NewPages Book Reviews
Posted July 1, 2011
"neither wit nor gold" (from then) :: The Cold War :: Testify :: One Day I will Write about This Place :: Hedda Hopper's Hollywood :: FABRIC :: boysgirls :: For Sale by Owner :: Mostly Redneck :: The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway :: Alien Autopsy :: It Might Turn Out We Are Real :: Of A Monstrous Child
Poetry by Ammiel Alcalay
Ugly Duckling Presse, March 2011
Paperback: 88pp; $14.00
Review by Kevin Kinsella
Everything has come before and will again,
But only the moment of recognition is sweet.
—Osip Mandelshtam, from “Tristia”
In “The Word and Culture,” his seminal essay from 1920, Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam asks—and answers—“Why identify the word with a thing, with the grass, with the object that it signifies? Is the thing master of the word? The word is Psyche. The living word does not signify a thing: it freely selects as its dwelling-place, so to speak, this or that objective significance, its concreteness, its dear body. And the word wanders about in the vicinity of its thing like a soul around its discarded but not forgotten body.” The same goes for memory itself, suggests Ammiel Alcalay’s new book “neither wit nor gold” (from then). While putting together a manuscript of work written between 1975 and 1990, Alcalay, an American poet and scholar, became dissatisfied with the notion of "selected poems." So he started sorting through photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, journal entries, and newspaper clippings from the era, and incorporated them into his book. The result is a personal investigation into the relationships of text/image and time/memory.
For Alcalay, “neither wit nor gold” (from then) is not so much “a trip down memory lane,” as a statement about the present and how a body of work might be made not only to cohere but become “the carrier of messages no longer available.” Not surprising from the founder and general editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a program of the City University of New York that makes available essential but virtually unknown texts “to expand our knowledge of literary, cultural, social, and political history.”
Alcalay grew up in Boston, but the contents of “neither wit nor gold” were composed in and about New York, where he currently lives and teaches. With a few exceptions, the poems comprising this collection are culled from work produced between 1969 and 1970. But they don’t so much present Alcalay’s static memories of this period, rather they evoke the perpetual act of remembering or recognition—one that somehow puts the reader in on the act. For instance (and this collection is full of instances), Alcalay juxtaposes an underexposed and blurry photograph of Jack Delaney’s restaurant with the following brief poem, from which the book takes its title:
rust and time nor wit nor
gold abet the
old song's burden
part prophecy part
longing the hanging
garden a shadowy
dream the world
grows so very old
though once we
too were young
But then, one really can’t call it a juxtaposition, as that term suggests a calculated pairing. The combination, like any page spread from the book, is more a random pairing than anything else, like two discreet items surfacing simultaneously in a pool only by chance.
While it is easy to compartmentalize a poet’s work in distinct chronological categories (“juvenilia,” “early,” and “mature” work), Alcalay’s slim collection reminds the reader that poetry—if it is indeed poetry—doesn’t just go away as a poet matures or moves into another direction. Rather it takes its place among the primordial stuff of poetry—memory—itself. As Mandelshtam put it: “Poetry is the plough that turns up time in such a way that the abyssal strata of time, its black earth, appear on the surface.” This so-called black earth—memory, poetry—is continually upturned—to the extent that it becomes extra-temporal. It lives on to impose itself on the past, present, and future.
And if a poet’s work cannot be compartmentalized along a temporal continuum, neither can it be separated from the ephemera of the day of its composition—in this collection’s case: concert photographs, diary entries, university transcripts, and newspaper articles, among others. It must always walk in the “vicinity of its thing.”
“neither wit nor gold”(from them) isn’t a book about memory, per se, rather an exercise in the very act of remembering, an act that invites readers themselves to tread in the vicinity of someone else’s memories and, happily, to get their hands dirty.
Poetry by Kathleen Ossip
Sarabande Books, May 2011
Paperback: 82pp; $14.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
In trying to locate an American identity, the politics of class infiltrate a collection seeking to amend the impossible with art. The Cold War, Kathleen Ossip’s second poetry collection, tackles the complex socio-economic class status conflicts that have been a staple of American culture for nearly the past century. Combining psychological and sociological documentation of the class phenomenon with past experience, in a relevant historical context, both challenges and informs the reader.
Drawing from scholarly work on the idea of status and class that saturates the American mindset, Ossip translates complex scholarly jargon into compact, short poems. For example, the collection’s opening poem, “The Human Mind,” draws its title from a 1947 scholarly work by Karl Menninger. Ossip takes the difficult language of Menninger and crafts it into tercets that depict images of class envy, stacking them with each subsequent stanza. Ossip opens the poem with feelings of childhood, where:
In those days, we had an acceptance of others that didn’t rest
on their achievements. Melancholia, we cherished.
But how is the individual built? On the theories of the past.
