Posted 1 August 2012
Lyric Novella :: Inferno :: Chinoiserie :: My Life as Laura :: No Grave Can Hold My Body Down :: The Children :: Messages :: Surrender When Leaving Coach :: People Are Strange :: The Planets :: Doll Studies
Fiction by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Translated from the German by Lucy Renner Jones
Seagull Books, October 2011
Hardcover: 140pp; $15.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
Lyric Novella, by Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, was published in 1933. The novella is slim. This edition, translated by Lucy Renner Jones, adds more weight with a translator’s introduction and an afterword that examines Schwarzenbach’s life and literary influences. I wanted, first, to let this lyric of youth and obsessive love stand on its own, to be convinced by the writing rather than be influenced by all the interpretation.
The narrator has fled from Berlin to a small country town where he seeks to write about and recover from a romantic fiasco. He daydreams that his love, Sibylle, will his read his words and find them worthy. In his early twenties, he is of the haute-bourgeoisie, is well connected through an industrial family, and is being groomed for foreign service. Sibylle works as a cabaret singer and seems erratic, elusive, and out of reach. To be with her, he endangers his studies, his promising future, and his health. There are other suitors, older and more experienced. We get few clues as to what drives her. The young man does not try to consummate his passion but creates a drama focused exclusively on his own hopes.
In a critical moment, he discovers that Sibylle is not just driven by wild whims. She is struggling with tragic circumstances unrelated to him: the threatened loss of a beloved adopted child. “She had been preoccupied by something quite different. And now I’d found out and I felt empty when I should have felt almost relieved . . .” The child’s father, probably a lover, has been arrested. The narrator makes a fumbled attempt to intervene and help Sibylle, which backfires. “She came to the phone and told me I shouldn’t have done anything without asking her. ‘Perhaps you’re about to send the police over here,’ she said.” Sibylle flees Berlin altogether to avoid dealing the authorities. At the end, the narrator considers running away to the sea or returning to Berlin, back to his comforts, back to Sibylle’s theater:
And then, all of a sudden, it hits me with force: Sibylle won’t be there any more. . . . How could I forget this? I’d gone away, knowing what that means. But it hadn’t been clear to me. . . . So this is sacrifice and justice. But I don’t understand the first thing about it; I am just blind with pain. . . .
I won’t drive to the sea.
I won’t drink with sailors.
I won’t give Sibylle these pages.
When I return, she won’t be there.
It is hard to be patient with this narcissism.
Schwarzenbach creates this unreliable voice while situating the question of blindness in a larger context that goes beyond weatherworn romantic tropes. The time is late Weimar Germany. The narrator wanders through the woods and follows after a fleeing rabbit and feels its nest: “A trace of animal warmth remained that I felt with an unfamiliar tremor. I lowered my face and nestled it there, feeling a tiny breath, almost like a human breast.” This tender moment gives way to excitement in the village when the annual hunt opens, though festivities are apparently not as grand as before the war. The local upper class prepares to go out with guns and dogs to shoot and kill the forest fauna. Hunting jargon, the narrator admits, is not unfamiliar from his “other” life, which he now eschews. He thinks of Sibylle defending an old starving dog from the cruelty of its owner.
By 1933, the social class from which this youth comes had already lost control of Hitler. They meant to use him, but he used them instead. In the local café is a portrait of Bismarck. “I walk slowly through the little town. . . . People are gathered in front of a shop, I hear a loudspeaker from a far announcing the weather. Then the daily news follows and a waltz begins . . .” What might the news have been? It is chilling to wonder but of no interest to the narrator.
Schwarzenbach struggled as a closeted lesbian and is said to have hinted later that this protagonist was a really a woman. For me, the gender ambiguity seems of lesser importance than the picture she creates of youth and class. Hiking to an old castle, the narrator finds a plaque listing honored fallen officers of Frederick the Great. “I am ashamed, I wish I had a sword . . . I read the name of my ancestors.” We know, and the author must have sensed, that soon enough this wish for a sword would be fulfilled. The protagonist nurses loneliness and turmoil of the self. Schwarzenbach doesn’t hide her understanding of romantic myopia, made more powerful for the indirection and subtlety used to show what the protagonist refuses to see, yet that is all around him.
Poetry by Dante Alighieri
Translated from the Italian by Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press, August 2012
Hardcover: 352pp; $35.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
As far as serious, professional literary translation goes, Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno tests the boundaries of acceptability. Just how far afield from the original text the translator may venture yet still be found to be arguably holding true to the original is relentlessly challenged. Bang contends that since “Dante paid homage to poets and figures who meant something to him and to his readers; he appropriated stories once told by Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and sometimes adapted them to suit his purposes,” her translation likewise will “include, through allusion, some of the poets and storytellers who have lived and left a mark in the time since Dante wrote.”
