people. Momma Montana likes Richard because he is famous, introducing him to her other famous and well-connected friends with “the sincerest imitation of knowledgeable intimacy.”
Enter Lenore Warren Montana. A wealthy British beauty a few credits shy of a Harvard degree, she is married to Chas Montana. His brother Maxwell is literally besotted with her. Still, it is Montana financial advisor Jez who, unknown to his employers, met her first and loves her best.
Lenore enjoys manipulating those around her. When she discovers that Chas is having an affair with Lily, the boozy, busty wife of a co-worker, she fakes her death. Only Lenore doesn’t stay away, luring Richard into her game. Instantaneously, he too falls for her, describing her as “perfection” with “sensitive skin” who can “read [his] thoughts.” For a National Book Award nominee, Richard is a bit vague describing his beloved.
Thus far, The Great Lenore is no different than a novel by O’Hara or Fellowes involving socialites, DUIs, and romance. However, the outsider/narrator who becomes heavily involved in the plot, character names like Maxwell and Jez, a society wedding that should have never taken place, and the title itself evoke The Great Gatsby. There have been other fictional Lenores, with the names Guinevere, Lady Brett, Scarlett, and Queen Cersei. The one Lenore Montana most resembles is Daisy Buchanan: another reckless, spoiled rich girl causing trouble and tragedy.
Tohline’s reliance on The Great Gatsby interferes with The Great Lenore. His basic plot—boys love girl at exclusive beachfront property—was already interesting without the literary overkill. For Tohline to borrow lines from Gatsby, such as “The holocaust was complete” and “Civilization’s going to pieces,” is unnecessary, and having Richard Parkland end up in Paris rings false.
Still, this first novel shows promise. The characters, including Lenore despite the lack of an accurate physical description, are carefully drawn personalities. Tohline’s tying his Lenore to that of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Lenore” (“An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young”) is far less obtrusive and makes better sense; it fits the novel’s air of mystery. Crucial moments are effectively and musically accented with the sentences, “Somewhere, a clock ticked. Somewhere, time disappeared.” Best of all are Tohline’s descriptions of writer’s block. Richard makes good use of the writing exercise of copying sentences from favorite authors:
I went inside and poured another drink. I opened my computer and tried to start writing.
Nothing came to me.
I typed the first stanza of Poe’s poem The Raven.
Once upon a midnight drearu, while I pondered, weak and
I read it.
I noticed I misspelled the word “dreary.”
I deleted the whole thing.
I stared at the blank screen, and I started all over again.
A femme fatale makes real and fictional life interesting. The Great Lenore’s twists and turns are page-turners. It is too bad that some of those surprises have been seen elsewhere. There are readers and writers alike who revere Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the novel’s brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins. We learn from the books we love, which is inspiration enough.
Poetry by James Grinwis
The National Poetry Review Press, March 2011
Paperback: 84pp, $17.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
James Grinwis possesses a wry sense of things. He’s aware "Stuff has a way of perpetuating itself" ("Valse Triste"), and also of how important familiar haunts are. Where the poet walks, eats, and sleeps services his needs in and around the writing of poems. Grinwis comments on such matters from an appropriate distance and gives due acknowledgement, how "knowing your own corner / of the city" ("Shapes") does allow for "you realize it's just you, your room" where writing happens alongside the big realizations, such as "stars absorb light / like nothing else absorbs light" ("Still Life"). His poems are full of the irony of the mundane.
This business of living never gets easier and nothing is of much help in dealing with the messy state of it all, "as if there were a completely other / state to be in" ("Humility"), yet as Grinwis notes, perhaps referring to his sense of what having a muse is for, "I can think of worse things than a great beauty / who blows her world through you" ("A Name And"). When you’re a poet, always busy attempting to capture passing brilliance by way of words, "Sometimes it's the whole world at once" ("Projection With Firing Squad"). Only the lucky get the opportunity to have reality match up exactly to how they envision it; the rest play catch-up, making do with how things are. Grinwis is as bounded in by the day-to-day concerns as anybody else:
I feel small, nervous,
and silly most days now.
She says to me, "look at
my body, my clothes, and
then look at yours," which
I do, seeing how flat I am.
I turn to the window,
back to the life I've lived
through books so long. ("Case Study")
More than just another portrait of the poet as lone figure surrounded by books and the words in them, Grinwis offers up a contribution rich with its own weird disturbances strung throughout, often painting the not-so-pretty: "A cluster of young children with sticks / are busy pummeling something." He does so as if casting a sci-fi/fantasy version of the world that verges on being a rather warped fairy-tale perspective. His poems are tales of strange characters in familiar situations or maybe familiar characters in strange situations—either way, this is territory into which poetry doesn’t often venture. Apparently, Grinwis has an affinity with the wolf as character totem, or alter-ego anyway, of one sort or another. The opening of the second section, “Untitled 10,” declares, “I pulled on my wolf suit and ambled across the wide snows" and even though later we’re told “I pulled off my wolf suit and paced the kitchen like something estrange” the sense of estrangement which comes from the association with the wolf hangs over all, as the wolf motif returns in the third section of the book:
An image is easy to fall in,
the woman's curl like a lilac ribbon,
the arc of water, the greenery lining the houses
with a stillness and a wolf.
I want to ignore the wolf. I want to sleep
in the warm mattress of sleep,
and wake when there's still time,
this would be good for both me and the wolf. ("Projection With Firing Squad")
And in the poem "A Name And," with the character "Moe" comes the revelation that
Moe knows wolves.
He loves them. The howl of a wolf
in the desert tells a lot about the sea.
There are a million reasons
why wolves howl.
While Grinwis withholds from even partially listing what some of the “million reasons / why wolves howl” might be (which might make for a book of its own), he is still relatively young and just getting started. This is his first collection, with a second, Exhibit of Forking Paths, slated to appear later this year from Coffee House. Perhaps along those “forking paths” the wolf will reappear. If not, Grinwis will no doubt nevertheless present more of the awkwardly illuminating perspective that’s uniquely his.
Edited by Gayle Wattawa
Heyday Books, April 2011
Paperback: 320pp; $20.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
From California publisher Heyday Books comes New California Writing 2011, the first of an annual publication that aims to be the America’s Best of writing from the Land of Fruits and Nuts. The book compiles poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; some are taken from larger works, others from newspapers and weblogs, and at least one is a commencement speech.
