NewPages Book Reviews


Posted September 1, 2011

American Masculine :: The Disinformation Phase :: Rise of the Ranges of Light :: Four of a Kind :: How Phenomena Appear to Unfold :: The Firestorm :: Xicano Duende :: the Orange Suitcase :: This New & Poisonous Air :: Never Any End to Paris :: Notes from Irrelevance :: Wait :: Handmade Love :: A Real Life

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American Masculine by Shan Ray coverAmerican Masculine: Stories

Fiction by Shann Ray

Graywolf Press, June 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-588-3

Paperback: 192pp; $15.00

Review by Alex Myers

Winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, Shann Ray’s volume of short fiction features ten stories of the American West. Focused, as the title implies, on the question of what it means to be a man, the stories delve into relationships, substance abuse, and parenting. Hovering right underneath—and often entwined with—the question of masculinity is the question of racial identity: most of Ray’s stories feature Native Americans struggling with their identity (whether in the white world or within their own culture), or white Americans making their way in the Native world.

Ray’s stories are physical and immediate. Though they are also replete with imagery, he doesn’t hesitate to address his topics head-on. Again and again, he seeks to define the elusive quality of masculinity: “A man will be physical, he thinks, forsake things he should never have forsaken, his kin, himself, the ground that gave him life.” Or “men were made mostly of emptiness, he thought, palpable, burdensome.” The men in these stories seek to uncover definitions or defy them, to return to a quality they have lost, or escape a quality that confines them. Young men falling in love for the first time, fathers going through mid-life crises, brothers coming to terms with loss, all of these characters confront their dilemmas and demand to know how a man should act.

Landscape also dominates these stories. From the dusty rodeo rings, to the fast-driven highways, to the aching snowstorms, the West is vividly present. In “In the Half Light,” a father and son reunite through fishing, and the younger man comes alive through his appreciation of the environment: “the river gathered and twined here, where it hugged cutbanks and land bends, parted by islets and sandbars. The water narrowed in the canyons, then broadened again among the mountains, flanked always by aspen and cottonwood, wildflowers, willow, and wild rose.” For this son, who has been lost in the city, the land reawakens his senses and revives his belief in his own possibility. But it isn’t just the natural world that Ray captures so eloquently. His description of manmade landscape also conveys wonderful meaning, from his urban settings of tortured metal and artificial light to the “kitchen at the halfway point of the house, where the brown carpet of the living room met the worn linoleum of the dining space, the line that unites the two halves of every mobile home.” These are spaces that Ray invites us into and makes us know well.

By the fourth story in the volume, however, a strange monotony settles in. All of Ray’s protagonists are men, all of them tall (the majority of the stories list explicit height, and that height is usually six-three to six-five), several of them former rodeo riders, many of them currently in the banking industry or having received a degree in philosophy. The characters’ personal histories also blend together, whether it is “seven days after Devin graduated with honors from Montana State University, his father stood over him and broke his nose” or the character who recalls “in a rage the old man had thrown a cue ball at him, striking him on the skull behind the ear, knocking him out.” The unrelenting sameness of theme certainly unifies the collection, but it deadens it as well: each story sounds the same note.

Still, that note is a fascinating one. Ray turns corners that aren’t often explored in short fiction. Unafraid of honesty when confronting themes of substance abuse, physical abuse, power dynamics, and race relations, Ray’s stories are refreshing and thought-provoking. Eloquent and honest, this is a volume well worth reading.

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The Disinformation Phase by Chris Toll coverThe Disinformation Phase

Poetry by Chris Toll

Publishing Genius, June 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0-9831706-3-1

Paperback: 68pp; $12.00

Review by Gina Myers

In “Carbon-Based Lifeform Blues,” Chris Toll writes, “The job of poets is not to explain the Mystery. / The job of poets is to make the Mystery greater”—which is precisely what Toll accomplishes in his new collection of poems. The Disinformation Phase brings together 50 poems—including some “translations”—that, though economic in language, are wide in scope, expansive in imagination, and linguistically playful. Divided into three sections whose titles exemplify the playfulness (“The Ritual in Spiritual,” “The We in Weep,” and “The Ion in Redemption”), the book consists of short, concise poems where inanimate objects are capable of action and emotion, as seen in the opening poem, “Insulator Drive Blues”:

A glacier
hotwires my supermarket
and leaves the city
in a hurry.
Good and evil
is an illusion.
My cathedral
blows its brains out
in the graveyard
behind a prison.
The struggle
is between light and dark.
My slaughterhouse
mixes a martini for the moon.
Be light.

In other poems, a meatpacking plant “trademarks its bad brainwaves,” a bookstore “wraps six kilos / in plastic,” an insane asylum “plays solitaire / all night long,” and “fluorescent lights march to their doom.” While many of the images are dark, there is a generosity and love here—a goal to “Be light,” as Toll instructs in the opening poem. It’s easy to imagine the author as a Whitman of sorts; he sees humanity everywhere and takes it all in: “Oh Haunted City, / I drink the light in every face.” In “Irregular Galaxy,” Toll writes, “A Big Voice pours through me”—and that voice contains multitudes.

