Posted November 1, 2011
Dear Prudence :: The Year Book :: South of Superior :: The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree :: Loving Longing Leaving :: By Kelman Out of Pessoa :: Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them :: In the Carnival of Breathing :: You Need a Schoolhouse :: AnimalInside :: Afterglow :: Vertical Motion :: Calyx of Teversall
New & Selected Poems
Poetry by David Trinidad
Turtle Point Press, September 2011
Paperback: 493pp; $19.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
Dear Prudence: New & Selected Poems, the latest work by poet and Columbia College Chicago professor David Trinidad, collects new poems and selections from over a thirty-year publishing history, including most recently By Myself (with D.A. Powell, 2009), Tiny Moon Notebook (2007), and The Late Show (2007). In 2000, he was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection Plasticville. The scope of Dear Prudence allows readers unfamiliar with Trinidad’s work a thorough introduction; those familiar with his work will find an indispensable exploration of the poet’s task of collecting, arranging and remembering.
The most striking thing about the new poems, collected under the title “Black Telephone,” is how they are completely connected to the old poems, to the idea of creating narrative by remembering and re-imagining the past. Trinidad leads off with “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” a poem equally at home with references to Anaïs Nin and the Ramones. The piling up of these references serves as the primary repository of images. Patti Smith stops being a person and becomes a mood, a time period, a way of living. The relationship in the poem “Without a Title” can only be described as vertigo while at the Top of the World.
Some allusions made me wish that I was reading with Wikipedia open, or that I had spent my junior high smut phase reading Valley of the Dolls instead of Danielle Steele and Christopher Pike. I also found myself wondering if these stories were contemporary, if I swapped out band names for ones I hadn't been taught to respect, would I be as interested, as desperate to dig into the imagined lives of others? In Trinidad's poems, there is something grander than a provocation to voyeurism: space, distance, and impossible longing make it possible to bury oneself in this work.
Though memory is what makes the poems tick, the collection seems equally dependent on its gaps and creative constructions. In “My Man Godfrey,” the narrator asks “where are my bright particulars?” as though those shiny bits of glue, those flashes of photographic realness which serve to hold the constructed narrative together have started to fade. “Without a Title” asks: “(did it creak? / I remember / it creaking).” In the last of the new poems, “The Past (after Neruda),” veracity seems to be less relevant than how details are put to use. Here, life is “something I create” because “that is happiness…to be fully engaged.” To experience the moment of memory is more important than the particular memory. Whether it's “my mother bravely facing her fear / of the subway” (“Without a Title”), lost loves, or memories of past violence, it's “Better to look pinkly through a glass at / the tarnished past” (“Poem Under the Influence”).
“Dear Prudence,” the second, lengthier section, collects poems from 1975 to 2007 that see through this pink but not rosy lens. Although the book as a whole covers a poet's evolution, even in his early work, Trinidad’s voice is clearly heard through his mastery of lists and formal poems. “Pinks” imagines the particular shades of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton while “Gloss of the Past” lists the colors of lips gone by. From the extended list of “Mothers” to “From Ted Hughes' List of Suggested Writing Exercises for Sylvia Plath,” each list item is itself a poem, a complete story or image on which to pause. His obsessions range from the literary to toys. “Chatty Cathy Villanelle” is among the most terrifying poems I've ever read, and Barbie and friends rear their blonde and nearly blonde heads in more poems than not. Nearly as terrifying are the rhymed couplets of “Fortunes” and “Plasticville,” and the new poems contain two series of haiku on Peyton Place.
Trinidad's poems are peopled with women more faded than any “bright particulars,” who don't understand why they can’t be more than they are; their obsessions become ours with the repeated lines of “Jacqueline Susann and Her Husband Irving Mansfield, Los Angeles, Cal. 1969,” “Hack, Hack, Sweet Has Been,” and “Movin’ with Nancy.” By the time I got to “Written with a Pencil Found in Lorine Niedecker’s Front Yard” on page 406, I believed that not only did the pencil rightfully belong to him but that generations of women worn out from being beautiful stood behind Trinidad as he wrote, ready to give him another pencil if this one broke.
a poem sequence
Poetry by Hugh Fox
Ravenna Press, July 2011
Paperback: 70pp, $11.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Boston area poet Doug Holder noted the recent death of Hugh Fox with a blog post in which he remarks, “Whatever you say about Fox, he wasn’t a cliché of a man—he was a total original. He was a PhD with a big disdain for the academy; his breadth of knowledge left me breathless; he could be incredibly kind and incredibly rude, but I loved him warts and all.” He continues a little further on, “I asked Fox a few years ago what he would like to be remembered for. He told me: ‘That I reminded people to take a close look and engage the world around them.’ Fox took it all in: from sex, the Aztecs, religion, the meaning of being, the meaning of meaning…you name it.” On all these counts, The Year Book doesn’t disappoint.
I have no idea whether or not this is to be Fox’s final single volume of poems published, but it certainly is a suitable “last poems.” Most of the writing appears to have occurred a decade ago when Fox was approaching his 69th year, and the foreboding awareness of death is heavily spread throughout the book: “All day the furry ball monsters beside me, Death, death, death, death, and then, end of day, this huge woolly-headed cloud across the sun, and for a moment, eyes, eyes, eyes and nothing else…”
However, so too is sex, for as many times as Fox mentions his old loves, deceased or on their way, or remembers the passing of friends and associates from the university, he’s also to be found fondly remarking on the beauty of a nineteen-year-old daughter of a friend, “looking overwhelmingly sexy with her black lycra legs and red shoes,” or pondering his chances of wooing the recently widowed: “see Sophia, would like to make her into my fuck-slut now that he’s gone.” It’s clear that Fox confronts life head-on with a furious roar.
