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Book Review

Book Review

Tertulia

by on August 22, 2017

Chapbook by Seth Pennington
Review by John Venegas

Let’s get something sorted out before we get started: you are a mind, a soul if you want, spinning in circles on the skin of a planet that is spinning in circles in the grip of a star that is spinning in circles with a horde of its siblings that are moving inconceivably fast through the universe. Does that give you vertigo? Lovecraftian dread? Can you imagine that mind, your mind, being pulled along by an impossibly circuitous current, given the flickering light of consciousness to try and amass some semblance of a personal picture of everything? We all deal with this, one way or another. Some accept it. Some are fascinated, terrified, or confused, or some combination of the three. Some stick their head in the stand and wait for it to end. I didn’t imagine that I would find a beautiful, touching, and measured response to these ideas in a tiny little chapbook. But, thanks to Seth Pennington, I am very much enjoying being proven wrong.

To be clear, the poetry chapbook Tertulia is no heady science fiction romp. It is a text that embeds itself in the deeply, often uncomfortably personal. It spends little time staring up at the stars, dreaming, instead wading into a river of sensation and emotion that it is not entirely sure it will be able to emerge from. Tertulia looks at the microcosms, the reflections of the impossible vastness that can be found within the people that we love, the people that we hate, and the people to which we never give any thought. When you hear writers talk about getting into the flow, it is usually in reference to some flood of genius that compels them to write. Such an idea is romanticized and dramatized to no end, but here, in my opinion, is evidence of the real thing – an experience of flow for the intense, frightening thing it can be.

a new leg and terror at living with death
having been so certain, more certain than
any other day’s death you had

known. The blue on your lawn, it’s lying
so light the green is showing through,
as if color could be purer

This is fascinating use of spacing and structure, in a way that, intentional or not, encapsulates the experience and potential of writing poetry. For me, the power of the stanza break is critical. The pause, the holding of breath, feels as though the speaker is hesitating, waiting for something. When combined with the subjects under discussion, it is as if the speaker is afraid after having invoked death while simultaneously dealing with an array of color that feels unnatural. The speaker is giving us glimpses, moments in time and space that can only be conveyed through words. The chapbook is full of moments like this, where not an ounce of space is wasted and the fat is trimmed away. The speaker seems to be giving us only what is most important in the moment, be it the smell of sweat or the sight of aging pendulous breasts or the taste of dirt and forgotten lovers. It is precise poetry that knows how to hide its seams.

With the word choice and structure being so specific, it is little wonder that the language works exceedingly well. I found myself feeling genuinely guilty as I read, because there were several moments where the quality of the word play had me grinning like an idiot or marveling at the taste in my mouth, only to realize or remember that the thing being described was tragic or solemn. It’s like seeing a beautiful person at a funeral and forgetting where you are for a long moment.

Your family finds you bent over beyond your
breasts, the silver hair of your lip wet with
effort, with violent prayerfuls of sweat. And finally
when you move to speak, only dirt can
all from your mouth –
your wanting to taste him.

My choices of excerpts aside, there is far more than only lament. A tertulia is a gathering, often of artists, for the purposes of discussion and, while I cannot be certain that the title was chose for this reason, it is at least quite the coincidence that we see a wide array of passions on display. Lovers thirst and reassure. Families reminisce and bicker. Friends are born and multiply. As the current drags you, the reader, further and further out in the water and feeds you glimpses of lives, of moments, you can see the pattern, the echoes of answers to those questions of mortality and time and legacy and impermanence. This little chapbook does what often takes the whole of novels and compendiums, touching that deepest spark in all of us and reminding us to open out eyes and see.

 

Tertulia is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.

Book Review

These Possible Lives

by on August 10, 2017

Essays by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
Review by John Venegas

I imagine that most of us are worried, on some level, how we will be remembered. A lot of that is the standard issue fear of mortality that helps keep us alive. Some of it is philosophical and existential, the kind of question that you only arrive at when you get some hint of the scale of what is around you. Will your life fit into a book? How about sixty pages? How about ten? I hold no pretense that I will be deserving of such a thing, but I can’t lie: I now want Fleur Jaeggy to write of me when I am dead. Her short essay collection, These Possible Lives, explores the lives, deaths, and worlds of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. At less than sixty pages that are maybe three and a half by five inches, this was the kind of book that, as a reviewer, I immediately assume I will have to pair with something else to write a review of decent length. I enjoy being wrong. Jaeggy’s minimalist style and ethereal technique crafted such depth that I feel like I have stepped into an ocean of time.

On the most basic level, These Possible Lives is an examination of the personalities of writers and the toll the art can take. The essays render the lives of the ahead-of-his-time De Quincey, the vibrant Keats, and melancholic Schwob into impressionistic paintings. They standard historical fare – the circumstances of births, marriages, addictions, and deaths – but with such precisely wrought language that you could be forgiven for wondering whether or not you’d strayed far from the history itself. There is a whimsy here, not driven by lack of curiosity or impulsiveness, but by the currents of time. We can only experience fragments of the lives on display, through our mutual connection to the zeitgeist, so we are compelled to fill the unoccupied sections with our own perspectives. Jaeggy is our guide through this process, eloquently and elegantly rendering the fragments in such a way the authors of which she speaks can only be human. Jaeggy becomes a ghost of literature’s past, to borrow from Dickens, showing us only what we need to see.

