Posted Juy 1, 2010
Impotent - LA Liminal - Wings Without Birds - Isobel & Emile - Look Back, Look Ahead - Talk Thai - Immigrant - Flowers - The Ancient Book of Hip - Selenography - Ghost Machine - Dream Detective - The Running Waves
Novel by Matthew Roberson
Fiction Collective 2, March 2009
Paperback: 166pp; $13.95
Review by Caleb Tankersley
If you’ve ever been on a mind-melting prescription drug binge, Matthew Roberson’s new novel Impotent might be nostalgic for you. But for the rest of us in docile society, this new work from Fiction Collective 2 lives up to the bizarre, psychedelic, experimental, and well-crafted reputation of the press’s many outer-rim publications. For example, Impotent opens with the recurring characters L and I, in which L stands for “Last Name, First Name, Middle Initial” and I stands for “Insured.” No character throughout the entire work has a clear name, mirroring the dehumanization that comes with the prescription drug industry.
I must be clear: there are no absolute characters in this book. However, do not fear; Roberson’s skill makes innovation much less difficult to navigate than a reader might imagine. And the lack of names or coherent individuals (and thus an excellent commentary) is only the tip of the experimental iceberg. Much like any prescription drug advertisement or commercial, a large amount of the novel’s content is found in the fine print of footnotes. Don’t let the relatively short length of this novel fool you: some pages are nearly filled with intermittently anecdotal or vastly important footnotes that either explain or seek to dilute further what is truly occurring in the patient/character’s mind.
Not only is Roberson in the brain of characters with chemically-induced insanity, he’s also in the mind of physicians, pharmacists, and drug company executives. Every bizarre aspect of this novel’s execution is meant to make the reader stop and think, “Why would he do this? It’s purposefully confusing.” Impotent is not at all a story to get lost in. You will not forget you’re reading an experimental work about prescription drugs. However, that’s the true aim of Roberson: to wake the sleeping masses to the elusive and manipulative tactics of the prescription drug industry.
Beyond the social commentary of the piece, there are real consequences present for the individuals within the novel. More drugs than I ever imagined are introduced, tried, and perhaps explained. Horrendous side effects or withdrawal symptoms such as weight loss/gain, irritability, depression, suicide, ulcers, cancer, and a disgusting array of birth defects are discussed or experienced in the novel, often hidden in the footnotes. A reader will learn much more than he or she ever desired about pills.
Finding a short passage is difficult for such a stream-of-consciousness work, but here are a few short lines to demonstrate how some of the chapters are structured:
For C [child] a nurse climbed on the table and pushed S’s [spouse] stomach.
The doctor used forceps.
M [male] hid in a corner.
It went no better with C.
While the actual events or plot of the novel might be difficult to summarize or even grasp, the message is not. Rather than lulling a reader into a story’s thrilling narrative, Roberson is attempting to open eyes to the narratives American society has already been lulled into. This work of fiction seeks to destroy the false safeties readers imagine in their healthcare system. I’d think twice before downing that Percocet. But don’t think twice about picking up this book.
Poetry by Becca Klaver
Kore Press, March 2010
Paperback: 88pp; $14.95
Review by Gina Myers
According to Merriam-Webster, liminal describes a threshold, an in-between state; it is defined as “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition,” and it is the perfect adjective to describe the state of Becca Klaver’s poems in LA Liminal, her first full-length collection. Prose pieces woven throughout the book present a common narrative: a young lady from a Midwestern town moves to Los Angeles in hope to discover whatever it is that LA promises, grows disenchanted, and leaves. However, this tale is anything but common thanks to Klaver’s spin on the whole experience.
This is a smart and obsessed poetry, a long meditation on a city unreal. Even with details of film school and smoking cigarettes on the balcony of her apartment, Klaver knows her own memories are abstractions. In “How to Abstract A Place,” she instructs, “Never go back,” and while the old saying, you can’t go home again, is always in the background, Klaver faces it head on in one of the prose pieces: “You can’t go home again, but I did and I refused to listen, so that certain things were taken from me, or I made certain sacrifices. There seems to be a distinction there, but the results are the same. You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
The italics come from Dylan, and this type of reference is common in this collection, which refers to writers, singers, theorists, filmmakers, and others. “Southern California Gothic” is a good example. In each of its six stanzas, the poem mentions someone else’s vision of LA, going from The Mountain Goats, to Gillian Welch & Nina Nastasia, to Joan Didion, to David Hockney, to David Lynch, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Klaver’s own vision of LA could be (and is) placed alongside these. And though this is a book so heavily based in and about Los Angeles, the humor, intelligence, and emotion will speak to anyone who has dreamed about something more than what he or she already has and to anyone who has experienced loss of those dreams.
Poetry by Brian Henry
Salt Publishing, March 2010
Paperback: 66pp; $14.95
Review by Kate Angus
Wings Without Birds, the most recent collection from poet and translator, Brian Henry, is a book that quietly and confidently upends various conventions and expectations. The title itself is a good map for what follows: the mind at flight, tethered but not subservient to the earthly body. Although the speaker in “Where We Stand Now,” the book’s long center poem, claims:
The body, my body, is what
I think about most. Even in my sleep
I think about thebodymybody.
How it disappoints in every way.
the poems themselves gracefully move beyond the borders of the body in intuitive leaps and associative imagery.