The extensive use of footnotes by Bang—as evidentiary indicators of her translation/reading practice—is most usefully exciting. Among the poets making repeat appearance are Shakespeare, Milton, John Berryman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Keats, and T.S. Eliot. She acknowledges and welcomes the fact that a figure such as Tiresias is as likely to be known to current day readers via Ovid (who is Dante’s source) as well as Eliot, citing The Waste Land in a footnote alongside Ovid’s own lines. Such practice enlivens the translated text itself by widening the scope of the reader’s various approaches to the original, offering grounding in what may be more familiar, more recent texts.
Bang not only draws upon previous English translations of Dante, she riffs off lines by numerous poets (predominantly those writing in English) coming after him. Her sources include both those who make specific, direct reference to Dante, such as Eliot in The Waste Land, as well as those who do not directly cite Dante but whose work shows some measure of regard for him. In this way, she acknowledges not only where her own wording has been borrowed or influenced by choices other poets have made, but also notes, or otherwise guesses at, where other poets have perhaps found inspiration through Dante in wording their own poems, which she has then incorporated into her translation. By “bringing the poem into the present,” Bang reassesses and joins in the crowd of responses to Dante’s classic across a broad historical swath of the Western poetic tradition, magnifying the irrefutable dominance of the poem’s influence.
It’s a rather rare day when reading Dante you find lines dolloped with such contemporary allusions:
Unless you’re wearing a Halloween mask,
You must be Venèdico Caccianemico.
What brings you to this bitter Sing Sing?
Bang’s mixture of a more classical Dante reference to an individual personality of his day, sandwiched between the contemporary references, works well stylistically and brings fresh light for seeing just how relevant Dante’s work was to his own time and place while proving how it might be seen as pertinent to our own era. The footnote for the above lines reminds us that “Sing Sing is a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York” while also noting that Dante’s original word here is “salse,” which (according to her source, Dante scholar William Warren Vernon) refers to Le Salse, a spot outside Bologna “where criminals were punished in various ways; where pimps and such-like were flogged, where perhaps robbers were buried head downwards.” Sing Sing is a fairly notoriously known prison. Bang’s substitution in this case is quite apt. Rather than leave the foreign sounding location without any current relevancy in ears of today’s readers, she locates a comparable locale equally vivid to many contemporary readers.
While Bang’s is clearly not the most academically rigorous of translations, it is a tellingly revealing exposé of how poets read and thereby write. Bang lets the reader in on the echoes she hears as a poet reading Dante. If nothing less, she gives the reader one more poet’s notebook from which the more in-tune reader might search out further sources worth fleshing out. The texts from which Bang herself borrows, learning as she goes—and no doubt continues to draw upon—will benefit any reader, but would-be poets will reap the greatest reward. Bang shows how things work in poetry. In words are words. Poems speak to poems: poet to poet, reader to reader. There is no other way to engage in the poetic practice than borrowing as you go. A debt is always owed, and the writing pays no attention to historical time and circumstances outside of its own concerns. Immediate and raw, Bang brings Dante into her own reading/writing cairn and offers readers efficient means of following her as she accomplishes the task.
Poetry by Karen Rigby
Ahsahta Press, January 2012
Paperback: 64pp; $17.50
Review by Alyse Bensel
The lush and tactile imagery of Chinoiserie overwhelms the senses to invigorate a poetic world full of objects, people, and places. Spanning cities and centuries, Karen Rigby’s debut collection and winner of the Ahsahta Press 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize enraptures the reader through vivid and carefully rendered description, from flowers to fabrics to street scenes. A noteworthy collection of free verse engaged in shape and line, Chinoiserie enthralls throughout each poem, always connected to the senses.
A series of poems interspersed throughout the collection renders women and their bodies. In “Red Dress,” sinuous and dropped lines sway across the page as the speaker ruminates:
every woman has read
scandal in a red dress. Because the body hums
the armor. Because red announces
a lone hibiscus
behind Rita Hayworth’s ear . . .
The poem derives power from the anaphora as it reads into the decades of history behind the red dress. Each moment of figurative language carries momentum as the poem culminates to lay claim:
Choose red for hubris—
through your lip—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
susuranndo like fists.
Historical figures of women resonate as well, such as in “Norma Desmond Descending the Staircase as Salome,” where the iconic character from Sunset Boulevard claims:
I could live forever
raising my own hand to my neck,
each time surprised by its cool pulse.
In that kohl-rimmed prime
I calculate seductions stair by stair.
These seductions take a darker turn in “Knife. Bass. Woman.” where the speaker contemplates while handling a knife: “I know why a man rapes / before dawn: for the red-rimmed eye, / fearful and waiting,” and continues “Maybe her skin smelled / like pilings near the water’s edge— / wood-rot, sweet.”
The perishable and temporary, rendered into various art forms, hold a primary concern for many ars poetica in the collection. The speaker details the painting “Cebolla Church” by Georgia O’Keeffe, describing “Not a finger of dust line sills— / not a spine or lizard scale. // It could be any thumb-shaped blur.” Other poems move to cinema, such as in “Maps We Have Produced in Technicolour,” where the speaker describes moments from the film Splendor in the Grass, in separated segments of varying length and structure. The opening segment begins in a flurry of movement, narrating: “Of sirens spliced in reels, voices brandied in the defunct dramas— / pave the prairie with expectation, but oil runs furthest / from the road you thumb back.” Commentary on the film is lined in brief, poignant moments, such as “When the body bent like brushwork, / quarter-notes beat against the reservoir.” The movement from sound to sound creates an echoing effect throughout the poem, as each segment builds upon the next.