Throughout the collection, Toll examines words, breaking them into pieces:

I’m the sin in singer.
Why is tiny in destiny?
I’m the cure in obscure.
Why is a trip in triple-crossed
and where am I going?
I’m the yes in yesterday.
Why isn’t destiny in clandestine?
(“Working for the Redshift (Peachpicker Blues)” )

In addition to these questions, a number of the poems play on familiar phrases and religious sayings. “Bless me, Monster, / for I am a hymn,” Toll writes in “Electricity Is My Friend,” and in “23 Palms,” “The Word is my shepherd. / I shall be wanted” (a few variations on this psalm show up throughout book). The reader will also encounter “translations” of poems by a time-traveling Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath.

In “The Third Station of the Double-Crossed,” the speaker says, “My mission is so secret / I don’t know it myself”—if only everyone were on such missions. This is a brief collection, but one worth returning to regularly in order to be reminded that the world is a wondrous place. In The Disinformation Phase, Toll turns his attention to the mystery and amps it up.

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Rise of the Ranges of Light coverRise of the Ranges of Light

Landscapes and Change in the Mountains of California

Nonfiction by David Scott Gilligan

Heyday Books, April 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-59714-151-2

Paperback: 224pp; $18.95

Review by Alyse Bensel

From a long tradition of nature writing that intermingles reflection and poetic descriptive prose with an ability to recount minute detail, David Scott Gilligan’s newest chronicle illuminates the California landscape. Gilligan juxtaposes first-person narrative with clear science writing as he explains geologic activity, volcanoes, and evolution, all focused on the diverse landscape of California mountain ranges. Following in John Muir’s footsteps, Gilligan endeavors to capture his personal connection to the landscape by employing stunning language to bring the Sierra Nevada to the reader.

Thirteen chapters of independent yet overlapping essays cover a range of topics, all framed by Gilligan’s experience in the California outdoors. Each chapter begins in the tradition of such naturalists as Muir and Leopold, with Gilligan hiking and exploring the surrounding landscape. While he walks through the land, his vivid and highly descriptive prose soaks up each detail without feeling overwhelming; instead, we are drawn into the narrative through clear depictions of the lakes and mountains of the Sierra Nevada range. For example, in “The Stretching of North America,” he writes of lighting as a “seething conglomeration of energy that seems to meet my gaze with a hiss and displays a perfectly three-pronged bolt of its electric power.” The passages read both literary and seamlessly as scientific explanation for natural phenomena.

Gilligan presents the earth’s volatile geologic and evolutionary history with clear, concise prose that can be easily understood even by a novice ecologist. Although at times many of his descriptions overlap, and, by the final chapter, may become a bit repetitive, Gilligan manages to incorporate a multitude of information in the span of a few pages. In “Pleistocene Passion,” he describes glacier composition, saying, “Even deeper down are graceful layers of flowing, folded ice interspersed with neat calligraphic bands of black debris, both synclinal and anticlinal—evidence of hundreds of years of undecipherable action. Still deeper, a giant fallen serac protrudes from the abyss—a cryptic standing stone of silent ice.” The narrative style that frames these passages helps create a sense of balance in the chapters, which otherwise could be perceived as too descriptive or too scientific.

For anyone with interests in the changing American (and global) landscape, Rise of the Ranges of Light will not only help illustrate and explain these processes but will also provide a starting point of the aesthetic and spiritual experience of witnessing the land. Those unable to travel to the California landscape can at least glean some moments of insight from this well-rendered portrait of a mountain-scape teeming with life and complexity.

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Four of a Kind coverFour of a Kind

Poetry by Mark Neely

Concrete Wolf, September 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0979713743

Paperback: 48pp; $10.00

Review by Noel Sloboda

Here are four reasons to read Mark Neely’s chapbook Four of A Kind, winner of the 2009 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition:

1. The carefully constructed symmetry of the 16 poems, each consisting of four parts that together form a square.

2. The vividly detailed scenes in every single quarter of every poem. Observe that “The woman on the corner had perfect toenails,” and see “The violets on the bathroom wallpaper pucker.”

3. The attention paid to language by a poet who confesses he wants to be able to “say the name of everything.” Take the second quarter of “Four Names”:

Of all Hileni they thought themselves best—Heleni-wek, Illiniwek, Illinois. Trudged through head-high grass, raiding and retreating, shouting at the kids, shouting at the kids, Stay close, but still their names fell on the ground—Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia—it welcomed them as it will welcome all of us one day. Gave way to Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Suckers, stepping like old soldiers in footprints of the dead.

4. The lingering power of similes constructed by a writer obsessed with connections. Here are a few: “My mother’s [father] honked in a handkerchief like a tugboat”; “Cornstalks walked the road like Russian refugees”; “Those locust trees could hiss like snakes.”

There is much more of merit here as well, including the playful yet controlled syntax and intriguing epigraphs that introduce such diverse figures as Freud, Sherlock Holmes, and Aeschylus. Yet perhaps most impressive is the dynamic interplay between the various parts of Four of A Kind. Neely asks us never to settle in any one place but instead to keep moving; to find out how things relate to one another. He drives ahead with insistent momentum (“Four Lanes,” “Four Journeys”), then forcefully draws us back into cycles (“Four Moons”) and into ourselves (“Four Mirrors”). In this way, he obliges us to consider how we make meaning, cobbling together elements of experience in pairs, in quarters, and in a balanced, multilayered whole.