Fox consistently allows the present act of the writing to lead itself on, catching the momentary spark between memory and spoken occasion, the now with the then. His writing imperceptibly follows the weave of his thoughts, leaping along:
Dark by six, by six-thirty it seems like midnight, feeling the ancient panic that the sun is dying and needs to be revived by chests being cut open and hearts cut out, held up, still beating, to the dying sun, so careful, the right heel and the right texture of the black suede, the right (ivory) makeup base, the right sauce and the perfect cooking time, “Is that the Jewish cemetery?” she asks me as we drive by in the dark, “I don’t think there is a Jewish cemetery, just a corner in a regular cemetery, maybe that’s the one, I don’t know,” thinking about Schönberg today, Allen Berg, the Schönbrunn Palace, Kokoshka, Richard Strauss, Neanderthal Man coming from the Valley of Neander, which was a name stuck on this place in Germany by a Greekophile, Expressionism and Atonalism and Der Rosenkavalier slowly merging with the Paleolithic, and then nothing at all.
Fox is the sort of writer one does fall in love with, bowled over by charms you’d never guess would have worked and willingly ignoring behaviors and inclinations that in the abstract would be instant deal busters. Fox knows this and utilizes it to his full advantage. His work is an affirmation of life that deserves a lasting embrace: in other words, full tilt or nothing. There are some rather startling revelations here and there, mainly sexual in nature, but these more than likely will prove to be nothing Fox’s enthusiastic insistence won’t sway most readers to roll along with.
Fox offers his own summing up of his biography:
So I wrote my first piano concerto when I was ten and when my voice changed at twelve I sang the part of Sarasto, the high priest, in Zerlina Muhlman Metzger’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, went to med school and then got an MFA in painting from the Boston School of Fine Arts, married a black woman from Sudan, learned Arabic, had three children with her, then met a French woman on a plane coming back from Sudan and married her, three more children, lots of time in Toulouse and Marsailles, have had thirty books of poetry published, married a Brazilian surgeon I met on a Fulbright in Brazil, we live in a big house on the Grand River where the river is half a mile across and it’s a travel film all year around, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State, the whole campus one vast garden-forest, 68 going on 86…
Reading Hugh Fox’s work holds you as it should, as the dead do, as the living would.
Fiction by Ellen Airgood
Riverhead Books, June 2011
Hardcover: 384pp; $25.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Ellen Airgood’s debut novel South of Superior is categorized first under “self-realization in women” and secondly under “Michigan Fiction.” Such categories never tell the full story. Certainly there is a female main character, but she is for much of the book unsympathetic and certainly not a superwoman, and the novel’s delight is in the realism of all the vividly portrayed characters and of Michigan life in a place like Grand Marais, here renamed McAllaster. All Michiganders (not just women) should relish this book for the reliving of this state’s recognizable features and lifestyles.
Madeleine Stone receives a letter from Gladys (the lover of Madeleine’s grandfather, Joe Stone) asking her if she would be interested in helping take care of Gladys’ ailing sister Arbutus. This care would involve Madeleine’s moving from Chicago to McAllaster, a move that would bring back memories of how her grandfather abandoned her as a child after her mother left town. Madeleine still feels bitter especially now after her beloved adopted mother Emmy’s death. Remembering Emmy’s struggles to raise her, Madeleine has no love for Gladys, but she is also curious about her grandfather’s motives and eager for any information about her mother. These facts get revealed eventually, but much of the success of this novel has to do with Airgood’s descriptions of what it is like to live in a small town on the shore of Lake Superior.
Madeleine’s first views of the town are from a bluff:
Even in the driving rain the lake glittered and shone with movement, with the mystery of its whole huge self. It dawned on her that everyone’s cautions had been correct, even if for the wrong reasons. This was a foreign, otherworldly place, complete with magic and perils and tests.
The beauty of the place is quickly mingled with the reality. Gladys takes back her groceries to the store unopened when she finds that the grocers are not allowing credit to their poorer customers. Gladys also refuses to pay for the groceries to these nonresident, more contemporarily practical and ruthless grocers. Then a five-year-old disappears, and when he is found, his very young mother leaves him off at various homes while she works in a bar. Two elderly people are competing with the grocers with their fresh fish and other fresh produce like berries and are threatened by the authorities for living on land not their own. In other words, this is a book about the people of the place as much as about Madeleine and her problems.
The hardscrabble life, the fact that you cannot make much money in such a place, is what Airgood shows best—the philosophy one must have to choose to live there. Mary, the novel’s elderly sage, tells Madeleine:
It ain’t everybody who can live here. You’ll live poor. Like a farmer plowing old, stony ground. You’ll never have much of nothing. Except troubles. They’ll come, and they’ll be hard to fix…If you want to have things your way, the way you want them, you don’t want to stay here. That’s not how it is. But if you can accept the way things are—well, then.”
