Posted 1 July 2012
Errançities :: Burying the Typewriter :: Domestic Apparition :: The Life of an Unknown Man :: Crossing Borders :: Talk Poetry :: I Take Back the Sponge Cake :: Sudden Death, Over Time :: Nod House :: The Cranes Dance :: Wonderful Investigations :: Richard Outram :: Letters from Robots :: In the Shade of the Shady Tree :: Letters to Kelly Clarkson
Poetry by Quincy Troupe
Coffee House Press, January 2012
Paperback: 157pp; $16.00
Review by Alissa Fleck
It’s not just the references to Mad Max in Quincy Troupe’s Errançities which suggest a sense of perpetual collapse. It’s also the rampant amnesia. It’s the ignorance of cultural amnesia, the acknowledgement of this amnesia but having too many of one’s “own vexing / problems, way too many”; it’s the amnesia of important thoughts you fail to record. It’s a desire to be somewhere else, somewhere otherworldly, somewhere “beyond our knowing” where “silence reigns.” It’s a desire to dissociate from the “I” for a while, and to become the “eye” instead. It’s the admission that even you are quick to discard society’s discards. It’s the never-ending cycle of forgetting and reminding. It’s smoothing over the past with a kind of politeness that doesn’t change anything in “these yet to be united states.”
Whether it’s Dewey Square, the dusty desert or the New York City subway, Troupe brings you into the scene, even when you feel you’re not meant to be there. Even when you do not want to be there. Troupe’s poems unfurl unforgivingly; he lingers on the details and throws his punches calculatedly, like a boxer whose rage is controlled but not restrained. The “eye” standing in for “I” at times seems to signify greater wisdom and perspective, while elsewhere it becomes the strict observer. Troupe makes you as sympathetic to the crestfallen Wall Street type riding the train out of desperation as to the beggar on the train, eking out a living, which is to say a fluctuating level reflecting an honest account of the inconsistencies of human compassion.
Indeed the ironies of human compassion, and larger human existence, are fertile ground for Troupe. “Mix-y-uppy Memory” focuses on our everyday amnesia in a poem where the narrator ceases to carry on, delirious with thoughts of delicious food, long enough to be put off by a beggar’s repugnant rot. In “Amnesia #3: Photographys & Videos,” Troupe equates a historical lynching-as-spectacle with the seething, uninhibited hatred hurled by the multitudes at President Obama. The ironies speak for themselves.
In Errançities, repetition unnerves: “where all things are elusively fixed, but here / nothing is ever permanent save change after change / nothing is ever permanent save change,” where “save” takes on a secondary, pressing meaning. There is music in these lines, not just in poems about Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson or Mozart, but in listing poems which emphasize each word and in poems which demand to be read aloud in performance. Troupe’s poems engage all the senses and burst with so much literal color. In “An Art of Lost Faith,” the very first poem, he writes:
in the beginning was a sound, a crack of light, fissure in the dark
dome of the sky, earth, from which a resonance of air echoed,
perhaps something like a note, a sudden sound,
or wind moving toward expression, a beginning, a seed of language,
perhaps, a hum, a grunt moving toward something clearer, perhaps
Language is a grunt moving toward something clearer . . . perhaps. The collection’s diction fuses textbook “academese” with the colloquial and the language of mythology. “American fusion is iconography rooted in the new/old transmogrification” meets the chants of “ashé, ashé, ashé.” The language in Errançities can be stunningly beautiful—descriptions often consist of a few perfectly well-placed words—it is sharp, lengthy, but not superfluous. It’s equally gritty, as with the image of an overdose that claims a life. If you stop paying attention, you will certainly miss something, a key moment in the story Troupe unravels, a story most closely resembling the haphazard apparitions of various parts of a roadmap, but a roadmap itself which is ever-changing.
The book’s occasional sermonizing does not alienate in an unproductive way. No matter what you bring to the text as the reader, you will undoubtedly be confronted with the shocking and unfamiliar—that with which you have no means of identifying—but you will also be confronted with the painfully familiar and the familiarly painful. Even what once seemed familiar, Troupe casts in a new, more exposed light. Troupe grounds you along the way in experience you can identify, for example “Going Back to Voices Lost in the Past,” a stream-of-consciousness narrative piece about going home and feeling stuck. And those times you do not identify, that’s when you should take care to listen most closely, to check your own privilege. Troupe asks in “A Few Questions Posed,” “would they remember the sermons, the gospel music / they said changed their hearts, their spirits, would they / can they change / their dna of privilege, of never ever fully embracing the other.” Maybe the only constant is change, but Troupe warns against the amnesia that prevents it from being the right change.
Nonfiction by Carmen Bugan
Graywolf Press, July 2012
Paperback: 192pp; $15.00
Review by Ann Beman
Not many memoirs approach the act of resisting a totalitarian regime through a child’s eyes. But then, reading Carmen Bugan’s Burying the Typewriter is an unusual experience.
The author’s family entered exile in the U.S. a mere month before Romania’s Communist president, Nicolae Ceauşescu, was overthrown in 1989. Bugan describes her childhood before and after her father staged a one-man protest in the middle of Bucharest in 1983. She reveals what it was like to discover her father’s resistance activities and then to survive the resulting persecution orchestrated by the Securitate, Communist Romania’s secret police. First, however, she sets the stage.
Looking back at photos from that time, she says, “Though everything is in black and white, I remember the colors of the clothes and the dusty green or the sandy green of vacations. . . . They are passageways back in time.” Bugan takes us back, conjuring rich sensory details of everyday life in her village: her grandfather’s horse and cart moving slowly up a dusty road, the rituals of holidays—preparing cakes, the blessing of the house, slaughtering the pig, carolers’ costumes. She recalls her heart exploding “with happiness and colors.” At the birth of a chick at her grandparents’ farm she says, “I go and watch forever until the shell begins to crack and pieces of it fall on the grass, revealing a tiny beak, and then the chick, astonished with life.”
Her own astonishing life requires maturity early on, as critical events accelerate her coming of age. First the March 1977 earthquake, in which buildings in Bucharest collapsed and thousands of people were killed or wounded: “For the first time I understand that the earth is weak and can slip from under me.” Her maternal grandmother suffers a stroke and dies: “Keening is a ritual that blends weeping with singing, the sonorous with the throat-squeezed, hiccupped farewell. Mourning is a gentle release of pain through a song,” she explains, imagining that “poetry is a little like keening, too. The best poems pause on the sob in your throat, weeping both for what is beautiful and for what is lost to darkness and evil.” At her parents’ grocery story, Bugan and her sister distribute rations to desperate people in all-day lines. This obvious scarcity contradicts the abundance taught in school: “At the end of the bread hour many people go home empty-handed, and I see under the window fallen buttons from overcoats, lost scarves, dropped change, all stamped in the black, dusty earth.” The author begins to sense that there is a world of secrets underlying her family’s existence. Too many questions go unanswered, and clicks from her father’s illegal typewriter increase at a furious pace. Finally, she and her sister stumble upon “a stack of typed-up pamphlets, hidden between an old fridge and [their] bicycles. The text there reads: ‘We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.’” Her suspicions are confirmed.
