Above the Waterfall
by Ron Rash
Pages: 253 pages
Reviewed by: Kathleen Brewin Lewis
The Poetry of Petrichor
A year or two ago, on Facebook of all places, I ran across a word I’d never heard before: petrichor. Its definition moved me: the good scent that accompanies the first rain after a long dry spell. I had such a crush on this word that I wrote and published a poem about it and occasionally recite it at my readings. But it’s not the sort of term you see or use on a regular basis. I hadn’t encountered petrichor again—until I read Ron Rash’s rich novel, Above the Waterfall. You might say that Rash “had me at petrichor.”
Above the Waterfall is Rash’s sixth novel, a multi-layered book that showcases his considerable skills as storyteller, poet, naturalist, and chronicler of Appalachian life. (He has also published six short story collections and five volumes of poetry.) The story is told from two alternating points of view: that of the pragmatic sheriff, Les, who at 51, is just a few weeks away from an early retirement made possible by years of payoffs from local pot growers, and that of the socially-awkward, poetic park superintendent, Becky. Both characters have been damaged by tragic events in their pasts, Becky even more so than Les. “I’m not autistic,” Becky tells Les, “I just spent a lot of my life trying to be.” They care for and are attracted to each other, but can’t seem to overcome their accustomed loneliness and years of pain to become a couple.
Through Les’ voice, Rash shows the reader his talent as a storyteller; with Becky’s voice, he evinces his gifts as a poet. “As evening’s last light recedes, a silver birch glows like a tuning fork struck,” Rash has her recount. And this: “Honeysuckle vines twine green cords, white flowers attached like Christmas lights.” So it’s no surprise that petrichor would appear in one of Becky’s chapters. “Petrichor,” she writes in her naturalist’s notebook, “the smell of first raindrops on long-dry land.” Mmm.
At the center of Les and Becky’s shared story is Gerald Blackwelder, an elderly, embittered man with a heart condition, who has lived alone for years after losing his wife and son, the latter in the Iraq war. Becky checks up on him regularly and solicitously, as if he were one of her beloved grandparents. Gerald’s land adjoins a fancy new fishing and golf resort. Gerald occasionally cuts through the resort to visit a place he cherishes, the still, clear waters above the waterfall, where the native speckled trout thrive.
After the resort owner complains that Gerald is scaring the visitors to his resort and poaching fish, and orders him to stay off the land, the trout below the waterfall are poisoned. Gerald is suspected of the deed. Les is pressured by the developer and his public relations director, childhood friend C.J., to arrest him, and by Becky to leave Gerald alone. Les’ final task before retiring becomes solving the mystery of who-actually-done-it—and why.
Because Above the Waterfall is written by Ron Rash, the reader can expect to find bleak depictions of the devastation that crystal methamphetamine is causing in Appalachia; Rash writes consistently of the horrible scourge of the drug on the region. He also evinces a deep appreciation for the natural world in his work. Becky may be the naturalist and poet, but Les is similarly appreciative of the flora and fauna of his native land. When he drives into the national forest to look for evidence of meth production at one of the campsites, he can’t help but notice the rare lavender wildflower, Blazing Star, blooming amid the empty Sudafed packets, the syringes, the used-up Bic lighters, and the plastic Mountain Dew bottles. He takes the time to spot five more of the endangered plants.
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the paintings of Edward Hopper figure into the novel to highlight Rash’s themes of spirituality in the natural world and a sense of isolation in the modern world. The cave art in Lascaux makes an appearance as well. But it is Becky’s (Rash’s) poetry that sets this novel apart: “If not today then soon, gray clouds will gather. Let it come so I might hear leaf splats, watch the wet blotch, taste on my tongue, feel on my face the pentecost of petrichor.” The book ends with a gorgeous poem and Les’ hope that he and Becky can forge a way to be “alone together.”
Kathleen Brewin Lewis is the author of two poetry collections, Fluent in Rivers and July’s Thick Kingdom, both published by FutureCycle Press. Her poems, short stories, and essays have also appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Still: The Journal, Cider Press Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. V: Georgia, among other publications. An avid hiker, Kathleen’s writing focuses on the natural world. A graduate of Wake Forest University and of the MA in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State, she is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Ron Rash Poetry Award.
Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded
by John Guzlowski
Press: Aquila Polonica Press
Date: March 7, 2016
Reviewed by: Sandra Kolankiewicz
Lives Tattered by War
If you have read one of John Guzlowski’s poems about his parents’ Nazi work camp experiences, most likely you remember it, even if you don’t remember who wrote it. I still feel the anxiety of trying to give support to a man who is being crucified—a feeling created by his poem “What My Father Believed.” If you know Guzlowski’s work, you are in for a one-stop treat of familiar territory, a golden arc of experience, exquisite anguish, compassion, outrage, and love. If you have never had the fortune of exploring his, get ready.
The title “Echoes of Tattered Tongues” creates many images. First I consider the physicality of the tongue; in death it no longer speaks. Then I think of ‘tongue’ as language: WW II happened in so many languages that conveying the experience is blocked without translation. Finally, I understand that, upon their arrival to the United States, Guzlowski’s parents were forced to speak a tongue unfamiliar to them. Except for their small neighborhood and apartment, Polish was no longer available to express and to be understood.
The book is divided in four parts, some of them drawn from former collections. Structurally, the book begins at the end. The first piece is an essay about the “Wooden Trunk” that came with them from Poland. So many families have a trunk, idea vessel to cart your few belongings with you to another country. Guzlowski is also his parents’ ‘trunk.’ Without knowing or realizing it, he internalized their voices—and the stories and voices of all the people they had known. Through his description, we physically see the trunk, but when he writes his poems, we discover the nonmaterial contents of the trunk. Just like his father transformed the prison walls into a vehicle to carry their belongings, John has been transformed their pain into a greater purpose. He writes the story of the trunk, paralleling its existence with his mother’s death, like a coffin. Though the reader mourns the loss of the trunk, Guzlowki knows it was good to let it go.
How fitting that the poem which follows is about the destruction of the Polish Cavalry, which marked the beginning of the unraveling of his parents’ lives. Eventually, they retired to Arizona, but still we see in the poems the need not to waste things, born out of a poverty that few can imagine. The poems about his mother have an anger, a tenderness, an awareness of unforgiveable cruelty, the finality of death—we hear her voice dispensing wisdom, recounting mindboggling torture. Safe in Arizona, the sun shining above—but always the darkness beneath.
One of the most brilliant aspects of this book is that these poems are the poems of anyone who has suffered in war. Whether you were/are a Jew, a Pole, Syrian refugee or— you name the international disaster—John Guzlowski tells the refugees’ story. He writes of unimaginable terror from 70 years ago—but he might as well be describing our current world. This poem from “ IV. Liberation”: “But the British moved them again to another camp,/ and they had to leave the wood, even though/my father tried to carry some on his back./ And it was cold in the new place, and many of the babies died, and my sister was very sick,/ maybe from drinking the dirty water.” Or from “V. What the War Taught Her”: She learned that the world is a broken place/ where no birds sing, and even the angels/ cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.”
However, in Guzlowki’s work, there is always hope. For all the terror, the mutuality of sorrow creates an interdependence: “Maybe this was why my mother stayed./ She knew only a man worthless as mud,/ worthless as a broken dog, would suffer/ with her through all of her sorrow.” (“Why My Mother Stayed with My Father”) His father plants an orange tree when he is nearly too sick to move. Why is it hopeful when his dying father calls out for his own mother? Because love endures. And “Souls Migrating in the Rain”! When you are a middle aged orphan (which we will all be, unless we die first, when we lose our parents), you’ll be moved by his description of the sea’s “…moving first toward me/ and then away, toward me/ and then away” as your past dissipates with their passing.
Section II, “Refugees,” is a mix of short creative nonfiction pieces and poems. Like all of Guzlowski’s work, in spite of its focus on the Polish experience, his observations and ability to channel the refugee’s experience is astounding. Disorientation, expectation, relocation, finding a job and a place to live. His family ended up in Chicago—in an area where many had similar histories to the Guzlowski family’s. In a new city on the other side of the world, the past is ever present. Clearly Guzlowski’s parents were suffering from what we call PTSD, all wrapped up with memory, superstition, and grief. However, what strikes me constantly in his poems—which appear to have been channeled from his parents and their generation—is their decency, their sense of right and wrong, their moral compass in a world that appears not to have one, the drive to survive. Even in the poem “Fussy Eaters,” we see the mother trying to explain to her daughter the folly of restaurant food, reminding me of the mother in Ernest Gaines’ story “The Sky is Grey,” who beats her child for being unable to kill a redbird because it’s pretty. Mother knows that if he is going to survive, he is going to have to be able to do what it takes to get food.
On the second page of Book III, “The War,” Mrs. Guzlowski is quoted directly. When asked if she would like to send a message to the audience at one of her son’s readings about the war, she says “Yes. Tell them we weren’t the only ones.” You have to read only the titles to understand this section of the book: “Landscape with Dead Horses, 1939,” “There Were No Miracles,” “III. German Soldiers Stealing from the Dead.” Words like “Cattle Train” and “Boxcar.” I’m mesmerized, for this morning as I listened to the news reports from the Middle East, I was holding Echoes of Tattered Tongues in my hands and marveling that even when he writes about war sixty years ago, he’s writing about war now and its rules of decency: “If a German soldier comes to you/ and asks you to shoot the man/ next to you because that man/ isn’t even bones in his striped suit,/ tell the soldier, “No, you’re the Devil….We are brothers in death and brothers in death don’t torment each other….”
The epilogue presents one of my favorite stories about Guzlowski’s mother. She is 83 and dying, unburdening herself of memories, telling him one story after another, each worse than the one before. John stops her, doesn’t allow her to tell a story he knows will be “the worse thing [he’s] ever heard.” I don’t know if she was just angry that he wouldn’t allow her to speak or just aware that those of us who have not directly experienced war, will always be somehow immature, but she calls him “a baby.” I don’t know why, but I love her for it.
The last poem, “In Heaven,” makes me want to be with my dead friends and relatives, eating poppy seed cake. This is a peaceful poem, made more so by the flashes of darkness provided by the “cows dying suddenly in the field.” By the end of the book, John’s family are all reunited after death, catching up on lost time, telling stories. The last line of the poem, and of the book, is, “Did you miss us?” Love, most importantly sharing love, holding a lost one in your heart, is all that survives and matters.
I’m Not Chinese
by Raymond Wong
Press: Apprentice House
Date: October 2014
Reviewed by: Charse Yun
A Homeland Excursion
Memoirs have historically been both a bane and boon in Asian American writing. Early autobiographical chronicles by Asian writers in the U.S. remain valuable today for conveying immigrant struggles. But with the explosion of memoir in the 1990’s, more recent autobiographical accounts seemed plagued by formulaic narratives. One common motif is the Americanized narrator of Asian descent who travels back to the homeland of his or her immigrant parents. The writer successfully undergoes a journey of healing and self-discovery and ultimately “comes to terms” with his or her bicultural identity.
At first glance, Raymond Wong’s I’m Not Chinese seems to be just another addition to this storyline. But that would be misleading. Wong’s work (published by the lesser-known Apprentice House in 2014), is a much more thoughtful. Although it may not reach as wide an audience, his work admirably demonstrates that what is most personal in writing can be deeply moving and transcend cliché.
The book begins in 1996 with the Raymond, a single, 30-something job counselor from California en route to Hong Kong. He is traveling with his mother, a strong, determined woman who might be called “difficult.” Twenty-eight years earlier, she separated from Raymond’s father and ran away to the U.S. with Raymond in tow. Raymond was only five at the time. There, she re-marries a white American man, who becomes a complicated step-father to Raymond. From the very outset, Raymond is not your typical Asian American narrator. In elementary school, his classmates ask, “What are you?” “British,” answers Raymond. The British, he points out, ruled Hong Kong for over fifty years.
But Raymond soon learns cheeky answers don’t translate into a sense of belonging in the States or China. When he tells his Chinese relatives that his girlfriend is Vietnamese-American, he notes: “The translation induced somber expressions, as if I’d announced the collapse of my business.”
Mother and son begin their headlong trip into Hong Kong and China, and the scenes are composed mostly of dialogue, the back-and-forth translations provided by his domineering mother. Interspersed are an abundance of tactile, finely wrought details. Wong writes with a fiction writer’s eye: “the hypnotic sweep of the windshield wipers,” the “flickering glow [of an incense stick] like a child cupping a butterfly.”
As the journey progresses, Raymond notices his mother losing steam: “Her eyes seemed distant and lost, and her shoulders slumped like the stem of a plant, once strong and vibrant, now wilting and slowly dying inside.”
He soon discovers why. Raymond is finally reunited with his real father and learns the startling secret of his parents’ divorce and his mother’s decision to abandon her husband in Hong Kong. Readers may be surprised that Wong was so much in the dark about his family history for most of his life. That his mother would not tell him may strike one as irresponsible.
But that is what makes the story compelling. Throughout, Wong describes his experiences with very little filters. Unlike other Asian American narratives, the foundation of I’m Not Chinese is not a journey to self-discovery or closure, but a stumbling upon familial secrets. This is the real thread of the story that gets pulled along by the current underneath. Even the lyrical details accentuate how disassociated Wong has become in light of his family’s wounded history. In one scene, Raymond’s mother argues bitterly over a forty dollar telephone charge at a Beijing hotel. Normally, Raymond would be annoyed. But now, he realizes his mother’s inability to find healing across generations or continents is intimately linked to her own wounds. Raymond now sees her more compassionately: “A frightened 12-year-old girl watching, helpless, as soldiers took her mother and father away.”
It’s a moving scene, yet nothing is resolved. Later, Raymond is shocked to learn his mother has never told his father that she has remarried. When he urges her to do so, her response closes the chapter: “Without answering, she turned to the window.”
In I’m Not Chinese, healing and closure may be just out of reach, but understanding and reverence for his family, Wong shows, is close at hand.
Charse Yun is a Korean American writer and translator who now lives in Seoul, S. Korea. Currently, he is a visiting professor at Korea National Open University. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he studied at UW-Madison and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he is most proud of his recent status as an alumn of Antioch University’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction.
by Lucia Cherciu
Publisher: Main Street Rag
Reviewed by: Donelle Dreese
Lucia Cherciu’s Edible Flowers is an inspiring bouquet of poems that are delicate and sturdy, lyric and narrative, beaming with images that illuminate beauty and conflict while reminding us that the past is still often with us.
The book is organized into two sections with the first titled “In this World, May It Be For Your Soul.” This robust opening list of poems takes readers on a tour through the politics of communism and the History Museum in Bucharest in the poem called “Renovations” where conflicting emotions behind a turbulent communist history are palpable on the page. Cherciu, a United States citizen originally from Romania, explores this tumultuous history in ways that captivate the reader.
“Censorship,” a poem dedicated to Romanian novelist Marin Preda, is particularly powerful in its portrayal of underground efforts to acquire great literature that was “withdrawn from all bookstores” due to its critique of communism. The poet writes, “the more it was seized, the more / we passed it around.” Cherciu’s account of censorship is lovely and signals to the reader that this is a collection of poetry that needs to be read.
The second section,”Traveling Companions” is not just a grouping of carefully nuanced poems, it is also a wonderful collection of poetic vignettes about people who will capture your imagination. Cherciu is both poet and storyteller describing people from the past who are deeply human and inspiring. In “Theft,” Cherciu describes women from her village who used to steal and trade seeds with one another and “roam around the hills / looking for confused snowdrops and wild violets.” In a nostalgic poem, “Planting Sweet William,” Cherciu recalls a neighbor woman who grew the flower Sweet William. As the poet searches a greenhouse for the plant, she is “hoping for the purple splendors of her garden.” It is this longing to bring pieces of the past into the present day that engages readers and the poem is as lovely as the flower itself. Perhaps most magnificent are the poems about her mother. In “Blueberries,” the poet writes in the opening lines, “Mother said not to crave / fruit out of season / not to dream of things / you can’t have.” The rest of the poem is just as satisfying to the reader as eating the blueberries themselves.
Cherciu pulls the collection together through the title poem “Edible Flowers,” which describes the experience of being a foreigner through images of food and the longing for grape leaves from home. She writes “At home if you run out of grape leaves / for sarmale, you can use cabbage.” But in this new home, the poet must learn what greens and flowers can be picked for eating and which plants are poisonous. Readers will enjoy moving along with the poet on this journey of discovery in this new land and culture while never forgetting the old.
