NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted 1 June 2012

Erik Satie Watusies His Way into Sound :: Poland at the Door :: Woolgathering :: Cures for Hunger :: All the Roads are Open :: Crusoe's Daughter :: Hollywood Boulevard :: Into This World :: Love, An Index :: Nothing Can Make Me Do This :: Swimming the Eel :: Snowflake/Different Streets

[Return to Book Review Home]

 

Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound coverErik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound

Poetry by Jeff Alessandrelli

Ravenna Press, November 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0-9835982-6-8

Paperback: 66pp; $11.95

Review by Gina Myers

Jeff Alessandrelli’s debut book of poems, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound, is an homage of sorts to Satie, the 19th- and 20th-century avant-garde composer. Throughout the collection, a portrait of Satie emerges ghostlike through bits of autobiography, both real and imagined. However, through the insistent refrain of “tells us nothing,” the reader is reminded of how little access or insight one can really be given into another life—how little understanding one can glean from facts and details, and even from the composer’s own writing. Even so, the fragments assembled portray Satie as an eccentric genius who was both admired and reviled during his lifetime.

It becomes clear early on that the speaker of the poems—likely the author himself—sees something of himself in the composer. In “A Game of Numbers,” Alessandrelli writes: “As we grow older our only investigation: / every year searching for a sleeker, more / impulsive version of ourselves.” And while we are told various facts about Satie, we are also reminded that they tell us nothing and that “his every thought was a locked glovebox.” The Satie that emerges is fleeting but made full by Alessandrelli’s imagination and his willingness to entangle his own sense of himself with his subject.

There’s an obsessive quality to the book, from its dedication to “the type of silence that you can’t get out of your head” to its focused subject/singular investigation and meticulous organization. Quotes from Satie bookend the collection—one appearing even before the title page, the other on the very last page, facing the back cover, almost as if endpapers—and floating unattributed quotes, presumably also from Satie, are interspersed throughout the book. Casually flipping through the pages, the reader will see a great variety of forms, from sheet music to prose blocks to numbered lists, and poems crossed out. Meanwhile, each of the twenty-seven poems within uses one of only six titles. The most distinctive of the six are the “Gnossiene[s],” which consist of the sheet music for Satie’s compositions of the same name but have Alessandrelli’s words, specifically written for these pieces of music, written in. For readers who are unfamiliar with how to read sheet music, Alessandrelli includes the poem sans music on the following pages. Like the “Gnoissiene[s],” the poems that share the title “A Game of Numbers” also have a distinct form—numbered lists—that sets them apart from the other poems in the collection.

The poems under the remaining four titles lack the formal qualities that connect the poems in the two aforementioned series; rather they seem to be drawn together thematically. For example, the “On Blast” poems appear to be written from the author’s perspective at the time of writing the pieces as he thought about and listened to Satie—perhaps the “on blast” referring here to speaker volume. The poems titled “The Veiled History of Erik Satie” are connected through their shared focus on Satie’s death and legacy—from what his friends discovered after entering his apartment for the first time after he died:

            they discovered
an inordinate amount of umbrellas,
many of them still encased in wrapping,
obviously never used,
and four pianos in varying states
of disrepair, two with their backs
up against one and other,
two more stacked upside down
on top of the other two.
Also, of course, a yellowed and trembling
packet of love letters,
never mailed

to where he fits in today: “Nowadays known as ambient music, / Erik Satie invented furniture music.”

However, it’s a bit of a mistake to get too bogged down in thinking about what ties certain poems together when there is so much throughout the collection—wonderful imagery and phrases as well as playful repetitions and inversions—to delight in. Further, there’s no need for the reader to be a fan of Satie or even to have ever heard his music to enjoy these lyric pieces:

As a child I thought you could press a snowflake
into static pages of a book
the same way you could press a flower
and that snowflake would stay intact, indelible, true.
All morning long I’ve been listening to Erik Satie,
the Sarabandes, the Nocturnes.
They sound the way most people would rather be happy than honest.
They sound the way you can’t discover the lost treasure if the ship didn’t sink.
They sound the way a sad lonely man studies a stain
on the oppressively white rug he has recently purchased.
They sound the way life is only the illusion of growth,
death the illusion of decay. (“On Blast”)

Alessandrelli draws many parallels between Satie’s life and contemporary times. In “Simple Question,” after discussing Satie’s break-up with the only woman he was ever involved with, the poem continues:

Love is no more than “a sickness of nerves” he forever declared thereafter. And we are, all of us, smitten with the same slavers: sea, wind, the exquisite anglings of the mountains of stars above. Nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing.

Overall, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound is a strong debut. A lot is packed into this slim volume of poems, but it doesn’t feel weighed down by its focused subject. It’s clear that a lot of research went into the book, but the poems sprawl, connect, and open up in ways that allow readers to enjoy them on their own. While the poems may be focused on Satie, they are ultimately ontological in nature—searching for answers and understanding but ultimately returning to that nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing.

top of page

 

Poland at the Door coverPoland at the Door

Poetry by Evelyn Posamentier

Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1907812699

Paperback: 48pp; $8.00

Review by Joanna Kurowska

Evelyn Posamentier’s Poland at the Door is a remarkable book. It is a collection of very short poems, the longest being ten lines while most of poems oscillate between four to six lines. The collection’s poetic “I” remains in a room, behind a closed door. She half-expects, half-dreads some visitors. Her short statements help to visualize her surroundings—walls, door, monitors in the hall outside, a broken phone, the weather in- and outdoors, and the luring but never really appearing guests. Longer poems are intertwined with single lines that laconically state “the days of awe” and “the days between” (or either of the two). This gives the impression of the passage of time in an unfamiliar place, reflecting perhaps Posamentier’s time spent in Poland. Occasionally, the “days of awe/days between” are replaced by the exclamation “holy, holy, holy,” which refers either to Poland’s Catholic culture or to the subject’s sense of the world’s sacredness.