Most of us know California as a tourist excursion—a day or two in Disneyland, an afternoon on the beach, dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, maybe a five-hour drive in a rented Mustang along Big Sur’s twisted coastal highway—or from sources of entertainment: ubiquitous songs about L.A., The O.C., car chases on Headline News, anything coming out of Hollywood. It’s clear from the collection’s very first piece—Michael Chabon’s “Normal Time”—that series editor Gayle Wattawa and publisher Malcolm Margolin aim to present a California apart from its ballooning reputation. As Chabon’s sense of time and family gives way to Dagoberto Gilb’s memoir of fathers and sons, all of the Cali clichés fade away.
Notably, and thankfully, the collection also lacks high-minded attempts to define what exactly California is, apart from Margolin’s introduction, and even it defines it without nailing it down. “California was invented on a sunny fall day in 1849,” writes the founder/owner of Heyday Books, a Berkeley transplant from New York. “California is a construct of the human imagination. Without an inherent physical or cultural coherence to define it, it has long served as the world’s largest Rorschach test…From everywhere people came to a California whose only boundaries were the human imagination.”
In this compilation, the collective thread is not always clearly sewn. Some pieces, like Emily Taylor’s brilliant and amusing retelling of Noah and the Flood, don’t even nudge California, but in the end that hardly seems to matter. Over setting and beyond an all-encompassing point, the collection is driven by people: individuals or communities offering their own side-blinded interpretations of the ink blot, characters who are focused primarily on their own nook—like Jennifer Egan’s Bay Area punks, in an excerpt from her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad:
I follow her up the fluffy stairs to her actual room, which I’ve never seen…Her bed is under a mountain of stuffed animals, which all turn out to be frogs: bright green, light green, Day-Glo green, some with stuffed flies attached to their tongues. Her bedside lamp is shaped like a frog, plus her pillow.
I go, I didn’t know you were into frogs, and Alice goes, How would you?
Like all good writing, the stories of New California Writing are universally accessible. The series' inaugural publication has set a high standard; next year's entry should be well worth anticipating.
Poetry by Daniel Jones
Coach House Books, April 2011
Paperback: 102pp, $15.95
Review by Angela Veronica Wong
When an artist produces only one piece of work and when the work is anywhere close to stunning, it’s hard not to see it as representational of “promise” and lament what could have been. Daniel Jones authored only one collection of poetry during his lifetime and published it under his last name. Jones was twenty-six when it was published; after The Brave Never Write Poetry was originally published in 1985, he never again published a poem (though he did publish fiction). His sole collection was beautifully republished by Toronto’s Coach House Books in 2011.
The strength of Jones’s poems lies in their emotional authenticity. A force of voice and character, reading The Brave Never Write Poetry is a little like reliving an adolescent crush—there is still something irresistible in a bad boy, especially one with literary talent. Jones’s storytelling captivates, and his misanthropy (which we only half-believe) and self-deprecation are wielded like sharp knives, but it is his poetic thoughtfulness, his control of line and pacing, that are mesmerizing.
The first stanza of the poem that opens the book, the collection’s title poem, is a brilliant example:
The brave ride streetcars to jobs
early in the mornings, have traffic accidents,
rob banks. The brave have children, relationships,
mortgages. The brave never write these things
down in notebooks. The brave die & they are
It seems a simple list, but its construction, his movement from a pedestrian “ride streetcars to jobs” through “rob banks” to a quiet “never write things down” is rhythmically entrancing and shows what it means to Jones to be a poet: in a sense, to live forever.
Names and bodies move quickly, in and out of poems, in and out of the collection. Jones is generous in bringing his reader alongside him, and as you pinball through the lines, you feel as if your body, too, is being bruised by all the love affairs falling apart, by the concrete prison walls, by the hospital bed straps, by all the naked bodies. This is what makes the collection—not the dirtiness of life reflected in the appearance of fluids of booze, sex, and insane asylums, but the way in which Jones achieves what the best confessional poets can from language: a strength drawn from vulnerability. In return, he gets our investment without our cynicism.
Jones is not afraid to offend, thumbing his nose at the establishment, at trends in both poetics and theories. There is a timelessness in those he chooses to mock, certain falsities that we recognize in the academy and reality of being “an artist” today. In a longer poem entitled “Jack and Jill in Toronto,” Jones tells the story of a couple, the type of couple who “move into separate apartments but plan / to remain friends: / they both want to be writers / and need their own space.”
Both aspiring poets, the poem begins with Jack and Jill in Toronto attempting to “become poets” and the aesthetic decisions they make in order to do so. It ends with the reality they settle for as an editor and a social worker who “eventually publish / several poems each,” but become “too busy to write.” For good measure, he also takes a swipe at the feminist theories and poetics of the 1980s:
Jill writes poetry,
though she doesn't like to call herself a poet,
she plans to write a series of poems about how
Jack controlled and brutalized her with his thing
If Jones were hating just to hate, it’d be easy to dismiss him. But the art with which he rips apart his targets makes his talent the focus point, and not the insults. Jones’s choice of parable—the original Jack and Jill climb up a hill to fetch a pail of water—does well to describe the couple in the poem, who are climbing up a hill to “become” poets, and then go tumbling down into a rather pedestrian life. The lines in “Jack and Jill in Toronto” sway on the page, highlighting Jones’s ironic tone through controlling the pace with which the reader learns about Jack and Jill, and creating a wonderful, light sense of tumbling, of falling, so gently that it is possible not to notice the falling.
The collection ends with a series of haiku stanzas with the title “Two Cops Kissing.” The first haiku surprises in its stillness and beauty:
the click of june bugs
against the glass
Jones is back to drug use in the second stanza, and mentions his bowels in the third, but the quiet, haunting lines are the ones that stay with us, that give the reader pause. If this collection did fall through the cracks its first time around, it shouldn’t this time. In our age of reality TV and Facebook oversharing, Jones shows us why confession is so appealing—it is about having lived a life, whatever that life might be. But seeing confession turned into an art? That can be breathtaking.
A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks
Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, Mary Miller
Rose Metal Press, May 2011
Paperback: 248pp; $15.95
Review by Gina Myers
They Could No Longer Contain Themselves brings together the winner of the third annual Rose Metal Press short short chapbook contest and four of the finalists from the fourth annual contest, resulting in an off-beat, varied, and vital flash fiction collection. The work presented here by Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller shows a range of style and concerns; however, each author presents work that is lively and engaging, making this an essential collection to anyone interested in not just flash fiction but fiction in general. As Rose Metal Press editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney write in the preface, “For all of the differences in writing style, technique, and theme, the characters throughout these five chapbooks are barely contained and bursting out.”
