Posted August 1, 2010
Vanishing Point - Black Box Theater as Abandoned Zoo - How to Catch a Falling Knife - The Evolutionary Revolution - The Logic of the World - Tea Time with Terrorists - The Relenting - Under the Small Lights - Falling off the Bicycle Forever - Destruction Myth - I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl - Requiem for the Orchard - Creating a Life - The Disappeared
Not a Memoir
Nonfiction by Ander Monson
Graywolf Press, March 2010
Paperback: 208pp; $16.00
Review by Nate Logan
Vanishing Point is not a memoir. It says so in the bottom right corner on the cover. On the back of the book, it says “Literature/Essays.” In this book, Ander Monson serves on a jury, spends time at Panera Bread, details his self-Googling results, and devotes a section to the flavors of Doritos. But Vanishing Point is about all of us. How the I of my life, of your life, of every life, blends together and vanishes, at least a little.
The asterisk plays a large role in Vanishing Point. Monson says that through the asterisk, “you will become in it, in me, as it, this set of spun ‘I’s standing on the sides of a pentagon.” Most sections start with a specific situation Monson is in, and quickly spiral out to envelop more and more “I”s. The first section of the book, “Voir Dire,” beings with Monson in the Kent County Circuit Courthouse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A few pages later, Monson talks about his criminal past. On the next page, a colonoscopy. Truth and fact are wrapped up in all of these events, and are weaved here, and throughout the book.
Some of the most telling parts of the book are the “assembloirs,” where text is culminated from 83 memoirs on the subjects of disclaimer, significance, and ending meditation. When one thinks about memoirs as a whole, it is not hard to imagine at least these three areas stretching across the broad horizon of memoir. But to read a section filled with paragraph after paragraph about why a book is significant, it gets boring pretty fast. But these compilations make it easier to understand why memoirs are experiencing a boost of popularity. It also explains why some people would rather read fiction.
One of my favorite sections of the book was “Vanishing Point: Middle West, Citizenship.” I would argue that most anyone from the Midwest would recognize the feeling, as Monson writes, of “escaping from little, escaping to little, incapable of any real sort of escape.” Flyover country is what the Midwest feels like to many of us who live here, at least to this Midwesterner. Things go in and out of this place, but they don’t stop, “an orgasm on the move.”
This section talks about the World’s Biggest Ball of Paint, located in Alexandria, Indiana. Monson observes that if it weren’t for this ball, Alexandria might vanish altogether. Abandoned buildings, decrepit machinery, nature gaining a foothold in these once industrialized places...the Ball grows, while everything else is vanishing.
As a Hoosier, not even from Alexandria, this vanishing feeling seems ever present. More close to me than I want to admit. As a Midwesterner, my state, my friends, me, are part of a place that seemingly doesn’t exist to a lot of people. The only way some people would know it is real is by looking out of an airplane window. We Midwesterners are moving, are ghosts in our own country.
Monson objects to “our unthinking cultural embrace of the I phenomenon, to our readerly desire for unmediated ‘I’s, for confession booths, for more reality in everything we see, including our fiction.” He wants to experience “the unreliability, the misrememberings, the act of telling in starts and stops, the fuckups, the pockmarked surface of the I.”
Isn’t that what memoir, nonfiction, whatever, really is? There is no way (minus if one documented every moment in his/her life in one way or another) that each memoir we read will be absolutely “true.” And why would we want it to be? Memory is one of the most unreliable faculties we have...and so getting accounts from friends/witness to these events, newspaper articles, other sources, is part of the fun in assembling the pieces of one’s life. Each of us has an I, but are also a part of a “we.” Our lives are connected through all sorts of tethers to other people, places, and events. Vanishing Point is where “[we are] everyone at once.”
Poetry by Dana Elkun
Concrete Wolf, December 2009
Paperback: 20pp; $10.00
Review by Noel Sloboda
Winner of the 2008 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition, Dana Elkun’s Black Box Theater as Abandoned Zoo offers a guided tour of a rich, imagined landscape. The cover of the volume features a pair of monkeys, perched on a bed, releasing butterfly silhouettes into the air. Underneath the enigmatic cover art, 15 sophisticated yet accessible poems treat topics as varied as marriage, medicine, and history.
In early works, including “The Essence of the Owl,” Elkun endeavors to orient readers to the world she has constructed, while simultaneously inviting them to collaborate in the making of meaning:
His shoes are blue, right? Bravo! We are envisioning
the same man. Such a relief
so early on. Now the challenge for us
is to discover the essence of the owl.
The convivial tone combined with an expectation of work (or “challenge”) is characteristic of Elkun. And use of the first person plural – as well as the second person elsewhere – although potentially off-putting in poetry, works for her. She never forces her vision upon her audience. Instead, she takes the role of docent, helping those in her care to appreciate invented wonders, as in the chapbook’s title poem, where the speaker requests, “As we begin our tour, / please keep your voices low.” Following Elkun’s lead, readers are shown rousing visions, including a blackbird that dwells within an iris; a mascot on fire inside a burning school; and “hummingbirds, pleading at the window pane.”
Elkun’s alignment of theaters and zoos signals an interest in form that carries throughout Black Box Theater. Both institutions typically consist of spaces filled with delights that are, at the same time, constrictive. Elkun clearly has in mind the Italian for room (“stanza”), as she evokes a similar tension in her sequencing, juxtaposing poems with regular stanzas (“Less You,” “Intake With Empress Earl Gray”) alongside poems without them (“Long Marriage,” “Bang”). She also presents several compelling series that vigorously explore possibilities in empty spaces between lines. “Pack of Lies” is one such poem:
I tend to hoard my food.
I tend to my beauty as much as a flapper would.
In that picture of my ancestors on the altar, the shortest man resembles me.
The picture of Adella does not remind me of me.
I will not name my daughter after Adella.
The extra spaces here draw attention to the distance between artistic invention and outright prevarication. In addition, they invite questions about intention and execution. Another of Elkun’s poems engages in a comparable experiment with what’s not there: the numbered series “Epic,” which starts at “0” and runs to “13,” skipping altogether seven of the anticipated sections.