With every poem capturing vivid moments in eloquent detail, Chinoiserie encapsulates a poetry collection of devotion to the art of poetics, inviting readers to feast on this skillfully crafted collection.
How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder
and Found Myself
Nonfiction by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
Press 53, October 2011
Paperback: 183pp; $17.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
Kelly Ferguson’s book chronicles the two weeks she spent retracing the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book opens in an antique clothing and costume shop in Missoula, Montana, where Ferguson buys her outfit for the trip: a floor-length bright blue flowered dress, the closest available facsimile of a prairie dress Laura would have worn. To explain her decision to make this journey, Ferguson reveals that she’s been obsessed with Laura since her mother gave her the yellow-covered Harper Trophy Edition box set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books for her sixth birthday. Ferguson not only reads the books, she immerses herself in them; she carries the characters around in her head like imaginary friends.
Ferguson describes how, as a child, she believed that Laura understood her and how reading the books helped calm her anxieties. In her mid-thirties, Ferguson again turns to the books for advice when she realizes that while everyone around her has moved on with life, she is stuck—she’s still living in Durham sixteen years after graduating from the University of North Carolina, still waiting tables as she’s done since her sophomore year. She decides that she needs a change, and, like her heroine Laura, Ferguson heads west. On her way to Montana, she sees a road sign advertising the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead, inspiring her pioneer journey. Admitting that she feels like she’s never grown up, Ferguson plans to retrace “the physical path of Laura’s coming of age” in order to “relive and rebuild” her own.
She begins in Pepin, Wisconsin, where she dons the prairie dress for the first time. Ferguson describes in hilarious detail the ordeal of suiting up in this dress that is about half a size too small: “I began the gymnastic routine required to get in the dress, like a prizefighter performing his warm-up exercises.” Self-conscious in her costume, the first time she wears it in public she imagines Willie Oleson (a character from the books) showing up to taunt her.
Ferguson’s obsession with Laura and the books is apparent. She frequently compares herself to Laura and her life to Laura’s, and she finds solutions to her dilemmas by imagining what Laura would do. Tempted to call her boyfriend, who hasn’t called her in days, Ferguson decides that if Laura could survive a long winter by subsisting only on coarse brown bread, she can wait one more day for a phone call. Ferguson calls her boyfriend “My Manly,” the nickname Laura gave her husband Almanzo. Ferguson’s Manly gives her kitschy gifts that she compares to the trinkets Laura’s family collected through their travels. She daydreams about their elaborate South Dakota prairie wedding and her trousseau of “petticoats, bustles, a polonaise, a lace jabot.” So engrossed is Ferguson in her adventure that she sometimes introduces herself to strangers as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Ferguson’s vivid descriptions of the landmarks she visits juxtaposed with stories about these places from the books provide the reader with visual documentation of the changes these places have undergone. She enlivens these accounts with historical data about record-breaking weather phenomena, the Indian Removal Act, and the Dust Bowl.
Ferguson’s pivotal moment occurs when she detours off her charted course to follow a sign pointing toward Carthage, South Dakota. Carthage is where Chris McCandless—the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild—worked before heading to Alaska, where he starved to death in the snow. The writer compares McCandless, John Thornton from Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and Almanzo Wilder as described in The Long Winter, concluding that unlike these risk takers, her “fear of change, fear of consequences, had kept [her] stuck.” She realizes that she must decide to either “risk and come of age, or wander in circles.”
As a result of this revelation, Ferguson begins to understand and accept herself after years of feeling weird, invisible, like she didn’t belong. She’s then surprised when strangers begin striking up conversations with her. Her final destination is the last house where Laura lived and where she wrote her books. Here Ferguson finds strength and inspiration in her heroine, who, like Ferguson, was a literary late bloomer who first lived her life in order to write about it later.
After the journey ends and the romance with Manly fails, Ferguson moves to New Orleans and writes this book about her adventure. Her humor animates her prose, and her thoughtful ruminating resonates. Anyone who cherishes a childhood hero will appreciate this book, as will anyone whose life has faltered on the road to adulthood.
Poetry by Aaron McCollough
Ahsahta Press, October 2011
Paperback: 128pp; $17.50
Review by Gina Myers
Aaron McCollough’s fourth book, No Grave Can Hold My Body Down, is the most ambitious project we’ve seen released by the young author. In this book-length series, each section is titled after the songs on John Fahey’s album America—in fact, if you’ve followed McCollough’s work in recent years you would have seen some of these pieces, or versions of, published in journals as “selections from John Fahey’s America.” The book’s title recalls Johnny Cash, which along with Fahey and mentions of “Little Sadie,” “Tom Dooley,” Charley Patton, and the blues, places this collection squarely in conversation with the American songwriting tradition.