Soon thereafter, her father is imprisoned for Propaganda Against the Socialist Regime. She and the family are subject to 24-7 surveillance. Securitate not only takes up residence in their home, but agents haunt the village, interrogating neighbors and friends, strong-arming them to inform on the Bugans. At this horrific period of her adolescence, the author leans heavily on poetry and literature, losing herself in characters whose lives “do not reflect [her] daily existence, so reading is a kind of escape from one life into another.”
After several years in prison, Ion Bugan is granted amnesty and released to house arrest in the family home. With this new “freedom,” however, he develops both the physical and psychological pallor of a caged animal. Meanwhile, questions continue to “hover over painful silence.” Did he have regrets? Was it worth subjecting his family to such an ordeal for the sake of a whole country?
When they receive middle-of-the-night death threats, the family makes the painful decision to seek political asylum. The author herself approaches the American Embassy in Bucharest to request international protection and to declare the family’s intent to emigrate.
“Sometimes it takes sacrificing a family for a country,” Ion Bugan would eventually tell his daughter. And she would tell us readers to never mind her feelings about such a reply. “It is better not to judge; it is better to try to understand, to observe. Judgment can be dangerous in situations such as these.”
This may be true, but it’s a little like telling the moth to ignore the porch light. How can a reader “never mind” the feelings of a memoir writer? Reflection and the now-perspective, after all, are the glues that bind memoir. Warm and full of grace, Carmen Bugan’s lyrical then-perspective may hold you in thrall, but sooner or later, you can’t help wonder about the missed opportunity to mine her childhood for further revelation. Unless . . . perhaps a follow-up memoir waits to be unearthed.
Fiction by Meg Tuite
San Francisco Bay Press, June 2011
Paperback: 150pp; $14.99
Review by Mantra Roy
A poignant ride through different phases of the protagonist’s life, Domestic Apparition is funny, sarcastic, dark, reflective, and touching. The first few stories are set in Michelle’s domestic life—her resistance to being drafted to school when she is six years old, her awe for her brilliant but eccentric brother’s courage in challenging a strict Catholic teacher in school, her admiration for her older sister’s guts, her parents’ relationship, and her mother’s unfulfilled dreams. Gradually, we move toward her life when she starts living by herself in college with roommates, her tedious job at a Holiday Inn which she is pushed into by her demanding boyfriend, and finally her job in the heart of corporate America.
While we laugh with Tuite at a six-year-old Michelle grudgingly completing art work in “Sinister Age of the Draft,” we don’t laugh when a fifteen-year-old Michelle discovers the possible criminal life of her older sister amidst the hysterical tears of their mother in “A Thousand Faces of A Warrior.” Tuite, through her sarcasm and humor, points to the grim realities of American domestic life. While the father dominates her mother (“Leader of Men”) and holds regular Sunday sessions to criticize his family (“Family Conference”), sessions which end up in calamitous clashes, a letter from her aunt unveils to Michelle her mother’s talents and dreams of being a writer, now suppressed through years of submission to an authoritative husband and unruly children (“Garbage Picker of Memory”).
Through the stories, which trace the experiences of a maturing young woman, Tuite explores multiple facets of American domestic life that shape children’s lives and characters. While the lopsided relationship between the docile mother and belligerent father reflects on gender relations in the 1960s and ‘70s, Tuite demonstrates how Michelle grows up with a stronger personality who maneuvers through drugs, alcohol, and boys in her teens and stands her ground. What makes the stories delightful and realistic is the emotional terrain each story maps.
In “Brenda Stantonopolis,” we see a teenaged Michelle hating but secretly admiring and fearing the titular character for her physical beauty and clout with boys. The author draws attention to the delicate emotions of a relatively docile student when Michelle confronts the school’s hottest girl and realizes the latter is ready to become friends. Tuite aptly captures Michelle’s dread as it turns to surprise. We also see Michelle as a committed friend when she carries a gun around to avenge the gang-rape of an unstable roommate in “Thirteen”; however, Tuite in her realistic vein ends the story with Michelle identifying one of the rapists, feeling a resurgence of rage, but eventually sitting next to him to share a beer. We are left guessing what her next steps will be. In the last piece, “The Bottom Line,” Tuite narrates a story very similar to the film The Devil Wears Prada in that Michelle stumbles through corporate America under the tutelage of an Amazonian lady-boss. But the story ends with the untimely demise of the boss, and Michelle, and readers, recognize the futility of power, money, and corporate clout when faced with fatal disease.
Domestic Apparition is an immensely enjoyable and quick read. Through scenes of school, domestic, college, and professional life, Tuite paints a series of pictures of American life that will resonate with many of us. Deftly using humor, colorful and powerful language, and minimalistic emotional scenes, Tuite represents scenes of everyday life from domestic America that will make readers laugh, cheer, feel rage, and reflect on their own lives.
Fiction by Andreï Makine
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Graywolf Press, June 2012
Paperback: 194 pages; $15.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Andreï Makine, whose Dreams of My Russian Summers won France’s highest literary award, employs his beautifully lyrical style again in The Life of an Unknown Man. Maxine, who was born in Siberia and has lived more than twenty years in France, has set this novel in both Paris and Russia during the siege of Leningrad and Stalin’s purges. In spite of some of the grim details of starvation particularly, the beauty of the prose makes these images dreamlike, almost ephemeral. The sense of humanity at the core abides in two old Russians, one living in Paris and one whom the protagonist meets in Russia, both having lived beyond their generation and thus becoming “unknown.” The span of this novel takes us from literary concerns to love during wartime to the music that kept the Russians going in spite of deprivation. At the end, the reader feels keenly the loss of an unknown but incredible life of survival and the sacrifice of love.
The novel opens with Shutov (whose name means “clown”), a 50-year-old failed writer in Paris, lamenting that the romance in Chekhov, “the scent of roses,” would be unacceptable in today’s fiction. “Nowadays a hero has to be neurotic, cynical, impatient to share his unsavory obsessions with us.” Shutov argues with young Lea with whom he lives:
They often used to argue but with the theatrical violence of lovers, aware that the fiercest tirades will fade away at the first moans of pleasure. Shutov would rage against the poverty in contemporary literature. Lea would drum up a whole army of “living classics” to contradict him. He would thunder against writers castrated by political correctness. She would quote a “brilliant” passage.