One of the highlights of the collection is John Jodzio’s Do Not Touch Me Not Now Not Ever, which opens the book and is composed of quirky characters in unusual situations. In “Inventory,” a baby swallows various objects around the house—a ninja star, toenail clippers, packs of Post-it notes—which leads to a stand-off:
Soon, my husband and the baby were eyeing each other in a manner I did not like. You see it all the time nowadays, this raising of eyebrows, a puffing out of chests, hands flexing from open to closed.
One night, my husband searched the baby’s bassinet.
“This is a random search,” he told the baby. “It could occur at any time. That’s what random means, okay?”
The baby took its revenge for the search by swallowing my husband’s wristwatch.
“It’s on,” my husband told our marriage counselor. “That was an heirloom. Handed down from generation to generation. Game fucking on.”
In the end, the couple wakes to their arms duct-taped together up to their elbows and the baby gone. While the premise is wild, the characters, their dialogue, and their reactions feel spot-on, making the world of the story immediate and real. Other stories in this chapbook include a woman following a warlock, a drunk man firing his clothes off a bridge with a t-shirt cannon, and three little girls living in the trunk of a car.
The second chapbook, Mary Miller’s Paper and Tassels, is much more grounded in the world we know. Focusing on loneliness and relationships, these stories are able to capture complex emotions and relationships in a few short lines. Some of the pieces are a single brief paragraph, like “Love,” which tells of a child mixing pain and love because of the abuse she has gone through, and “Patterns,” whose final line perfectly captures the nature of the narrator: “At the place we call home, I ask him to leave. He agrees easily, so I talk him into staying.”
Another highlight of the collection, Sean Lovelace’s How Some People Like Their Eggs—the now sold-out winner of the third annual contest—is the most formally experimental of the group. In addition to more straight-forward stories like “Meteorite” and “Molasses,” there are excerpts from Charlie Brown’s Diary, lists of how some people like their eggs, and lists of how various people meet their ends:
Sandy works at this bait shop in Upper Michigan. A senior citizen pulls out a filet knife and demands a Styrofoam minnow bucket, for free. He carves the air with his bony fingers. Sandy selects a revolver (one of many secreted throughout the store) from behind the register, and says: “Old man. We all could use a better understanding of our situations.” Then she shoots him in the forehead.
Lovelace’s prose has a lyric quality to it. In the section on Anne Sexton in “How Some People Like Their Eggs” he writes, “Then she pierces the yolks; they bloom and bleed: a peony, a water clock, a lioness clutching at a crow.” In “Meteorite,” he demonstrates a talent for simile and metaphor: “We are walking, long, aimless walking, like two paper cups blown across a grassy courtyard,” and later, “A doctor told Paige she had leukemia, a disease wherein the white cells run amuck and drink too much cheap beer and urinate in public and hang from motel balconies and generally harm themselves and others like teenagers on spring break in Florida.” Throughout the chapbook there is attention to detail and an ability to be simultaneously humorous and serious.
While most of the chapbooks are collections of individual flash pieces, Elizabeth J. Colen’s chapbook Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, uses linked stories involving a character named Carrie in the second part of the chapbook, “Anything You Can Do,” and is perhaps the darkest of the five chapbooks. Tim Jones-Yelvington also uses linked stories in Evan’s House and the Other Boys Who Live There, which centers on Evan’s homosexuality and the various relationships he has with his family, classmates, and lovers as he goes from childhood to adulthood.
In each of the authors’ cases, the worlds they are able to create in such little space, with so few words, is impressive. The characters, though we may catch just a glimpse of them, are rendered completely, are identifiable as people we know. These are five authors to look for. Further, the quality of work in this collection sets high expectations for future Rose Metal Press chapbooks.
Poetry by Camille T. Dungy
Southern Illinois University Press, May 2011
Paperback: 88pp; $15.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Selected as the winner of the open competition award for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Smith Blue is a compelling collection about love and loss. The poems are prefaced by two quotes on loss, one from Gwendolyn Brooks and another from C.D. Wright, then moves into the short poem “After Opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love.” The poem details how the speaker hopes to love—“like God can love, sometimes”—and invites the reader to “Turn the page. / Turn another page,” concluding that “this was meant to be / about love. Now there is nothing left but this.” The introductory quotes and poem prepare the reader for the themes of love and loss that follow.
Dungy plays with form throughout the collection, creating an interesting and diverse book. “Her mother sings warning of the new world” is free verse with short line breaks and irregular lineation, using the white space on the page to infuse meaning into the poem. “Do not let yourself love” the “mother” in the poem declares, but also that the man she loves “will feed you well.” The poem’s strength is in the tension between the need for the man—not only emotionally but financially and physically—and the distrust of the man.
Just as the collection was begun with a single, set-apart poem, it concludes that way, with “Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day.” The music of the poem is in its repetition and alliteration—“Fireflies flaring flatted fifths” and “gone. / Gone. Gone, gone.” Like a jazz singer, the poem ends with the speaker “all tuned up and off the fence,” and “know[ing] / what comes next: One / Then one / Then two,” a phrase that not only speaks to the musical quality of this poem and other poems in the collection, but also to the focus on relationships seen throughout the book.
Fiction by Manuel de Lope
Translated from the Spanish by John Cullen
Other Press, September 2010
Paperback: 304pp; $14.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Manuel de Lope’s novel The Wrong Blood is about family secrets, set just before and after Spain’s Civil War, in the Basque region. As the author says in the introduction, “The circumstances include the death of a loved one, a rape, and a birth with disastrous results.” This is a story of women dealing with the effects of war, one rich, one poor, who nevertheless come together to help each other reach their dreams. A doctor living nearby is witness and also complicit to the strange agreement the two women make. Long after the death of one of the women, a young man’s arrival at the women’s house is enough to unravel the secrets of the past.
The beauty of the writing, while slowing down the novel’s pacing, depicts the setting exactly and often provides a prevailing ominous mood. As the author says, “In this rather claustrophobic emotional context, the landscape plays an important role.” And the location for many atrocities in the fierce fight near the French-northern Spain frontiers is along the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay, between the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastian and another beautiful coastal town of Biarritz in southern France with the Bidasoa River in between.
Readers might not recognize many places except for Biarritz and Bilbao, nor feel for characters, mostly seen from the outside, nor know much about the Basque involvement in the Civil War. But readers will be pulled along by the family secrets.