Jumping from one short impressionistic poem to the next, the reader skips over the book’s most conspicuous characteristic, recurring throughout the collection—the phrase POLAND AT THE DOOR, printed in large letters on the top and in the midst of each page (the second one separating the upper poem from the lower one). While this makes the title figure, “Poland,” blatantly present, because of the repeating of the phrase, it becomes overlooked in the process of reading. With history reverberating throughout the book, such a device cleverly conveys something of Poland’s ghost-like presence in Europe throughout the nineteenth and a part of the twentieth centuries. Featuring an 1814 map of Poland, the book’s cover additionally supports such a reading. That year marked the end of Poland’s politically precarious existence—as the “Duchy of Warsaw”—on the map of nineteenth-century Europe, as well as the finale of the era of Napoleon. In a fascinating way, Posamentier captures some of her subject matter’s history, as in the following stanza:

POLAND AT THE DOOR
they came this way before.
i have seen them in all nights.
& in all days. they taste
of forever. who are they?
they pass, they move on
while my room remains silent
& awake, poland at the door.

Poland’s more recent history looms in this collection as well:

go out & smell
burning hair & so forth.
yellow it from the hours
……………………………
i don’t care about the clouds
grasping the sky. what else
can they do? they leave
their evil scent everywhere.

The evil scent of clouds may refer to air pollution or some industrial fumes. However, the immaterial and, paradoxically, ever-present guests/ghosts constantly animate the space surrounding the lyrical subject, hence suggesting the smell of the burning of human bodies and evoking the memory of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Posamentier’s subject perceives the surrounding world through what she hears, as in the lines “the door mat shivers outside. / i hear it complaining of footsteps”; through what she feels, as in “i am cold.”; through what she sees, as in “the guests, the guests smile”; through imagination, as in “i imagine they must have past now”; and through intuition, as in “my room is anonymous today. / it hints of it when no one watches.” This makes these poems profoundly impressionistic, in a way that exceeds visual perception alone.

The lyrical “I” goes beyond her enclosure by describing aspects of space outside of her room, as in the sonically graceful stanza opening the collection:

stars without handrails.
rails in the rain.
lost trains.
no hand signals

On the other hand, the subject’s private space seems frequently invaded by disquieting presences:

for what reason
do they pause before
my door. i beg the phone
for silence.

Due to its interplay between alienation and absorption, Posamentier’s collection speaks also of loneliness, of attempts at trespassing on one’s seclusion in a strange environment, as well as of one’s need to shield oneself from that environment’s invasions:

we clap for more, an uneasy ride
in this amusement park, bar
the door. an uneasy Poland
chats outside, please
poland, stay away from my door.

Poland’s disconcerting history estranges the lyrical subject not only from her surroundings but also from its inhabitants: “the strange ones left with suitcases. / what to do while waiting for a call? / history is rude, not neighborly.” But “history” proves inescapable—“i am yours for the taking / you stupid chunk of history”—which leads the lyrical subject to the questioning of history’s causality and to seeking its deeper meaning:

there is a knock
the conqueror of constellations
…………………………………………………
the great heart of the broken
dome repairs itself, a temple
among us healing the world.
someone spins it out of control.
someone who doesn’t know us well.

Poland at The Door is a highly interesting, if somewhat mysterious, read. Its leading theme of a consciousness experiencing and trying to grasp “strangeness” on the crossroads of geography and history, in its impressionistic literary enactment, is quite compelling.

top of page

 

Woolgathering coverWoolgathering

Nonfiction by Patti Smith

New Directions, November 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0811219440

Hardcover: 80pp; $18.95

Review by Erik Fuhrer

Metaphysical, haunting and meditative, Woolgathering’s lyrical musings very much mimic Patti Smith’s song lyrics in that they are constantly in structural flux, seamlessly flitting from personal narratives to abstract wanderings to slim lines of poetry. The result is reminiscent of an intimate journal, scattered with childhood photographs, reaching for truth, beauty and transformation.

Central to the journal’s philosophical arc are the woolgatherers:

Bending, extending, shaking out the air. Gathering what needs to be gathered. The discarded. The adored. Bits of human spirit that somehow got away. Caught up in an apron. Plucked by a gloved hand.

They are the sacred guides of Smith’s childhood, beckoning her into a communal, quiet, creative life with which she is enthralled. Later, the reader receives more in-depth glimpses into Smith’s artistic journeys during a trippy section which begins with her drawing, quiltmaking and following poetic inspiration on foot, leading her into various coffee houses with kidney beans on her shirt collar (which later become blood pouring from her neck and wetting her shirt), and ends with her unraveling, desperately embracing the world:

I bounded from temple to junkyard in pursuit of the word. A solitary shepherdess gathering bits of wool plucked by the hand of the wind from the belly of a lamb. A noun. A nun. A red. O blue. Twittering threads caught in the thorns of an icy branch. Running in place, a ghost in a vague expanse, I opened my arms to the sovereign trees and submitted to their pure, unholy embrace.

Smith’s language is often Joycean in its wordplay, playfully plumbing the depths of the lexicon. Her imagery is vivid, dipping straight into the pool of mysticism, which is the jurisdiction of the woolgatherer, the daydreamer.

In this slim volume, Smith not only gives us metaphysical depictions of the wandering, searching artist, but also of the child, whose mind works similarly: “The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”

How marvelous that something as abstract as a child’s mind can be distilled so beautifully in so sharp and familiar a gesture as a casual kiss. As the ballerina line exhibits, the child is as unbound and expansive as the artist. Smith describes the beginning of her flight as an artist in a scene of actual, physical, childhood flight:

on particularly wondrous nights, when prayer itself seemed an adventure, something would unzip and I’d be off among them. I did not run, I’d glide—some feet above the grass. This was my secret ability—my crown.

The childhood Smith here is hovering above and among the woolgatherers, participating in their spiritual task. Smith describes this flight again at the end, and it is with this image of the self, spiritually transfigured though physically whole, that she leaves us: “I was lifted and left to glide above the grass, although it appeared to all that I was still among them, wrapped in human tasks, with both feet on the ground.”