These “theories of the past” continue to pervade the collection as anxiety over status escalates in “Status Seekers,” which draws from the Vance Packard 1959 book by the same name. Remembering her childhood, the speaker recalls a time when “Givenchy was going on, and we didn’t know it.” She thinks of the other families who stretched beyond their means, thinking that “We could not all be best, not in the smaller sense.” This same kind of yearning continues as Ossip addresses anxiety within art.
In taking to task an early critic of experimental American poetry, Yvor Winters, Ossip approaches the historical moment of Winters’s criticism and poetry while placing it in a larger context in “The Nervousness of Yvor Winters.” In long lines that appear structured as paragraphs, the poem chronicles the life of Winters as well as questions his own motive in criticizing and writing poetry. The speaker moves to her own definition of what poetry should be toward the end of the poem, claiming:
A poem without a present vulgarity has no legs. If a poem does not put off its reader to some degree, it is probably no more than a conglomeration of received ideas about beauty (or literary expression). Ideas withering even as we read them on the page.
The Cold War encapsulates this idea through its poetic examination of social pressures, reminding the reader that a poem does not need to be easy to be appreciated.
Poetry by Joseph Lease
Coffee House Press, March 2011
Paperback: 78pp; $16.00
Review by James Meetze
To testify, in the Christian sense, is to tell the story of how one became a true Christian. In the legislative sense, to testify is to provide an account or evidence under oath in a court of law. In his new poetry collection, Testify, Joseph Lease seizes the cultural moment in which one’s testimony is as important as one’s identity, when testimony supersedes identity to the extent that it becomes identity. In our recent moment, we have seen America’s financial cornerstone crumble and watched those responsible (well, some of them, anyway) plead their ignorance and innocence interchangeably, while others have used religious belief systems to shake the very foundational elements of our nation.
Lease, however, redirects the language of admonition, guilt, and fear to more aesthetic purposes when he begins the opening long-poem:
Try saying wren.
in my body, 4 a.m. in my body, breading and olives and cherries. Wait, it’s all rotten.
This, from the 15-page sequence, “America,” recalls the serial poem in Lease’s last book, “Free Again.” Both of these pay a great debt to Whitman and Ginsberg, but they are distinctly Lease’s own and they are his most powerful works.
Testify is Lease’s most far-reaching and clear-eyed work to date. It is a culmination of the poetic gestures and lyric voice he has been developing since The Room and it solidifies his position as one of the more striking voices of his generation. It’s a voice filled with anxiety—the anxiety we all, in some sense, have—and fixation: the fixation on Wall Street and prescription medication, government and the body as it ages…all of which are cause for at least a little panic. This is made evident later on in the book, in the sequence “Torn and Frayed”:
I felt like winter, I felt like Jell-O—we lost the word virtue,
we lost the word sister, two hundred years of dark garden—
it happens so fast—believe me (I know you won’t)—
You, you, you, you, you. Six when there’s mist in the street,
eight when your mouth starts to fade, nine when the drug
starts to work, two when you hate yourself more. Three
when you hate yourself more. Good old blank page. Slow
down, green whisper, dry whiskers, ordinary twilight, ordi-
nary, less hope. I wish I was Ezra Pound’s towel. America
you can’t be greed, America, you’re only greed, America,
one extra summer night—I wanted to (you know) feel like
a giant eyeball—
Perhaps it’s the pacing of these prozoid blocks—also some of the more discursive moments in Lease’s work—which makes them so evocative of the hyperactive way we now consume information, are force-fed information, and are subsequently overwhelmed by it. Unlike the television news and computer news and Facebook news—which isn’t really news—these poems shift between the barrage and more reflective lyric moments, each an echo:
In fact, this collection is an echo chamber, its words and ideas recur throughout its ten poems, and I like that. I like that this is a book in the sense that Jack Spicer meant it. The poems talk to one another in an extended conversation, they are of one another but they shift and transform, always evolving with an eye on their origin.
There is only one instance of echoing in this book that I find to be explicitly problematic, and that’s the repetition of an entire section: “If birds / If // The sky / Is the / Sky // If birds / Tangle / Prayer // I / I’m.” It appears twice, verbatim, in “America” and such a lithe lyric moment—if it must appear twice—would better serve the book, were it to vary, even by one word, in diction. Were it intended to read as prayer, it might function more as such. Though there are other moments in the book that do successfully incorporate the phrasing associated with worship, this isn’t one. It’s a small issue to question, but because it works within the larger operating principle of this book, it’s worth mentioning. It’s my only real gripe in Lease’s otherwise overwhelmingly focused meditation.