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How Phenomena Appear to Unfold coverHow Phenomena Appear to Unfold

Collection by Leslie Scalapino

Litmus Press, May 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-933959-12-2

Paperback: 298pp, $24.00

Review by Alyse Bensel

Longtime readers of Leslie Scalapino’s poetry and writings will appreciate this expansion of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold, a collection of some of Scalapino’s poetry as well as extensive coverage of her essays and critical writing. Scalapino’s contributions to poetics are extensive, as she explores the methods and theory of the avant-garde, writing on poets such as H.D., Lyn Heijinian, and Philip Whalen. For the poet or poetry lover who wants to further explore or add to their collection of writing concerning the avant-garde, this compilation will provide much context and critical inquiry into poetical debates still relevant today. As Scalapino claims herself in the introduction to the collection, “all of the essays, fictions, poems, and poem-plays, demonstration and examination of each other in a stream of comparisons, are tied to that concept…as also to the notion—a corollary/as the act of incorporating—of the outside and inside simultaneously creating each other.” Each work echoes off of the other, further creating that effect with each read.

While comprehensive, this collection focuses primarily on Scalapino’s critical work, expanding upon the 1989 first edition yet seamlessly woven into the preexisting essays. From the previous edition, the title essay “How Phenomena Appear to Unfold” clearly grounds the individual pieces in the collection, as it explores the idea of phenomena and simultaneity all the while it asks the important question of “how is it that the viewer sees the impression of history created, created by oneself though it’s occurring outside?” Alongside these original essays, this updated second edition places this book into an even more relevant context, discussing such issues as the U.S. foreign conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, “Writing Being/An Event” describes and explains Scalapino’s process of writing in reaction to American military aggression. She explains that “the gesture of the writing is its necessity: the gesture (and the necessity) being to find out ‘what’s real’ while at the same time ‘what’s real’ dictates what the gesture is to be.”

Interspersed between these critical endeavors are some of Scalapino’s poetical works, which bring a real sense of energy to the page. For example, Scalapino’s three-part poetic play, “Fin de Siècle,” with the first section performed by two men in stanzaic form:

we haven’t changed any
from the time of Genghis Khan
we have fin de siècle
no, struggle again to
turn insect jeweled flying
not it
they’re in the corporation
—that are mute

These poems work to inform the critical apparatus of the book, since Scalapino often takes the time to explain her creative work from a critical standpoint, helping to add context to work that may be unfamiliar to the casual reader of poetry.

Scalapino asks difficult questions about the role and purpose of poetics, starting and entering conversations. Those unfamiliar with the avant-garde will find her words informative and engaging, and those already experienced with her work can continue to delve into these writings and discover new revelations.

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The Firestorm coverThe Firestorm

Poetry by Zach Savich

CSU Poetry Center, January 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-880834-95-4

Paperback: 86pp; $15.95

Review by Alissa Fleck

In The Firestorm, Zach Savich urges the reader along through the unknowable, manifested frequently in the whims of both the literal and human atmospheres, and resulting in the ultimate questioning of a belief in anything. A series of Savich’s poems, all beginning “I suppose I do believe in nothing,” highlight the paradoxical and infinitely regressive nature of belief. In “Silent Film,” Savich again forces us to examine our preconceptions of belief, writing, “The heart by definition the one thing we have not defined.”

Many of the collection’s works are crafted as though Savich himself is witnessing an everyday landscape, taking it all in and inventorying and interpreting the scene, which becomes a jumping-off point for his wildly whimsical associations. Savich’s images are endlessly associative; one thing uncannily becomes another, though he enacts these transformations gracefully and without stammer. “Travelogue” is a long stream of such associations—reminiscent of a tiresome yet thrilling vacation, but a vicarious delight to read nonetheless. Hints of Beckett also pepper this wonderful collection, which is a sort of absurd theatrical experience itself, not limited to its resplendent, frequent use of curtain imagery.

Then again, some of the collection’s pieces are more inclined toward the narrative, though they never wrap up neatly and without surprise. His thoughts speak to deep, personal places the reader will certainly find familiar but inexplicable until now. The narrator questions the limits of himself and his ambitions, and directly touches on love sparingly but with lasting profundity. Savich writes, “To love: only what / you cannot replicate,” “To be half in love is / already in love,” and “Even what exists faintly wholly exists,” alluding to the fluid, elusive nature of human emotions.

Savich is a master of repetition with a difference—the same lines becomes all the more extraordinary through their continued dismantlement and reorganization. The repetition of lines throughout the book gives the collection’s construction the feel of one long, loosely structured poem itself, brilliantly holding the reader’s attention. The book carries its disjointedness throughout, which is only occasionally distracting. Savich always keeps the reader on his toes though with meticulous wordplay: “Against the endlessness of need, the endlessness of speech. / Against the endingness of speech, the speechlessness of need,” he writes, slipping in his own linguistic creations as he sees fit, and it is difficult to object.