On the back cover of my copy of Woolgathering, Smith stands clad mostly in black against the stark white doorway of a stark white house. Beneath the photograph, she insists that “everything in this little book is true, and written just like it was.” Needless to say, from this first impression, I did not expect to crack the book open and find such magic.

top of page

 

Cures for Hunger coverCures for Hunger

A Memoir

Nonfiction by Deni Y. Béchard

Milkweed Editions, April 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-57131-331-7

Hardcover: 320pp; $24.00

Review by David Breithaupt

“Memory holds us until we are ready to see,” Deni Y. Béchard writes in his memoir, Cures for Hunger. The passage of time has given him a panorama from which to piece together the missing links of his life. Béchard’s book is his tale of the sometimes hardscrabble childhood he endured in British Columbia with a mother from Pittsburgh and a father of very vague origins. The existence was sometimes hand-to-mouth, with a father who sold fish during the summer and Christmas trees during the winter, ways of life that seemed to have as many ups and downs as the stock market.

The opening pages of the book set the tone for what follows, beginning with Béchard’s notification of his father’s suicide, then regressing to his youth when he and his brother are in a car with their father. They are parked on a train track, the engine off. In the distance, they hear the roar of a train engine and the boys begin to scream. At the last minute, the father turns the key in the ignition and frees them from the coming impact. This was his dad’s idea of fun, and as I read the book I began to have a sense of impending disaster, a feeling I took with me into my dreams as I perused Béchard’s book at night. With a feuding mother and father, tensions ran high in this family. I kept thinking that something bad was about to happen as I turned the pages; I didn’t know what, but at any moment on the next page, someone was going to do something stupid.

Béchard wants to be just like his father who is a fighter, a drinker, an outdoorsman, and a teller of tales. He emulates his violent behavior, bullying his schoolmates and dabbling in juvenile delinquency. But unlike his father, Béchard develops a love of books and writing, perhaps born out a need to escape his present reality. His father often derides him for this activity, discouraging him at every turn. Then, one day, Béchard comes to a conclusion about his father: “I realized he’d probably never read a novel. What was it like to be someone who’d never finished a last page, never experienced that amalgam of fullness and loss, satisfaction and longing?”

The realization of this rift is what eventually divides their lives, saving Béchard from entering the oblivion where his father’s footsteps led. As he grows older, he wonders why his father’s past is such a mystery, never hearing family members mentioned or meeting any relatives. It is a school assignment which brings this to light, when Béchard has to draw his family tree. It isn’t until his mother leaves his father, taking both him and his brother with her to Virginia, that he begins to learn the truth about his father. It seems dad was a career criminal with a healthy list of bank robbery on his resume—which, to young Béchard, seems like the coolest thing in the world. The ensuing struggle to come to terms with who his father is and was is beautifully mapped out in this memoir. Béchard writes, “I’d never managed to hold all the different versions of him in my head: the reckless, entertaining man I’d known as a boy; the criminal I’d imagined: or the fishmonger racketeer and thug.”

In his father’s last years, Béchard (now in college) reaches out to him to pin his story down and tell it in writing. “Novels seemed the products of that tension, between parents and children, between those they loved and struggled against. As I embraced these novels, it occurred to me increasingly that I knew next to nothing about my father’s past. That absence, the dim history that shaped him, refused to let him become whole.”

The book’s final moments—a father lamenting his past and foreshadowing his own death by suicide while a son scrambles to regain a relationship he perhaps never had but wanted—are movingly recounted. Béchard’s father is found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a few days before Christmas, alone, destitute and in debt.

Béchard picks up the pieces and finally meets his father’s family. Like a damaged painting from the Renaissance which has been restored, he has, in the end, a portrait of his father. It is a fragmented one, but a working model. Writes Béchard: “His story belonged to me now, and in its telling he would return to those who lost him.”

top of page

 

All the Roads are Open coverAll the Roads Are Open

The Afghan Journey

Nonfiction by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole

Seagull Books, October 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0857420152

Hardcover: 124pp; $15.00

Review by Lydia Pyne

Travel literature and memoir is a jumble of familiar tropes and themes, and All the Roads Are Open: the Afghan Journey certainly contains all of those recognizable elements and more. All the Roads Are Open is Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s collection of essays, stories, notes, and thoughts about her overland travels from Geneva to Afghanistan through Afghanistan’s Northern Road with herself, fellow writer Ella Maillart, and their third companion—a Ford with a mind and temperament of its own.

Schwarzenbach’s description of their journey between 1939 and 1940 is a jumbled series of thoughts roughly following their travel itinerary—where each experience and insight strains to overtake the previous one. You get the sense that Schwarzenbach is a friend who has returned from a trip with so many exciting adventures to share that the stories begin to overlap in their telling. You are left with her need to make sense of her experiences. She shows a keen sense of the socio-cultural complexities of each country she visits, particularly Afghanistan, where she describes what she sees as large, sweeping cultural problematiques (“We seemed to be in a land without women!”) about women in Kabul and her horror about their relegation to the societal back corners of Central Asia:

There was little humanity in these ghostly apparitions. Were they girls, mothers, crones, were they young or old, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly? How did they live, what occupied them, who received their sympathy, their love or their hate?

Schwarzenbach balances these wide-sweeping themes with poignantly personal sketches of people she encounters—allowing you, her reader, to be drawn into her world and her experiences. In her essay “The Prisoners,” she recounts getting a flat tire in a “village near the Russian-Iranian border” and the two Russians, Ivan and Piotr, that fix the tire for her.

“Are you refugees?” I asked.
“But of course, refugees, religious Russians. Back there they wanted to make us renounce our faith, they wanted to put us in a cotton kolkhoz with miserable, half-starved nomads. So we ran away.”
“And here?”
Ivan and Piotr have malarial fever and live in an old caravanserai with a samovar and a golden icon. They’re in a bad way, homesick. Amiably they wish me a good journey . . . “On to Afghanistan?” they ask. “Perhaps it’s different there, better, a free land, a promised land?” And they wave . . . 

Part of the literary genius behind Schwarzenbach’s writing is her ability to oscillate between these big, sweeping themes and small, portraiture-like sketches that successfully illustrate those themes. Her ability to humanize her themes by finding a person or scene to sketch helps readers unfamiliar with the area or the culture—and even those readers who might be familiar with them—to become emotionally vested in her journey and the people along it. Because you care about the people (the Ivans and the Piotrs or the veiled women of Kabul), you implicitly care about the theme that she’s writing to—and you appreciate the incredibly complex context that she captures.