Inevitably, Lea leaves him for a younger lover, and since he is so “out of touch” with current writers, Shutov decides to return to St. Petersburg where he has located his original lover, Yana. What he discovers when he arrives at Yana’s apartment complex is how Russia has changed:
Nothing has changed in thirty years. And everything has changed. Russia is attempting to erase the decades that came before her and her destiny . . . Over his [the Soviet dinosaur’s] head, history is returning to its course becoming more limpid . . . while he remains mired in those accursed times everyone would prefer to forget . . .
Has he arrived anywhere? A journey from an attic in an apartment building in Paris, where he felt so little at home, to this luxury apartment, where he is even more a stranger.
Yana herself is always on a cell phone as she wrangles deals with her son Vlad to renovate the building and get new tenants. Shutov is left on his own until one night he agrees to stay in the apartment with a deaf mute whom they are removing next morning to an institution.
Volsky, the supposed deaf mute, tells Shutov about his incredible life, from his beautiful memory of sipping hot chocolate in a café with Mila to the beginning of the blockade of Leningrad and his reuniting with Mila, and while everyone is starving in winter, their singing of The Three Musketeers:
When they mounted the platform they could see the frozen oscillogram of spires and domes through the cold gray mist. Their voices seemed to soar up like a fragile screen between this city and the enemy positions. They met the looks of the soldiers, young or older men, some maintaining a certain bold front, others drained, devoid of hope. The songs spoke of sunshine and love. But what could be glimpsed at times in their looks was the terrible brotherhood of the doomed. Yes, the acceptance of death, but also the mad certainty of being more than this body hurled beneath the bombs.
After they meet again, Mila tells her story. “Yet there was nothing new in Mila’s recollections: two million human beings waiting to die in a city that was an architectural fairyland.” When they finally do live together, “their own life together was like a subtle watercolor sketch invisible to other people.” The beauty of nature revived from trenches encircles them like an island where Volsky says: “And now the woman I love has her eyes closed, listening to the wind, and snow crystals settle on her face. A face like that of a young woman, with dark hair, drawn by a child.”
Inevitably, Stalin’s purges will part them, except for their mutual promise to look up at the sky each day, bonding them together. This is an extraordinary poignant and haunting book that, in spite of Shutov’s cynical discovery about Chekhov at the end, revives what literature should be—a catharsis for the reader.
Nonfiction by Sergio Troncoso
Arte Publico Press, September 2011
Paperback: 216pp; $16.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In this collection of sixteen essays, Sergio Troncoso writes about family, fatherhood, education, illness, love, politics, religion, social issues, societal responsibility, and writing. He observes that his clear, direct writing about difficult questions “has sometimes condemned [him] in academic circles” and that his writing is also “overlooked by those who never desire to think beyond the obvious and the popular.” Troncoso chronicles his transformation from “a besieged outsider needing a voice” to “an outsider by choice deploying [his] voice,” creating an intellectual borderland from where he tried to push his mind with the philosophical ideas that form the framework of his writing.
In the first and title essay, Troncoso examines the many types of borders—geographical, linguistic, cultural, and religious—he has crossed since leaving his childhood home in El Paso. Having grown up in poverty mere steps from the Mexican border, he made his way to Harvard and Yale; he now lives with his wife and sons in a modern high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Upper West Side. Troncoso credits his education for providing the tools to “traverse the chasm from literacy to literature.” A lapsed Catholic, he now celebrates the High Holy Days with his Jewish wife and their sons. He reveals that these frequent border crossings have often left him asking: “where do I belong, who am I really and who am I becoming.” These questions serve as the book’s main focus, as the writer works out the answers for himself on the page, encouraging his readers to ask and answer them as well. His job as a writer, he explains, is not merely to entertain a reader but to “unmoor him.” Troncoso artfully selects case studies and examples that prick the reader’s conscience and linger long after the book is closed.
Three of the essays in this collection are letters to his two young sons, documenting their mother’s battle with breast cancer. He celebrates their life together while simultaneously contemplating a possible future without his wife. The letters offer an intimate portrait of a family in crisis and reveal the wife’s ordeal and the writer’s anguish. They also depict the complexities of a large hospital and provide a personal look into our nation’s health care system.
In many of the essays, Troncoso focuses on Latinos living in the United States, shining a bright light into the dark corners of social ills and injustices that plague our country today. A champion for the rights of immigrants who have come to this country for a better, more prosperous life, he condemns politicians and politicos who reach back to “ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution,” claiming their intent is to stop critical thinking, which he deems the measure of good citizenship.
In one passage, Troncoso regrets being unable to introduce his children to Juarez—where his parents were born and where, when Troncoso was a child, the family went each Sunday to visit relatives—due to the drug and gun violence that render the city unsafe. He directly blames the “voracious drug habits of the United States and the millions of dollars of American guns illegally exported to Mexico” as well as Mexico’s ineffective government and corrupt local police. His claim begs the reader to question and analyze the impact of current drug and gun laws and the proposed wall to separate the two countries.
Troncoso discusses the multidimensional plight of illegal immigrants in “Chico Lingo Days.” He denounces the phrase “illegal is illegal” as a stupid tautology that “glosses over the complex context of undocumented workers in the United States and how many of us benefit from their work.” Troncoso emphasizes that their work—repairing our roads, building our houses, working in the punishing sun to pick the perfect fruit we buy so cheaply in our markets—benefits all of our lives.
Recently, President Obama announced some major changes in U. S. policy on immigration. Although these new guidelines fall short of the sweeping changes proposed by the Dream Act, this country may soon embrace the children of illegal immigrants, many of whom fled impoverished, hopeless lives in Mexico, crossing the border into possible prosperity in the United States. I imagine Sergio Troncoso hearing President Obama’s announcement, pausing for a moment to smile, and then turning back to the page to remind us all that we’ve so much further to go.
Poems and Interviews with Nine American Poets
Edited by David Baker
University of Arkansas Press, March 2012
Paperback: 203pp; $19.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
In my own reading experience, nothing beats the first-person account of the interview, offering as it does an essential glimpse into what’s happening in the mind of the subject. As the instigator of responses in this collection, David Baker takes a rather light hand and offers little fleshiness, certainly no blood, yet presents an easygoing introduction to both the poet-as-person as well as the work.
Either Baker is unwilling to challenge his subjects or he expects these interviews to have the widest possible engagement in terms of audience. Nothing else accounts for the at times rather limpid style of these discussions; comments are rarely revealing, and too often questions posed go out of the way to be complimentary. It’s uncommon to sense any hesitation or uncertainty in answers or questions. For instance, with W.S. Merwin, Baker is more the enthusiast than anything else, declaring “I also love that little one right there.” He also adds comments such as “I love that one” and “what a beautiful poem”—such effusive appreciation undermines Baker’s otherwise adroit presentation. Yet while there’s not terribly much here to cling to for dear life as it were, there remains plenty well worth dipping into, especially for readers not familiar with the poets presented.
