Posted 1 April 2012
The Last Warner Woman :: Pity the Beautiful :: Good Offices :: The Complete Perfectionist :: Blue Rust :: cul de sac :: Saint Monica :: Schizophrene :: Schoolgirl :: Fort Gorgeous :: Sonics in Warholia :: Version 3.0 :: The Vanishing Point that Whistles :: Traffic with Macbeth
Fiction by Kei Miller
Coffee House Press, April 2012
Paperback: 270pp; $16.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller begins: "Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica." This fairytale narrative voice, created by the character of “the writer,” seems to address you, the reader. As the haunting central character, Adamine Bustamante, tells us: "Sometimes you have to tell a story the way you dream a dream, and everyone know that dreams don't walk straight." To enter the dream of this story is to get caught up in a wonderful web.
When young Pearline Portious goes off to sell a doily she has knit in unconventional purple rather than white (although none of her colorful creations ever sell), we know she will be tested. She finds the remote leper colony. Ancient Mother Lazarus, who nurses and succors the disfigured and outcast colony residents, suffers unrelenting insomnia as a result of her own past tragedies. She longs to be able to give in to the final sleep if she could only find someone to carry on her work. "She believed . . . that desperation would go out into the world in search of whatever that was needed." Pearline is the answer to her prayers, and she convinces the young woman to enter under her tutelage.
Suddenly another voice interrupts this tale, "an installment of a testimony spoken to the wind. . . . Shhhhhhhh":
I don't know who you is. I don't know where in the world you even is right now, but I believe you is there . . . and that you is hearing me. I need to talk what I talking soft. I must not wake up the samfie man who I discover is writing down all manner of lies for you. He is writing down my story as if that story was a snake. . . . But hear me now, if his words is a snake then mine is a mongoose chasing after him. . . . I going to set the record right. I going to unbend the truth. So listen close.
We are listening to the testimony of Adamine Bustamante, born in the leper colony to the unfortunate Pearline. We learn that Mother Lazarus does not get her wish because Pearline dies giving birth. The leper colony is just a house, Adamine says, and "Not no valley. . . . no deep back-a-God country part of the island. . . . Just the ugly squalor of Spanish Town—same place where the news today say is full of gunshot and gullies." How and why is Adamine present to expose fictionalization of "truth" by the character of “the writer”? It’s her testimony against his.
Adamine runs away from the leper colony to join a group of revivalists where she becomes known as a warner woman, a Cassandra who foresees calamity. She gets caught up with the minions leaving Jamaica after WWII for the "mother country." She goes from a bad marriage to incarceration in a mental institution in a culture that understands her warner woman urgency as madness.
“The writer” says he's embroidering the facts to seek emotional truth. He brings Adamine, now discharged from the hospital, to stay in his flat though we wonder why she agrees. But now we can locate her voice. He hopes that in leaving clues, she will remember her past. The "you" transforms from outward address into self-narration: "you make sure to print out certain parts of this story, hoping she will read it and maybe disagree with parts . . . what you really want is that one day she might remember you." Gradually, “the writer” enters his story directly. It is also the story of his own quest.
Within this complex structure Miller creates a world of details like a Brueghel painting: women in the Saturday market practicing the high art of derision; the leprous school teacher, Lily, reading Jane Eyre over and over; the Spanish Town registrar’s office clerks with "tight perms and tighter lips.” We meet Adamine's ex-husband in his apartment, gone to chaos without a woman: "It was as if he began to misplace bits of the structure. . . . He lost the kitchen first. It got buried beneath pots and pans and a suffocating mountain of carrier bags and boxes of Chinese takeout. . . ." Each player, life history compressed and sharp, could walk off with the show. These are indelible portraits of class, cultural, and racial conflicts in buttoned-up British society and among the immigrants themselves, and a biting capsule portrait of the psychiatry wars of the 1970s.
Born in Jamaica in 1978, Miller lives and teaches in the UK. In The Last Warner Woman, he uses a contemporary awareness of text as chameleon not to confound and to distance, but to join the reader in an inquiry filled with wry irony and compassionate insight. The book teaches you how to read it as you go. Kei Miller, and this strange and beautiful novel, deserve much recognition and wide readership.
Poetry by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press, May 2012
Paperback: 80pp; $15.00
Review by Alissa Fleck
Dana Gioia’s Pity the Beautiful resists many of the common conceits and devices of contemporary poetry books, instead frequently embracing rhyme, meter, formal structure, and strict narrative. The collection even boldly employs a vaguely Poe-esque “ghost story” in the form of a long poem. The poems in Pity the Beautiful open strongly and are immediately engaging; Gioia has mastered the art of hooking the reader from the first line. We are then urged along by poems that end by questioning far more than they have explained. Occasionally Gioia dwells a bit too long, however, allowing some of his poems to become slightly over-written.
Thematically, Gioia maintains a consistent tension between the traditional and the contemporary—between classical, high art and the cultural monopolizing of capitalism and commerce. His poems rage against the “phones, laptops, satellite[s]” of our generation. The first in a tongue-in-cheek sequence called “Four Songs from Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast,” itself titled “Marketing Department Trio,” dismisses renowned classical musicians one by one in a jingle that urges the reader to, instead, “commute with a smile.” In “Shopping,” a shopping mall somewhat tritely becomes a temple, an altar to commercialism. The religious and biblical act out numerous roles in this collection; “Prayer at Winter Solstice” urges us to appreciate equally not only the good and bad, but also the neutral and incredibly mundane.
In Gioia’s first collection in more than a decade, it is impossible to ignore the staggering presence of ghosts, often associated with lost, doomed love or otherwise serving to emphasize the book’s nostalgic qualities. Memory is a tricky thing in Gioia’s world; in “Finding a Box of Family Letters,” he recalls, “how different every sentence sounds / heard across the years.” Pity the Beautiful consistently begs the question of how we managed to get where we are from where we have been, and how we can accept the fleetingness of things. Gioia vacillates well between the more prosaic voice of a skilled storyteller and the musical, sing-song voice that pokes fun and enlivens.