While Black Box Theater displays structural innovation and a warm sense of playfulness, it does include a conspicuous formal tick. Several of Elkun’s poems, like “Less You” and “New Love,” begin with epigraphs speaking of medical conditions, from exchopraxia to micropsia. Ostensibly the invocation of these conditions is to help us appreciate unconventional ways of seeing. Yet the device feels forced, and Elkun could in most cases have done without it. Look, for instance, at the beginning of “Unavailable Memory,” which includes as its epigraph “Retrograde amnesia: partial or total inability to recall information.” The poem then opens with these lines, which – when coupled with the title – do a great deal to get us thinking about lost knowledge: “A turtle falls into a mineshaft / and becomes the newest crown / on the oldest totem pole.” I suspect this minor fault results from Elkun’s earnestness as a guide. And when taken in relation to the whole, the epigraphs do little to distract from the many pleasures to be found in Black Box Theater.
Elkun creates the powerful closure of a curtain dropping with her final poem, “Ending Time.” It describes the felling of the “original banyan,” which is traditionally associated with the Hindu god Shiva. Even as the ancient tree comes to an end, “full of grace” as it falls “headfirst,” other trees remain, still growing and “snarling.” The poet thus evokes a sense of possibility as she brings up the house lights and returns us to our world. After finishing Black Box Theater as Abandoned Zoo, I want an encore.
Poetry by Daniel Johnson
Alice James Books, June 2010
Paperback: 56pp; $15.95
Review by Kate Angus
The greatest strength in How to Catch a Falling Knife, Daniel Johnson’s first collection of poems, is its chosen silences. While that may sound like strange praise, this book’s sparseness gives it a paradoxical power where the poet’s ability to know what not to say and when allows what he does say to starkly shine in the same way that it is more arresting to see one light left on in a house you gaze at from the dark street than it is when all the windows are festively blazing.
Johnson’s best poems combine his talent for leaving things out and a judicious use of repetition to give us a powerful tension; for example, as in “Do Unto Others” where he gives his readers just enough insight into the situation described to make our own narrative leaps while he catalogs and then repeats a list of rocks with which he would build a cairn over his brother. Occasionally Johnson missteps with a departure into too much description (in “Miniature,” for example, he gives us an exhaustive list of action and scenery that never really pays off), but, overall, this is a consistently powerful collection.
Johnson rarely has patience for unnecessary words or moments. In “My Father, The Small Town Sadist,” one of the book’s strongest poems, the title enjambs down into the first stanza of “is whistling his way to the dump. / A tin pail of teeth hangs / from the handlebars of his bike.” That Johnson never bothers to fully explain his father’s profession (dentist) or the undercurrents and tensions of family life (multiple) in the poem as it unfolds allows us to experience along with the speaker the last stanza’s sudden unsettling shift when “I clap and laugh with my mouth / open wide and my head thrown back / till something in the room turns.” Similarly the gaps of what Johnson leaves unsaid when he writes
I struck a match and left.
It’s how I go
A song on the radio.
A water tower in silhouette. (“Flight”)
and the effect he creates through weaving together sound and associative imagery rather than by walking us step by step down the path of unrelentingly explained meaning creates an ominous music that lingers long after the short poem has ended.
Fiction by Lily Hoang
Les Figues Press, June 2010
Paperback: 246pp; $15.00
Review by Caleb Tankersley
The latest release from Lily Hoang, The Evolutionary Revolution is a history unto itself. Both a fable and a myth (“Myth is about the past, fable is about the future.”), this title revolves around stories of an ancient, watery Earth populated by “subspecies,” one of which is man, although she does not physically resemble modern homo sapiens. (I know I’ve used “man” and “she” together. It’s an oft-employed technique from the book, one of many contradictions of language that whirl about and simply shrug off their own existences, adding to the intricate mystery and progression of Hoang’s work.)
This old Earth shares a deep bond with contemporary society in the form of a mysterious and power-endowed family, the Sylphs, including a two-headed boy, Eliot and Sylvester, a thigh-winged girl, Chloe, and other curious beings. This is one of The Evolutionary Revolution’s greatest strengths: the rich yet subtle characterizations and interactions twist in ways exotic and unexpected. I simply could not put the book down, beginning to form a very strong bond with these characters and the fate of their world(s).
It’s difficult to explain too much about the Sylphs, the Imperial Council, mermen, or the beast with three thousand sets of eyes without spoiling some of Hoang’s experimental techniques. Here we can see a short example of her myth-unfolding style, the casual yet profound tone she gives to this history:
Just one day of physical separation, and the Sylph boys are losing their collective memory. Their singular memories – that’s fine – but anything they experienced together is beginning to erase. Their earliest memory is the day they chose to be conjoined. Their father, a man they barely remembered even when they were double boys, appeared in their small, unformed ideas and persuaded them to hold each other tight. They were, at this point, not even fetuses. They had no body, and even as ideas, they were scattered, barely coherent, but they remember their father’s words and when they were given bodies, they held each other with such force, with such passion, that their bodies melted together.
There’s an uncanny depth to Hoang’s style, choppy and full like salty ocean waves (an image of relevance to the novel). At times, Hoang’s individual sentences seem daringly simple, but this effect only furthers her fable/myth motifs. The wider tapestry is voluptuous and exquisite, each small chapter ending on a note of poetic toast. The novel can feel more like a series of prose poems tied by a number of recurring narratives (which is appropriate, given Hoang’s status as a recipient of Chiasmus Press’s Un-Doing the Novel Contest). But like any good work of multiple narratives, the intermingled plotlines take a turn towards each other and the namesake event, a collision of ancient past, tumultuous present, and predestined future. The Evolutionary Revolution is a thoughtful and endearing work that will leave you dreaming in Hoang’s imaginative past for days.
and Other Fictions
Fiction by Robert Kelly
McPherson & Company, April 2010
Hardcover: 223pp; $24.00
Review by Thomas Hubbard
Entering my neighborhood from a different direction for the first time, I became disoriented, unable to find my building right away. Then, there it was! And I suddenly had a new "feel" for the place. Experiencing the familiar from a new perspective can bring disorientation that, fading, leaves an enhanced understanding. In much the same way, Robert Kelly's fiction shows us our familiar world from a new perspective, and expands our understanding of this life we live.