Testify is, in a sense, Joseph Lease’s testimony of being an American in America at this precise moment in time. This is a document—a mantra even—which verges on the holy. There’s a sincerity in it that’s missing from a lot of recent work I’ve come across, and sincerity is something I find more and more compelling as the general thrust of contemporary post-avant verse careens away from the genuine via ironic deflection. Lease wants to hear the actual utterance when he tells us to:
say democracy: say free and responsible government, say
say a democracy so polarized, say polarized, say paralyzed:
say free and responsible government, say informed public,
say journalism, journalism, journalism—
Invoking the language of what is at stake forces us to participate in the discourse surrounding it—and this book tells us that our testimony, like its own, is necessary.
Nonfiction by Binyavanga Wainaina
Graywolf Press, July 2011
Hardcover: 253pp; $24.00
Review by Matthew C. Smith
In One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga Wainaina fulfills the promise of the title by returning to explore the paths he traveled while coming of age in Kenya and South Africa. Along the way, he traces the birth of his own desire to write down what he was experiencing, developing a complex narrative in which the personal and the public, the psychological and the political, are intertwined, sometimes joined harmoniously and at other times pulling in opposite directions.
Wainaina’s writing is highly impressionistic at first, gradually coalescing into sharper detail as he approaches the present day. It is a canny technique for evoking childhood memories, which at times, are a confused jumble of senses and perception:
Ciru laughs loud, her mouth wide and red. The sound jumps toward me, flapping sheets of sound, but I am lost. Arms and legs and ball are forgotten. The thousand suns are breathing. They inhale, dim and cool into the leaves, and I let myself breathe with them; then they puff light forward and exhale, warming my body.
These sensory images are intercut with stark statement of fact presented with the simple assurance of childhood knowledge:
Kenya is a peace-loving nation.
We are all pulling together, and in school we sing, harambee, which means we are pulling together, like a choir, or tug-of-war. Standing on the podium of the choir, waving a fly whisk, is a conductor, President Kenya-tta, who has red scary eyes and a beard. One day, we are told, Kenyatta’s Mercedes was stuck in the mud, and he shouted harambee, so that people would come and push and push his long Mercedes-Benz out of the mud, so we all push and pull together; we will get the Mercedes out of the mud.
The result is a narrative with its own galloping rhythm: lingering to savor a single night, then leaping suddenly across years, summing up what would usually be called historic events in a single sentence. The author’s use of the present tense throughout emphasizes the effect, drawing us in to his subjective experience of events while also creating a sense of urgent immediacy, as if we were there by his side, seeing what he saw and going where he went.
As a Western reader, one is tempted to apply Fredric Jameson’s simplistic assertion that all personal narrative in “third world texts” is in fact a “national allegory”—that the individual journey is always to be read as an allegory of the post-colonial nation. One could apply this to Wainaina’s text, but in doing so would relinquish most of the author’s intent and be left with an intellectual corpse. The beauty of Wainaina’s writing is its depiction of the individual and his interaction with his surroundings. His discussions of politics and tribalism are all based on his experiences and relations with those he meets, expressed best, perhaps, through his sensitivity for language and the way in which the multiplicity of tongues within Kenya shape personal encounters.
Later in the narrative, particularly after the author has left Kenya for a teaching position in the United States, the subject becomes explicitly political, reflecting the concerns of an engaged adult but also, I think, separation from the bonds which kept him engaged. When violence breaks out following the 2007 elections, he tries to make a break of it: “As soon as the peace agreement was signed, I left. I told myself I was done. Done with too much Kenya. I was going to apply for a green card. Visit for holidays. Save up to help get my family out if necessary. Love from a committed distance.” His resolution did not last long:
At a reading and a talk at Williams College, I embarrassed my self and burst into bad snotty tears when I started to talk about Kenya. There is no tissue. Please, please, all podiums, have tissue!
I am in the habit of Kenya. I can’t, just, leave.
Wainaina is driven by a need to absorb the experiences of those around him and then express them in his unique style, and he is at his best when he is face-to-face with his subject. The result is a rich and vivid depiction of the author’s life and a joy to read.
Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism
Nonfiction by Jennifer Frost
New York University Press, January 2011
Hardcover: 281pp: $35.00
Review by Patricia Contino
The close-up begins on the stairway. Forgotten silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has been lured into police custody for the murder of screenwriter/kept man Joe Gillis (William Holden, the dead narrator in the pool) with the promise of cameras. Trailing her like movie extras are several LAPD officers and an attractive older woman. She and her wide-brimmed hat are the only bright objects in the frame. Moments ago she was pleased landing the exclusive on this Hollywood cougar murder, but her demeanor crumbles watching the demented Norma walk towards the newsreel cameras until her face blurs, then fades.
Somehow in 1950 Billy Wilder got past Paramount censors to direct Sunset Boulevard, his brilliant, bitter look at Hollywood. Playing herself complete with trademark hat was gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. That Hopper appeared in a film loaded with plot devices she despised (sex…murder…unhappy ending) and most likely did not approve of (the pet monkey) is one of the great ironies of this acerbic masterpiece. Like Norma, Hedda became a relic but as Jennifer Frost chronicles in the insightful Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism, she was a force to be reckoned with.
Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) came to Hollywood as an actress. In addition to Sunset Boulevard, the former Elda Furry appeared in Alice Adams (1935), The Women (1939), and an episode of I Love Lucy. She became a gossip columnist in 1935 when she lost her money in the Depression and, then as now for too many actresses, roles grew scarce because of age. Parlaying her typecasting as a “classy, flamboyant, and bitchy older woman,” gossip became the role of Hopper’s career that at its height included syndication in 85 newspapers, 32 million readers, a radio show, and a $100,000-a-year salary.
Frost does an exceptional job reminding contemporary readers and cineaphiles how powerful Hopper and the Hollywood studio system were. From the 1920’s to mid-1960’s, studios like Paramount controlled everything from contracts to final cut and distribution. Hedda was the “in between” who “put gossip in the same category as news” reporting sanctioned, occasionally fictionalized, information to the public. When the studio system started falling apart in the 1950’s due to television and actors taking charge of their careers and lives, Hopper’s influence fell too.
Movies and their stars were not the only topics of Hopper’s reports. Her columns were forums for her conservatism. She opposed The New Deal and U.S. involvement in World War II prior to Pearl Harbor. Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan were all enthusiastically endorsed in print. Vehemently anti-Communist, Hopper encouraged the taking of loyalty oaths and “naming names.”
While it can be argued that Hopper’s opinions were not unusual for the time, in hindsight a few are naïve, Hopper insisted that Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 visit to Hollywood was “to sell her picture!” and considered Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe “leftie.” Another of Hopper’s ridiculous declarations is rather prophetic. Despairing over the number of British Oscar nominees in 1964, she suggested creating a “tea party of our own.”
Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood makes an extremely valuable point noting the relationship between Hopper and her public. It is what separated her from rival columnist Louella Parsons. Long before social media, Hedda’s fans created a film community built on avid letter writing, and Frost makes extensive use of correspondence Hopper saved from her readers.
The connection between reporter and reader/writer derailed and destroyed careers. Several examples are provided but close attention is paid to Hopper’s hounding of Charlie Chaplin. Bad enough for Hopper that Chaplin was an iconoclast; he didn’t do interviews. His British citizenship and preference for much younger women led Hopper to repeatedly condemn his “political subversion” and “moral perversion.” The attacks worsened in 1943 when Chaplin was named in a paternity suit (proved false) and again in 1947 when Monsieur Verdoux was released. Hopper labeled the unapologetic bourgeois Bluebeard comedy “Red-bait.” Thanks to her friendship with J. Edgar Hoover, reader outrage, and support of Catholic and Veterans’ groups, the smear campaign reached its zenith in 1952 when Chaplin was denied re-entry in the U.S. He would not return until 1972 when Hopper was long dead.
With very few exceptions, pre-civil rights Hollywood was no different than Hopper. Frost demonstrates this discussing Walt Disney’s Song of the South. This 1946 adaption of Uncle Remus stories has always been controversial. (The original cut is unavailable on DVD.) Hopper described Remus as a “lovable old Negro philosopher” and groups such as NAACP who denounced Song as “Commie.”
More telling is Hopper’s 1958 interview with Sidney Poitier. She doesn’t bother asking about his emergence as the first black leading man but rather:
HOPPER: Did you sing? So many of your people do.
POITIER: I couldn’t sing for beans.
HOPPER: You’re the first one I’ve ever met who says he can’t sing. I’ve never known any of your people who couldn’t sing.
POITIER: (smiling): Sorry to be the exception, but here I am.
There is enough material in Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism for Frost to explore in future books. Readers may be curious enough to watch the films mentioned in the text. Those seeing Sunset Boulevard for the first time are to be envied.
Preludes to the Last American Book
Cross-Genre Work by Richard Froude
Horse Less Press, February 2011
Paperback: 112pp; $15.00
Review by Michael Flatt
One could describe Richard Froude’s FABRIC as a meditation on memory presented in prose poetry, but this description would elide too many deeply interesting facets of the work. While working from the basis of a consideration of memory’s inherent virtues and flaws, FABRIC creates a space within that consideration for the inspired moment. By “inspired,” I mean several things: the invented, the possibly mistaken, the obsessive, and the associative.
What binds and determines the mood of this material is Froude’s matter-of-fact tone. Froude continuously deploys frank statements of fact, or at least, statements that are presented so frankly, they are given the appearance of fact. When his vignettes consist of very believable, seemingly autobiographical anecdotes, his tone is the same as when they consist of pseudo-surreal narratives. Take the following extract:
When my sister was born in 1982, I was given a plastic machine gun. The gun was wrapped in Union Jack wrapping paper. In the hospital, there was a woman with a yellow cast on her leg. Perhaps that was a different hospital.