At times, Henry plays with spatial conventions – his use of white space in the opening (“Epithalamium”) and closing (“Sometimes”) poems bookend the collection neatly, giving us the sense of expansiveness and movement that the title promises, a pure flight conveyed in moments like:
More frequently, however, Henry is less sparse and fills in those spaces. “Where We Stand Now,” the strongest poem in this collection, is a pleasantly lengthy ramble full of both meta-commentary on the act of writing this particular poem (“If I call this poem a journal / does that settle anything? make / anything less or more clear?” and “Crack this poem open and you will see / me seated with headphones on”) and on reading (“All reading is mis-reading.”), yet which remains firmly planted in the actual world of visiting New York, Yo La Tengo concerts, and not waking the baby. If it is true that, in the end, as Henry posits, “We all live in the mind,” then his, with all its constant grappling with the awkwardness of being human, wry flashes of wit, and sudden sharp imagery, is certainly a pleasant companion.
Novel by Alan Reed
Coach House Books, April 2010
Paperback: 156pp; $16.95
Review by Keith Meatto
Isobel & Emile is the story of two young lovers who separate and then try to survive on their own. The novel opens on the morning after their final consummation. Emile boards a train bound for his home in the city. Isobel stays in the town where they conducted their brief affair. For each one, the pain of separation becomes an existential crisis.
After the breakup in the prologue, Reed alternates chapters between Isobel and Emile’s point of view, a technique that befits their separation. The prose is a study in restraint, with a jarring minimalism style that reflects Isobel and Emile’s disorientation and confusion. A child would have no trouble with the vocabulary and sentence structure. And there are few concrete details about the characters or the settings. With the exception of references to trains and streetcars, the story could occur at any time or place in history.
As in the work of Hemingway, Carver and Barthelme, the style reflects the trauma that the characters suffer, the bleakness and repression of their lives. As in cinema or the theater, we perceive Isobel and Emile through their actions, watch them eat, drink, smoke, work, and battle insomnia. But we rarely hear their thoughts. Moreover, Reed tells the story through scenes in real time, rather than summary. The effect is a slowed-down reality that captures the tedium and excruciation of heartbreak. Within passages, the characters take one step forward and then two steps backward, a backstitch technique that mirrors their inability to transcend their pain. To be sure, dramatic moments are rare in Isobel and Emile. But as time passes, the coldness and lack of sentimentality ratchets up the pressure and brings the young lovers to the brink of despair.
At times, friends and strangers try – and fail – to connect with Emile and Isobel, but neither one takes the bait. Their reticence reflects the disengagement typical of people who suffer from trauma; the implication is that some pain is too deep for words. In a scene that epitomizes the novel’s pathos, Emile moves apples and oranges across a table until they fall to the ground:
He wants the sound of the fruit hitting the floor to be like the sound of the train. It is not the sound of a train. It is the sound of fruit hitting the floor. He sits at the table. He puts his hands on top of the table. He looks where the fruit was. It is what it is like to watch someone leave.
The physicality fits Emile’s character; elsewhere he processes his pain through puppetry and indie films of his puppet shows. For her part, Isobel busies herself in the manual labor of a shop girl. Her concession to feeling is to write letters to Emile that she never mails, pouring out the desires and fears and emotions she cannot or will not say aloud.
Isobel & Emile seems designed to flood the reader with a sense of frustration and helplessness. Still, the novel ends with a glint of hope. Heartbreak may be part of the human condition, but with time and determination, we can find a way to love again.
Poetry by Srečko Kosovel
Translated from the Slovene by Ana Jelnikar
Barbara Siegel Carlson
Ugly Duckling Presse, April 2010
Paperback: 256pp; $17.00
Review by Larry O. Dean
This selected edition of Srečko Kosovel's poems, translated from the Slovene by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson, is a welcome addition to the developing canon of Slovenian poetry, but more so, it's an obvious labor of love by both translators as well as publisher. The book is perfect-bound in a simple but eye-catching jacket from Ugly Duckling, with interior text provided in the poet's native language as well as English on facing pages. Additionally, there are poems reprinted in Kosovel's own handwriting, in part to offer a graphological glimpse into the author's character, but also to promote documenting him as a pioneering yet playful manipulator of language.
Richard Jackson puts it well, in his enlightening introduction, noting the “eccentric typography and graphic word placement, mathematical symbols and equations, jarring juxtapositions, non sequiturs and montage” that Kosovel utilized, especially in his “unsayable” Constructivist poems. Yet these more outrightly experimental undertakings comprise only a portion of an immense body of work, most of which did not find publication until well after Kosovel's death from meningitis in 1926, at the age of 22. At that time around 40 poems had been published, but estimates indicate that he had written almost one hundred times that, or as many as 4,000 in a relatively short period of time.
Because Kosovel did not date his work it's difficult to find a demarcated path leading from one poetic procedure to another, but that seems to have been his intention. He appears to have been a restless and catholic writer, embracing the various isms of his day – impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism – with all-encompassing gusto. Yet the effect of openly welcoming such far-ranging interests doesn't make for writing that is anachronistic, or cluttered or verbose, but rather lean and lilting, as exemplified in the short poem, “August,” where Kosovel also displays a penchant for alliteration and repetition:
I love the quiet August rain
that cools the forests and fields,
the gray sky, the fresh wind
that comes to the heart's quiet.