Events slowly converge to create the situation at the house called Las Cruces, high up and facing the sea. First, just before the war, a wedding there has an ominous feel.
Many further details of the wedding…might spring from the most suggestive sequences of some old-fashioned films, or from the scenes in Rubens’s painting The Garden of Love, but even in the garden of love there is room for conspiracies and slander…The green lamp suffused the gun room with an aquatic glow. The shadows were projected all together, arising from a single body, like the different heads of a mythical animal.
When three rich men in a black car, heading to the wedding, stop at the Extarri bar, one of them has a stroke in the bathroom. This is the first person affected by a chain of events. The second and major one is the innkeeper’s stepdaughter Maria Antonia Etxarri, introduced in Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like echoes from her seeing her own future: “The third man in her life, the one who would rape her, had not yet appeared, but she had a feeling that he was getting closer.” This rape happens during the war, during which the groom, a military commander, is executed only weeks after his wedding. In subsequent sections of the book called “Stillborn Fruit” and “The Wrong Womb,” Isabel, the other main character, the widow and owner of Las Cruces, will need help from her neighbor, the lame Doctor Castro, on a particularly ominous night:
It was the middle of February. Rain fell in powerful gusts. The sky showed black, the color of stormy nights, but, in this case, an unmitigated, thick blackness that not even lightning flashes could tear. India ink had been spilled on the universe. Humans had been shut up in a box of rain, in a contraption invented by God to test his creatures’ patience, and their fear. It was one of those black nights that are recorded only in the Bible and the sacred books.
When Maria Antonia, a servant at Las Cruces, much later becomes its owner, the reader wonders why. Why did Miguel Goitia, dead Isabel’s young grandson, not inherit the house? His stay at Las Cruces, because he needs a quiet place to study for his notary/lawyer exams, brings out the past.
The women left behind have had to construct their lives from war’s reality:
The war exhibited such caprices, saving certain small objects with the tactile delicacy of a blind giant and devouring property and people like the same giant in a fury...Destiny rages among mortals, obeying pacts and conflicts apparently well above their heads, in the upper spheres of chance and providence, as in the days of the mythologies…She [Maria Antonia] could admit, with muffled greed, that there had been an interplay of interests. There was credit and debit.
The novel does not provide many details about the groom’s fate. And sometimes the reader may feel bogged down by seemingly unimportant scenes. This may be the author’s way to forestall the disclosure of the secrets. But the ending is worth the wait: the reader will find answers in full, dramatic scenes.
Poetry by Nate Pritts
BlazeVOX [books], October 2010
Paperback: 90pp; $16.00
Review by Dan Magers
When reading the poetry of Nate Pritts, one gets the sense that his drive to write poetry originated from the ecstatic strain of the Beat Generation, namely through the poetry of Philip Whalen and the Ginsberg of “Supermarket in California,” as opposed to the more apocalyptic strain personified by Burroughs and Ginsberg’s “Howl.” This is the strain that has it that all of nature and even some man-made objects are imbued with a holy light and the possibility of transcendence. This is a source of yearning and salvation for Pritts, as he writes in the first poem of his fourth book, Big Bright Sun, “There are literally / hundreds of roses I could pick today // or leave for tomorrow & the evening / of a different year, the purple evening.” In the book, this is especially true of the sun:
What could be wrong? There is right now a big yellow orb
hanging overhead &, no, it won’t fall &, yes,
it is beautiful; everything around you is beautiful. You
is beautiful. You is stunning, shocking the whole world
The sun offers a visible, ever-present demonstration of beauty in the world, and for Pritts, offers clarity, even the possibility of transcendence. The last three lines give us the speaker’s other sense of worldly relief, the “you” of these poems, the beloved who is there (and sometimes not), alternately giving rise to calm and burning desire. The poems work to subsume the mundane instances of life beneath the sun’s radiance. This is a rallying point for Pritts, “I never want to live in a society that forgets // the sun is in the air,” he writes early on.
This is easier said than done, as life has a way of getting in the way of enlightenment. “Suddenly, / you’re waving to everyone you see, / hopping mad when they don’t say hello back.”
The poems continue from their effusive beginnings through tours of quotidian frustration, which also characterize the poems:
All around me the fabric frays, threadbare
& laundered one time too many.
But I read the label so carefully …
My neighbor is hammering
his porch back together which is the inverse
of that endless summer I spent pissing everybody off
& could feel the nails slowly pulling out.
Through these movements between effusion and frustration we start to see how Big Bright Sun operates. The moments describing the sun, the flowers, the beauty of the world—often wedged in the middle of complaint—suggests the idea of mindfulness, or meditation to combat anger and frustration:
I do not feel colorful or round or various.
But it is safe to assume some kind of correspondence
between outer states & inner,
The poetry will abruptly shift attention from complaint to the beauty of the outside world for moments that yield a sense of meaning, beauty, purpose, and the possibility of transcendence.
Put differently, these are forced moments. Adjectives are tacked on (“the sky is the same brilliant blue / as the sky on any sunny-outside day, a brilliant brilliance”), as if the actual thing cannot be adequately conveyed without them, or that the author does not trust the reader (or himself) to realize their specialness. The idea of “forced moments” is fraught with negative connotations—that work is not organic, or filled with artificial appendages. But Pritts’s use of them is intentional, as someone who practices mindfulness is using it intentionally.
As in real life, the use of mindfulness or meditation often comes at a point of greatest anger or frustration, and often the poems unfold similarly. Unlike certain kinds of anger or rage that have a clarifying or cathartic effect, the anger and frustration in Big Bright Sun is often helpless, and reflects more closely and honestly the life of adulthood. The result can sometimes be jittery and sometimes disconcerting.
Pritts realizes this, and his poems are often filled with humor in these situations, and he adds into some of his poems a sense of the ridiculous and excessively petulant:
...I will go away,
live in a cave & use my own breath as money.
When someone discovers me in my island cave
they will say something like “Loneliness
is expensive,” & I will breathe deep to pay myself back.
A sense of failure looms in these poems, but this is not a book of failure—for what life ever lives up to one’s expectation for it? Instead, Big Bright Sun is very engaged in the trenches of life.
Notes, Songs, Poems 1997-2010
Poetry by David Hadbawnik
BlazeVOX [books], April 2011
Paperback: 138pp; $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
From the beginning, Hadbawnik's book offers itself as a tale of self-discovery: the precocious journey of a young poet brimming with literary-mindedness working towards further developing into a mature, aware-minded, somewhat older poet dutifully reporting back as his development continues. Unfortunately, rather than further sharpening and developing insights on writing or living, the work loses focus as it progresses and is worse off for it.
