NewPages Book Reviews
Posted April 14, 2011
We're Getting On :: You Can Make Him Like You :: Beauport :: The New Tourism :: Honeycomb :: Illinois, My Apologies :: Under Glass :: The White Museum :: Where the Road Turns :: Pickled Dreams Naked :: Speech Acts :: #Dear Twitter
Fiction by James Kaelan
Flatmancrooked, July 2010
Paperback: 214pp; $15.00
Review by Tessa Mellas
James Kaelan’s We’re Getting On opens with an inscription that reads, “This book is dedicated to Leslie Epstein who hated this novella, and to Ha Jin who was considerably more amenable.” This prelude is odd but apt, a warning that says,
I am not a book that will court your love. I won’t whisper sweet nothings in your ear or drip sangria on your tongue. My protagonist is a bit of an asshole who goes on annoying tangents, so you probably won’t like him. I won’t set a clean comforting message in your palm. And you’re likely to be confused by my narrative arc. But bah, I don’t care. Read me or don’t.
This is quite a welcome, an anti-invitation of sorts. But read on you must because this is your rare chance at a book that won’t indulge you. And isn’t that refreshing? Yes, it might be a bit disorienting at first. But doesn’t the whole world coddle to your comfort? Why not read a book that will force you to do some thinking yourself?
In case you’re not convinced, here’s a quick bit about the plot. Kaelan’s narrator, who has disposed of his name but was formerly called Dan, leads his four “congregants” into the wilderness, an uninhabited two acres of overgrazed pasture far enough away from humanity so they can deprogram culture and civilization from their bodies and brains. The narrator explains:
I needed to go somewhere remote and uninviting, where I wouldn’t be disturbed. For a long time I’ve wanted to retire to the country. The city—its lights, its ineluctable machines—has exhausted me, physically and morally. I’m not looking for a quaint house with a garden. I want instead a refuge from everything I’ve ever learned or done or been reliant upon. One cannot prevent advancements, but one can remove himself from the parade.
At first, the premise seems Walden-esque, aside from the bit about not wanting a house and a garden. The narrator’s compatriots also seem to misinterpret their mission, envisioning a utopian dismissal of materialism and crowds, an embracing of nature and a more peaceful unaffected way of life. But this is not the narrator’s plan. He wants to rid himself of all social constructs, deconstructing mankind’s evolution, enacting backwards the steps they took to reach their present condition. “Purchase, garden, hunt, scavenge. That shall be our sequence,” he says. He is after a retardation of the species, a failure of the body, an end to thought. Quite literally, he wants to perform humanity’s demise. And if his corpse is later found, he wants it to be unrecognizable as human.
To that end, he watches as his congregants develop liver spots and bleeding, graying gums. Their parasite laden water makes them shit continually, which leads to dehydration and emaciation. The disintegration of their bodies is horrifying, but the narrator carries on, insists, “We’re getting on.” The periodic repetition of the title is a dark refrain, commenting ironically on the narrator and his congregants’ demise but more grandly on humanity’s. Kaelan seems to admonish our species with his title, which seems a euphemistic denial of the imminent catastrophe we’ve wrought. Kaelan’s title speaks a whole monologue on the planet’s behalf: “Oh sure, mate. We’re getting on, doing swell. Losing some teeth and going gaunt, but no worries. Just dig a hole and crawl in. We’ll all sleep well.”
Moreover, the physical text embodies its message. The cover of the novella is imbedded with spruce tree seeds, and rather than marketing itself with blurbs, the back cover lists instructions on “How to Plant This Book.” The text asks readers to plant it in order to restore some of the balance that has been disrupted by humanity’s fascination with its own voice. This is a text that wears its guilt on its shirt sleeve, a guilt at participating in language, in the destruction of trees, in the elevation of the human species above all others.
The narrator of the book has mixed emotions about his mission. He knows he cannot accomplish it truly. He says, “What a wonderful thought that is, trying to eradicate something. It’s an impossible concept, really. There are always vestiges.” Kaelan’s book is one of those vestiges. Its undertaking is enormous and though it knows it will not accomplish all it sets out to, it knows that remnants will linger. And for that, it is well worth the read.