Quietly it comes to the carefree heart,
which is quietly open to sadness.
No longer crushed or glum,
grief giving way to joy.
Now all is fulfilled, the gray
clouds fragrant and melancholy.
In the rain and in the field
the dark wet poplars rocking.
One could call the sentiment here naïve – a post-adolescent fixation on emotional extremes of grief and joy, and the calming, cool rain and “fresh wind” mere idealized sensory images carried over from Kosovel's provincial upbringing. Yet the innate obscurity of the third stanza is quite compelling: what is the “all” of which he speaks – “the gray / clouds fragrant and melancholy”? But how can clouds be fragrant? And is that fulfillment somehow related to the swaying of the “dark wet poplars rocking”? Such questions are ultimately inessential; in a few economical verses “August” builds to a beautifully enigmatic denouement.
“Street Lamp” embodies a similarly straightforward mysteriousness, concluding:
Be a lamp
if you can't be human,
for being human is difficult.
A human has just two hands
but he should help thousands.
So be a lamp by the roadside
shining on a thousand happy faces,
shining for the lonely, the aimless.
Be a lamp with a single light,
man in a magic square
signaling with a green arm.
Be a lamp, a lamp,
Once finished, there is no driving need to dissect this poem's logic; Kosovel posits his imperatives and runs with them, each line depending on the previous and developing forthwith. What's interesting is the juxtaposition of “happy faces” with “the lonely, the aimless,” and again how the poem ends with a formidable image – the “man in a magic square / signaling with a green arm,” and the incantatory repetition, “Be a lamp, a lamp, / a lamp.”
Look Back, Look Ahead is a fitting title for this collection. Kosovel was as much of his place and time as he was prescient of upcoming stylistic paradigm shifts. Oftentimes a writer's work will be more successful in a particular idiom, and we can appreciate his or her meandering more as a laudable character trait than as a facilitator of broadly first-rate writing, but at least here the examples of his work show Kosovel to be skilled in a variety of poetic guises. While he seems to have favored shorter verse, his prose poems are every bit as lyrically interesting as his terser pieces, and the longest poem here, “Tragedy on the Ocean,” maintains thematic unity and concentric tension throughout nine sections. If this is a reasoned sampling of Kosovel's oeuvre, Jelnikar and Carlson are to be commended for making such astute choices, since most everything here not only works well taken together but leaves the reader with an eager sense that there's much more yet untranslated to experience and enjoy.
The Adventures of Buddhist Boy
Memoir by Ira Sukrungruang
University of Missouri Press, March 2010
Hardcover: 168pp; $24.95
Review by Denise Hill
It seems inherent that immigration stories must revolve around flight from a home country – due to war, political injustice, threat of death, wretched conditions that force a person to seek a better life, or the desire to achieve the American Dream. There is none of this in Talk Thai. Sukrungruang’s parents left Thailand enticed by jobs. He writes, “Most Thai immigrants viewed America only as a workplace. America provided jobs. America provided monetary success. America provided opportunities Thailand couldn’t.” No harrowing tales of escape or of the horrors left behind. Not even a real desire to be here: “My mother often joked that she started packing for home as soon as she arrived in Chicago in 1968.” This kind of immigrant story, then, must settle around some sense of “the other” – the outsider – and the day-to-day struggles of not fully belonging. And in America, this is easy.
The sense of being an immigrant is strong for Ira, who yearns to find his public place to belong in a strongly patriotic American culture of the 80s, while at home, adhering to family Thai traditions, including his mother’s list of house rules, for which the final rule is: “Remember, you are Thai.” But immersed in American pop culture – “I consumed television. I practiced my English by reciting lines from sitcoms and TV shows: ‘Here’s Johnny’; ‘What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?’; ‘To the moon, Alice.’ I sat a foot away from the screen and sang commercial jingles. Oh, I wish I were an Oscar-Mayer wiener. That is what I’d truly like to be. Cause if I were an Oscar-Mayer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.” – Ira senses this pulling away from his cultural heritage before he even fully understands what it is, who he is, or who his family is: “I told my aunt I wanted to be white. I wanted to be farang.”
This desire for a new identity shifts to a rejection of his family culture when outsiders become involved. For others, knowing Ira’s background was meaningless; all Asians were considered one of three derogatory terms, as Ira’s neighborhood bullies express – “gook,” “Jap fuck,” “Chinky, chinky, chink-eee.” Ira tries to escape the effect these encounters have on his self-perception: “I was scared of those boys. I was even more scared of something my eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend then. I was scared of my Thai-ness…I began to see my family in the way the neighborhood saw us, the way my classmates saw me. We stood out…I didn’t want to be ‘them’ anymore. I wanted to be normal.”
One of the strengths of Sukrungruang’s memoir is his exploration of Buddhism. He goes through his own “crisis” of trying to make sense of his family’s adherence to Buddhism transplanted in the midst of Christian ideologies in his Chicago community. A single, run-down wat (Thai temple) provides a weekly meeting place for neighborhood Buddhist Thais, and is a setting for many of Ira’s stories. In one, Ira witnesses fifteen-year old Melissa question the monk about the existence of God and walk out. Ira recounts numerous exchanges with his young friends about their beliefs in God and his attempts to discuss religion with his family: “Religion bounced around in my head. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Was God evil or not? Why was Buddha fat in some countries and skinny in others? Nothing made sense. Nothing seemed to fit.” This inclusion of religion becomes another of Ira’s explorations of self and sense of “other” within the American culture.