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xicano duende coverxicano duende

a select anthology

Poetry by alurista

Bilingual Review Press, March 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-931010-72-6

Paperback: 145pp; $16.00

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

In his introduction to this selection, editor and scholar Rigoberto González, after interrogating two previous “popular readings” of alurista’s work (note: throughout this review I am respectfully and enthusiastically attending to the poet’s own refusal to capitalize proper nouns) which define it both as “experimental” and “radiat[ing] from an Amerindian consciousness,” declares alurista to be a “political poet.” González is really doing nothing more than extrapolating upon merging the two readings together as one and expanding the argument for the notable worth of alurista’s work, but his point nonetheless is well taken.

Whatever else, alurista’s poems are border poems, and the use of “border” here doesn’t infer just the political/geographical/cultural/linguistic zone between the United States and Mexico, but all such dynamic locations of rich exchange, both inner and outer. Reading alurista offers opportunity to engage with what happens in these in-between locales as concerns national and cultural identity, formations of the personal—traveling spaces of language and thought where the sense of identity in language is often in flux. The poems catch at a lively blend of references that are in the air, presenting to the reader’s ear a juxtaposition of details easily missed if not attended to.

As in the poem “no prophet”:

no prophet
certainly no king
no luther, martin
or christ or brown

alurista’s word play is quite clever, jumbling spiritual figures throughout centuries of time, but it is also pointed. He continues:

nail the bankers
free the interest
free thy greed creed
creedgreed greeting
card upon graduation
to deliver us to credit

His line breaks function in a hip manner, jarring expectation and sweetening the overall effect of his message:

reap what u sow
malcolm, kennedy
and zapata died
chávez died peacefully
without boxing gloves
or golden belts
jackson prevails
bush burns and quail hides

Here at the ending of the poem, alurista, as Gonzalez notes, “mines” the words for all their worth, displaying just how ingenious his poems are. While alurista’s work doesn’t require footnotes, it does demand readers be nonetheless attentive. Be they historical or cultural, figures and ideas are consistently being put at play and transformed as well as commented upon. As is seen in “the prophet,” the breadth and scope of such play transcends eras and ethnicities.

Although alurista writes with a strong sense of his own Chicano-ness, he’s not limited in any way by it, and neither are his poems. Even if writing bilingually, which is oftener than not, alurista makes it clear he is remaining true to the demands made by the poem prior to those of any other association, personal or otherwise. He’s poet through and through.

dentro de nuestro Corazón
            blood flows at an even pace
and all violent rivers
    return to the calm
            of deep oceanos
social change in uncle sam’s organization
            band-aids wounds
y niega la sangre derramonda
                    (“mar de sangres”)

The rhythm of these lines matches what’s being said, how actively the flow in and out of the “heart” is engaged with and duplicated, the verbal pumping of the muscle pulsing along. alurista repeatedly engages the work of poetry in a fashion which is as moving as it is convincing.

If there is a cause to be found in his poems, it’s the liberation of poetry from page versus non-page aesthetics. Doing away with distinctions between spoken word or hip-hop and what is bound between wrappers, alurista opens the field up. Let’s have more of this:

death does not haunt me there is
no disguise to my desire
            we are borderless
                    (“u know poetry”)

When you’re a poet as alurista is and you’re busy living, as you should be, whatever poems get written are just as equally busy with the same living. Sometimes that living is to be found in the spoken air and occasionally it’s on the page as well. Such a vibrancy that’s all too rare fills the best of alurista’s work. Alive and of the moment, his poems are out there. Look for them and get with them: it’s some of the better company not spoken of often enough and deserving of attention.

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the Orange Suitcase coverthe Orange Suitcase

Fiction by Joseph Riippi

Ampersand Books, March 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0984102556

Paperback: 92pp, $14.95

Review by Angela Veronica Wong

In a collection that falls somewhere between linked short stories and poetic reflections, Joseph Riippi explores, through the words and story of a young man who shares his name, the strangeness of knowing so much about someone but also not knowing them at all—which is in a way true of so many relationships.

Riippi opens the Orange Suitcase with the epigraph “Let’s start again,” like stories being told and retold until the telling of the story is as much about remembering the story as it is about what happens in it. It also recalls the questionability of getting a story “right,” and whether this is even possible. He titles his stories colloquially, beginning each title with “something,” as in “Something About a Joke,” or “Something about Borges and the Blind in Chelsea.” He also chooses to encapsulate his story titles with quotation marks, a nod to the oral, conversational nature of storytelling.

The intimacy of the Orange Suitcase lies in how it is not a complete portrait of any of the characters of the story—not the narrator, not his family, not his former or current friends, girlfriends. Various named characters appear, disappear, and reappear in the stories at different points of the book, and in fact, many of the stories are “something about” these characters. One character, Ben Jensen, haunts the collection with his presence and his absence. The story entitled “Something about Ben Jensen” shows the musicality and vividness of Riippi’s prose:

So he isn’t dead. That’s what I thought when I saw Ben Jensen today. It happened on the bus, the 14D. I was sitting with my feet against the back wheel-well and trying to read someone else’s poems.