Kelly steps clear of established forms, constructing and sequencing images, sometimes rather whimsical but always remarkable, in such a way to hang lightly, like freshly washed kerchiefs, from a thin, absolutely unpredictable story line – creating not just a story but a work of art.
Kelly's new fiction collection, The Logic of the World, begins with "Forty Square Meters," about two lovers "in the old part of the city. The street was so old it had been there when Sadi-Carnot was assassinated, when the saxophone was invented, when Berlioz swept through the avenues openly crying for his lost Irish love." They fill their apartment with impossible keepsakes:
One meter contained the whole of Mount Kilimanjaro, which came from Africa. It was so high there was always snow on top of it, right up to almost touching the ceiling. When it got hot and stuffy in the apartment they would climb up the gentle slopes of the mountain till they found a cool grotto, where lush vegetation welcomed them, and they listened to the springs gurgling.
Right next to that mountain, a square meter contained a small meadow on the slopes of the Donnersberg, not far from the Rhine. On it a few dozen cows.
Their tale moves through itself like a streetcar that shows tourists a wonder at every turn, but which only transports residents back and forth to shopping or work. The piece runs its course and we exit, feeling a great satisfaction, but perhaps not recalling just what happened. Kelly unveils a world both believable and irrational.
He ties knots in time and reality. In "The Example of the Hawk," a woman seduced by the waters of a fountain is protagonist in a story read by a man of the theater; his own concepts of theater are brought to life, and seduce him. He spends the rest of his days as an itinerant, bringing his own theater to villages across the land. When his life has run its course, the fountain woman, still young, finds and comforts him.
Kelly mines tales rooted in pre-English, retrieving bits and pieces, examining relationships among men and women and their gods. He re-constructs the myth about Andromeda and Perseus to explore their sexual motivations.
The collection's title piece, "The Logic of the World," features a knight, a leper and a dragon. The knight, of course, is Parsival, from the Arthurian legend and its ancient German predecessor. The dragon becomes a teacher and benefactor for the knight, instructing him in – yes, the logic of the world. Perplexed, Parsival draws his sword.
"O little one," the dragon says, "Don't you realize you have already slain me," disappearing into thin air.
"You will listen to me in your head again. You will realize that, just like the cowardly creature your traditions claim I am, I have rushed into hiding. You will slowly realize that I have hidden myself in the snuggest cavern of them all, deep inside your mind, and that you will never altogether silence me."
Kelly includes a bit of blarney, too. In "Saving the Moon," a gypsy convinces a whole village to gather up money for him to give to an old Indian shaman (who never actually appears in the village nor the story) in order that he might save the moon from disappearing.
Kelly's stories are interspersed by very short (flash?) pieces: In one, a man has gradually built an imaginary world to his liking. When it's finished he slips into it, leaving his dead body.
Kelly includes a painfully exact description of a room and all – all – of its contents, and he examines the underpinnings of Don Juan, and of Faustus. He ends the collection with a piece about "Kafka's brother, who whispers big plans, who guides the writer's hands toward plausible solutions and away from the structures of thought and poetry."
"So it is to escape Kafka's brother," Kelly concludes, "that some writers on their deathbeds cry out, Max, burn all my work."
This is a collection which, for its unique perspectives and Kelly's skill in presenting them, may well end up not on your shelf of interesting reads, but instead taking its place upon your shelf of indispensable reference books.
A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of
Sri Lanka’s Civil War
Nonfiction by Mark Stephen Meadows
Soft Skull Press, May 2010
Paperback: 304pp; $14.95
Review by Ann Beman
I recently became aware of the term personal watermelon. This is a smaller melon than your picnic-for-ten variety, weighing in at 5 lbs or less. Briefly, I entertained the false notion that the term meant the sweet, quenching fruit was mine mine mine and no one’s but. “Personal Watermelons. Get them here.” I’ve been reading about the seedless orbs a lot lately. They seem to be in season; it’s their time. Much like terrorism and terrorist were – and continue to be – ripe terms following September 11, 2001. On that date, artist, software designer, and global hitchhiker Mark Stephen Meadows found himself stranded in Paris, unable to fly home to California as planned on September 12.
In the week following, the words terrorism and terrorists were in peak season, on the front page, headlines, splash screens, television banners, and everyone’s lips. And it didn’t let up in the months and even years that followed September 2001: Terrorists were responsible for everything bad.” Pulling on his gonzo journalist pants, Meadows contended that believing is seeing, and that he needed to “see” the ethos of terrorism for himself: “I was interested in the psychology of the people who undertook the act … I wanted to find something like a Galapagos, a place where the evolution was contained enough to be unique, so that it might offer general information applicable elsewhere.” Thus began the author’s exploration of the country formerly known as Ceylon.
The book opens with a bang – a series of explosions that rocked Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, in 1994. From there we travel with Meadows on his present-day journey through an island whose Sinhalese and Tamil cultures – and culture clashes – have not changed for eighteen hundred years: “Water is pulled from the wells, coconuts are knocked from the trees, fish are dragged from the sea, and the big, tropical sun swings overhead, tying the days into each other in a steaming, sweaty rhythm of ancient customs.” Our route through this country includes interviews – and indeed, tea – with military leaders, heroin dealers, and terrorists, including an early leader of one of the Tamil militant groups notorious for civilian massacres, child conscriptions, drug smuggling, weapons stockpiling, and high-profile assassinations. Meadows notes that the Tamil Tigers devised the suicide belt, invented suicide bombing, and pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks. “And they had their dark side, too.” The group was also the first to weave terrorists and financiers into international networks of militant rebellion.
Between interviews – and ruminations on the rip-stop fabric of globalization, the media, and modern terrorism – the author weaves rope from coconut husks, discovers what it’s like to be guest ghost at the village exorcism, and tastes the real deal, Ceylon tea:
I have never had tea smile at me. I push my nose into the steam and inhale an entire spice market in one breath. Cardamom and cinnamon and berries roll out with a sugary flavor that, despite being smelled, hits the sides of my tongue, making it water, and the smell also has a silver lining of something almost like a delicate soapy scent.