Many informed readers already possess a substantial level of feeling for the poets: Linda Gregerson, Ted Kooser, Alice Notley, Carl Phillips, Stanley Plumly, and Arthur Sze. All of them have a substantial publication history with fairly dedicated followings and these interviews only prove to support the reason(s) this is so. The Plumly interview stands out as singular in so far that it is Plumly’s work concerning John Keats that gets emphasized throughout, over and beyond his own poems. Plumly’s Posthumous Keats is a sort of fanciful literary critical memoir which documents his reading of Keats. And he’s not alone on that count; Tom Clark’s Junkets on a Sad Planet comes immediately to mind as a brother text.
The interviews with less well known poets Fady Joudah and Meghan O’Rourke confirm the promise each has of accomplishing further work of significance. Born in 1976, O’Rourke is the youngest poet here, and, while as an editor of the Paris Review she is clearly going to have some notoriety, her publication history is simply such that her name is not as pervasively recognizable. Joudah is arguably more familiar, but this is primarily the case due to his translation work with the poems of Marmoud Darwish, the fact that he won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and his professional career as a medical doctor.
Joudah refuses to idly banter about the relationship between his work as a doctor and his poetry. As he says: “I keep them separate. Very few patients know about it. Just as few doctors know, or care, about it.” And when Baker asks, “What does medicine give you for your poetry? And what does poetry give you for medical practice?” Joudah isn’t idle in his response, refusing to dice up the relevant contradictions for easy-going consumption by readers:
The questions of compassion and suffering, beyond their clichéd, hackneyed consumption, seem endless. I rarely, in my practice in the U.S., seek medical narratives as source for my poems. But the overarching reality of suffering and living is a different matter. I am not sure what my poetry gives to my medicine or takes away from it. We live in an intensely administered world and we are automatons half the time, it seems. Obviously, I am somewhat uncomfortable talking about it.
He continues, “I am just as uncomfortable these days talking about my experiences with Doctors Without Borders.” Joudah acknowledges the limits, verging on hypocrisy, within which he pursues his living and his art:
All I can say about that experience is that the horror of this hierarchy of suffering in which we live our daily lives rarely leaves me. It is maddening at times. Especially when I ask myself, as a doctor, as one with power, how I partake in it, and how I have partaken in it.
I am the one who “returns” from these sojourns into “suffering,” and I get congratulated on it, as if it weren’t just a simple act of private common decency, but a heroism that the society to which I return wants to claim as its own (as one once told me: “thanks for doing this in our name”). And to top it all, I make art out of it.
If there’s ever to be accurate and necessary accounting by artists working in leading developed countries such as the United States concerning how we benefit from the privileges granted thereby, Joudah’s words provide one starting place. What is our shared obligation to one another, and all living things, as creatures of the same breath? Not cosmic connection, but built into and from out of our day-to-day affairs. No art should bother continue without asking such questions.
Poetry by Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson
Rose Metal Press, March 2012
Paperback: 64pp; $14.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
I Take Back the Sponge Cake almost looks like a children’s book at first glance. But in reality, this book is a whimsical, lyrical adventure that takes you down a different path with every read. Choose-your-own-adventure books are a rare but surprising delight to come across, and this book is no exception. I especially like how abstract the poetry is; it matches the artwork perfectly. Rather than choosing a direction or making an ethical choice at the turn of each page, the reader is given the privilege of choosing a word to fill in the poems themselves. The words are homonyms (for example, weight and wait, or ring and wring), so although they are pronounced the same, the different meanings lend different import to each choice. The readers’ personal styles and lives have an effect on which word they choose, giving them a unique experience.
In the poem “Your Eyes are Closed but you aren’t Dreaming,” I felt like I was transported to a journey within the journey I was on while reading the book. It begins: “You are traveling slowly, / like a shipwreck still sailing.” These lines were very poignant and reminiscent of my own memories, which somewhat brought me down emotionally, but the last couple of lines brought me back up: “But the sun is blind and must touch everything: / always feeling its gold way forward towards the dark.” The description in the poetry is powerful, capable of transporting you to another place in your own life; however, I also found myself at times following fictional characters that climbed through the pages, just like a movie.
It is not until almost the back of the book that the choices become limitless. At the bottom of the page after a two-word poem titled “Door” is written: “Can you _______ in a ______?” Two lines down is the advice: “Begin at any time.” This ending really made me stop and think. There are four different endings with endless possibility, and if you get lost, there is even a map in the back of the book that outlines all of the different adventures. Although it is pretty difficult to get lost in such an organized and well thought-out book, it was interesting to see the many lines readers I will never meet will follow.
Like the poetry, the artwork is very unique. It is difficult to describe and merits checking out. The best part of the art is its ambiguity; not every piece is easily defined. The reader’s imagination really takes the lead and interprets Erdrich’s artwork in collaboration with the written words of Nelson. Each piece follows the same color scheme and is done in ink and watercolors. This book was a delight; not just about reading or viewing, I Take Back the Sponge Cake is an experience unparalleled.
Fiction by John Rember
Wordcraft of Oregon, June 2012
Paperback: 148pp; $14.00
Review by Ryan Wilson
Age and the academy dominate John Rember’s latest collection, Sudden Death, Over Time. Master of the cynical first person male, Rember repeatedly places readers in the context of professors well past their prime, who know that their best choice left is to smirk at the absurdity surrounding their departments, their students, and their love lives and to plod along.
The usual suspects orbit the slowing rotation of each narrator: manic students, predatory male professors, self-righteous feminists, obtusely honest administrators. If not cemented in the consistent voice Rember employs in each tale, the characters would fade into stereotypes. Yet Rember seems to count on our doubting his narrators, these mostly fermented wise-ass gents who are too old now to see college life as anything but a circus.
“Why do we have to learn this shit?” an overweight student asks a history professor teaching Augustine’s Confessions in “Nocturne.”
“Augustine finally found the strength to resist the temptations of the flesh,” the professor answers, adding that Augustine should serve as a role model. “You would be thinner, and you would be smarter.”
Comments like this land the professor’s new office in “the Bunker,” part boiler room, part ex-fallout shelter, a metaphor for where Rember would put all of his narrators, in a secluded place where their honesty won’t do the institution or the world any harm.
Here’s another chestnut from the professor’s voicemail: “If Grandmother has died again, choose between learning about the decay of Rome or going to the funeral and learning about the decay of Grandmother. The former will allow you to pass the final.”
Rember’s characters, of course, say what many a professor would like to but can’t, whether he’s teaching history as above or English in “The Swimming Pool” and “Dead Birds Don’t Make Good Pets” or biology in “Selfish Gene” or psychology in “Poetry Can Wait” or even serving as college chaplain in “Only I Have Escaped to Tell You.”
