Posted October 4, 2011
Gloss :: What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes? :: Drifting into Darien :: The Necessity of Certain Behaviors :: The Trees The Trees :: Damn Sure Right :: Called :: The Rest of the Voyage :: From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet :: Correct Animal :: The Other Walk :: Lucky Fish :: The New Moscow Philosophy :: War of the Crazies
Poetry by Ida Stewart
Perugia Press, August 2011
Paperback: 84pp; $16.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Musical and deeply rooted in a sense of place, Ida Stewart’s debut poetry collection highlights the essential element of sound within contemporary poetry. In a series of free verse poems that engage with the lyric quality of traditional nature poetry, Stewart delves beyond a simple examination of nature; instead, nature ties into a sense of past and place, ever-present in the depths of memory. Set within the concrete of ground, the minuteness of soil, Gloss condenses language to its potential as rich medium for the human voice and soul.
Small yet powerful lyrics comprise much of the collection, filled with images of the landscape. In “Soil,” the speaker notes: “in your mouth sounds like soul— / like the world’s been oiled, all the old / consolidated.” This repetition of sound creates an echoing effect, one phrase after the other, allowing images to overlap and build upon one another.
The collection’s title poem further addresses this excess of sound. A speaker turns a repeated phrase in three six-line stanzas, as she attempts to explain the meaning of “Gloss.” Evoking images of the mountains and actions of their inhabitants, the speaker claims:
They clamber from the mouth—
men untrapped like tumbling hallelujahs from the gut,
the dark nonsense of the mountain.
This, and the laying on of hands, wives
finding their silhouettes in the superficial better light,
putting worlds back together.
In the continual struggle of these people, they remain within the mountain-scape despite their spiritual ecstasy. This mixture of abstractions paired with specific instances lends a kind of balancing effect for the poem, allowing it to expand and retract.
Along with the skill on the smaller scale of individual poems, the collection contains a series of poems titled “Glossary,” each addressing words with the same prefixes or endings. In “Glossary: Ex- Words,” the speaker attempts to define “ex-a-mine,” saying “Is torn between filling in and tearing some more. / (And, what to tear apart? People tearing up, torn limb from limb / from branch, the family limping along in these parts?” The constant questioning, recursive nature of these poems allows for a closer look at the process of poetics and memory, how to construct a meaningful image from the past.
Relations between human bodies develop throughout the collection, as the speaker reflects on past conflict. In “What Gives,” the speaker proclaims: “No, no rewrites, / no repasts: no way to ride Midnight / back to afternoon.” The final tone of this ended relationship shows the constant moving forward of the speaker, even as she continues to look back.
Caught up in the memory of place, Gloss enlivens language through rethinking words, recapitulating them into specifics, concrete images of the speaker’s world, continuing to live.
Poetry by Arlene Kim
Milkweed Editions, July 2011
Paperback: 96pp; $16.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
Now wake up it's time to eat! Show me
your tongue, my sweet…
boil her down to bone.
These first lines, drawn from a 1983 version of Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister Adelheid Wette, are the first of several section epigraphs that drive Arlene Kim's first collection, What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes. The title of the book is a line from “the path come apart,” a poem near the end of the book that was generated by feeding text from this collection into a software program.
Somewhere between the start of the path and the end of the path, we inhabit a mythological landscape “in the woods, always the woods” (“The Seer”) along with mothers, sisters, and all manner of animals ready to tear disobedient children to pieces:
The way thick with toads,
The narrator is warned to stay on the path by a mother whose advice seems so implanted in her daughter's brain that only a whisper of a parenthetical in poems like “Rot” or “The Path Come Apart” lets us know the admonishments' origin: “(mother tells me).” Despite her mother's fears, both narrator and sister wander off:
there is more world
and it is too sweet
to deny. Though I tried
to listen, I could not
follow your song (“Season of Frogs”)
Like her narrator, Kim moves adeptly between worlds, marrying Korean mythology to Grimm's fairy tales and other western tropes in poems that describe a mother sewing her family together, Daphne's flight from Apollo and the Romanovs’s grave with appalling intimacy. In particular, the poem “Rot” marries decay with sweetness and sweetness in such a way that one wants to roll around in the poem, tasting the language again and again, even as its sweetness makes you vomit. As I read I wondered, could I handle any more alliteration? Yes, Kim says. “The secret is this: the peaches are wild with worms. The secret is this: suck rot for beauty.”
In What Have You Done…, Kim not only uses a wide range of mythological, literary and technological sources, she accesses a full arsenal of poet's tools: from long, prose-shaped lines in “Rot” to the stumbling short lines of “Spool, Book, Coin”—which she uses to mimic a child's first steps—to the heavy use of white space in “Needle,” which one might imagine is written over a sewing pattern. These are poems to whisper alone in a tent by flashlight, delighting in the whistles and pops of words that tear at your heart.
A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River
Nonfiction by Janisse Ray
University of Georgia Press, September 2011
Hardcover: 256pp; $22.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
Drifting into Darien, part memoir and part natural history, logs the memory of not only the people of the Altamaha River region in Georgia, but the landscape itself. In a multi-part larger essay and a series of smaller essays, Janisse Ray reminds us of this essential but little-known river. Readers who already possess knowledge of ecology and biology, as well as novice environmentalists, will appreciate the detail displayed by Ray’s knowledge of her native landscape. A strong environmental focus propels this collection of essays forward, urging the reader to take action to preserve not only the Altamaha, but their own rivers as well.
