NewPages Book Reviews


Posted December 1, 2010

Pirate Talk or Mermalade :: Creative Writer's Survival Guide :: Muted Lines from Someone Else's Memory :: God on the Rocks :: Indexical Elegies :: Patterns of Paper Monsters :: Please Take Me Off the Guest List :: Velleity's Shade :: Skin, Inc. :: Present Tense :: Sonnets

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Pirate Talk of Mermalade coverPirate Talk or Mermalade

Fiction by Terese Svoboda

Dzanc Books, September 2010

ISBN-10: 0982631804

ISBN-13: 9780982631805

Paperback: 147pp; $14.95

Review by Alex Myers

Put aside any expectations of swashbuckling that this title might inspire. Pirate Talk or Mermalade has its share of cutlasses, of peg legs, of sailors marooned on desert isles. But it is far from a typical pirate tale. Described as a “novel in voices,” the story is told entirely in dialogue. No quotation marks, no helpful tag lines (i.e. he said, she replied): each page is simply the conversation, with an indentation serving as the indication that the speaker has shifted. At first, I thought the “only dialogue” rule would limit the scope—where would the description be? The thought and reflection?—but within a few pages, it was apparent that Svoboda is a masterful writer and is no more constrained by this selection of form than a poet is constrained by composing a sonnet: the novel delights because of this rule, succeeds because of this confinement.

Pirate Talk or Mermalade tells the story of two brothers who, following the death of their mother, set out for sea. They end up as pirates of a sort, somewhat willingly and somewhat unwillingly. One suffers disfiguration of a ridiculously stereotypical sort (loss of a leg, of an eye, and of a hand, which means he has a peg leg, a patch and a hook). The other is routinely visited by a mermaid who urges him to join her in the water. Both end up shipwrecked on an island, imprisoned aboard a slaver, and, eventually, on a mission in the Arctic. Seems plain enough. But the tale twists and curls away, resisting simple categorization and description.

What could be a straight-forward story of adventure on the high seas is made into much more by Svoboda. In part, this is done through her language. She enjoys the tangle of good word play, as when the brothers are given an order: “take the watch whilst I have a hand of whist, and wait.” But it’s not all alliteration and tongue-twisters. She crafts sentences of such intensity that they easily overcome the limitations one might expect of an all-dialogue novel. For instance, one of the brothers tells another a story as they suffer in isolation on an island, a story about “this beautiful fish with watery fins and skin the color of ruby beaches at sunset the boy befriends.” Fluid and descriptive, Svoboda’s prose easily crosses the line to poetry as in this exchange:

I saw—
You must tell me.
Mark the spot—
What did you see?
The sea, I saw the sea. And—
You, a she, the sea—
Did you see her?
I saw—sister—I saw—
I will mark the spot, I will. What did you see?
Aye, the sea.

For all the wordplay and cleverly crafted sentences, Svoboda’s writing is not just about the surface. It does more than sound good. Just as the story itself transcends the normal bounds of an adventure tale, so too the themes are oddly morphed into new shapes. As the one brother suffers injury upon injury, he remarks, “Pirates are a perfect picture of a person piecemeal, falling apart.” In this and other such lines, it is clear that the story aims to comment on self, on identity, and on how what we hold to be icons—those we think of as rebels, heroes, or whores—are often not so easily defined as their singular appearance would make us believe.

Beyond the brothers and their redefinition of piracy, the mermaid is the character most compelling in this novel. When she is fished out by one brother, the interaction at first seems to go according to expectations:

I’m sorry to catch you.
I’m glad to be caught. When I saw it was your hook, I rejoiced. Just wrench out the barb…
That’s better…
This fishy part is new and shocking.
Not so new. The skirts all women wear to confound men hid it.

Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that this is not the typical mermaid-woos-sailor type of story. Whenever the mermaid appears to the brother, she tempts him to join her. But what at first seems like a “come, run away with me” invitation takes on ominous undertones, such as when she invites him to swim with her and he replies: “Dust to dust, as the church says, not water to water.” Svoboda patiently unfolds the mermaid-as-death metaphor over the course of the novel, and it is this piece that I found most satisfying. This alluring, promising presence, always lurking near the sailor’s shoulders, the mermaid is the glue that holds the pieces of this story together.