Hadbawnik opens with the possibility that by diving into himself via writing, he’ll thereby reveal something beyond his own sense of himself, allowing his person to become a vehicular channel for the song of words:
July 8 
As soon as I stepped outside the music started inside me, as though it had been waiting for me all along
Or that by offering alternate sets of takes on the traditional and familiar, "Alice returns, but nobody remembers her in wonderland" (“Jan 17” ), his book will be evidence of such Fact as a reader sets in upon to further advance her own self-understanding and awareness. And this is more than enough to gain a reader’s interest from the start.
Yet by close of the book, Hadbawnik's work has more the reverse feel of ever promising to yield any revelations from an inwardly turned journey of literary development.
November 27 
Masturbate in the cafe john, bare ass against the sink—step back to REO Speed Wagon's "Time for me to Fly" on the stereo, feeling exhilarated
Hadbawnik fails to give any contextual grounding in the recording of the event here and appears rather happy and proud (“exhilarated”) to portray it as a purely self-gratifying moment of self-indulgence. It's at such points Field Work falters from its author's own limits. There’s a failure to entice the interest of his readers as nothing is given forward as deserving of their concern.
Field Work moves from sparsely written records of visual sightings full of juvenile hints of sexual discovery, while remaining alight with humorous self-awareness:
The dark woman in bursting blue jeans leaned over whispering into the ear of the old lady. And then turned around—her lips bent every which way around a huge smile, her breasts enormous—and all I see is "Modern German Literature" ("July 6" )
To the yet further juvenile verse (some ten years later) of
Good lookin girl
wearin tight Dickies
look at you you're such a dicktease ("Song" [revised] Oct 19 2010)
Since this rhyming image of “tight Dickies” with “dicktease” occurs at least twice in the text (the instances separated by a couple of years) it would appear to be a developing motif in Hadbawnik’s consciousness.
Although in conception, and at early points of execution, Field Work is reminiscent of Creeley's A Day Book, nothing is offered here that comes close to being as engaging as that previous work beyond the promise shown early on by the occasional well-executed snapshot-framing of his thought responses to passing scenes in words. Unfortunately, there is no advance or otherwise accumulation of merit proving of use to others.
Too often, Hadbawnik settles for a self-satisfaction which falls flat. As the years pass and the work accrues (at a decreasing rate, the dated entries become fewer in number year by year, as if Hadbawnik’s own interest in the project declines), his details—the specifics—start to lack focus, both in texture and measure. The reading fails to prove enriching, as much for its own sake as that of its audience.
A Balkan Passage
Nonfiction by Robert Isenberg
Autumn House Press, November 2010
Paperback: 198pp; $19.95
Review by Caleb Tankersley
The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage is a work of fresh travel writing, a sort of intellectual pilgrimage. In the book, Robert Isenberg—a teacher and playwright in Pittsburgh—journeys to meet up with his high school friend Amila in Sarajevo. Rather than flying directly to the Bosnian capital, he begins his trip in Athens in order to criss-cross the Balkan states, educating himself and his readers on the people, places, and history of the region.
A crisp and unusual memoir, The Archipelago is so engaging because it chronicles the (mis)adventures of an amateur: Isenberg knows no Balkan languages, no residents except Amila, and has no idea how he'll cover the hundreds of miles to Sarajevo. The inevitable snags lend a touch of tension to the book (at times, his arrival seems very precarious), but the true focuses are the Balkan people, scenery, and culture. On these subjects as well, the author's naiveté is an ironic strength. The prologue describes an adolescent Isenberg's relation to the Balkans, the horrific blips on CNN and MSNBC we can all relate to, followed by silence as the wars and the 90s subside. As he matures, Isenberg ponders what became of the region, and the concept of the trip begins to form:
Still, the question lingered: What happened to Yugoslavia? Were the wars truly over, or did we just not care? …Ads for Macedonia popped up on the Travel Channel. I met a guy from Bosnia on the boardwalk, a woman from Kosovo at school. But mostly there was nothing.
Through Isenberg's innocent perspective, the Balkans emerge and define themselves as any region should: deeply rooted in the past, forgiving but not forgetting, slowly progressing to an uncertain but hopeful future. Despite the tragic history of the last twenty years, the area remains resilient. And beautiful. Here's a passage from his description of Dubrovnik, a Croatian city on the Adriatic Sea:
It's unreal—the whitewashed walls and orange terra cotta roofs, each planted in just the right places, the grass-and-rock hills dabbed with primal brush and trees, the pure water broken by just the right pattern of powerboats, the cloudless sky streaked by a single jet stream, the tiny cars motoring past us with Mediterranean ease, the old men roaming sidewalks with fishing poles slung over shoulders, the young men zooming along on mopeds, their shirts flapping in the salty breeze.
The writing has a rolling quality—Isenberg can barely contain his enthusiasm—that makes for an engrossing read. He is, after all, a playwright. The descriptions of the various cities and countries are painted with slow strokes, building a complete and individual image that the reader can easily understand. Isenberg explains his comical moments of being lost in place or language with a touch of grace. His landscapes dream of a proud, beautiful society only just recovering from its traumas.
The ending chapters—in which he reaches Amila and Sarajevo—darken the work, describing local war stories of survivals and atrocities. But again, Isenberg takes his cues from the people, passing along a palpable optimism that kept me reading to the last inspiring note:
Peace will rent you a bicycle. Peace will take you to dinner, because you are a guest. Peace is a safe trail through a minefield in the hills…Peace is lingering barbed wire fence. Peace speaks many languages.
Poetry by Maxine Scates
New Issues Poetry & Prose, April 2011
Paperback: 71 pp; $15.00
Review by Renee Emerson
Undone aptly describes the poems in this collection; they are poems of depth and density, stories told by a master storyteller, connecting the incidentals in life to the more profound. As a storyteller, Scates includes dialogue in many of her poems—“Friday Night Fights” recounts a conversation with friends during a game of Scrabble, which becomes more significant to the speaker, as he finds himself “doing my father imitation” with “everyone laughing / because I’m good at it though maybe feeling guilty / because no one knows it’s the anniversary of his death.” The imitation, something done as a joke during a Scrabble game, reveals deeper memories and pain in the speaker’s life, as he remembers his father as a “clown of a drunk.”