Divided into two sections, the collection opens with an eight-part essay titled “Total Immersion: A Week on the Altamaha River.” Each of the parts retells a day of the kayaking trip Ray and her husband took along the Altamaha. In rich detail, Ray describes the flora and fauna she observes during her trip. On “The First Day,” Ray sees “a swallow-tailed kite swoop[ing] low over the trees. It appears from the port side of the floodplain and pirouettes in yellow sunlight. If you’ve never seen a swallow-tailed kite, you must go as soon as possible to find one.” Ray continues these direct addresses, in encouraging and enthusiastic tones, urging the reader to spend time outside in the natural world.
A series of smaller essays, divided into chapters, complete the remainder of the collection. Ray intersperses lyrical descriptions of the landscape with scientific language and practical information. For example, in “Endangered Landscape,” she chronicles The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to preserve and protect the Altamaha. Ray reminds the reader that “the Altamaha supports…the largest documented aggregation of globally imperiled elements of any watershed in Georgia.” For her, the message is clear: protect the river and the watershed.
This message constantly becomes reinforced through essays addressing other aspects of the river, such as in “Stewards of the Mysteries of God.” Ever aware of the reader’s presence, Ray prefaces the story of a fisherman who became the first Riverkeeper of the Altamaha with: “This story is one of the transformations that is possible when one wakes up to the beauty and wonder of the earth, if one fears not, if one follows the path of his or her heart. The story of the transformation is possible if people join together and decide to protect something they love. With love, many things are possible.” The narrative demonstrates how anyone can become involved in saving beloved places.
While some essays may overlap in content, their message remains clear: in order to save what you love, you must constantly broaden your intellectual horizons through research, personal experience, and passion. This collection illuminates the consequences of human destruction and ignorance of the landscape, and the book itself provides a source of enlightenment.
Fiction by Shannon Cain
University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2011
Hardcover: 160pp; $24.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
In a world where habit drives and consumes lives, Shannon Cain’s short story collection takes steadfast aim at those who cannot resist the pull of what society deems illicit. Nine stories delve into seemingly average people, who, upon closer inspection, engage in the illegal, the deadly, and the bizarre, risking their lives and jobs to continue pursuing their obsessions.
Cain’s quick, short prose creates a sense of urgency within each story, driving not only the characters, who remain attached to their behaviors, but plot as well. While some stories span months, others days, Cain’s craft of the short, direct sentence keeps lively pace, preventing these narrative from dragging or feeling bogged down.
In the opening story, “This Is How It Starts,” a woman named Jane has two lovers—one a man, the other a woman. As months progress, the woman keeps both lovers, unable to choose. Cain manages this passing of time with clear sentences, relaying complex information simply. For example, the narrator reveals that “The girl and the boy know about one another. Jane sometimes considers introducing them. The next part of the fantasy involves Jane floating a proposal that they both occupy her bed, maybe on Thursdays and Sundays. Jane knows the girl would not go for this. The boy, it nearly goes without saying, would.” This matter-of-fact presentation creates a sense of distance yet still implies intimacy with its candor.
By avoiding the fantastical, Cain develops characters that remain realistic and, perhaps, average people, yet also continuously intrigue, due to hidden obsessions. Ranging from mothers who grow weed to pay off divorce debts to a politician’s wife caught masturbating in a public steam room, these characters sometimes must confront their obsessions once revealed.
In “Cultivation,” the mother thinks of her obsession: “Yet, also: there’s nothing else in her life that offers the same satisfaction as the squat plants, the cultivation of perfect, tight, and tender buds, the recognition that she’s expert at something. She grows weed and she grows children, but the weed doesn’t talk back.” This tension between the mother’s love of growing weed and the love for her children reaches conflict when morals clash. In “The Steam Room,” a politician’s wife, unhappy with her marriage, finds herself in a legal situation when, “Two girls in City High School team swimsuits padded barefoot into the steam room and caught Helen deep in the throes of auto-arousal.” The event aids in Helen coming to terms with her marriage and her ever-public and political life.
Simultaneously focused yet diverse in exploration, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors closely examines individual lives, depicting engaging characters with tight and concise prose that evokes a sense of conflict within the high stakes. These stories challenge the everyday, adding strangeness to the mundane, reminding the reader of the possibility within even what, at first glance, appears ordinary. Expectations subverted, readers must look closer and reexamine even their own lives.