Then there’s the truth about small towns:
McAllaster was a kind of tribe. This wasn’t cozy, or nice. She sensed that it was an equation, that membership would exact a price: the loss of privacy, anonymity, certain freedoms she’d taken for granted in Chicago, maybe the right to selfishness. Everybody in this tribe didn’t love each other. They disagreed and gossiped and argued; they laid traps for each other and rejoiced when the trap was sprung; they relished placing blame wherever it would stick and took pleasure in one another’s mistakes. But when there was trouble, there was help.
Michigan countryside is real with its “scattered cabins and camps too lonesome and poor to be quaint, old trailers surrounded by broken-down cars and trucks, discarded toilets and cast-off woodstoves, black plastic garbage bags stuffed with God knew what.” But also the people are real, actually inspired by real people listed in the back: “an overabundance of human frailty. No heroes or villains, exactly. Just people who’d done what they’d done, too late to change any of it, and in the end that wasn’t the worst news in the world.”
Yes, Madeleine finds herself changing her attitude, and the formula of finding love is also there, though not emphasized. Her love interest has his problems, which are very real, such as struggling to stay afloat and becoming too quickly angry. Gladys’s and Madeleine’s prickly natures may make other characters sweeter, but nothing here is sentimentalized, and all the characters are vivid, unforgettable.
Poetry by Kevin Pilkington
Black Lawrence Press, May 2011
Paperback: 70pp; $14.00
Review by Erik Fuhrer
In the fall of 2004, I attended a faculty reading at Sarah Lawrence College featuring Kevin Pilkington. I can still hear Kevin’s voice tenderly describing how his niece helped him look for “poet trees,” after they drank a glass of “apple spider.” This poem, aptly titled “Apple Spider,” is from Pilkington’s 2004 collection Ready to Eat the Sky. Far from being trite and sentimental, this poem captures the magical essence of childhood innocence in a sincere narrative that exemplifies Pilkington’s ability to convey the extraordinary beauty and revelation inherent in ordinary life. His new volume, The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree, continues to express Pilkington’s trademark emotional clarity, as is evident from the heartfelt simplicity of the last lines of “A View From Here,” in which Pilkington sits alone with his wife on a pier:
She smiles, sits
down next to me, holds onto my
right arm, looks out over the river
and sighs, then helps me the way she always
does, quietly letting her eyes fill with
everything I couldn’t possibly fit
The last lines of this stanza have such a strikingly quiet emotional impact on me as a reader. After reading them, I know that I have just experienced a clear and true expression of love.
Though Pilkington’s poems are grounded in reality, their real energy is often conveyed through imaginative and linguistic transformations, such as that expressed by the play on the word “story” in “The Distance Between Fog and Times Square”:
Every time it stormed
raindrops hitting the glass
sounded like a typewriter
working on another story
until there was a sixth floor.
After the simple simile comparing the sound of raindrops to that of a typewriter, the poem takes a more significant leap. Suddenly this story written on the typewriter shifts its denotation and becomes the physical story of a building. The image of a typewriter building a sixth floor is not only an evocation of the power of art to impact reality, but a testament to the elasticity and diverse application of words.
This brings me to the title poem, “The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree.” Here Pilkington reaches beyond mere wordplay or metaphor and delves fully into the transformation:
By evening I was just about done
and even began thinking like wood:
how to bud April green enough
to get spring going early this year.
By evening the fog that crawled
in on its knees was gone and there I was,
alone, holding up the moon in my branch
shaped like a right hand for the entire
city to see—smiling.
In this poem, a desperate unemployed man, answering an ad for a job as a tree, literally grows bark. Both a protest against the lack of available jobs and a celebration of the beauty of nature, this is a wonderful poem for the current economic and social climate.
Simple, direct, and honest, with striking images and evocative word-play, The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree is a beautiful, imaginative book. One that I intend to keep in my possession. I lent out my copy of Pilkington’s 1997 collection Spare Change so many times that I have no idea who currently has it. Whoever it is was so seduced by the language and beauty of the narratives that they knew they could not part with the book. I don’t blame them. Therefore, The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree will become a permanent part of my bookshelf. I will not again risk being bereft of such transformative magic as that displayed in the poem “Milk,” in which Charlie Parker sits in the middle of a field and takes out not a saxophone, but “a bent piece of sky the color of dawn.”
Drama by Michael Weller
Theatre Communications Group, August 2011
Paperback: 240pp; $17.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Lindy is married to Hugh. They live in the Midwest. Adam is married to Jan. They live in Brooklyn. Lindy and Adam have resumed their affair that began in Manhattan and ended when Hugh took over his family’s bicycle business. Jan and Hugh know what’s going on but there are careers, children, and, most importantly, routines to consider. Routines that hurt rather than ease.
This is a simplification of the four souls inhabiting Michael Weller’s Loving Longing Leaving. Over the duration of three one-act, two-character plays—Do Not Disturb, Fifty Words, and Side Effects—Loving Longing Leaving is a bristling look at the repercussions of a longstanding love affair on two long-term relationships. The bruises are both physical and psychological.
Michael Weller (whose other plays include Moonchildren and Spoils of War) is renowned for his exploration of man/woman relationships. He not only adds heated intensity to domestic situations, his dialogue unobtrusively inserts and reflects the societal mores in which his plays take place. It is clear to the reader and audience member that as Loving Longing Leaving unfolds, these two couples equating four accomplished professionals—Lindy a teacher, Adam an architect, Jan a dancer turned businesswoman, Hugh an entrepreneur in the 1% bracket and aspiring politician—would be far better off leading separate lives.