Pirate Talk and Mermalade is immediately engaging, with prose that is breath-taking yet easy to read. Short and deft, I devoured this novel, and expect that many others will enjoy doing the same.


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The Creative Writer's Survival Guide coverThe Creative Writer’s Survival Guide

Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist

Nonfiction by John McNally

University of Iowa Press, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1-58729-920-8

ISBN-13: 978-1-58729-920-9

Paperback: 274pp; $19.95

Review by Elena Spagnolie

In his new book, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist, John McNally gives an honest and highly informative account of his experiences in the writing/publishing industry. As he cautions his readers in the introduction entitled “The Writer’s Wonderland—Or: A Warning,” this book is not an instruction manual on how to write short stories, it’s not a place to seek writing prompts, and the author does not claim to have a formulaic answer to getting published. Rather, he explains:

This book is a highly subjective and idiosyncratic take on the writing life. You might agree with most of it or find something of value in each chapter, but it’s entirely possible that you won’t agree with me. In any case, I set out to write an honest book about what it takes to be a writer today, using my own life as well as the lives of other writers I’ve known as anecdotal support for my opinions on a wide range of subjects.

Through his personal experiences, McNally demystifies and de-romanticizes the writing life without being discouraging; he illustrates how challenging it can be (read: donating plasma to make ends meet), but isn’t embittered or disdainful. Throughout his book, he never makes the reader feel as if the option of being a writer is outside of her reach; instead, he paints a picture of his life, and lets the reader make decisions for herself. While reading, I experienced moments of embarrassed disappointment when I was forced to admit that “being a writer” looks less like a Parisian party filled with literary geniuses and more like a person sitting alone in a trailer trying to knock out one more page. (“Talking about writing isn’t writing,” he warns.) But in this way, McNally’s realism is a gift. His book covers what he’s learned over many years and will be a useful resource to writers throughout their entire career, from making the decision to become a writer, to being a published, tenured professor with multiple books under his belt.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of writing every day, and the undeniable role of “luck, serendipity, and chance,” he explores the merits of MFA programs, how to get funding, the process of submitting pieces to magazines and what you might accidentally do that would cause an editor to return your manuscript in shreds, the differences between cover letters and query letters, how to find an appropriate agent (and why you need one at all), how to effectively publicize your work, where to find the proper resources, what literary employment opportunities are out there, and how to deal with the inevitability of rejection. His narrative is highly entertaining, and the way he vents his own frustrations adds to the humorous and personal nature of the book, though at times it feels defensive. His credentials are strong and he is generous with sharing what he’s learned. McNally writes, “If this book does nothing else, I hope it narrows that gap between the idea and the reality [of being a writer]” and I believe it does.


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Muted Lines from Someone Else's Memory coverMuted Lines from Someone Else's Memory

Poetry by Seth Berg

Dark Sky Books, July 2010

ISBN-10: 0615357172

ISBN-13: 978-0615357171

Paperback: 92pp; $12.00

Review by H.V. Cramond

The mind is a smelly heap of compost comprising our greatest hopes, delusions and sexual fantasies about robots. We explain its function with analogies to computers or other machines, trying to impose a structure on a ghost. So when our bodies and minds start to fail, we panic. We grope about in the dark for a user's manual, a crossword puzzle or anti-depressant that will put our brains in the order that we suppose it should have. Seth Berg explores this dark space in his first book of poems, Muted Lines from Someone Else's Memory.

This struggle for control is mirrored in the structure of the book and Berg's tight dedication to line and syllable. The book is broken down into three sections that give clues as to how one might read the poems they contain. The first section, “Structural Encoding,” contains poems in familiar forms, especially couplets, that point one to the pleasure in carefully counted syllables. In “Phonemic Encoding,” this pleasure is enhanced by the invitation to roll around in sound, especially near-rhyme and internal rhyme: the “gnome-like” speaker of “In the Land of Giants” might gather “fennel and stinging nettle / to take to market and barter.” By the time the reader reaches “Semantic Encoding,” she may begin to wonder if Berg is re-wiring her brain.