Poetry by Heather Christle
Octopus Books, July 2011
Paperback: 72pp; $12.00
Review by J. A. Tyler
The Trees The Trees, the second poetry collection from Heather Christle, is a loosely-knit collection of poems that sometimes has to do with trees, that often has to do with the dichotomy of relationships, and that always has an overwhelmingly and wonderfully infectious use of rhythm:
a woman and a man are on a bench the bench is
vibrating and the trees and purses that which
does not vibrate falls apart the dead also vibrate
the woman and the man are still alive I think I
know a lot about the world when the man says he
will fix dinner he does not mean he will repair it
(from “These People are Getting Together”)
Propagated into even wider circulation via Christle’s offer to read her poetry live to anyone who called during a given set of days and times (read about it here), The Trees The Trees sets itself up for high expectations from any reader of indie press literature, and this second collection is definitely worth the hype. Each poem is spaced unlike traditional poetry, using empty tabs between lines instead of normal line breaks. Even via that small aesthetic design element, Christle’s poetry has the effect of pinning us down, like an older brother holding down our arms with his knees, while poetry blares in our faces:
you were holding me when the tulips collapsed
we have not given them the water I was holding
the water in my hands and you were holding me
when I fell to the wavering ground and for the
tulips we are not sorry oh no we’re not sorry at
(from “What We Have Worked For”)
Christle’s poetry is not forceful or aggressive but very charming and quirky, something akin to the strange friends we all have and love, the friends who say unexpected things and takes us down surprising paths. Christle’s poetry does that—says unexpected things and takes us to places that we didn’t envision, down a path we couldn’t have selected ourselves, but that in retrospect, feels very comfortable and good and warm and right.
Fiction by Meg Pokrass
Press 53, January 2011
Paperback: 171pp; $14.95
Review by Tessa Mellas
Meg Pokrass’s collection Damn Sure Right packs in a whopping eighty-eight stories. Short-shorts. Flash fiction. Whatever you call them, Meg Pokrass is their queen. She’s made a career out of flash fiction. She teaches flash fiction workshops nationally and has published over a hundred pieces in journals. In a market that goads short story writers to crank out novels, she’s firm in her commitment to keep it tight. But while most of us literature lovers have enjoyed a brilliant short-short in our time, few of us have read a whole book of them or even know how.
How do you read a book of flash fiction? Do you inhale a quick story before running to catch the bus, read another later on the john, another right before bed? Do you curl up on the couch and rest the book on your knee between stories to mull over all contained in each vivid dense space? One thing is clear. A book of flash fiction cannot be read like a novel. Each story is like the richest morsel of chocolate. You can’t inhale them by the fistful. You’ve got to treat yourself to a bite here and there, take it on its own terms.
So what are flash fiction’s terms? How do flash pieces, strange critters that they are, work? Let’s take a look at Meg Pokrass’s story “Like a Family,” a miraculous two-page piece that is gorgeous and so affecting it hurts. Here’s the first paragraph:
The city is always moving its pinkie to tell me it’s alive. One day it smells like steaming artichokes—another day, lapsang souchong tea. My friends, other secretaries, gather on the sunny bench like a bouquet. From a block away it looks as if they are complaining, bending backwards and yawning. He never liked them, or even wanted to know them, but now that he’s not around, they’re what I have.
In that first sentence, Pokrass goes straight to the gut and takes you to your knees. A grand sprawling thing like a city with a soul so banged and bruised it’s wiggling its smallest appendage to alert a single solitary soul that it, the city, isn’t dead—that’s some sentence. She follows the emotive with concrete details of such fierce specificity you can’t help but see and smell the world of this city, whichever city it might be. Pokrass throws in an imagistic simile, then ends the first paragraph with a mysterious sentence, whose unspecified pronoun doesn’t stop us from understanding the whole condition of this recently dumped, sad secretary’s world.
Pokrass can nail openings and precise perfect details. And she’s got that characterization thing mastered too. Take this description of that unspecified “he” that comes at the end of the first page: “Calling me is probably on his ‘to do’ list, which I imagine includes trying on new running shoes in preparation for his next marathon, meeting his training coach in her live/work space, upgrading his phone or his GPS running gizmo, catching up with his ex-wife over Dragonwell tea. Taking the kids for the weekend, so she can play.” Not only can I immediately imagine this very real ex-lover and his history, but I can also imagine the entirety of their relationship, and the way the stasis of his absence chafes the narrator’s skin.
At the end of the story, when this ex-lover has declared that he is moving to London, Pokrass closes things up by finding this perfect ordering of words: “I imagine the glow of his cigarette littering London.” Another sentence that performs so much magic, you wonder why anyone could want or need more than two pages to get their narrative fix for the week.
This theme of complicated doomed relationships comes up again as do other themes that make the book feel cohesive in its scope. Pokrass gives us glimpses of lonely teenagers exploring blurred sexualities. She pays homage to single mothers starting new lives with their kids. Her worlds often include pets, divorced parents, abuse. It’s not a pretty place except for the prose. But that mix of lovely sentences and dysfunction in such a tight space is what makes it intense. Most of the time, at least.
In flash fiction, you’ve got little room to make a wrong move. Getting each piece exactly right is a challenging art. And at times, Pokrass falls short. There are stories that seem to repeat moves she has already made, territory already covered and covered well and better before. I would have preferred a shorter book with all the stories brilliant. I would have preferred less typos. I would have preferred a more artful cover design.
However, on the whole, this book taught me so much about flash fiction as a reader and writer, that its strengths outweigh its shortcomings for me. Damn Sure Right is like a good album that I might never listen to in whole again but whose best songs I will replay over and over. I will return to Meg Pokrass’s greatest hits (“Pounds Across America,” “Jezus in the Backseat,” “California Fruit,” “Surrogate,” “Them,” “It’s No Wonder,” “Vegan,” “In This Light,” “Irina’s Hair Shop,” “Foreign Accent Syndrome”) for quick flashes of concrete and carefully wrought universes packed into so few pages and into so few minutes of my day. And I thank Meg Pokrass heartily for that.