The three plays appear in the order they were written in and received their theatrical premieres. Do Not Disturb (2002) is the night Lindy and Adam reconnect after ten years. Fifty Words (2008) is the night Jan discovers Adam’s affair. Side Effects (2011) chronicles the end of Lindy and Hugh’s marriage, which isn’t entirely Adam’s fault. Though as crucial in these dramas as they would be in a similar real-life situation, Lindy and Hugh’s sons, Doug and Willy and Adam, and Jan’s son, Greg, are never seen.
The women are by far the most interesting characters. Lindy and Jan are creative, passionate, physical—and troubled. Appearances matter more to the men; they bleat about consequences but never heed them. Adam is a “manly male” who enjoys manipulating his wife and mistress. Hugh loves Lindy but is given to talking in sound bites. He apologizes for having the occasional “little emotional moment” and expects Lindy to provide “full disclosure” to him.
Though she does not appear in Fifty Words, Lindy is Loving Longing Leaving’s protagonist. A former deb, published poet described as “Emily Dickenson on angel dust,” respected educator, and “once-upon-a-time mistress,” Lindy cannot help but be so. However, her bipolarism and unwillingness to take her meds because they make her “vibrate like a jackhammer” makes difficult situations worse—yet also makes them more dramatically interesting.
Regardless, Lindy is capable of greater insight than either of her men. She explains her motives quite well during Do Not Disturb’s long night with Adam:
When you called, it occurred to me the problem was, we never ended it. People do, usually, don’t they? Have a last time together, knowing it’s the last time. Doing whatever people do, say, cry, feel each other slipping away…Isn’t that customary? Something about closure.
And in Side Effects when she has nothing more to say to Hugh that can hurt him or their marriage:
…I don’t mean things weren’t good, my god our life was a fairy tale, and I saw how proud you were to show me off…your prize. But the flaw we ignored when it was just the two of us living wild…once the children were born, there was no avoiding it…And you—withdrew.
Jan considers herself “normal”—and is. She the only character in Loving Longing Leaving who has a good working knowledge of the real world:
It’s not the time, I don’t mind that. It’s the crookedness. Every database I buy is nine-tenths garbage; they unload junk lists on me, out of date, inaccurate—and it’s just how business is done, everyone’s trying to fuck everyone else for a buck, and I feel so…naïve and sheltered. All I know about is home, where we treat each other decently, where I’m in this zone of civilized behavior.
The discovery of Adam’s affair is the dark night of her soul. Beneath all that hurt is refreshing honesty:
I hate motherhood. I knew I’d hate it. I knew I’d be bad at it. I hate how important it is to you, I hate that I took on something I wouldn’t do well because I can’t stand to do any job less than perfectly, that’s how I’m made, and most of all I hate knowing, and I do know this, I’ve always known I did it because if I hadn’t I’d lose you. That was selfish. I had Greg for selfish reasons.
In order to forgive Adam, Jan demands: “[R]eturn my power. Make my house safe again.”
But there is nothing “safe” about what takes place in Loving Longing Leaving. Michael Weller doesn’t provide an exit door or sitcom twist to Lindy, Adam, Jan, and Hugh’s self-styled hell. A good playwright has enough faith in the reader or observer to fill in the pauses and unanswered questions after the curtain falls.
Fiction by Doug Nufer
Les Figues Press, August 2011
Paperback: 202pp; $15.00
Review by J. A. Tyler
Doug Nufer makes me wish I knew more about horse racing because if I was more knowledgeable about horse races and the art of betting on this sport, I’d get so much more from By Kelman Out of Pessoa. As book 4 of 5 in the TrenchArt Recon Series, Nufer’s novel swings a wide arc of gambled characters and the throw of the die, using a backdrop of gaming as the setting of the novel as well as a means to writing it, a sleight of hand best described by the editors of Les Figues Press:
Nufer went to Emerald Downs, home of thoroughbred racing in the Northwest. There, he split himself into three characters modeled on the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa. Using a money management plan from a James Kelman short story, Nufer gave these characters money and set them free to gamble. He returned to the track every week for a full season, and his characters/heteronyms continued to bet, with real money and in the name of art. At the end of the season, he had pages of data in the form of a wagering diary, the outcome of a literary experiment that formed the basis of a literal experimental novel.
As a moment of recon, gathering data and spilling it onto the page in words and plot-lines and images, By Kelman Out of Pessoa succeeds. The narrative shifts are unpredictable thanks to their grounding in gamed risk, and the language is its own amalgam of plot-driven characterization and constant word-play, always switching and reversing and reiterating itself in the form of manipulated sentences:
The one reflected the other, the other reflected the one. The face in the mirror was the mirror in the face.
If each of us might spawn a mob, then us of each might mob a spawn. Didn’t it stand to reason that one play the devil’s advocate? It reasoned to stand that one advocate the devil’s play.
His mind would work as his work would mind: backwards.