Fiction by Ben Tanzer
Artistically Declined Press, April 2011
Paperback: 214pp; $12.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
At some point in your relationship with You Can Make Him Like You, you may want to familiarize yourself with the Hold Steady, a Brooklyn-based rock group with roots in Springsteen, Husker Du, and the Twin Cities. Author Ben Tanzer says the novel is “inspired by, and an homage to” the group: It’s from their discography that Tanzer borrows its title and section headings, and when protagonist Keith can’t handle the pressures of a thirtysomething Chicagoan, he spins Boys and Girls in America or Stay Positive, the group’s two break-out records.
Further, Tanzer has said he sees his characters as older versions of the Hold Steady’s recurring cast. Whereas the Steady’s Gideon, Charlemagne and Hallelujah (aka Holly) are perpetually partying like it’s the summer before senior year, Keith, his wife Liz, and best friend John have settled into full time jobs as viral marketers and social workers complete with concerns for their credit score—partying when and where, and how, they are able.
Though maybe what I mean is that an intimate knowledge of the Hold Steady is a good idea in general (full disclosure: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool ‘Stead Head, myself). Because to be honest, knowing their music backward and front won’t necessarily offer any off-the-chart insight to You Can Make Him Like You, except that you’ll get earworms each time you pick up the book.
You may, however, want to invest in Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD’s book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties. Although Keith is rounding up to 40 years old, he still very much embodies the characteristics of an emerging adult—explorations of drugs, a dependence on alcohol, mild obsessions with sex, occasionally violent mood swings, and the desire to be parent-less while desperately seeking someone who will bestow wisdom.
All this from a man who has also accomplished four of the five standard milestones of adulthood: Keith is married (1), with a decent-paying job (2), and long-graduated from college (3) and from his parent’s house (4). Arnett, however, explains that these landmarks consistently rank low on the demographic’s criteria of adulthood; instead they look to less-tangible measures including “accepting responsibility for one’s self and making independent decisions” (from Arnett’s pioneering 2000 article in Psychology Today). In the face of the fifth and final watermark for ultimate adulthood—having a child—Keith questions whether he really lives up to his internal concept of a “real adult.”
Just look at him trying to negotiate between self-focused ogling (and fantasizing) and finally bucking up, a few days after he runs into a former crush at a high school reunion:
I stare out the window at the empty parking lot behind our building. I will not be calling Rachel Drake, and I never planned to, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes. I can avoid other women, and I can avoid the thought of other women, and I can be better.
Or maybe don’t familiarize yourself with or invest in any secondary source outside the novel. This is life after all, something the whole of us are fairly familiar with already, and in You Can Make Him Like You, Tanzer comes exceedingly close to a perfect capture of life’s asymptotes, with help from the Hold Steady and Arnett or not.
Poetry by Kate Colby
Litmus Press, December 2010
Paperback: 120pp; $15.00
Review by Angela Veronica Wong
Kate Colby’s Beauport is both a book-length poem and a collection of poems; it is a semi-narrative, part-memoir, part-lyric essay, part-historical exploration, part-imagined conversation work which wraps history with history. “History is spreading,” Colby states, toward the beginning of the collection. But whose history? Beauport is about layering histories: the story of Henry Davis Sleeper, the American antiquarian and decorator, whose house is named Beauport, the harbor along with an exploration of Colby’s own connections to Massachusetts and Gloucester, and the history of Beauport, the house itself.
These are poems of quiet beauty, wielding power through lovely simplicity. They wander through ideas and memories, they explore what is lost and what is learned in the process of becoming a person. Colby is concerned with this question of memory and loss, and the ensuing idea of “to miss” something or someone. “Can you miss something / you’ve only known / for a moment?” Colby asks at the beginning of the section entitled “Home to Thanksgiving (1867),” following it up with, “How about never?” Two pages later, she responds obliquely, confessing:
I miss everything
all the time, even
what’s in front of me:
paper, pencil, I miss
you, reading material.
In a way, to miss something is to possess it once again.