However, All the Roads Are Open deserves another note of praise—specifically directed toward the translator and organizer of the text, Isabel Fargo Cole, and editor Roger Perret. Their dedication to organizing Schwarzenbach’s notes, essays, and thoughts into a coherent narrative—to say nothing of the translations—provides the solid, underlying structure to carry the reader through Schwarzenbach’s travels. Their notes on the ever-changing geography of names and places helps those who are unfamiliar with the geographic immediacies of the region.

All the Roads Are Open does what the best travel and memoir literature does— it makes you smile in recognition and shared experience. This is the secret smile you share with a fellow traveler who, separated by decades, has brilliantly described some of your own memories, and that’s certainly what All the Roads Are Open did for me. Mount Damavand, Tehran, Samarkand. The Steppes. The Little Girls With Their Chadors. The Car That Breaks Down Every 35 Miles. The memoir takes on these fantastically familiar traveling tropes and then invites readers to share these memories vicariously, but with a pointed poignancy necessary for her audience to examine the themes she encounters along her Road—to see Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s experiences as a snapshot of her vivacious life and a celebration of her indelible curiosity.

top of page

 

Crusoe's Daughter coverCrusoe’s Daughter

Fiction by Jane Gardam

Europa Editions, April 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-60945-069-4

Paperback: 265pp; $16.00

Review by Olive Mullet

Jane Gardam’s magnificent novel Crusoe’s Daughter, first published in 1985 in England and only now published in the U.S., was Gardam’s favorite of her novels: “Take it or leave it, Crusoe’s Daughter says everything I have to say.” Those familiar with the books of this largely unknown, very British novelist will recognize aspects of Gardam’s writing later echoed in Old Filth, The Man With the Wooden Hat and the more recently published God on the Rocks: the wonderfully odd characters sometimes reminiscent of Dickens; the humor; an era’s precise, tiny details of place and people; and indirectly given information, often about past forbidden romances.

This novel meant more to Gardam because it is based on her mother, family, and early childhood home:

It was the elf-light of childhood that still hung about, the wonder of the marsh. The people still more real to me in the vanished place than most of the people I’ve met since.
Suppose I had stayed there—like my mother. Let me suppose a sort of castaway girl who lived there all her life like Robinson Crusoe. I’d give her a library—her dead grandfather’s vicarage books. I’d give her a wonderful lover. I’d give her a nervous breakdown when he is taken from her. I’d give her alcoholism (my mother never drank!). I’d give her children and knowledge of the holiness of the heart’s affections. And I’d show the power of her childhood landscape, the enfolding murmuring magical marsh so flooded with light, sunshine, silvery rain and mist, and the running sea. When I had finished I needn’t write any more books.

Fortunately, she did continue writing, but here, as elsewhere, her nineteenth century characters are real—not romanticized—people: “as I knew they had been . . . starved of money, employment, sex, and the love of men who were not their ‘class.’”

Eleven-year-old Polly Flint comes to her aunts’ north England yellow house, facing the sea and the marshes, because her father is always at sea and her mother dead. From gentle Aunt Frances and bleak Aunt Mary, she overhears an unhappy truth about her mother, but other events have more consequences: their maid Charlotte’s parting curse on her aunts, Aunt Frances’s marriage (which at age 40 signals proof of the desperation of women to marry), and Polly’s visit to Thwaite House and its artsy guests with her generous but eccentric host Mr. Thwaite. These guests seem Dickensian, like “the funny little painter who snaps at the air like a dog,” but this “snapping painter” steps beyond any characterization in capturing the truth about Polly:

“A young woman on the threshold of life . . . the doomed traveler.” And looking at him I saw what a miserable, smug, self righteous lump I was . . . . Seeing all, he had forgiven all, and had shown that, though I was young and stupid, there was some sort of hope.

The housekeeper after Charlotte, Alice, saves Polly, who has become increasingly isolated in the yellow house. From her losses of childhood friends and loves, Polly follows in Robinson Crusoe’s footprints, though without his self-recognition. Instead of going mad with solitude, Crusoe shows resilience and “most extraordinary and unnatural steadiness,” courage and “beautiful self-assurance, his wonderful survival after disaster,” unselfishness, powers of decision, and “sensible sexlessness.”

Only when she is forced out into the world does Polly learn about her family. Typically, such information comes in Gardam’s works indirectly, but here, Polly receives it directly, albeit late. Indirection is still to be found in big events taking place off stage, like WWI and the beginnings of WWII. Yet Polly’s limited life is not at the expense of the precise reproduction of an era. Tiny details bring a scene to life:

Their boots left pools about the patches of linoleum which were so sparse on the cold slabs that the floor seemed to be occasionally painted with dim flowers and leaves and squirls and bare in patches like the traces of an antique pavement.

And indirection also comes with one of Gardam’s favorite devices (also used in Old Filth)—a switch to pages out of a play. Crusoe addresses an eighty-seven-year-old Polly concerning her obsession about him:

Polly Flint: You have been my great love.
Crusoe: That was your misfortune . . . 
            Characters in fiction cannot make new departures. We are eunuchs.
            Frozen eunuchs . . . 
            Still half in love with books. Is it enough? . . . As a life, not bad.
            Marooned of course. But there’s something to be said for islands.

This play form also is an efficient way to find out what’s happened up to the end and how the past has come back to Polly, plus how inadequate this outside view of her is.

This self-acclaimed best novel might be the perfect way into Gardam’s wonderful world.

top of page

 

Hollywood Boulevard coverHollywood Boulevard

Fiction by Janyce Stefan-Cole

Unbridled Books, April 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-60953-075-4

Hardcover: 352pp; $25.95

Review by Patricia Contino

Hollywood is an industry town that manufactures dreams. Those dreams can be nightmarish, as in Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust (whose woefully underappreciated 1975 film adaptation is as disturbing and ugly as its source), or bittersweet, like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

Janyce Stefan-Cole’s Hollywood Boulevard is Tinseltown nostalgia of another kind. This first novel also has a marketing campaign worthy of its movie pedigree, featuring a scene between the heroine and her “B movie” ex-boyfriend. More importantly, this modern film noir novel about a movie star, her men, and her craft is an energetically entertaining and absorbing undertaking of a topic whose style and format changes as many times as reels in the multiplex. Not a bad scenario at all.