Sukrungruang’s style is well developed in its narrative craft, not just telling a linear story, but weaving back and forth to fill in the family backstory. For example, the family unit is introduced simply as Ira’s parents and his Aunt. It isn’t until much later in the story that we learn his “Aunt” is not even related by blood, but a woman who befriended his mother when the two came to the U.S. to seek employment as nurses. In fact, there is no clear statement from Sukrungruang that this woman is not his blood Aunt, and no lengthy discussion of this relationship. He does this in other ways in the story, such as at one point discussing his secret desire to put a bully’s head on a tee and whack it down their fairway. Nowhere in the story up to that point had golf been mentioned. Later, however, a great deal of time is spent on this – his father’s love of the game and Ira becoming a competitive player. Sukrungruang doesn’t chronologically feed his life story to the reader, but rather shuttles in threads that continue to develop into recognizable patterns of a singular life story.
As much as this is a memoir of “cultural differences,” it is similar to many growing up stories. Most kids can tell tales of trying to make friends in school and how theirs was a group different from others. Ira’s group was a “nerd” crew – the kids who liked comic books and Star Wars, the ones easily targeted by bullies. All the more so for Ira, since in addition to being Thai, he was targeted for being “chubby.” And Sukrungruang isn’t afraid to share this, including the time he was run down by a group of bullies, one who pulled Ira’s shirt up and slapped his chubby belly until it was raw. It’s painful memories like this that memoir necessitates authors be willing to share, but not to dwell on.
For all the pain in the story, there are also moments of great hilarity. Of boys being boys and picking on and pounding on one another, only to be best friends. Of the discovery of a parent’s hidden treasure of pornography and the giant dildo under the bed – which of course one boy just has to chase the others around with. These discoveries lead to new knowledge about growing up. From watching porn to understanding Ira’s father having an affair with Ira’s best friend’s mom. How adults’ relationships can influence the friendships of children, and of the child’s relationship to the adults.
If I had any criticism of the book, it would be this shifting focus coupled with Sukrungruang’s style of telling, but not telling all. Memoirs by authors who consider themselves cultural outsiders in America help readers learn about cultural differences. But as Sukrungruang’s book progresses, it becomes less about these differences, and less about being Thai. But therein lies the rub: As children from these immigrant families grow up, they, too, experience a lessening of their cultural ties, because they become more assimilated into American culture.
There is more I would have liked from Sukrungruang’s book in terms of the Thai culture. There are parts of the story that are dropped in but not explained to the reader. The family relationship with the Aunt who lives with the family just like any other family member. The family’s connection to Thailand – which is only mentioned in the story with Ira’s having visited and his mother having returned after her divorce. And Simon, Ira’s nemesis, whom one day Ira finds in the temple, head shorn, following in the duties of the monks. What is left unexplained in the story raises a question about these memoirs of cultural exploration: What is the responsibility of the author to educate the reader? Readers do expect a certain amount of education from the author in this genre – but how much is the author expected to supply and at what point does the author’s not providing this constitutes a failure of achieving this genre?
I certainly don’t consider this memoir a failure; in fact, I rank it right up there with – and right between – Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen and Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah. I would recommend Talk Thai for its humor, its scrutiny of cultural conditioning, its exploration of Buddhism and Christianity, and for its candid discussion of children’s relationships to friends and family and the effects of a broken family. As with all well-written memoirs, there is much here to be discovered as well as recognized.
Poetry by Marcela Sulak
Black Lawrence Press, April 2010
Paperback: 55pp; $14.00
Review by Skip Renker
The cover of Immigrant reveals the high heels and provocative bare legs of a woman peeling and eating oranges, and indeed the book depicts sexual relationships, but there are also fruits, domestic and exotic, countries of partisans, barbed wire fencing in Texas, layered speech, a clear-eyed love of the world, and dreams, too, of what’s missing. These poems, with exact, evocative lines and phrases, summon, re-awaken, evoke, as in the Latin vocare, to call, call forth. Then they shape, skillfully, the call, the voice, the song, the busses that “splash the same / sloppy syllable across each sidewalk” or “the hieroglyphs that suckle”; they move “like a tongue / through the mouths of the speechless.”
They live, move, and have their being mainly through fruits, and an occasional vegetable, one variety of which made its way to Brussels, where “Gentlemen and lean / courtesans took into their mouths its tight / green jackets, endlessly disrobing.” There are histories of, yes, “Brussels Sprouts,” as well as of dates and radishes, histories specific, down-to-earth – the date “often yields the fibers of her trees / for baskets, shoes, the rope and needle, thread” – but also associative. Lifting radishes to the sink, the poet recalls “how Egyptian women dyed / their nipples scarlet in a braver night.”