As Beauport is set against the backdrop of a port and water, Colby’s imagery, language and sentence structure lend the strong sense of being by the ocean. The rhythm of the prose recall waves pulling off, then returning to shore: “The neighbors had a daughter around my brother’s age, and he and I spent a lot of time over there. The parents were artists and proud, I imagine, of their non-vernacular house.” The poetry, organized into stanzas through indentations, become visual reiterations of waves:
I long ago lost
all my love tokens
hurling them at the turnstile
urban forager in a
wide open field
You have been deceived
looks just like me
The fluidity of overlapping genres is constructed to support the overlapping narratives being told in Beauport, which becomes not simply a binary history of Colby/Sleeper, but also of those who reside within their two circles: Colby’s family, Sleeper’s architect, both childhood experiences. Similarly, words, images, and ideas continue to resurface even as the collection “moves” from one section to the other.
As a text to be read as a whole and not in parts, Beauport possesses no table of contents. Though there are “titled” sections, the collection begins with simply a section marker, “§,” employed throughout, implying that we are coming into the story after it has started. As for the section titles, we discover their attribution to “Currier & Ives lithographs of Victorian-era leisure class” in a blurb on the back of the book by poet Julian T. Brolaski, who also mentions the poems are “anti-ekphrastic.” The poems do not seem particularly concerned in bringing to a reader the recreation of a piece of art, nor was it so important to Colby for us to know that the titles were borrowed from Currier & Ives lithographs that she included it in acknowledgments. But while Colby’s poems may not describe the lithograph’s image, they do work off the language and words of the title. This interplay between what is known and what is intuitively relayed runs throughout Beauport, as does the folding of prose into poetry and poetry into prose.
It’s true that history is not absolute, nor is it necessarily linear or something we can possess at all. Throughout the collection, Colby attempts to convince us and perhaps herself that, “It’s just a story – there is nothing in it.” But the very act of choosing language and telling a story is a hope for conversation, and Beauport is indeed a conversation—between the readers, Colby and Sleeper, even if the Sleeper is only an invention of Colby’s. “[W]hat can’t be resurrected can be reinvented,” Colby writes, in a collection in which she is both the resurrecter and the reinventor, rendering Sleeper—as well as her own past—into being. Early on, she describes her own fallibilities in trying to access the past:
I am nesting in others’ events or under my own wing. Pushing the dust around, receiving. Here’s the thing: I tend to throw drop-cloths over my own actualities, then make a mess of everything else. I hoard information and putter around in it, a rat in a nest of shredded newspaper.
This could ring true for all of us as we reiterate and negotiate histories, personal and shared.
Poetry by Harry Mathews
Sand Paper Press, October 2010
Paperback: 56pp; $15.00
Review by Gina Myers
The New Tourism is a collection of new poems by Harry Mathews, the avant-garde writer with associations to both Oulipo and the New York School. The book is divided into three sections, each quite different from one another. The first section consists of a single poem, written in six parts, called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem.” Using language more often found in a cookbook than in a collection of poetry, the poem may remind readers of Mathews’s short story “Country Coking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double),” with its rich writing about food and deadpan use of humor.
The second section collects together fifteen individual poems, varying in style, from tightly-condensed poems, to those containing longer lines to the wonderfully meandering prose poem “Crème brûlée,” which begins with a meditation on trees, moves on to swallows and traveling down the highway, to crème brûlée, restaurants, and wine, to the demons inside one’s self. Recurring themes in this section include reminiscing, failure, and past loves, which seem appropriate themes for a writer now in his eighties. In “Genoa as Rendezvous,” the speaker explores “a grabyard of remembrances”:
I went looking
for a safe hiding place
and a stump of candle
to recall a once-upon-a-time
where we began
forgiving one another
never too soon.
This section also includes poems written for or inspired by Heinrich Heine, Kenneth Koch, and Henry Vaughan. Other poems have a certain musicality to them and rely on heavy repetition, such as the title poem, which begins and ends with the same stanza:
Where is it I came from
And where is it I’m stranded?
Part of the maps is black
And the rest’s in borrowed language.