Ardennes Thrush narrates her own “trashy airport” story . Her circa 1940s leading lady first name is her own; her father saw combat in the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge. She portrayed a prostitute but is no tabloid fixture. Her mother respected her ambitions enough to give her Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting and pay tuition for classes at Ms. Hagen’s HB Studio. Ardennes is not sentimental, but the New York native misses the downtown that artists could afford rather than the “real-estate heaven” that “big box developers” created for business types and tourists.

An intelligent and creative first-person narrator is one worth getting to know. If Ardennes was real, her IMDB listing would include an Academy Award nomination and a Cannes Best Actress Award. Stefan-Cole is either a genuine film buff, a terrific researcher with a sense of irony, or both because there is a long history of actors—The Artist’s Jean Dujardin being one of the few exceptions—who won that big festival prize but did not go on to win an Oscar.

Fame and a bicoastal lifestyle cost Ardennes her first marriage but not her ego. Despite success, she does what non-actors fantasize about: she quits. She joins her current husband Andre as he directs The Dancer, a combination of Black Swan, Freaks, and Nightmare Alley (another film worthy of the noir thriller it was adapted from) on location at the Hotel Muse. It is at this Los Angeles “nightclub originally, from the late 40s, featuring acts better suited to a circus sideshow” that she contemplates the decisions she has made up to this point—and realizes that even an A-lister with solid credentials is subject to unwanted attention.

While recalling memories of her New York life and the cinematic situations she finds herself in, Ms. Thrush never stops being in character. While she knows Andre’s work is “his mistress,” she nevertheless lovingly describes a movie set as “the undergrowth . . . the miniature universe, the womb and birth and life of filmmaking.” Acting still matters a great deal to her:

The hardest thing about ending a part on stage is coming down from the high, shutting that down. This happens in film too if the part has any meat on its bones. Even if the acting is a struggle from word one to word last, the body systems quicken. You might feel like you’re about to have a stroke standing up before an audience or in front of the camera’s cold eye as you utter your first line . . . With a good part the writer’s voice comes alive through you, the emotions rising naturally out of the words, no gimmicks to rouse a tear, a laugh, a shout.

One of her post-acting plans includes writing. Because of her keen observational skills as an actress, narrator, and writer, Ardennes has enough material to write her own Respect for Acting:

And what happens to the real-life actor, the person inside? Swallowed up, dissolved; sits in a corner on hold, an abandoned self watching from the sidelines as the fictional character takes over. An actor can be personally stupid as a doornail, impossible to converse with, yet speak Shakespeare with eloquence and truth.

In addition to the fun Stefan-Cole has with an actress who has everything yet feels she has nothing, she also has a good time with Hollywood lore. One of the Muse’s claims to fame was that decades ago an aspiring starlet died under mysterious circumstances on the same floor where Ardennes and Andre are staying. The one indulgence Ardennes can’t shake is shoes, causing her trouble of both the Entourage and Sex and the City kind. A charming, good-looking Muse employee is named Sharif. Best of all is Andre’s agent Kurt Tayker, who Ardennes aptly describes as being “given the perfect name, a little joke by a playful God with an Olympian idea of the inanity of human intercourse.”

Both movie and mystery fans will have fun with Hollywood Boulevard, which would make a movie worth seeing—and one Ardennes might consider starring in.

top of page

 

Into This World coverInto This World

Fiction by Sybil Baker

Engine Books, May 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1938126-01-7

Paperback: 208pp; $14.95

Review by Jodi Paloni

Into This World is a novel that spans time, point of view, and geography to tell the story of a family’s search for identity and relationship. Mina is a child brought home from the Korean War by Wayne to join his American family that consists of his wife Bonnie, who longs for a second child, and his daughter Allison, who is not so pleased by the family’s new addition. The story opens when Allison and Mina are adults. Mina has moved to Korea in search of her birth mother and to reclaim her heritage. Allison discovers she has unfinished business with Mina and travels to Seoul in hopes of unraveling their complex past.

In a two-hundred-and-four page novel that hones one slice of what could have easily become an epic family saga, I can only imagine that author Sybil Baker had to make the hard choices that novelists do: whose point of view best tells what happened, how to insert necessary backstory to clarify the narrative present, and which character should reveal his or her secret and when to maintain tension, especially when each of the main characters in the book has at least one secret.

Into This World is told mostly from Allison’s third-person point of view. She is the character that we come closest to knowing. Through Allison, we also come to know Mina and the bulk of her mystery. Wayne’s four point-of-view chapters in the novel’s beginning tell the story of his past and how Mina came to their lives. Mina’s two point-of-view chapters serve to fill in the gaps of her time spent missing in Korea while Allison searches for her. One of the two chapters reveals an event from adolescence that motivated Mina’s actions in adulthood—an event that she once concealed, and that now only she can tell. The dark and beautiful Mina and the mystique surrounding her life draw the reader’s attention, yet in the end, it is Allison’s tenacity to move forward in her own life, to heal her own past, that provides the agency to propel the narrative towards its conclusion.

Baker’s finely rendered prose, her engrossing plot, and her rich descriptions of an exotic place—the food, the night life, and the customs—are all enough to provide an impetus to read Into This World, as the author does indeed propel us into another world and keep us there for the duration:

A man dropped a large glowing coal in the middle of their table, and placed a grill on top. A plate of sliced pork called samgyeopsal was brought out with plates of lettuce, kimchi, onions, garlic. Jason lifted the tongs and laid the slabs of meat on the grill . . . Soju and beer were ordered and the first shots and cheers already delivered when the others arrived.

And later:

Filmy black scarves draped from the ceilings and curtained sections of the bar. Dim lights dotted the low slung tables and red velvet chairs and couches formed miniature living rooms . . . the waiter reappeared with a large hookah pipe. Apple-flavored tobacco. . . . The air smelled like apples and woodsmoke. With the low lights, red furniture, black diaphanous curtains, the persistent beat of the techno music, Allison felt like she’d stepped into an opium den .