Riippi skillfully invokes particular people and emotions through certain items, the way leitmotif works in a musical piece or costuming a color for a character in a film. In this way, the Orange Suitcase is quite cinematic and sensory; Ben Jensen, for example, is associated with “red fingerless gloves rolling cigarettes.” Another of these items is the titular orange suitcase, introduced in the first story (narrated by Joseph's grandmother, who talks about meeting and loving his grandfather). It takes a while to resurface, among Legos, and in a dream, as Joseph himself is approaching his marriage.

New York City, too, serves as backdrop and metaphor; throughout the Orange Suitcase, it marks change and movement. Full-page, black-and-white photographs are scattered through his stories, and several are of the streets or intersections in New York that Riippi mentions as the sites of various occurrences. The photographs do not always correspond directly with the stories that they precede or follow, and by lying outside of the chronology of the stories, the reader is asked to remember why a particular picture is relevant. In doing so, the reader makes the connection between events of previous stories and the upcoming story.

“My heart felt tremendous in my chest, growing, hugely inflating, and then everything broke,” Riippi writes, in “Something About A Promise.” Much like the act of remembering, the experience of the Orange Suitcase is lovely but a bit sad, one likely to make its reader miss both the people of the past and past versions of self.

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This New & Poisonous Air coverThis New & Poisonous Air

Fiction by Adam McOmber

BOA Editions, June 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-934414-51-4

Paperback: 180pp; $14.00

Review by Patricia Contino

Judging by the expression of the startled damsel on the cover of This New & Poisonous Air, some things are best left alone. But what purpose does that really serve? There would be no experience. No meaning. It is the unknown’s transformation into a difficult reality that Adam McOmber explores in his strong collection of stories.

The protagonists in McOmber’s ten tales are seekers. Scientists, townsfolk, historians, and children lead ordinary lives with secrets and daydreams until something distorts their world. Their encounters with outside elements further sharpen a need to know. This also leads to death, loss, redefinition, or the just plain weird. Miriam, the graveyard surveyor who narrates “Beneath Us,” is keenly aware of her “disconnected” personality but nevertheless finds it “morbid” seeing the “festering” catacombs of St. Michael’s Cathedral transformed into a tearoom of “lacquered tables and taffeta” where guests “promenaded through as if in some quiet park on a sunless day.” It also makes the disconnect between her and others wider.

Accompanying the disbelief is one stunning descriptive passage after another. Every page has a paragraph or more worth savoring. McOmber's gift for detail never infringes on the narrative—indeed, his stories would be artifice without it. The movie palace in “Fall, Orpheum” has the power of capturing celluloid and real life. Grumman’s and Radio City Music Hall do not contain this kind of magic:

When visitors came, they were drawn to our theater, if not to sit for a movie, then just to marvel at the abundance of its Oriental bric-a-brac: silk-tasseled mirrors, brass elephant heads, brèche violette pillars, and foreign deities that peered from every corner of the stonework. The auditorium was a walled courtyard, complete with an accurately constellated sky and a procession of clouds projected on the black ceiling by a magic lantern machine, and the pale glow that fell on us night after night was like a hunter’s jack-light, pulling animals helplessly from the brush.

The mixture of the fantastic and the real is applied to circumstance as well. The title story seems like a fancy, detached description of the Plague, but McOmber achieves what a medieval woodcut can and a medical textbook cannot:

First came the rash, then the cough, an unseen guest knocking. Finally, a spread of boils. The body became a cauldron set upon a fire. Some said the arrival of the death would be signaled by a riderless horse, gaunt and grey, that would wander into the square and eat from dead winter grass. Others thought a voice would issue from the ground—listing the names of those set to die.

It is hard selecting a “favorite” or “best” story. “Fall, Orpheum” has the potential to become a novel or screenplay. There are other equally great reads. Inside “The Automatic Garden” dwells a brokenhearted sculptor commemorating his lost loves with distinctive creativity—and distinctive results. An old man recalls the adventure that he and his first and greatest love shared in “A Memory of His Rising.” A discovery in the attic made “Of Wool” challenges the foundations of love for family, art, and sanity.

There is one story that best represents This New & Poisonous Air. “There Are No Bodies” is a thoroughly reimagined life of Madam Tussaud. She lives the mantra “like the soul, the wax does not perish,” passed on to her spiritually and mentally by her teacher, Herr Curtius. He also gives her a pair of eyeglasses that intrigue Marie Antoinette, who is rendered “blind” when wearing them.

It is very likely that there not would have been a Madam Tussaud had there not been a French Revolution. At Versailles, her life-sized figures were party favors. At the tumbrils, she was forced to make models of guillotined heads, including Marie Antoinette’s:

Beneath a rough cloth there is a shape the size of a serving pitcher. A crescent of brown blood has seeped through the material. And when a jar of wax is placed in her hands—beeswax, her medium of choice—Madame can hear the sound of the bees who made it. The wax itself is frightened. It does not want to approach the head of the Queen.

Madam’s skill with wax saved her life. She lives to enjoy the distinction of being both a successful artist and entrepreneur. With “haunted hands,” she regards her House of Wax as a “carnival joke.” Would tourists lined up around her flagship Museum in London or satellite location in Times Square understand, let alone appreciate, Madam’s—or McOmber’s—perspective: that the Museum was born out of nightmares long before The Reign of Terror?