I don’t know what to make of “maps,” but really it doesn’t matter when allowing the sounds to take over. “The New Tourism” employs rhyme and repetition, and is pantoum-like, though not really at all. This is one of the wonderful things about Mathews’s poetry—he convincingly delivers strong work that feels like it is a standard form, but really it is a form all his own, or at least not one a student is likely to encounter in an introductory poetry course.
Form becomes key to the third (and longest) section of the book, which consists of “Haikus Before Sleep,” 128 of them to be exact. People who argue that haiku can’t work in English or that haiku always has to address nature will not care for Mathews’s take on the form, which he states plainly:
So five syllables
then combine themselves with two
before shrinking back.
The “Haikus Before Sleep” range in concerns from nature, to family and friends, to drugs and alcohol, to the self-reflective, commenting on missing a night or two of this writing practice. They also range in tone, from the serious:
A six-year-old boy
looks at me as someone real.
No time for fuckups.
to the not-so-serious:
I stoned; what haiku?
“What you want to know, brother?”
Just the hi! of coo.
Overall The New Tourism is a solid collection of work from someone who seems to enjoy what he is doing. The playfulness and pleasure shine through, even when the themes may approach the darker-side of things.
Poetry by Carol Frost
TriQuarterly Books, October 2010
Paperback: 64pp; $16.95
Review by Tanya Angell Allen
In “Pretty to think of the mind at its end,” Carol Frost describes the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient as “a metaphysician beekeeping / after the leaves have fallen at autumn’s end.” In “I remember the psychiatrist’s exam—”, it is “a papery hive sliced / open, herself furious.” In “Two anthills and a late summer hive,” she writes:
I have no mother. Yes you have a mother,
a voice said. But that is not right. Her difference—
a broken hive…a black bear in the bluebells
clawing the stinging air…something torn from her.
When the mind of Frost’s mother was torn by Alzheimer’s disease, she was also torn, in many ways, from her daughter. Frost tries to make sense of this through Honeycomb, a meditation on memory and its influence on identity. Frost transforms her grief in a way that not all authors of book-long poetic elegies are able to. She avoids the typical contemporary traps of the genre by refusing to make the pieces about herself and her own grief. She also avoids making her mother memorable primarily for her illness and relationship with her child.
Although the book contains sad pieces, such as “What makes her quiet” in which a patient rocks a naked doll, most of the poems provoke sympathy, but not pity. They treat Alzheimer’s disease as a natural and even progression. In “All things are taken from us,” Frost writes, “our eyes grow inward. / It is restful knowing nothing / more, knowing no one any more.”
“Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end…” evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s “Art of Losing”: “Is it so terrible to outlive the mind? / Forget this, forget that—keys, glasses, / what it was you just said, what you meant to say.”
Literary allusions such as those to Bishop, to Genesis, and to Lethe—the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology—help the poems transcend their personal origins, as do the gorgeous beekeeping metaphors. Frost also leaves out many personal details about what her mother was like before the illness. These factors—when added to Frost’s usual grace, craft, and thoughtfulness—help make Honeycomb more of a meditation than a wail of grief.
This book is not just about Frost’s mother. It is also not just about the condition of Alzheimer’s disease. It is about memory and who we become without it. It is an excellent, memorable collection.
Poetry by Justin Hamm
RockSaw Press, 2011
Paperback: 29pp; $10.00
Review by C.J. Opperthauser
Justin Hamm's first chapbook of poems, Illinois, My Apologies, is a wonderful sampling of Midwest-soaked poems, dripping in fathers and broken down factories. As a Midwesterner, I not only identify with these poems, but feel they express the frustrations of the region with the utmost accuracy, accompanied by some light humor and beautiful language. The beginning of “At Sixteen” showcases this best:
The Midwest belches
from its smokestacks
beside the churning river
and all of its fathers stretch
bleary eyed and bitter
about their swollen
and their endless
The many pains of the Midwest show their faces in this section. Smokestacks and rivers; the skin of the region. It's true—wherever you go in the Midwest, you are probably no more than twenty miles from an operating or non-operating factory of some kind, and the rivers they lean on. The physical pains of the blue-collar job are also expressed here, with wonderful, precise repetition. The pacing is consistent throughout the book, as well. Punctuation is minimal, but the line breaks and the stanzas help to slow down the reader in all the right places.