Still, I became interested in how the author’s choices in structure and craft enhanced my experience as the reader: that we know each of the character’s stories better than they know each other’s and observe how their assumptions of one another first undo and then recreate them; that Wayne’s flashback chapters, his wartime memories, are inserted between Allison’s chapters of traveling and discovering the place where his flashbacks occur; and that Mina’s interior is kept distant until the point in the story where she locates her birth mother.

It’s as if Baker used technique itself as a metaphor for the themes they represent. Wayne travels in his mind to a place in history that he’s repressed (flashback), as his daughter travels there in actuality and into her future. Mina’s narrative perspective (close third person) appears in the part of the novel where she unearths her mother’s identity and whereabouts. And Allison, who had lived a risk-free life relative to Mina (who in the beginning of the novel sees herself as victim, as “done-to,” as the lesser of daughters), takes on most of the narrative risk, thereby claiming the voice of the family story. She narrates two-thirds of the twenty-four chapters.

As I think about family dynamics regarding perspective, I am struck by how the novel encapsulates present actions for two sisters that are heavily founded on the choices of the father, long ago and far away. What’s true for each is what he or she perceives as truth, but is not necessarily true for the others. No one person has all of the pieces to the family puzzle. Each needed the necessary pages in which to tell their version of the story. In the final chapter, the narration becomes omniscient; all of the family members are represented, with Allison having the final word:

At the temple spring she dipped a hollowed-out gourd into the cool mountain water. She walked to her father and squatted down so they were eye level.
“Here, Daddy.” She nudged the gourd so that he had to part his hands. “Take this. Drink this.”

Besides commenting on family, Into This World depicts the societal differences between the U.S. and Korea, the long-lasting consequences of cultural co-existence in wartime, and the impact of bi-racial identity in a contemporary world that has yet to fully accept diversity. As such, it’s a novel that offers the story of one insular family for a more global consideration—a reason to present multiple perspectives in the final chapter, as daughter offers water to her father from a foreign land they’ve both come to know in their way, in their own time.

top of page

 

Love, An Index coverLove, An Index

Poetry by Rebecca Lindenberg

McSweeney’s, March 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-936365-79-1

Hardcover: 96pp; $18.00

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

Rebecca Lindenberg’s first book of poems is concerned with loss. She takes up composing an extended elegy with little unnecessary adornment of sentiment. Lindenberg deserves credit for not making this book a clear-cut narrative of her years-long serious romance with the poet Craig Arnold, who vanished in 2009 while on a hiking visit to an active volcano—an apparent passion of his. In place of that, these are poems built of necessity; some happen to be soundings of specific moments of Lindenberg’s life with Arnold, but such concern remains secondary.

She allows details of her relationship with this “Oh, tall man” (“Which, if I Never Thought to Mention it Before, I Now Feel Compelled to Address”), to be yielded mention in the poems while never suffering her feelings for this “Tall, tall, tall, tall, tall man” to override or push beyond what’s called for by the occasion of the poetry itself. In other words, when she says in an interview on McSweeney’s website that the book “was well underway, about half written, when Craig vanished in April 2009” there’s no reason to doubt otherwise. It remains clear Lindenberg didn’t set out to capitalize on the death of her lover.

Though there are bits of poet’s gossip where Lindenberg does offer some details of her personal history with Arnold, it’s always not only of interest but structured in such a way which compliments possible readings of the poems. Throughout the book, the historical record is weaved in and out in a proper poetic evasion of traditional chronological recounting. We are offered facts more than anything. For instance, the poem “Love, a Footnote” consists of 14 statements beginning with:

1. The KGB Bar off 2nd Avenue in New York’s East Village was a gathering place for the Ukranian Communist Party, which explains the curious décor but not the frequent readings.

Throughout this particular poem, Lindenberg maintains a balance of situating what appears to be her original meeting of Arnold without it ever rolling over into being kiss-and-tell scenario. This is true for the book as a whole. Instead, a feeling is given for how the relationship developed as these two poets came to know one another in the various environments they found themselves surrounded by. For instance, sticking with the same poem:

12. Veselka is a Ukranian diner in the East Village, near St. Mark’s Church. Very good pierogi. Many of the customers have chic glasses, cases for musical instruments, and dirty hair. I like to sit at the counter.

This restaurant may prove worth knowing about on a reader’s next visit for a reading at The Poetry Project. While not the hippest guide to the poetry world, Love, An Index affirms that Lindenberg and Arnold’s relationship was one built out from an assuredly dedicated life to poetry. From the beginning of their earliest conversations, a healthy competitive edge appeared between the lovers, which at the time wasn’t entirely evident to each equally. This is also from the same poem as above:

8. Wallace Stegner’s comment about art as the communication of insight appears in various incarnations in his work, but my favorite is in Angle of Repose. You acted surprised that I had such a thought. I took it as a compliment at the time.

Lindenberg understands the risk of so openly expressing grief over a lost love via poetry; in the same interview previously cited, she says, “These poems were an experiment of a sort—and they’re quite sincere, but that’s not to say they aren’t also lucidly aware of their own (what is it?) ridiculousness? Excess, perhaps.” She isn’t averse to admitting a certain weakness to her book, yet she’s aware of how there’s also simultaneously a strength to be found. As long as she’s attentive to the needs of the poems, there’s a chance of successfully pulling off the project. She stresses that “it is also important to remember that elegy is a story of change—elegy, true elegy, culminates in some kind of coming-to-terms. It can hold onto the affirmation without requiring the grief. Elegy takes our attachment and desire and longing and sublimates it into song.” And the celebration such “song” offers as a site for both reflection and renewal is amply demonstrated in this collection, as with “Still Life with Movement”:

    On this
cedar table all
the quiet volition
of the world underway,
becoming, then
becoming anew.

Lindenberg sublimates her personal concerns (emotions over her loss and memories of Arnold) in service to wielding the poems as a tool of more than mere recovery. As noted in “Dispatches from an Unfinished World,” these poems enter into “Kinds of holiness.” Wonder and delight.

top of page

 

Nothing Can Make Me Do This coverNothing Can Make Me Do This

Fiction by David Huddle

Tupelo Press, October 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-936797-11-0

Paperback: 300pp; $16.95

Review by Wendy Breuer

Nothing Can Make Me Do This, a novel in linked stories by David Huddle, excavates the geography of loneliness and relationships. Each story looks at a sedimentary layer in the history of the Houseman family circle, not necessarily in chronological order. These characters, revealed in close third person narration or first person, do not wander geographically far from the home nest for very long. Journeys are internal and sometimes deeply buried. The through-thread in this family history is the voice of the secret sexual self, somehow unshared even in intimacy.