Of course, even the chaplain has lost his faith. When asked by the college president if Jesus Christ is his personal savior, he answers, “I’m waiting for an answer from the committee. It’s got three members. They argue a lot. It takes them forever to make a decision.”
Rember’s dark humor dominates the collection, yet he’s also able to penetrate emotions with sincerely stunning observations: “But memories are alive—they must be, considering all the damage they do.”
As we suspect, the humor is merely a way to cope with loss, disappointment, and longing, leaving these men just skirting more of the unknown, if not staring straight into it. Only the narrator in the title and final story gets a moment of peace, earned, one should note, by his leaving the university after marrying one of his students, twenty years his junior.
Not that life away from the academy is any better, as seen in “The Old Guys Ski Club,” the only tale not involving academics. Though the narrator here is no professor, he thinks like one, contemplating life’s mysteries as he prepares for his condolence lover in her bedroom: “It’s only moonlight, but I can watch it as it comes, watch it as it covers over the world and its torn edges, and hides so well anything that hurts or lives.”
Rember’s world requires cover of some kind, whether it be a higher education or a highly evolved sense of humor. Both counter the ever-present doom that makes this collection a cynic’s paradise.
Poetry by Nathaniel Mackey
New Directions, November 2011
Paperback: 144pp; $15.95
Review by Erik Fuhrer
Nod House is an epic poem, a surreal migration, an eloquent, fractured elegy. Its world and lyrics are volatile, traversing multiple landscapes, realities and bodies. Characters who start off as heads bobbing in a pond later turn bird:
on our perch, feathered arms,
feathered bodies, feathered legs,
ribcages birdcage thin . . . . We
This is just one transformation of many, mirroring the external transformation taking place in Quag, the city of sad children, Stick City, or any of the other mythic environments the book’s travelers find themselves moving through. It is sometimes hard to locate Mackey’s lyrics, in time, in space, in logic, but that is the beauty of his work. Often, when I felt lost, Mackey immediately swept me up again by reuniting me with an image, or with the lovers who flit in and out of the narrative. Other times, I was simply entranced by the rhythm of the words and the power of a fresh image that, while strange and opaque, was nonetheless radiant.
The book is in two parts, both titled Quag, which is a physical place in the book as well as an embodiment of the tumult present in the book. The beginning of the volume reminded me of Becket’s “Play,” with heads bobbing in a lake, in seeming desolation. Yet, these characters bear greater resemblance to their former selves, as they have arms, albeit without extremities: “Nubs what were fingers at arm’s / end, only knuckles to hold on with.”
There is later a transformation, as noted above, but this is still a dismal journey, lit often by music, sometimes by love, though more often by lust. This land is populated mostly by the dead, or the dying, or the living who were dead from the start, as depicted in the last lyric, at Stick City:
We knew we wore skeleton suits. We knew
we walked holding placards. “Dead from
Day One” they read, part requiem, part
Nod House is a tale of disintegration, or place, or self, of reality, and of dreams deferred, defeated, and re-dreamed. It is magical, it is inventive, it is a narrative that mourns, at the same time it celebrates, the ever shifting nature of the world.
Fiction by Meg Howrey
Vintage Books, May 2012
Paperback: 384pp; $14.95
Review by Patricia Contino
For an allegedly silent art, ballet has inspired many good words. Essays by poet Edwin Denby and critic Arlene Croce are worthy writing workshop handouts. Choreographer Agnes de Mille’s books are histories of dance and America. Jacques d’Amboise’s memoir I Was A Dancer is not only candid; the charming, legendary dancer wrote it as if he was telling his story over coffee.
Dramatized ballet has not been so fortunate. Despite Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking cinematography, an original ballet featuring three pioneering dancers, and its undisputed place making ballet popular, The Red Shoes is perhaps the most maudlin of Michael Powell’s films. The passion and determination that drive characters in his (and collaborator Emeric Pressburger) work suffocates once the pointe shoes are laced up. And Black Swan completely missed the point of Swan Lake’s rite of passage for dancers and audiences alike. With luck, a ballerina starts in the flock and rises to Swan Queen Odette and her evil double Odile. The potential freak-out factor derives from the technical and acting demands placed on the prima ballerina—and regardless of how many times they have seen the ballet—the crowd out front’s very high expectations.
Swan Lake is where Kate Crane starts her story in Meg Howrey’s addictively wild The Cranes Dance. A soloist in a fictitious New York company (modeled on American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey), she has just finished performing prominent roles in the second and third acts. She not only tells herself that this is “SERIOUS BALLET: please be perfect,” but that the clichés accompanying this popular classic give it a “slightly Renaissance Fair vibe.” That night Kate also injures her neck and is reluctant to seek treatment (a side story that grows in importance).
Finally, ballet fiction that satisfies fans and general readers minus pretense or dumbing-down.
A former dancer, Howrey provides insight on the daily grind of class, rehearsal, and performance. Viewers of shows like Dance Moms or Bunheads unfamiliar with the particular environment of a company-affiliated school will get a pretty good idea of one when Kate reminisces about being “in a class of me, times fourteen.” Howrey even has great fun at the expense of Black Swan’s dancing double revelation controversy. Kate participated in a “recent dance movie” starring an actress with such “lobster-claw hands and biscuit-shaped feet” that “no one could mistake her for the real thing. Except for the millions of people who loved the movie, of course.”
Two ballerinas originally shared the dual role of Odette and Odile. Had this practice continued, Kate would be the sexy Odile and her sister Gwen the virtuous Odette. From Vaslav and Bronislava Nijinsky to Megan and Robert Fairchild, there is a long tradition of siblings in the same company. Gwen is a principal dancer favored by fans, critics, and her parents. Yet Kate is no slouch. She is regularly cast in new ballets and specializes in the dance-dramas of Antony Tudor. One work she describes rehearsing and performing is his Leaves are Fading, a beautiful ballet without a bad part. I hope Kate’s fictional afterlife includes Tudor’s Undertow and Dark Elegies.
While she “didn’t understand” why, Kate always felt Gwen was “better than [her] . . . the best.” Gwen’s technical prowess and “easy” grace isn’t enough. Throughout Cranes, Gwen is on leave after a mental and physical collapse. The strength of Howrey’s first-person narrative is in how Kate gradually comes to terms with their relationship; family and colleagues believe the sisters “look after each other.” Though close, theirs is a complicated bond in a profession where the physical complications are the priority.