Aside from his personal relationship with the Midwest, Hamm touches on many human relationships, most of which are family. In “Sunrise Subterfuge (In the First Person),” the speaker is trying to convince his father that he cannot and does not need to work, assuring the father that
this back of mine
it too will break
this hopeful spirit
it too will rot
like so many tiny
factory towns in shambles
all around us
To this, the father only scratches himself, and the poem ends with the thought “his disappointments / as deep as the pockets / of the rich men we'd serve / but never become / each of us / for a different reason.” The father then is stuck in this blue-collar, painful job, but the son refuses to fall into that same trap, opting for an entirely workless path.
Illinois, My Apologies expresses this tight connection between person and region. Even the distinction between family relationships and area relationships is hard to make—the love of one's father is the love of one's surroundings, and vice versa. This Midwestern collection is a crisp, lively, and sadly true collection of poems which sum up the cornfields and smokestacks in a beautiful fashion.
Fiction by Steve Himmer
Atticus Books, April 2011
Paperback: 222pp; $14.95
Review by Aaron M. Smith
The Bee-Loud Glade will make you fall in love with the simplicity of nature. It is a story about returning and integrating one’s self into nature—true Walden style. The ability of Steve Himmer to create a longing for nature via the words and storyline in this story is phenomenal. I, personally, have never felt a calling or inclination towards nature. After reading this novel, I feel like becoming a hermit and simply reveling in the beauty of nature would be an amazing life.
The Bee-Loud Glade is a story about a man, Mr. Finch, who works at Second Nature, a plastic plant company. At Second Nature, Finch gives the company press through twelve fake blogs he runs. Essentially, Finch lives vicariously through these fake people. He creates entire families for them, fake jobs, and even kills one of them off. But, when he gets fired, he loses his “life.” He no longer can live through his created bloggers. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, and he spends days and months alone until he answers an email, seeming to be spam, and lands himself a job working for Mr. Crane, a billionaire. Mr. Crane hires him to be a hermit in his garden, giving him millions of dollars to live off of the land and to integrate himself into nature. Most of this information is told in flashbacks. At the present, Mr. Finch is old, nearly blind, but incredibly happy and fulfilled living in the garden.
This novel analyzes how man and nature should reflect and interact with each other. Beautiful imagery, such as when Finch notices how mushrooms grow, emphasizes this idea:
I watched them for an hour or two, maybe longer, trying to imagine the way they might think. They didn’t move much, but I’m fairly sure I saw one of them move… A few months earlier I might not have noticed the mushroom growing, but I’d become attuned to a slow moving world.
The idea that humanity is just too busy and too fast to notice how the world revolves and how nature continues to change daily, is breathtaking within this novel. It trumpets out a call of nature that will hit many people at the core of their being, trying to tell them how much they are truly missing in their lives.
The writing style of this book sparks beautiful imagery within the mind and pulls the reader along with the story. It feels cool, refreshing, and unique in its modus operandi. Himmer truly knows the art of writing, but what really astounded me as a reader was how Himmer creates the world from a blind man’s eyes (as we experience half of the story from the older version of Mr. Finch, who is blind). The thought and imagination that must have gone behind creating a seamless world without using sight as the prime recognition tool is amazing.
If you want to fall in love with nature (either for the first time or the hundredth), then this book will open your eyes to everything you have been missing. This book isn’t something that I have been able to get out of my mind. It makes me question ideas of necessity and want. This is the kind of book that will change how you view the world.
The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees
Nonfiction by Jen Hirt
University of Akron Press, April 2010
Hardcover: 174pp; $22.95
Review by Evan McGarvey
For the uninitiated reader, greenhouses offer an organic simplicity in which glass filters sunlight and soil keeps different plants in calm synchronicity. But the trained, dedicated eye of Jen Hirt in her debut memoir Under Glass yields more. For Hirt, the scion of an Ohio greenhouse dynasty founded by her great-grandfather in the 19th century, these glass panels, and everything within, signal a family’s and family business’ demise.