That, like fantasy and reality, is a matter of interpretation. As This New & Poisonous Air proves tenfold, those two realms go together—and their meeting ground is neither safe nor predictable.

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Never Any End to Paris coverNever Any End to Paris

Fiction by Enrique Vila-Matas

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

New Directions, May 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0811218139

Paperback: 208pp; $15.95

Review by Olive Mullet

Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas takes his title Never Any End to Paris from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But whereas Hemingway was poor but happy in Paris, the narrator says of his two years as a young man in the 1970s, “I went to Paris and was very poor and very unhappy.” Although the narrator (a stand-in for the author) uses his early life in a Paris garret to give a three-day lecture, for the most part this novel feels more like a fictionalized memoir than a lecture. The narrative shows the intellectual life of the times with famous and not so famous writers and eccentrics. It also reviews approaches to writing, since the narrator asks advice while writing his first novel. And irony figures in this account with Vila-Matas’ erudite wit and keen eye for absurdity or the ridiculous. It even appears with the narrator’s not understanding irony: “irony is the highest form of sincerity.”

In the beginning there’s a sense of a lecture. But even there he asks of his listeners, “Am I a lecture or a novel?” The sense of a lecture ends with his collecting his audience’s interpretations of Hemingway’s story “Cat in the Rain.” Though he indicates the end of each of the three lectures, they don’t sound like lectures.

The chronology loosely evolves from the opening, when he tries and fails to look like his favorite author, Ernest Hemingway, in a Key West, Florida contest. However, most of the novel is set in Paris, where he discovers a plot and title for his first novel from Unamuno’s The Lettered Assassin, a novel which kills off its readers. Afterwards, his famous landlady Marguerite Duras gives him a list of terms like plot and structure, which reappear later in his progression as a writer.

Throughout the book he tells stories about writers and famous people. The trip F. Scott Fitzgerald and the then lesser-known writer Hemingway took together marks the beginning of their troubled relationship and also is reminiscent of the “Cat in the Rain” story. The narrator sees George Orwell’s wife sweeping the staircase of his apartment building, and later yet he spots Samuel Beckett fiercely reading a newspaper in a dreary park. Most of the luminaries provide elements for his novel, for instance, a place name from a Maria Rilke poem, and his assassin’s eyes from an angry actress, Isabella Adjani.

The narrator accepts and rejects theories about writing from various writers: Stendahl’s “writing on the spot,” emotion and thought being inseparable, Rimbaud’s reinventing life with the past and future having no meaning, the surprises that happen during the writing, life and art like comedy and tragedy merging, the need to throw away passages the writer likes (fitting Duras’ dictum about plot and consistency), the book evolving like conversation, “doubt” as “writing,” the value of experience and dialogue. And Hemingway warns with his iceberg analogy, “Never tell what is most important.”

The narrator asks himself:

If I were really a writer, I said to myself, I wouldn't have such atrocious problems. But would I have to wait until I am older to have them? Did one ever get to be a real writer?
If I were really a writer, I said to myself, Africa would be Mine. And why Africa? Because I'd know the melancholy of returning to where I'd never been.
If I were really a writer, I'd try like Rimbaud to create all the celebrations, all the triumphs, all the dramas…
If I were really a writer, I would be absolutely modern…If I were really a writer, my days would go by in a very different way. If I were really a writer…

And so absurdity reigns. How can the novelist have readers if his novel kills them off? But in killing the readers, a writer begins his writing life. “I quoted a man who was famous (Borges), and I was a man who was no one.” His own novel he thought original until he read an Agatha Christie novel which ends the same way. At a bar while reading his Spanish newspapers, he is mistaken for Carlos, the Spanish killer. The policemen read his book The Lettered Assassin, “thinking my as yet unfinished book might be a collection of secret documents on international terrorism.” Finally, the only thing he learned in his two years in Paris was how to type.

His daily encounters with often lesser-known writers and acquaintances sometimes make this novel seem long, but they bring to life the 1970s literati’s life in Paris. Readers with a wry sense of humor, and those interested in writers and writing, will relish this very readable novel.

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Notes from Irrelevance coverNotes from Irrelevance

Poetry by Anselm Berrigan

Wave Books, August 2011

ISBN-13: 9781933517544

Paperback: 65 pp; $16

Review by Gina Myers

Anselm Berrigan’s new book Notes from Irrelevance opens with a simple declarative idea: “I came.” But what precedes that phrase gives a better sense of what a reader can expect from this long poem:

Armed with an early
termination fee, a
delusion with regard
to neither denying
nor being of the past,
a lazy fly to center,
a transcription of
a stain on the soul
of the off-looker…
armless, disregarding
the mediated affect
of trees and their
privileged iterations
of objective fallacy in
the face of impassive
pregame nihilisms
tuned to talk’s vanishing
outline, I came.

This single stanza, book-length poem is a compilation of such linguistically rich and syntactically varied sentences. Discursive like much of Berrigan’s work, the poem meanders through a day in the life (or perhaps a week or longer), capturing the essence of what life is like for the author, who self-identifies as “currently one / of the six billion-plus.” And though there are autobiographical moments specific to the author, the poem speaks to a wider experience too—to what it’s like to be alive and thinking in America today, or perhaps what it is like to live in New York today, or what it’s like for anyone who has the strange desire to “be seen in […] life in / the world alone.” As Berrigan states, “I write / with the fact of being in / civilization as context / to which it is hardly / necessary to refer.”