In addition, he shares with us readers how to train an elephant, reminding us how crucial is negotiation: “You should bring along some good strong rope, about a hundred candies, and a few boxes of crackers.” And a little later, “Remember, talking is very important; any mahout will tell you that it is key to his relationship with his elephant.”
Meadows’s step-by-step recipe becomes an extended metaphor for Sri Lankan politics in general: “The power of Ganesh is based on the esteem that Hindus have for elephants. The elephant is kingliness, kindness, power, wisdom, health, authority, and the remover of obstacles. The elephant is governance itself.”
Elephants, like bombs, repeat as symbols throughout the book, as do tea and ghosts. In fact, the ghosts of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness deftly haunt the entire narrative. Early on, Meadows invokes the character Kurtz; then later describes the road north into the Tamil homeland as resembling an immense snake “uncoiled, like a red river I am following into a heart of darkness.”
Transporting us deep into the sometimes dark, other times glaring, heart of an island – both luscious and wracked within the same 25,000 square miles – Meadows’s narrative achieves viscerally arresting moments. But the book’s greatest epiphanies occur when the author sits still, transporting us no farther than his own head. The man even manages to eke gold out of a crap hole. “Perhaps civilizations should be measured by their toilets,” he posits. “Maybe what makes a civilization such is not the things we buy but how we treat one another – how we, if you will, avoid getting ourselves and others dirty.”
The vehicle promised in the subtitle, A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, doesn’t show up until page 154, but the journey by then has mesmerized us with such tantalizing prose that we might excuse the rented trail bike’s late entrance:
During the monsoon season ... the island becomes ancient again, and silent ... The ocean whispers some dreadful secret again and again, the winds argue a more complicated rebuttal, and the fronds listen to both sides, one, then the other, then back.
In the end, the author blows up perceptions like a mine buried in tropical soil, asking us to look again at what we think we see. He gives us everything: action, adventure, humor, food, and food for thought – fodder for our personal melons. He gives us discourse and makes connections. He takes us somewhere at once exotic and ordinary, vivid and bleak, ending with a resolution neither implausible nor ridiculous. The book ends, in fact, in a moment of clarity between rain showers, not with a hokey rainbow, but with a most practical umbrella.
A Play of Sorts
By Lisa Gill
New Rivers Press, 2010
Paperback: 99pp; $13.95
Review by Richard Oyama
Not every writer could make a face-down with a rattlesnake in her Moriarty living room “a primal encounter waiting to be interpreted,” yet that’s precisely what Albuquerque poet Lisa Gill has done. Her introduction to the play, “The Catalyst & the Evolution,” contains one of the best descriptions of the writing process I’ve read: “Ecdysis is the word for the skin sloughing snakes do and might as well be the word for the process writers go through with revisions of certain manuscripts, those texts whose life cycles demand we shed draft after draft, abandoning each accrued preconception to ultimately access deeper instinct.”
For Gill, the iconic image was that of the Minoan Snake Goddess, a sculpture found in the temple repositories in the palace at Knossos, Crete. She envisioned herself holding aloft “the real and the metaphorical snake” with equal authority, compassion, and grace. She achieved this brilliantly on the page.
But the form of “The Relenting” itself tussles with a series of obstacles that, like Odysseus, it must surmount. The play’s two principal characters are Woman and Snake. The Woman has a “poetic disposition and a gift for both seriousness and humor . . . She is able-bodied but recently out of a wheelchair so at least conscious of physical vulnerability.” Gill, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and author of three previous volumes of poetry – Red as a Lotus, Mortar & Pestle, and Dark Enough – was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since The Woman serves as the author’s alter ego, the play could’ve resulted in a reiteration of the tropes of the “recovery narrative.”
Also, Gill’s tendency to reimagine the encounter in archetypal terms and create personified characters could’ve ended in a work as bloodless as bad allegory or a Jungian treatise. Nonetheless, The Relenting is none of those.
Lisa Gill is a poet of profligate and protean gifts whose work is marked by both an exuberant freedom and formal rigor. She draws deep upon a wellspring of linguistic resources: multiple languages, including Spanish, Greek and siSwati, myth, the Bible, literary allusion and playfulness (“Infrared wheelbarrow”), high and low diction, neuroscience and anatomy. In her self-introduction, Woman addresses the Snake, recognizing that at the moment they’re not sharing the same topography:
Not the rash of wildsprung asters
under the windmill;
Not the chasms of 4 o’clock blossoms
near the piñon;
Not the broken clothesline still noosed
In a high branch of the juniper;
Nor the sun-mashed berry-pulp beneath.
In an essay about Hemingway, Alfred Kazin wrote of “the Western American’s . . . adoration and awe” of the natural world. Kazin could’ve just as well have been writing about Gill’s poetry. Note the adjectives “wildsprung” and “sun-mashed,” their sheer activeness and juice. In fact The Relenting is about language itself – its disempowering and restorative aspects, the incantatory power of The Word. As Adrienne Rich has said, there are those who have had language used against them.
Later, the Woman sees in the snake-shape an analogue to the cosmic:
as if what your spine can do was as vast and encompassing
as the circles in the heaven, 10,000 ellipses,
all the spheres of the heavens rotating at once.
The play demonstrates the author’s remarkable empathy for otherness, the not-human, the reviled, the potently venomous, and is timely as exurban sprawl and violence against women. “The Relenting” is a stunning, often funny work of desire, risk, bodily and ecological violation, transformation and spiritual invocation.
Novella by John Cotter
Miami University Press, June 2010
Paperback: 200pp; $15.00
Review by Dan Magers
John Cotter, author of the just published novella Under the Small Lights, is also a poet. The novella, a co-winner of 2009 Miami University Press Novella Contest, and a knowing yet earnest coming-of-age story about a group of college-age youths embracing a guileless hedonism and salvation through art, has many marks of a poet: a deft feel for spoken language and the ability to create vivid scenes through language. The very structure of the book – with short, often very short, chapters – has less of the expansiveness of prose, and more the concise cognitive breath of poetry.