The book opens in the aftermath of this collapse. From there, Hirt shuffles time across the twelve-essay memoir, deploying the image of the greenhouse and memories of her family’s own to obliquely illuminate her past. For example, in “Ricinus Communis,” she depicts her father’s mission to cultivate castor beans. Simultaneously, she juxtaposes her own conflicted emotions toward her father with lyrical depictions of the poisonous ricin within the bean: “Such chaos beneath the smooth shell, where the white pulp … when distilled and ingested, can dissolve a circulatory system in twelve hours.” She offers occasional, welcome glimpses of the financial friction and rust-belt malaise (a neighbor, “is Midwest poor, unhappy, strung out”) that surround her, but always returns to her central images of the controlled natural world.
Not surprisingly, Hirt’s language broils with passion when she investigates the earth. Each essay possesses multiple, startling images of plant life. In her hands, a simple glance to a row of planters brings “red buds crowning into the evening dusk.” She imagines George Washington’s quest for pineapples at Mount Vernon in “Controlling The Light,” mingling Washington’s excitement with her own: “They were so strange, each one a platypus of fruit, a body like a pinecone, a stem like a spiny desert yucca, sweet golden flesh, and huge.” The smallest objects in Under Glass take on totemic resonance for Hirt. She imagines herself royal when encountering oranges: “I thought they were for me. I was Caesar. I was Victoria.” In these images, the reader gets her fullest view of Hirt: intense, devoted, and protective of the past.
Hirt’s prose, however, flounders in depicting the surrounding human drama. She paints her mother’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis in platitudes: “She is a classic co-dependent … disease taking hold, menopause sweeping through.” She delivers family watermarks and legacies in monotone, struggling when she turns from the greenhouse to the family home. Audiences who demand a memoir in which the characters provide the nexus of emotion should look elsewhere.
Despite its flaws, the zeal of Hirt’s vegetative tunnel vision imbues Under Glass with a singular energy. She does not employ conventional memoir strategies of gradual self-discovery and universal sentiment. Instead, she prefers to detail dirt and planters and vines. That these earthly elements form the center of any memoir compels. That Hirt builds an intensely recalled, often vividly described memoir from these materials inspires. For fans of natural history, Hirt’s work supplies inimitable stories of a life devoted to what flourishes in the spaces between dirt floors and glass roofs.
Poetry by George Bilgere
Autumn House Press, January 2010
Paperback: 80pp; $14.95
Review by Renee Emerson
The White Museum is written in the casual, chatty style similar to that of Billy Collins. Bilgere has a dry sense of humor that simultaneously pokes fun and is hyper-aware of his standing as a white, middle-aged man. Like Collins, his humor often takes a turn into the dirty-old-man realm, referring to “the girls” “trying out their newfangled breasts” in “Solstice,” and his “star[ing] at the breasts / of that sixteen-year-old girl / in the sky-colored bikini. Touching them / would mean the electric chair, / but still…” in “Americana.”
Still, when not being a little creepy, the collection has many good qualities that make it worth reading. His poem “View from the Deck” was my favorite in the collection. In this poem, he describes a summer day and his brief encounter with his neighbor, a woman with cancer. He reflects on how a person’s having cancer completely changes everyone else’s perspective on him or her:
Her snapdragons glisten by cancer-light,
the finches at her feeder
are cancer-lovely, and even the titling
garage, paint peeling in the dusk, glows
with the cancerous beauty of old garages.
He ties this thought into his own personal experience of losing his mother to cancer, as the neighbor speaks to him “in cancer, a language [he] learned / from [his] mother, who spoke it / beautifully.” The poem ends on a note of hope, as he answers his neighbor with:
The sprinkler bends to silver
the primrose, stands straight up,
then goes down for another look. Yes,
I say, in my perfectly inflected cancer,
and tomorrow’s supposed to be
The easy-going, colloquial tone of Bilgere’s work makes it easy for the reader to enter his poems. The reader has a language they recognize, with poems that use contractions like “don’t” and familiar phrases like “there’s no / doubt about it” (“Ardmore Tree Service”). It is difficult to do humor well in poetry, and though Bilgere’s work falters sometimes because of his attempts at humor, overall he successfully marries everyday language with irony, appealing to those who are familiar and to those who are just beginning to delve into modern poetry.