Many of the things that were at stake for these early songwriters are also at stake for McCollough, and what he presents is sort of an “end-of-the-world blues.” Further, he reaches deep into American spiritual tradition, and he finds something unsettling about where the promise of the “city on the hill” has found itself today, where the promise of redemption conflicts with environmental catastrophe, where the ground we are to lie down in is poisoned by our own hand, but where, still, our own salvation is inextricably tied up with that of the nation. In “Jesus Is a Dying Bedmaker,” McCollough writes:
I am blue lord with pallor blue today
waiting for the countenance up or down
and the tuning of strings how can I pray
with these fingers or anything of mine
sick with seeing right through to the return
to my america in which I am
my nation’s pale blue shadow turning in
the sheets the fire in my shoulder the yard
the giant yard of the nation body
prison way of being in creation
american prison of the soul, lord,
I love or not, how do I love from here
The struggle contains both highs and lows, as McCollough explains: “It is the special circumstance of abundance / and abjection that makes for the blues.” And like the many blues singers who have come before him, McCollough actively takes part in the act of hailing pleasure while hailing pain, as he puts it. The questions that arise throughout the collection arise through belief, through the promises that have been made. In the long poem “America,” physically divided in half by a tower of hash marks, the speaker states: “believe // yourself enough to doubt yourself.” In “Mark 1:15,” the speaker claims: “I cannot believe in damnation / only salvation from trouble in mind.” And this series, along with the many songs referenced throughout it, seems to be the work of troubled minds, bewildered and in search of peace.
No Grave Can Hold My Body Down is a wide-ranging and challenging collection that contains both lyric and prose passages. And though at its center appears to be a struggle for spiritual salvation, the struggle is for something much greater than the individual. Occasionally the series turns back on and contradicts itself, but in that way it echoes its subject. As Whitman wrote that he contains multitudes, so too do each of us, and so too does whatever it is that calls itself “America.”
Poetry by Paula Bohince
Sarabande Books, April 2012
Paperback: 80pp; $14.95
Review by Trena Machado
Hornets, locusts, bees, trees, the heart: recurring images bring us into the river, the river we ride inside us in Paula Bohince’s The Children. Bohince spares children no respite due to young age in “Pussy Willow”:
Faint as flame-in-wind,
I was born, cupped inside a fist
and carried everywhere,
even to the formidable river . . .
We are immersed in the throbbing hardness of life from birth. Yet, as our hearts ache with the bruised wine of it, we are in love with life, knowing in our gut it is an unreachable other: “virus in my heart. Branches / salted with buds, soft- / eyed on a sill.” We are in the midst of the humming, invisible difficulty always. In “The Peacock,” the young son whose father had “tired of his wife, of them” still sees his father:
His black hair with sunlight on it.
Something to recall as beautiful, in the future. As the sewer was
in summer. Little childhood river.
Bohince’s images are constructed of a series of solitary metaphors waving like the tentacles of sea anemones in the ambience of each poem, as in “The Children.” “If the wind had been less gutsy”—the wind, that big thing we confront—and “those dirty pacifiers we suck”: hope, expectation, longing, yearning. Deciphering how the series of metaphors connects throughout a poem stretches vision to experience life’s dark glitter, often by way of Biblical allusions used in a non-dogmatic, Flannery O’Connor-type excavation of being. This excavation is so elusive that only the accumulation of sparse, disconnected words spread over several stanzas evokes the haunting shadow, as in “Mechanical Horse with Girl and Bees,” with the words “Gabriel’s, horse, Easter chocolate, uplifted hooves, spring coat, crowning, violently so.” The elusiveness of the tangle of being alive grips us, the words so well-placed as to be seamless between a natural expression and the internal apocalyptic horse we ride, revealing that we are dark creatures electrified by the unknown. And, in “Spring”: “Snow has melted from bark and pooled. With nowhere to turn, / making this place so fertile.” The trapped pressure of living is the fertility.
Embedded in the series of metaphors as we make meaning out of Bohince’s loose nets are the switches in the poems’ directions—clean, slick, workable as in “Owl in Retrograde,” going from the anthropomorphic metaphor of an owl’s survival and its choices to a married couple to an “us”:
Both of us
the soft column of silence
between us meaning, You’ve made me a home. Where self-
loathing used to reside, it has been
banished, the roof of us enameled and moon-
struck as a compass.
Who are the children? “We” are the children, at birth, at death, and as humanity. We are struck down from the beginning by the glittering darkness of the world. We are the “children, scowling and strange, / the fruit of the hived tree, / who point.” Metaphor itself is how we deal with the river sweeping us along: “A proxy pain / Stands for the larger intangible.” And, then, stepping outside of metaphor: “that if I looked long enough, / with enough reverence . . .” No metaphor—just clarity . . . our pureness . . . and ultimately, our childness.