Les Figues Press nails the design and production elements though, and the introduction and preface to the novel elevate the idea of the book before we’ve even begun reading it. But, without a more than generic knowledge of horse racing and the companion task of betting on races, it is tough for a reader to fully invest in Nufer’s story. So much hinges on the idea of gambling and the way in which stakes raise and re-raise and combine and decline, that following By Kelman Out of Pessoa is no easy task. And Doug Nufer really does have a vibrant hand on the page, I just wish that I’d lived in those gambler shoes for a few years before reading By Kelman Out of Pessoa, as I think it would allow me to love this book a bit more.
Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them
Contemporary Michigan Literature
Edited by Keith Taylor and Laura Kasischke
Wayne State University Press, September 2011
Paperback: 212pp; $18.95
Review by Ryan Wilson
When we think about North American geography and ghost stories, the Midwest United States feels somewhat lacking. Maybe that’s because we think of the region historically as merely a way toward somewhere else, and thus any good haunting it might have acquired also feels ephemeral. Ghosts also require a decent amount of tragedy. The East has its colonies and its Puritanical roots based in part on superstitions. The South, of course, has its own tragic pillar of slavery and its gothic aftermath. Even the West has plenty of dead and displaced Native Americans. So the Midwest would seem to need its own man-made disaster to birth some spirits.
Enter the great recession and enter the Made in Michigan Writers Series, and the result is Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, an anthology of paranormal tales by native Michigan or Michigan-based writers. Call it “Post-Industrial Gothic,” if you will, because none of these tales would quite work the same way if the economy, led by the auto industry, wasn’t suffering along with the remnant population of the state.
Even the “required” haunted lighthouse tale, “Bones on Bois Blanc” by Laura Hulthen Thomas, wouldn’t quite hit readers the same way if the haunted couple wasn’t losing their house and their car for lack of employment. The pair takes one last family vacation “up north” (to bury some remains!) before the final curtain drops on their once-comfortable life together. Why wouldn’t a phantom of some sort attach itself to such bad circumstance?
The most literal example of industrial-past-meets-present is “Thin Air” by Elizabeth Kostova (of The Historian fame) in which a laid-off father turned Mr. Mom takes his kids to historical Greenfield Village for the day. They are soon picked up by a Model T driven by a ghost who’s also depressed about leaving the work-a-day world behind. Here, then, unemployment is equated with the limbo of the hereafter, which makes perfect sense seeing as both the idle and the dead don’t quite know how to move forward.
As expected, Detroit is hardly spared commentary. The city itself becomes a ghost town in Keith Taylor’s “The Man at the Edge” when a rural high school history teacher must escort a handful of his students down to the city for a career fair. The teacher takes some time for himself at the Detroit Institute of Arts, only to find that the museum is also vacant, save for an angry spirit from within an old Dutch painting. Taylor implies that this is perhaps some ancestor angry at what his lineage has wrought (or let rot). But the ghost isn’t even as frightening to the teacher as simply getting out of the city, which includes a run-in with a pan-handler as mysterious to him as any specter. He returns to his woods compromised and haunted by what he’s seen.
The rest of the Mitten (as Michigan is called) also suffers poltergeists throughout the collection. Yoopers (those who live in the Upper Penninsula—the U.P.) succumb to a particularly cruel blue color apparition in Anne-Marie Ooman’s “Bitchathane,” but in true Yooper form, the narrator recounts the tragedy matter-of-factly. Lansing (the state's capitol) suffers from the dangers of urban sprawl in the form of carjacking victims in James Hynes’s “Backseat Driver” until a revenging ghost uses a divorcee to take back the roads. Even a coastal tourist town gets a dose of Satanism (what else?) concerning its founding and abuse of the indigenous people in Eileen Pollack’s “The Devil in Cross Village.”
If the anthology has a fault, it’s that the actual chills are minimal. These aren’t tales of “horror” so much as vignettes of a deeper haunting done to a state finding itself removed from progress. We’re left wondering what we’re watching unfold in every rust-belt area where jobs and people slip through time, much like the ghost girls in Laura Kasoschke’s simple yet affecting “Ghost Anecdote”: “I would not believe you if you’d told me that one day, those ghost girls would seem more real to me than the girl at the picnic table, the one who was me,” the narrator admits.
Michigan is the same way: disbelieving that it once worked and prospered, disbelieving each day that it was once someone else, haunted.
Poetry by Lisa Fay Coutley
Black Lawrence Press, July 2011
Paperback: 26pp; $9.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Lisa Fay Coutley’s most recent chapbook highlights numerous poems published in an array of literary magazines. Within each poem, the ideas are very fragmented; however, Coutley weaves them together so that each idea feeds from the one that precedes it. While there may be an overall theme, no poem constricts to one image; instead, she creates a collage of images to support a theme. For example, in her poem “After the Fire”:
He staples his sketches
to telephone poles. At busy intersections,
he clutches his jar of pennies. The phone
call we miss every day is probably God,
who refuses to leave a voicemail, to take
a small reward. My son is searching for air
underwater, for stars on the soles of his feet,
for the bird that will eat from his open palm.
Without any description of clothing, hair style, ethnicity, etc., the reader is able to picture this man stapling his pieces of paper up on the telephone poles without any struggle. The magic of Coutley’s poetry is that she allows each reader to have a unique experience with her words. While my man may have clutched a jam jar and yours, an empty Planters can, both are able to experience the same impact and meaning.