Poetry by Kate Greenstreet
Delete Press, 2011
Paperback: 24pp; Sold Out
Review by Jeremy Benson
The Battleship Potemkin, either the film or the ship itself—the allusion, in any case—makes its appearance early on in Kate Greenstreet’s single-poem chapbook, Called: “First we hear it. Trucks, helicopters. The / Battleship Potemkin. He’s building the shape.” Throughout the poem, Greenstreet works in concise stanzas such as this, each image and line constructed with a controlled hand. As such, the Potemkin is no toss-away detail. Its facts and mythology, of restless soldiers and fledging revolutions, and of propaganda, get bundled and pulled into the poem, while calling to mind the montage theories made standard by director Sergei Eisenstein, the great-grandfather of all modern film editing techniques.
Based on a 1905 mutiny on a Russian naval ship, The Battleship Potemkin shows Eisenstein working through his ideas of juxtaposed images to provoke emotion—two or more scenes, each with their own baggage, are edited together in order to inspire his audience. (One famous example has a child’s sorrowful face intercut with images of a bowl of soup, thus implying the child is hungry.)
The narrative of Greenstreet’s poem adopts a similar yet more extreme technique. Shrugging off tangible plot devices traditionally found in long-form narrative poems and stories, Called concentrates instead on a series of elements placed beside each other to form the emotional undertow of a story. To use a film analogy, she has cut out any frames that convey context—physical setting or the passage of time—keeping only those that stimulate the limbic system.
The chapbook goes beyond text to reach the reader as well. Its experience is tactile, as readers remove the 5” by 6” book from a needle-pointed canvas pouch, and flip through linocut prints on homemade paper depicting an ear among mountains. These elements are juxtaposed atop the text, further informing the readers’ experience.
So while the poem may be deeply felt, its central plot is held at a distance. There are landmarks—brothers, soldiers, portraits of a family and of lovers, a westward movement—but the full scope remains unseen. The ambiguity is at times frustrating, though it too is necessary for the work’s overall effect. The poem opens,
But what about fog?
and ends, “I could never get too close to him physically. / We hadn’t taken any main roads.” The chapbook’s lack of contextual details mirrors the relationship between ‘him’ and the poem’s speaker, who is unsure of what to think herself—Greenstreet has, in a way, shoehorned her reader into the footsteps of her speaker. Perhaps more importantly, the mishmash of free-streaming images mirrors the way memory is stored and recalled: intangible, constantly edited, and apropos of nothing but the tiniest detail.
Poetry by Bernard Noël
Translated from the French by Eléna Rivera
Graywolf Press, October 2011
Paperback: 120pp, $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Bernard Noël is a cerebral, urban-realist mystic caught up by the extraordinary in everyday language as it passes by, carried in things themselves. He captures the instant of wonder, filled with longing, lust, and above all necessity, grounding it in earthy satisfaction. What the eyes see wanes but lives on as a concern of thought. The book is a record of a life of such sight:
it all issues from our bodies from the earth
there John dips his quill into it when he writes
the Apocalypse and the very base seem then
at the tip of the nib ink is obscene light
The Rest of the Voyage is only Noël’s second book of poems to be translated from French into English, and arriving as it does in his eighth decade of a much-celebrated life of writing, it is well past due. While the failure to include the original French in this edition is a major disappointment, especially since translator Eléna Rivera follows the strict eleven syllables per line count which Noël set himself composing these poems (which no doubt enforced upon her some tricky hijinks of enjambment), this is nonetheless a stellar work. Rivera is particularly faithful to what’s happening inside of the poems, each translation possessing the feel of adhering closely to what the poem wants. As she observes, “I became an interpreter within Noël’s poems, as if the poems were growing out of an understanding, a closeness to the words.” The clarity of her translation, which allows for the innate concerns of Noël’s writing to be bared upon the page, bears this out:
climbed up on top of others a head protrudes
its gaze turns and turns and then it comes toppling
another head climbs upwards its eyes shut closed
beautiful balloon stuffed with noisy trinkets
it’s forgotten the position of the real
in the end it’s only a head full of heads
In an interview, which Rivera quotes from in her introduction, Noël echoes but significantly expands upon Rimbaud’s Je est un autre (I is another), emphasizing that “one must make an effort toward the other.” He stresses the point that such circumstance as he has achieved with writing is a product of effort: “One must make an effort to read, to look, to love.” This substantially clarifies how much work is required in order for the poems to arrive. It is from this avowal of recognition and commitment to the toil required that his poetry begins to grow, continually sustained with promise of work yet to come.
As Noël says, quoted from the same interview, “The number one lesson in writing, is that it takes place in the present.” In other words, be where you’re at. And hopefully dig it. Poet Joel Oppenheimer’s mantra went something like: be there when it happens and write it down. In his new poem “When I was a Poet,” David Meltzer reminds readers of poet Robert Creeley’s penchant for saying “dig it.” Both Oppenheimer and Creeley share ties to Black Mountain College and poet Charles Olson as friend and mentor. The Rest of the Voyage evidences Noël’s comfortable leanings in line with Olson’s ideas concerning the poet’s job. As Rivera attests, Noël is “a poet whose concerns are life itself, how the body lives life, and how the corporeality of polis presents itself, in all its permutations—the responsibility to the world around us and the people around us.” Such attention to the poet’s individual role as a participating body (in all senses) to a community (polis—a key term of Olson’s) is central to Olson’s approaches towards writing.