Poetry by Piotr Gwiazda
Pond Road Press, January 2012
Paperback: 62pp; $16.00
Review by Joanna Kurowska
Piotr Gwiazda’s Messages includes twenty-two poems (some of which are cycles of three to seven parts) and an interview with the author. The collection opens with a quotation from Joe Milutis’s Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, which describes “materialist interpretations” as “poor readings of rationality.” Gwiazda’s very first poem elaborates this theme further, by expanding poetry’s cognitive domain to “anything, anything”; whereas the poet’s task is “to translate the anything”—in other words, to show things’ true significance, as this excerpt demonstrates: “You think this is freedom, / but it’s a Chinese toy.”
The collection’s topics range from recording the “signs of time” to deeply personal expressions of alienation and quest. In his interview, Gwiazda observes that a poet should “Write against. Write across”—that is, “question established moralities” and “counter passivity and indifference.” Poetry fails (he argues) if it attempts to provide the reader with a “message”; that is, with a piece of an “established morality” or “wisdom.” Instead, poets should “pay attention to the violence that shapes the current global order and acknowledge [their] own complicity with it.” Indeed, the strength of Gwiazda’s poems often lies in their evoking images devoid of any moral categorization. The poet wants the readers to see, while leaving them with the task of drawing their own conclusions, as in the poetic cycle “Three Pieces For Two Hands”:
I’m walking across a parking lot
soon to be replaced
by luxury condominiums.
To the right, a shopping cart.
To the left,
a dead squirrel.
This very brief poem captures the ever-growing encroachment of urban structures onto whatever is left of nature. It bespeaks of social hierarchies (a parking lot juxtaposed to luxury condominiums), and of helplessness or indifference of the lyrical subject who, busy with answering a phone call, ignores what he sees. Another example of such poignant simplicity is the following excerpt from the same cycle: “I’ve never stopped looking for the glove / I lost twenty years ago.”
Here, again, the subject’s sense of loss and nostalgia is expressed with impressive economy. The collection also captures its reader through many graceful metaphors, as for example in the poem “Scenic Décor”:
this tree no longer recognizes itself
in the mirror of our expectations:
now it’s a robot ablaze with intelligence,
now a bad cop, now a mullah
with a glass eye, now a collapsing star,
and now a thing unknown.
The “thing unknown” leads us to another motif reverberating in the collection, namely “people’s right to illusion.” The somewhat self-defeating term “illusion” seems to pertain here to anything beyond “materialistic interpretations” on the one hand and “established moralities” (including the “metaphysics”) on the other. Following Joe Milutis, Gwiazda suggests (in the interview) that the “illusive” should be rather perceived as the “elusive”—the “ether” that is “all over the place” while “that place is nowhere to be found” (qt. from Milutis). This opens endless possibilities at interpreting the world, while the world itself is perceived as wonder—a theme inherent, it seems, in Gwiazda’s poetic epistemology.
Another recurring theme is that of transition, pertaining to the subject’s transfer (immigration) to the U.S. The country of origin remains unnamed; it is depicted as a “colony / with busy airports, its capital burned twice.” Elsewhere, we read about Warsaw as “the city he desperately wants to revisit. / The city he has abandoned” (the poem “Clouds Moving In”). Paradoxically, the poem’s protagonist (“he”) is different than the lyrical subject, who has “never been to Warsaw.” The destination—America—is viewed either from the position of a foreigner or (gradually) by someone who is part of America’s social fabric. In the first instance, America is depicted as a dream: “Before America, there was the idea of America. / We’ve been surprised, deceived”; in the second instance, the subject becomes an insider engaged—again, gradually—in America’s problems: “Topic du jour: torture. Is it good or bad for America. / It certainly makes it tougher, more competitive. / Poetry, on the other hand, makes it softer and more humane.” Finally, the “onlooker” confronts the very essence of identity, language:
Cursed with the burden
to rename all things
to translate language—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You ask schoolchildren
what exactly they mean by
basketball, apple, mother.
If anything can be suggested to the readers of this rich, diverse, and very interesting collection, it seems apt to advise that they read the poems first, then the interview (which, sensibly, is placed at the end of the collection). In the interview, Gwiazda speaks as the poet but also as a literary critic. Several of his statements may need more precise definitions and/or further elaboration. Hearing the author’s critical voice enriches the book immensely but if the reading of his poetry comes next, willy-nilly, it becomes a detective’s work. Reading the poems first allows meeting Gwiazda as the “creative persona” (an idea borrowed from Katia Mitova), leaving the encounter with the “created persona” of the literary scholar/critic for dessert.
Poetry by Joel Lewis
Hanging Loose Press, June 2012
Paperback: 124pp; $18.00
Review by Pia Aliperti
“You’re reading the poems of a man,” Joel Lewis offers in Surrender When Leaving Coach, “who feels all the time / . . . like he’s rooting about / in the ruins of a cheap Pompeii.” Pompeii, for Lewis, is the familiar bus line along Staten Island’s Port Richmond Avenue that he will return to throughout the book, among the other well-worn routes he will cull for the daily strange, the repetitive, the hilarious, and the ephemeral. “Once again my obsession with / the motion of buses, trains and canal boats,” Lewis notes in the title poem of the collection, named for the instructions printed on the old bus tickets of his New Jersey youth. These poems look to the past even as the trains in them lumber to their stations on schedule. “In an absolute theater of time,” Lewis says, “everything happens at once.”