Jack, Paul, and Corinna are best friends who slowly discover themselves to be in a burgeoning love triangle. Jack, the protagonist, introduces Corinna to his best friend Paul, and is disappointed when Paul and Corinna get married and drop out of school. Add to this volatile mix another friend, Star, who likes Jack; and Bill, a profligate young writer who lives in New York City, filtering back stories of his sexual conquests to an admiring Jack. The book is best when it explores the unresolved sexual tension between Jack and Corinna, and his evolving relationship with Paul, as he spends time with the couple in a large New England house owned by Corinna’s parents during the summer of 1996.
One of the strongest aspects of the novella is Cotter’s ease with natural-sounding dialogue, which sparks, shambles, and darts along – the rhythm of you and your friends goofing on each other. As when Jack, Corinna, Paul, Star (and her date for the night) gather in an apartment to watch the Clinton-Dole presidential debate:
“Listen,” I said, “shut up, listen everybody shut up, he’s talking about smoking.”
Star’s date turned. “You be careful who you tell to shut up.” His name sounded like Jock-something. The vowels were not familiar.
Paul liked fights. “I think you should…”
“Just. Everybody, I’m sorry Star,” Corinna said, “but everyone please shut up.”
I was asked a technical question. Are they addictive? Maybe they – they probably are addictive. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.
“Is he kidding?” Corinna said. “I’m addicted right now. Of course they’re addictive, look at me!”
Cotter’s ability with dialogue often extends to the language of the book in general. Jack and Bill are at Walden Pond with their typewriter for inspiration as they work on their avant-garde play. Jack narrates, “The beautiful combination of drugs we’d swallowed enabled me to feel the snow without the cold. The icy water leading into my boots through the lace-holes felt good. My shell shivered without me.”
The chapters are often very short, usually no more than a handful of pages, and they move in a rough chronology. There is attention to how the main story (Jack, Corinna, Paul) and the minor story (Jack, Bill) are set back and forth between each other – and how they come together late in the book is well-done, though sometimes a new chapter will require some reorientation about where and when things are happening. Chapters do not always transition into new chapters with a lock-step precision. The structure of the book is ultimately rewarding because the short chapters often have the feel of circling back into themselves as memory, making even more poignant the coming-of-age story.
The plot works its way to a summer’s-end party at the house of Corinna’s parents’ neighbor, the famous older poet Charles Jodoin, and his partner David, who both seem modeled superficially at least on James Merrill and David Jackson. Jack, himself a would-be poet, ensures that he is there.
Jack’s twin desires/anxieties are evoked most strongly by Cotter when Jack happens into a room on the second floor at the party where Charles Jodoin is resting and they begin a conversation and people enter: “This was exactly the conversation I wanted to have with Charles Jodoin. I was some young man, but that was just as well. It was as though Corinna slid Paul’s ring off her finger and fell into my arms.”
Jack’s logical slippage here is an impressionistic microcosm of the entire book, told through many moments charged with meaning and yearning, often asking the reader to fill the gaps in the story. But the book also has the substantial advantage of having a great atmospheric beginning, excellent action-packed climax, and a poignant ending. Under the Small Lights is a very good read, and like Sarah Manguso’s memoir Two Kinds of Decay, is definitely worth checking out if you are a poet looking for strategies on how to build a full-length prose narrative.
Poetry by Michael Rattee
Adastra Press, February 2010
Paperback: 64pp; $16.00
Review by Caleb Tankersley
The latest collection from Michael Rattee, Falling off the Bicycle Forever, is a smooth, two-wheel ride through your nearest suburban neighborhood; if you don’t pay close enough attention, you’ll miss the subtleties of this book’s sedentary life, the thick underlay of muck beneath the gilded exterior of the American Dream.
The writing here is simple and sparse: Rattee employs virtually no punctuation throughout any of his short, small-worded lines. However, none of these are negative attributes in skilled hands like Rattee’s. A reader underestimates Falling off the Bicycle Forever at his or her own loss. Crafted to a mind-boggling degree, some of these poems are so light to the touch that one word added or subtracted could undo the meaning. Not only are these poems then fun to read, but they hold an excellent parallel, the hidden style melting together with the hidden nature of suburbia, those underground cracks and crevices that are so easily ignored. Rattee points a faint, solemn finger in their direction.
Carving slightly deeper with each page, Rattee dissects a cross-section of the suburban mindset. There’s a clear progression of themes throughout the work. Earlier poems – such as “Somewhere with Your Name,” “The Sleep of Others,” and “Last Call” – address the more positive and benign attributes of mental and neighborly connectedness. “You Might Be” displays an engaging awareness of how the daily minutia of American life can tickle memories:
you might be sitting at the table
eating your mother’s goulash
and taste the salt in the far sea air
you might be alive in a distant year
recalling being read to as a child
and hear a brittle voice speak your name
Later works discuss darker suburban themes, including the desire for escape (“The Runaway,” “The Teacher’s of Abstinence,” “Aunt Lucky’s Farm”) and willful ignorance (“Other Languages,” “Practice”). “The Political Analyst” is an especially poignant commentary, one of the rare moments in which the collection strays from its portrayal of individuals as reflections and addresses the wider world:
their desire for reasons
and they would still need
to hire a stranger to describe
they’ve lived in their entire lives
Falling off the Bicycle Forever sinks and builds until the final page, the title poem that best represents Michael Rattee’s outlook on the empty future of the American Dream.
I will admit that the lack of punctuation can feel occasionally taxing. But Rattee’s thin yet penetrating style more than makes up for these small setbacks. Settle in to the quiet despair of domesticity in Falling off the Bicycle Forever; you’ll be glad you did, and you’ll be pricing downtown loft-apartments in no time.