Here, it would appear that we are being presented with factual information, to the best of the speaker’s ability, provided the inherent flaws of memory. Yet, when the speaker slips into a more poetic mode, his tone remains the same, allowing for the slippage from a representational register to a non-representational one to be rather subtle: “Alfred leads me down a path lined with pink rhododendron. He has led me this way before. Before a yew tree we stop at the bust of a gorilla. Its name is Alfred. We stare at it for days.”
These types of moments necessarily call into question what the reader felt safe in presuming was “true.” Perhaps this reinforces what one character tells us, that “‘truth’ is the name we give to lies we can’t live without.” Though, the speaker tells this character, likely an imaginary figment, “to go fuck himself,” and with regard to the truth being nothing but an acceptable lie, I’m inclined to a similar imperative.
Nonetheless, the third category of “fact” that exists in FABRIC, in addition to the lived and the imagined, is also rendered suspect by these imagined moments. This is the researched fact, which may represent a sort of antipode to the lived experience but occupy an adjacent room in memory’s architecture. These facts are juxtaposed with the lived and imagined facts, and provide a cobbled foundation for memory’s creaky house:
Prior to 1949, vehicle safety tests were performed almost exclusively with the dead. Aside from more familiar automobile based tests, these early experiments involved pitching corpses down an elevator shaft, dropping steel weights onto their skulls.
This brings us to what I would say is the book’s primary obsession: death. This subject, perhaps inspired by Froude’s volunteer work at local hospices, pervades FABRIC, from the first page, where the speaker states, “I’ve often wondered which season I’d prefer to die in. Which day of the week.” The book’s third section, “The Dashes,” is inspired by the prayer book of a (real? invented?) soldier killed in World War I, the aforementioned Alfred. The fourth section, “Oceanography,” is centered on a narrative of the speaker’s attendance of a relative’s funeral as a child.
The constant presence of thoughts about death colors moments that would not otherwise strike one as necessarily related to the topic. Immediately following the first scene of the funeral in “Oceanography,” Froude writes, “This is what I think ‘submersion’ means: one field’s absolute disappearance within another.” In the context of a funeral, the idea of submersion is almost unavoidable, though Froude’s speaker seems to reflect on this word in passing, the way one might many years later, unconscious that this thought sprang from the previous moment’s thought about a funeral attended as a child.
In this way, FABRIC tracks the movement of the creative mind (meaning, of course, any mind), which does not experience memories as plastic-wrapped, vacuum-sealed moments, but rather as mellifluous psychological events enmeshed and shot through with every other category of thought.
Fiction by Katie Farris
Marick Press, March 2011
Hardcover: 76pp; $14.95
Review by Martin Woodside
Fiction writers have long used the fairy tale genre as a potent vehicle for innovation and subversion, a trend that only intensified after the post-modern assault on canonical literature launched by Messrs. Barthes and Barth. By the 1960s, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges had already used the stuff of fable and fantasy to breathe new life into old forms, and authors such as Angela Carter and Robert Coover began manipulating both the form and content of classic fairy tales to interrogate and re-imagine some of the most basic assumptions of literary fiction.
Katie Farris clearly drinks from these waters. Her debut collection revels in the idea of writing as play, and from its opening pages Farris engages the reader through a powerful voice and an infectious enthusiasm, suffusing these stories with a palpable sense of both delight and danger. As her madwoman narrator blithely declares in the book’s “Introduction/Implication,” it “is time to laugh, to free that deep itch in your tongue,” and she invites the reader to “giddy yourself atop these sheer drops.” The joy of delirium, however, comes tinged with the threat of violence, with the narrator ominously bidding the reader to “frolic with bared teeth.”
Following suit, the stories in this collection carefully navigate between wonder and terror, introducing fantastic characters, with frequently pitiable fates, such as the girl with a mirror for a face and the boy with one wing. The series of short, fragmented tales is broken into two sections (first “girls,” then “boys”) with the haunting black and white illustrations of Laviana Hanachiuc interspersed throughout. These chilling images lend a sense of cohesion to Farris’s often disjunctive narratives, but the collection’s unity is best achieved through the author’s sure hand with language. She pays loving attention to every word on the page, wedding the exuberance of her narrator’s mad passion with an impressive control of the prose line. In “mise en abyne,” Farris describes how the girl with a mirror for a face “would give up all her notoriety and wish for a mouth,” before offering this exquisite list of “mouths made for devouring: bee-mouth, moth-mouth, the various mouths of months, babybird beaks, the liquidating straw-mouth of the seastar, the lamprey’s edgy round electric hole.”