Scattered throughout the collection, Lewis’s series of “Mass Transit Journal” poems catalogues what he notices en route with plenty of over-the-shoulder reading and lively eavesdropped conversations. Thoreau is here. William Carlos Williams mingles with headlines from the Staten Island Advance. A March showdown between “scam guy” and “sharp-dressed business type black guy” on the S46 to Bement Avenue. A lion tamer’s daughter. One crisp morning brings a man puking up his morning coffee—the “hoodie version / of a Roman gargoyle fountain.”
Lewis’s second obsession? The “big maps in [his] head,” the internal reference point he carries with him for how the lines of the familiar landscapes have shifted. “Am I traveling too much / and not really getting anywhere??” Lewis wonders at “2/5, 2:00 pm, 165, Westwood to Hackensack.” “How did I get here?” he asks again in “The Tasks of the Youth Leagues.” Every locality is read and reread like “a dog-eared chasm.” “Though I can recognize the neighborhood,” he admits in “Walking Main Street, Hackensack,” “I can’t be the T-shirt existentialist I once was.”
When William Carlos Williams, another New Jersey poet, wrote of “a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water” he described a slipping way of life. Lewis, too, is interested in past lives in a collection where “nothing sits still” and “each curb” is “a sinking world.” Lewis waves “A thick goodbye to old Hackensack Saturdays / with farmers swarming off up-county’s / Susquehanna trains.” An old New Jersey market town, Hackensack has seen its Main Street institutions close down but manages to hold onto The White Manna, a local greasy spoon. “Some people say Hackensack / should shut down if / ‘the Manna’ closes” a resident tells Lewis, the local version of Byron’s “when falls the Coliseum.” In Lewis’s homage to Williams, “so much depends” on the bun and patty:
to life is White Manna’s
potato flour hamburger rolls the color
of Cheetos – which contrasts nicely
with that oniony blotch of
Meat Patty X.
Against this backdrop, Lewis introduces external voices, perhaps plucked from his reading as the train stop-starts up the long avenue. We meet Spanky Bannon, of the Mariana, Arkansas Jones Bar-B-Que, in “Spanky Bannon Removes His Famous Pan-Fried Bologna Sandwich from the Menu.” “It was too much trouble / for a buck,” Bannon explains. “People wanted mustard. / People wanted mayonnaise.” And Hector Boiardi, owner of his family restaurant in Cleveland, who in trying to keep up with the popularity of his savory spaghetti became Chef Boyardee of Spaghetti-o fame. As for the old family name, Boiardi says: “sacrifices were necessary for progress.” Though energized by his travels, Lewis’s profile poems, like those of Bannon and Boiardi which break their own words into nuanced lines, subtly bemoan what has been lost. The visit to Hackensack ends with a somewhat disgusted Lewis headed back to the station “walking as if I’ve stepped / in dogshit.”
Lewis is the expert of weaving supreme detail (“the waitress with the baking soda hair” or “Manhattan’s cubic zirconium nightscape”) with a well-placed lull. A hush, for instance, in the midst of a party: “I was there, but barely. / You were there as a lovely / human snow.” Part collector, parts gleeful participant and historian, Lewis has been described as a descendent of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams or of the “New York School,” but I don’t know that Lewis would map himself this way, as a trajectory of here to there. No tale in Surrender When Leaving Coach ends quite like you think it will. There is always new territory to cover, new items as in “A Hole in the Wallet,” to add to the “laundry bag / of sub-factoids”:
blank land may be
out there and there just might be
roadmaps for purchase
The collection ends on a New Jersey train just as briskly as it began, with a fresh map and a nagging question.
Fiction by Eric Gamalinda
Black Lawrence Press, June 2012
Paperback: 115pp; $16.00
Review by David Breithaupt
If Surrealists told stories around the campfire, they might do well to bring a copy of Eric Gamalinda’s new book of short fiction, People Are Strange. Here is a collection that contains a swath of wide-ranging episodes that take the reader through a gamut of emotions, not the least of which is surprise.
His work reminds me of when I took the bus to work, before I had the beat-up car I drive now. Strangers would approach me while I waited for my ride. They would talk to me as though we were long lost friends and clue me in on the latest episodes of their lives. Not surprisingly, the stories were often bizarre, but I (almost) always appreciated the little snapshots of a life un-glimpsed. Gamalinda’s stories are like that; they draw you in and suddenly you find yourself in another world.
Gamalinda was born and raised in Manila and now lives in New York City. Many of his stories touch on his place of birth in one way or another. His first piece, titled “Formerly Known As Bionic Boy,” involves a young man in Manila with special powers. He becomes known, especially in the tabloids, as the “Bionic Boy” and performs “parlor games” for generals and barons.