Poetry by Mathias Svalina
CSU Poetry Center, November 2009
Paperback: 83pp; $15.95
Review by Noel Sloboda
Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth is a collection of great intellectual rigor, grounded by an awareness of the everyday. It presents a series of forty-four poems, all but one entitled “Creation Myth.” Reaching back into history – and sometimes prehistory – Svalina’s poems explore origins. Indeed, almost every work but the last (“Destruction Myth”) starts with some variation of “In the beginning.” Relying upon this formula lifted from “Genesis,” Svalina nonetheless demonstrates great range. He presents highly personal material, confessing “how I felt / when I was eight years old / & my home broke apart,” alongside thought-provoking anthropological generalizations (“Human life begins / at the moment / of contraception”; “Nothing without thumbs / is human”). And he displays skill with both free verse and prose – though the latter mode seems better suited for his forthright tone and frequent use of dialogue.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the many threads woven through Destruction Myth is the commentary on language. Svalina imagines the government regulating parts of speech, and juxtaposes lists of “beautiful” and “ugly words.” His preoccupation with language is not academic. In fact, Svalina exhibits a healthy skepticism about universities, notably in a poem about “a hole” obsessed with “PhDs” that ultimately says nothing. And Svalina’s interest in language is not confined to poetry: he is deeply concerned about how people across the ages have used words to interpret – and sometimes displace – quotidian experiences. He treats with equal care iterations inspired by Chris Farley movies and the Bible.
That said, Destruction Myth will not appeal to everyone. It asks to be understood as a whole, and Svalina’s relentless pursuit of the same philosophical questions in poem after poem will put off some readers. But those seeking an intelligent, cohesive volume that interrogates how we make sense (and nonsense) will definitely appreciate Svalina’s work.
Poetry by Karyna McGlynn
Sarabande Books, November 2009
ISBN 13: 978-1-932511-76-5
Paperback: 74pp; $14.95
Review by Kristin Abraham
When titles are well written, they strike our interest and pull us into the main text, but they also are part of the main text – adding to the story, the voice, the emotional resonance – and should never be something without which a text can survive or make sense. I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl – chosen by Lynn Emanuel for the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry – does just those things and is exactly what the title of a book should be; even before readers get to what’s inside of the book, it is striking, creative, intriguing, and relevant.
The titles of individual poems, too, are noteworthy and often smirk-inducing: “The Poem with Its Teeth Caught in the Carpet”; “‘Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?’”; “To Step off the El’s Chlamydeous Tongue”; “I Want to Tell Her I Won’t Need Calculus, I Want to Warn Her”; and “I Show Up Twelve Years Late for Curfew” to name a handful. These titles share a wry humor that evokes a bit of eerie uncertainty – danger seems to be lurking just beneath the surface, then fear, regret and disappointment.
Of course, a brilliant title isn’t the only thing – the rest of the work has to live up to the success of its title, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I have more than once been tempted by a fabulous title only to be disappointed with the poem or book after reading it in its entirety. McGlynn’s poetry – thankfully – does not disappoint; her poems complement and play off of their titles (and vice versa), as if they are members of an orchestra responding to their conductor. Just as the titles in I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl demonstrate tension between wit and grisliness, the complete poems do the same.
The humor on the surface of these poems dissolves to reveal bitterness and a sense of serious, unfinished business, which the title poem clearly exhibits:
I can only assume
they don’t see the significance of my presence
but I must say 1994 is a simpler time – not everyone is suspect
I crawl up next to
my old house & look through a lit window
my mother reads
a book in bed I want to knock on the glass, there’s something
I need to tell her
Most of us can relate to that desire to return and confront someone in our pasts – the use of the word “kill” is more than likely figurative, the desire to tell someone something is very real. This book gives us permission to play out those literal and figurative fantasies, which provides, maybe, a sense of relief for readers. Even so, any wry smiles of recognition soon crack from the realization that we are latching on to things in the past that can’t be changed, things that are far gone and should not affect us now. The speaker in these poems shares our faltering smiles when she uses the poems to investigate the realities of her present (and her past(s)).We – the speaker and the readers – all become trapped between a need to hold on and a need to let go,
and she only half in the shell of this time
an aneurysm opens its trap, or the devil says:
you will never know her, you never even happened
McGlynn’s poems navigate space on the page, mimicking the speaker’s meditative negotiation of time and internal conflict. The volume itself is broken into three sections: “Planchette,” “Visitant” and “Revenant.” Each section calls to mind the past, and a visit into the past – via séance? – as well as eliciting the idea of ghosts and haunting. “Is this how the dead continue to watch?” the speaker asks us in different ways throughout the book, investigating the methods in which the living, too, watch the dead, the past: “Through my window I see my sister step from her car. / She plans to confront me about things she can’t yet know.”
Some poems take on “traditional” left justification, with line breaks and stanzas, but the majority fall into four different categories with distinct visual impact: right-justified couplets; a kind of staggered, woven single stanza that often inhabits more of the center of the page; two or three vertical columns, each broken into stanzas and lines; and a combination of the three previous styles. The forms represent on the page the conflicts within our speaker, as well as the conflict between her present and past; they show how such tension can blur boundaries and allow us to travel in time, if only in meditation, mental séance.
“When I Came to There Was a Pearl and a Fish Hook” is a poem in two columns that seems to investigate this “middle” in time and space, a point during which there may be no clear thought or memory – a point like a blackout, or white space between columns. The blank space in time and memory, represented between columns of text on the page, may show us that there is no way to stand with any clarity on that line between past and present; there is no moment when “past” becomes “present”; time is only always “before” and “now,” and we must straddle the line in order to make sense of anything:
then something moved in the sun tea jar I’d been brewing
for the past month the thing stared out
it put a jelly fist against the glass it had 4 finger buds
he pulled out and it didn’t make much sound
but when I couldn’t see his car anymore I put my nose
right down next to that blue smear and breathed in
I got real high but the pearl was gone I don’t know how
the hook was still there I moved my hands
through the stuff like gin I went inside to make myself a baby
What makes this poem one of the best in the book is that it can be read in multiple ways. It can be read across the page, “leaping” the white space of the speaker’s / narrative’s uncertainty; or it can be read vertically, left-hand column (top-to-bottom), then right-hand column (top to bottom).