“Vice” tells the story of a recovered alcoholic who is tempted at a restaurant when a waiter brings almond liquor to the table, gratis, and the unnamed “you” in the poem who shows their love for the speaker by drinking the liquor for him. The poem covers the million thoughts that would go through the speaker’s mind during the time he is tempted—his comparison of himself to Augustine, who “[stole] pears fit only for pigs, yet ate them / anyway. He wanted to taste forbidden fruit / and so did I.” He remembers the hurt he caused others and the mixed and uncertain advice he’s gotten on the subject:
this one hates me because I’m a drunk,
this one forgives and says I sought the spiritual
in the spirit’s clear distillation, and this one
suggests the timing is right—I knew enough
to know they all could be wrong.
Though he knows this, still “almost sin lived” until his unnamed companion drinks the liquor for him. This small act is another everyday gesture that meant more to the speaker of the poem than the outside world would know.
These stories, though they seem commonplace, carry emotional weight because of the truth in them—it's during a casual Scrabble game, imagining a trip you never took, or waiting for a waiter when memories and feelings that have been suppressed come back unexpectedly. They are the secret trials that close friends and family go through every day, while nothing seemingly significant is happening…this “nothing” revealing their thoughts and feelings, as Scates's poems have done in this collection.
Fiction by Brian Oliu
Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011
Paperback: 56 pp; $7.00
Review by Gina Myers
The twenty-two prose pieces collected together in Brian Oliu’s So You Know It’s Me were originally published on the “Missed Connections” section of Tuscaloosa’s Craigslist, and as such they follow the form established there—titled by the location where the missed connection occurred and the tag M4W (man-for-woman). Because Craigslist deletes posts after 45 days, the pieces, which were published every other day, began to disappear just after the final piece went up. The ephemeral nature of the project parallels the ephemeral nature of the moments where connections were missed, where they continue to be missed.
Dedicated to Tuscaloosa, a town known for its love of football, the book opens with a missed connection from Bryant Denny Stadium: “Darling, in a sea full of crimson, you were the most crimson.” This opening piece, like many of the other pieces in the book, is full of the kind of hyperbolic statements one may use while courting someone but here are taken to another level:
When you shook your shaker, you shook everyone around you—their self-worth rattled: all inside the stadium uncertain of what has led them to this point, yet certain in their conviction: in following you, your cheers. Your hopes and dreams became their hopes and dreams: they forgot about their hunger for subpar stadium barbecue nachos, they forgot about other scores from around the SEC, they forgot about everything except what you wish, once wished, and will wish.
While a number of the pieces could be categorized similarly (pieces in which the speaker compliments the person of desire), others are more self-conscious, more about the speaker and his obsessions; one, “Friend of a Friend – Facebook, Tuscaloosa M4W,” discusses issues of death in the digital age, and others yet are self-reflective and address artifice, as in “M4W – 22 – Craigslist M4W”:
Make no mistake, this is about you. This is about you, sitting there, reading this. This is about you, touching the keyboard, reading this. This is about artifice—this is about you knowing that this isn’t about you. But make no mistake, this is about you. It has always been about you reading this, even though you have never read this, even though you are reading this for the first time.
Throughout the collection, Oliu uses language that is frequently used in missed connection postings, such as the oft repeated “Tell me [fill in the blank] so I know it’s you,” but through lyrical repetition—especially in “The End”—the language transcends the typical. Oliu’s missed connections were certain to have stood out from the others on Tuscaloosa’s (or any where’s) Craigslist. I can’t help but wonder if he received any responses back: Yes, that was me at Bryant Denny Stadium. I couldn’t help but notice you too.
Poetry by Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, August 2010
Paperback: 128pp; $14.00
Review by Matt McBride
In Thin Kimono, Michael Earl Craig’s third book, Craig is a kind of Whitman for post-Google America, where everything is exchangeable and incongruous elements continually collide, creating an equalizing strangeness where no one thing is more important than another. This strangeness, however, doesn’t remove Craig from the world, but rather is his method of being in the world.
As disparate as the constituent elements of Craig’s poems are, they always accrue into something. Take, for example, “The Plane,” composed of twelve tercets, each providing haiku-like observations regarding the mundanely surreal nature of air travel. In one, he writes, “The girl next to me is Russian. / […] / It stinks in here like anchovy vinaigrette.” In another, “The man in 13C says ‘ballsy’ / twice in five minutes.” In yet another, “I’m looking out the window at the wing again. / It’s like looking into someone’s / girlfriend’s ear, as she’s sleeping.” Craig ends with the lines, “When people use the word ballsy / it always makes me smile. Far off / below, the snow-dusted mountains.” Here, Craig gives us irregular observations that, instead of robbing us of “meaning,” posit that irregularity as meaning.
The way these poems discern meaning in the disjointed, awkward, and misplaced allows Craig to find his truths in unassuming places. In “After a Terrifying Nap,” a grasshopper “glanced in through the open / window of a southbound car, / hit the fleeced shoulder of / a sleeping infant and bounced / down onto the floor,” where it “came to rest beside a potato chip.” The scene manages to be bizarre and commonplace at the same time. Yet, it’s this moment Craig makes profound. He writes:
The grasshopper sent forth a golden light.
The infant awoke in his car seat,
looked at the grasshopper
and wiggled his feet, his white socks.
It is likely we are completely ignorant
of our role in the universe.
However, the “truths” Craig discovers are meant not to explain the world, but rather, preserve its strangeness. Craig ends the collection with “City at Night.” The speaker, after being “punctured” by his acupuncturist, is left alone in the dark of the “crucifix room” where every square inch is covered with crucifixes. The speaker states:
I was a city at night on the banks of a river.
The various crucifixes flashed a little
in the moonlight, sound of water lapping.
There were a thousand struggling souls in that city.
Usually they’d be crying out to God.
But this particular night they quietly let
the blue light go coursing through the parks,
past auto dealerships, past bakeries,
through hospital courtyards, down the long alleys,
through the train station and each of the train cars.
After awhile God called down to them.
He hadn’t heard from them.
It was all very strange to him.
For Craig, there are no truths which don’t acknowledge how little we could ever know of the world, and how beautiful a place it is as a result.
If Michael Earl Craig is the Whitman of the post-Google era, then Thin Kimono is his Leaves of Grass. If you want to find him, look for him under the discarded bag of Lays, or in your crucifix room, or in the aisle across from you on your flight from Boise to Beijing.