Often, her language continues to build throughout the poem, having a snowball effect. By the final lines, the reader is completely enveloped by the poem’s consequence. “Respiration,” which was included in 32 Poems, has this effect. Also, her images are startling:
It ends then, with a fist
in the face, dogpiled men caught
in a promise to neither leave nor love
one another, a fire lit in an airtight vessel
where no one can open the door.
The reader doesn’t just sense the fear or sense the smell of pungent decay, but feels the fear and smells the flesh caught fire. Coutley promises a striking interaction with the text, and she delivers. We, as readers, feel our way through her poetry and try to find our way out—while reading, we forget that the experiences captured on the page do not exist in the real world.
Or do they?
The last poem in the chapbook totally wowed me and I had to read it a few times to absorb all it had to offer. “Barefoot on the Pulpit” is a poem I want to rip out of a book and tape to my wall. It begins:
Backstage, we don’t kiss for an empty auditorium. We kiss
for strangers who meet and unmeet, the way cobble paths
halt just short of stained glass. Who knows why I won’t
let you know me on the porch swing. A flat beer. A story
of a woman confused, then dead, now gone from you.
Coutley knows how to pack a punch. Her language reflects a spider web, meticulously crafted, that traps the reader in her words and imagery. It does not surprise me that In the Carnival of Breathing won the Black River Chapbook Competition; I can’t wait to read more from Coutley.
Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the
Schools for the Segregated South
Nonfiction by Stephanie Deutsch
Northwestern University Press, December 2011
Hardcover: 244pp; $24.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In Memphis, Tennessee, where I live, the evidence is abundant that our country has not yet achieved racial equality. African Americans make up 61% of the metropolis' population, and a recent report revealed that 24% of the population lives below the poverty level. Stephanie Deutsch's You Need a Schoolhouse reminds us that, although we have a long way to go to achieve equality, our country has made notable strides in the 146 years since the end of the Civil War.
Deutsch's husband's great-grandfather was Julius Rosenwald, who made a vast fortune as president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Unlike some of his more well-known contemporaries (i.e., Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford), Rosenwald did not establish eponymous charitable foundations or erect buildings to commemorate his name. Instead, Rosenwald, whose Chicago rabbi preached a "practical Judaism, anchored in the moral choices of this world rather than in the hope of the next,” devoted much of his vast fortune to charity. During her research for the book, Deutsch discovered that Rosenwald collaborated with one of his close friends, Booker T. Washington, to build schools in rural areas of the South to educate poor, African American children.
That Rosenwald and Washington became friends would seem unlikely, considering their remarkably different backgrounds: Rosenwald's Jewish father emigrated from Germany and was a successful businessman; Washington was born into slavery on a farm in Virginia and never knew his white father. Rosenwald dropped out of high school to apprentice with his uncles in their New York City clothing business; Washington was determined to change his destiny of poverty, and with his intelligence, hard work, and a few well-placed benefactors, he completed his education. By the time the two men met in 1911, Rosenwald had amassed a considerable fortune and had become a popular philanthropist; Washington had established the Tuskegee Institute, and many considered him the heir of Frederick Douglass as the voice of the African American people.
Deutsch has written an engaging book that weaves history lessons throughout her stories about Rosenwald and Washington, their lives, and their individual and joint accomplishments. The writer orients the reader in time by including in the narrative the date on which the events, which do not follow chronologically, occurred. The book bulges with historical data and statistics and illustrates pertinent information about the country's economic and political development. Deutsch fleshes out the men's personalities and engages the reader in their stories by sharing passages from personal correspondence as well as quotes from public speeches.
The men shared many common philosophies, even though their backgrounds and lives could hardly have been more different. Both Rosenwald and Washington were pragmatists and were "eager to move forward not just with ideas and words but also with action.” Their lives exemplified hard work, self-reliance, thrift, and service to others, values that they lived by and encouraged others to practice. Both men were thrifty and believed that the best way to help a person was to provide him/her with the tools to take care of himself/herself. In addition to his job as founder and principle of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington worked on the site alongside the teachers and students who cleared the land, cleaned the buildings, and prepared the fields for planting. Students would learn to farm by tending the crops, which they would sell, using the profits to sustain the school. Rosenwald frequently attached a stipulation to his generous financial support, insisting that his recipients first raise funds to match his donation. The men applied these philosophies to their schools project and built almost five thousand schools. A community that requested Rosenwald's money to build a school was required to first raise an equal amount of money; people in the community then procured the supplies and provided the labor to construct the building.
Neither Rosenwald, who died in 1932, nor Washington, who died in 1915, would live to see the end of segregation. The Civil Rights movement peaked between 1955 and 1965, culminating in the racial integration of public schools. Ironically, the cause that Rosenwald and Washington devoted so much of their lives to also made redundant the segregated Rosenwald schools.
In this educational and engaging book, Stephanie Deutsch brings to life two men with high moral character who joined their efforts at a crucial time in our nation's history to educate children whose families had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but were subsequently abandoned to poverty and illiteracy. Deutsch’s inspirational book reminds us that although we haven't yet achieved racial equality, thanks in part to Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, we have made progress.
Fiction by László Krasznahorkai
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions, June 2011
Paperback: 48pp; $20.00
Review by Erik Fuhrer
AnimalInside is a haunting parable of the apocalypse. Not since Yeats’s darkly poetic prophecy of the second coming has literature imagined such a sinister messiah. However, Krasznahorkai’s baleful parable not only predicts the beast’s malefic resurrection, it graphically details its emergence.