Unfortunately, not all of McGlynn’s “column” poems – although still very stunning poems – are successful in this way. At times, it is unclear how the author would like us to read them. “The Thing in the Middle Which Has No Corner” is such a poem:
a hash-marked door flapped back there then
something moved a heavy smell rang like
an old rotary phone full in the face and then
three stump-legged sheepdogs covered in
tumors got under the house which wasn’t
mine to move then by god they moved it
In these poems, the leaps between lines within columns are often large and disjointed (confusing, compared to line breaks in the aforementioned poem “When I Came to…”) and the syntax of lines when read across the white space (left-to-right) between columns is strikingly clear in comparison. This would lead me to believe that readers are meant to read the poem in the latter manner (across, as opposed to column by column); however, in order to do this, we may fight against a habit of reading poetry in stanzas, top to bottom through line breaks, one column / stanza at a time. Then when we come to a poem that can be read so clearly in both ways (as in “When I Came to…”), it’s possible to be even more uncertain about how to read McGlynn’s other column poems, such as “The Thing in the Middle...”. In other words, we may grapple with the question “if these poems can be read with a fair amount of ease in multiple ways, am I supposed to read the other poems with a fair amount of ease in the same ways?”
Ultimately, though, in case of confusion such as this, McGlynn’s columns are close together on the page, which pulls at a reader’s natural tendency to read horizontally, left to right, and I think that is enough to show us that we should read across the columns, horizontally across the page. But limiting us to this one way of reading a poem also limits the poem’s potential for meaning, the reader’s potential for participating in that meaning-making. Especially when we are reading poems about the hazy middle space “which has no corner,” it is disappointing to be presented with limitations and corners. Luckily this doesn’t happen often and it doesn’t affect the quality of McGlynn’s poems in general.
Regardless of form and use of space, every poem in I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl has a highly unique – yet familiar – use of language, a dialect specific to this speaker that denotes the oddity of emotion and story McGlynn presents to us:
She fishes in her pink robe for a pack of cigarettes,
places a menthol between her feathering lips,
flicks her lighter, picks her cuticle,
tells us out of the corner of her mouth
to stop gaping and eat our fucking Lucky Charms.
The ritalin girls who watched
the babies said rape then they
all started to cry, their fat flesh quivering in jeans: Jesus…
she can only make one long milk blanched face
I mean she’s down under the dust ruffle
and taps 17 times on my bedpost, which is a wheel
like the thing’s a gurney and she’s some daguerreotype wet nurse
What’s so satisfying about this book is that along with a certain familiarity – of the characters, the images, the language and pop culture references – at every turn, we are confronted with odd, powerful images and a bit of whimsy (“her tongue made a sound / like a whip culled of freshwater eel”; “coals in a jewelbox / stars in a coalsack”; “accidental blue eggs on my bed sheet”; “something like a dulcimer / only it isn’t a dulcimer, it’s the bones of his 9 year-old daughter”) that can knock us off balance in surprising ways. As a reader, I find myself thinking “I don’t know what that is / what that means, but I love it and at the same time it makes perfect sense,” which to me is an indicator of great, original writing – fabulous, well-crafted poetry that is as fun to read as it is thought- and emotion-provoking.
Karyna McGlynn has written a book that coalesces; its parts can stand alone but they are phenomenal when put together. I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is unique and not only worth reading but worth holding on to; I have already added it to my shelves.
Poetry by Oliver de la Paz
University of Akron Press, March 2010
Paperback: 88pp; $14.95
Review by Lisa Dolensky
What’s in an author’s name? Just uttering, “Oliver de la Paz” is to be moved by poetry. Repeating the musicality of such a name over and over before even peeling back the cover to the opening poem makes one ponder, “Could this poet’s name be some sort of predestination statement at the root of his creative process? Or evidence of his introduction since birth to the rise and fall of words that have fine-tuned his ear?”
Coincidentally, I didn’t have to go very far before discovering on page 11 a childhood perspective poem titled, “Sticks and Stones” where the author explores his name in great detail with humor. Here are some of my favorite plucked lines:
When I was a child, I was afraid of my name.
…I’d recite my name until it sounded of helicopter blades or ghosts.
Oliver, Oliver, Oliver soon morphed into ah! liver!
…One child, later, wanted to eat my name.
…Dead in the water. Other children would resuscitate it
so that the name was constant as wind through canyons.
The constant I’ve enjoyed immensely from de la Paz is his use of a variety of sense words to help readers imagine and practically “feel” sounds, visuals, tastes, smells and the tactile. He also has a knack for overlapping or mixing the senses which is referred to as synaesthesia. I compare his talent playing the inked pen to the range of a master blues musician who has a foundation playing spirituals. The music of his words and captivating, concrete images are very balanced. His instrumentation of word choice, placement, contrasts, traces of religious elements, and voice effectively communicate highs and lows. He writes real – without reservation – and from the gut.
Many of de la Paz’s poems resonate and bite with some shock value, long after reading. Requiem for the Orchard bears much fruit, from juice to ooze, when it comes to showcasing a collection that’s polished without sacrificing a flavorful, raw honesty and edge that readers hunger for. Oliver de la Paz’s subject matter attracts us with both the rottenness and the ripeness at the core of every day rural life.
However, between his works about wringing a chicken’s neck, knifing a dead chestnut horse and ghost hunting, I believe one of the most intriguing chanced upon poems of his is on page 57 titled, “Instead, I’m here to tell you very softly.” I personally interpret it as an unrequited love poem. Here his words just flow along with rainy imagery of colorful chalk paintings spilling into sewers. The descriptions conjure the haunting beauty of broken heart ruins, love abandoned, and the gnaw of “want.” Writing with such delicate vulnerability almost went unnoticed at first glance. The striking, seductive nature of this poem took me by surprise. Instead, I’m here to tell you all very loudly that this seemingly more silent, subtle piece came through loud and clear as perhaps one of de la Paz’s most heartfelt. I’d equate it to being like a whisper that’s so quiet and of importance, everyone in the church can and must hear it. And this book is without a doubt my best pick of summer yet!
Memoir by Corbin Lewars
Catalyst Book Press, February 2010
Paperback: 171pp; $16.00
Review by Laura Pryor
In her memoir Creating a Life, Corbin Lewars chronicles her difficult journey to motherhood. Along the road there is a miscarriage, unearthed memories of being raped as a teenager, a struggle to find meaningful work, and tough decisions about the birth itself: hospital or home? Drugs or “natural” childbirth?