The majority of the 40 or so poems in this book refer directly or indirectly to fruit, so Marcela Sulak risks, on the one hand, being a show-off – look how many oranges, dates, and Brussels sprouts I can juggle – and on the other, wearing out the reader’s appetitive welcome. This reader, however, savored almost all these poems for their pungency, variety, and strength. About half of them focus, joyfully, wisely, ruefully, on love requited and unrequited, love both sensual and metaphysical, juicy love and drying-up love. The speaker addresses “raggy cabbage,” perhaps a lover, as “so unseemly chaste / so haughty in your modesty, so moderately good.” Lust “is a pocketknife too small for the task at hand.” Often the speaker tries to find another language for love, for experience – Section 1 of her 2-part book is called “The Mouths of the Speechless.”
Just as fruits and vegetables become not only themselves but launching pads for metaphor and association, so does the “Immigration” theme. Sulak has translated books from French and Czech and lived and worked in at least five countries. She has a deeply nuanced view of what immigration really is and means, a take that’s light years more humane and sophisticated than that of our current U.S. political discourse on this subject. At a Catholic school in Germany, the lovely Beatriz welcomes the poet/speaker, “a foreigner who has no key.” As several daughters escape from a difficult home life, they reduce “the sum of chaos by a suitcase” when they leave. An immigrant in, apparently, Texas, says, “It is not our home / though we don’t remember any other.” Without in any way propagandizing, these poems make a powerful case for empathy, for our human commonalities.
Despite its relatively small number of poems, this is an unusually capacious volume. Sulak not only knows food, and much about love and immigration, but her larger vision includes myth, history, the power of geography to shape destiny, the ceaseless movements, exterior and interior, of humanity, the boundaries and mysteries of words. She thinks by feeling, to paraphrase Theodore Roethke, thinks big, and observes senses, feels her way into thought, all with formal control and lively, precise language. Pick these poems, and savor each, one by one.
Poetry by Paul Killebrew
Canarium Books, April 2010
Paperback: 75pp; $14.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
I’m a sucker for well-played formalism. Mongrel poetry; pedigreed from sestinas and villanelles, but – some earlier generation having snuck out the back with a scraggly beat poet – nearly unrecognizable, with crooked teeth and fantastic, durable hips.
I like them because of the thrill received when I finally catch on to the loose pattern half-way through the poem. It’s partly the thrill of jealousy – how can a poet get away with using the same word [at least] twice in the same 14 line poem? (Robert Bly: “I wonder what Yeats / had to pay in order to do that.”)
As such, I found “I Will Learn To Make You Happy,” particularly stimulating:
We should get married, and time
would be a shared burden.
I believe in value, do you
know what I mean? My dad
was a salesman. Later an artist.
He decided to dampen the mood.
He doesn’t believe in fashion,
but I do. Do you want to get
married? This is what I had
in mind: colors, a happy mood,
light and flowers. But you’re so
worn out all the time, and I
will learn to threaten you
with value. Now you’re back
with your amnesiac’s burden,
a flimsy excuse to dampen the mood.
The spiraling phrase repetition and word play of Killebrew’s Formalism Lite is the literary version of a mutt chasing its tail and still arriving at its destination. (I once knew of a dog who would use calculus to fetch Frisbees in Lake Michigan. It’s a little like that, too.)
Actually, “I Will Learn To Make You Happy” is one of the more obviously formal poems of the collection. Overall, the influence of traditional formalism is quite disguised in Flowers, although it is hardly subtle (like garlic, can any formalism be subtle?). Formal poetry is marked by the gravitational tug caused by its pattern, which pulls each line into a purposeful end. Incredibly – and provoking of yet more envy – Killebrew mimics the movement of formal poetry without any visible field markers like rhyme or repetition. From “Kicking Corporate Ass in the Foosball Arena,”
Frankly it’s all hopscotch and shoelaces to me,
but don’t let me stop you from shining your flashlight
into the tremendous gap between the refrigerator
and the conscientious voter.
His lines zigzag from end to end, driving through as if they’ve caught a scent.
Besides being entertaining (the thrill, remember), Killebrew’s incorporation of new formalism into this body of work suggests the masterful designer within his talent: he knows when and how much to use to get just the right end results.
Although, however great his pseudo-formalist style, the final lines of “Kicking Corporate Ass…” are what made me first take notice of Flowers: “I don’t mean to sound dismissive; I like people. / But what I really like is space.” It sounds like something my dog would say.
Poetry by D.W. Lichtenberg
Fourteen Hills Press, November 2009
Paperback: 89pp; $12.00
Review by Gina Myers
In the introduction to The Ancient Book of Hip, D.W. Lichtenberg states his purpose: “This book is a documentation, a case study, an oral history, or whatever you want to call it.” It attempts to document “the phenomenon of hip,” the twenty-something trust-funders who moved to urban areas, specifically Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the turn of the twenty-first century. What follows are poems that capture the New York School sprezzetura of Frank O’Hara.
Written in direct, plain-spoken language and capturing the idioms of the young (“you know how you always say I never tell you anything? / Like, I don’t know, about my problems or something”), they portray the everyday for what it is: sometimes banal, sometimes monumental. There is a casualness to this collection, even when addressing serious issues, like in “Two Things,” which also has a visual element, incorporating sketches and text in black boxes placed alongside typewritten notes seemingly taped to the page. Even amongst party poems, like “Poem For Jon,” there is a weight to the words: “We pretend to understand / each other / and therefore do.” Throughout the collection, there are two opposite tendencies at work – there is an optimism and idealism, quickly followed by dismissal or mocking of that optimism. As the speaker notes in “Poem For Jon”:
It was always like that.