While Farris studied with Coover, her fantastic tales owe a much clearer debt to Angela Carter. Like Carter, Farris interrogates the patriarchal structures embedded in conventional fairy tales, and like Carter, Farris uses her stories to undermine and reconfigure those structures. These effects are demonstrated powerfully in “the devil’s face,” in which a girl is forced to defecate on the devil’s face as he pleasures himself. Strikingly graphic, not through any evocation of longing or lewdness but rather through its poignant representation of physical and spiritual suffering, this brief piece concludes with its protagonist still in hell and still performing her anguished duty. At the same time, the story ends with the girl shaming the devil and assuming a clear measure of authority. Indulging in these apparent paradoxes, the story serves as an apt embodiment of this provocative collection; lingering somewhere between dream and nightmare, boysgirls leaves the reader poised curious, if not quite comfortable, on the razor’s edge.
Fiction by Kelcey Parker
Kore Press, February 2011
Paperback: 144pp; $16.00
Review by Elena Spagnolie
Though Kelcey Parker’s collection of short stories, For Sale By Owner, falls comfortably into the genre of discontented housewife lit—tackling subjects such as the disillusionment of a “perfect” marriage, the depression that often accompanies excessive material wealth, or the fantasies people create to distract themselves from reality—it stands out in that it has distinctly well-developed characters who are crafted with beautiful depth. Parker’s writing is thoughtful and highly literary, and she pulls readers into the disappointment of her characters’ lives while maintaining a sense of wry humor and irony. For example, in the short story “Best Friend Forever Attends a Baby Shower,” Parker describes the ache of social rejection and the growling bitterness it inspires:
The Hostess’s older sister sits on a large pillow. Her skirt, daisies with gemmed carpels, fans out like a picnic blanket for her miniature gentleman, the only male allowed. Everyone fawns over the suited young man, except for the BFF who ignores him simply because if he were twenty years older he would ignore her.
Parker also deftly experiments with narrative perspective and, as in “Tom’s Story,” she allows the narrator to tell the reader about the story instead of telling the story itself. For example, she writes:
The first sentence of the story establishes the fact that the main character is Tom and that he’s having a bad day. No mention is made of Gina in the first sentence. The next sentence provides dialogue in which Tom tells someone—the reader does not know whom yet—to fuck off…. At this point, it is revealed that the person addressed is Gina, that she is Tom’s girlfriend, and that she has begun to cry.
Though this device limits the readers’ direct access to the story (which, at times, makes the story less interesting), Parker’s unique utilization of language is a testament to her skill, and her writing provides a refreshingly smart voice to this genre. In another example of her creative style, “Biography of Your Husband,” she writes a review of a husband as if it were a book blurb—complete with a gripping summary, editorial reviews, and an “about the author” segment. And in another still, “Domestic Air Quality,” one of her characters gives two air filter market researchers more information than they bargained for when she fills out a survey. Parker’s descriptions are memorably vivid (e.g. seeing a person’s reflection in a shiny eggplant), and she creates an edge of suspense in every story that keeps the pages turning; I highly recommend this collection of short stories.
Fiction by Rusty Barnes
sunnyoutside, August 2011
Paperback: 154pp; $18
Review by Hazel Foster
Rusty Barnes’s Mostly Redneck, is, in fact, not “mostly redneck,” at least not in the way most would think of “redneck.” There are a few yokels, some pickups, a shotgun, but the pages are not inhabited by slack-jawed, one-overall-strap-loose, hill folk. The stories in this collection follow real people in all situations. For instance, in “This is What They Call Adventure,” Bob, who is simple, feeds the hens and meets a girl:
Once when Bob looked up, they were—all of those girls—standing in a line with their shirts off and their boobies pointed at him. When they saw that he saw them, they broke and ran, laughing, except for Matalia, who looked like a movie person to Bob; long brown hair, vinyl-blue eyes; her thick glasses hid nothing from Bob.
This and seventeen other short stories are told in direct, no-nonsense prose and rely on each other, creating an overall personality for the characters in the collection: observant, not directly in the action, impacted but separate. This collection is best read in a few bursts, perhaps alongside a novel, but not all at once. Each character and story has a weight which makes this impossible in a pleasing way. Mostly Redneck is perfect for the reader who likes to lay aside and digest.
Poetry by Jennifer Knox
Bloof Books, December 2010
Paperback: 84 pp; $15.00
Review by Noel Sloboda
In The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Jennifer Knox reveals a gift for making readers laugh. All 43 poems in this volume display great wit—a possible liability in hands less adroit than Knox’s. Fortunately, while rendering comical scenes, she never sacrifices pathos for a joke. Her poems feature complicated humor that emerges from funerals and interventions. Always keeping in view the high stakes for her speakers—and their friends, parents, and lovers—Knox dances on the edge of the ridiculous, obliging people to laugh at difficult situations for which there are not rational responses.