Poetry by Christina Hutchins
Sixteen Rivers Press, April 2011
Paperback: 88pp; $16.00
Review by Marcus Myers
In Christina Hutchins’ first full-length book, the speaker contemplates the development of the self within the body’s dissolution over a lifetime. Less abstractly, the poet-speaker interweaves meditations of aging within familiar surroundings which are themselves growing older, of slowly losing her father to Alzheimer’s while simultaneously finding renewal in her ripening love for her girlfriend. In the face of her life’s constant material change, she often sees a moment’s “beauty…in the distortion,” and she hears in the “small silences between waves” “the black hole in me.” And faced with the certainty of her loss, the speaker desires the clarifying sort of beauty found only within the quiet:
days when the sun
rattles the seedpod
and nothing happens
but a shadow
swallowed by other shadows.
Throughout this consistently strong collection, Hutchins’s poems fill the imagined field with considerable feeling and intuition, rendering it alive with the lyric hum of her carefully crafted lines.
“I am leaving soon,” she writes in “The Physicist to His Daughter,” “Slipping to where language / will no longer find me.” Here the speaker imagines her father reassuring her of his love, even as he slips further and further away: “Know that I do not want to forget / your name. I am your father. / I held your small, untamed hand. // When I have forgotten, remember / who I am: expand the universe.” Two poems later (in “A Woman’s Desperate Hands”), the speaker walks along on a windy day, thinking of her lover, and her melancholy mood is blown over to pangs of longing and tenderness: “Walking home, I missed you, / that quick ache, white glint / of the sidewalk.” And when the speaker notices “a woman’s desperate hands / opened against” a police car’s “thick glass,” the focus of the poem shifts, as if taken by a gust of wind, toward a Whitman-like social awareness. Reading the desperation in the arrested woman’s face, the speaker sends kind thoughts her way: “It’s all right. The air will move again.”
Hutchins’s poems are most resonant when they expand a small, concrete situation or image into increasingly larger psychological or ontological contexts. Consider “Hail,” in which the speaker describes herself collecting pieces of fallen hail and “wanting to stow them, / to show them off,” but then realizing “the dust knows better.” A biochemist, minister and professor of philosophy as well as a poet, Hutchins positions her speaker as a person who not only utilizes these roles to make meaning, but also as one who embodies them in good faith:
Is this where my father lives?
Inside the melting I looked down
the vortex of his eyes and saw the greatest human sadness:
the porch door I couldn’t open, though there was a day,
waves, such a blue lake, the air’s restless fingers.
What does it mean to lose the world by increments?
It is rendered in the stitch by stitch diction of a ripping seam.
In empty pockets of dust along the road, where melting
stones have cratered earth like its moon.
Here Hutchins finds a way, as she does throughout the book, to register her reality by correlating her speaker’s complex emotional interior with resounding external imagery. Specifically, she effectively inverts the vast into the minute: “the vortex of his eyes”; and she draws parallel images between macro- and microcosmic phenomena: “empty pockets of dust” made by hailstones mirror the “cratered” moon. And she infuses the sensory details of the present with memory, allowing the reader to consider past and present events asynchronously, which mimics the flow of consciousness.
Poetry by Corrinne Clegg Hales
Autumn House Press, February 2011
Paperback: 112pp; $14.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
To Make It Right examines the significance of words said and unsaid, as the speaker navigates the relationship between her family and heritage in a modern world. In coming to terms with past grievances and uncovering the harsh reality of religious persecution, Hales creates strong images that resonate throughout the collection. First-time and experienced readers of Hales will find her command of language succinct yet lyric, an enjoyable experience.
Hales carefully divides the collection into four distinct sections, each addressing discrete yet interlinked topics that remain close to the speaker. Reflecting on childhood, the speaker recalls an impoverished neighbor in “What Actually Happens,” complicating the lines between perception as an adult and as a child. In long-lined couplets, the speaker narrates that “She promises them everything—they dream of bicycles, / t-bone steak and faraway places they’ll never see, and she forgives them / all their sins.” When the neighbor’s baby accidentally drowns in the bathtub, the image of “her shrieking, / running out into the cold gravel street barely hanging on / to the fat baby’s body, soap suds still sliding off her skin,” haunts many subsequent poems.
Along with the power of observation comes the power of research and imagination in the third section, “Massacre.” These poems delve into the 1857 Mountain Meadow Massacre near Salt Lake, where Mormons executed a group of emigrants, an event covered up until recent years. Hales attempts to recapture the events of the massacre itself and the rediscovery of the bodies, all while thinking of her own Mormon heritage. “Accidental Revelation: August 1999” describes a construction crew that uncovers the bodies that “rise / To the surface, 30 pounds of broken skeletons, reborn / And ready to loose their tongues / At last.” While visiting the site in “At the Site, With Photo,” the speaker claims “Everything’s wrong here” as she eats her lunch
With the uncorrected names of the dead
Chattering from the stone wall
At my back. I want to believe
My old cousin returned here
Again and again, sat in this dust,
Eyes closed, listening to the whispers
Rising from these killing fields.
In order to somehow make amends, the speaker continues to reconstruct the lives of the survivors in subsequent poems, making the killings a reality that cannot be ignored.
This idea of continuation, that the past should never be forgotten, comes full circle as Hales contemplates the incompleteness of events and her inability to always piece them together solely with facts. Poetry, instead, becomes the vehicle for reconstruction and reconciliation. In “Late Summer Moratorium,” the speaker knows this even as she thinks “I’ve got too many / dead with me already, crowding / and pushing their way inside” as she keeps plants alive in the heat of the summer. Even the dead live on inside of us.
Fiction by Brian Allen Carr
Texas Review Press, March 2011
Paperback: 160pp; $22.95
Review by Hazel Foster
While Short Bus may not be a typical beach read, that’s exactly where I took this strong fiction collection by Dark Sky Magazine fiction editor Brian Allen Carr. I read this book on the shore of Lake Michigan, in the sand, in the sun, despite its lack of sunny-ness. It was that good.
Many of the stories feature characters with physical deformities or handicaps. The presence and attention to the body is stunning. Take, for instance, this paragraph from “Hot Mess”:
My cheek is against the cool tile. It’s bruised but that’ll heal. My knees are scraped, but the scabs’ll fall. My neck is warm from my brother’s breath that draws from the melted nostrils sunk back toward his skull. It’s a skull pocked with red mottled scars. Like bloody eggs left to dry in the pan.