My favorite is the fifth and final section, which opens with a line by Wallace Stevens and is perhaps best described by the spirit of the struggle. There is the struggle of love, of parenting, and of knowing how to survive amidst the occasional blankness and emptiness of existence. Gioia captures human emotions quite well and in shockingly few words when he is at his most successful. The most powerful poems in the book are the ones where the least is overtly said, as in “Majority,” the book’s final poem, which demonstrates Gioia’s capabilities when he practices the utmost restraint. This collection, also boasting a number of skilled translations, is a refreshing read in an age of poetry so experimental that it occasionally feels out of reach.
Fiction by Evelio Rosero
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom
New Directions, September 2011
Paperback: 144pp; $13.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Prize-winning Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero has written a dark comedy in Good Offices. From the perspective of the hunchback Tancredo, a night of changes unfolds in a Catholic church in Bogota, Colombia. Tancredo has just finished his exhausting duties serving almost 100 unruly elderly and cleaning up when he is summoned to Father Almida’s office and learns of a crisis. Almida and the old sacristan Machedo have to be absent from the evening mass in order to persuade their sponsor to continue his bounty. Their last-minute replacement, Father Matamoros, enlivens the mass and congregation with his beautiful voice. Secrets come out, and not just the passion between Tancredo and the sacristan’s goddaughter, Sabrina. The real revelations are the corruption and abuses of Father Almida and the sacristan. The loving spirit of Father Matamoros seems an apt replacement; except, he too has his faults, noticeably alcoholism.
Father Matamoros is the catalyst for unleashing the parishioners’ pent-up fury and passion. Tancredo is able to confess his fear of “being an animal,” but the real surprise occurs when the three Lilias, devout ladies who are always in black, take revenge and control. These old women, “their arms open, their black shawls like wings,” are transformed:
For a fleeting moment, the Lilias’ faces looked demented, unfamiliar. One of them was drooling: the drool dampened her neck, smearing it white, like the froth that spews from the mouths of rabid dogs. The other had popping eyes, and the third displayed a peculiar twisted smile of unhinged happiness on her wide-open mouth, as if about to burst into silent laughter.
The nighttime is magical in this short, satirical page-turner. Tancredo doesn’t see clearly in the dark of the church or outside in the garden, so that actions and people emerge as from a fog. The humor and potential catastrophes escalate with Matamoros’ drinking problems and the efforts to hide them. The release of humans from their tiring bondage is balanced precariously with the priest’s own deteriorating health in a well-controlled, fast-paced unfolding of events. This quick read, at times quite lyrical, is worth enjoying.
A Poetics of Work
Collection by Juan Ramón Jiménez
Edited and Translated from the Spanish by Christopher Maurer
Swan Isle Press, February 2012
Paperback: 161pp; $18.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez is generally not well known to most contemporary English readers. If there’s any familiarity with his name—let alone his work—it most likely comes in some foggy concept of his relation to his compatriot Federico García Lorca. It’s unfortunate that this Nobel Prize-winning writer has been so outshined by his disciple’s notoriety. With The Complete Perfectionist, editor and translator Christopher Maurer raids Jiménez’s books, papers, and biographical record to assemble various fragments (poems and aphorisms; sometimes Maurer includes titles, sometimes not), under headings such as “Dream,” “Instinct,” “Rhythm,” and “Perfection,” with his own ambivalently short and jumpy introductions to each. As Maurer says, “the title, theme, selection, translation, and arrangement” are all his own. While Jiménez’s work receives fresh exposure to new readers, it does so only insofar as its end goals may have been re-aligned under Maurer’s conceptive framework.
By all evident accounts presented here, Jiménez was sharply self-critical and wary of allowing any writing of his which he felt was subpar to make its way into print. He often held back on publication as well as frequently returning to revise prior published works. This makes it difficult to imagine how he’d be at all pleased with the re-envisioned touch-up job performed by Maurer on his work. The original ideas and writing may be Jiménez’s, yet Maurer steers them onto a course of his devising. As far as staying true to Jiménez’s original intent, there really isn’t any possibility of doing so as Jiménez never envisioned a book such as this. And with the poems Maurer quotes from, he explains: “Most of these poems exist in different versions in the original.” What he offers here is most definitively his Jiménez.
Some examples of Jiménez’s pronouncements as delivered by Maurer (in no particular order):
The poet’s rhythm can be none other than the pulsing of his blood at any given moment.
If you cannot be gold, be silver. But not silver with gold plate.
I have dreamt my life and lived my dream.
I want any of my books to be opened anywhere and reveal something exact.
Eternity is only in the present. Who “has” the present, has eternity.
How will the deaf man see the sunset?
My best work is my constant repentance for my Work.
I would like my book / to be like the sky at night, / all present truth, without history.
Hidden creator of an unapplauded star.
These sometimes delightful and rather kōan-like pronouncements and observations present casual literary readers much to mull over on whimsical-feeling afternoons. But the book lacks any sort of in-depth perspective on Jiménez, the man, and there’s no comprehensive discussion covering his actual approach to art and life. Instead we’re given whiffs of his personal story as we’re told he lived awash in thousands of pages of unpublished drafts and fragments, was lucky to have a dedicated wife, and achieved a fair amount of recognition in his lifetime, yet all this arrives in snippets and asides delivered hodge-podge by Maurer’s many introductions and rather belated—is such a thing even possible?—afterword.
There is no sense of a cumulative whole of Jiménez’s own devising to be found here, and this is an irredeemable flaw. This varying assortment of odds and ends, lightly clipped from disparate sources, offers inspiring fodder. But it leads nowhere in particular in terms of serving as an over-all introduction to or an understanding of Jiménez’s work and/or life. Given that Maurer has so embedded his own perspective in arranging Jiménez’s words, it’s difficult to feel Jiménez’s own process at work—as in, say, reading through a notebook, diary, or set of letters, where noticeable leaps of thought in word-choice and/or image leading into and out of one another might be observed. Rather than providing a solid, comprehensive introduction to set the facts straight and then standing back to let Jiménez speak for himself, Maurer has intrusively reorganized everything and thus in effect delivers his own creation. Readers are left to take the initiative to truly discover Jiménez on their own. The good news is that from the looks of what Maurer makes available, there’s plenty worthwhile to dig into. And with “no complete critical edition in Spanish,” along with the relative paucity of Jiménez available in English, there’s reason to look forward to work by future editors and subsequent translators.