Nearly all of AnimalInside’s compact narratives are spoken by an internal presence that warns of its pernicious arrival: “I am coming, one day I will be here, maybe not in one form, but immediately in two or three, or in four, one day I shall come, and I shall lacerate your faces, because I am ruin.” This is not the peaceful language of a loving savior, or even the slow and menacing slouch of Yeats’s ominous beast, but the corrosive tongue of a demon. Krasznahorkai’s beast will come to us with teeth gnashing, ready to scrape our flesh.
Space seems to be a central conflict throughout the narrative. For example, Krasznahorkai’s creature will often comment on its confinement and restricted movement. We soon learn that it is us that the creature is trapped inside. The metaphor seems to be more primal than political or ideological, simply a raw energy desiring to break free. Perhaps this imprisoned animal represents the Freudian id struggling against the constraints of the constructed self.
Krasznahorkai’s muscular language does not allow the reader much space to deliberate on this issue, but swiftly moves into action: "you won’t even have any eyes, because I shall begin by corroding both of them, because my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I always have been." Whatever this creature is, it is fueled by destruction. Not only does it wish to escape from our fleshy prison, it wants to first destroy our sight. It wants to cause us pain.
In the last section, we are presented with a post-apocalyptical landscape. The demon has done its damage. Yet the struggle goes on: “only the bare crust of the earth remains, only the thick black dead cold ashes, in which we stand facing each other, tensed, on each side pure muscle, and now there is only one question: which of the two of us shall be king.”
This other being is presumably that which he referred to earlier as his “twin brother.” In the midst of destruction, these two creatures engage in an aggressive standstill, the implication being that they will soon devour each other to achieve dominance. However, what will the victor rule over once it is the only thing left? Perhaps it will devour itself? Could Krasznahorkai be commenting on the nature of violence itself? The nature of war? The corruption of power? The brilliance of this work is that it makes comments on all of these things, but cannot be reduced to one clear commentary.
Although a slim volume, AnimalInside is a comprehensive examination of the human psyche. Significant to this work is the collaboration of text and image. In every section, there is always one image that corresponds with each textual passage. Like Krasznahorkai’s text, Neumann’s images are active and embody motion. Though never directly violent, this element is implicit in the red shapes that accompany the mostly black and white images. Max Neumann’s silhouetted figures of human and animal forms beautifully complement Krasznahorkai’s stark violence and vibrant energy.
Poetry by Alberto Blanco
Translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Rathbun
Bitter Oleander Press, June 2011
Paperback: 144pp; $21.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
This is the first full collection of poetry by Alberto Blanco to appear in a bilingual edition in the United States. While his reputation in his native Mexico and abroad is well established, here in the States, aside from receiving significant university appointments, he's relatively less known. Bitter Oleander Press and translator Jennifer Rathbun are out to change that.
Blanco's poetry is filled by landscapes, dreamy and surreal, where rather now expected images of poetry meet up in a bizarre collision producing a familiar yet not so familiar scene:
The moon is a bone crib
rocked by the sleepy earth,
amidst thousands of stars
lit up like a luxury radio.
The poems serve as venue for Blanco's tacit approval of rich imagery over cohesive tract: "Here pleasures sustain / the tenacious tarp of thinking." Sustain by way of wooing visual embrace; fantastic is the word for Blanco's descriptions that come too easily, perhaps, of his imagination's urges. At times, reading this collection, it's easy to agree when a poem says, "But it's clear / obscurity dominates."
Imagination over-rides these poems, leaving little more than a poetic feeling to the lines, as if whatever has been left behind would offer a larger perspective. The poems are strongly presented with imagery which lasts, yet are haunted by what lies behind these images. The question of what lurks beneath gnaws:
The light that hones the mirrors
and the deep voices of the encounter remain.
The double sour cherry remains
like a transcended window,
separated already from the dream.
What the dream was about and what the deep voices may have spoken of is unsaid. This is a book concerned with the lasting effects of what is no longer around on what is. There is nothing but the hazy fringe, the blurred outline of a once held feeling with which the poems have now to visit.
Fiction by Can Xue
Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Open Letter, September 2011
Paperback: 230pp; $13.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Chinese writer Can Xue’s short story collection Vertical Motion captures dream/nightscapes like Steven Milhauser and the surreal like Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. The short stories do reflect real life in activities and mostly relationships, but as she says in one of her stories, “Fantasy is still the way we do things best,” which seems to mean through fantastical experiences people improve. Thus each story explores a “new realm of imagination.”
Yet some stories seem linked to define Xue’s favorite themes. Often women, disturbed by what they see, go outside their world to discover explanations, while their men remain calmer. Strange sights or events occur during rain, though the rain may not be real. The reality of the elderly—an old uncle/father or mentor being difficult—is something the young person learns from. Sometimes the traveler gets dirty, but at the end everything is clean. These are unusual, mystifying stories, but not dark or disturbing because of their positive endings. The reader should enjoy the marvel of the imaginative images and events, and not worry about interpreting them. The warning is, as it appears in one story, “better not to look too closely” and just enjoy that “anything is possible.”