Carr’s tight prose suits these subjects. He skillfully describes his characters’ physicality without dwelling, without indulging to the point of nausea. The narratives move with the deformities and handicaps but are not strictly defined by them. In “Hot Mess,” the brother, whose face is disfigured by the father, has a girlfriend for each day of the month, which causes tension for his younger brother, the narrator, whose sexuality is questioned at school. The story is not about the older brother’s deformity, not entirely; the plot moves alongside it.
If you read only one short story from this collection, read “Water-Filled Jugs.” It’s a fine story, unraveled in sections, about a young couple struggling near the Mexico-Texas border and the small things they do in order to survive:
A dear friend sent us the skeleton of a man. It came in a cedar box with a schematic for assembling. It stands now in the center of our home, and my wife draws upon it with crayons. She draws flowers and butterflies and smiling faces across its skull and ribs. She says the pictures will soothe the baby. The baby cries while my wife does the drawing. My wife pauses to sniff the cedar-scented skeleton. She takes its hands into her hands.
The simplicity of the actions in this story break down the complication of the relationship, sift the layers into concise parts: the skeleton, the ice cream cart, the dry wall, fetching water. Absolutely beautiful.
Carr’s writing fits his subjects—reserved, blossoming in the economy of words. Short Bus is a brilliantly crafted collection, one worth taking to the beach.
Poetry by Ann Scowcroft
Brick Books, March 2011
Paperback: 104pp; $19.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Ann Scowcroft’s debut collection overlays simple language with the depth and complexity of family relationships. Centered in interactions with family and close friends, Scowcroft captures a sense of regret in presenting broken and austere images of the home. The Truth of Houses demonstrates how a poet can explore how relationships continuously change throughout the course of a life, providing rich and multifaceted people that populate its pages.
Throughout the collection, we begin to piece together the moments illustrated in individual poems, forming a clear picture of the speaker and her relationships. Poignant images illuminate the speaker’s relationship with her parents, as she employs sparse language to articulate her father’s illness. In “Phantom,” the speaker addresses herself in second person, thinking of the “Thinness of your father’s legs before you admit / he is dying, / wobbly stalk of your month-old child.” She writes to her mother in “Letter to my mother,” showing words unsaid (actually her mother’s emphysema) as
of clauses caught in the soft spots of our throats
where the skin is supple and concave;
they have massed in our vocal chords
sheer numbers make it difficult to breathe.
With events taking place over a long stretch of time, the poet pays careful attention to how relationships unfold throughout the collection. The long poem (Palimpsest) continues the speaker’s relationship with her mother over a series of sixteen short poems. The poems enact this kind of scraping off and rewriting use of the palimpsest, such as in the fourth section, “whether it is appropriate to claim that an event is only meaningful in context,” where the speaker reimages herself as a child. In order to forget abuse she endured by her great uncle, the child “watches him without watching,” with “enough of the child left in her / at this moment to believe / what she cannot see does not exist.” Later in the sequence, when the speaker confronts her mother about the abuse, the mother only says “He did that to me too. The moment during which all oxygen / departed the planet only seemed long.”
Yet, despite the difficulties of childhood, resonant images come to the fore. In “Quotidian,” the speaker claims
In this square old house with warped wooden floors
and prim wainscoting, we have sown
plenty that slips between the cracks,
like so much birdseed spilled on the way in the door.
This residual pain in memory pervades these poems, yet there still remains a fervent desire to continue on, to persevere despite the unveiling of the truth.
Poetry by Daniela Olszewska
Spooky Girlfriend Press, May 2010
Chapbook: 20pp; $3.00
Review by Angela Veronica Wong
Daniela Olszewska’s chapbook The Twelve Wives of Citizen Jane is a collection of poems written in couplets with each poem, as the title implies, dedicated to a wife of Citizen Jane. The number twelve holds mystical, cultural, and religious significance: 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Olympians, 12 Apostles, 12-step programs, 12 imams, the number of studio albums released by the Beatles. There is this same mythical quality to Citizen Jane’s story—we feel Citizen Jane is a vessel for a story, that she is representative of something bigger than just herself.
These are fun poems, and Olszewska’s language, which brings together odd-fitting words to make a disorienting, almost cinematic experience, reads a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where not just the whole is acknowledged, but also the cracks, the missing pieces. This tension is what makes the chapbook engaging; after all, though Jane is the only one of the characters who is named, our portrait of her is through each of her wives, who are described wryly within military language:
Button cute, for her age
And rank, she was always
Asking Jane if she thought
Her nose looked revolutionary
Olszewska’s choice of couplets nicely ties Jane with the wife in question, rendering their togetherness amid and against a chaotic world.
With each poem, we get the sense that Jane is in a role of defiance or citizen policing, as Olszewska references war, the military, and weapons throughout the chapbook, as well as the larger contexts of history and legacy. Tragedy strikes; wives die in bloody messes. But Jane continues to fight and continues to fall in love. And in a world of firing squads and Kevlar, there is something rather sweet about that.
Fiction by Jonathan Baumbach
Dzanc Books, May 2011
Paperback: 144pp; $15.95
Review by Sara C. Rauch
Dreams of Molly is a slim, somewhat befuddling novel. Narrated by a man (an “impatient” writer) who “dreams” constantly of his ex-wife (the Molly of the title), each night/chapter finds him in strange and complex situations, all circling around her mirage. Each chapter ends abruptly, as if being pulled out of a dream, and so the novel is elliptical, chasing and never finding either Molly or any sense of stability. Baumbach is a word magician; he expertly builds suspense very quickly, though like most dreams, he rarely concludes or fulfills in any expected manner.
Divided into three parts—which take us from a writer’s retreat in Italy to an interrogation cell to a cabin in the remote wilderness—each chapter is numbered by night. The opening chapter is the “35th Night” (what happened on nights 1 through 34 we’ll never know). They move forward sequentially from there, until the second part, when the nights jump around out of order. This is fitting, given that the narrator is being held captive and interrogated—in his cell, he has no concept of time. His dead parents visit him, then Molly, and despite his deep desire to, he never finds himself able to tell the same story twice, or the right story once, or even the story he expects the interrogators want to hear. Part Three finds the narrator alone in the woods, then becoming the father to a boy he’s never met and husband to the boy’s mother, later trying to escape them and wandering along with a friendly bear and stumbling into a war reenactment that is terrifyingly close to the real thing. Like the dream world, his adventures amuse and confuse, titillate and repulse.
Dreams of Molly ends as suddenly as it begins, the hapless narrator plodding steadily onward. The Molly of the title may drive his subconscious, but she is ultimately just an excuse to examine the elusive line between love and sex, lies and truth, real life and dreams.