In every one of the four sections in The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Knox is unafraid to expose the foibles of her speakers, and this generates much of the book’s biting humor. For instance, in “Old Friends,” the speaker deems herself better than a former acquaintance who once “drowned eight kittens in a sack.” The speaker reflects how she has “become a better person / certainly better than the woman I knew, who I would never be friends with / again.” Yet she soon realizes that in acting superior, she has done what she condemns, submerging others who cannot protect themselves: “the bodies / of all the people I’d drowned in sacks years ago begin / falling from the sky, heavy like wet sandbags from a crane.” By poking fun at her speaker in this hyperbolic scene, Knox invites us to step back from our lives, to laugh at the predicaments in which we find ourselves—and the severe attitudes we adopt toward them.
Knox also helps us to gain perspective on ourselves by invoking popular role models from film and television. Gene Kelly, Burt Reynolds, and Dirty Harry all appear in her poems. In “Anomalies of the Female Reproductive System,” when a gynecologist tells the speaker that she needs a mammogram she cannot afford, the actress Mary McDonnell intervenes:
Mary and I use lasers from the Battlestar Galactica series
in which she played the President to slay the old doctor
and cut up her body. Then we feed the pieces to the hawks
in Central Park.
Such campy allusions not only have the power to make readers chuckle but also raise questions about the capacity of media to articulate experience. Are we stuck with memories of the movies and TV shows on which we grew up—or worse still reruns and remakes—as we try to make sense of our lives? “Beverly Hills Cop III” exposes the tawdriness of memory, correlating it to a second sequel:
This again, but way lamer. We started out
outlaws, now we’re law (in chichi suits, yet).
Why does every bright, rare thing we are boil
out like wine’s kick in a simmered port glaze,
leaving only virgin vapors, Ghost of Badass?
It is easy to ridicule an inferior copy of a copy. But the sense of loss here is strong, too, as the speaker struggles to come to grips with aging.
Yet Knox never indulges in nostalgia. She appreciates too much the pleasures of the moment, particularly when those pleasures are sexual. Again and again, she represents couples indulging one another, both physically and emotionally. In “Nice ‘N Easy Medium Natural Ash Brunette,” a new pair copulates “like animals, for hours / as some wildly expensive thing in the oven burned.” In “Crawling Out of the Mouth of More,” after contemplating how to raise the stakes in her love life, the speaker admits that “we’d have to leave regular fucking behind,” if toys and additional partners became commonplace in her bedroom.
Knox is interested in other kinds of connections between people as well. The third section of The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, “Cars,” dwells on family bonds. In a sequence of loosely connected prose pieces, Knox tracks a father-daughter relationship by concentrating on the way the pair comport themselves behind the wheel. More often than not, the young woman acts recklessly, much to the frustration of her father.
Father-Daughter Day. He pulls over on the side of the Hollywood Freeway and sobs. “I’m sorry. I’ve worried about you so much. So much more than your brother….” I have never seen him cry, but he really does. He bawls. I say, “It’s OK,” and I mean it, because suddenly I know he’s just scared. That’s why he did all the things that he did.
“Cars” features many such compelling dramatic scenes. However, it lacks the precise and nuanced use of line that defines Knox’s voice in the book’s other three sections. For all the laughter her poetry provokes, it is tightly controlled, reflecting a command of form that makes a second and third reading enjoyable, even after one knows all the punch lines.
Fiction by Pedro Ponce
Cow Heavy Books, 2010
Paperback: 55pp; $10.00
Review by Jeremy Benson
There’s something to be said for the matter-of-fact voice that short-form fiction so effectively encourages. With it, images and situations that would be surprises if not entirely doubted are accepted without a bat of the lash from the narrator.
At least that’s the voice Pedro Ponce acquires for his collection from Cow Heavy Books, Alien Autopsy. The entire book—its sparse design, credulous speakers in times of unfurled fantasy, and fruitful words in well-tilled sentences—seems to state: this is how it is. From the very beginning: “It’s hot, I said, watching palm trees bake in the sun,” opens the collection in “Haunted Car”:
The passenger side window opened. A cool breeze lifted strands of my mother’s hair and chilled the dampness at my temples.
How did you do that? I asked.
This is a haunted car, my mother said. The windows won’t open unless you ask the ghosts for permission.
It’s fitting that childish faith introduces readers to Ponce’s world, initially establishing a sense of wonder with which to accept the incoming Secret Satans (as opposed to Santas), virgins with healing powers, and run-ins with other-dimensional selves.
However, as the collection’s invisible over-arcing plot moves into adulthood, the same straight acceptance of the fantastic is reused by its speakers to accept their inevitable loneliness. In the title story, the host of a singles’ mixer asks if the narrator has ever been in love; the narrator explains the plot of a science fiction film:
My host discreetly checked his watch. I guess some people are better off alone, he said.