And New Years was always
Resolutions were always for people
who like disappointments.
Lichtenberg isn’t observing this “phenomenon of hip” from the outside; he’s living it. And the book, with its Belle & Sebastian epigraph and its shout-outs to Isaac Brock and Jeff Tweedy in the acknowledgements, isn’t so much a secondary documentation of some thing as it is an original document. Capturing a time before the financial crisis, a time before AdBusters declared the hipster to be the end of western civilization, Lichtenberg shows that amongst the affect there were genuine emotions, genuine pain and heartache. There was more to this phenomenon than just partying, though there was a good deal of that too.
Poetry by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
with Polaroids by Tim Rutili
Sidebrow Books, April 2010
ISBN 10: 0-9814975-2-7
ISBN 13: 978-0-9814975-2-5
Paperback: 103pp; $20.00
Review by Kristin Abraham
In his fifth book, Joshua Marie Wilkinson (in collaboration with photographer Tim Rutili) presents to us Polaroid photographs and poetry in gorgeous interplay. The text, broken into five poems/sections with words on the verso and images on the recto, is a fairly quick, very enjoyable read on the surface, but beyond the surface it achieves a brilliant complexity that haunts readers long after they put down the book.
By coupling the visual and the written word, Wilkinson finds a surprising, quirky, and often touching avenue to bring us as close as we may be able to get to accurately experiencing and preserving a memory, a moment from a variety of angles at once.
Each page of poetry is compelling and refreshing; Selenography showcases vivid, evocative language, short lines, and skillful enjambment. The imagery is often simple, yet never benign:
I’ll collect you
backwards until the rain pulls your
tumbled laundry scents accumulate
in the children’s
guessing & their guessing gets sharper
In so few words, Wilkinson’s unvarnished images anchor spiraling impressions, and he manages to gentle a proclamation of love into three lines (“I’ll collect you / backwards until the rain pulls your // coat open”).
He rejects punctuation, which results in syntactical constructions of enjambment and run-ons that only add to the poems’ complexity, as well as to their rhythmic fluctuation (pause-then-rush).
an owl breaks the
fold a cut tree spills
a soft crutch
a freezer stocked
to myself in these very woods
Such syncopated musicality is one of the many reasons Selenography is a must-read, read again, read again, and again. These hesitant rhythms enact the speakers’ uncertainty about language and wariness of his / her ability to preserve a self/moment/memory in poetry or other texts:
the silver canister waits for
might finish the
waltz if their drawings
of the dancers
could be looped into
In spite of the sometimes-cautious speakers, Selenography is also assertively playful and often surreal. Readers find themselves in strange and whimsical stories and worlds that aren’t always easy to make sense of, yet are always fascinating:
things keep watch
shoelace for a
his mastiffs loll in
plastic owl wants
& I give it
Rutili’s photographs intensify this whimsy. The Polaroid accompanying the above text, for instance, is a shot from below of a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex statue with a bird perched on one of its front claws. Other photos are of bright white, unicorn-like horses, a black-and-white spotted dog, a woman’s legs in torn black stockings.
It is important to note that the poems in Selenography are not ekphrastic; that is, they are not written to be a direct mimesis of the photos with which they are juxtaposed. Instead, the words are meant to complement the photos; both genres are used in concert to create a more accurate description of a moment in all of its facets, just as a melody and its lyrics or a film and its script attempt to work together to reproduce character, emotion and story.
In “My Cautious Lantern,” for instance, we are presented with a photograph of a religious icon: bearded man in robes with a shepherd’s hook; below that, we see what seems to be a placard describing the statue, but the print is illegible so the identity of the figure is unclear. The statue appears to be displayed in a small alcove in a wall (possibly a church wall?), but on second or third glance the two-dimensional properties of the photo render it just as possible that we aren’t looking at a statue in an alcove at all, and the icon is simply painted on the wall, along with other images and designs (only portions of which have entered the margins of this photo). The text on the facing page reads:
we could smell the horse dung &
the longest grass in the world
while a little
milk I held stayed
death gets curious & starts
sniffing around our
allow st. valentine
an opening & a
Wilkinson’s most overt reference to the image is in the last stanza, where we can see possible connections between St. Valentine and architecture to the religious iconography in the photograph. As with all the other photos and “corresponding” texts in the book, readers now must fill in the gaps; we are asked to complete the story, to imagine relationships between the image – possibly a snapshot of a moment on vacation? – and the poem. We also, unavoidably, fill the gaps with our own connotations.
The surreal play of Wilkinson’s poems and Rutili’s photos hearken to our pasts; Polaroids in general are artifacts from former times, nearly obsolete in our current world of digital photography, and Selenography’s Polaroids in particular present to us washed-out colors, reminiscent of colors in snapshots from the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. The prints in this book show some wear: possible damage to the film, fingerprints on the photo while the film was processing, exposure to light and heat, etc. seem to cause certain deformities in the pictures – spots, fading, whorls, distortion. The distortion on many of the images resembles plants one might find deep under the sea or far inside a thick forest, which adds another layer to dreamlike moments in the book.