Muted Lines is a space of slowness and nightmare, a silence where one can forget the number two or storms force a bird to fly “achingly in place.” Many of Berg's poems have a narrative quality, but all have a poet's carefulness with language. His keen eye and usually short lines train us to hone in on the minute: bugs dance a “surrendered ballet”; minnows become “jeweled relics”; corn snakes “collect mathematics”; pre-verbal, telepathic children laugh to appease stupid-faced adults. Through these tiny beasties and the often slimy and body-part ridden landscape they dance in, the reader can see a speaker in love with the body's disobedience, the mind's failure. When an old woman sets to weeding a garden in the narrator's cerebellum, instead of warding her off, he invites the process of alteration and memory to continue. This is not destruction, after-all but adventure, invention, and the lens through which Berg presents it to us is lucid and precise, transforming the terror of free-fall into synaptic leap.


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God on the Rocks coverGod on the Rocks

Fiction by Jane Gardam

Europa Editions, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1933372761

ISBN-13: 978-1-933372-76-1

Paperback: 195pp; $15.00

Review by Olive Mullet

For fans of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, God on the Rocks, a 1978 Booker Prize finalist, will satisfy. As Gardam wrote in the November 20, 2010 Op-Ed article “Richard’s Glove, Kate’s Hand” (which gives an historical perspective to Kate and Prince William’s upcoming wedding), “In my novels I write about the ‘old world,’ my parents’ world, where people wore hats—and gloves.” But “the old world is not so far away from this one.” Therefore, this novel, set along the northern English coast in 1938, between the world wars, is not chronological but jumps back and forth between different characters’ perspectives and pasts. In a book both humorous and tragic, the reader has to read carefully to notice switches in perspective and Gardam’s parceling out of information during the unfolding of fully defined lives.

The novel is more character than plot driven, although there is suspense at the very end. It does have a theme of craziness both hidden and real. And the progression comes with discoveries about the characters. First we learn about the main character, eight-year-old Margaret Marsh’s family: an unhappy romantic mother Ellie, a religious fundamentalist (member of the Primal Saints) father Kenneth, and a bawdy nurse Lydia. Margaret, confused about sex, is disturbed about what she sees. She announces to her mother about this crazy world, “It would be better without people. If I’d been God, I’d have left it at dinosaurs.” One humorous scene of the father involves his trying to convert beachgoers—to the point of falling into the water and ruining his shoes and clothes.

A second revelation comes with Margaret stumbling upon craziness for real in a crumbling estate where she encounters a “gaga” painter whose canvas supposedly of the building is instead full of snakes. This Hall’s history with its dying owner Rosalie Frayling Margaret never learns, though she meets her mother’s friends Binkie and Charles Frayling. What she does detect is the love between Charles and Ellie from when they were children. Binkie keeps the sibling household together but to the point of craziness: “Nobody knows, she thought, what it costs to live the life I live. The ordered life. She endured it because it kept her so busy that she need not think. If she stopped for a moment to think, then the game would be up. Chaos would take charge. The sea would rush in and give up its dead.”

The sea does rush in towards the end after the chaos of affections comes out. And while this is a tale of lost loves, including Rosalie Frayling’s, the ending is uplifting, partly because children’s perspective prevails, this time two boys.’ In the final revelations, the reader must figure out who these boys are and also who Beezer, a shell-shocked captain, is. The boys are told about his failed rescue attempt off their beach. They are told Beezer, the lifeboatman, was “gassed” (which of course meant during the war), but one boy asks, “Gassed! On the lifeboat?” And finally the indomitable spirit Lydia, who exposes Kenneth’s hypocrisy, returns. When asked if she ever married, Lydia responds, “’Nivver. I’se not that daft.” And then pointing to the seabirds, adds, “’In’t they bonny?” Not only does Margaret acknowledge lovingly that Lydia hasn’t changed, but the reader realizes that everyone has stayed true to his or her nature, including Margaret’s mother who continues to try too hard in everything she does. We know these characters well and we love them.