Horace Houseman, provost at a Vermont College, faces late middle age and then unforeseen death in his early sixties. His wife inadvertently discovers in his study a secret stash of video pornography—aha; a straight arrow with a secret vice. Everyone is disconcerted; perhaps they don’t know grandpa at all. One worries, will this be another send-up of academia? Huddle’s project is more complicated. Eve, the granddaughter, relates her precocious preadolescent attempt to draw upright Horace into an intimate conversation, to explain his incongruous secret. They do talk about secrets and about what adulthood means, but they skirt the motivating issue. Yet, the grownup narrator Eve understands that the talk created a special connection between them. On his deathbed, Horace confides to her, “It wasn’t anybody’s fault, really . . . I was just made this way . . . I wanted to be close to people. Especially in the family. I really did. But I couldn’t manage it. . . . You know, loneliness is not such a bad companion.”

Meanwhile, Huddle has implanted the videos like a sleeper cell that keeps detonating explosions in unexpected ways. In a story titled “Doubt Administration,” we learn how they’ve come into Horace’s possession. He agonizes over an opportunity for an extra-marital dalliance with a newly hired dean, but, as always, “What leads Horace into temptation leads him right back out of it. . . . A moralistic imagination.” Lifelong friend Sonny, a multiply married drunk whom Horace protects out of loyalty and love, needles him. He offers “the cataract laser surgery equivalent for libido impediments,” the infamous porno stash. Horace, true to Sonny, makes a good-faith attempt to watch but is so repelled that, two minutes in, he gives up and never looks at them again.

A subsequent story goes back to Sonny and Horace as young faculty in their twenties. Including Horace’s new wife, Clara, a threesome friendship is formed. The young marrieds are in the throes of new sexual passion, keenly sensed by their new friend. Meanwhile, Sonny forms a crush on Clara that feeds his autoerotic fantasies. He recognizes that he is a “jerk” with real women and prefers the control of his fantasy life, but the real-life friendships create secret pain. This casts Sonny’s later serpent-in-the garden role with the videos in a more complicated light.

Bill, Horace’s son-in-law, is charged with disposing of “grandpa’s filth” after the funeral. In an endearing and self-deprecating voice, he tells us he adores his wife Hannah but senses an ever-present and unnamed disconnection from her that arises from her separate past. And what was the old man’s secret world? Like a taking a taste of heroin, Bill ends up in a web of porn addiction. “ . . . I give over to several minutes of deep sorrow for our man Bill. What a lousy life, his wife doesn’t go for his bedside manners . . . & now he’s contaminated himself with dirty pictures. Boo hoo hoo.” This story ends with a scene of subtle marital re-equilibration. Hannah archly asks, “Where you been, Billy?” “Swimming with the mermaids,” he tells her. No, really he’s just the “Old Farmer” who never went away.

Other stories explore adolescent friendship, the reverberations of first sex, first love, and loss. Hannah tells of her intellectual hunger in college, how it led to inadvertent mutual seduction with a geeky but charismatic professor. Horace observes his staid wife, Clara, in an unguarded moment singing along with passion to a rock song about wild, doomed love with a bad boy. In a searing portrait of widowhood, we see Clara questioning acquiescent wifehood, calling herself no better than a whore even in her tempered grief. And Sonny reaches out to a hurting young boy he meets in a volunteer program, sounding a hidden depth from his childhood.

Transgression can be real or imagined, from outside in or inside out. No one is privileged to see beyond his or her own small portion of the way the past displaces layers of the present. The complexity in Nothing Can Make Me Do This requires you to keep parsing connections. Huddle creates a landscape that is hard to leave behind with the final story.

top of page

 

Swimming the Eel coverSwimming the Eel

Poetry by Zara Raab

David Robert Books, September 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1-936370-44-3

Paperback: 116pp; $20.00

Review by Kevin Brown

Zara Raab’s collection centers around place and people, the Eel of the title a river in California where generations of Raab’s family settled. Raab lets the reader know early on that place will serve as an important theme throughout the collection, as each of the three section titles relate to place: “A Land of Wonders,” “Coming to Branscomb,” and “Hills above the Eel.” The collection shows a place changing, moving from a place that is not even a town, where a family’s house can serve as the one-room schoolhouse, to a contemporary city, though still small, with contemporary troubles.

In the first section, the reader sees “Yellow Fields” and “Winter Cord,” the hardships of the frontier country, but the beauty of the land is also clearly present. By the end of the collection, though, that landscape has changed. There are still seemingly bucolic pleasures, such as “fields of tall grass and firs / and spotted milk cows taking hold / by rocky outcrops, and foxholes,” but the line preceding these three notes that “For kids like her, there’s not much here.” Now, we see this scene in “Visiting the County Jail,” a far cry from “Yellow Fields” set a century or so before, a poem that ends:

The double lanes are where peahens
roost on guardrails; the smooth tarmac
stripes ahead, Indian gold on black.
The Lexus purr by, in no time
passing on, swilling the fields of grain.

This is not the Eden that has been portrayed earlier in the collection, a motif that recurs throughout the collection, as do snakes, not surprisingly.

While the place changes, though, the people do not change all that much. People struggle against whatever hardships they encounter, some succeeding, some not, but none to a great extent. As we move through the generations, we see sons and daughters repeating the sins of their parents, not learning much from those who have come before. Even the successes seem limited by their repetition. In fact, Raab begins the final section of the book with “The father,” which ends:

Our forms, slow to change, repeat:
Cupid, clown, bully, deadbeat,
paragon, puck, prince, pauper,
madman, maid, thief, marauder,
featherbrain, hero, fisherman, father.