The final poem of the collection is haunting. “With The Horse Through The Cobblestones” leaves us with a young boy asking the poet if she is looking for something.
Indeed, throughout this breathtaking collection of poetry, we sense that Cherciu is looking for something. We wonder if she has found it, but in the end, we are honored that she has graced us with her words and given us a glimpse into her Romanian heritage.
Donelle Dreese is a Professor of English at Northern Kentucky University. She is the author of three collections of poetry, Sophrosyne (Aldrich Press), A Wild Turn (Finishing Line) and Looking for A Sunday Afternoon (Pudding House). Donelle is also the author of a YA novella Dragonflies in the Cowburbs (Anaphora Literary) and the novel Deep River Burning (WiDo Publishing). Her poetry and fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary magazines and journals.
Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow
by Fabienne Josaphat
The Unnamed Press
Date: February 23, 2016
Reviewed by: Kelsey May
Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow:
An Action-Packed, Emotional Debut from Fabienne Josaphat
Walking the line between historical fiction and adventure novel, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow explores the mid-regime world of 1965 Haiti. The story follows two brothers: Raymond, a taxi driver and father of two, and Nicolas, a professor at a prestigious law school and a father of a newborn daughter. The entire nation lives in a violent, fear-stricken state under the rule of “Papa Doc” and his Tonton Macoutes, gun-slinging brawlers who punish anyone who speaks or acts out against the regime.
The story begins on an average evening. Raymond is waiting for his passenger to finish visiting a brothel when a handful of Macoutes roll up in a Jeep. They’re after a popular radio show host, Milot Sauveur, who spoke out against the government’s public killing of a hospital patient. In a split second decision, Raymond agrees to help Milot and his family flee. A high-speed chase ensues, and Raymond loses his fare for the day but gains a friend.
When he returns home, his wife, Yvonne, is outraged at his lack of sense. With two young daughters, he cannot afford to risk his life for strangers, she argues. Besides, they’ve fallen on tough times, thanks to the Macoutes’ strict enforcement of an early curfew, which cuts Raymond’s prime taxi hours short. Yvonne demands that he ask his brother, Nicolas, for a loan, and Raymond must swallow his pride to do so.
Meanwhile, Nicolas is facing his own battles. He has secretly compiled an entire manuscript of carefully researched evidence linking Papa Doc and an infamous prison guard to the death of a respected journalist. He is seeking to publish the manuscript abroad, but he stirs up some trouble when he lectures a little too aggressively against the government in his classroom.
Several chapters later, Nicolas is sentenced, without trial or bail, to prison to await execution, and Raymond must choose between following Yvonne and his daughters out of the country or saving the brother who always looked down on him. Josaphat weaves a lyrical tale of betrayal, secrecy, and, how loyalty strives against all odds to protect and heal the broken bonds of brotherhood. The gruesome portrayal of prison life and life under a tyrannical ruler grips readers, yet the tale is balanced with tender moments, such as Raymond’s precious scene with his niece, Amélie:
Amélie rested her face against Raymond’s chest and he sighed. He missed Adeline and Enos. He held her closer as if to compensate for their absence. Amélie was round and chubby, her skin almost as delicate as a spider web. She was different from his own children, who were frail like small twigs and black like the night; his children, who smelled like the lemongrass leaves they stirred at night in their tea when there was nothing to eat for dinner. He felt overcome with a wave of grief.
Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow places itself elegantly on the shelf with other Caribbean and Latin American historical fiction novels set in countries ruled by dictators, such as In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and Junot Diaz’s masterful The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Looking for a fast-paced, emotionally turbulent novel? Josaphat’s first novel is a short, thoroughly satisfying story on how family can outwit the enemy in even the most desperate circumstances.
Kelsey May is a member of the Diatribe collective and a regular contributor to SkipFiction. She is passionate about social justice and activism and is beginning a series of essays about community policing. Her work has recently appeared in Broken Plate, Pine Hills Review, and NonBinary Review. She has also received numerous grants and awards, including a nomination for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She is excited to get outdoors this summer by hiking, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and maybe, if she really gets her act together, camping.
by Matthew Lippman
Racing Form Press
Reviewed by: Neil Silberblatt
For those of my ethnicity and vintage, salami does not connote something that you would find in the supermarket’s refrigerated section – next to the pre-sliced, pre-packaged bologna or (heaven forbid) bacon. It is not something to be sandwiched between loaves of white bread, and should come nowhere near mayonnaise (unless that mayonnaise happens to be in the adjacent potato salad).
Rather, it is something that – as the sign in the window of Katz’s Deli on New York’s Lower East Side exhorted – you should send to “your boy in the army”. (Salami and army forming a rhyme which even Yeats would approve.) Somehow, the image of a soldier in a modern day foxhole receiving a care package, consisting of a salami, has always intrigued and delighted me.
It is also something which might (and did) hang in the kitchen – near the Jewish calendar with the “major” holidays highlighted – its skin wrapper slowly hardening and shrinking (mimicking the effect it would have on the eater’s arteries), and filling that room with its not so subtle flavor.
This aptly-titled poetry collection by Matthew Lippman has all the hallmarks of that meat – flavorful, scented, evocative, delicious, to be eaten slowly (washed down with Dr. Brown’s cream soda), and aimed squarely at the arteries.
As with Levy’s “Real Jewish” rye bread, one does not need to be a member of a certain tribe to enjoy this collection. But, it probably couldn’t hurt. There are certain words or phrases in the poems in this collection which would doubtless not be understood by those not conversant with the Mother Tongue (just as there are scenes in Woody Allen’s early movies which would elicit blank stares in Omaha or Oklahoma). It might not be a bad idea to have Leo Rosten’s “Joy of Yiddish” nearby or Google Translate on hold. That is not meant to dissuade you from picking up this book. To the contrary, it is meant to enhance your understanding of the treasures inside.
The poems bear the marks of a highly devout and deeply religious agnosticism as well as well as a healthy (albeit highly irreverent) sense of humor. The opening lines of Herman the Pig are evidence of both:
My pig, Herman, and me walked to synagogue.
I couldn’t hide him any longer.
I put a kippa on his pink head.
I thought that would make things easier.
He said, I know they are going to hate me.
I said, No, we are a lovin’ people. …
One does not need to know that “kippa” (pronounced kee-pah) means yarmulke – which means the thing the Pope wears on his head (when he is not being fancy shmancy) – to savor this poem, or its incongruous finale in which Herman the pig ascends “into the Hebrew alphabet of love and joy”.
The wrestling with faith – which members of our tribe have been doing since Jacob went 12 rounds with that angel – is even more evident in the poem In the Basement of the Holy House –
I sat in the synagogue
and decided not to be a Jew.
Just for a second.
I wanted to see how it felt.
It felt like the yellow traffic signal
on the corner of Sixth and Center. …
or in Half Jew Half Guy –
I have not been Jewish my whole life.
For the first half of my life I was just a half a guy.
I lived in a foxhole of television and pretzels. …
Ultimately though, the delicious poems in this collection are no more dependent on an understanding (or acceptance) of the tenets of Judaism than Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep”, Alfred Kazin’s “New York Jew”, or any of Charles Reznikoff’s or Denise Levertov’s verse. In other words – if they like good contemporary poetry or simply good writing – your friends Jack the Baptist and Rachel the agnostic (and even Jude the obscure) would love this book.
Neil Silberblatt is was born and grew up in New York City, lived for a (long) time in Connecticut, and is now a “wash ashore” on Cape Cod. He has been writing poetry since his college days. His poems have appeared in several print and online literary journals including Verse Wisconsin; Hennen’s Observer; Naugatuck River Review; Chantarelle’s Notebook; Oddball Magazine; and The Good Men Project. His work has also been included in Confluencia in the Valley: The First Five Years of Converging with Words (Naugatuck Valley Community College, 2013), an anthology of selected poetry and prose; and in University of Connecticut’s Teacher-Writer magazine. He has published two poetry collections: So Far, So Good (2012), and Present Tense (2013). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and one of his poems – Recycling Instructions – received Honorable Mention in the 2nd Annual OuterMost Poetry Contest judged by Marge Piercy. Neil is the founder of Voices of Poetry.
by Paul David Adkins
Blood Pudding Press
Date: May 2014
Reviewed by: A.J. Huffman
Stick Up, a chapbook by Paul David Adkins, manages to capture a lifetime of desperation in a mere twenty-one pages of intense urban poetry.
Adkins is a master of multiple perspectives in this tragic tale of an everyday convenience store robbery. His use of an MTV-video-blip jump in points of view allows the reader to capture the scene as it plays out from three distinct speakers: the robber, the hostages, and the police officers.
This series is about loss, losing, and having nothing to lose. The robber, a female whose long, hard life is exquisitely summed up by the current contents of her car—“a half-empty bottle/of Jack in the truck/and her wallet she stuffed/in the glove box/her creased AARP card/her license,/expired last month,/and a tucked photo/of the lover who left her,”—is someone we all know, is someone we could become. She is closing in at the end of her life, and has come to a point where a fake gun and a chance to steal some potentially life-changing lottery tickets has become more attractive than continuing on her current path.
A second point of view emerges from the purported heroes of this tale. The police officers vacillate between the desire for action and the desire for safety as they “prayed/for a quiet night. They prayed/for a night of gunfire.” They struggle with the same indecision that an average person deals with every day: Is a long, but mundane life preferable to a short one lived to the extreme?
Adkins has his hostages contemplating dairy products along with their lives, as if they are mirror images. In “He Considered the Dairy Products,” one of these hostages’ biggest concerns is “Will I die beside/the frozen yogurt light?” Not ‘Will I die?’ but ‘Will I die here?’ as if logistics were a factor in the fight or flight decision in these potentially last moments of breath. In “He Recalled as He Ran Back in the Store,” another hostage actually refuses an offered opportunity to escape because the robber fascinates him. He sees her as the walking dead, a figure from a horror story that he was told as a child: “She emerged from the tree line,/tall beneath the floodlit/Coors display,/her shadow sharp/and stark as the chalked/outline of a corpse.”
‘Round and ‘round we go between these speakers as this literary Russian roulette of a merry-go-round ride spins us out of control and into this depraved and very human moment where there is no clear-cut victim or hero. Every one of Adkins’ characters has flaws that create an unbreakable bond of empathy luring readers to the edge of their seats, until “They Called for an Ambulance Though All Agreed.” In these last moments Adkins writes, “there was no rush, no siren needed/for the robber, peppered,/dead amid the shards.”
Death, one of the universal inevitabilities, continues to linger on the horizon of this series just as surely as it landed on the floor of this convenience store, the blunt and bleeding culmination of humanity’s emotionally devastating choices.
A.J. Huffman has published eleven solo chapbooks and one joint chapbook through various small presses. Her new poetry collections, Another Blood Jet (Eldritch Press) and A Few Bullets Short of Home (mgv2>publishing) are now available from their respective publishers. She has two additional poetry collections forthcoming: Degeneration from Pink Girl Ink, and A Bizarre Burning of Bees from Transcendent Zero Press. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and has published over 2200 poems in various national and international journals, including Labletter, The James Dickey Review, Bone Orchard, EgoPHobia, and Kritya. She is also the founding editor of Kind of a Hurricane Press. www.kindofahurricanepress.com
Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
by Margaret Lazarus Dean
Press: Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: Carla Sarett
The Party’s Over
The closest, most thrilling, approach to the dwarf planet, Pluto, is set for July 15, 2015. Its reconnaissance, along with the exploration of the deep, mysterious, Kuiper Belt, is part of NASA’s mission, New Horizons. According to NASA’s website, the mission will “tell the story of the origins and outskirts of our solar system.” Meanwhile, low-orbit trips have been outsourced to private companies (Elon Musk’s SpaceX, among them) to provide cargo to the International Space Station. A far cry from Star Trek, but many of us are optimistic about the future of space exploration.
But Margaret Lazarus Dean, in Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight (the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize), feels cheated. Dean, an associate professor at The University of Tennessee, misses the old shuttle program. Yes, that one: the clunky shuttle that was touted as a cheap, practical space truck, but over the course of its forty-year tenure, turned out to be neither. But according to Dean, Americans loved watching those take-offs—Dean, more than most, I would think —and the program’s end signals defeat, rather than a strategic shift in technology and resources.
And so, Dean takes us through her experience of the final space shuttles—her joy as she watches the launches, her impressions of the facilities and her fellow space fans, and her befuddlement that others, even astronauts, are not all that moved by the program’s demise. As she tell us, her crush on the shuttle began in childhood at the Air and Space Museum—and like a jilted lover, she feels heartbroken when her favorite program ends (Dean says that she has “never been a believer in privatized spaceflight,” and she is miffed that others do not share her “NASA-only” snobbery, as she terms it). Along the way, she offers entertaining tidbits about the program’s history and complex politics, and sprinkles the text with quotes from other space journalists.
Dean’s good-natured guide in her NASA journey is an “integrity clerk” named Omar – in her own words, “one of the thousands of people who work at the Cape doing various things that need to get done in order to get spaceships off the ground.” Dean dutifully recites Omar’s Facebook posts and texts, verbatim, even his polite reply to one of her queries: “I don’t know.” Leaving Orbit is low-key and pleasant. But I found myself reaching for my copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. That feels like the real party, the one with the cool, brave astronauts.
Perhaps, though, that is Margaret Lazarus Dean’s point. Great powers need, even depend on, great symbols–like a single man’s footsteps imprinted on the pristine surface of the moon. The early space missions were a noisy boast of American’s grandness; and today’s America has a more constrained vision of itself. New Horizons may well shed light on how the universe started, but it won’t lift men up to the stars. And some of us, perhaps more than we care to admit, need men to look up to.
Carla Sarett’s work has appeared in magazines such as Crack the Spine, Loch Raven Review, Blue Lyra Review and several short story anthologies. Carla has a Ph.D. from The University of Pennsylvania, and blogs at http://carlasarett.blogspot.com.
Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal
by Sue Eisenfeld
Press: University of Nebraska Press
216 pages, paper
Reviewed by: Donna M. Crow
Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal by Sue Eisenfeld is not merely a tribute to a National Park and how it came into being. It is not a lone description of the difficult terrain or the beautiful views found deep within the 181,547 acres of the largest national park in the East. It is not the traditional travel memoir of a seeker as she embarks upon the uncharted territory of self. This small book, filled to the brim with vivid images and human insight, like the park itself, is so much more than meets the eye.
Sue Eisenfeld knows herself and she knows the trails of the Shenandoah National Park because she spent fifteen years as a bushwhacker and backpacker along with her husband Neil exploring overgrown Virginia back country. By acknowledging her elementary perceptions of the National Park system, and with a writing style of definition by negation, she grants readers permission to acknowledge their own blissful ignorance toward the hardships rendered upon thousands of residents disemboweled by a governmental practice known as eminent domain, the legal taking of personal property for public good.
In these few easy to read pages, separated by chapters that could be stand-alone essays, Sue Eisenfeld shows us a much deeper view of what the Shenandoah really is, a realized dream that painfully dismantled generations old family farms. She illuminates the narrative of days gone by with a photographer’s eye. Her anthropological dig into a lost culture creates an adventure for the reader beyond the virtual tour. Her quest is to appreciate how the park came into being from the viewpoint of both the takers and from those whom land was taken. Eisenfeld’s endeavor to realize the human spirit is triumphant.
Being a girl from center city Philadelphia where “we didn’t have to push ourselves physically beyond our comfort zone,” yet falling in love with “A science and outdoor educator and naturalist, a hiker and backpacker, a birdwatcher, and somewhat of a loner,” who “finds joy in scanning the skies for hawks and black vultures, turning over rocks looking for salamanders (21)”, Eisenfeld felt it a natural choice that she learn to push herself, one foot in front of the other on trails she would likely never have seen otherwise. What she saw was more than salamanders and snakes.Like her, once readers embark on the footfall of truth, some comforts are sacrificed. As she forewarns in her prologue, “I hiked blindly for nearly two decades…” but, “once you begin to know something… you can’t unknow it (xvi)”.
While her husband might have been looking for “some kind of hornwort slime on a log” (21), Eisenfeld trailed along unwittingly until one day she began to notice other things. “I wanted to know what happened here,” she explains, “to feel viscerally the stories that would explain the headstones and shoe leather and washbasins and China shards that we have found throughout these wild woods”(xiv, prologue). In other words, Sue Eisenfeld was looking for signs of the dead, and she takes us with her as she explores the lives lived and lost, and buried deep within the Shenandoah National Park, all but forgotten by the thousands of tourists who trek through with hardly a notice of days gone by. Eisenfeld’s journey is not so much a hunt for lost treasures as it is a search for lost souls.