Poetry by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Autumn House Press, August 2010
Paperback: 88pp; $14.95
Review by Renee Emerson
Where the Road Turns is a rich and textured collection of poems interested in gender roles, issues of cultural identity, and migration. The book opens with the poem “Cheede, My Bride: A Grebo Man Laments—1985,” a narrative poem from the perspective of a Grebo man who contemplates the role of his wife in society: “in Monrovia, women wear pants and a man / may walk around, twisting like a woman” and “they say women fell trees and men walk / upon them like bridges.” The first section of the book contains similar poems that are from the perspectives of tribal men and women, often directly addressing their lovers in a love song or lament. In “Love Song When Musu Answers Her Lover,” the plain diction and repetition of “Let us not make babies, Kono, my lover / Let us collect these timbers, scattered” authenticates the voice of the poem, allowing the reader to enter into a character that they may not be altogether familiar with.
The second section of the book, “Taboos,” focuses more on ghosts, dreams and myths, a natural transition from the love songs and their elements of harsh reality. “Ghosts Don’t Go Away Just Like That” shows the subject of war, which was woven into the love songs of the first section, resurfacing, as the ghosts “may hover over new wars, / like the wars that carried them away from their bodies, / causing them to lose their world and us in the rush.”
Though much of the book is told from the tribal perspective, there are several poems that bring in very modern references and look at the old issues of gender roles from a new, current perspective. “To My Infant Daughter Soon After Birth” shows a mother already preparing her daughter for the difficulties she will face as a woman:
They’re going to try to put you into a small place,
into a tiny little box, into a corner somewhere.
They’re going to say you are only a girl, a little girl
or a girl just trying to be smart and cute
Then the mother encourages her daughter to remember her ancestry, her cultural heritage that will help her to rise above the hardships placed on her gender:
If you know that in Wah the girls are taught
to work hard, to be proud of who they are no matter
what, and that all those girls are like you, then
where is there error in being you?
Where is the mistake to apologize for?
Indeed there is nothing to apologize for in this collection, where the poems are deeply rooted in cultural and gender identity, and do not shirk away from the difficult issues.
Poetry by Norman Stock
NYQ Books, September 2010
Paperback: 105pp; $14.95
Review by Alec Moran
Pickled Dreams Naked, the latest book of poetry from New York poet Norman Stock, puts you, the reader, in a curious place. See, Stock’s poetry is filled with the bizarre and the surreal, showing his penchant for the mesmerizing and often unsettling image. “Give Us This Day” finds Stock painting himself as “the cold cut hanging in the delicatessen of the starving,” a sandwich “barely held together in your hungry hands.” Latinas on subways sucking lollipops, transplanted kidneys, and oh so many chickens carve out perches in the pantheon of Stock’s poetry.
But then this happens: he throws everything against a wall in a destructive shatter. “What for poetry / why do we do this shit” he asks in the poem titled “Rant.” In between the surrealism of Pickled Dreams Naked we find Stock’s frustrations with the very poetry he writes. There is malaise and hostility towards the “cunt world” of poetry, and even an indirect hostility at the reader. “Time Marches On” has Stock needing to tell the reader something, to get something off his chest—“you’re an idiot.” And that puts us in a strange position, brothers-in-arms with the flag-tied middle of a tug-of-war rope, yanked back and forth between the mania of Stock and the despair; awash in the interior struggles of a poet. But it is worth it, because in Pickled Dreams Naked there is honesty, there is wit, there is aggression and insight; there is poetry.
Poetry by Laura McCullough
Black Lawrence Press, 2010
Paperback: 80pp; $14.00
Review by Skip Renker
What do Ms. McCullough’s poems signify? How can speech act? How are actions inhabited/inhibited by speech? Who’s on first, noun or verb? Penis or vagina? Sex or love or both? Or an avocado that might taste like vanilla? Who’s Ms. McCullough in these pages?