The demand for English translation of more of Noël’s work is already a foregone conclusion. His subtle lines, with their strict syllabic count and lack of punctuation, are both obvious and disarming: “the poem doesn’t give a damn for fairness.” There’s little question that poetry doesn’t come easily for Noël and that being aware of the sacrifice required, as well as the luck he’s had acquiring his skilled handling of the language, he never takes the poems for granted. Noël returns the poem again and again to the world: "again vapor volcanoes blowing great clouds / that send chills down the spine of this little life."
Reading these poems is as stimulating to the imagination as any white water adventure or super-endurance mountain hike. Noël has written extensively on the visual arts in France, and his poems demonstrate some spill-over effect of this work as well as indicate evidence of a writing life committed to the integrity of placing priority upon the work itself. While certainly not everything (how it could it be!), this book is quite enough.
Fiction by Patrick Michael Finn
Black Lawrence Press, July 2011
Paperback: 220pp; $18.00
Review by Ryan Wilson
Winner of the 2009 Hudson Prize, Patrick Michael Finn’s short story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet includes plenty of dark circumstances, all set in the industrial sinkhole of Joliet, Illinois in the mid- to late 20th century. The stories are of the type popular in the early 20th century literature, when American Naturalism dominated the landscape. Every character’s fate feels pre-determined, based upon heredity and social conditioning.
In the title story, for example, a young boy watches helplessly as his house becomes infested with rats. Rather than solve the problem, his parents refuse to acknowledge the vermin’s existence, prompting the boy to struggle against both his genetics and his environment: “Well hell, then, I thought, I’m not fat and lazy like you up there. Goddamn both of you. I was so not fat and so not lazy that I seethed and surged red and, clutching the black trash bag, marched straight back to the darkest part of the basement.”
This futile act of descending into the darkness to face the insurmountable works its way into nearly every story. In “Smokestack Polka” two brothers confront their own futures as they watch a vulgar male threaten to court their mother after their father’s death. “In What She Has Done, and in What She Has Failed to Do” presents an elderly woman watching her street devolve into an ugly carnival of violence and bitterness when an image of the Virgin Mary appears through a window pane. In “The Retard of Lard Hill” an adolescent, struggling to define his own ethics, observes the meanness of his peers regarding the mentally challenged boy down the block. We know throughout these tales that the world won’t be kind to any of these characters, but their attempts to transcend place and circumstance are victories in themselves.
Finn doesn’t hold back with the nasty details. When the ex-dancer of “Shitty Sheila” ages to the point where her beauty can’t pay the bills, she isn’t just reduced to turning tricks; she’s literally dragged through the excrement of the grimy suburb until she becomes part of the filth. Similarly, the sympathetic orphan in “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion” finds himself marginalized in his gym class to the point of receiving the sexual by-product of his classmates each day in the showers. These moments go beyond determinism; the writer wants to humiliate his characters. The scenes are shocking, to be sure, but they also come close to sensationalizing the already bleak conditions. A lesser writer wouldn’t be able to go so blue, but in Finn’s hands, the horrible and the terrible never overwhelm his themes, mainly due to his measured use of language.
For example, in “Between Pissworth and Papich,” Finn physically describes his antagonist while also alluding to his larger matter: “Now Brian Papich usually passed through the world with a sluggish walk that might make you think he had weights in his feet save the glazed slack in his eyes that betrayed the distinct pleasure of neglecting everything.” This kid might present himself as one who takes pleasure in neglect, but (as Flannery O’Conner similarly proposed) deep down there’s no pleasure to be had at all.
Naturalistic influences abound when reading the collection, from Theodore Dreiser’s larger social novel concerns of individual desperation to Sherwood Anderson’s collection of grotesques coping with that desperation to John Steinbeck’s ironic sense of redemption. The ending of “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion” reads as if it were lifted specifically from The Grapes of Wrath. His gym class humiliation complete, the orphan of the story ultimately jumps a train with hobos and takes part in the birthing and naming of a new baby. As a whole, Finn’s Joliet best resembles Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, where the “no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums” all congregate.
Humiliate them as he will, Finn ultimately wishes to give his characters a light, as he does in the collection’s best piece, “Where Beautiful Ladies Dance for You.” Here an ex-con is given a second chance by an immigrant restaurateur who hires him as a bouncer. The story, previously included in The Best American Mystery Stories 2004, is at once a tale about second chances in American life and a subtle commentary about how American life is crumbling and running out of chances.
Finn feels most comfortable couching his commentary in first person coming-of-age tales. Five of the eight stories focus on young men growing up in the rubble of industrialization. Most of them are grown and reflecting back on their hard-scrabble childhoods. Yet as bleak a world as they paint, the narrators can be oddly sentimental, such as in “Smokestack Polka,” when the narrator recollects his father at Christmas:
I don’t know what went through his head to make him love the red sweaters and dopey songs; he simply did, and just about every December night after work he was moved to turn the kitchen into a Christmas Party. Jimmy and I could have gotten sick on all the candy he brought home for us, bags of chocolate bars still cold from the drug store icebox, Red Vines, Snowballs, and chunks of brown powdered nougat called nigger babies.