With one foot booted for hiking and rooted on the briar entwined earth, while the other lifts and steps toward the ethereal, Eisenfeld becomes our tour guide to another world, a past lived, loved and lost in the conflict over what is best for the public good, a conflict between the government and the God fearing, constitutional loving people being governed. For example, many of the people removed from the park were “tenants or squatters on land they didn’t own—and those who had nowhere else to go. Of the 465 families remaining in 1934 (2,200 people), 197 of them owned their own land, and 268 of them, or 58 percent, owned no equity in their house or land and would not benefit from any payouts from the government or resettlement housing” (126).
Like so many of our gifts and freedoms in this world there is a price to be paid that should not be overlooked or taken for granted. People were devastated, and their lives destroyed. In a survey of the land proposed for the dream park, land surveys stated the area was free of commercial development with no mention of the people living in the area, although at least forty percent of the potential land grab consisted of farmland and orchards. An early estimation of perhaps 1,500 residents grew to possibly as many as 15,000 displaced by the project’s end.
While we can agree that National Parks are a treasure to behold, we need also to know about the many lives and livelihoods sacrificed. This story is of social and economic importance in understanding the making of this fine country that many of us take for granted. Through thoughtful probing into who these people were, searching high and low through the many unkempt and unremembered graveyards held within the park to pay them homage, Eisenfeld’s inquisition into what kind of people it took to extract the residents from their land and what kind of people were removed reveals a whole story, both kind and unkind about the human condition on both sides of eminent domain.
Donna M. Crow lives in Irvine, Kentucky on her family farm. She writes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Her non-fiction has won such awards as the Emma Bell Miles Award for Essay, the Wilma Dykeman Award and the Betty Gabehart Prize (2007). She received the 2008 Sue Ellen Hudson Award for Excellence in Writing for her fiction and her poetry has won the Gurney Norman Prize. Her work has appeared in Kudzu, Now and Then, Literary Leo, The Minnetonka Review as well as anthologized in We All Live Downstream, Outscapes: Writings on Fences and Frontiers and The Notebook among others. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University.
by Jeff Klima
Pages: 232 pages
Reviewed by: Ginger Beck
L.A. Rotten: A Gritty New Twist on Classic Crime Fiction
If female detective Kinsey Milhone of Sue Grafton’s The Alphabet Series were to get knocked-up by Miami blood analyst and serial-killer-with-a-code-of-ethics Dexter Morgan, and that baby were raised by Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow and eventually grew up to be a handsome ex-con and recovering alcoholic with a taste for the occasional heroin injection and a backroom lust for strippers and sex, you’d have the anti-hero of Jeff Klima’s L.A. Rotten: A Tom Tanner Mystery. Are readers going to find the next powerhouse in detective fiction with this new series? Well, that remains to be seen. However, L.A. Rotten is an undeniably fun and coarse modernization of classic hard-boiled crime fiction stories; readers meet a less-than-honorable, yet likeable, detective-type; incompetent and often corrupt law enforcement officers, a sexy heroine with low morals but a conscience that leads our anti-hero to some redemption, and a villain who is just crafty and psychotic enough for readers to be entertained by his constant twists of danger.
Klima uses classic traits of crime fiction and couples them with wild new scenarios, giving readers something fresh to read and connect with. Parolee Tom Tanner has found his niche in the working world, post-prison. He is a crime scene cleanup specialist, called in to sanitize the remains of blood and death after police have concluded their work. Recently, Tom has been called more and more often to different Offramp Inns for a variety of grisly scenes: slit-writs, gun deaths, overdoses, and stabbings. He soon discovers a pattern: the deaths all occur in room 236, and in each room under the mattresses, he finds a Bible with a condom inside. Here readers see the first elements of classic hard-boiled fiction that peek their way into the story: the police are incompetent and careless. No connection by police has been made that these deaths occur in various locations of the same cheap motel chain and in the same room number. Because Tanner has an obvious dislike for the police, his “not-my-problem” attitude is established early, leaving readers to wonder if we can even like our narrator:
It annoys me that whatever this whole burgeoning enigma is, the cops haven’t caught on to it. I’m not going to go out of my way to help them—already today I got a little too close with that cop damn near figuring me out. I’m already baiting the trap by working in such close proximity to the police, so I’m not going to stick my foot in by getting involved.
At various points throughout the book, other examples of incompetent and shady cops arise, such as Tom’s parole officer attempting to recruit him into a white supremacist society and providing him with an unregistered weapon. Readers continue to see that Tom is a modernized version of the hard-boiled detective: pessimistic yet praiseworthy, sometimes sentimental, sometimes cruel, but most tellingly, he exhibits both failure and success in life as other anti-heroes in the genre have before him.
Klima has no qualms about making Tom Tanner an anti-hero: we want to like him, but doing so is damn hard. His frequent visits to strip clubs, where he indulges in the occasional back-room stripper sex, make him a less than honorable lead, yet, as a character, he is also believable. It is in this strip club where he meets our strong female lead: the fake-breasted, tattooed waitress Ivy, whom he inadvertently gets fired. Of course not too many pages later, the two have teamed up to catch the killer, as Ivy has become an unexpected moral compass who guides Tom towards doing the right thing, although they still don’t involve the police. Her presence as his golden-haired, crass and buxom love interest, gives us our female protagonist who pushes Tom to act when he is hesitant to make decisions.
The story itself is fast paced and entertaining, and Klima gives readers a bad guy we enjoy watching Tom chase, and be chased by. The often silly, always sneaky killer, remains a major character who takes a similar interest in Tom’s life and wants Tom to join in the murderous escapades. Racing against the clock, Tom must figure out how to stop the villain from harming Tom’s friends and employer, and sucking Tom into a killer’s plot of insanity. Klima gives readers just enough information about the twisted antagonist to make us wholly interested in this thoroughly creepy yet believable serial killer.
Klima shows Tom’s struggle between remaining an ex-con with low morals, and becoming a more honest and productive citizen who wants to protect his friends and lover. His inner monologue reveals his desire to get away from it all: “I will close the business and disappear, go to a new town, a smaller one, and just be nameless. I don’t even have to go back to my apartment. I think about all the cities in all the states out there, and how I’ve never lived in any of them except rotten Los Angeles.” His turmoil allows readers to connect and finally make the decision that Tom’s character does have redeeming qualities and is likable, despite his flaws.
Like any good detective story, there must be a showdown between the hero and the villain, with the beautiful dame caught somewhere in between. L.A.Rotten does not disappoint this formula. Tom must make the final decision to outsmart the killer before he and Ivy become victims themselves.
Will Jeff Klima’s new Tom Tanner Mysteries become the next great American detective series? That remains to be seen. However, anyone who enjoys the classic hard-boiled detective story formula and doesn’t mind the grittiness of a modern day interpretation filled with sex, drugs, and of course, murder, will definitely enjoy L.A.Rotten and look forward to future installments to see what Tom Tanner gets himself into next.
Ginger Beck is a writer and English teacher at an alternative high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. She advocates for at-risk youth, sings in a local band, and is obsessed with dinosaurs and outer-space. She lives with her boyfriend Michael and their 12-year-old poodle now that her 18-year-old daughter has left for college. Her most recent work has appeared in Foliate Oak, The Molotov Cocktail, and Red Savina Review.
by Sandra Marchetti
Press: Sundress Publications
82 pages, paper
Reviewed by: Danielle Susi
In Sandra Marchetti’s debut full-length collection, Confluence, the running of cool water is ever-present for the reader in the reappearance of the color blue: “Soft bulbs of morpho blue” in the collection’s opening poem “Never-Ending Birds,” and again in “The Return,” where Marchetti writes “Beyond the body itself / is the thin blue line / the sky folding back on its spine” (1-3).
Confluence: defined as the junction of two rivers, especially two rivers of equivalent width. The intention being two rapidly moving components joining as one. The flow and fluidity just as critical as the marrying of the two elements. So many streams and rivers are at hand in this collection, but so too is ice, or what can be assumed to be the frozen halt of quickly-moving waters, and perhaps the interruption of confluence. In “The Language of Ice,” she writes:
Jagged as glass, ice flashes
match memories of church windows, a glacial past.
Lines of a pencil afloat mark a bobbing post,
bags beneath drift, seek their currents like fish. (3-6)
While the collection often acts as an accumulation of the same pastoral scene reimagined, Confluence is punctuated by poems that are generous to their reader in the subtle emotional intensity. Poems like “Music” and “Lattice,” are refreshing, as we are suddenly able to imagine the speaker as capable of intimately interacting with others. One could consider the first section of the collection as a type of foreplay, a gradual building as “Music,” placed about halfway through the collection, holds the passion and sexual energy the book has been asking for. “Lattice,” too, allows the reader to see some of the fear in the speaker as she dreams of her dissolving wedding ring:
Confluence is the joining of streams, but of also two bodies—not only the bodies of two lovers, but the bodies of potential mother and seemingly lost or longed-for child. In “Migration Theory” Marchetti begins, “The womb a tent, / lit from within, flutters / golden on the wind” (1-3). The emptiness of that tent further accentuated by later lines, “I’m told the child / is ghost…” (9-10). It is in these poems of loss or desperation that the reader can finally move deeper into the landscapes that Marchetti has been painting.
Danielle Susi is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (dancing girl press, 2015). She is a columnist for Entropy, the co-editor of HOUND, and the Programming and Media Coordinator for the Poetry Center of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Newcity has named her among the Top 5 Emerging Chicago Poets. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.
A Poet Drives a Truck: Poems by and about Lowell A. Levant.
by Lowell Levant
University of Akron Press, 2013
Reviewed by: Thomas Dukes
So much good poetry gets written but remains undiscovered. We should all be grateful that this is not the case with the work of Lowell Levant. A poet of what might be called the Berkeley School of the 1960s, Levant’s work reflects both the influence of the Beats and the great social changes of the 1960s. If his work and he were at once on the fringes of their times and immersed in them, both are also worth discovering. This volume makes that discovery possible.
Lowell A. Levant, a native of St. Paul, MN, grew up in South Gate, CA. After burning out at UC Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement (1964), Levant asked for and received conscientious objector status during Vietnam. He spent the rest of his life as a poet-member of the proletariat, a poet driving a truck.
As cited in the book’s introduction, Levant’s poetry is praised by Gary Snyder for its “‘complex depth . . . about work, machinery, trucks, equipment, repair, maintenance . . . . These poems have a unique presence in the real world, and they have great confidence and firmness . . .’” (11). Levant is also concerned with nature, voice, and freedom in language and thought.
This is not to say that Levant can’t be fun. In the poem “To a Mouse I Dreamed I Killed,” Levant begins with a cheerful, sadistic madness: “I flung you up the stairs/’cause you were in my bed/I was in a strange house/and took advice from others/while carrying you in my hand” (21). What makes that stanza work and what is typical of Levant’s voice is the line “and took advice from others.” That seeming non-sequitur anchors us in the poem with its understanding of how in the middle of the most mundane and unpleasant task, we find ourselves hearing other voice that become others who are part of the world even in this bit of daily minutiae.
In the second stanza of that same poem, Levant uses a longer non-sequitur to anchor the poem in the reality of his California of the period:
Berkeley has the same smog as LA
and freeway on-ramps, suburbs
grass dried gold
on a paved hill with a fence on top of it. (21)
This stanza is also typical in its presentation of Levant’s juxtaposition of the personal with the wider world. This almost bipolar sensibility represents Levant’s voice at its best.
Levant’s purest voice is indeed found in the volume’s title poem “A Poet Drives a Truck.”
Here the ordinary—“Inspect the equipment routinely and thoroughly”—is followed by the doubly-meaning “Explore alternative routes when feasible.” When the narrator says “Transcend rage and panic with humor and consideration,” that voice speaks and defines Levant and this collection. Levant undercuts any danger of sentimentality when he advises, “Look flowers in the eyes.” The courage to face beauty and nature head-on informs the book and, based on the biographical sketch at the beginning of the collection, Levant’s life.
Levant tackles the natural world in other ways. In such poems as ‘Juniper Scrub Mountain Shade,” “Painted Canyon Smoke Trees,” and the like, Levant engages nature with a welcome matter-of-factness that does not deny emotion: “The smoke trees in painted canyon wash/were mostly shriveled half-brown” (69). The first line creates beauty; the second line undercuts it but not harshly or meanly. (Levant’s poetry is incapable of gratuitous cruelty.) Poems like “Silver Moccasin” and “Mary’s Flat” take nature and anyone in it on their own terms. If Levant is a romantic, his is the romanticism of those who survived.
This volume has been lovingly edited, the poems selected with care and devotion, but neither the biographical sketch nor the introduction are mawkish in the least. I enjoyed this book for its evocation of the 1960s attitudes toward nature, quiet rebellion, and life. Perhaps its most defining quality is the beauty of its singular voice. I wish Lowell Levant had gotten more attention in his lifetime, and while it’s impossible for us to give all good poets the attention they are due, A Poet Drives a Truck is very much worth picking up and cherishing. I recommend this gem without reservation and great pleasure.
by Michele Battiste
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
Reviewed by: Kayla Haas
Uprising, by Michele Battiste is a poetry collection depicting the lead up and aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Her main voices, Jóska, Jutka, and Erika provide the reader with insight about the abuse Hungarians were subjected to by the Soviet Union. The collection begins in 1944 and ends over a decade later in 1956, at the end of the revolution. Though Uprising is considered a poetry collection, it also continues the contemporary trend of blurring the lines between genres. Battiste has crafted a narrative similar to fiction, and has chosen her own family as the voice of the Hungarians.
“…I think I understood
once. Sounds drifting through
the house like kitchen smells, the way you know
the taste before you eat. But my English was their song
—a long, slow stroke across the violin’s strings
and the magyar slept…”
– Learning the Dead Language
Battiste begins the collection with a prologue in her own poetic voice. “Learning the Dead Language” works like a “summoning” poem. As an adult, in the wake of her nagypapa’s death, the speaker recalls the Hungarian language of her grandparents: “searching/for the language that will take my tongue/back.” The speaker’s desire to go “back” provides cause for the collection; it is the catalyst for the poetic telling of her family history and the history of the Hungarians.
Jóska, Jutka, and Erika are the main voices of the collection. Battiste begins by titling each poem with the chosen narrator in order to help the reader make the association between the name, voice, and poetic style. Having each speaker have their own poetic form creates a narrative uniformity that is important to a collection with such historical accuracy. Keeping narrative voices consistent allows readers to focus on the precise word choice, historical events, and foreshadowing that Battiste’s poems have. Jóska’s voice is in the form of prose poetry and function like letters to his wife, Jutka. He’s often addressing only her, though at times a larger audience. Jutka’s poems are multiple stanzas with her poems reading much like diary entries. Erika, the daughter of Jóska and Jutka, has the most lyrical poetic voice. With staccato lines, childlike details, and indented lines to juxtapose against Jutka’s narrow stanzas, Erika’s voice captures the uncertainty of her childhood in the face of bombs, war, and kidnappings.
Uprising is broken into four sections: The Way to the Party, Budapest Voices, Steam in the Pot, and Uprising. The first, third, and fourth sections follow the narrators mentioned before, while Budapest Voices is a collection of seperate individuals. Battiste uses research to her advantage in order to craft poetry around actual experiences of Hungarian individuals. Battiste notes, “The stories in this section come from interviews conducted by Radio Free Europe with Hungarian refugees who fled the country. Transcriptions of the interviews were accessed at the Open Society Archives in Budapest (see bibliography). In most cases, names have been changed.” The choice to break from the narrative to provide outside perspective was a great decision. Budapest Voices is a reminder that the collection is not just about one family, but rather Hungary as a whole. Having the perspectives of different voices helps expand the world readers are introduced to in the first section. Readers are introduced to the disappearances of husbands, the recruitment of children, lists of deaths and suicides, and many more horrors that Jutka, Jóska, and Erika have only hinted at. Budapest Voices brings a needed sense of urgency to the collection and foreshadows the civilian unrest and fear in later sections.
A unique aspect of Uprising is the way poems “lean” on each other for support. Though Battiste’s poems can be vivid in imagery, many are narration-heavy in order to move time and plot along. As a result, some poems could not exist outside the collection itself. These poems are essential to the overall narrative and their impact is summoned from the poems before and after. Creating a collection that depends on plot, as much as a connecting theme, is a risk. When considering this, among the other elements of the collection, it becomes obvious that Battiste should be commended for being able to create such an organized balance to a collection that could have easily been tipped into disarray.