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Indexical Elegies coverIndexical Elegies

Poetry by Jon Paul Fiorentino

Coach House Books, October 2010

ISBN-10: 1552452344

ISBN-13: 978-1-55245-234-9

Paperback: 74pp; $14.95

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

I adore Coach House Books. The book design is smart, inventive, spot on. Poetry is clever, original, risky, inspiring. You want to go back to these books again and see them as if new each time you pick them up. You’re happy to give them to others, to show them off. You return to them as, and I am not exaggerating, a reason to keep going on. And on. A reason to read. A reason to write. A reason to believe in poetry. Even, maybe especially, when they are difficult (emotionally or intellectually or in a reader-ly way).

This is a quintessential Coach House book. The cover design, a traditional library index card, couldn’t be more appropriate, or more expertly presented. It’s genius. Fiorentino’s work embodies the indexical elegy construct, a series of elegies, of indexical representations, of elegies elevated to indexical elements and indexical elements presented as elegiac components. The work elevates the ordinary and make accessible the lyrical in short, urgent poems that avoid the sentimental (in true Coach House fashion), yet remain powerfully emotional. Fiorentino is a model poet of the moment, reminding us that the present times are difficult and unwieldy, yet reigning in any hysteria (however justified it might in such times) with his own brand of linguistic and emotional restraint. Here is an excerpt from “Self-Storage,” but any number of other quotations would be equally appropriate:

Laminated name tags everywhere
    shelf space for the wicked timid
Bottles tremble in November treble
    everyone dying or leaving or straying

As these brief lines demonstrate, Fiorentino cares about sound and knows how to exploit its virtues. He has a keen sense of rhythm, pace, timing; is adept at breaking a line at just the right breaking point, and at breaking me down (in the best poetic way) emotionally by saying just enough.

The book as an “index” is broken down into several sections with integrity as discrete series of poems, yet without a table of contents: Elizabeth Conway (A Montreal Suite); Indexical Elegies; and Transprairie (A Post-Prairie Suite). There are pithy, economically crafted revelations in each of these sections.

From the “Montreal Suite,” here is an excerpt from “Hysterical Narrative”:

Shouldn’t think so
I’ve been so thoughtless
Mispronounce hegemony
that’s nothing
Announce too candidly
my candidacy
Something I hardly know
protects me being happy

Here is one from “Indexical Elegies”:

Composed in 1946
Compost in 4/4/time
Composed –
a new verb
wicked and defiant
Missing you
Send in the nouns

And finally, an excerpt from the final section, “Dying in Winnipeg,”

Don’t’ read me wrong –
I plan on dying in Winnipeg.
In a strange way I
believe Winnipeg is where everything always dies.

Impossible not to hear the echo of César Vallejo here, intentional or coincidental. Impossible not to hope that Fiorentino will avoid Winnipeg, that he will live—and keep writing—forever.


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The Patterns of Paper Monsters coverThe Patterns of Paper Monsters

Fiction by Emma Rathbone

Back Bay Books, August 2010

ISBN-10: 031607750X

ISBN-13: 978-0316077507

Paperback: 206pp; $13.99

Review by Tessa Mellas

Emma Rathbone’s debut novel The Patterns of Paper Monsters is about Jacob Higgins, an angry kid incarcerated in a juvenile detention center. But like any great book, this one can’t be reduced to its plot. Its magic lies in the sarcasm that drools from its narrator’s voice and in the beauty of the way that voice strings together language. Listen, as Jacob describes the crime that landed him in the JDC:

As for me, what I did was simple enough. Nothing quirky or diabolical. I didn’t do anything sweeping like corral a bunch of single moms into a boardroom and then gas it. I didn’t realign the universe so all the planets crashed into one another and the stars got swept up like a tablecloth and all the skin got sucked off our faces. I didn’t make everyone watch while I transported a graceful, mythical beast from back in time, and then set it on fire.
What I’m guilty of is a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill armed robbery. More American than grass stains and painted curbs, with a little brutality thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and did I mention the humor? It is how Jacob Higgins copes. Humor is how he survives the motley crew of self-absorbed social workers and guards who put him through the motions of rehabilitation. It is how he survives the institution food, which he says “feels hostile.” It is how he survives the “minty, sterile kind of cold […] that is always just short of freezing [his] balls off.” His humor, constructed out of the subtle and dark ways he manipulates language, keeps both him and us entertained, chuckling as we turn pages.

Rathbone’s attention to minutiae also makes Jacob’s world utterly real and sensate. She, or rather Jacob, describes the inane process of checking out pencils, of signing honor slips in order to use antiquated computers that have seizures and reboot if you type too fast, of being herded into a rec room to eat waxy cookies that could only be appreciated by “an astronaut who had lost touch with home base and [had] run out of things to eat.” Jacob notices staples “embedded in the blue carpet.” He notices that the smoke detector in the rec room beeps every five minutes because no one has thought to change its battery. And he painstakingly describes the strawberry icing on wafer cookies, almost his singular pleasure.

Rathbone’s characterization, seen through Jacob’s eyes, is also pitch perfect. Of another inmate, Jacob says, “His face was so raw with his lips curling and his insides spilling out that there was something genital about it.” He says that his mother’s boyfriend “has the anger and sense of entitlement of a Vietnam vet except without the traumatic combat experience to explain it.” He describes his mentor Jim as “someone you would see trying to straighten out a picnic blanket.” But it is Andrea, a girl he likes, who he captures best. Early in their interactions, he says, “It was like she was the underside of a leaf, smarting and naked and veiny.” Later, he says this:

Sometimes she’ll make a little animal gesture, like turn her head really quick to look at something, and I’ll feel like I recognize her from an ancient time. Some of her teeth are whiter than her other teeth. Once, in the computer room, I saw her smell the eraser at the end of her pencil after she’d used it […] It’s like I think about her all the time. Like every moment has a little pupil of Andrea. I knocked my toothbrush off my sink the other day and the sound it made when it clattered to the floor reminded me of her.

It is at moments like these that Jacob’s voice transforms from biting sarcasm into raw earnestness. But Rathbone is careful not to let Jacob’s voice turn sappy. She retains the “likes” that characterize the imprecise language of adolescents, and she captures the height of the emotion in a vivid sensory moment without explaining it away. It is at these moments that Rathbone knocks out your breath. It is for these moments that this book is worth every page.

My one disappointment, though, was in the book’s ending. After two hundred pages artfully navigated with a teenaged voice, two hundred pages in which Rathbone avoids the easy morals that sometimes characterize fiction written about young adults—a genre that sometimes condescends to its readers thus turning the “young adult” label into a pejorative term— Rathbone perhaps writes toward an expected sort of redemption. She does salvage herself a bit with the last line, which proves that the messiness of the brain space of a “possibly bipolar juvenile […] with only the most tenuous impulse of civility” cannot be easily tidied up. To Rathbone’s credit, I had high expectations for the ending given the exceptional quality of the rest of the book. And the book’s ending certainly did not cancel out the novel’s numerous strengths. I would undoubtedly read it again.

It is exactly the type of book you could thrust into the hands of a ninth grader to make him love reading. It is also the type of book you could slide across the desk of a creative writing student to show her how to nail voice, detail, humor, and prose. It is a book you’d read out loud to a parent who’d forgotten the joys of reading. And it is one that could reconfigure the entire juvenile detention system because this book perfectly occupies the headspace of a kid trapped in an institution that doesn’t remember what it was like to be young.