Bionic Boy is finally invited to the Palace by Imelda Marcos to meet the President. They are so impressed with his powers that they adopt him and make him an official Marcos family member. All goes well until Bionic Boy uses his powers to predict the downfall of the Marcos regime. This news is of course unwelcome and he is cast out of the family.
Fade to New York City. Bionic Boy begins a new life with a new name, Efren X, with his powers in question, now obsessed with working on his mysterious “science experiments.” Imelda Marcos eventually ends up in New York, being tried for her part in the sins of her husband. Perhaps she believes him now about his power of predictions, but Efren is not interested; still, he cannot help but find himself drawn to Imelda’s plight. He finds himself on the steps of the Federal Building while she is hustled in for the trial:
Efren jostles for space. Suddenly he finds himself standing face to face with her. She looks straight at him. Straight in his eyes, her expression unchanging. Then she is swept up by journalists and guards and disappears in the Federal Court House. Efren catches a glimpse of the hem of her absurd gown. It has gathered some of the spring mud. The crowd soon rushes after them. He finds himself alone on the steps. Litter flies about him in small, tattered cyclones.
He walks home, leaving Imelda to her fate. The reader is left to imagine the reasoning of Efren X and his abandonment of Imelda Marcos. The reader puts his or herself in his shoes—what would you have done? What was there to be done? I would have gone home too.
In contrast, Gamalinda’s story “Elvis in Manila” is a more apparent struggle with identity. Eddie Valdez is about to do a final performance as “Elvis of Manila,” with a cast of fellow celebrity impersonators booked for a “Nostalgia Night” at the Civic Center in Pasadena. Eddie has been living in California for some time with his wife who took a job in the state. Back in Manila, Eddie was a mover and shaker in his Elvis role. He endorsed candidates, performed for President Marcos and was signed by film companies to do several movies. But that was then.
One day he wakes up and shaves his side burns. It is the beginning of the end of Elvis of Manila. He misses being Eddie Valdez, if he ever was Eddie Valdez; like the real Presley, Eddie finds himself trapped in his own persona. His struggle is dealt with in heartrending tenderness by Gamalinda, who perhaps knows firsthand about the loss of identity that comes from moving from one country to another. Read about the final performance of Elvis of Manila and you will be changed too.
The book’s most powerful story for me is his closer, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” The narrator of this story is now living in New York City and recounts his upbringing in Manila and the influence of a grandfather he never knew, one Jesus Trinadad. He describes his religious family and how they would sing “Yes, Jesus Loves me” in school, but the real Jesus in his life was his grandfather. The grandson reconstructs a life he never knew through the books he inherited from his grandfather and, in turn, is influenced by these tomes and their ideas:
Judging by the books he read, I like to think he felt the same way I do about being catholic. He must have chafed under its stifling narrow-mindedness and anachronism, yet remained curious if not enthralled by its rituals. In practice, he chose deistic supernaturalism and agnostic realism, combining the beliefs of Kierkegaard and Herbert Spencer into one profound, and profoundly simplified, personal philosophy: that God, the Unknowable, leaves the world alone, but may occasionally disrupt the laws of nature to perform a miracle.
A curiosity about the afterlife leads Jesus to make a pact with two friends, that whoever among them dies first would be bound by honor to come back and share the experience with the others. One of the friends dies not long after but fails to return with a sign. Jesus is the next to die, losing his life at a young age in a tragic elevator accident. He fails to appear to the surviving friend, who eventually loses his life to Communist guerillas.
Jesus Trinadad’s widow is left to a life of “unquestioned faith.” The grandson grows up on stories of his grandfather, “bearing these fragments of histories.” In turning over aspects of a man he never knew, the narrator finds himself formed in the absence of his long dead grandfather:
Sometimes I think my life picks up where my grandfather left off—a quest for signs and meaning whose family is alleviated only by the pleasure of storytelling. I keep looking at the heavens, a universe of eternal silence. Despite my weakening resolve, I keep hoping for something to be disrupted. Call it what you will—a hitch, a miracle, a snag in the works.
After reading each of Gamalinda’s stories, I couldn’t wait to see what would come next. He is an artist with imagination who did not disappoint me in this wonderful collection of episodes. And best of all, I didn’t have to wait in inclement weather at a bus stop to be introduced to a new world. I’ll be keeping Eric Gamalinda’s name in mind for whatever else he may send our way.
Fiction by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
Open Letter, June 2012
Paperback: 227pp; $13.95
Review by Olive Mullet
The Planets, by Argentinian-born writer Sergio Chejfec, is a go-with-the-flow novel that blends the characters walking the streets of Buenos Aires with a contemplation of several subjects like dreams, friendship, memory, and the mysteries in life. What little plot there is involves a friendship between M and the narrator. M is an innocent during the turbulent time of Argentinian political abductions and executions. Living next to the train tracks, M is abducted, disappears, and then is presumably killed by an explosion, which the narrator hears.