Poetry by Joseph Millar
Carnegie Mellon University Press, January 2012
Paperback: 88pp; $15.95
Review by James Crews
As one might gather from the titles of Joseph Millar’s three volumes of poetry—Overtime (2001), Fortune (2007) and Blue Rust (2012)—he is a direct heir to the working-class likes of James Wright, B.H. Fairchild, and current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. But it would be reductive and unfair to call Millar simply “a working-class poet,” as though the only readers to which he could possibly appeal are those who have spent time laboring in the “real world.” Simply put, Millar is a poet who traffics in the real things of an everyday world, crafting well-spoken poems that take up the most universal themes of friends, family, hard luck, and love. And his newest book, Blue Rust, in spite of its grit, its grease, and its often mournful tone, astounds with countless moments of shimmering clarity, offering brief reprieves from a tough life eked out in the shadow of a troubled past. “Dutch Roll” finds Millar and his father ice-skating, sharing a rare, transcendent day:
He’s showing me the Dutch Roll,
how to move down the ice for long distances
as they do in the Land of Silver Skates
shifting one’s weight from foot to foot
without thrusting the legs.
This is language at its plainest, and we don’t even need to read these poems aloud to catch the music in their lines (though it helps). In the midst of such beauty, regret also threads through these memories with the knowledge of how things shift and change and how we must give up the tenuous peace that never seems to last: “French Creek will not freeze like this / for the rest of the winter we live here, / and tomorrow he’ll start drinking again.” Millar shows us the always-precarious balance life requires, but by the end, he seems uncertain just how much of the past he can ridge back, as if unsure what poetry can ever truly capture:
Maybe my father comes back for me,
and we turn and skate back upstream together
past the big rocks crusted with snow,
the ice so thick here I can’t see through it.
No matter how often Millar strikes an elegiac tone—even in some of his most playful poems—he manages to resist the ease and comfort of sentimentality. “Kiski Flats,” which memorializes his father, begins by describing “the hatchet sunk deep in the work bench he left / to die in his bed behind the closed door.” But Millar wisely decides to keep that door shut and makes a slow turn at the end to show us what the living do, left with nothing but a difficult love that seldom allows us to see clearly, much less keep things from falling apart:
We peer now into the choppy rooms,
the windows wavy with age and rain.
Let the phone ring forever, let the mail
pile up. Let the dry nest fall apart,
stuck together with last year’s mud
jammed in the eaves and shaped like a heart.
Millar draws on his work as a commercial fisherman for the long poem “Ocean,” which is a kind of nostalgic interlude between the more serious poems of the first part of the book and the humorous pieces that make up much of the third and fourth parts. The most memorable of these (unsurprisingly) is “Blow Job Cole Slaw,” and though I might quibble with the unpleasant image such a title conjures up, this poem is ultimately about how two men manage their loneliness while stranded together on a salmon boat in the Bering Sea:
. . . night coming up from the shifting depths,
its dark veils unwinding, its unbraided hair,
floating half a mile up the cutbank, we
slept in our damp socks and sweatshirts,
we opened our cramping, feverish hands.
In some ways, Blue Rust is a paean to night, that temporary refuge from the day’s steady onslaught, and Millar seems to worship “the house of sleep,” which he acknowledges none of us will ever fully own. Still, he depicts that slow ease into dreams so wonderfully, we might never see the act of falling asleep in the same way again:
Nothing to hear or see or hold onto,
blue rust floating away from your
touch, dark mosses crumbling under
your tongue, nothing to carry back . . .
Whether talking of a “meth addict 40 days clean,” a “donut shop jukebox,” or a marriage that still works after all these years (his wife is the poet Dorianne Laux), Millar keeps his finger on the pulse of the redemptive yet common and sometimes-oddball moments of a life lived to its fullest. In “Marriage,” he and his wife wander a tool shop together as she muses playfully on the best weapons and methods with which to off a husband. But once again, this poet’s infinite gratitude for the ordinary moments we’re bequeathed breaks through:
surrounded by metal, the whetstone’s
fine oil, chisels and knives,
torches and welding tanks
rinsed in blue light, threaded light,
bridal light helplessly shining . . .
Blue Rust also invokes those who have been lost, and Millar’s whole body of work up to this point aims to speak for those who might otherwise be forgotten, who’d most likely never show up in American poetry. These are the friends and family members whose time on earth—however brief—has made its indelible mark on Millar’s memory, and through the poet, these lives make their mark on ours too. “Song for Stevie” begins: “Three days now since my friend died / whom the fever had worn thin, / thinner than even the cancer / thinner than the methadone.” “Day of the Dead” finds him naming a friend “who left behind the pale flower / whose delicate roots they never could find / blooming inside his brain.” These elegies—and every other poem in this excellent, must-read book—are here to remind us over and over that loss is a cross we must all eventually bear, pausing when we can to give thanks for whatever gives us relief from that unbearable weight. Millar counsels us:
Listen to the night freight coming down,
its engines, its wheels, its sacks of ripe grain,
its gray rats grown fat by the iron tracks,
its love-moan traveling back through the rain.
If “blue rust” is what comes of leaving things too long exposed to the elements— things we haven’t touched or used or thought of in years—then Joseph Millar’s praise-filled poems scrape it away, bit by bit, to find what’s still “helplessly shining” just beneath.
Fiction by Scott Wrobel
Sententia Books, April 2012
Paperback: 232pp; $14.95
Review by Mark Danowsky
Research cul de sacs and again and again you will be told that their purpose is to reduce traffic. Sure, I’ll buy that as a contributing factor. Dig a little deeper and you come across a buzzword, “perceived risk.” But we all know the real reason: privacy. Anyone who’s ever looked into buying a house has discovered that you pay extra to live on a No Outlet street. We pine for a space of our own away from the bustle of the modern world, but as Scott Wrobel reveals in cul de sac, here lies danger.