Kate’s coping mechanism is sarcasm—something workers in any profession turn to. The humor won’t be lost on non-balletomanes who will immediately understand her apt summarization of Giselle being from the “Douchebag Prince/Betrayed Maiden archive.” One of the book’s funniest passages describes former New York City Ballet ballerinas turned coaches who worked with choreographer George Balanchine:
None of them have ever recovered from being in the presence of the Master, and they have this weird mystical sexual love of dance that utterly confounds me. I would envy it if it looked less fucked up . . . like they weren’t all still hoping Mr. B. will stop and pat them on the head, that their entire lives weren’t an offering to a dead man, that they all didn’t get up every morning, draw on black liquid eyeliner, brush out the dry ends of their waist-length hair like it was 1969 and they’re still wondering why you can’t get Tab anymore.
Instead of becoming bitter, this makes Kate a better, more valuable dancer. In company class she might feel “like a trained pet” when asked to demonstrate a step which nonetheless makes her lift her left leg a “good two inches higher than I would go if no one were watching.” For years she coached Gwen and is called upon to do so regarding on-stage dynamics and Shakespeare for the company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not everyone, particularly ballet mistress Nina, values her input. Kate knows that jealous retired dancers are not the only ones who cannot hide their hatred:
You can always tell when people don’t like you because their voices will sound like they’re acting, when they talk to you. That’s how you know that they spend a certain amount of time rehearsing in private the biting and cutting things they wish they could say to you in person.
Her well-hidden pride is known to a select few. Chapters featuring Kate’s friendships with company member Maya, ballet student Bryce, and arts patron Wendy are emotionally satisfying. These three ladies are her sisters. The book has an open, though promising, ending.
Cranes are the Japanese symbol of eternal youth. Ballet dancers do not have long careers and the most enduring repertory staple is not called Crane Lake. Meg Howrey has created an on-stage, backstage, and off-stage world that will entertain both those who unfailingly renew their ballet subscriptions and those who enjoy a really good read.
Essays, Meditations, Tales
Collection by Dan Beachy-Quick
Milkweed Editions, April 2012
Paperback: 352pp; $20.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
A collection is an interesting thing. Traditionally, we can expect to find a collection in some sort of museum setting—a set of archaeological artifacts or art objects that allows the audience to understand another culture. A collection of writing, however, is particularly interesting as it allows a reader to examine an author’s intellectual and aesthetic commitments. In a collection of writing, the reader has more than simply the Objekt to examine or look at; the surrounding context for the author’s intended themes is available to the reader as well. These themes, in turn, become the real collection on display to the reader. In Wonderful Investigations: Essays, Meditations, Tales, author Dan Beachy-Quick amasses quite a cabinet of written curiosities that serve as the basis for his Investigations—a collection that does not seem to argue for a specifically particular point or theme, but, rather, a collection that allows the reader to examine Beachy-Quick’s intellectual and aesthetic commitments to his own treasured authors.
The power of Wonderful Investigations is derived from its commitment to a post-ironic age, if you will. Beachy-Quick’s essays and meditations do not try to tear down or show a cynical and nihilistic world—rather, they strive to celebrate a certain transcendentalness of life by drawing from “the Classics” most broadly defined. In the essays and reflections, the reader encounters interpretations of Keats, Emerson, and Plato and re-imaginings of Greek myths. It’s as if Dead Poets Society suddenly recalled all of its classic pieces of quoted poetry. In sorting through the writings, it becomes rapidly apparent that the collection is really more of a commitment to particular ideals than it is about a specific aesthetic consistency. In its most broad sense, all of the ideas exist together in that, clearly, all of the parts are “liked” by the author—but they are not necessarily strongly or thematically linked, even within the same written piece. Beachy-Quick’s commitment and enthusiasm toward the topics are undeniable, as that enthusiasm permeates the very pages of the book, but the tangled bank of his metaphor-infused writing can begin to feel a bit overgrown and unfocused when the reader has to back up and re-read sections of the tales and essays to make sure the point is not lost along the banks.
Undoubtedly, the strongest element of Beachy-Quick’s Wonderful Investigations comes in the middle of the collection—his meditations. In these meditations, the prose is crisp, fluid, and interesting. All of the meditations begin with a unique claim or observation:
The mind is both a church covered in ivy and the agent of attention that attempts to see through the stone.
Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the mind to be volcanic in nature. The thought, ever since encountering it, appealed greatly, even if it resisted my understanding almost completely.
Let’s begin with a basic claim, not as truth or fact, but as possibility: reading is a form of experience.
In each of these meditations, the reader watches Beachy-Quick play with the borders of ideas—for example, with the border between Nature and Culture—and offer his own reflections about humanity’s place in between. In the preface, he refers to Plato’s definition of a line—“a point that flows”—and, truly, in the book’s meditations, the audience is drawn into his point as Beachy-Quick traces this theme into a flowing line of narration. He then utilizes the rest of the piece to allow the reader to realize the riddle or claim or observation. The writing is descriptive, analytical, and persuasive, but also purposeful and deliberate.
Perhaps my favorite piece in the collection comes from “Meditation II. On Verdant Themes: Toward One Sentence in Proust,” where Beachy-Quick utilizes nothing but analogy, metaphor, and simile as rhetorical means to walk the reader through his point-flowing-line of narration:
The mind is both a church covered in ivy and the agent of attention that attempts to see through the stone. . . . The church steeple points away from the earth on which it’s built, and then the ivy creeps over it, reclaims it, pulls it back toward the earth it seems to refute. The mind thinks itself away from the world, and then the world encroaches. The ivy climbs over its thinking, a nervous system whose root is rooted in the dirt.
It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of lyrical play between Nature, Culture, and the human experience.
In Wonderful Investigations, the reader is treated to a collection of ideas through Beachy-Quick’s mass of meditations and trust of tales. Throughout his prose, Beachy-Quick is clearly drawing from his own favored writers, poets, and thinkers—the intellectual strata or cerebral bedrock for his investigated metaphors and assembled analogies. His strongest writing comes in the loose, fluid style of Plato’s point and line and the exploration of that imagined horizon.
Essays on His Work
Edited by Ingrid Ruthig
Guernica Editions, July 2011
Paperback: 220pp; $18.00
Review by David Breithaupt
Poet and critic Richard Outram was for me one of those writers who occasionally popped up on the periphery of my poetry explorations. I saw him referenced and quoted until I began to wonder who he was. Outram was like one of those neighbors you never introduced yourself to. You passed him or her once or twice a week and waved without an inkling of who they were or what they did.
Now we have a wonderful introduction to that neighbor in this collection of essays edited by Ingrid Ruthig. Upon reading her introduction to this assemblage, it is difficult not to delve further into whom Richard Outram was and what he did. She writes of Outram’s poetry: “The old and named give way to the new and named. If Outram is also, as Guy Davenport wrote, ‘a poet who can make the whole world look new,’ step across the threshold prepared to say more than ‘hello’ and become the traveler who is willing to walk unfamiliar roads barefoot.”