“Vertical Motion,” the first story, takes the reader where he’s never been before. It is told from the perspective of an insect moving from his earthbound life with others like him, never touching but nevertheless communicating through the dirt. This insect of especially long beak moves upward towards the surface in order to find his grandfather. Another later story, “Moonlight Dance,” seems to revisit this creature and the grandfather. With his cries, maybe a cicada?
In “The Brilliant Purple China Rose” a plant grows downward into the ground but the seeds may be just “beautiful little pebbles.” Special stones also appear in “Elena,” the only love story, in which the man travels into his beloved’s strange world, where it rains or maybe not. Rain-or-maybe-not seems to be where magic happens. In one of the best short stories, “A Village in the Big City,” a suffering young man visits his uncle who goes out in the rain from his magical building. His uncle’s apartment is on the top floor and at one point the steps disappear, leaving the building suspended in space, and at another point the steps go downward forever. Also, strange footsteps are heard. Old Uncle Leo “appeared energetic and invigorated,” and as a consequence of his visit, the nephew is cured of his pains. In “Rainscape,” a couple with an umbrella looks older on closer look, and they lead the woman narrator behind the strange, seemingly empty building opposite her own.
There is always a place where strange things happen, often a building or a garden outside a hospital, or a marshland, and people get lost. Often this happens at night, with dreams transforming ordinary phenomenon:
"Time flew last night. I overslept,” he said. It was strange: he had the same feeling. Was time different inside and outside the building? I peeped at his face. When they were dreaming, could people tell any difference in time? Since he had slept straight through, how did he know whether time had passed quickly or slowly?
“At night, people can forget anything, no matter what it is.”
"True. I’ve felt this, too. In one short night, innumerable things can occur.”
Even real life can be magical. “I’ve eaten cotton candy just twice. It was the most mystifying experience on earth. When I put that soft, transparent, fluttering white thing in my mouth, it vanished like air. It had no taste. I knew I’d seen that cotton candy was made of sugar, so why didn’t it taste sweet?” When this child begins making imaginary cotton candy, his father says, “You finally have some ambition. We feel reassured.”
The problems of the elderly seem particularly real. Even when the story is told from a cat’s perspective, an old man’s behavior creates even more confusion with a strange night visitor. Another story, actually named “Night Visitor,” delves into a similar problem. The old person’s own story in “Red Leaves” is surreal, with red leaves appearing in winter and strange events occurring in a strange building. However, when the subject is a difficult father or mentor, as in “Never at Peace,” the reality almost overtakes the fantasy. The young man can only walk away, but it “was not like leaving, but instead like sailing straight towards the dark center of his hometown. It was a place where he’d never been before.”
This extraordinary, imaginative collection of stories has that message: Mystery lives in the midst of our lives.
YA Fiction by Maia Appleby
Brighter Book, December 2011
Paperback: 183pp; $12.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
Calyx of Teversall will entice you from the first sentence to the very last. Maia Appleby’s prose ensnares the reader in a fictional world that is both interesting and realistic at the same time. She plays off of what the young reader is already familiar with in order to structure this fantasy world full of gnomes and elves. In the beginning, we learn that Sigrid is recently widowed and struggling to make ends meet. Her husband maintained a wheat field that she now undertakes, and her three-year-old son Charlie braids the wheat. When Fenbeck, secretly a Borgh Elf, arrives and strikes a deal, Sigrid has no choice but to accept. Fenbeck magically turns many times the normal crop yield and accepts no payment but asserts that Charlie must work for him when he turns nine for one year.
Appleby weaves a stunning story that hooks the reader immediately and refuses to let go. She describes beings and setting so accurately that the reader doesn’t even question their existence. For example, Appleby defines her own version of fairies as soon as they are introduced in the story:
Most people—if they believe in fairies at all—think that there is one type of creature called fairy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Each forest throughout the land has its own unique population of fairies, and it is rare to find a forest without such magical beings. The enchanted little societies keep to themselves, for the most part, and each civilization has, above all, its own set of rules.
Sigrid and Charlie are forced to reinvent themselves to escape Fenbeck. This is how Calyx is born, the pseudonym Charlie chooses for himself as he moves to Teversall with a much better-off aunt and uncle. He learns a new way of life and becomes an expert trader under the kind guidance of his uncle, Tyrone.
The author provides readers new experiences as Calyx discovers them himself. Instead of boring prose that has to catch us up on this fantasy setting, we learn alongside of the protagonist, which makes the story much more interesting and relatable:
As he stepped in, Calyx saw a gnome-sized chair and a table holding a machine topped with two tiny wheels that were turned sideways and positioned side by side. Beside that was another table holding the device with several vertically-arranged wheels of stone in different sizes and thicknesses. Calyx gaped at the contraptions that looked nothing like the imperfectly welded, hammered-metal machinery that he was used to seeing. Not only were gnomes outstanding craftspeople, they were also brilliant inventors. Teaching a human how to use those machines seemed futile to him, as nothing like that existed in Teversall. Yet he was dying to learn.
Although Calyx begins the story as a child, we see him develop into a responsible young man. This novel acts as a bildungsroman despite being set in a fantasy world. We experience Calyx’s awe at the gnomes’ superior skills and learn how they developed these skills together with him. It is always appealing when good triumphs over evil; however, when we learn Fenbeck’s true motivations and intentions it makes our skin crawl with anticipation.
Though intended for ages eight and up, I highly recommend this novel to people of all ages and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.