Cul de sac is more like a collection of vignettes with interconnected themes than a conventional novel. In Part One, we learn about several men who live in a suburban cul de sac. Part Two zooms in on the Wiegard family with a focus on the development of the father, Gary. In each chapter of the book there is a change in narrator, each one unusual, each presenting a new set of challenges for the reader. For example:
Peter often yells at Amanda in a rising pitch, but she never yells back. They argue because they are Temperamental Artist Types, which is how Peter's tax-attorney uncle, Lyle, refers to them. Lyle is a stereotype, too: the Typical Suburban White Corporate Guy Who Labored Through College with a C Average and Now Has Too Much Economic Security and Thinks He Has the World By the Nuts. He wears fanny-packs to public events that cost large entry fees and believes that Jewish people own too much and that their humor is all based on worrying about unimportant things. Lyle will be at dinner and will eat two large portions even though he knows his bad cholesterol is above the normal range.
The reader is given the sense that a cul de sac is a cloistered environment. The appearance of coyotes in this setting raises the issue of suburban sprawl, human civilization bumping up against the little remaining territory we allocate to other species. Could the coyote be symbolic of the call of the wild, a yearning to be better in touch with the natural world? It seems clear enough that the characters in cul de sac are stuck and need to break free from the malaise that stifles them from achieving personal growth. Really these characters are teetering on the edge—barely functional.
Cul de sac could easily be adapted into a screenplay. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t be. In recent history, the film industry has been jazzed on interconnectedness. Crash. American Beauty. 13 Conversations About One Thing. 21 Grams. Hollywood is good at churning out more of the same. What’s unique about cul de sac is the way Wrobel deals with his characters. A lot of what’s going on is internal; the subtext is key.
Wrobel shows an interest in how we think. In one scene, Gary and his wife Liz are in bed talking. Liz lets out a sigh and we hear Gary's internal thought process in response:
Liz sighs all the time, long lugubrious sighs that burrow under my skin. She sighs when a kid's sock is inside-out, a jacket slides off a coat hook, when lettuce fragments fall to the floor while she's chopping a salad . . . when Danny won't leave the TV to come eat at the table, when I say I have a work meeting. The first time I used the pressure washer, I cleaned the siding, and then I power-washed my Skeeter bass boat, which didn't need washing since I'd only used it twice. Same with the thirty-foot RV trailer parked behind the garage, a 2008 Gulf Stream Prairie Schooner I bought used for $57,000. I can't remember why I bought it. Liz sighed when I bought the boat. She sighed even more when I bought the RV.
Wrobel reminds us that people are generally good at keeping uncouth matters “behind closed doors.” It’s only when a person’s reality becomes out-of-control hectic that dark secrets spill into the open in the form of Spectacle. Readers of cul de sac can look forward to a highly satisfying Spectacle when a neighborhood man receives a well-deserved comeuppance for his despicable actions.
Today, we are tethered to all kinds of knickknacks, gizmos and whatever newfangled technology Apple decides to unveil. Whether material possessions or emotional baggage, clutter piles up, and we carry the weight of these “belongings” around with us. In a conversation between Gary Wiegard and his father, Gary’s father tells him he doesn’t have time for organizing the items in his garage and shortly thereafter winds up in the hospital. While visiting his father, Gary relates, “The biggest lesson I learned from my dad's deathbed scene: people about to die still care about what's on TV.”
After his father’s death, Gary takes inventory:
Dad has two of everything in his garage—lawn mowers, weed eaters, power washers, paint guns, air compressors. He had smaller junk, too . . . .He liked to see his stuff without having to dig through shit, everything in plain view.
A good book requires the reader to do a little leg work, and cul de sac is well worth the effort (and the occasional moments when you will be catapulted out of your comfort zone). Wrobel takes a hard look at what lies beneath the false appearances of suburbia and asks us to consider whether perceived risk is worth living a detached life, a life in captivity.
Poems by Mary Biddinger
Black Lawrence Press, June 2011
Paperback: 48pp; $9.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
When we first meet Saint Monica, she is covered in gauze and iodine. The epigraph that introduces Mary Biddinger's Saint Monica informs us that the historical St. Monica was student to St. Ambrose, mother to St. Augustine, and wife of an abusive, alcoholic pagan. That Monica, patron saint of adultery victims, alcoholism, and of course, disappointing children, spent much of her time working for the redemption of her husband and once wayward offspring.
The Saint Monica created by Biddinger, professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Akron and author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007) and O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), shares much with her predecessor. In eighteen poems, a third of which are prose poems, Monica emerges through clear, simple language made strange through its honesty. Monica equivocates, "explains a few things" that she shouldn't have had to endure and becomes practiced in "say[ing] a few Hail Marys and one Glory Be, and get[ting] over it," in "the holding hard but not too hard." She tells it straight or holds to herself.
This Saint Monica is contemporary, but dated. Her childhood includes phone lines that crackle, pin curls, and a record collection. Yet Monica's braids are out of step with the spiral perms and acid wash jeans of her contemporaries, who hate her because she "didn't live in a trailer" and later for the "brilliance of her peonies, / the straightness of her children's bangs." She seems to live in a world of starch and constriction under the iron caress of a mother who stitches "plaits . . . to her / skin to make them stay in place" and doles out individual strands of hand-cut fettuccine.
However, instead of praying for the redemption of her wayward son, Monica battles her own lust, and not always very earnestly: "She'd go / to the Devil's Place herself if it meant one hour alone with Kevin / McMillan in the falling-down barn. Sister Rita said it was hot but / Monica could live with that."
There are two Monicas who "might meet in some Sunday in Ordinary Time," or at least one torn in two. In "Saint Monica Takes Communion Twice" one version shares "a collective dream involving a Golden Retriever and a silver Volkswagen hatchback"; the other nails a divorced Kevin McMillan while she wears his mother's "cantaloupe silk nightgown." It is this Monica who allows the other to sleep peacefully while her cheating husband returns through a window because she has already strewn "glass shavings on the ledge, / seeds from the Habanero she coaxed into unimaginable lengths and heat.”
Still, she clung
to her Saint Christopher
medal, taped up
more kitten posters in her
pounded the bread dough
a little harder.
We expect no resolution and get none. Lust and sainthood cannot exist without each other, and in this collection, both are putting up a pretty good fight.