Last, what is perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of this collection is the fact it requires active readership. Battiste’s poems provide enough detail to flesh out the Hungarian Revolution and the horrors witnessed; however, she also provides key words, key dates, and a language that encourages readers to go beyond the surface and reach out to outside sources for true understanding. It is easy to read poetry with direct impact and understanding, but perhaps much more rewarding to be challenged, intellectually and historically, in order to fully understand the poetry provided. Readers are free to enjoy the collection through what is given, but can also dig deeper into the politics of the imagery in order to have an emotionally moving experience.
Uprising is a fascinating collection not only for its historical accuracy on a subject not many are familiar with, but also because Battiste meticulously has crafted a narrative—one that is complex and superbly organized—that illustrates her own family history and the history of Hungarians.
Kayla Haas is an MFA candidate at Wichita State University, Fiction editor at Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, and editor at Mojo. You may find her work in Gigantic Sequins and NANO Fiction, among other journals.
by Robert Cooperman
Press: Brick Road Poetry Press
Reviewed by: Barry Marks
So what happens when a nice Jewish boy takes a job driving a taxicab in New York City? (After his mother’s heart attack, that is). Jews do have a tendency to show up in unexpected vocations, including Hall of Fame pitchers and generals in the U. S. military, but driving a hack in Manhattan? Seriously?
As Robert Cooperman tells it in his compelling new collection, Just Drive, being a Jewish cab driver means bringing an outsider’s critical eye to the taxi stand and shining a keen intelligence on a world where it is not always welcome. His driver is as much observer as participant. Cooperman offers his reader tales that are at once intimate and jaded, cynical, and empathetic. His persona is perched in the front seat with a hawk’s eye view of drunken conventioneers looking to cheat on their wives, faded actresses, hitmen and “ladies of the backseat.”
Cooperman tells us about Sid the vicious and verbose driver and Nicci, the female driver who takes none of his bullying. We sigh for the poor schmuck whose wife left him (he just wanted to be driven around, anywhere) and seethe at the racist, anti-Semitic fare who goes postal when thrown out of the cab. The characters parade through the taxi and each one tells a life’s story or presents an epiphany in the space of a single ride.
The driver debunks myths (“In fiction, cabbies are loquacious/as barbers, wise as bartenders…”), endures the cruelty of a tough job (“…he’d beat me silly/and knew with even more certainty, none/of the other hacks would lift a finger”) and keeps his quiet dignity.
His world is intermittently boring and downright dangerous, as when he narrowly averts sliding into an icy lake, crawling along and still facing:
treacherous drive through the enemy
territory of falling snow
Good deeds don’t go unpunished, as when he rescues an old Chasid from muggers, only to be berated for not laying tefilin and being a better Jew. At least, he notes, his cab wasn’t stolen. There is something familiar, traditional, almost orthodox in his attitude toward his and others’ suffering. It is a Jewish world-view imposed on a dirty, down-stroking world. It is what a man needs to accept that a widow will leave an urn containing her husband’s ashes in the seat and just walk away.
Yet, somehow, Cooperman’s cabbie is never cold, never dismissive or condescending. He remains, through it all, caring and involved, even when he is incredulous at the Mr. Peepers character who can’t resist graphically describing a sexual encounter with two (yes, two) porn stars. He remains “leopard-alert” but still slips into fantasies of beautiful fares who, against all odds and logic, will find him cute.
The poetry itself is accessible but never boring. Cooperman writes with the assured hand of a poet who has published fourteen prior books. His free verse is neither cerebral nor sentimental. The important thing here is not flashy technique or a surprising image that stops you mid-poem. He knows that his strength is in the narrative and his effort is to take you where he has been. His cab-driving observer imbues every mundane detail with intelligence, but resists the opportunity to digress into judgment or philosophy. His imagery is neither overblown nor unnecessarily dark:
At a certain time of night
almost every corner of Midtown
is adorned by a shivering woman
in hot pants, earrings that dangle
like wind chimes, and heels Babel-high.
At the end of the day, Just Drive is not for the purist or technician. It isn’t for those who want high-sounding sentiment or to be shocked by violence and verbal degradation. This book is for those who want a poem to take them somewhere they haven’t been and introduce them to people they haven’t met…and a few who are all too familiar. We are not talking philosophy here. In fact, as Cooperman notes at the end of the last poem:
You wanted advice?
Listen to your mother.
We drove, we just drove.
Barry Marks is a Birmingham attorney, and the author of two books of poetry. Possible Crocodiles, his first book, was named 2010 Book of the Year by the Alabama State Poetry Society. Sounding, his second book, is an emotional but unsentimental examination of grief, loss and recovery. Sounding was a finalist for the Grand Prize in the 2013 Eric Hoffer Award for Independent Publishers. He is former a member of the Big Table Poets and has participated in that group’s anthologies. Barry’s chapbook, There is Nothing Oppressive as a Good Man, won the 2003 John and Miriam Morris Chapbook Competition. He is the author of three other chapbooks and his poetry has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies. Barry was Alabama’s Poet of the Year for 1999. He is a frequent reader, lecturer and workshop leader. Barry’s new book, Dividing By Zero is scheduled for publication late in 2014.
by Jamaal May
Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2013
Paper, 74 pages
Reviewed by: Susan Cohen
Jamaal May has a fine-tuned ear for the music of machinery, as you might expect of a poet who hails from Detroit and is also a performance artist. But he writes about more than the decaying Motor City in this debut collection, which won the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books. In poems notable for their sophistication, intelligence, and inventiveness, as well as their attention to sound, May explores the shifty boundaries between man and man-made world—a world that rarely shuts up.
The machines in Hum threaten both nature and people, and don’t remain under the control of the humans who manufactured them. The speaker in “Detroit Hum Ending with Bones,” for example, laments the lack of bees in the city, and then notes that his cell phone can confuse the signals in a hive and “make a drone go haywire/and spiral into the grass.” A group of men spend hours tinkering with a car before they must acknowledge they can’t fix its digital parts in “On Metal,” and: “No one is happy to learn what an afternoon of chafed/knuckles, metal on skin, no longer solves.” Hum depicts broken people surrounded by broken engines.
That May’s concerns are as often philosophical as sociological is clear from the opening poem, “Still Life,” set in an inner as well as an inner-city landscape, “the shuttered district,/a factory of shattered vials.” A child plays in this wreckage, his internal life “kept quiet/by humming a lullaby of static and burble” as if the voice in the boy’s head belongs to an old television. He wears a towel cape, stashes an exacto knife in his sock and cradles rocks, yet he’s more threatened than threatening. The poem plays with these notions of internal and external, seen and unseen—recurring themes in Hum—and ends with these stanzas:
The boy in the boy’s head
watches sparse traffic
from a warehouse window
and takes note on where
overpass paint hides rust,
where the cyan bubbles up
into a patchwork of pock
and crumbling disease,
a thief in the bridge’s body
he doesn’t see, but knows
is coming tomorrow
to swallow his song.
It doesn’t matter whether the poem is autobiographical and told from the distance of time or from the distance of an unidentified observer. Throughout the collection, May appears less interested in the narrative of memoir and more interested in the lyrics shared between people and their crumbling surroundings. He dubs seven poems “hums,” but the gadgets in them also buzz, clink, rattle and whir; they may be as tame as a sewing machine or as menacing as a helicopter above a desert battlefield. Sometimes they only begin benignly, like a coughing snow blower just before it slices off a father’s finger in Detroit. Throughout, there’s an undertone of menace.
For example, the sestina “Hum of the Machine God” starts:
There isn’t much to discuss with the Machine
God, though its voice is hard to ignore;
it speaks in planks of wood shaped for the sea,
sputters smoke, eats grass. It speaks in snow
spit into piles, commands the motion of a needle
through a hem. It hums. It waits.
Debut books these days often begin as projects, but Hum doesn’t read like one. Rather, a diverse collection of free verse and received and invented forms, it relies on sequences for a sense of unity. Besides the scattered hums, a second imaginative series with equally creative titles rifts on phobias like “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” and “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow.” In a third sequence, origami creatures speak. Folded paper frogs or tigers aren’t mechanical, but they are products—manmade versions of nature.
These recurring images as well as themes also hold the book together. So, the speaker in “How to Disappear Completely” advises: “Become origami./Fold yourself smaller/than ever before. Become less. More/in some ways but less/in the way famine is less.” In another poem, a man stopped by the police and shoved against a car with a gun against his cheek so that he has no way to reach for his ID, tells us: “and my name is asked again—I want to/screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.”
Frequently, this wish for visibility or invisibility occurs in the context of violence. One of the strongest poems recounts a fight that cost the speaker part of his vision, which is gradually diminishing in one eye. He recalls how viciously he beat the boy who clawed up at his face. He stares down from a bridge, closing the bad eye “like aiming through a gunsight,” and studies his blurry reflection. “Horns sprout from the head of my silhouette/rippling dark, dark, dark against the haze of water/and I try to squint that monster/into the shape of a man.”
As Hum investigates appearances and disappearances, and the mechanisms of the human head and heart, May repeatedly blurs the boundaries between people and their machines. In the last poem, “Ask What I’ve Been,” the speaker has been a construction crane with “balled fists” that “toppled buildings of boys,” and “rifled through the pockets/of their ruins.”
May’s transmutations and pronoun shifts keep readers off-balance. Yet, he retains such control in this mature first collection and crafts such beautiful language that his poems exhilarate rather than exasperate. They demand to be re-read. May, who earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and a Cave Canem fellowship, also works as an editor, filmmaker, and teacher. Most importantly, he’s an acute observer who has a tremendous amount to say.
Susan Cohen is the author of Throat Singing and recent poems and reviews in Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Sou’wester, and Tar River Poetry, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley and has an MFA from Pacific University.
Lessons in Ruin
by Justin Hamm
Aldrich Press, 2014
76 pages, Paper
Reviewed by: Karen J. Weyant
The exploration of place is a common journey depicted in many of today’s poetry collections. David St. John, in the foreword to Poets on Place: Interviews & Tales from the Road, explains, “Those places from which we come and those to which we’ve moved provide the ground against which the figures of our lives move, change and depart.” Indeed, sense of place is more than just a mere setting – it frames the characters and the stories found in all works that strive to capture a given location and time. It’s within the framework of the Midwestern landscape that poet Justin Hamm, in his first full-length collection, Lessons in Ruin, explores the stories and land that shape the world around him.
Hamm’s collection spans stories and reflections from childhood to adulthood, and many of the strongest narratives embrace a teenager’s frustrated perception of the Midwest. In “Illinois, My Apologies,” the narrator explains that at a young age, “I always believed that to be/heard from the Midwest/you had to scream.” And screams he does, “in lungfulls” before the poem takes a fairytale like turn where the narrator meets an Old Man who emerges from the cornfield and cautions him “to listen to the landscape itself.” It seems as if the narrator does listen, although it takes him many years to heed the advice, for he explains, “For once my first thought/was not to scream/but to turn my ear to the open/and listen.”
And indeed, in the poems that follow, readers will find a narrator who is both a careful listener and a precise recorder, always striving to recollect the stories of the Midwest without inserting sentimentality or enforcing stereotyped images. For instance, In “The Last Day of Summer” the reader will be introduced to a small group of boys who have “discovered/their own invincibility/and beer.” In another poem, “Tent Revival” the narrator finds an exasperated fondness for the “crimson-faced pastor” who “howls a river of crooked creekbable” asserting that he while he once believed that “something grand” could have taken place at tent revival events, he admits that now he is “still too much made/out of low terrestrial gravies/to sing such a celestial song.” Even the immobile get their own stories as detailed in “Last Lesson in Ruin” where the poet invokes a scarecrow to “Step/forward, scarecrow, and walk/where your knees get lost/in snakegrass and cockleburs.”
Throughout much of his work, Hamm explores the influences of the physical world on the people, creating images so that his characters and their stories draw strength and endurance from the land. This careful negotiation of language is the most exemplified by the poem “At Sixteen” where the reader sees working fathers whose physical appearances mirror the tired landscapes:
All of its fathers stretch
bleary eyed and bitter
about their swollen
and their endless
The poet moves on to compare these fathers to their “beardless sons” who are “unknowingly rolling/ into their fathers’ skins/and their fathers’ troubles.” Thus, the landscape becomes an important part of not only binding stories to characters, but also binding generations together.
In poems that span the narrator’s adult years, the reader sees the poet doing more contemplating and less storytelling. For example, in “The Flour Epiphany” after a morning of making biscuits, the speaker gazes in the mirror and he sees his father staring back at him in two versions:
One as a young man
when he wore so much drywall dust
with a vast, innocent dignity
and one as an old, old man
when the color will be nothing
more than another sign
of his accumulated age.
This sudden image makes the poet not only ponder his relationship with his father, but also to ask the question, “Is it really so wrong to want/to hold certain things/while your grip is still strong?”
Whether it’s through lyrical observations of place or narratives that recall the past, it’s obvious that the poet is embracing both the people and the landscape around him. In “First Lesson in Ruin” he tells his daughter of the Missouri landscape: “We have no pyramids here/no stirring Greek temples./But we too have our echoes.” It’s these echoes that are caught in Hamm’s collection: echoes full of stories that reflect the Midwestern landscape in all its worn, and sometimes disfigured beauty.
Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and reviews can be found in can be found in the Barn Owl Review, Caesura, Cave Wall, Cold Mountain Review, Conte, Green Mountains Review, Prick of the Spindle and River Styx. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Stealing Dust (Finishing Line Press, 2009) and Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt (Winner of Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook Contest). Her poem, “The Summer I Stopped Catching Bees” was included in Sundress Publications’ 2011 Best of the Net Anthology. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Her website is www.karenjweyant.com
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as A White Anglo-Saxon Jew
by Sue William Silverman
Press: University of Nebraska Press
Date: March, 2014
Reviewed by: Kelly O’Toole
Sue William Silverman’s The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew is a collection of thematically linked essays, mini-memoirs that retell myriad events in Silverman’s life that reflect her struggles with identity, primarily with being a Jewish female in White Anglo-Saxon, Christian America.
She opens with a letter to the reader, describing herself as a gefilte fish, “Swimming Upstream with Nary a Fin. . .a Sorrowful, Utterly Lost and Sad Little Gefilte, far from her Glass Jar.” She appeals to the reader directly, pleading, “Turn these Pages. Understand.” What follows is Silverman’s journey to “Knowledge, Identity, Enlightenment,” the stories of swimming upstream in the sea of American culture, trying to reach herself and trying to reach home.
The title essay describes how a teenage Sue studied with a magnifying glass a Life magazine photo of Pat Boone, his wife and their four daughters riding a tandem bicycle. “I fantasized living inside this black-and-white print, unreachable,” she writes. “This immaculate universe was safe, far away from my father’s all-too-real hands, hands that hurt me at night.”
Silverman has written about her father’s hands hurting her at night in her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. Now she confides how she found safety and refuge in Pat Boone’s WASP-y image, his “crisp, clean unchanging certainty.” By replacing her Jewish father in her mind with Pat Boone, she was saved.
Pat Boone isn’t her only refuge. In “The Wandering Jew,” Silverman describes her fascination with a local tramp while living on St. Thomas as a girl. She follows him to his shantytown, believing he is safe, while her father is not. When she watches Charlie Chaplin films in which his characters save young women, she wishes to be those women. She finds safety in objects: handkerchiefs, garnet rosary beads, marbles (“Concerning Cardboard Ghosts, Rosaries, and the Thingness of Things”)
The best memoirs map an author’s journey of self-discovery, making readers feel they are traveling alongside the author, exploring her psyche with her, witnessing her activities and emotions. By the end of the best memoirs, readers are transformed, having embarked on their own journeys to self-discovery. That is certainly true of The Pat Boone Fan Club. The more we learn about Silverman’s identity confusion, the more we question our own identities; the more we see her finding answers to those questions, the more we want to find answers to our own questions.
Many readers will relate to “The Endless Possibilities of Youth,” in which Silverman reflects on her feelings of alienation as a teenager. She fantasizes that if only she looked less Jewish, the boy she’s smitten with will reciprocate her feelings. And sadly, far too many people have felt betrayed by their very bodies and later, by the very physicians entrusted to treat their ailing bodies, as Silverman did when she felt abdominal pains that evolved into severe intestinal distress when treated with antibiotics (“See the Difference”).