If not for the “nigger babies” added to the end, this could be a monologue from humorist Jean Shepherd, whose Northwest Indiana boyhood (in stories and film) also depicts a difficult coming-of-age in the savage Midwest. However, where Shepherd chose to laugh away the terrors of his childhood, Finn chooses to dig deeper into the soil. The result is a collection of harrowing fiction, as polluted as the place from where it was wrought.
Poetry by Rebecca Farivar
Octopus Books, July 2011
Paperback: 84pp; $12.00
Review by J. A. Tyler
Rebecca Farivar’s Correct Animal, released in July from Octopus Books, is not unexpected or aggressive or raw or surprising. It is not a collection of poetry that blew me away. But this isn’t to say that I disliked Correct Animal—in fact, I liked it quite a bit, and I liked it for not being unexpected or aggressive or raw or surprising. I liked Farivar’s methods of quiet, of understatement, the lithe quality of her poems:
A woman needs
Locks and locks
to your head
(from “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”)
Unlike some contemporary poets who seem bent on trying to undo the past by lighting words on fire, by breaking open phrases to show their insides all smeared and visceral, Farivar’s Correct Animal rests its significance on short, rhythmic lines with beautifully curt punches, a kind of dancer’s pacing, a swinging vibe in a world of mosh pits. The solitude that arises across the breadth of Farivar’s collection is something lovely for readers to reap:
Today I remember I am a bag of water
inside a larger bag of water.
Praise be to buoyancy.
To water that wants us weak.
I am pregnant tonight
and only tonight.
Praise be to things that catch.
To force that cleans out my pit.
Today I remember I am a larger bag.
Correct Animal is a wonderful example of poetry that believes in the power of a single word, of single words in accumulation, Farivar churning up thematic potency not by raping and pillaging our senses, not by smashing our faces, but by holding our heads in her hands, by swaying, by calm. There is still rash longing and open wailing in the poems of Correct Animal, but it comes from a place of white-spaced silence, lovely in its reliance on words as weight.
Nonfiction by Sven Birkerts
Graywolf Press, September 2011
Paperback: 192pp; $15.00
Review by Ann Beman
We’re walking. We’re walking. Like “those colored paddles and banners (the new tourist universal)” that tour guides wield to direct their charges’ attention, Sven Birkerts holds up a metaphorical banner to keep us following along. When he wanders, it is not without direction. Invoking Robert Frost’s diverging road: “This morning, going against all convention, I turned right instead of left and took my circuit…in reverse.” The author, one of the country’s foremost literary critics and editor of the literary journal AGNI, links walking with thought: “There is the rhythm, the physics, of walking, the drumbeat of repetition, stride, stride, stride, and then there is the fugue of the walking mind, laid over it, always different, always tied in some way to the panning of the gaze and the eye’s quirky meandering.”
The Other Walk comprises 45 short pieces, most in the two- to three-page range, and with each, Birkerts considers his route with a keen eye, wit, and spare, elegant prose: “the pebbled path, that carefully landscaped philosopher’s walk. …it was a metaphysical circuit: once around felt like the distance of a deep thought; twice and you could begin to get somewhere.”
Many of the pieces include a literal walk, but in most, the passage is sentimental, nostalgic: “I’m not simply looking at the photos, I’m also looking through something—like distance, like time—it’s a clear layer. Then and now. I can almost pinch the difference between my thumb and forefinger.”
Besides old photos, chess pieces, tin cups, lighters, ladders, coils of rope, stone shards, and brown leather shoes capture the author’s attention, with his essays fluctuating between past and present-day reflections, creating a tidal effect, out of which drifts the author’s fiber and shell—his essence. He succeeds in guiding us into his head, allows us to take his measure, then leaves us feeling as if we have traveled somewhere new, and possibly via time warp. Author of The Art of Time in Memoir, Birkerts knows time, as in, “Memory does not obey time lines, but associations.” Thus the collection, beginning with “The Other Walk” and ending with “The Walk,” wraps on a timely note, moving from nostalgia for what’s done to anticipation of what’s to do. Read this book at a slow, considerate pace. It will make all the difference.
Poetry by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Tupelo Press, January 2011
Paper: 79pp; $16.95
Review by Marcus Myers
With “The Secret of Soil,” Aimee Nezhukumatathil opens her new book of poems, her fourth, within a secret: “The secret of smoke is that it will fill / any space with walls.” This secret truly belongs to the poetic imagination, of course, and speaks to how we daily embody the world, “no matter how delicate” the space, by giving it breaths of us, taking back lungfuls, placing ourselves here, and pressing our weight onto it:
The secret of soil is that it is alive—
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs. The secret
I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.
I cut out all the pictures of minerals
and gemstones. I could not take
their beauty, could not swallow
that such stones lived deep inside
the earth. I wanted to tape them
to my hands and wrists…
In this first poem, the speaker not only encodes wonderment as “the secret” eager to find poetic expression, but also as the beauty we might realize only through living willfully and aware, our imaginations unearthing and hoarding images like precious stones.
In poem after poem of this solid collection, Nezhukumatathil does what Marianne Moore suggests poetry ought to do, place readers in “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”—as such she guides us through the imaginary realm, “with all its rawness,” of the poet’s world attuned to our senses.