Poetry by Bhanu Kapil
Nightboat Books, October 2011
Paperback: 96pp; $15.95
Review by Jodi Paloni
In first glancing through Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, I hardly felt at ease in reviewing a book that depicts the sentiments of the 1947 Partition of India, the aftermath of violence, the displacement, and mental illness, all in the form of prose poetry. I know little about the topic and the genre. The sheer emotional impact of reading disturbing sections out of context left a pit in my stomach. I was afraid to read the account in its entirety, but also, I was ashamed not to. The tome—not weighty in size, but in content—sat on my desk for weeks, haunting me, finding its way again and again to the top of my teetering stack. I’d glimpse the bright, inviting image on the cover, yet worry. What frightened me? Why was the book still there?
The opening section, titled “Passive Notes,” tells about the author’s writing process, how she felt her original manuscript “had failed,” and how she “threw it—in the form of a notebook, a hand-written final draft—into the garden.” I related to the act of flinging art into the elements. But when I read how Kapil left the manuscript festering under winter’s snow until spring’s melt when she “began to write again, from the fragments, the phrases and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages,” and then continued to intersperse the narrative with reservations about the task she has set out to put into words, I knew that I held something extraordinary in my hands.
The process of how the book was written, the fragmentation of a work, the author’s ambivalence in expressing ineffable extremes into words, becomes a metaphor, then, of how the displaced might experience their displacement and their schizophrenia:
I was lying on my back in the snow, my notebook balanced next to me on the crust of ice, like a wolf. Like a lion. Like a cobra. Like a tiger. Like a schizophrenic.
Schizophrenic, what binds design? What makes the city touch itself everywhere at once, like an Asian city, like the city you live in now? What makes the wall wet, the step wet, the sky wet?
Every time I picked up the book, I felt more and more like I was looking into a kaleidoscope, fractals of light and edges tumbling onto one other, repeating, mesmerizing, and otherworldly. I imagined the segmented blocks of prose, seemingly random yet inextricably connected, to be the thoughts in the mind of a narrator who comes to rely on memory and dream to shape a tolerable reality, while relaying its horrible truths:
I dreamed of a tree uprooted by the river and instinctively, I climbed up. In the roots, I saw a velvet bag knotted with string, bulky with jewels. I wanted to give it to the family who squatted on the land. They were white.
But who was I to say? How could I possibly relate—an American-born citizen of middle-class privilege and religious freedom who never lived more than a half-day’s drive from her mother’s home, and equipped with an acceptable amount of sanity? I couldn’t say. So I decided to lean on what I know best and attend to the capacity of the prose.
Where an easily attained arc eluded my linear mind, scenes from various stages of violence and turmoil flooded my senses and gave me the story. Where I sometimes questioned the identity of the speaker, I always believed in the authenticity of the character’s experience. A flash of blue appeared amidst unrelenting grey, the scent of oranges would send me to my kitchen, fur would adhere to everything. I found myself wanting the words, despite the struggles. When content crossed a border into harshness, the narrator imposed her own need for distancing in that, throughout, she tosses away the “book” again and again:
I threw the book into the dark garden. A dotted line. A white hole. An unseen shape rotating and twisting on the icy crust.
Finally, in my attempt to relieve some of the trepidation that surrounded me in reviewing this book, I uncovered a bio about the author, Bhanu Kapil. By knowing more about her, might I better understand her story? I learned that she is a writer, a teacher, and a mother. She grew up in a middle-class family, has an old hound, and enjoys Earl Grey tea for breakfast. In all of these attributes, we are the same. The similarities closed the distance I had created with the frightening nature of the content. In the end, this book achieves success with an experimental form, but even more, it hones multiple levels of awareness in the reader.
Fiction by Osamu Dazai
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell
One Peace Books, October 2011
Paperback: 100pp; $11.95
Review by Patricia Contino
A teenager goes about her day. Her activities—taking public transportation, going to school, cattily noticing what other women are wearing, doing chores—are ordinary ones. Equally normal are her feelings regarding the death of her father, the grief she and her mother share but can never comfort each other with, and longing for the close relationship she once shared with her married sister.
What isn’t normal about Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl is that she delivers her interior monologue during the mobilization of the Japanese war machine. The pleasure of Dazai’s 1938 “I” novella is the absence of national history in favor of a personal one.
Hard as she tries to ignore it, the impending conflict fills the unnamed young woman’s thoughts as she mentions young men she knows who are being drafted. Ms. Schoolgirl wants nothing more than for “everyone to think [she is] a good girl,” and she will go to extremes to prove it. Militarism has made her overly critical of herself:
I didn’t mean to be haughty, but I couldn’t see any reason why I should ever be forced to make conversation with or sit and smile with those kinds of people, ever again. Those types certainly did not deserve my courtesy, or rather, my currying favor with them. I hated it. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had tried as best as I could.
She reasons that if she “could live a military life, and be disciplined harshly, then [she] just might be capable of being a self-contained, beautiful daughter.”
Yet at the same time she expresses a healthy mistrust of authority:
I wonder why Miss Kosugi’s lectures were always so stiff. Is she a fool? She went on and on, explaining to us about patriotism, but wasn’t that pretty obvious? I mean, everyone loves the place they were born in. I felt bored.
Dazai, a cult figure in Japan, gave many of his characters his own self-destructive tendencies. (He committed suicide in 1948.) I don’t think he did so here. Had it been an anti-war story, Schoolgirl would have been a curiosity and most likely never published during the author’s lifetime. Instead, the reader, any reader who is now or was a teenager, will appreciate the narrator’s attempt to try to make sense of the world changing around her, particularly the internal one:
Calmly, I gave some thought to how I’d been lately. What was wrong with me these days? Why was I so anxious? I was always apprehensive about something. Just the other day, someone even mentioned to me, “Hey you’re getting to be so mundane.”
Schoolgirl is written and told as a long journal entry. There are no chapter or page breaks in Allison Markin Powell’s translation. Dazai’s attention to detail is striking; there is much to savor in fewer than 100 pages. One passage that begins as an adolescent rant becomes a sensitive commentary:
The reason I hate glasses so much is because I think the beauty of your eyes is the best thing about people. Even if they can’t see your nose or if your mouth is hidden, I think that all you need are eyes—the kind of eyes that will inspire others, when they are looking into them, to live more beautifully.