Lewars is open and honest about her experiences and emotions, and doesn’t try to gloss over her own failings. In fact, the reader may occasionally feel sorry for Jason, her long-suffering husband; dealing with her traumatic rape experience plus her pregnancy hormones sometimes makes her the housemate from Hell. Lewars’s writing is so straightforward that it sounds more like talking or writing in a diary; while this makes for an easy read, occasionally I found myself wishing she had taken a few more pains describing her emotions or experiences. Her flat, matter-of-fact presentation sometimes makes a very poignant or traumatic experience seem less so. And some of her women friends are ready for sainthood; their advice sounds less like actual talking, and more like reading from a brochure. For instance, one woman, when Lewars asks her about home birth in a phone conversation, says this (uninterrupted):
“Once I became pregnant, I educated myself about the risks, pros and cons of a home birth. Intuitively, I knew that’s what I wanted, but researching it convinced me. It seems we too often go down the path of fear, of ‘what if,’ rather than trusting our own strength and ability to go through the pain and exhaustion and come out the other side strong and proud and absolutely ecstatic. I knew I was capable of giving birth on my own, with the help of a midwife, and it seemed the more that women give up that strength and confidence in their bodies, the more likely the birth will end up not being what they wanted.”
Maybe Lewars has more articulate friends than I do, but I know no one who talks like this on the phone.
Style issues aside, Lewars’s memoir brings some important issues into the open: how far does violation have to go to be called “rape”? Who should be in charge of the birth experience, the woman or the doctors? Is home birth an irresponsible choice? I learned a lot about home birth, the procedures involved, and the responsibilities of a doula versus a midwife. Her book also made me think about how much control I give up to a doctor, rather than listening to my own body.
Anyone considering a home birth should read this book. Lewars describes the experience in detail, and also tells how she found her midwife and doula. If you’re squeamish about childbirth description, this is not the book for you; Lewars doesn’t spare the reader a single drop of fluid, blood or mucus. Of course, if you’re pregnant AND squeamish: go ahead and read. You’ve only got nine months to get over it.
Fiction by Kim Echlin
Black Cat, December 2009
Paperback: 235pp; $14.00
Review by Katherine Kipp
The novel The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin, is one that defines how love can surpass not only generations but countries as well. The story comes through so naturally – the narrator not hesitating to let true statements of the heart come through when need be – that, by the end of the novel, I felt as if this was a story told to me personally by a good friend.
Echlin takes you on a journey with the narrator, Anne, through thirty years of her life, starting in Montreal, where she meets and falls in love with a young man, Serey, from Cambodia, to the devastating, war-torn streets of Phonm Penh as she looks for him after he “disappears” from Montreal to look for his family, to her life years after she is forced to return to Canada. The “disappeared” refers not only to Serey as Anne chases him through different stages of his life, twice desperate after he slips through her fingers. It also refers to who Anne becomes as she loses the identity she formed while with Serey and to the lost people who are left in Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime and Cambodian genocide that play a role in the book. The book emphasizes how not even war and fear can stand in the way of searching for the one you love, but it can certainly make it more difficult and more devastating. After reading the book, this becomes clear: “Time is no healer.” Even after thirty years of not having him in her life anymore, Anne is clearly not “healed” as she writes the book to Serey, for Serey.
Echlin easily combines Anne’s story as she searches for Serey with the story of Cambodia during the genocide (1975-79) and the Vietnamese occupation (1979-89). The details she includes about the state of Cambodia as it tries to rebuild itself are strong images; however, the images and wonderings of Anne as she searches for Serey are even stronger: “I did not tell you the pain of receiving no word. I did not tell you how I wondered if a human being can invent love. I did not tell you how I began to notice that people marry every day not for love but because they are well matched, or lonely.” Her life story becomes enveloped by searching for him and wondering how she can love someone so much so that all reasoning and clear thought disappears. The fact that the book is written in first person to Serey is a true testament to how much he has affected her life – he becomes the “you” that appears in the narration, as Anne literally tells her story to Serey. Hers is a love that sees no danger in going to a country she barely knows and walking the streets, talking to strangers, putting her life in danger merely to locate him.
The book is told in a backwards fashion; she starts thirty years after she first met Serey and narrates their brief time together in Montreal, his leaving to return to Cambodia to find his family, and her leaving for Cambodia to hopefully find him. She also ends the book thirty years later, in her “present time.” Framing the book this way allows for their story to unfold rather nicely, narrating events and emotions they shared together and ones she experienced on her own. But the language she uses is definitely one of love, as she raises several questions about romance, relationships, family love, and human beings in general throughout the book – not only of she and Serey, but also of the horrific setting of the disparity in Cambodia. For instance:
Why do some people live a comfortable life and others live one that is horror-filled? What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep on eating while others starve? If women, children, and old people were being murdered a hundred miles from here, would we not run to help? Why do we stop this decision of the heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of a hundred?
Echlin is able to uniquely combine her own love story with Serey with a separate love for Cambodia. As she wonders through her relationship with Serey, she wanders – literally wanders – through the killing fields and other significant places in Cambodia, developing a love for the lost country. She even learns to speak Khmer which she states is the “language of the man I love.”
One of the most notable things about Echlin’s writing style is that she uses no quotation marks for her dialogue. Since the novel is written as if Anne is pouring out all of her thoughts to Serey, it seems very natural for her to not to use quotation marks, as she is remembering the dialogue and conversations in her head.
By the end of the book, I had a motivation for researching the history of Cambodia (as the brunt of the violence came before my time) and seeing the scenery for myself in pictures. Also by the end, I felt as if I knew Anne personally – that I had just read a long letter from her about her own life. The ability to leave this kind of impression upon a reader – getting them interested not only in the story, but also in the scenery in which the book is set – is a tremendous skill. The pages are truly kept turning by how she relates the story to the human condition – as a reader, I was not only touched by the strength of the love Anne has for Serey, but also by the heartfelt desire to travel to Cambodia and help its people.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a love story that is not drenched in hand-maidens or dukes, and enjoys reading novels placed in exotic yet devastated locales. And, if anything, this sentence from the book about the writer’s appreciation for humanity should incite one to read the book: “There are many wonders in the world. But none so wonderful as a human being.”