I was game. I wanted to meet the neighbor. An interview with Outram by Michael Carbert titled Faith and Resilience begins the book with a wonderful come-see. Outram, born 1930 in Oshawa, Ontario, rekindles memories of his student days with the legendary Northrop Frye and Gregory Bateson at Victoria College in Toronto. They discuss George Herbert, Auden, Hopkins and Emily Dickinson. Most interestingly, Outram confesses he had no idea he was going to be a writer until one fateful moment. He spoke of how he was sitting by the English Channel one gray day in February when he suddenly wrote a poem. “It occurred to me virtually formed and I wrote it down and it was small and slight but it was an actual poem. I was astonished. Absolutely astonished. It never occurred to me that such a thing might happen.” I love these episodes in which writers claim they had no control over choosing their craft; they are not uncommon. Once Outram penned his first poem, a literary possession took hold and never let go.
In “The Richard Outram/Northrop Frye Connection” Robert Denham describes how studying Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare with Frye at Victoria College influenced Outram’s later writing career. Anyone who has been to college in the last thirty years and taken a course in literature or browsed a used bookstore is most likely familiar with Frye’s collections of criticism and anthologies of literature. If you know nothing else about Frye, you know he produced these whopper tomes. Outram found Frye “remote” yet containing “humanity” and “charity.” Outram would send Frye his published volumes in his post collegiate years to general praise. Their lives overlapped throughout the years, sharing the stage while giving readings and exchanging correspondence. It was the posthumous publication of Frye’s notebooks which contained some of his best essays that would nourish Outram to the end of his days. He found himself “intensely informed” by these writings. Denham writes: “The assurance that one can move mountains is an assurance Outram took from Frye’s life work.” When Frye died, Outram wrote in his elegy “In Memory of Northrop Frye” that “We could mourn him. But that would be boasting.”
In 1957, Outram married the artist Barbara Howard, and together they formed the Gauntlet Press, with Howard creating beautiful wood block illustrations for Outram’s poems. In one of my favorite essays in this book, Jeffery Donaldson discusses this creative union in “The Gauntlet Mandala.” Donaldson begins by writing “To hold a Gauntlet Press book is an experience in itself. Your mood changes. Your hands become patient and thoughtful, inquisitive of texture and weight. Your eye becomes curious, ready, plumb, feels a ballast, is set adrift. You lean in to catch a scent of the quality and origins of the papers.” Never having experienced firsthand one of these editions, I felt the need to run out, find a copy and hold one myself. This sounds like a book experience you can’t fathom from a Kindle.
For the most part, only snippets and fragments of Outram’s poetry appear in the book. They serve as a tease, appetizers making you want bigger bites. After shaking this book down and running my fingers through all the pages, I had to visit the library in town for a main course. I’ll throw you a bone though—here’s one of my favorites, quoted in full in this collection. I love the title.
Man Riddled With Clues
I am my own fault
In the covering vault.
I remember myself never
I am beside myself here
Now I am found
With another wound
I am held so
All that I know.
I have seemed
To be redeemed.
I beseech You
For I know what I do.
I think that going into this book without being overly familiar with its subject is actually a good thing. Generally I shy away from collections of criticism but I found myself turning the pages, wanting to know more. I think even if you are a scholar of Outram’s work you will be further enlightened by the light these essays shed.
All told, the various essays contained in this volume light upon some interesting aspect of Outram’s life and work. Don’t miss Outram’s own piece, “An Exercise in Exegesis,” a lecture he delivered to Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club in 2002, in which he shares an intimate view on the art of writing poetry. He writes that he wanted not to speak on the craft of the poet but on “The Guile of the Poet.” Outram quotes Wallace Stevens when discussing why anyone writes poetry: “One writes poetry because one must. It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry.” He then expands upon this sentiment by dissecting one of his own unpublished poems. By describing the genesis of his poem, he attempts to “throw some light on the way in which poems in general come to get themselves written.” Despite the wonderful biography of his poem, I am still left with the mystery of the inexplicable forces which seized him that one gray day by the English Channel and led him to produce that first poem. But that’s OK. Mystery is what drives me.
Outram’s wife, Barbara Howard, died in 2002. In 2005, he chose a poet’s dramatic and sad ending by taking his own life. I’m sorry I never met this poet in his own time, but if his ghost appears as my neighbor, I will now wave, knowing who he was and what he has done, thanks to this collection.
Poetry by Diana Salier
Night Bomb Press, March 2012
Paperback: 61pp; $12.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
After reading the title, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this book. It gave me the strange feeling I’d be reading letters, or advice, from the future. Ironically, Salier focuses tremendously on the current so-called Mayan threat of the end of the world. Since we have already lived through a few apocalyptic threats within the last decade or so, it’s refreshing to contemplate the future through the lens of someone who admits that “every friday at 2pm i feel strongly / that i should’ve been an astronaut.”
Salier is constantly coming up with creative metaphors that develop slowly as the lines progress to a stunning ending. For example, in her poem “i should’ve been an astronaut”:
and an extra long french fry
that fits down my throat
forming a cubicle wall in my stomach where
i proudly hang old pictures of us
grinning down at earth from
on top of a lunar crater
This brings to life how much people become a part of you. Relationships are complicated, messy, and full of twists and turns. But the memories are so clear and lasting; you really are above the world.
In her loneliness, Salier is able to simplify things as she deals with the aftermath of her relationships in a hot California apartment. A string of epiphanies is embedded throughout her poetry. Here is one of my favorites, from “this next life is the best possible life & you are living it to the fullest”:
dying men say there’s lots of things
they should’ve done
i don’t want there to be
lots of things i should’ve done
to just do them
As someone who tries to live without regrets, the value of doing what you want to do since you are able to is both empowering and freeing. This Oreos-for-dinner, avocado-sandwiches-in-the-bathtub, girl-who-falls-in-love-with-every-girl-she-sees girl sucks you into her loneliness and makes you wonder who will be by your side when the world ends. It also has you digging into past relationships, wondering where it all went wrong. In “the wolf pt. 2,” Salier compares herself to a domesticated dog while her past lover is an untrained wolf:
you’re just gonna join the military
and get yourself shot like forrest gump
right in the buttocks
it’s not so bad being a domesticated dog
living on food and water and sleep
and the love of a human female
And when you think about it, it’s not so bad. We constantly say that dogs really have it made. Sleeping, eating and being loved. But is that really all they are doing?
Rather than taking the typical whiny approach to the end of a relationship and crying: “Woe is me!” Salier takes you along for the ride and you become her comrade. Our loneliness is different: she experiences hers, and I experience mine. But throughout her book of poetry, we can experience it together. Salier points out that “home is just a rest stop where / the vending machines have run out / of king sized snickers bars.” And I agree. But I keep searching under my bed for those Snickers bars and know some will turn up eventually.