This collection struggles under the weight of this narrative, however, as the story seems to drive the poems, especially early on. While this approach does lead Raab to some prose poems, which are interesting, it also leads to some prose-like poems, which weaken the collection. In the first section, for example, poems like “Fishing the Eel among the Athapaskans,” “Belle and Mary,” and “Infidels of Light” seem designed to provide narrative information more than poetic language. “Belle and Mary,” a prose poem, begins: “Bachelors need wives in order to thrive, and Alonzo was no exception. A wife was coming to him; even as he was heading west, she was making her way there by another route, one of two sisters sailing from Augusta, Maine on a 5,000-mile voyage to California a few years after the Civil War.” While prose poems have more latitude, this poem and others like it do not bring the tropes of poetry to bear on the narrative.

Another problem with the narrative is that it is often unclear. There are multiple generations, and they are often not clearly defined, causing the reader to look back at previous poems simply to understand who is related to whom. In other poems, such as “Going to Branscomb,” Trionesta,” and “Branscomb Road,” it is unclear who the speaker or subject of the poem is, causing those poems to lose their connection to the overall narrative.

Oddly enough, the strongest poems are those that are not directly connected to the narrative. First, in “Billy Gawain,” an anonymous “we” find a dead man hanging in the woods and bury him with their own, as “He had no kin.” In this poem, especially in the first stanza, Raab describes the scene as poetically as she does almost any in the collection:

    his black boots
almost scraping on the ground, bowing
down a branch half-cleft from the oak’s crown.
His hands seemed to take back what he’d done,
they at least had wanted life, clawing,
frantic to unknot the fraying jute,
his thick, blackened nails cut and bloodied.

Here is a vividly rendered scene that helps the reader see and feel what the narrator of the poem has discovered. The voice is pitch perfect, and the tone hits the right notes.

In “San Francisco Earthquake,” the best poem in the collection, Raab surprises the reader with unexpected images that convey the chaos of the earthquake, a description heightened by her choice of the asylum as her setting. In the middle of the poem, Raab shows what happens when the earthquake strikes:

and a woman ran out, carrying her baby
like a trussed chicken, and Caruso stood
at the open window, at the opera before him
as he sang out, “La fanta mi salva
l’immondo ritrova
” to those standing half
nude in sleep’s dance by the fallen porticoes—”

She ends the poem simply, the effects of the earthquake already clearly laid out in the preceding lines, by writing, “Leaves flapped and whirled, blossoms powdered / and lathered our missing faces.” The narrative that holds the collection together is missing in this poem, so she relies on the power of language, and it does its job well here.

If one can read the poems in Swimming the Eel apart from the narrative, the book is much more effective, as the importance does not center on who certain individuals are, but what the poem in and of itself says at that moment. When Raab focuses on that question, her poems become much stronger.

top of pag

 

Snowflake/Different Streets coverSnowflake/Different Streets

Poetry by Eileen Myles

Wave Books, April 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-933517-58-2

Paperback: 224pp; $20.00

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

Eileen Myles hides the trout. She’s at it again. This new double collection of poems from Wave Books in Seattle has everything readers of Myles adore in her work. All the wit, charm, honesty, sexiness, and surprises are here for another go-round. Yes, Myles has gotten older:

Every woman your
age
cute. Every woman
my age
wounded &
glisten. (“the weather”)

And she’s no longer chasing the fish with the alcoholic drinking ways of her youth, but these days she’s talking much less about that change and her humorous and distinctly crafted lines have never been stronger:

    and if you
don’t watch
me like a
hawk I won’t
be scared
I want to be
loved like
a sunbeam (“my box”)

Myles is forthright in her self-identifications, associating herself with the flood of light as easily as a sweep of water, endlessly elaborating upon how she would be loved alongside how she loves, closing the poem with a clear warning not to be taken for granted:

or the ocean
you know the
way I drive
I want to lift
your fear
like a bonnet
and kiss
your living
face. Here
this is
mine. Don’t
misunderstand
me.

The shifts of perspective Myles hits from one line to the next have always drawn me to her work. One moment she’s in a private soliloquy, the next she’s intimately addressing a lover or friend, and then she’s adopting a public address complete with Whitmanic overtones. Reading her poems remains a zappy ride of highly conscious self-exploration mixed with grotesque day-to-day:

I’ll tell you what
makes me sad
sun on grass
a beautiful
day
farting in my
car
or watching
a palm
tree do
its galloping
sigh (“more oil”)

Myles never comes off as anything but down-to-earth. She’s still thoroughly the Boston working-class kid that discovered poetry then went to New York City, and with a bit of luck and many hours of disciplined (along with many not-so-much) work found herself to be a writer of international renown and popularity. Being a university professor and crisscrossing the country on public reading engagements never seems to faze her; her attitude is self-possessing and uncanny as ever: “a man’s beauty / remains the only thing / you are absolutely / not allowed to / discuss” (“#12 Man’s Beauty”).

Myles just gets things: other people, friends, lovers, animals, cars, trees, the sky; everything has its groove for her, which she digs into, enjoys, and shares. Whatever doesn’t speak to or otherwise attract her she ignores; just moves on with her own agenda, taking things as they come and stating them plainly in her work:

I don’t have
a working voice
I just have
a voice that
comes out the
way it
wants apart
from me. I think
of voices
I admire & try
to use
& you
know how
your friends
shirts are.
Sometimes
it does look
good. These
jeans are
dead. They’re
getting re-
placed. (“the nervous entertainment”)

Myles trusts in her nerve. It knows what works and hasn’t failed her yet. There’s little likelihood it ever will. Take Myles with you on a prowl of city streets, and you’ll be in good hands. Even in the darkest, most dangerous neighborhoods Myles cracks a wry smile, smirks, her eyes lighting up, and a poem unfolds. Roll with her awhile. Wherever she’s headed, she’s got your back and good times are sure to be had, even if things get bleak for a bit now and then. These are poems built out of life. Myles stylizes herself by way of indeterminacy: “I’ve become / not a woman or a man,” refusing to have the poem offer up any limiting of her ability to respond and adapt:

the ripples I’ve become
I’m influence
the way language changes
and rocks heal & burn (“hi”)

Looking forward to new poems by Eileen Myles is one of the true pleasures of my reading life. Her work defines an approach towards understanding and dealing with turbulent times for an entire generation. She remains one living definition of cool.

top of page