There’s sex, lots of it. Oral sex especially, every which way. Love, too, sometimes. Big questions now and then. Some fun, some joy. Sharp observations. Analogies, some extreme. Leaps, many of them long. His and hers and what goes on between a him and a her, and who are we, anyway, behind our faces and down in our guts and further down and deeper inside?
Ms. M roils around in the stuff of these questions, and comes (four times in one poem) up with, not exactly answers, but often enough, clarity, light, and warmth, especially in Part III of this three-part book.
Part I, consisting of eighteen poems, almost all one-page or less but using many different forms, is lively, lots of pizzazz and language razzle-dazzle. Titles alone are worth the price of linguistic admission, like “Speechification,” “Giving Good Bard,” “What is the Phoneme of Forgiveness?” There are many playfully serious passages, as “Roll / your pig’s tail around my little / finger, word slop our fodder” and “Is language our sexiest proboscis?” plus “the accordion in this poem / has asthma, and I’m wheezing.” Many snappy endings. Fun to read, mostly. The risk in such poems, many of which are about poetry-writing and poets, about language itself, is the possibility of emptying out emotional substance. The poet ends up with a dazzling surface and not much underneath.
The language in Part II is still snazzy but less riff-like, less surfacy and more in the service of mostly darker subject matter—beaten animals, whales on the verge of extinction, decapitation, even the “Body of a Dead Spider” which “appeared like a small, dried flower / or a seed pod of a certain kind of flower, / like the inside of a star fruit.” As well as astute psychological/philosophical/linguistic ruminations, Ms. M produces many such precisely beautiful descriptions/analogies.
Part III turns more personal; Ms. M’s “I” is more vulnerable here, more needy, wiser but less smart-alecky, and the metaphors and analogies unforced, apt, often feelingful. Her persona reflects less on the mysteries of identity and its relationship with language in favor of more direct expression: “Today, they gave a woman a new face, / the skin peeled from an anonymous man” and “I stood behind a woman / who didn’t have enough money / and had no cards to back her up.” There’s the feel of a grandmother’s kiss, a man with soft hands “the tips shooting light,” the sweetly domestic “All Day I Love You,” about resting with a husband, his feet on the chest of Ms. M, or her persona. My favorite poem in this section, “Beauty, I Said” could go up on the refrigerator door of just about any semi-happy, long-partnered couple. It begins:
I never said that thing you said
I said that time when we were dancing
and everyone was so drunk no one
remembers what anyone said.
The poem goes on to consider consciousness, beauty, re-animation, the vicissitudes of memory and the shifting self, and ends poignantly. The last poem in the collection, “Like Milk,” has a similar sweetly yearning ending:
spilling on my cheeks, my shirt dry, but
my face needing to be licked if you think
you can stand doing it just one more time.
So, flurries of razzle-dazzle and pizzazz, sure, and lots of signification, but frequently there’s something more in this collection, something lovely and substantial.
Love Letters Hashed Out Online in 140 Characters Or Less
Poetry by Mahogany L. Browne
Penmanship Books, December 2010
Paperback: 222pp; $15.00
Review by Aaron M. Smith
If you want spirit, attitude, and a slap of honesty, then #Dear Twitter is the sort of poetry that will be your best friend. Mahogany L. Browne has a way of rendering her poems both aesthetically pleasing and succinct. She can capture a ray of beauty in less than 140 characters and teach the reader a life lesson at the same time. This is a book of poetry that will appeal mostly to younger generations; readers who are avid users of Twitter will garner the most from this book, but everyone will benefit from its humor and wise words—for example, “dear bones: u will break. Dear spirit: u will shatter. Dear heart: u will bruise again & again, but u will be the hardest to fix…”
Great poetry makes the reader feel, and it makes the reader change, and Browne shows that she has a master’s grasp on human language and emotion. She gives advice that most people desperately need to hear but so few want to hear. While reading this book, I started reading a few out loud to my friends who needed to hear Browne’s wisdom or who would enjoy Browne’s sense of humor. #Dear Twitter is not just a poetry book, it’s a book to learn, live, and laugh by.