As readers begin to reminisce and make associations based on this throw-back media, it is difficult to overlook Selenography’s self-reflexivity. Wilkinson asks us to see that poetry and photography share a commonality in the way they cling to memory, story, and image; they represent our attempts to chart the surface of our world, how we hold it together and make sense of it, just as selenography (a branch of astronomy after which this book is titled) was a science that attempted to create a new language and assign names to man-made maps of the surface of the moon. But all of these attempts at representation can never completely signify the objects or moments they intend to capture because they are only marking surfaces (just as in film, song, audio, and many other types of record-keeping); thus, Wilkinson’s book becomes an incisive and compelling poetry of lack, loss, misdirection, and possible misinterpretation:
we are falling sparrow-aligned
even the slenderest breeze or apologies
we are built without tools or
recording devices without the
fat whoosh of the
of the legendary child thieves
almost nothing before us or at
our feet yet
this spinning black set negates us
names us revokes
in the yard the light is a foil &
us out like a wick until our
eavesdropping is what
As we read, we are reminded that although we may listen intensely, and although we try to be as accurate as possible, humans may not possess the ability to communicate and preserve ourselves and our memories through language or other media; it may even be impossible to do so through multigenre presentations/collaborations, such as the one presented to us in Selenography. But Wilkinson’s book is also proof that it is possible to create beautiful and affecting art in the attempt to record our fleeting world, even if that art is not indelible and can be as fragile as a Polaroid photograph, even if it doesn’t make the world indelible.
Selenography is an example of such art: a perfect marriage between the visual and the written word. The book is so stunning it could easily find a place as a coffee table book (a larger hardcover edition that would foreground even more the marriage between art and word).
Poetry by Ben Mirov
Caketrain, May 2010
Paperback: 105pp; $8.00
Review by Dan Magers
In Ben Mirov’s debut poetry collection Ghost Machine, the overriding tension is the kinetic, non-reflective “I” (or sometimes “Eye”) stabbing through a list of seemingly random present-tense actions with an ADD-like attention span, overlaid with the sense of a haunting presence (or presences), creating the space of a temporal past. The randomness with which actions and thoughts take place suggests a lack of agency, but as the momentum builds it seems more that that barely-there presence is stirring – if not driving – the action.
The poems often use the word “ghost,” either in the poems themselves or in their titles (e.g. “Ghost Drafts,” “Ghost Dream,” “Ghost of a Morning After You Left Me,” and “Fillmore Ghost” to name but a few), and “ghost” takes on two similar but different meanings – one of an absence of what was once present (the ghost of memory), which gradually pools into a second meaning, an active specter hanging over the work. The Jack Spicer quote that serves as the epigraph is instructive: “The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems. We have it second-hand. They cannot hear the noise they have been making.” Perhaps something so circuitous cannot necessarily be instructive, but it at least creates a Zen-like frame of mind that stays with the reader throughout the book.
The present-tense, almost list-like actions have both the sense of being in the moment, of happening now, and of having already happened – an archive:
I spend all day looking at other people’s writing. Is this a blithe
gash that was intended? I grab a case of Bud. He hits me in the
head and I turn around. I see Taquiera in red neon. Flying over
the city, Jared lets me steer. I can’t try on jackets anymore.
Even though I know she’s not the one, I think of us on a bike.
I can’t catch Joseph and Bella jumps on my back and this means
something. I cut up missionary pamphlets to make a collage.
The tactility and surface-level rendition of San Francisco grounds the speaker (and the reader) in a specific place and time. Though the actions are so random and do not necessarily make a chronological narrative, it is not hard to follow, and in fact Ghost Machine is a pretty quick read – no mean feat for a poetry book. One gets a sense that the poems are memories with all reflection scooped out.
The relentless forward momentum makes it all the more apparent as one reads that what is in the mind of the speaker lies in the past: “We work in a room with the blinds down. You can eat pizza all the time.” And more directly: “Other times, I wonder what he’s like in bed.”
There are seven different book sections (each about 6-10 pages long), which are all slightly different: In section three, for example, the first person “I” is replaced by “Eye” in every instance – bringing into sharper relief the idea of surface and object. While the sections have nominally different forms, functionally they tend to be the same kind of poem over and over. Mostly the poems are prose poems, and when they are not, they feel like prose poems, terse and muscular (not that all prose poems are like this). All the poems have the same sort of movement; they do the same sort of thing. This gives us the sense that we are looking at a book-length poem, which has the effect of relaxing a reader’s inclination to grasp at meaning and interpretation at each turn. There is a little less interest here for a novelistic sense of pacing per se (as in, say, Farrah Field’s poetry book Rising), and more the sense of a palimpsest.
As the book continues, certain phrases start reappearing over and over (“I forget to lock up the knives,” “they have office-sex”), which suggest, at least formally, the repetition of Ted Berrigan’s sonnets. Along with lines like “I can’t believe my life was like this / three years ago,” we see also how the restless present-tense actions move forward only to the boredom and ennui that Mirov is good at evoking. This tension of being nostalgic for the present (or recent past), while also being under no illusion that that time has its share of tedium and unproductive action, is the purview of Mirov, and is the catalyst for the drama of his work.