The book’s cover image is a teal phonograph needle on a 45 RPM vinyl record. A fitting image, since The Pat Boone Fan Club reads very much like a great rock ‘n’ roll record. Our singer, Ms. Silverman, impresses with the range of her voice. Sometimes she writes in first person, sometimes second. She experiments with form, as with the mosaic of “Galveston Island Breakdown”, the screenplay of “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love” and the comic book-style narrative of “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Also like a great album, its various “tracks” connect thematically, but it never feels repetitious. Silverman varies the beat with metaphor, dark comedy, irony and other literary devices. Her choice of details brings her descriptions to life. And her poetic language gives her prose musicality.
The Pat Boone Fan Club is a rollicking road-trip of a book. It’s a trip worth taking, again and again.
Kelly O’Toole is a Community Columnist for the Grand Haven Tribune in Grand Haven, Michigan. She is working on a memoir.
by Tarfia Faizullah
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Reviewed by: Paul David Adkins
A Cleansing and Breaking Water: Tarfia Faizullah, Seam,
and the Genocide of Bangladesh
Water breaks, and so does the body. But while water reclaims and heals itself from its trauma, the human body remains torn, severed, polluted by the violence inflicted upon it. Tarfia Faizullah’s debut poetry volume Seam is not for those easily sickened by inhumanity and brutality, but rather is written for women and men galvanized by compassion and empathy to record outrages and genocide, continuing in the tradition of Never Forget. And like any responsible genocidal document, Faizullah’s writing is unsparing in detail, unrelenting in intensity, and breathtaking in scope and vision.
But so many of us have forgotten. It was 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s Liberation War: also the timeframe of Vietnam, Biafra, Attica. Who knew Pakistani military forces killed, murdered, and/or raped approximately 3.5 million Bengalis in less than twelve months? Who remembers this systematic attempt to completely annihilate a country, a culture, a people? I didn’t, until I picked up Seam, and then assumed, alongside the author, the staggering grief of a nation.
Water permeates Seam, making an appearance in 22 of the 33 poems. In Bangladesh, a land averaging seventeen feet above sea level, a land of frequent, disastrous cyclones, the idea of water is always near. Faizullah creates, however, a human geography effuse with water breaking in all its forms: ocean, river, pond, rain, and tide. It flows through the rape victims torrentially.
In Interview with a Birangona (#5) an attacker inquires ,: “Over milk tea and butter biscuits, the commander asks / what it feels like to have dirty blood running through our / veins.” (34)
Sometimes the water cleanses, for instance, just before the onslaught of rape begins, as in Interview with a Birangona (#1): “Gleaming water sweeps over / Mother’s feet.” (25) Other times it forms a weight: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well.” (28). Regardless of its function, however, water assumes an omnipresent force in the lives of the victims, with its shifting shape, its deceptive gleam, its once cleansing, and then polluting properties.
In many ways, the Bengali rape victims assume the identity of Bangladesh. Officially recognized by the government for their sacrifices in 1972, authorities bequeathed a woman violated during the conflict with the honorary title of Birangona, or War Heroine.
In 1971, a victim literally dons her nation’s identity:
. . . don’t tell
her the country of her birth
became a veined geography inside
you, another body inside your own. (10)
The speaker then reinforces this possession, this ownership, in the first of three poems entitled Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh:
Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald
inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between
us still irrepressible. (14)
As the speaker records water’s breaking and the complex dynamics of human geography, she also pays close attention to the breaking of bodies, of the human spirit, of a culture exposed to such extreme trauma. In Elegy for Her Red-Tipped Fingers, the author notes, “Bangla: language I speak / now to your grieving daughter, this language / / the bodies of women were once broken / open for.” (19) Later, she incorporates this brokenness into the form of the poetry itself, presenting the reader with the disjointed lines of Interviewer’s Note IV:
Today there is no drinking
water today there is no
light today there is only
kerosene the hmm hmm hmm
of a generator pulsing deep (41)
Nothing seems to escape Faizullah’s eye.
Throughout the volume, a sense of disassociation weaves within the pieces. Seam takes a decided and necessary shift in voice as the speaker assumes the role of interviewer.
She begins to refer to herself in the second person in her Interview Note (I through V).” She observes in Part I: “You walk past white high rises / seamed with mold.” (27). Part V retains this dissociative state: “But wasn’t it the neat narrative / you wanted?” (46), she asks her disembodied self. This state of disassociation is a direct result of vicarious trauma the speaker experiences through reliving the victims’ stories. It is an involuntary self-defense mechanism creating space between herself and the Birangonas she questions. And while this distance is necessary to protect the speaker’s sanity, it also adds a compelling layer to the volume’s fundamental question, “How much can I possess, can I experience, of your traumatic story?” By assuming the second person in the Notes poems, Faizullah brilliantly navigates the horrors of systematic rape, while not intruding on the devastating details with her own opinions, reactions, and responses.
Faizullah’s speaker travels from the United States to Bangladesh to interview victims and explore her own history, while gaining an understanding of the underlying source of her mother’s trauma. Lorraine Healy, writing in her 2010 poetry volume The Habit of Buenos Aires about the Argentina Civil War, conveys a similar compulsion in her piece The Country I Flee From Daily:
Everything there needs me back:
the floods, the starving, the dark-souled.
To witness as the coffers
are covered in black velvet
To go behind the funeral procession
and wail. So many gone. (21)
What is so commendable about these personal journeys embarked upon by Healy’s and Faizullah’s speakers is the amount of personal courage it takes to initiate them. The risks they assume to relive these traumas is immense, and life-altering.
In 1971, the mother asks Faizullah’s speaker, “But tell me . . . / why couldn’t you research the war / from here?” (10) Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito provides the answer:
because I woke
alone in the myth of one life, I will
myself into another – how strange
nameless, the tangled shape
our blood makes across us,
my open palm. (60)
Seam is devastating in its courage to fully examine a family’s history. The trauma Faizullah willingly confronts is deadening in range, yet she still decisively steps forward to meet it headlong.
In her closing poem, she sums up the uncertainty, yet eventual victory, of her journey: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed / lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my / face toward it.” (65) In the end, this is all we can hope for: a little light as we move forward, a touch of light which helps draw and focus the wandering of our vision.
Healy, Lorraine. The Habit of Buenos Aires. Huntington Beach, CA: Tebot Back. 2010. Print.
Paul David Adkins served in the US Army for 21 years. He earned degrees from Mercer University and Washington University, St. Louis. His chapbooks include The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press), The Great Crochet Question (Kind of a Hurricane Press), and Stick Up (Blood Pudding Press).
Whatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist
by Helène Aylon
Press: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Date: May 2012
Reviewed by: Lenore Weiss
I stumbled upon Aylon’s memoir in the Jewish Museum of San Francisco. I was on a Jewish reading jag, had just finished drunken angel by Alan Kaufman about his struggle with alcohol addiction and how he came to embrace his Jewish roots as the son of a Holocaust survivor. Essays by Abraham Joshua Herschel were stacked on my night table. However, Aylon’s book helped me name something I needed to understand. Hers is a beautiful work of art all by itself, illustrated throughout with art from different periods of her life.
The artist was born Helène Greenfield in Boro Park, Brooklyn the firstborn (although she explains that if the oldest child happens to be a girl she is never referred to as the firstborn, an honor reserved for male children), in an extended family of Orthodox Jews who were conversant with Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages. Her grandmother Baba, keeps a shisel of water under her bed “…so when she awoke every morning she could immediately bend to dip her fingers into the dish to say the morning prayer…”
Aylon’s early life is marked by ritual: every Friday night, silver Shabbos candlesticks decorate her girlhood, followed by the fragrant spices of Havdalah boxes to usher in the new week. She receives an observant Jewish education at Shulamith School for Girls where she memorizes poetry by Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who came to be known as Israel’s national poet. But throughout her early years, Aylon is troubled by how women don’t exist as equals in observant Jewish life, unclean when they are menstruating, also termed as nkava (hole). Her questioning gathers in layers: a rapist may stay with his victim if he does not come near her for three days so as to become holy to his god; men recite a prayer every morning to thank god that they were not born a woman.
She marries a rabbi and becomes a rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife). They move to Montreal and have two children. But tragedy strikes. After five years of marriage and at age twenty-five, her husband Mandel dies of cancer. Aylon now begins to die to herself, sells her husband’s Yiddish books that allows her to purchase an encyclopedia set for her son. She anoints herself with a new last name. Instead of being Mrs. Fisch, she creates:
“…my new name would also be my old name: Helène Aylon. Aylonna is Hebrew for Helène. I shortened it to Aylon.”
This is the author’s first step toward feminism and claiming her role as an artist. She also struggles with her dual role as mother and visionary, how do you find time to dedicate to each? Helped by the support of a growing women’s movement to reconcile these roles, she signs up for art classes at Brooklyn College where her teacher, Ad Reinhardt, an abstract expressionist, introduces her to Mark Rothko who invites her to his studio in Manhattan. They talk about the work of other Jewish artists like Barnett Newman, and the philosophy of Martin Buber. The accomplished artist and the young student discover a similar vocabulary based on a shared vision of Jewish spirituality. Three weeks after their discussion, Rothko committed suicide.
Aylon continues to form her vision. Her first commission is to paint a mural for the Jewish chapel at JFK Airport. “I wanted to paint not blue and black and red but blueness, blackness, and redness.”
Her children grow up and she keeps working. Her relationship with her mother, Etta, remains at her directional center; she pushes art toward new boundaries.
Although she marks new feminist ground as a Jewish artist; it is Aylon’s roots and knowledge of Judaism that allows her to stretch the cord as far as it will go before breaking, which is what her early work explores—the place where things change and turn into something else. On a fluke, Aylon moves to Northern California and stays there for ten years where she explores materials like oil and tar –materials that change on canvas.
One of her influences is Georgia O’Keefe. In discussing her own process Aylon says, “The empty spaces in between the breaking are joined, one negative space is merging with another to create a new form. These spaces are like the pockets of silence the Kabbalah speaks of.”
She collaborates with other women including the writer and poet Grace Paley on projects like Sand Gatherings, works with Palestinian and Israeli women to create stone sacs, and hangs pillowcases at army depots with anti-war activists. Her project, The Liberation of G-d where she redacts the Five Books of Moses to highlight words, sentences, and sections that she finds questionable in light of a more progressive ethical world-view, becomes part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco and travels to other areas, including Baltimore where in 1997 her work is viewed by Leah Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s widow.
Aylon’s final redaction is the hyphen in G-d’s name that Orthodox Judaism requires to be written as such because the maker’s name is not to be uttered or spelled out. She allows light to pass threw the hyphen which is covered with a pink filter and comments:
“This delicate pink dash sums up my striving for the inclusion of women. It is what has been missing since Abraham discovered monotheism. I had inserted a feminine presence into the Godhead. If I had to summarize the essence of my twenty-year endeavor to liberate G-d, I could point to that one small dash.”
Lenore Weiss serves as copy editor for the Blue Lyra Review. Lenore has published two books of poetry: “Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island” (West End Press, 2012) and “Two Places” (Kelsay Books, 2014). Her blog resides at www.lenoreweiss.com.
by Jake Adam York
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Pages: 96 pages
Reviewed by Simon Seamount
Abiding in our Memories
The tradition of honoring the dead through poems that narrate the details of their lives and deeds is as old as the hymns of Orpheus, where singers of the tales of the human adventure, and the people they sing about, abide in our memories. Abide by Jake Adam York presents a vision of blues musicians and common folk of the American southeast, a poetics expressed in this verse from “Postscript, for Medgar Evers:”
I didn’t want to write this,
even to think of you,
afraid the thought would curl,
would tangle and make you
common and factual as light.
Narrative poetry is presented by a detached narrator who presents characters in a specific setting as they perform actions, interact with other characters, and express feelings about their perceptions. A good narrative poem is rooted in action, and gives the reader the sense of watching a movie. Whereas, lyrical poetry, invented by Orpheus singing as he strummed the lyre that Hermes invented, is the voice of an individual who is participating in narrative action, and the concepts they express are timeless, expressions of feelings about perceptions of their interactions with people in the world. Lyrical poems are most often the disembodied voice of a speaker outside any narrative frame. While some might perceive these poems about people to be narrative because they are about people in place, yet there is no arc of action from beginning to end. In Abide we forget everything:
Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees
The best poetry is generated by an alchemical transformation when the mind of the poet assimilates characters, concepts, and images with the emotional heat of desire to create meaning out of suffering, and generates a coherent vision that beams from the polished surface of the text. Much poetry these days appears like the poet mined some minerals from the materials of experience, half processed them into nuggets of gold and iron, then strewed the nuggets on a table and declared with pride that they had forged a sword or a grail. We transform life with the heat of words, as in “Exploded View:”
While he worked, the furnace flamed
in dream, and I tried to follow
through the swarm of yellowjackets,
hot wings of iron, but they were just
outlines in my dream, dream,
not iron, not fire in the dark – just spray
from one rare story I tried to follow.
The poems in Abide are more molded than the usual modernist, postmodernist, and metamodernist poetry, yet these still appear only half molded as he strews his poems with names of Blues musicians, scenes, and objects associated with the Blues, and a general sense of the emotional content of the landscape of the Blues overlaid on the ancient landscape of Greek mythology, recorded in “Lines Written on a Hundred Dollar Bill;”
O there is no sound like this in the world above
except the one you engraved in the great disc of the night
that spins above us, through the hole of which
every C-note floats to bud from that one magnolia
somewhere in east Mississippi where the sound was born.
Fleeting references to names of Blues singers leaves me yearning to know more about them in the context of his poems, but as in much poetry in the past century it seems obscure references are intended to whet the appetite of the reader who is assumed to be eager to go read more outside the text, so the text of the book looks like pieces of fabric torn from a vast tapestry of tradition, expressed in poems like “te lyra pulsa manu or something like that:”
as the coins rang again on the dome of night,
and Zimmerman in the graveyard
where he taught Johnson how to listen,
looking up through the trees and playing
until the dew had fallen on him again
and he felt a music in his fingers
he hadn’t known for years
Many of the poems in this collection follow that poetics of fragmented flashes of forgotten memory, yet with the overall theme of the Blues tradition of music in the American southeast. The problem is, such fragmented imagery works only for readers who are familiar with the culture, when the reader is able to supply the coherent background of the history of Blues music in the southern states when reading the poems in Abide. However, readers in other cultures, and in the far future, and even in our contemporary American culture, may not have the necessary framework in their memories to be able to understand the vague references to names and places in the history of the Blues. Reading Abide is like wandering through an old deserted house filled with fragments and scraps of letters and photographs and pages torn from newspapers. Even York seems aware of their fragmentary nature when he sings in “Letter Written in the Dark:”
dream phrases, names
memory’s made illegible,
the notes I find are written over one another,
tangled as the hair a pillow offers afternoon.
Allusion rather than explication has been the ruling principle in poetics since Mallarmé argued for that style when he stated in an 1891 interview, “I believe … that there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song.” While there are many allusions in these poems to people and events, lack of knowledge about Blues music and cultural issues of the past 100 years may leave readers wandering in an empty graveyard of forgotten memories.
For myself, I have long studied the lyrical roots of ancient tradition beginning with Hermes designing the lyre, Apollo tuning the strings, and Orpheus singing songs that enchanted the minds of listeners so that people, animals, and even plants and stones seemed to enter a transcendent world of visions so that they could see people acting in events in a waking dream. Because I have studied ancient traditions of shamans chanting visions for listeners, a tradition that continues in oral poetry in every culture, even to the Blues tradition of the American southeast, I see this vast background against which the fragmented images of these poems shimmer, and thus I have enjoyed the poems in context of visions that abide in my memories. Can this be expected of every reader who may be more familiar with current pop culture content from radio and television, and yet be completely unaware of the ancient traditions of folk singers who preserve the tales of tragic loss and comedic love?