Throughout Lucky Fish, Nezhukumatathil’s imagination shrinks distance, pulling far-away places close—India and the Ozark Mountains, Kansas and the Philippines—twice as fast as a search engine. Yet, unlike a website’s gimmicky claim to really set you down in some distant locale, her places work as metonyms and never allege to do more than identify herself as a particular person caught within a world webbed in memory and significance.
And these far-away-but-close metonyms shimmer with the life she remembers there. In “A Globe Is Just An Asterisk And Every Home Should Have An Asterisk,” she recalls her childhood in central Florida while driving to her “parents’ house / and into their garage, and up the pull-down stairs / in their attic to find my old globe from 1983.” The speaker recollects all the time she passed as a girl spinning the globe, feeling the bumpy relief pass beneath her “thumb and forefinger,” and noting “ the bar scale that showed how many miles per inch.” The poem concludes by demarcating memory and the imagination’s limits in encompassing the real:
I tried to pinch the widest part
of the Pacific Ocean, the distance between me
and India, me and the Philippines. The space
between the shorelines was too wide. My hand
was always empty when it came to land, to knowing
where is home. I dip my hands in the sea. I net
nothing but seaweed and a dizzy, single smelt.
Many poems descend associatively, from something like an aerial view to that of the near-microcosmic. Consider these sentences from “The Ghost-Fish Postcards”: “The islands first appear like cupcakes in the sea, the centers etched out from shrimp & salt,” and “A slide into the happy mouth of an oyster. To get stuck & rub into you like an angry letter. Or sometimes soft as a kiss.”
These poems, even though written from the imagination’s sensuous joy, often register life’s heft and seriousness. “Birth Geographic,” a long prose poem in 18 sections, addresses her newborn son: “let it be known that I will never leave you of my own accord. Never. If someone takes me, I will scratch and bite until I gargle soil. My mouth will be an angry mouth if anyone rips me from you. The center of my hands boiled with blossoms when we made a family. I would never flee that garden.”
And “Toy Universe,” as another example of the poet’s tonal heft and seriousness, finds the dark side of her son’s happy toys:
In my son's toy universe, all transportation
has a face. There are smiley faces on trains
race cars, buses. Even his white rescue helicopter
has a jaunty smirk across its windshield.
...There are stars above China.
There are stars that smell like licorice
and there are stars some children cannot see
because they are piecing together toy trains
and race cars and buses for my child.
Knowing that child labor possibly made these toys casts a pall over her enjoyment of watching her son play with them.
And yet “We make our own happiness,” Nezhukumatathil states toward the end of the collection, in “Inside the Happiness Factory”:
The first time I flew without my son, my chest pulsed
two hot discs of pain whenever I heard a baby cry.
I never told anyone this. We make our own happiness.
I just smiled at the babies, fighting the urge to lift up
my blouse right then and there. And my crooked smile
is my son’s: our bottom teeth do not line up
with our top teeth, but when we smile, we smile big
and bright. We make our own happiness.
Throughout, Lucky Fish asserts the supremacy of the sensual over the cerebral, the imagination’s brightness as essential to the illumination of the real. We are most alive, these poems all but sing, when sensing and perceiving more than judging, and this almost radical poetic stance is the backbone of Nezhukumatathil’s new collection.
Fiction by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh
Translated from the Russian by Krystyna A. Steiger
Twisted Spoon Press, June 2011
Paperback: 186pp; $16.00
Review by Olive Mullet
The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated in many languages since its publication in 1989, has finally been translated into English this year by Krystyna Anna Steiger. As Steiger notes, this is a gentle parody of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but even if the reader is unfamiliar with that book, The New Moscow Philosophy is easy reading and full of insights into literature—particularly the Russian reverence for it. The book offers a mystery story and a debate, often humorous, over good and evil. And the reader may have heard of the competition for apartments in Moscow, which is at the heart of this book.
A product of glasnost, a period in Soviet history of artistic freedom, this novel, as Steiger explains, pokes fun in its characters of this era “that stirs up complex emotions and attitudes, ranging from anticipation of the future to nostalgia for the past, and even for the present, the late-Soviet status quo.” This sounds sometimes like old people complaining about the loss of values in a more open society.
Though Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is parodied, it is only because the crime, ultimately revealed, is watered down so much from that in Crime and Punishment, and the punishment similarly ludicrously reduced. Pyetsukh is infusing humor into his “homage to Dostoevsky’s classic and the classical Russian literary tradition as a symbiosis of literature and life.”
For the reader perhaps intimidated by Russian literature, the book has provided help. There is a list of all the characters’ names in the beginning, and for all the allusions to Crime and Punishment and other historical and literary facts, there are explanations at the back. Also the evolving mystery and solution unfold in this short novel over only four consecutive days, forming the book’s sections. The mystery is that an elderly occupant in the one of the apartments has disappeared. The day before her disappearance, the other residents confronted her about when she would die and leave the apartment to one of them. She was healthy but also somewhat disliked because as the descendant of the original owner, she was officious over the others.