Precisely, I agreed. In those cases where the computer simulation fails to take, the bodies are raised for feed. But the longer brains are allowed to develop unimpaired, the more likely the conspiracy will be discovered. Renegade efforts to expose the aliens make up the plot of The Harvest as well as its admittedly inferior sequels, Harvest 2: Rebirth and Harvest 3: Blood Spawn.
The party broke up earlier than expected.
The sighs of acceptance repeated in story after story build into complacency and stagnancy.
Individually, the stories of Alien Autopsy show Ponce’s ability to maneuver language, to establish limits, then to bend and fold them to his will—one of the joys of short-form literature. But there’s something to be said for his ability to promote themes across a series as well.
Meanwhile, one wonders what his speakers might do in a page or two more.
Poetry by Susan Scarlata
Horse Less Press, February 2011
Paperback: 90pp; $15.00
Review by L.S. Bassen
A quotation attributed to William Butler Yeats can be found in cyberspace, "What can be explained is not poetry." At least 63 people have “liked” this quotation, but not me. I appreciate explanation. Susan’s Scarlata’s new collection is bookended by both an introductory “Proem” and end “Notes.” The “Proem” explains that her 64 poems are: “A recoup of the Sapphic Stanza form… They are strung… linked without attempt to present any sum total.” The first poem, “What Is Your Business Here?” begins, “I dreamed I carried a snake / to a burnt cracked tree /…Our needs and wants” include “a plectrum” and we are advised to “throw these bits / in two directions at once.” “Plectrum” is explained in the notes: “A plectrum is a spear point used for striking the lyre.”
Those “two directions” introduce twosomes appearing early that become landmarks. The phrase that reappears most, echoing Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” is “the red behind my ribs.” “Phantasmagoria” takes us further to when “it was all / Arcadia that whole day long,” and where “satyrs… / …are…dancing” the “Hoof crunk.” Explained in the notes, “Crunk is a type of frenetic, urban, contemporary music and dance that fuses elements of hip-hop and electronica.”
In the familiar modern quest to polarize the definitions of artifice/art, rejecting civilization in order to rediscover a more authentic reality in the archaic past, Susan Scarlata is studiously un-lyrical and rejects at the same time she invokes earlier forms of lyric, narrative, and epic poetry. It Might Turn Out We Are Real is a marvel of expression of modernist tension between Classical/Romantic inspiration and Ironic self-consciousness.
Midway in the collection, there is delight at “What Part Reached?”:
Listen, words were once carved on wax tablets
then placed in jars for safekeeping.
And what’s strange about
the hippocampus is how it’s both
a sea creature of whimsy, part fish and part horse;
and the ridged part of our brains where our
shortest of memories spend time.
By “Of Pelts And Cuff-Links,” you can feel yourself hoof-crunking along. In “To What Do I Most Compare You?” (post-modern echo of not “to a summer’s day”), the poet juggles rapture & reason: “the knife was blunt / the ram caught in thicket, or a deep appears… / that will suffice. Synecdochic day. Part for the whole, and ‘civilized’ starts.” Synecdochic Day ought to be an international holiday.
This collection also works as a precise course in the history of poetry & post-modern criticism. The syllabi for three recent classes are at http://www.susanscarlata. com/teachings/. Anyone creative in the post-modern period—certainly in the Academy—has been ironically constrained by a century of critical rules of rebellion and rejection of past formalities. The hostile antithesis of art and artifice has not yet found synthesis. With Ferlinghetti, we await a rebirth of wonder. It happens in some moments in It Might Turn Out We Are Real, the title a Romantic wish expressed in Ironic terms. In “A Living,” the poet writes, “The honey the bees made from almond flowers was / too bitter to eat.” Now there’s a perfect metaphor for the modern poet’s predicament.
An Anthology of Creative Writing Relationships
Edited by Nate Liederbach, James Harris
Lost Horse Press, February 2011
Paperback: 412pp; $24.00
Review by C.J. Opperthauser
In a competitive field such as creative writing, where anybody who's anybody needs to make their name a brand, this anthology makes the monstrous crowds a family, pairing mentor with student. Each person introduces somebody else, and gives some refreshingly personal insider information on how they met and who they are. Instead of a wimpy, some-odd-word-count biography stuck in the back, the reader is provided with a backstory, making the entire collection significantly more personal.
Aside from the benefits of being properly introduced to each and every contributor of the collection, the pieces themselves are eclectic and enjoyable. In a story by Diana Joseph titled “Bullets Going Through Objects in Slow Motion,” a mother tries to connect with her son who is aging all too quickly. It is a quirky, fun, true-to-life piece. It's placed between a selection of poems by Zachary Schomburg and Melanie Rae Thon, who is in turn introduced by Diana Joseph. Their two stories, though in rather different styles, connect well to one another and, after having read each writer's introduction for the other, the stories seem like close cousins. This is how every pair functions in the anthology. Each connects with the other, and does so successfully and on a personal level.