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Please Take Me Off the Guest List coverPlease Take Me Off the Guest List

Art/Popular Culture by Nick Zinner, Zachary Lipez, Stacy Wakefield

Akashic Books, August 2010

ISBN-10: 1936070626

ISBN-13: 978-1-936070-62-6

Paperback: 150pp; $15.95

Review by Gina Myers

Please Take Me Off the Guest List is a collaboration between three people: Nick Zinner, of the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, provides the photographs; Zachary Lipez, of the band Freshkills, provides the essays; and Stacy Wakefield, former design director of Artforum, pulls it all together into a wonderfully designed object. It has already been noted elsewhere how rare it is for the book’s designer to have her name on the cover, but here it is earned. Zinner’s photographs and Wakefield’s design are the true highlights of this collection, which should appeal to anyone interested in book arts. Unfortunately, Lipez’s essays do not measure up to the quality of the photographs and the quality of the design elements.

The first essay in the collection is titled “Boring Coke Stories,” which should indicate the kind of self-deprecation that the reader will come to expect from Lipez as he or she works through these essays. After all, Lipez can’t actually believe the stories are boring. If he does, then why tell them? In this essay he tells a number of short narratives surrounding cocaine use, and before his last “boring coke story,” he writes, “Okay. One more. I’m keeping some for myself so I don’t feel like the sort of person who engages in memoir.” This reluctance to engage in memoir is too bad, because it could be the difference between these stories coming across as anyone’s generic New York City experiences and as stories that are specifically Lipez’s own.

And this criticism applies to the other essays in the collection too. Anyone who has spent time on the Lower East Side or in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in their twenties, or perhaps thirties as Lipez is in now, already knows these stories, already knows people just like those who Lipez depicts, already knows people just like Lipez, or at least just like how he presents himself in these essays. This is not to say that there are not moments where Lipez comes across as witty or sincere, but those moments are few and far between.

In “My Letter of Resignation,” Lipez writes a no-holds-bar letter to his bosses at The Strand, which is something I imagine a lot of people would like to do at some point in their lives— resign from their job, telling the boss what you really think. However, Lipez’s essay is more about his own shortcomings as a worker, including always arriving late and often arriving still drunk from the night before, though he does not see these things as problems. Lipez wryly writes, “My tardiness should have never been an issue, and certainly not one that was brought to my attention.” In this piece, he also offers his view on literary criticism: “My mother birthed me with a certain expectation of disappointment, but she would have to lower the bar considerably before I add literary criticism to the pyramid of disenchantment that I’ve managed to build for her.”

The title Please Take Me Off the Guest List suggests a tiredness, a readiness to move on from these experiences; however, I am not convinced that is the case for Lipez. In “I Like My Metal Like I Like My Women…False,” Lipez writes:

I did not grow up during wartime. I have never, in any real sense, suffered. I know I said I suffered earlier, but I was using dramatic license, or kidding, or lying. I grew up in a state of privileged irritation. I suckled on a tit of brie and always had an unkind word for the school janitor. Truly, I was a shit. Now I read the great books and barely comprehend them. The sad ones make me sad and I hate that there’s no one around to swoon over my sincerity.

He criticizes here his “privileged irritation,” and he seems to half-mock the entitlement he feels to show up to work whenever he wants, still drunk or not, but the overall impression left suggests that he will continue to use dramatic license, to kid, or to lie to himself.


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Velleity's Shade coverVelleity’s Shade

Poetry by Star Black; Paintings by Bill Knott

Saturnalia Books, October 2010

ISBN-10: 0981859178

ISBN-13: 978-9818591-7-0

Paperback: 69pp; $16.00

Review by Sima Rabinowitz

This is the sixth volume in Saturnalia’s Artist/Collaboration Series. I am impressed by and grateful for publisher Henry Israeli’s commitment to making available the collaborative efforts of visual and literary artists. The books are beautifully conceived, designed, and composed, and they occupy a uniquely wonderful place in the world of small press poetry publications.