At the end of her day, it is undetermined what will happen to Ms. Schoolgirl. “You won’t see me again” implies sleep instead of bombs. But for one day we are fortunate enough to know her.
Poetry by Angela Vogel
National Poetry Review Press, November 2011
Paperback: 80pp; $17.95
Review by Marcus Myers
Fort Gorgeous, Angela Vogel’s first full-length collection, populates an original fairytale landscape—one grounded thematically in 19th and 20th century American literature and painting—with a village of anachronistic, pop-cultural misfits who define the contours of the contemporary American identity. Vogel’s poems, so playful and satisfying when read aloud, imply that these American archetypes, figures once representing a type of individualism, have now been commodified, reduced to emblems in our mass-produced, mashed-up and hyper-mediated versions of reality. The reader imagines, while reading the thirty-seven ultra-imaginative poems in this collection, that the characters in Fort Gorgeous have themselves mindlessly purchased the dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, neatly packaged and wrapped.
We also have to imagine the speakers as renegades, outliers in the mostly sedated population, awake and mad as hell. In “Rip Van Winkle,” for example, the character wakes to the speaker advising him to “Check out your gnomes. They are the paprika / of landscape, garden variety boys”; in “The Enchanted Forest,” the speaker tells a tale about “The Crooked Man,” a figure whose “house was an abomination / in an otherwise orthogonal world, / . . . squatting dark values from the road, oystering strange fugues.” In other poems, Vogel’s speakers inhabit places in rusting decline, their melancholy states of mind sharp but disillusioned with what romantic love once offered them. Brooding over life’s transience while reflecting on a dead rosebush in her yard, the speaker of “Rosebud, Or Now that I’m Older” says: “Push your hands far down / the dirt, feel it grip your insubstantial grasp, / make you mindful this too shall last.” The speaker of “Poem for Your Wedding” states:
If we’re smart,
we sign up a la carte for the whole enchilada,
move slow into the flowering plot of children,
the family gone nuclear, the kin ship sailed.
Vogel exaggerates her speakers’ cynicism, disillusionment or melancholy regarding love to counter, by way of satire, our consumer culture’s simplistic and unrealistic representations of it.
In writing a world with such creatures, places and values in it, Vogel stops short of engaging in identity politics by keeping the wordplay and sound-work of her prosody front-and-center. Consider the opening couplets of “No Fat Chicks” (a popular beach t-shirt):
Imagine what you make of me.
Adipose planets orbit my knees.
My ankles are tabernacles to a goddess
of feed. Saccharin beads on me.
When my body dies, my soul will rise
like the steam from a jelly roll.
Any venom the speaker might want to spit at the “you,” the type of guy cruel enough to wear such a t-shirt to the beach, is neutralized with humor. Nor does the reader have to pity the obese speaker, such a bodily transcendent, self-effacing wordsmith.
Vogel’s central goal with Fort Gorgeous—and perhaps the reader could say it’s her main subject—is to experiment with the comedic and satirical possibilities of poetic diction. She does so by making jokes and puns, by riffing on popular ideas and icons. The opening lines of “Fort Gorgeous,” the book’s title poem, demonstrate Vogel’s process: “Grandfathers will call you Miss America / coming down the stair.” This seemingly simple statement and image echoes Duchamp’s painting titled “Nude Descending a Staircase.” If the Duchamp title sounds familiar to the reader, the subtle sonic affinity it has with Vogel’s phrasing “coming down the stair” places the poem’s “you,” absurdly cast as a leggy pageant contestant, walking down the modernist painting’s steps. Take, as another example of Vogel’s wit and dexterous verbal humor, these lines from “GPS: A Fairytale”:
As you can see, I’m driving home a point
in my Suburban, in my Legend.
A calculated risk, a satellite, and a minister of
logic walk into a bar. Consider this a thumb
map, a pocket allegory to solve for y man is king
Read aloud, Vogel’s syntax intones a centrifugal force that swings out from ear to world—her inventive turns of phrase generate new energies trapped in inert idioms, the tired rhetoric of everyday speech.
Poetry by Megan Volpert
Sibling Rivalry Press, December 2011
Paperback: 62pp; $14.95
Review by Gina Myers
The prose pieces in Megan Volpert’s new collection of poetry, Sonics in Warholia, read more like essays, but defining or discussing the boundaries of different genres serves no purpose and would completely miss the mark of this stunning collection. Comprised of eight pieces, the book offers extended meditations, both far-reaching and deeply personal, surrounding the biography of (and addressed to the ghost of) Andy Warhol. Throughout the book, Volpert masterfully weaves together seemingly disparate images, events, and ideas to brilliantly create complete and coherent essays that can appeal to both those who are familiar and those who are unfamiliar with Warhol’s life and work. Volpert’s vision is clever, touching, and singular.
The book opens with a mix tape for Warhol which attempts to boil down his 58 years of life to “fifty-seven minutes and fifty-one seconds.” Volpert mashes together songs that either Warhol liked or was connected to in some way with songs from significant dates as well as some released well after his death. And while making a mix tape is often a loving gesture, occasionally an accusing statement arises from Volpert, which is something that increases as the book progresses. Even though the author is very taken with Warhol, she is not afraid to go on the offense against him: “I am telling you that I know I use quickness of arched eyebrow and cruelty of curled lip as distancing tools . . . and will continue to use it against you. . . . The best defense is a good offense.”
There are a number of exceptional pieces in the collection, including “Illusion of Depth and Vanishing Acts,” “Dear Diary of a Dead Man’s Telephone Number,” and “Ballad of the Maladies.” Sequentially the third piece, “Illusion of Depth and Vanishing Acts,” is a perfect example of the scope of these poems/essays: it covers Bret Easton Ellis, movies, the invention of the phonograph, aluminum foil, a physics class experiment from Volpert’s senior year of high school, Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr., and much more. And it connects all these to Warhol—which in an interview with Charles Jensen at Lambda Literary Foundation website, Volpert describes as “six degrees of Andy Warhol.”