Stories of Wheatbelt Australia
Fiction by John Kinsella
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, April 2012
Hardcover: 190pp; $24.95
Review by Olive Mullet
John Kinsella’s In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Stories of Wheatbelt Australia should entice the reader who enjoys unusual fiction in a strange place of extremes, off the tourist map. Kinsella describes his very short short stories as “stories told for the moment, out of experience more than ‘art,’”—similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Kinsella’s interests are how the people
interact with the place, and how they make that place what it is . . . the weirdness that comes from the ordinary, the extraordinary from the matter-of-fact. The behavior of people seems more odd to me than, say, supernatural belief. I ask how secrecy is a part of everyone’s lives, and how disturbance goes hand-in-hand with the predictable. A good deed can mask ill intent; a bad deed can result from well-meaning acts. There are rarely neat resolutions, and other than death, few absolute conclusions. Even death leaves . . . many loose threads. . . . Some [of the stories] have fable-like morals, others are fantastical, but many are just “insights” into an aspect of being here . . . [a] glimpse into character, and how that character is affected by “place.” . . . . In the end, it’s a place of people: their successes and failures, of materiality and spirit.
Kinsella grew up in Wheatbelt Australia, a large area reaching north to the outback and south to the sea, areas close to only one city—Perth, a six-hour drive away. The farms in the stories are marginal, mainly from drought, high heat, and the salinity of over-farming. These stories read like slices of life, each with real place names. Yet the stories’ endings are fictionally important, meaningful or mysterious, always unexpected.
These five-pages-or-less stories combine to give the reader a full experience of the place and the life there. People and place are so inseparably intertwined that certain relationships and the land’s features reoccur frequently. These are tales of rivalries, the effects of a solitary life, the effects of religious belief, pacts between unknown neighbors, damaging secrets, prejudices not just against "Abos" (Note: The word "Abos" is considered a racist term to describe Australian Aborigines; Kinsella explores the use of this term in his work.), but also against anyone wild or foreign/lesbians/hippies, loneliness, saving of the trees and birds, and pride in self-sufficiency. Similarly, natural features reappear throughout the book—walls of fire from extreme heat, caves, and the importance of a shade tree, like in the title story (which links to another story, the only two to do so in the collection). Probably the most common theme is the unexpected realization of the appreciation of nature.
Drought is the first thing the reader meets in “Rain,” because the narrator is the only one who has rain, and thus he gains his neighbors’ envy. However, he cries, as he has not done since he was child and was forbidden to do so:
Now he stares out of the window at the black swollen skies and the hard driving rain. Harder than during the days before. A deluge. He feels giddy. He sees the farm under water. He sees the green carpet become the algal floor of a fetid ocean. He sees the corpses of a thousand sheep marooned on the granite outcrop, with the ocean of his farm lapping at their hooves.
In the title story, Brian hates “The Shady Tree. The Tree at the Center of Town. The Big Fig Tree. The Lovers’ Tree.” He tells his would-be girlfriend Kerri-ann that she looks like his beloved “grandma when she was a girl.” Brian owns the land on which the shade tree grows and wants to put a hamburger joint there. After he has the tree chopped down, Kerri-ann sends him an album showing his grandma and grandpa planting the tree.
Not a tiny sapling, but a small tree—already twisted and writhing and reaching out with its shade. He could see the birth of the shade of the shady tree. A flesh-and-blood tree, held by both of them: their arteries, their skin, their hair growing together.
Consequently, he realizes he is “going nowhere fast.”
The last story, “The Legend of the Boat,” the most mysterious, is told from the perspective of a boy who can manage to swim only to a cement boat halfway across a river. Then faced with swimming the whole width, exhausted and deep in the water, he finds the boat sunk with the cabin door open.
There was a comfortable bed made up, and I lowered myself into it, breathing the crisp ocean air, already flooding the cabin. I would circumnavigate the world. . . . I had been blessed. I would be a legend. I am a legend, as you know.
The few unfamiliar Australian expressions like “willy-willy” and “dobbing” add to the stories’ atmosphere, while not hindering the enjoyment of this extraordinary collection.
Poetry by Julia Bloch
Sidebrow Books, April 2012
Paperback: 81pp; $15.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Letters to Kelly Clarkson is full of short letters written from the narrator to American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, beginning with “Dear Kelly.” Although there were certainly thoughts and points that stuck out as interesting to me, the majority of the letters were ungrounded and rambling. A letter at the beginning of the book opens with: “You know, sitting here, eating my microwaved tomatoes on somewhat tough toast, I think I could give myself another chance.” And I started silently cheering, we all deserve a second chance! Good for you! But then the next lines were: “Seriously, can you tell me why I keep dreaming of a chipped white truck? Could it be the swerve of it, the handle? A rush of blood to the hand.” I was so intrigued by the second chance that I wanted to know all the details of how she messed up and with whom and how she was planning to fix it. Yet there was no resolution for me and I felt like the writer had left me high and dry, though perhaps this was her intention.
Despite the lack of specifics, there were fantastic metaphors and comparisons in the book. For example: “At the piano recital, I hear the Yamaha sing out its cheap thick notes, the trick of wide keys’ spreading their legs. I want to think you’re grander than that, not coated in black gloss so shiny I can see the piano’s pores flex and extend.” I loved the play on words, especially “trick.” Clearly, the narrator looks up to Kelly. She wants her to be honest and pure, not fooling the public and fan base with tricks and gimmicks.
The narrator trusts Kelly with personal things that one would only tell a friend. She even explains what she has and what that means for her: “Astigmatism: my eye jumps to the next line, creating an ‘imperfect image.’ But corrective lenses make me homesick. A lot of wrong thoughts. And the new crop of idols are a sea of sequins, shopping bags filled with shopping bags.” Going from telling Kelly that she has astigmatism to commenting on the new round of American Idols is disconcerting. The direction of her thoughts changes so abruptly that it can be difficult to follow. It also makes the reader think about the act of writing letters and what that form really is about.
One paragraph in the book really worked for me in terms of how disjointed and rambling the thoughts are. This example illustrated a path that curves and twists but ultimately gets you where you need to be:
Envy and hunger move across the room toward me in a cheap blue rayon dress and last year’s slingbacks. I want to wave my menstrual flag, curled like a new shell, but forego the hotel pool in favor of running to nowhere in this New Jersey. I follow a line of trees to the house as my sister asks what’s the difference between gray and grey. We pass the sign that says 99¢ DREAMS and I say it’s like dove/pigeon.
This excerpt reminds me of a journey that follows no roads or maps but really helps you to remember the important people and things in life. One wonders what Kelly Clarkson would think about the vivid, meandering ideas directed at her in this collection.