If you are familiar with ancient traditions of lyrical expressions of characters struggling to understand who they are and what they should do to fulfill the desires of their dreams, then you will enjoy the fragmented imagery of the poems in Abide. If you are not, then perhaps the names and references to the Blues tradition of singers will act as guideposts to awaken your curiosity, and lure you deeper into the labyrinth of history where we abide in our memories of human life. You can see the original poetics in a “Letter Written in the Dark”:
the Lyre will spill its music,
Hermes to Apollo to Orpheus,
a story that almost recites itself
Simon Seamount, under the pen name Surazeus Astarius, is writing an epic poem about philosophers and scientists called Science of Hermes or Hermead of Surazeus. Simon has been writing poems since 1984. Simon earned a BA in Liberal Arts at Washington State University in 1988, and a MS in Geographic Information Science from Michigan State University in 2008. Simon works as a cartographer in Georgia where he lives with his wife and two children.
by Jake Marmer
Press: The Sheep Meadow Press
Companion CD: Hermeneutic Stomp by Jake Marmer with Frank London, Eyal Maoz, Uri Sharlin, and Greg Wall (The Blue Thread Music, 2013)
Reviewed by: Shlomo Liberman
Jazz Talmud was first published in 2011 as a poetry book. Since 2013 it has a companion 16-track CD called Hermeneutic Stomp, in which Marmer reads some of the poems from the book accompanied by his jazz band. True to the art of improvisation in jazz, the text he reads on the CD does not follow the printed text in the book exactly. The book and the CD are sold as two separate items on Amazon.
Marmer’s first book of poetry is a surprising and provocative experiment with new forms and mixed contents. I am not a typical fan of poetry but, as a practicing Jew and an admirer of jazz music, I was intrigued by the title. The book explores Marmer’s journey from his childhood in the provincial city of Kirovograd in the Ukraine to Jewish learning at Yeshiva University, where he gradually became involved in New York’s artistic world, especially in performance poetry and free jazz. Several of the poems were written while he, newly married, was on a Dorot Foundation Fellowship in Jerusalem. His migration between different countries and cultures is echoed throughout the book such as in the poem VISA about his visa extension application at the American Consulate in Jerusalem: “the only place in the universe/ I’ve seen Jews and Arabs/praying in the same room.” All this may or may not be relevant as Marmer himself points out in the Post-Face: “…facts in one’s biography have little, if anything, to do with one’s biography.”
The symbiosis between poetry and music is evident in many of the pieces, for example in the short poem “Rachmonos Blues”:
I know a little women,
she got a truck full of rach-
monos, yeah a truck full of parsnips and rach-
monos wonder if she’ll park it on my street tonight.
When you listen to the poems on the companion CD, the klezmer instruments together with Marmer’s rendering of the poems suddenly reveal the inner soul of the poem as in this excerpt from the Klezmer Bulldog:
Klezmer bulldog: imagine him on the cover of Tikkun Magazine
He gone sledding in Caucuses
saved babies in the Urals
hoisted his klezmer flag atop of the Carpathian mountains
all of his friends have sad, drooping clarinet noses
but he’s got a pug, a button, cause his gramma mighta
been raped by a Mongolian Cossack Frenchman Henchman and
he won’t let you forget that, no! he won’t let you forget!
The clarinet singsong, the deep sound of Greg Wall’s saxophone and Frank London’s trumpet convey the klezmer atmosphere while Marmer’s distinct Russian accent transports us up in the clouds over the East Russian landscape. Greg Wall is not only a great saxophonist but also acting Rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue and founder of the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band.
My favorite poems are those in the first part, grouped under the heading Mishna Cycle, which are inspired by Jewish tradition but are totally fresh with alluring titles like Mishna of Silence and Mishna of Loneliness.
There are three types of loneliness in the world: green, red and
purple. So says the house of Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they
say: loneliness is either black or white; all other types don’t exist
and require a sacrifice of a young goat: your internal goat.
In The Laws of Dream-Cooking Marmer tries to replicate the style of a Babylonian Talmud tractate when alluding to Zionism and music:
“There’s no cooking after cooking.” Once a dream
has been in the oven for two thousand years, it’s
done and nothing that happens to it is considered
cooking. That’s if a dream is a solid. If a liquid, it
may have long evaporated and you’re deluding
yourself over an empty burning pot. But, if the
dream is a sound, an invisible musical cloud, then
you are the one being cooked: on the endless
spinning vinyl, zapped into music by needles of
The playful jazz spirit lends to great improvising and mixing – as in the two Haiku style poems, the short Japanese form of juxtaposition of images or seasons, which deal with domestic chores in a hilarious way.
“To be a good writer is to be a wild reader,” proclaims Marmer at one of the KlezKanada Poetry Retreats he organizes together with Canadian poet and Professor Adeena Karasick. There he declares himself to be Chief of the Discordant Talmudic Crisis, poet and performer, expressing a healthy dose of self-irony blended with clever witticisms, both so vivid in the book.
If you are new to poetry like me, read and listen to the poems and enjoy them immensely. Don’t expect to learn Talmud from the Jazz Talmud, but if you know a little about the Talmud and want to get a fresh Jewish angle into the world of free jazz and performance poetry, this book/CD Combo is for you. A special bonus – the CD has a few tracks with poems that are not in the book.
Shlomo (Salomon) Liberman is a graduate student of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He holds a Masters of Science degree from the Lund Institute of Technology, Sweden and a Top Executives MBA from Tel Aviv University. He is a proofreader and editor and a freelance translator of English, Hebrew, and Swedish on ProZ.com. He is the co-author of an English-Swedish Electro-technical dictionary and received the 1980 IEEE Power Engineering Society Award for Most Noteworthy Paper. (http://www.ieee-pes.org/membership/awards/pes-past-award-recipients)
When You’re Down by the River
by Christopher Lowe
Publisher: BatCat Press
Date: May 2014
Reviewed by: B. Kari Moore
The South is in Christopher Lowe’s blood. You can feel it from the first words of his new short story collection When You’re Down by the River. Each story is steeped in sweet tradition and it’s clear that Lowe is taking a leisurely path below the Mason-Dixon way. You can feel the South, but not its expected heat; Christopher Lowe’s stories are cool in their simplicity but rich and thorough in their execution.
Lowe has the ability to make martyrs ruthless and the angels sing in sin. In “Uncle Frank,” his ex-convict turned preacher-family man feels altruistic; while the spurned spouse in the title piece is a hard woman to love, a woman you’d cheat on yourself if you had the chance. With each storyline and each character, Lowe makes a point of keeping them human and close to the ground. The lofty ideals are left to the reader.
There are four distinct stories in You’re Down by the River and each shares a certain reliability. While you never see the strings, each decision made by the author seems square and fitting, without comment but with expectation. Lowe knows where every story is going and we deliberately follow along. However, common enough to be part of the aesthetic but rare enough not to taken for granted are moments of pure daring and skill, where the Mississippi man takes the reader all the way to the edge, sometimes even dangling us off. He is ever in complete control, reeling us in when needed, keeping our minds in check but leaving our bodies on walkabout.
A solid collection, When You’re Down by the River by Christopher Lowe will make you crave the South, a certain type of people and a different type of living. Blue Lyra Review is honored to have published Chris Lowe before, and we look forward to watching his continuous and inevitable rise.
Hearing Beyond Sound: New and Collected Poems
by Elaine M. Starkman
San Ramon, CA: DVS Publishing, 2013
Paper, 72 pages
Reviewed by Zara Raab
Light Travel, Sound Travel
Fog is universal, but nowhere does it have quite the presence that it has in the San Francisco Bay area, where Elaine Starkman has lived most of her adult life. Starkman’s new book opens with the characteristically unpretentious language of “Alive, Winter, 2008,” in which imagery of pear juice, goblets, and fog establishes a tone and mood that pervades many of her poems:
“Sandy’s Gone, January 2011” captures in title alone her simple, understated language, evoking the temperament of a diarist who keeps a journal, or a faithful correspondent, each letter dated, sent from ports in her travels through life. Reflections on death and solitude intermingle in “Sooner or Later, 2000”: All this will end//[. . .] Loving and not loving knowing/sooner than later we’ll part//Then what we think/ will not matter//Then we’ll wonder/what silences we’ll take//with us/ to our graves.” This poem reads like a letter to a spouse of many years. Many of Starkman’s poems have much of the simplicity and intimacy of personal correspondence. This isn’t to say Starkman’s descriptions aren’t lovely. In “June, 1999,” the line breaks have the purposeful presence of suggesting a necklace of the pearls featured as an image in the poem:
chips of pearl
“Stillness, February, 2006,” set in Green Gulch at Muir Beach, epitomizes this poet’s reflective cast of mind:
I didn’t think
By following the contours and normative turns of her syntax, and breaking predictably, Starkman’s lines mirror her zen approach to life, one of whose tenets might be paraphrased as “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Starkman rarely offers rhythmic surprise, or breaks the poetic line to amplify or qualify meaning – to strive for more than is natural. Although Starkman has chosen to keep her poems free from the strictures of meter and rhyme, she has not then taken on the difficulties inherent in rhythmic surprise, enjambment or complex meaning. Starkman is never overly ambitious in her use of the freedom of free verse. This has a calming effect, slowing down the progress of the poem and perhaps facilitating connection with the reader. It is rather like some of William Carlos Williams’ early poems, before he mastered his brilliant rhythmic patterns in what James Longenbach has called the “annotating line.”
One of my favorite poems, in the section of “History Lessons” drawn from Jewish and her own history, is “Peaches, Netanya, Near the Sea,” an homage to Avram, an “old immigrant/from Eastern Europe” who sells peaches from a cart with his helper, young Yosef, “the singing Yemenite;/ his dark sandaled feet” dangling “over the cart pulled by a donkey,” while their dog Cush runs alongside. The poet recalls Yosef teaching her how to say the Hebrew word for peach, “Ahfarsek,” and giving her a taste. She concludes:
Oh, fruit of the land
Oh, milk and honey.
Where are you now,
“Every Single Day, a Ray of Light” evokes the Jewish Kabbalah, and “Kaddish for the Columbia” discusses “the sketch/ by a boy in Auschwitz” carried into outer space by the space shuttle Columbia, without echoing any of the rich, wrought cadences of the Hebrew bible. Ancient Jewish traditions pervade these poems, while the sparse style remains firmly planted in the twenty-first century. “In the Kibbutz Laundry, 1969,” one of a series of poems set in Israel, is dedicated to Rivka Cooper, whose arm is tattooed with a concentration camp number:
In the kibbutz laundry
Her hands move in an act of love.
“[E]ngraved on her arm/ Lives a page of history/ That all the soap/ And all the rubbing/Can never wash away.”
Family bonds are a rich source of reflection. In “Apricots for Isaac,” the poet savors an afternoon of walking with her grandson in an abandoned orchard; he climbs an apricot tree whose fruit is beginning to ripen. In “Patterns,” she reflects on the links between the generations, the patterns tying her to her mother, and from her mother through her, to her children:
How is it that I’ve become my mother
Stand at the sink wash her hair
The way she once washed mine
How is it that I carry everything
Unnamed between us
Onto my own children
And call it love
“Re-reading Poems of Anne Sexton, 1984” makes evident Sexton’s influence: “The fearless courage of your writing/ nourished my own.” Preoccupation with childhood motivates poems like “Three A.M., November 2011,” recording a dream of a “blue eyed/dark haired brother and sister//I knew long ago,” or the poem “Chicago: Garfield Park Conservatory, September, 2004,” conjuring a neighborhood where the poet “trudged with [her] father through winter snow, spring rains, and summer swelter more than /half a century ago.”
Although Starkman begins her poems with a personal perspective, she is by no means a Confessional poet, and she writes of male literary influences, capturing in brief stanzas the essences of Hemingway, Einstein, and Gandhi, each of whom “lets me know that my life/ is in my own hands” (“Traveling Among Men, June, 2012”).
Never inflated, didactic, or politically correct, Starkman isn’t generally interested in news headlines but in the slow news of family life, as in the charming “In Praise of Old Man’s Pee,” dedicated to her father, whom she visits in the hospital near the end of his life. Starkman celebrates the “men we don’t hear or/read about who give/us their manly gifts//who love us gently/with compassion.” An overarching theme of Hearing Beyond Sound is the need for an inner voice.
No, I don’t want
To know who’s
Who’s having affairs
[. . .]
More news more websites
More blogs more spam
More more more—
There’s lively detail in Starkman’s portrait of the well-dressed man in a wheelchair selling soap on the street corner in “Lost Words, 2009,” and humor in the poet’s recognition that, caught up in the petty trials of her own life, she does not really see him. Starkman is most exuberant in her friendships with women. “Cabana Carioca, New York City,” dedicated to the poet Florence Miller, describes a New York City outing:
We abandon ourselves
To every pan-handler
[. . .]
We swoon at the stocky waiters
In Cabana Carioca on 45th Street.
[. . .]
we samba up the line in step
to the last of the Portuguese buffets
where we pay the counter price
for paella and flan at this lunch of love.
At times, Hearing Beyond Words reads like a travel letter from Israel, Europe, and Asia, and occasionally the line between poetry and good prose is sustained only by the thin thread of the line break. Yet without straining for heightened literary effect, the poet connects with both the people in her stories and her readers beyond the page. Even in sleep, she is traveling, with the notion of some ultimate journey beyond life hovering like a shadow. In “Traveling Toward Dawn, September, 2005,” she writes, “Soon I’ll lie down to sleep/wrap myself in night/ fold its coverlet above me.” Travel is evoked even by this tender collection’s elusive title, referring to the “celestial sound” of the highway, the “angelic humming//from the car tires/ as we pass sandy dunes,” on their way somewhere. As reader, I welcome these missives from other lands. I travel with her.
Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of California in 19th and early 20th Century. Her poems appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast Review. Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.
by Rutu Modan
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (May 14, 2013)
Reviewed by Maya Klein
“To find something, you have to know what you are looking for,” says a character in The Property, the second full-length graphic novel by acclaimed artist and writer, Rutu Modan. The novel makes this assumption, along with numerous others, and subjects it to a form of scrutiny that is original to Modan – playful, while at the same time, remarkably telling.
The story follows Mica, a young Israeli woman, and her elderly grandmother Regina as they take a week-long trip to Warsaw to reclaim property owned by Regina’s family before World War II. Regina is the quintessential “Polish Lady”: prickly, mercurial, and oftentimes impossible; she is also an intelligent, loving grandparent and has an irresistibly dark sense of humor. Her granddaughter, Mica, possesses the same quick temper and sharp wit, and she is as gutsy, sarcastic and smart as she ought to be, even demonstrating her expertise in “Krav Maga,” a self-defense system.
Modan’s use of the medium is virtuoso; her talent in depicting visual detail – a slipped bra strap, a messenger-bag, or just the right pantsuit – is coupled with the manner in which she writes dialogue, expertly navigating the voices through three languages – Hebrew, English and Polish, which are denoted by changes in font. Each language is given its own particular, authentic inflection. For example, when Regina is stopped by Israeli airport security on account of her water bottle, she attacks the guard and says, “Rules – were they handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai?”
At their best, graphic novels delve deep into weighty issues, almost sneaking up on the reader with their significance, and The Property proves no exception. Like Spiegelman in his seminal MAUS (despite his reluctance to being cast in the role, Spiegelman is largely considered the father of the modern graphic novel), and like Satrapi in Persepolis, Modan makes full use of the freedom that the genre entails. In this deceptively quick read, potentially explosive issues relating to individual and national identity, history, and politics are all depicted in simple and convincing frames.
First, the novel raises the ethical dilemma regarding the legitimacy of using personal stories – taking real people’s pain – and turning it into art. This question is exacerbated when dealing with trauma that is both personal and collective, such as the Holocaust. The love affair that Mica has with Tomasz, a Polish artist whom she meets in Warsaw, brings the matter to light. Tomasz is working on a graphic novel, a rendering of the events of World War II from the Polish perspective. When Mica discovers that he has in fact been sketching her grandmother’s story, she becomes infuriated and suspicious, fearing Tomasz is merely using her to realize his artistic ambitions. He apologizes, but Mica, flinging his flowers in the trash, mutters, “I forgive but I don’t forget.”
Worldly and intelligent, Mica chooses words that are steeped in Holocaust discourse. The staying power of the narrative, the collective trauma and also, arguably, the sense of victimhood, persist in Israeli culture; they are closely tied to notions of personal identity and infiltrate the most intimate relationships. Through the character of Tomasz, the novel also seems to be asking ethical questions: Who is authorized to tell a story? And from which point of view? Does it really belong to anyone?
Indeed, the “property” that this graphic novel is concerned with undergoes a complete and comprehensive reconfiguration. As in English, the Hebrew word for property, “neches,” is also frequently used in its verb form, “lenaches” – to appropriate – and the journey that Regina and Mica take towards rightful ownership or re-appropriation is complex precisely because it does not merely pertain to tangible property.