Death is a prominent theme in a number of the pieces. In “Dear Diary of a Dead Man’s Telephone Number,” Volpert finds herself dialing up a number listed for Warhol she came across while doing research. She and her wife also dial up two friends’ phone numbers a while after they have died, not knowing what to expect at the other end of the call. Volpert writes:
Ultimately, it’s the dead connection I crave, Andy, not the living one. My cell phone has become like a Ouija board that promises the gateway into oblivion, manipulated into a sense of dialogue by nothing other than the nervous ticks of my fingers and the human impulse to control what cannot really be known. Death, in its insistence, is utterly respectable.
In “Ballad of the Maladies,” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief break up a list of deaths that surrounded Warhol—their names recalling patron saints when possible, though we’re told “Candy was a darling, but not a saint,” and also:
August 8, 1972: Andrea Feldman, age 24, suicide by jumping out the 14th floor at 51 Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, holding a rosary in one hand and a Coca-Cola in the other. Three weeks later, Heat came out and the significant role you gave her was positively reviewed. You don’t go to the funeral. Andrea wasn’t a saint at all.
The deaths surrounding Warhol are numerous and overwhelming—suicides, drug overdoses, murders, cancer, and AIDS. The phrase “You don’t go to the funeral” occurs again and again, even after his own death: “Your public memorial mass is on April Fools Day. You don’t go to it. Your body is decomposing in Pittsburgh, in the ground at St. John the Baptist: Patron Saint of lambs, of printers, of cutters.” Even in a dark piece like this, there is some humor; after discussing Typhoid Mary, Volpert writes, “Mary: Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Patron Saint of sailors and of cooks, against illness and against epidemics, and very many less ironic things.”
At only 58 pages, Sonics in Warholia is a quick and entertaining read. Volpert takes the reader on a journey through strange connections and fascinating historical details to reach a new understanding of one of the most recognizable cultural figures of the twentieth century.
Contemporary Asian American Plays
Edited by Chay Yew
Theatre Communications Group, August 2011
Paperback: 644pp, $22.95
Review by Olive Mullet
As explained in Version 3.0, the plays in this new anthology of Asian American drama are rarely produced outside of New York City and California. Yet they ought to be, as they encompass many cultures’ assimilation and conflicts with white culture. The anthology spans the generations from the Japanese internment years up to the multi-racial 2000s. The first wave of plays has common themes of “Asian American history and immigration, generational and familial conflict, cultural identity and nationalism.” The second wave further includes Chinese and Filipino playwrights, and the third those of Indian, Korean and Vietnamese descent. This last group, with l4% identifying themselves as “multiracial” in the 2000 census, says, “No single writer can represent an entire culture; only a community of writers can do that.”
These plays, with their incredibly rich material to draw from, display a real sense of drama. They mix comedy, sadness and even horror and show inventiveness and experimentation. However, this non-Asian reviewer will select a few favorites I would like to see produced in the Midwest.
Alice Tuan’s “Last of the Suns” is one that shows real drama, employing a mixture of humor and horror. The central character is Yeh Yeh, a Chinese Nationalist army general “shriveling away under the harsh California sun as his failed ice-skating champion granddaughter Twila comes to visit him on his 100th birthday.” Tuan combines the real and fantastical, Chinese mythology and personal family history about her grandfather who was a lieutenant general in Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist army and, when he was old, living with her family. The two fantastical/immortal characters Monkey King and Eight Pig almost serve as a chorus to the events. Tuan, as an American, says she was trying to “fuse contradictory old/new, East/West, male/female power,” and the latter comes out in Twila’s rejection of her mother’s pressure to become a world-class skater in favor of freedom:
It’s a family that smells stink mindlessly following and following . . . it’s a goddamned cult! . . . Tradition is a warp of reality.
Yeh Yeh has been ruthlessly cruel in his past power, which the two immortals recall, while Twila’s mother will never forgive her. Yet at the end Yeh Yeh is the only one to give Twila encouragement.
Diana Son’s “Satellites” is a microcosm of racist and sexual tensions. The title reflects the fact that “the characters are free-floating. A satellite is an entity that orbits around a larger entity; all of the characters lack a defining thing within their lives, so they end up colliding into each other.” Korean American architect Nina and her African American husband Miles move into a gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn brownstones. A neighborhood black resident Reggie shows up when a brick is hurled through their window, offering deals on materials to upgrade and fix the property, offers which look suspiciously like thefts. Then Miles’ white hanger-on brother Eric shows up to stay and spin his wild schemes, also revealed for vengeful motives. In addition, the needs of the young couple’s infant collide with Anna’s architectural career, and even a hired Korean “grandmother” causes tensions. All these create a volatile combination under one roof. For instance, Miles says to his brother Eric:
You want what I have? Do you know what it is like. . . . that I don’t know what I pass on [to his baby Hannah]. Maybe there’s some disease. . . . Or maybe my great-grandfather was a Civil War hero . . .
At the end there is the beginning of a resolution with the explanation of the brick through the window as a "meteorite . . . crashing through here to let out all the ghosts, all the stories, all the history . . . To let us know . . . we can make up the words ourselves."
The last clever combination of very short plays called “The Square,” written by different playwrights, includes a gem, Robert O’Hara’s “The Spot.” In it, a black woman and an Asian woman fight on the square for a spot to see Martin Luther King. The racism and sexism bring out obvious stereotypes, but then turns them on their head with three twists of the plot. An officer says:
We have to be able to infiltrate any group and bring back information on those white folks black folks yellow folks . . . and you have to be able to stand your ground when someone comes up to you . . . Some of them will be nice in one breath and sexual predators in the next . . .
In the very last play of “The Square” the title is realized as it is supplanted: "A new shape to learn . . . resee. Soften the corners. Round out the lines. Now let it be: Moon Park."
This is an excellent anthology of new voices, which I hope to see in Midwest productions and not just limited to the coasts.
An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry
Edited by Paul Doru Mugur, Adam J. Sorkin, and Claudia Serea
Talisman House, December 2011
Paperback: 370pp; $26.95
Review by Lydia Pyne
Any collection of national poetry shows its audience the formed, collective identity of its poets and their artistic milieu. The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry is no exception. In truth, the anthology, brilliantly compiled by editors Paul Doru Mugur, Adam J. Sorkin, and Claudia Serea, sketches a post-Iron Curtain world where Romanian national identity is as fractured as its economy and societal mores are as complex as the centuries of religious strata that seem to overlay every life – or, in the case of the poems, every text. To quote Doru Mugur in his introduction, these texts are what linguist Umberto Eco calls “the authentic fake” and, in the context of The Vanishing Point That Whistles, the texts, the lives, and the poems are the truths, lies, and everything grey in between. The theme of “authentic fake” through a fractured national identity is most clearly seen through the poems and prose that acknowledge the deep and permeating role of religion in Romania’s national identity, rawly juxtaposed against everyday being and everyday living in Romania.