Alongside this mystery, there are two sets of discussions. The framework is an unnamed narrator, calling Russian literature “evangelical literature,” since Russians take literature very seriously—as fact:
In Russia, there’s positively nothing to be ashamed of when in certain romantic instances, we nod and glance back at those figures we hold sacred in the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Chekov, for they are not figments of the imagination, but the true saints of Russian life, having existed in actual fact as exemplars, worthy of imitation in how they suffered and reasoned, for the whole point is that all of it happened.
As proof of literature’s factual nature, Pyetsukh gives us the history of Apartment 12, its occupants through the years—“facts” that do figure later in the mystery—and a floor plan of the apartment to follow for the “crime” being committed.
The other insightful discussion comes from two of the inhabitants who take it upon themselves, in sometimes bumbling fashion, to solve the crime. One is a pharmacist, and the other is the caretaker and resident philosopher.
One of the children in the adjacent apartment puts muck on a doorknob and that “crime” starts off the discussion of good and evil, whether evil exists in animals, and that it does make a human “a two-fold creature”:
This is understandable, not least because man and mankind have been endowed with the potential for everything. I can pick up a stray kitten on the street today and steal a broom from my neighbor tomorrow, because the vast majority of people are neither good nor evil in absolute terms, but not-so-good and not-so-evil at the same time.
The reader will agree with the translator about the “utter absence of pretentiousness despite the elevated topics it examines and presents for our consideration.” Steiger does manage one of her challenges—to capture a savvy narrator’s irony and humor in his consideration of “the nature of the literary text, the intricate relationship between literature and life … in forming the psyche of the average Russian reader.”
She’s less successful in “creating natural-sounding dialogue between characters ranging in age from six to sixty plus, in discussions ranging from the official and the philosophical to the prosaic, from the heated to the sullen, from the impassioned to the indignant.” (The children certainly don’t sound young.) But in spite of that fault, this novel provides insight into a particular era in Soviet history, and humor besides.
Fiction by John Oliver Hodges
Main Street Rag, May 2011
Paperback: 160pp; $8.00
Review by Patricia Contino
For better and usually much worse, fictional runaway teenage girls end up on ships bound for the colonies, the big city of offices and/or brothels, behind enemy lines, or never far from an estate with a wealthy young landowner. Ruth is the Florida native taking refuge in an upstate New York commune in John Oliver Hodges’ neo-Gothic coming-of-age novella, War of the Crazies. Though set in 1989, the situations this 19-year-old beauty finds herself in recall those of her literary ancestresses: growing up too fast, local men and boys falling hard for her, the hysterical obsessive of love (Silva, who prefers “meditation over medication”), and a serious household accident.
That Hodges grew up in a commune gives War of the Crazies a hard, convincing edge. His fictional collective farm is dirty and unsafe. This brings to mind other dysfunctional rather than utopic alternative lifestyles such as Fruitlands, where the Alcotts didn’t last a year. Novo, the collective’s founder/leader, is not benevolent but is a dictator who sings German war songs. Neighbors don’t have a problem with his politics—what they don’t like is the “hippie farm’s” dilapidated condition and that Noyo and his followers pick through landfills for food and supplies. Silva’s behavior in public, such as when she taunts the cashier at the Super-K for no reason other than “exercising her right to be mean,” doesn’t help.
It is not much of a stretch to categorize the 1980s as a socially lethargic, narcissistic, indulgent decade—read up on Iran/Contra, the British Coal Mining Strike, and the list of Academy Award “Best Pictures” 1980-1990 for confirmation. What the author is implying is that denying reality is as bad as taking a Ronald Reagan poster and nailing it through “the eyeballs, the kneecaps, foot bones, and between the legs.” While good for letting out frustration with “the man,” it is also meaningless.
Hodges also successfully creates Ruth’s character without revealing much detail. His narrative is strong enough that all readers need to know is that she is in trouble and is not having an easy time adjusting to life on the farm. While her future is undetermined, she seems to be coming into her own:
The box of shoes was a box of mismatched shoes. Ruth unbound her feet, and tried on a nylon boot with a zipper, which fit her all the way up to the knee. That was her left leg, her shin now shod with a sleek brown protective slickness. Her other foot she fitted with a steel-toed factory-worker’s shoe. With her new armor she leapt onto the trampoline and bounced over more boxes of stuff and junk and climbed up to the airplane wing. She crouched through the window frame and inched along the lip of the barn and lowered herself down the antenna to the ground. Once back on at the trail Ruth ran, and the black cape flew behind her.
It is the sanest member of the commune who knows Ruth best and provides Crazies’ comic relief. Mike is a horror writer working on a zombie novel whose undead resemble the farm’s residents. His relationship with Ruth is platonic, yet his zombies “strip off” her alter ego Jan’s clothes “very greedily.” She escapes her captors by running “naked into the forest, stumbling and bleeding.”
There is also a zombie named Edward. Technically, he is based on the ill-tempered, sex-crazed Skorpis, but he also fits the description of another Edward. While War of the Crazies may take place in the Eighties; making fun of Twilight is timeless:
Edward sleeps away from the other zombies and keeps to himself, except for when he goes up and steals off with bones the others have left. It seems kind of dorky, but the way I have Edward now is he survives by eating the road kill out on the highway.
The zombie backstory is only one of several in War of the Crazies. It parallels the story of these unhappy people along with those they encounter. Collectively, they are no better than the zombies. The difference is that zombies can’t change, while the reader holds out hope that the book’s characters can.