Star Black, author of five previous volumes of poetry, founder of New York City’s amazing and popular KGB Bar Poetry Series, and a visual artist herself, and poet and painter Bill Knott, author of 12 books of poetry, have created an original and appealing book. Poems and paintings are titled separately, but form a meaningful whole. All of these works are comprised of the familiar and unfamiliar, images both round and sharp, impressions that can bear close scrutiny and a long-distance view. They are concretely abstract and abstractly concrete.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from “Inscape Complaint”:

The bouquets went away, miffed
at shoelaces that wrote their initials
in the dust en route to the humor train
that loved children so much it kidnapped
half of them and dropped them off at
zip codes, leaving the playground
ashen, with beagles and chows
replacements for friendship that last
a New York minute.

And here is another from “Subversion”:

Under the rain, its kaftans of faces,
above the butterweed of similar places,
between the cabin and the cantata,
are thin aerial arrays.

Many of Black’s poems are less abstract, small narratives with a more familiar dramatic arc. Some are philosophical musings (“Meanwhile, we edge toward demise, / dust-mop-like, courteous, respectful, // hoping to avoid a new life, its droll shock”). Others are autobiographical or confessional (“I hate irony. / I like the selfless quiet that surrounds me”). And others are themselves like paintings (“Lately it’s been late in the day, / the lavish firmament grey as a whisper / in a living room bathed in blood. Winters / have unspooled from a missing sun”). I appreciate the variety and admire the poet’s versatility and nimble manipulation of imagery.

I am especially moved by the book’s final poem, “Bridged by Eaves,” which brings together Black’s finest strengths: an eye for detail; an adept economy of expression; a surprising, yet utterly precise revelation (that bath!):

Ceravalo, it snows. The sky
is cotton-cold and unseeming.
I bathe to wash away non-feeling.
the rice of daylight
Whitens the roofs until
civilized streets are brambles
on Wang Wei screens—
mists adrift above rose-pink mountains.
Ceravolo, fresh snow on wet slate,
long ago is just a sec; no gift is late.

This book was published just a sec ago in 2010 and whenever readers encounter it will the right time.


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Skin, Inc. coverSkin, Inc.

Identity Repair Poems

Poetry by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Graywolf Press, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1555975674

ISBN-13: 978-1555975678

Hardcover: 176pp; $23.00

Review by C.J. Opperthauser

Ellis’s collection of poems, Skin, Inc, is an aggressive book to say the least. It is a statement in itself. A statement that is different and powerful. The language coursing through the veins of this collection is raw, real, and full of earnest emotion. It is calm, yet aggressive. Strong, yet tamed. One poem that really sets the tone for the first portion of the book is “My Meter Is Percussive”:

so throughout this worry,
I am rolling my eyes.
I am sucker-punching I,
the I that informs
these lines    like
only I    know I    know how.
I am breathing,
repairing, breathing,
half-interested in progress
and half-interested
in progression, never finished.

Ellis knows how to take an idea and make it clear while having his fun with language and the way the words and lines look on the page. Beyond this first section of the book, which is largely traditional in its style and form, is a section with photos, dealing with African American life of the past and things of the like. Among these, and my favorite, is an elegy to James Brown that is really more like a celebration of his life and work. It's a fun piece. The photos on the page beside the poems include a caption under the poem. The captions are really just beautiful poems to accompany the picture more closely.

Later, Ellis explores the boundaries of words on the page with a section called The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song. The latter part of this section includes this gem, embodied on one page:

A   P   O
L   O   G
I    Z   E

Issues of African American life, life in general, relationships, history—it's all here. This is a strong collection that is all at once ambitious, aggressive, experimental, and calm.


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Present Tense coverPresent Tense

Poetry by Anna Rabinowitz

Omnidawn Publishing, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1890650455

ISBN-13: 978-1890650452

Paperback: 96pp; $14.95

Review by Renee Emerson

Present Tense, by Anna Rabinowitz, phases through genres, using poetry as a vehicle to explore politics, gender, culture and human nature. The book opens with a prologue, a single sentence that declares the purpose of the book and the long list of who the book is for:

This writing is for the ones who inhabit elsewhere and for
those faces that appear on my inner lids as they close, for
me with Richie on the tricycle navigating fenced shrubs
and cement pathways between blades of grass, for Mr.
Bernstein’s laundry store redolent of boiled starch, for
umbrellas on the beach, waves whacking and wildering,
for lying perfectly still while heat runnels through groins,
underarms, neck, for the children, good morning, freshing,
sparkly day, give me a hug, for my mother who could not
stay, for my father who didn’t want to, for those denied
choice, for hate that stains the playing fields of men…

The lengthy credo helps the reader to anticipate the range in the writing that follows, and to expect the all-encompassing aspect of the poetry. The stretch of the book can be overwhelming at times, feeling as if it is lacking focus, but this is perhaps purposeful, mimicking the chaos of modern day living.

Present Tense is divided into four acts, the format of a play suiting it particularly as it delves into the drama of life and the various influences of our culture. Rabinowitz incorporates various styles in her poetry—free verse, glossary, list poems, sectioned poetry, narrative, and the list goes on. Her poems integrate a vast array of elements, taking from everything—from historical events to interviews, citing Woody Allen and Proverbs.


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Sonnets coverSonnets

Poetry by Camille Martin

Shearsman Books, February 2010

ISBN-10: 184861070X

ISBN-13: 978-1848610705

Paperback: 108pp; $16.00

Review by Carol Dorf

Can you pour new wine into old bottles? Well, if you are Camille Martin and the bottles are sonnets, the answer is an emphatic, "Yes." By her flexible use of the idea of the sonnet, Camille Martin has written a book that holds a pleasing balance of unity and variation. In the second sonnet, Martin seems to be speaking to the form as the beloved:

I gave you all my sense, blind homunculus,
a sea in a sea, but I'm far from broke.
do you love me, zombie? your main products
are indigo, figments, tricks of cardiac debt,
and a defiant sponge. sometimes your vision,
fluorescent and copious, undershines the diamonds
of your rods and cones and you have to wiggle
your way back, salmon-like, up the information
spillage to the enchanted vapour. you preen
your molecules, all the while scorning the witness
of your deposed gleam, and on your own
little hillside, your own fraudulent
elsewhere, flashing your mirrors into the sun,
you grow roots of endless delay.

The internal rhyme in this poem (sea and zombie, sometimes and undershines) as well as the clash of diction "blind homunculus," "the information / spillage to the enchanted vapour" prepare the reader for Martin's playful approach to the form. This is a world where science and myth intersect. Even more importantly, the intensity of the language reveals Martin's urgent preoccupation with both form and fragments of narrative.

Martin's interpretation of the sonnet is as a 14 line poem where the syllabic count varies from lines as short as 4 syllables in part 5 of tellurium candies "bulging magma gathers," or even the single syllable first line of "snow." Other poems such as "a simpleton inherits a kingdom after unwittingly avoiding" have lines of more than 20 syllables.While this may make some formalists uncomfortable, the technique of varying the syllable count opens up the form for most readers, allowing for a flexible balance between narrative and image with form.

Most of the poems in this book are from the perspective of the poet reflecting on language and experience (including the excellent series "the street names of toronto") but I'd like to end this discussion by looking at one of the love poems which comes near the end of Sonnets:

her green sweater, caught in a revolving
door that reflects clouds frittering away
like flour blown off a wooden cutting
board. she looks back. she has no
shadow. thoughts of the shortness
of ant seasons, and whether omens will ever
mean what they mean before coming true.
her eyes, transparent holes in the sky.
light fades into a dusk riddled
with dim constellations and vanishes
into their unconnected dots,
like knots in a magician's scarf.
the key to unhooking her sweater
is a tangled up, long, long time.

In this poem, the line between address to self and other are fruitfully elided while the poet plays with the perceptions of times "the shortness of ant seasons," or "the key to unhooking her sweater is a tangled up, long, long time." The poem also alternates between the domestic "flour blown off a wooden cutting board" and what we take as larger like the sky or omens.

Camille Martin's Sonnets provide many pleasures for the reader who spends time in their world of a mind reflecting on itself, the natural and built environments, time, and language. 

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