Doru Mugur claims, again in his introduction, that the style, scope, even the very fabric of Romanian poetry has been informed by the American Beat movement, and as the Iron Curtain came down and rigid formalism gave way to many things, the artistic freedom through relativism that Beatnik poetry had to offer resounded with 1980s Romanian poets. This becomes particularly lyrical and poignant when authors such as Cristian Popescu, Constantin Acosmei, and Marius Ianus take the fractured strands and prosaic styles of the Beat movement and fold them into the religiously informed text of everyday life. The introduction, “Hyper-Realism in Contemporary Romanian Poetry: Reality as a Special Effect,” is useful for a reader not immediately familiar with the history of contemporary Romanian poetry.
Although it is difficult to highlight specific pieces from an entire collection (as it begs the question, “Why this piece and not another?”), several pieces do stick out as being brilliantly telling examples of this hyper-realism. In these examples, the reader sees a poem, a text—a life, really—that is so much a truth that it is a lie that it is, again, a truth. In “The Telephone at the Corner,” Cristian Popescu tells a simple story four times. He makes four telephone calls, using a shell, a rose petal, cigarette smoke, and finally the one-leu coin. Each of these calls summons a different memory—this memory invokes a scenario so commonly imagined by anyone and everyone that the reader knows the “type.” Popescu tells the reader that a call with a seashell, gathered from idyllic times, promises a conversation with an imagined love:
At night, if you drop a seashell into the telephone at the corner instead of a coin, a small, white, unchipped seashell gathered from the beach in summer, instead of a dial tone you’ll hear the wondrous sound of the waves. Then you can dial any number and the liquid voice of a siren will answer, summoning you by name.
The reality is the ideal and the fantasy—the reality, too, is the last call, with the one-leu coin, to the wife who says that she won’t warm up supper and that she’s leaving him.
Popescu’s three psalms further explore the hyper-reality text of himself, the circus, and the theater—a trinity that show the religious element of a fundamentally religiously informed cultural identity. The poems ask the reader to deconstruct how religion and God inform the socio-cultural fabric of Romania, but there’s a certain ironic empathy that Popescu excludes in his psalmist conversation with God in “Anti-Portrait” and “The Circus I,” respectively:
Lord, grant me just a snippet of the peace that dwells in Alecsandri’s head among the busts in the writers’ rotunda in Cismigiu Park. That’ll be enough for me now.
Now, Lord, whaddya want us to do? . . . For us down here the circus is the thing. No kidding, the circus! Ain’t nothing else like it. We torment ourselves with Art just like those animals.
In short, Popescu uses the psalm, prosaic religious formalism, as a conversation with God, rather than a prayer—the conversation is informed through the “fracturistic,” Beat-like nature of contemporary Romanian poetry, but the underlying cultural elements are there. In all instances, Popescu’s poetry illustrates the broader themes and types of poetry and prose within the anthology, and he is certainly not alone in his artistic commitment to this. The other poets gathered into the collection of The Vanishing Point That Whistles show equal poetic heft and take on equally complex themes.
The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry is a fantastic collection of work by a unique salon of Romanian poets. Indeed, the editors—as editors and translators—deserve a particular nod of appreciation and acknowledgement as they have done a commendable job of compiling a variety of topics, prose, and poetry that illustrates contemporary Romanian poetry.
Poetry by Larissa Szporluk
Tupelo Press, September 2011
Paperback: 64pp; $16.95
Review by Erik Fuhrer
Like Shakespeare’s play, Traffic with Macbeth is a fearless journey into the depths of myth, the human psyche, and often violence. There is a density to many of the poems, which at times renders them a bit opaque. Yet, so well-crafted are the lyrics that the hard shells of her images beg to be cracked. Images that are impenetrable are simultaneously beautiful and terrible and remind the reader of the artistry of mystery. However, no matter the difficulty of meaning, Szporluk’s tone always rings clear. At every step, the tongues of Macbeth’s witches and Macbeth’s own tortured soul slouch at the margins of these poems, whispering to them, feeding them the macabre spirit that produced such haunting lyrics as those in “Baba Yaga”:
I cooked my little children in the sun.
I threw grass on them and then they died.
I sit here now and wonder what I’ve done.
After the massacre, the poem delves into a spot-on description of numbness, of a tuning in to a world that is suddenly mechanical, and a self that is suddenly hollowed:
That’s why I get back to work
and listen to the clock and not my mind.
Wisdom ticks against the wise-man
who tries to teach the wicked to be kind
(but my eyes are holes and his old breath
just whistles through the jimson
in my garden).
Without flinching, Szporluck continues Baba Yaga’s dark tale, giving us the scene of the death:
babies, looking at the sky with so much love
As I bent to light your toes, the second
split and I was witch but still your mother.
The cooked children were wide-eyed with wonder at the world when the mother dipped into a dark transformation, much like Macbeth did when he slew the king. There is an awful tenderness in the admission that the Baba Yaga, or witch, did not completely take over the mother, but that it coupled with her, that she was a dual entity. It’s tender because she was still human, not completely overtaken—and thus, we can hope, still sympathetic, still dangling by some shreds of humanity. It’s awful because that humanity was not enough to stop her from lighting their feet, that she, like Macbeth, needed to satiate a deeper appetite at the expense of another’s life.
Hunger is rampant in Szporluk’s poems, whether that of a witch mother, a gargoyle, time, or God himself. Like Macbeth, these characters and symbols push past the limits of propriety and sink deep into the squalor of their souls. It is an awful, beautiful, magical, and brave trip that Szporluk takes us on, worth every line and every image. I will end by quoting one of those tightly locked images of Szporluck’s that I mentioned above. It’s from the poem “Fiddlehead.” The genius of this line speaks for itself:
The sound of a spine
in a tongue-tied forest.