An opening scene depicts the women’s flight to Warsaw. The plane is packed with rowdy high-school students on an educational tour of the concentration camps. When asked as to the purpose of their own trip, Regina and Mica adamantly deny that they are on any kind of “roots journey”: they say that their trip is purely business. The women are careful to set themselves apart from the sort of “concentration camp tourism” that is subject to scathing irony from Modan. The teenagers are going wild on the plane, one of them wearing a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” t-shirt, while another has “The March of Life, 2008” emblazoned on her back. Their schoolteacher nonchalantly ticks off the itinerary while munching on his breakfast roll. “Let’s see. . . Monday – Treblinka, Tuesday – Madjanek, gas chambers, etc. Personally, I prefer Madjanek to Auschwitz. It’s much scarier.”
Modan illustrates how the real horrors of war are subjected to the mechanisms of memorialization that are unable to do them justice. Memory and tragedy are appropriated, not by the artist figure (like Tomasz or perhaps Modan herself) but by a system, such as the Israeli educational system which has been entrusted to maintaining them. The result is a warped, flattened representation, with educators looking to frighten their disinterested young audiences into submission. Furthermore, as indicated by the re-enactment scene in the Jewish ghetto, the need to constantly up the ante, to titillate audiences so that they can experience “the real thing” is not limited to Israeli culture, or to desensitized youth thrice removed from the events. The desire to have an authentic experience of trauma results in grotesque farce. Hence, sighs the overzealous director of the society for Jewish memorialization, “I miss the ghetto.”
Though not stated explicitly, this issue is particularly relevant to politics and the Israeli political milieu, where Holocaust narratives and notions of victimhood have often been employed and are reintroduced on a regular basis. Examining the appropriation of memory is also an implicit form of critiquing the political forces that work to sustain them, and which perhaps, also benefit from their proliferation. The graphic novel, as a seemingly innocent form, provides a perfect vehicle for such a controversial message within the context of Jewish, and particularly, Israeli culture. In this sense, the book continues in the tradition of subversive graphic novels and uses its medium wisely, with striking imagery and heavy doses of irony.
The Property is undoubtedly a good book. It is included on more than ten best-of- the-year lists, including those of The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Salon, Amazon, and The Washington Post. It is well-deserving of the praise it has received. However, it is also an important book, illuminating the culture and the politics of appropriation that are at play within it.
In the end, in a final twist of irony, the protagonists reconnect with their pasts and uncover deep family secrets, but in the process, they relinquish the property that they came to claim, proving that sometimes, in order to find something, you have to give up what you were looking for.
Maya Klein is a writer and translator based in Tel Aviv. Her fiction has appeared in The Ilanot Review and The Literarian.
Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
ISBN 10: 1571313354; ISBN 13: 978-1571313355
390 pages, paper
Review by Sue Ellis
Braiding Sweetgrass has the feel of a bible, and the essays that make up the chapters are like sweet psalms that gently admonish and instruct with practical advise to help us save our environment. That a good many of us haven’t made the connection between the earth’s health and our own is at the heart of the problem Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses. And it becomes clear within a few chapters that she’s uniquely qualified for the job, writing from the perspective of botanist and professor of plant ecology, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
She begins with the Native American perspective on creation, how Skywoman fell from the heavens like a maple seed, and finding earth covered with water, stepped onto the back of a turtle. Soon aquatic birds and other water creatures began to dive below the surface, searching out mud for the woman to build upon. Skywoman spread a precious handful of their gift across the back of the turtle, and then began to dance in celebration, causing the earth to grow and grow. It was then that she shared the gifts she had brought with her – plants and seeds to provide food and shelter for all who lived upon Turtle Island. The exchange of gifts was an act of reciprocity, the importance of which is stressed throughout the book: people must learn to give back rather than always taking from the earth.
The essays are too numerous to list, each filled with both Native American folklore and scientific facts that pertain to the natural world. They cover such topics as the making of maple syrup, the preservation and harvest of black ash trees for basket making, and the many uses for cattails.
There is an essay about Lake Onondaga in New York State, the most polluted lake in the United States. It describes the industry whose lack of consideration for the environment led to the lake’s pollution. It also tells the story of a man who planted patches of grass in the shape of letters spelling H E L P upon a section of the lake’s ruined shoreline. And help did begin to arrive in the form of concerned citizens, scientists and ecologists who made headlines by banding together to find a solution for the lake’s distress. Meanwhile, unlauded, Mother Earth works to renew herself.
My favorite essay is about the Pacific Northwest’s Nechesne people. Their management of wild salmon runs in the glory days before wetlands were leveled out and filled to make more pasture for cows is a masterpiece of lyrical prose, and a human history deserving of Kimmerer’s eloquent telling.
Toward the end of the book, Kimmerer describes Windigo, the Native American version of the devil, who seeks to destroy all that he touches. Here’s an excerpt describing her fantasy about curing Windigo of his evil ways by making him drink her handmade, medicine – after she’s rendered him manageable with a kettleful of poisonous buckthorn tea:
He lies spent in the snow, a stinking carcass, but still dangerous when the hunger rises to fill the new emptiness. I run back in the house for the second pot and carry it to his side, where the snow has melted around him. His eyes are glazed over but I hear his stomach rumble so I hold the cup to his lips. He turns his head away as if it were poison. I take a sip, to reassure him and because he is not the only one who needs it. I feel the medicines standing beside me. And then he drinks, just a sip at a time of the golden pink tea, tea of willow to quell the fever of want and strawberries to mend his heart. With the nourishing broth of the Three Sisters and infused with savory wild leeks, the medicines enter his bloodstream: white pine for unity, justice from pecans, the humility of spruce roots. He drinks down the compassion of witch hazel, the respect of cedars, a blessing of silverbells, all sweetened with the maple of gratitude. You can’t know reciprocity until you know the gift. He is helpless before their power.
His head falls back, leaving the cup still full. He closes his eyes. There is just one more part of the medicine. I am no longer afraid. I sit down beside him on the newly greening grass. “Let me tell you a story,” I say as the ice melts away. “She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting from the autumn sky.”
I was impressed enough by this beautifully written book to hope it will become required reading in schools, serving as a guide for environmental awareness and the conservation of natural resources. Braiding Sweetgrass shines a light down a narrowing path, if only we are wise enough to follow.
Sue Ellis is a sock knitter, soap maker, gardener, and retired postmaster who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some writing credits include Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, The Cynic Online Magazine and BluePrint Review.
Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine
edited by Mari L’Esperance and Tomás Q. Morín
Prairie Lights Books, 2013
Distributed by University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 978-0-9859325-2-7, 194 pages, paper
When I read Coming Close, a collection of essays written by students from Philip Levine’s poetry workshops, I felt like I had met Philip Levine forty different times. These are like love letters of appreciation.
Levine is a master poet who, during his fifty-year teaching career, won just about every literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. More recently, he served as the country’s Poet Laureate from 2011-2012.
Many celebrated poets who have studied with him frequently associate the word “generosity” with his teaching. Whether meeting Levine as a young poet sitting in a room permeated by the smell of fertilizer from the fields outside California State University in Fresno, encountering him later in his life as the Distinguished Poet in Residence at New York University, or intersecting with him at points in between, all of the writers said his teaching changed them.
Many writers, such as Aaron Belz, maintained a correspondence with Levine long after he had left the classroom. Belz shares some of Levine’s advice that was helpful to his own career:
“You asked for detailed advice on how to deal with taking yourself seriously as a poet & yet not puffing yourself up & at the same time believing in yourself as a poet. I can tell you this: long before I believed in what I was writing I believed in myself as a poet, believed I had something to say but had not yet found out how to say it. I suppose I was saying to myself, Philip, you are a person of intelligence, feelings, wit, some charm, you have as much right to this poetry thing as anyone else, though it is obvious that some others are more gifted (Hart Crane, John Keats, Wilfred Owen, etc., I was not yet 25), so stick at this thing & see what happens. No harm will come from this doggedness…”
There are other glimpses into student letters and notes that provide a fuller picture of Levine, a man who set an example not only by his passionately lyrical poems, but by his devotion to his students. He was not all sweetness and light. Levine had a reputation for eviscerating his students’ poems (but not the poet), and once, on the first day of a class, felt obliged to disavow a story of tearing up a poem into scraps before its author’s eyes. On the other hand, that quality of “no bullshit” was why so many of his students held him in high esteem. Paula Bohince writes:
“…he wanted to see us develop, caring enough to push us as we would have to push ourselves when our program ended.”
Others acknowledge that his tough feedback was tempered with outrageous humor so that, as Shane Book says, “you could take it because he made you laugh; the alternative was to weep. Levine wanted us to know how tough it was to write well.” Another student shares how his grading system was based on the OK system – decent stuff merited an OK+, the mediocre, OK-, and the truly awful won a low growl of argh!
Levine encouraged his students to reconnect with their own fractured memories and to allow imagination, as Colin Cheney says, “to give new life to what can’t be restored.” By giving the Detroit working class a face and a life in poetry and later broadening his work to encompass the nature of democracy in the United States, Levine’s poems encourage others to be truthful to material from their own lives.
All of the writers share an admiration for Levine’s work. Blas Manuel De Luna says:
“He was a model. If you tried to be like him – if you took your craft as seriously as he did, if you took the work as seriously as he did, if you took your life as seriously as he did, if you believed in poetry in the way that he believed in poetry – then you had a chance to make work that could last.”
Each essayist shares a facet of Levine, a man who appeared to David St. John as a cross between “Woody Guthrie and Paul Newman.” Nick Flynn recalls a time when Levine explained, “If you had remained an electrician, you would know how to get the lights to come on, but you are now a poet, and each day you must invent the world. Not the world, but your place in it…”
All of these women and men knew that they were studying poetry with someone whose work mattered and, like Ishion Hutchinson, wanted to be “owners of his myth.” Mark Levine recounts the poet saying, “There’s only one reason to write poetry. To change the world.” Included here is an earlier essay written by Larry Levis, a beloved student and friend of Levine’s. When Levis died in 1996 of a heart attack, Philip Levine edited Levis’ last collection of poems, Elegy.
The editors of Coming Close have done a masterful job of pacing these essays to build a pathway toward discovering Levine and his influence on several generations of poets. L’Esperance and Morín both have essays included in this collection. Read the book to meet Philip Levine as a teacher, and the students who found what they needed in his classroom to become successful in their own work.
Written by Lenore Weiss
Her work has been widely published online, in journals, and anthologies. West End Press published her full collection of poetry, Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island. She serves as the copy editor for The Blue Lyra Review.
A Poet’s Gondola: Review by Zara Raab
For both the contemporary poet and Nobel Laureate Tomas Transtromer and the classical composer Franz Liszt, “Funeral Gondola” is a title alluding to Richard Wagner, whose body was ferried along the Venetian lagoon in 1885. Sze-Lorrain’s “Funeral Gondola,” she assures us, “has nothing to do // with Liszt /with Wagner / with Transtromer”, although the ghosts of these giants are bound to shadow the melodic lamentations of this poet, who is at home in several continents and cultures. Sze-Lorrain’s “Maestro” is not Wagner, but her ancient ancestor and countryman, the Chinese poet Li Po; his gondola takes the shape of a child’s paper boat she has made as a child in remembrance of him, a boat, that floats “away to the night sky where the painful moon hangs.” Sze-Lorrain’s gondola travels seas far from Venice, perhaps the Malacca Strait near the city-state of Singapore at the top of the Malay Peninsula, the country made up of dozens of islands where Sze-Lorrain was born. Her gondola, she tells us, “positions itself”
midway in a strait—so that shadows
in a trance
travel over it
Ghosts are bound to wander in and out of any book about funeral rites and death by a poet of Chinese ancestry. In Chinese culture, ghosts are supposed to take many forms depending on the manner of death; through them, some believe, a person may contact a dead ancestor. For Sze-Lorrain, any funeral ceremony must keep “the ghosts in mind”; they, who “sit like cats through the wake,” must be served cakes. Ghosts are good, too, for chasing away fears and can be invoked in thunderstorms to chase imaginary dogs on the rooftop, as they do in the poem “Lullaby.”
Ghosts are part of a rural folklore quite foreign to modern and post-modern urban consciousness. One interpretation of the poems is as the struggle of an evolved urban consciousness to deal with the superstition and folkloric values of remote agrarian ancestors. Sze-Lorrain certainly views her ghosts as altogether “odd spirits,” the title of the second section, which opens with a lovely evocation of a remote harbor at night under a deep, starry sky, a poem called “Orion” one of the brightest of evening constellations. Stars are connected to astrology and soothsaying, and so, addressing Orion, the poet, who as a small child dreamed of becoming an astronaut, writes,
Before death the seer showed me how
you eluded mystery
Shadows may be ghostly, too, and spiritual. China’s culture of ghosts spread, apparently, far beyond the mainland to the Southeast Asia. In the poem “Javanese Wayang,” puppets tell their story from behind a transparent screen, which casts them as shadows. The poet advises: “Watch the shadows, not/ the puppets.” In “Monuments Against Sundown,” she says, “A man doesn’t walk with his ghosts. He walks with his shadow, the man who says no,” the dark self. Words, too, are shadowed by their origins and early meanings, the word “shadow,” itself originally meaning a darkness that provided shelter from light and heat.
In “Still in the Night Fields of Hokkaido” the poet goes with her camera at night to a field in the northern-most island of Japan, Hokkaido. Here a dreamy landscape, exquisitely described, becomes “an unwinged sea of lamps”—suggesting fireflies, although there is “inattentive rain,” so perhaps the lamps are the starlight filtering through the droplets of rain. Sze-Lorrain’s sensitivity to the natural, concrete world meets a more ancient, mythic understanding, for suddenly she hears the––crickets, triumphant, playful, and joyous in their song. In this night terrain, she tells us, “Crickets question// twice”––
They register an air
between real and improvised time.
finish my line. Nature suddenly
feels so foreign
Crickets are not only part of nature, they participate in an ancient symbolism. (Who can forget the role of the cricket in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor?) One studies them as a naturalist, but this is not their whole story. Sze-Lorrain’s empirically minded, Western, questioning and questing self––represented here by her camera––breaks. She begins another line about the crickets, but she is not able to finish it.
“After the Moon,” a short lyrical meditation on the world’s mirrors of oblivion and guests in their disguises, expresses Sze-Lorrain’s solitude, an unalterable condition of life that she accepts, moving forward without false constraints but with the curiosity of a scientist.
So many shadows,
so few ghosts––I am lonely
in this imperfect end.
“Sixteen Lines, Autumn 2010,” the prequel to the 35 poems of this book-length meditation on the ambiguities of life and death, present and past, begins simply, “In past autumns, I saw the world differently” and ends:
Look: a long sundown.
No more black and white.
The word “white” itself once referred to fresh snow or salt, anything full of brightness or light, and the Chinese often consider Caucasians (“whites”) as “ghosts.” Ghosts are neither quite dead nor quite alive, shadows, too, are ambiguous, neither white nor black. The past keeps reappearing in and shadowing the present, and the living sometimes seem to live on only in a dead past. In the dense and intriguing “Visitor,” she recounts how her Shanghai grandmother, when asked about her early life in Communist China, answers with a single word: “Hungry.”
Though born in Singapore to Chinese parents, Sze-Lorrain is very much a Parisian, educated and living in Paris and writing in a tradition that goes back to the French surrealists of the 19th century. The poet’s playful gesture of wearing a fake mole is very much in the urbane modernist tradition of the French surrealist Mallarme and Apollinaire. “Notes from My Funeral” is full of gallows humor. The poet, imagining her own death, lies “like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man” in a round coffin, “perfect fengshui”, “the sound of wild gods drumming” in her heart.
Eyes unshut. I wait
for the flowering of my last
wish, The honor of your presence
is requested at your own funeral
Underlying many poems, however, is a sorrow and a preoccupation with the ghosts of the past, the suggestion of the death of a child, perhaps, or other recent losses. But when brought into the light (in “My Melancholy,” for example), the poet’s sorrows disappear, at least for a moment–– or perhaps more accurately, they are filed away in a private domain (as “official secrets”). Sze-Lorrain evokes and names her sorrows without being engulfed by them; instead, she attends, as a scientist or keen observer might, to the layers and perspectives that surround the merely personal. The poem’s windows are thrown open, the poet is porous. “My Nudity,” she writes, echoing T.S. Eliot,
delivers what is important
about my body, between action
and repose, a room
“Before this mirror,” she continues, “I am my painter,/ realizing that bareness/ opens/ and never shuts.” By the end of this collection, in “Return to Self,” the poet resumes mundane activities. A friend calls. She has news from her sister. She is avowedly learning to live with her desires and grief.