There are no details about the narrator, except that he is writer, and few details about M, except for his house and his discoveries on the train track. M and the narrator, friends since they were teenagers, make it a point to recount stories and ideas as they walk: “I would mention things I had seen, M would describe others.” Even M’s father tells stories. In the philosophical framework, these stories are the most vivid parts, and some of them loop back to stories told earlier. They do not seem to define the friendship, except by implication. The threat of the violent period indicated by the explosion haunts the narrator while he is trying to understand life’s mysteries and define how M’s absence affects him.
M and the narrator exchange photos, while considering each a “talisman” of “questionable representability.” Thus the amorphous nature of their lives becomes a theme. “Everything seemed at once strange and familiar.”
One of M’s most vivid stories has implications for their relationship. In the story, two friends decide to change identities when they go home, not each to his own family but to the friend’s family. Since the parents are also friends, they accept the friend as their own son. Each of the boys uses the other boy’s name as his second name, so that they are already fused.
Identity—which, as they both knew, was one of the most difficult things to discover, obey, preserve, and understand—pulsed erratically within them, moving from one body to the other, shuffled in among names, memories, and beliefs: a commingling only heightened by friendship. They were equivalents. . . . A life of indeterminacy had emptied them of all interests, nothing really mattered; it had been a long time since the future held any tension for them . . . the problem . . . was both superfluous and inevitable, just like the lives of our two heroes.
A real event that M told the narrator involved an eye M found on the train tracks. “The eye to which M wanted to call attention was invisible; it was hidden in a chasm of nature.” It looked like a stone. But there were suicides on the track—another reminder of the violence around them.
M’s second story also has connections with his friend the narrator. It is a story of vagabonds, drifters, who walk in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, much like the narrator and M do: “They had displaced themselves.” They are imprisoned and when they are finally released, it takes them a long time to recognize themselves. They need to reconstruct their images from memory.
They resume their wanderings, like M and the narrator, who “move through the city like planets, following our individual trajectories while we maintain our relative positions and trace our uniform patterns.”
After M’s death, the narrator meets a mutual friend, Sito, whose parentage and occupations the narrator suspects are not true. Sito, however, does explain where the explosion originated—from siphons full of gasoline that he kept in his house. Nevertheless: “My encounter with Sito: so serendipitous it seemed like a dream, which made it obvious that M had been involved.”
The narrator admits to problems for the reader of this book:
I have on occasion wondered whether someone should read this, might think that I am proposing, or hoping to discover, through the image of M, the logic or mystery through which the people have drifted since those years [Argentina’s violent years]. The truth is that there is little to propose and even less to discover.
The novel’s progression is repetitive, circular like the walks themselves. It begins with a dream, which gets repeated later, and ends with memory. But the memory of his friend fades.
It exists only in the form of traces that grow more and more faint. If this is the future of all things, if this is the future of the past. . . . I can’t help but wonder what our role really is. [Yet] . . . we [the friends] were the same . . . we would be conjoined in mutual indistinguishability.
Such ruminations make The Planets a hypnotic, thought-provoking philosophical novel.
Poetry by Carol Guess
Black Lawrence Press, March 2012
Paperback: 84pp; $14.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Doll Studies: Forensics, a collection of tightly woven prose poems, investigates a series of crime scene dioramas portrayed with dolls and doll sets. A strong, questioning voice describes and comments on each diorama from various perspectives, piecing together a narrative built from individual scenes. Through engaging, fine-tuned poems, Carol Guess leads the reader through the dramas and mysteries left behind and reenacted with these dolls, creating a strange yet fascinating glimpse into two artistic mediums playing off one another and commenting on human fault and tragedy.
The voice of an overarching speaker narrates various poems, including the opening poem, “Aerial Rifle.” The speaker informs that
This dollhouse lesson has to do with time. I mean the way sound travels through a house asleep. Detectives learn to sweep a story clockwise for detail. Anyone might own a gun.
Short, punctuated sentences lend a quick, fragmented style to the speaker’s observations. In “What Wounds Us Starts As Gifts From Strangers,” the speaker renders a murder, commands the reader to know that
This case is retired because it’s too hard to solve, clues tucked away, invisible metal. To undo her death you have to undress her. The icebox flashes its numbered demands.
Perspective moves from omniscient and inquisitive speaker to inhabiting personas of the dolls and victims, which soon become interchangeable. In “When Dolls Love Dolls,” the speaker laments:
Nights, I curled into her back to dream, but when I turned she left me cold. Once she called me John. I’m Fred. I don’t know why she wanted speckled reindeer on the wall.
Other dolls are self-aware of their state, such as in “Annals of Dolls Ill-Formed,” where a doll claims while observing the artist at work: “Not every doll looks fine enough to die. Sometimes the scissors slip off her shoulders. Her clavicle caves, her neck dangles.” The doll goes on to confess: “With so much to do, she can’t love us all equally. My siblings and I compete to be burned. Now I’m a head on a pile, unseen among rivals vying to die.”
Macabre and tragic but with a sense of reverence for the work, the prose poems enact an only half-known narrative, the narrative of aftermath. Transfigured from visual to textual representation, the poems help the audience garner another understanding of these oftentimes gruesome scenes through an observant voice and detailed poetic craft.