In addition to commenting on the human condition, the poem also offers a statement of poetics, and perhaps ultimately to be a poet is not so different than being human:

…So the
task is to find a new way
to speak, to tell of being,
tell being to fuck off and
come back with a steelier
measure of lack, a kinder
spirit for company,
distance, pain, fortitude
in the emphatic grist
rephrasing caught rides
half the time

There’s a self-deprecation at work here too. Berrigan runs through a checklist of qualities:

…Futility of pain
management as source
of humor in outlook?
Check. Controllable
vices for purposes
of a secondary level
of interior life, an echo
of conscience trailing
out? Check. A sense of
time as discontinuous
it its spread while simul-
taneously expanding
on a surface line that’s
only a reflection of
a sense of a line?
Check. Total distrust
of command but for the
contradictory moments
of necessity? Half-check.

And there’s a propulsion to the sentences that adds to the impression of having been written in a single setting, even though the author clearly moves through the poem—from scenes of watching a Yankees game at a bar, to home life with his daughter on his lap, to walking along East 4th Street. The poem ends with the poet signing off: “Love, Anselm.” And even though the last part of the poem is addressed specifically to the poet Dana Ward, the entire poem comes across as a letter written with love to all of humanity.

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Wait coverWait

Poetry by Alison Stine

University of Wisconsin Press, March 2011

ISBN-13: 978-029928314-8

Paperback: 88pp; $14.95

Review by Alissa Fleck

The title of Alison Stine’s collection Wait—and the repetition of this word in its multitudinous forms throughout the work—suggests a passivity and loss or relinquishment of control, which seem to be the driving force behind much of the book’s thematic content. Wait presents itself from an almost stark, feminine—if not feminist—perspective, with subjects who are distant and passive, but not without some veiled level of control. This power is deployed, among other means, through the forcefulness and tight control of the poet’s language, in sharply crafted poems which alternate between small consistent selections of loose forms. In one line alone, the talented Stine has the power to simultaneously wax nostalgic about a carefree, country childhood and come down critically on misogyny and the notion of the patriarchy.

Wait is replete with language depicting loss, absence, and indirectness. The poems in this collection insist—often frantically or menacingly—upon the acts of waiting and watching, establishing a distant and voyeuristic aura. Certain elements of “humanity” become terrifying, ominous, and seemingly inevitable in Stine’s narrative of vulnerability and defeat with minimal reclaiming. The narrator’s body is often dissolved or silenced at the conclusion of a poem.

The narrator emphasizes her delicateness, figuratively reducing herself, becoming “a bird in the field” in “Wife,” a poem about marriage. “The Land” again picks up the important subject of varied human relationships, depicting a failed relationship in the larger context of the universe. Stine reintroduces an oscillating scope, emphasizing the dark elements of human connection, but shifting scale to reflect their relative meaninglessness in the context of cosmic largeness. Size is integral to this work in both the realms of perspective as well as the metaphorical signifier.

A frequently errant physical landscape is also integral to the success of Stine’s work, operating as the complementary or conflicting backdrop to a sensual and tactile world. In a collection about waiting, retreating, and being acted upon against one’s will, landscape in its literal paleness, natural fragility, emptiness, or chaos is reflective of the loss of purity and innocence. Landscape—beyond the realm of control—is a place to disappear, but can also present an opportunity to stand out.

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Handmade Love coverHandmade Love

Poetry by Julie R. Enszer

A Midsummer Night's Press, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-9794208-5-6

Paperback: 64pp; $11.95

Review by Carol Dorf

Julie Enszer's first book of poetry, Handmade Love, embodies the political in a sensual context. This book, printed in a lovely 4x6 format by A Midsummer Night’s Press, centers on themes of relationships, including lesbian marriage and friendships.

In “When We Were Feminists,” the first poem in the book, Enszer focuses on the transformation of the narrator’s relationship to feminism from the excitement of first discovery to background, the way a long-term relationship develops elements of routine, and we may forget what we loved so much at the start.

Here is part of the first section of the poem:

When we were feminists, feminism was like cooking the first meal
After grocery shopping. You know:
When all the vegetables have the patina of freshness,
When the knife slides through perfectly from the right
            combination of resistance and forgiveness.
When you cook with the leisure of a weekend.
Now feminism is like a meal you make five days after shopping,
When you cook simply because you have to eat.

And from the last part of the poem:

Even without the pop from the taut skins of fresh grapes,
Without the spray of fresh juice in my mouth, it was good.
And I sat on my bed. And I read a book. It was good like
Picking up a copy of Ms. Magazine at the train station.
I remember how feminism first tasted in my mouth.

In this poem, Enszer uses the plural voice, and brings other people, like the ones she shares communal meals with, into the poem. This connects her to the traditions of feminist poetry, such as Adrienne Rich’s work. Additionally, this strategy establishes the speaker as someone who expresses the perspectives of a generation.