Other poems here scramble the normal syntactical sequence of words or disrupt linear temporality. Raw, spontaneous language, the site of meaning and intentionality, can create its own event, rather than referring to events outside itself. In “When the Title Took Its Life,” the lines of the poem “wish to know how they left/ this pen// and why I imprison them”. “Erase me” they insist. These effects, forming a deconstructionist puzzle, may derive from Sze-Lorrain’s philosophy of “Linguistic conscience,” which she describes in an interview (in The Bitter Oleander, vol. 17, no. 2):
Words can’t just be concepts if they truly nourish a poetry that comes alive. They practically need to be sensibilities. This is why I try to nurture words whenever they come to me, even if they might seem “raw,” instead of looking for them and crafting them around specific images or contexts.
Elsewhere, though, she mocks lofty intellectual concerns. In “Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back,” she asks, “Is Foucault in season?” and captures the pretention of academic conferences where “the Nuremberg sausages” are a “cultural must-eat.”
With an eye for the absurd, Sze-Lorrain imagines a diva in the poem of that title pouring “cough syrup into her Chanel handbag,” and eating “her scores when she can’t recall/ her past triumphs […]” “Scarlet” is another nonlinear prose poems resisting coherence, yet breaking out in startling lyricism: “I’m not sure why orchids remind me of her,” the poet writes. “The way she served us tea, thin without sugar.”
“Now, Meditate” illustrates how Sze-Lorrain combines experimental elements with more formal characteristics. I’ll quote the poem in full:
Yes, the nostrils of silence.
A sea of visitors chained together.
More or less tempting
I no longer know my kind.
Light added to light, mountains feel near.
What is darkly denied us?
Let it go,
this chestful of sky.
My stomach turns from stone
Pain washes one or two moons down my back.
Bones are now moving alike (10)
As “stoma” is a mouth, and the stomach in some cultures is the seat of pride and anger, a place of temper and disposition, for the poet to say her stomach turns from stone to birds suggests rebirth through lyric song. At least this is one interpretation. “Pain,” of course, is related to penalty and punishment, to grief, expiation, and ransom, and in its earliest form was connected to “pining,” calling up for me an image of pine sap dripping down the poet’s back. In an open form, Se-Lorrain juxtaposes unlike items—the “nostrils of silence” and “chestful of sky,” but her narrative voice is stable, the narrative itself, coherent. Experimental as the poems are in this book––especially in contrast to her earlier book Water the Moon––Sze-Lorrain does not eschew closure. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, all the line breaks end with closure––occurring at full stops with a period, comma or question mark.
“Francois Dead” recounts, again in a clear narrative, the emptying of a house or an apartment after the death of a friend or someone close.
Without improvisation, we empty the drawers.
Papers slip. He pulls the shades, lifts
the mattress, dismantles
the Victorian bed. I wash the floor
with a rag on all fours.
After arranging those famous first-
editions, we stop and fold
silence into a cigarette.
He lights the lamp, we return to dust. 
Here is precise description of silence folded into a cigarette, a passage alluding to the occasion’s somberness without explicitly naming it. Many poems (“Javanese Wayang,” “Diva,” “Francois Dead”) in My Funeral Gondola, like those of Water the Moon, construct coherent narratives with a stable voice and closure, striving for clarity and precision.
Sze-Lorrain’s cultural references, not surprisingly for a poet of her heritage, are broad and deep, from Li Po to Ravel, Dickinson to Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, the constellation Orion to the northern most island of Japan to the music of Java. In the long poem, “Not Thinking about the Past” one begins to sense how physical the act of writing is for Sze-Lorrain, who insists on putting the word on paper, however raw the word may be. This is perhaps one link she can find and hold to a Chinese heritage that requires worship of ancestors as a form of rootedness in the world—through the physical body, the material world. Yet as a post-modern urbanite, Sze-Lorrain has evolved a consciousness that leaves behind or at least sets aside—perhaps in the ‘official secrets” file––the ghosts and superstitions of rural folklore. The intermingling of levels of consciousness in her poems makes fascinating reading. During the most powerful of aesthetic experiences––say, for example listening to Tchaikovsky––suddenly, the poet tells us, “rain pours.” However fractured our experiences of past and present, the corporality of the world and her own body sustains her:
[…] my body
where darkness is a long
The body sustains the links among the disparate times and spaces of the individual’s experience, from the nine-year old on the stage at Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall to the mature musician in Carnegie Hall or the contemplative poet at her writing desk, from the fencing arena in Edmonton, Canada (where the poet once competed) to the halls of Columbia University or the Sorbonne. This fund of experience yields some gorgeous lyrics.
Evoking the rainy darkness of the remote northern California coast, Zara Raab’s poems are collected in The Book of Gretel and Swimming the Eel. In September a third book, Fracas and Asylum continues her journey through inner and outer landscapes of storm, seclusion and reverie. A fourth book, finalist for the Dana Award and based on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, will appear in October. Raab’s poems, reviews, and essays appear in Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, The Dark Horse, and Poet Lore. A contributing editor for Redwood Coast Review and Poetry Flash, she lives near the San Francisco Bay.
Grains of the Voice
Poems by Christina Pugh
Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8101-5228, 75 pages, paper, $16.95
Musical Harvest: Review by Zara Raab
Christine Pugh’s poems remind us that, as Roland Barthes writes, “significance in literature is inexhaustible.” For though these “linguist silhouettes,” as Pugh calls them, are slender––rarely over a dozen lines––her meanings proliferate with each reading. Pugh is one of the poets in the present era who, coming of age amid the social protests and revolution of the 1960s, has turned from social and political protest, commentary, and satire––the staple of divisive, hugely entertaining late night comedy––toward interior, embodied discourse, leavened with rich seams of allusion to 60’s and 70’s rock and roll, washed clean of nostalgia, along with linguistic, semiotic, existentialist deposits, as well. Even Corot’s “grave boatmen,” May Ray’s surrealist art and metaphysical art `a la the Italian print maker Giorgio Morandi make an appearance in this book as illuminated with literary and cultural references as a medieval manuscript. Pugh’s lyrics seem to come from tongue or glottis, nose or teeth, not from the whisperings of her brain, breath or lung. (Barthes––whose ghost lives in the seams of this collection––calls the lung “a stupid organ [… that] swells but gets no erection.”)
Roland Barthes also supplies Pugh’s title. In his essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” Barthes asks, “How, then, does language manage when it has to interpret music?” Very badly, he says, at least in music criticism. He goes on to speculate somewhat incomprehensibly as far as I can see that if we “displace the fringe of contact between music and language,” we may find in vocal music a worthwhile encounter between language and music. Barthes calls this encounter—again, with mystery–– ”the grain of the voice when the latter is in a dual posture, a dual production—of language and of music.” For the first section of Pugh’s book, Barthes’ words provide the epigram, and early rock and roll tunes the many reference points.
Pugh’s “Persistent Tune” evokes the life style of generations of youths who, beginning with the Japanese Walk Man in the early 1980s, tuned in to popular music pretty much nonstop. Now it’s the iPod, and in her poem of that title, Pugh sees herself with “wires/ like a wingspan”—the ear buds of the iPod trailing to the hand or pocket with the ubiquitous device. The poem “Persistent Tune” plays on the old radio hit “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” It’s a song––as you’ll recall if you rode in automobiles with the radio on in the early 1970s–– about losing one’s way in the heady 1970’s cultural shifts, going back to San Jose “to find some peace of mind.” It is a requiem for all the lost souls who went to LA hoping to become stars: “weeks turn into years; how quick they pass/ and all the stars that never were/ are parking cars and pumping gas,” the pop song goes. “But who could get / a job pumping gas these days?” Pugh’s poem responds: “Nobody, /not least the stars that never were.”
Pugh’s “Water Music” evokes the old strobe lights of disco dancing in “a quilt of refractive light upon many square inches” of the body of the girl who “nearly / danced as a river.”
This is why we say Her
name is Rio, and why I’m learning love requires
a trawl-net, an act of free will.
The connection between Rio and the lesson on love is not all that clear to me, but Pugh does manage to capture the way we tend to remember the old songs once heard over and over again on the radio as we circled the freeways in our youth––a snatch here, a title there. She is not above satire of these memories, as when she reminds us (in “Heideggerian”) to “listen carefully/ to all that surrounds us: the ravening glow / of the Elvis lamp, florid at the hairline, / lips and cheek; or James Brown’s miniature / bare chest rippling in the window of the Salvation Army.” (An Elvis lamp is for $150 on eBay.)
However deeply related song is to poem, only one of them is really profitable in the age of record and disc. Survival and economic viability, never explicit, are nonetheless persistent tunes in Grains of the Voice, for as she implies at the outset, in poems like the ones you are about to read, “there / is no real profit to be had; there’s / little use; there is no exchange /value.” (“Profit Margin”) The poet is improvident, to use another of Pugh’s titles, taken from a line in the poem “Women” by Louise Bogan (“They Are Improvident Instead”), and her trade impractical; like the rest of her tribe, she shops at the Salvation Army (“Unsung”). Music, in contrast, “enthralls the marketplace” (“Singer”). By interpolating a line from Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Pugh may be raising the question of relative value for poem and song: Shall she compare the poem to the popular song (that may rake in thousands of dollars)? When the poem—her poem–-is auctioned in the literary marketplace, she seems to ask, what price will the auctioneer offer?
Whatever its purely economic value, song and poem are both linked to aliveness: “[I]f you live in my ear / so I too might live again—“. In “Poem,” the poet loves the acoustic guitar, however “extinct” it may be in the popular culture; she chooses the “archaic percussion” of clapping, and “always I’ll choose this over all the ones and zeroes”—over money. She chooses making music, clapping (with her own body), or the simple body of the maple wood guitar—over “storyboard” (movie), and over “vocoder” (speech-analyzing synthesizer). In the past, body and its song, weren’t simply economic units; they had spiritual value. At the farthest reaches of American commerce and the speech it entails are the Latin chants of the nuns turning wheels of cheese in the caves of Auvergne in the poem “Inflection.” Language, like the tiniest of organisms, can be endangered; it can become “dead letters,” a Latin no longer spoken.
How can we call those words
human, when they’ve flown so far
from our commerce, our market place?
Yet cheese making is a business, and the white-haired girl at the bluegrass festival (in “I and Thou”) who “told us singing was like praying” may be “sublime sublime,” but she will afterward doubtless count the ticket receipts and pocket her share of the proceeds. No accident that the song Pugh chooses to recall from this festival is Metal Gear Solid’s “Heaven Divide”. In any contest between the ethereal and the physical, Pugh sides with the latter:
Fill your black hull with white
moonlight, Stevens said; but Appleseed had fertilized
the land with something more than light: with scattershot
blossom and a fruit whose hardness ever will resist
the tongue and teeth. (“John from Cincinnati”)
Songs are layered in Pugh’s texts like traces of lemon in a cake or herbs in a dressing, subtle but palpable, as in the lines from “Poem”, referring to the Beatles (“Let It Be”) and (with “Trill it, then, and bury me”) to the heavy metal band Black Tide (“Bury Me”) or to Goldfinger (“Kill Me: Bury Me”). Earth, Wind & Fire makes its way into a poem (“Heideggerian”) on the essential nature of being. Poetic song, too, is here, from the layered voices of John Donne and Wallace Stevens to echoes of Yeats in “how could the voice come silent in such groomed/ space, plash and reverberant?” (“The Voice, Midsummer”). Linguistic jokes and conundrums also abide in poems like “I Am Are You” where the poet “would like to visit Iamareyou.org that haven / for the shut down of the shifter, that tenement / of pronouns in remission.” If John Ashbery mimics better than any living poet the way we tend as humans to remember and forget, Pugh mimes the verbal ways of that subset of humans whose talk is ruled by the frontal cortex—philosophers and linguists.
In the title poem, “The Grain in the Voice,” the narrator is asked why there were no protest songs for Iraq, and whether the poet remembers Ohio (perhaps a reference to the Ohio River Music Festival of 1975 where there would have been plenty of protest music). The poet demurs. She doesn’t remember the specific political events evoking outrage or mourning, but she does recognize in the song and in the grain of the singer’s voice, the diction of outrage or sorrow. And she seems to be saying, “these are eloquent enough.”
Pugh’s poems manifest a synesthesia of sounds, colors, and emotions––the ways stimulation of one cognitive pathway in the brain leads involuntarily to stimulation of secondary sensory pathways, so (“Ut Pictura Poesis”) the visual sight of elephant seals on the sand is slicked away by distance until “you’ll see them / only in the sirens of their cries”, and in the title poem
My ear scribbles sorrow
every time the stylus writes: a knife
sheets sparks like a rash of birds
ascending. Can you hear the
singer murmur, what is the color?
Not only does Pugh see color in the sound, see visions in the sparks or feel sorrow in the pen, she s also adept at “hearing voices with the voice”, another Roland Barthes concept the epigram for which precedes Pugh’s Section 2: “Interlude: Recto and Verso.” In loss and bereavement, Pugh hears the voices of the popular singers, the tunes her generation took in like the lullabies of a nursing child. Each poem in this section is followed by a short “Verso” poem of 3 or 5 or 10 lines. The first one, “Verso (Homunculus),” ends:
The preceding poem (the Recto) is called “Harrow” (torment, or heavy machinery with prongs dragged over plowed land), a description of a relationship, possibly, with the lover who writes his poems in sky-blue ink. If, as “Memo/ Harrow /Valentine” suggests, it IS a poem of troubled love, it is a muted expression, one where the loss of the beloved is met and experienced privately through dreams, not in society. The Verso member of another pair seems, in one reading, an acknowledgement of just how deeply matters of love (and art) can be traced back to one’s origins:
let me gather it as mine
let me take it in as mine
the sequin shape of the Man Ray river 
Sequins appeared in the art of the modernist artist Man Ray; much as he wished to distance himself from his immigrant origins as the son of a tailor and a seamstress, sequins and other sewing objects found their way into his works, the “sequin shape” of his “river” perhaps inevitable. (The “Man Ray river also has echoes of Ray Charles’ song “Ol’ Man River”.) Nowhere is the interiority more evident than in “How My light Is Spent,” a title taken from Milton’s sonnet with the line “They also serve who only stand and wait,” quoted by Pugh. Grief is as perpetual and impossible to break as a diamond. Her griefs “burnish [her] with elegy.” Life and death are entwined, just as the bodies of the dead in Guyana after the mass suicide of the People’s Temple members are entwined about each other, as the grape vines were entwined in their first home in Ukiah, California.
Pugh’s inward turning lyrics articulate a metaphor for fear or at least intimidation in the iron lung with its power to dampen human motility. In one interpretation, an iron lung represents a way of coping, of “mask[ing] a melancholy,” as her verso tells us, and of hiding, or finding self-protection. How do people manage to love each other, and how much of it is pure drama as “the mind […] holds the open/ shape of the proscenium”? (“Lilac Garden”)
One of the few poems to step out of its rich, multilayered, and elegant interiority––and speak more directly and movingly to readers––concerns America’s wars. “Ornature,” featured on Poetry Daily, is one. It reads in part:
The beautiful girl says
she’ll always be a soldier.
She’d had a two percent chance
of waking from the coma.
Someone has to be that
two percent, she says
with a smile. Why not me?
—And, sackcloth or silk,
the husk did open. We decorate
her friends at the end of May.
Another, “Civics II,” memorializes the human rights activist who set himself on fire in Chicago in 2006 to protest the Iraq war. At the end of this poem, Pugh quotes from Malachi Pitscher’s biblical namesake (Malachi 1:9): “who is there among you that would shut the doors for naught?” The verse continues, although Pugh does not quote it, with: “Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.” Without engaging in act of direct protest, Christine Pugh manages with her ferocity to take a stance for the vitality pulsing from the guitars, drums, vocal chords and typewriters of musicians, singers and poets. In one sense, Pugh’s poems echo and evoke the classic songs of rock and roll, songs like the Styx’s “Come Sail Away with Me,” Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My,” or the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By.” In another sense, the poems in Grains of the Voice have their own music, their rhythm tight, dense, multilayered. Not the lyrics of rock and roll, but the mesmerizing beat beneath it.
Evoking the rainy darkness of the remote northern California coast, Zara Raab’s poems are collected in The Book of Gretel and Swimming the Eel, and soon in a third book, Fracas and Asylum, which continues her journey through inner and outer landscapes of storm, seclusion and reverie. A fourth book, finalist for the Dana Award and based on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, will appear later this year.