Poetry by David Mills
Straw Gate Books, 2009
Paperback: 84pp; $15.00
Review by Micah Zevin
If you wake up in the morning and fragments of phrases, words, and images coalesce into a beautiful potluck of fascinating, hilarious, and magical linguistic gymnastics that have serious questions and answers about life at their core, then you must be reading The Dream Detective by David Mills. In his first collection, language is a platform for profundity and profundity is a platform for language and its reshaping or remolding that both regales us with its fantastic puns, double-entendres and sexual humor as much as it tackles serious subject matter such as the Sean Bell incident epitomized by the poem “Forever’s Bread.” If you are greedy for adventure through language, its mending, its bending and its manipulation for the greater good, then you’ve come to the right place.
In “Forever’s Bread” Mills deals with the tragic incident post shooting, posing questions about Bell’s afterlife and how they reflect upon what happened to him in the present the day before his marriage:
Was it his or a shoelace of smoke
That inched form the Altima’s radiator?
Did a memory fidget in the back of his brain?
When you die do you step into a vestibule
Between this world and the next? When
You die does infinity feel the dent?
It’s as if we are right there with him in the millisecond that the bullet strikes and the ultimate and fatal fragility of man is once again apparent as ever.
The central thematic scaffolding around which these poems are built comes to light in five poems simply known as “Dream Detective (hence the book title).” In the first “Dream Detective,” the reveries are numbered in a call and response where the dreamer asks questions which are answered with absurd punch lines to jokes as if they were constructed on a surreal late night comedy show or at a debate of famous philosophers that perhaps have had too much to drink. For example:
1) Dream, who invented the Nubian twosome?
Hamburger, let's be frank.
3) Dream, when was together apart?
When two Greek dudes in downtown Athens said, "I know
what we can do, start a civilization."
The gift of these poems is not only their comic timing but also their adventuresome joyousness that reels you into a world that the author has invented from the random associations often conjured in ones dreams.
When commenting on issues such as human melancholy, Mills couches it in lightness and humor. In “MISTAKEN MYDENTITY,” we witness a conversation between the narrator and his depression.
When you drift into simple
you are remarkably consistent. But please remember
this is the grim invisible not
A sunish-mint for your pins.
Shall we fun the mental?
You feel no suture for the hope?
Of course love is a chill pill.
This progression from dark emotions into more hopeful moods, done with beauty, guile, puns and a mischievous lascivious wink, is what keeps us in the poem to its conclusion.
The strength of the poems in this debut is its blissful adherence to the power of lists in its description of all things in existence. “A BODY IS…” dedicated to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is a multifaceted dance of language play met by a barrage of powerful imagery that describes the human torso in metaphoric and allegorical relation to all of its abilities with humor and the rhythm of a song: “A body is an illegal alien / a body is a guest lecturer / a breathing cathedral / a vagina’s diamond.” And later in the piece the body is measured up against the creative process itself:
A body is thought’s drawing board – go back to it
a body is breath’s copy editor
an erotic penal colony
a dash between two dates
a slipper’s exclamation point…
In this evocative poem, allegory is piled on top of allegory, one always attempting to outdo the other.
Before diving in and perusing this wonderfully eclectic, energetic collection, make certain your tongue gets a good nights sleep and even then it might still get tied up in knots or end up sore. The Dream Detective is a ‘dramedy’ that has serious intentions amidst its bursts of laughter. Like the best performers, Mills knows when to make us giggle, cry, and when to make us think. The short poems such as “BETTY BOOP COPPIN’ CRACK ON BROADWAY” and “NON WORKING STIFF (OR MIAGRA)” are sweet in their brevity and hilarity while “PHYLLISOPHICAL,” dedicated to R&B singer Phyllis Hyman, brings you to your knees until the “INCA TRAIL” forces you to ponder things beyond human comprehension as if waking from a dream when the mist clears and Machu Picchu can be viewed. If you are a good detective, you will find these things and more weaved into this diverse satirical collection bent on worship of the word in all of its glory. Let us all say AMEN!
Novel by T.M. Murphy & Seton Murphy
PublishingWorks, May 2010
Paperback: 272pp; $15.95
Review by Elizabeth Townsend
The Running Waves is a book about two brothers learning to come to terms with hard times in each of their lives. The younger of the two brothers, Colin, is a 19-year-old shoe store employee trying, unsuccessfully at first, to get past the accident that killed his two best friends the previous year. Dermot is the 23-year-old elder brother, home from college for the summer. He comes home to hide for awhile from the fact that his girlfriend, someone he thought might be “the one,” broke up with him. The pair lives in Silver Shores Cape Cod, a popular destination for tourists on their way to Martha’s Vineyard. Dermot can see that Colin is not doing well and wants to help his brother but must first figure himself out.
The authors of The Running Waves change the characters’ point of view with each new chapter, making the switching easy to follow and also allowing the reader to understand both boys. In the end, the brothers come together in ways they hadn’t since their younger days. Dermot lets go of his former love and Colin finds a way to move past his friends’ tragic deaths: “He instantly pictured Matt and Paul on either side of him, and he smiled, realizing they were no longer ghosts haunting him. No he now knew his friends were spirits who would always be there to guide him.”
The authors of this book crafted two believable and sympathetic characters. While some people may not see turning to drugs as a way to deal with things, this coping behavior fit in line with Colin’s character, who dealt with things the only way he knew how. However, it was for this reason, that I personally connected more with Dermot and found him easier to emphasize with.