In the first section of Handmade Love, Enszer shows the development of the narrator’s sexual and political identity. The poem “Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss” becomes Enszer’s statement of her artistic intent. She says:

The easy embrace of these two lovers:
…their lips and eyes meet exactly…
Isn’t that what we all want in a lover?
The perfect match.
The perfect moment
This is what I despise about poems—
the way they isolate
distill life to only the good parts
the never capture this—
harsh words in morning or constipation or warts…

This book does try to capture all of the complexities of relationships, and even contains a villanelle, “Further Evidence,” about a cyst.

The second section of the book contains poems that deal with the concerns of getting older, with poems about marriage between women, the death of friends, and the narrator’s concerns about aging. In “Through the Flower,” a tribute to Judy Chicago, Enszer focuses on her ideas about what old age will be like, though she concedes that she is still, in absolute terms, a long way from old age.

In these poems, Enszer is a teacher in the best way. The penultimate piece, “Was Elizabeth Bishop A Lesbian,” begins with a teacher’s evasion when the poet was a student. Now, she returns to the university as a teacher, “waiting for one young / woman, quite unlike my younger self, / to ask that question again, and the answer; / my answer will change this whole world.” Enszer takes her responsibility as a poet seriously, and has written a book that provides much for readers to consider and discuss.

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A Real Life coverA Real Life

A Simpler, Secure, Healthier Future

Nonfiction by Ferenc Máté

Albatross Books, August 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0-920256-69-5

Hardcover: 256pp, $24.95

Review by Olive Mullet

In Ferenc Máté’s new book A Real Life, he asserts that what truly matters are family, good friends, and a true community. This is a telling indicator of his audience; people attracted to this book will relish their old-fashioned values being confirmed. Hence, Máté will be preaching to the already converted—unfortunately, because others should read this book to implement changes in our society. But even the already converted will find this book (termed a memoir by the publisher) fresh, given Máté’s examples, humor, quotable insights, and appropriate research.

The author warns about the direction contemporary society is taking. One of his first points is that gadgets negatively affect our lives. We are “enslaved by electronics,” especially Facebook with its fake friends (valued only for their numbers), and the cell phone, which favors the caller over the person standing right there. (The land phone provides at least a quiet place and more time to reflect.) The “more connected we are, the more detached,” he asserts. “Social networks reduce friendship to a commodity” with “friendships and companionships watered down or abandoned.” Friendships need time and patience to nurture:

Between 1979 and 2009 researchers found a 48 percent decrease in empathy and 34 percent decrease in perspective-taking—considering someone else’s point of view, and mainly caused by the inundation since 2000 of callous reality TV shows, the explosion of social networks and texting, which allow people to disengage from others at the click of a key. They blame these “physically distant online environments” for encouraging people to “lionize their own lives” and “functionally create a buffer between individuals which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others.”

In electronic chatter, words become road kill, belittling reality, as in phrases like ‘collateral damage’ for nonmilitary people’s deaths and WMDs instead of weapons of mass destruction. The proliferation of electronic communication has also resulted in no real mail/letters anymore and the impersonal, fact-filled, and often bragging Christmas letter sent to everyone. As a result of no face-to-face dealing with problems and fervor, we have become hardened. And this has consequences on the world, as Senator Christopher Dodd has noted:

Retiring Senator Dodd, who joined the senate thirty-six years ago, lamented that over the past two decades there has been a “stripping of the socialization, which is always what made this place function.” He remembers the late hours in the members’ dining room, where senators mingled, where he sat enthralled listening to the old bulls. “As a new member, you just sat there and absorbed it as they would rib each other and sometimes have a heated debate about a subject. It was as good an education as you could get about the place.”
Today, “there’s no one in that room.”

Máté is also humorous about gadgetry. The GPS allows for “relaxed brainlessness” and may cut down on marital fights, but a “lady in Ontario, Canada, obeying her GPS, drove miles into a bog, and another in England drove into a river.”

Among the author’s other points: We are in a “deluge of staccato bits of information.” Memory needs information to be thoroughly and deeply processed. We are also “changing ourselves to death”—homes and fragmentary jobs in our search for success, fame and perfection. As a sign of our success, an enormous house with more gear only feeds profits, not our desires. Steve Jobs, “the world’s gadget-god said blithely not long ago, ‘It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want.’”

“Can’t we just stop achieving for a while?” Máté wonders. To the “Grow Up To Be Somebody” dictum, he asks, “Is this a joke? Am I not somebody now? Should I grow up and be somebody else? Who? Elmer Fudd? Mary Magdalene? Attila the Hun?” Then there is the “Make Something of Yourself” advice. “Like what? A cup and saucer? Skirt and sweater? An oak dining room set? Give me a clue.”

So what should we be doing? We should live in a small community (Roseto and Venice, Italy are examples) where everyone stops to chat, and visits, as an extended family. Work could be time-shared, as in Germany. Businesses need to treat their employees like family, as does W. W. Norton, Máté’s publisher. Even in a city, a Victory Garden will bring the family together. “Happiness is doing,” (what we make by hand), and thus “contentment with one’s circumstances.” We need Sundays back, and need laughing time. The best things in life are free, i.e., nature. We need to value teachers, as they do in Finland. And we need to think “linearly, subtly, thoroughly.” And kids need to play, outside and with other kids, to get back their imagination.

Good advice for our times.

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