This process starts with the trimming of the fat. Think about what Jaeggy is trying to do. She is encompassing the lives of three authors in less than sixty pages, in a manner that is both true to history and artistically creative. Most of us would consider such a thing impossible, and rightly so, because most of us can’t do it, or do it well. The trick, it seems, is in parsing out what it is that truly matters, not just in a text, but in a life. This is carving a statue out from within another statue, with the end result being more meaningful and engrossing than the original.

It would be necessary to reassure him of the identity of objects in the room. At times he discerned the ‘footprints of angels’ and would address himself to the deceased.

A simple, beautifully efficient way to reminisce about a touched mind. There is no wasted space, no hyperbole to lionize or demonize how De Quincey’s mind worked. And yet it is like a match to the kindling in our imaginations, leaving us to see what we will, be it actual angels in conversation with a poet or a slow, burgeoning freedom from sanity. And every possibility between.

His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.

Here we are presented with the death mask of Marcel Schwob, one of the most influential and (here in the United States) criminally under-recognized writers of the late nineteenth century. Assuming that a piece of literature exists in conversation with itself, what does the quote above have to say to Dickinson’s depictions of death? Or Shelley’s fallen pharaoh? Jaeggy has painted Schwob as a man whose resolve could not be broken in the end, who passed in a manner that kings of old could only emulate at great expense.

But the text, for all its hidden depth and intensity, does not pretend to be above a soul of wit and charm. There are moments of quiet levity and delicious word play, especially when the text is fleshing out the world these artists lived in. Henry Fuseli is described as having eaten “raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams”. Wordsworth is described as using a “buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke”. It comes across as an acknowledgment that, for all our seriousness and for all the dramatic consequences of our actions, the lives of writers are strange and, at times, nonsensical. We are a weird folk, neither the demi-gods that history would make of us nor the vagrants our cultures often accuse us of being, but shamans with our fungi and tin-foil hats, never quite sure to whom we are speaking.

A special note must be made for the other major voice at play here: translator Minna Zallman Proctor. I do not speak Italian, but what has been presented here in English is nothing short of truly beautiful, and Parker’s work is no small part of that. I can only imagine the difficulty of translating something that so acutely focuses on brevity and efficiency. To pour over the proper word choice, to capture the essence of something so precise – it is awe-inspiring, a worthy tribute to the original text and its author simply by existing as it does.

In case you cannot tell, I highly recommend this book. I have soft spots for the most efficient uses of language (even if I don’t even come close to managing it myself) and deceptively deep work that challenges our assumptions of fact and fiction, and I struggle to think of a better example of either than These Possible Lives.

 

These Possible Lives is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

Book Review

And We Were All Alive

by on August 8, 2017

Collection by Olvido García Valdés
Translated by Catherine Hammond
Review by Benito del Pliego

Among the contemporary Spanish poets, few are better suited for a translation into English than Olvido García Valdés. Her poetry cannot be reduced to any of the stereotypes surrounding what any Spanish speaking poet —particularly female poets— should be like, and yet a fine-tuned reader will have the opportunity of noticing that she is not leaving behind key aspects of the conversation that, one may say, the Spanish poetry has been having in the last few decades.

What is it, then, that makes this translation such an interesting read in English? It is about what the poem pays attention to. It is about how the poet positions herself in the language of the poem.

And We Were All Alive covers just about half the original included in the book that received Spain’s National Poetry Prize in Spain in 2007. With few exceptions, the poems offered in the translation are short notes in verse in which an observation of the surroundings takes the reader to an unexpected place.

Between the literal meaning of what you see / and hear and another less obvious place, / inquietude opens its eye.

That inquietude, as many poems, seems to come from an unusual glance to common views, from a chain of reflections without obvious connections, from memories of dreams, from retained memories.

A few poetic strategies define the writing process here. Among them, the most prevalent are a variety of forms of juxtaposition, such as opposition, or transitions eased by some short of grammatical or lexical ambiguities that moves the poem from one place to another without apparent discontinuity. Sometimes the bridge is established by a discrete echo such as in:

…Explosions / or skin tight to cheekbone; / veins and rough texture, / deteriorating, unable to adapt, the denim jacket had the odor / of the person, the person and the odor…

In any case, since there is not juxtaposition without a previous cutting, the poems also have another striking formal feature related to what is elided. These are quite poems, contained poems.

Being mindful of these two qualities (juxtaposition and ellipsis) greatly facilitates the possibility of chasing the elusive sense that presides García Valdés writing. The capacity to displace what is literally said, while safeguarding the possibility of other meanings, opens up an area of mysterious truth, a truth impossible to state in any other way but the way it has been written. Here, perhaps, lays the key of the fascination caused by García Valdés poems.

One of the elliptical —and fundamental— elements of the poems is the nature of their subjects. The voice that articulates the poems is defined by her capacity to see and say, rather than by any presupposed category (cultural, national, political…). There is someone in the poem; it is a she, it is a she who sees and says. Her voice takes us to a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with so called common sense. Like other aspects of the book, the subject is precise, but not limiting. The projection of the identity is not the goal of writing; it is just one of the dimensions of which the poem make us aware.

The poetic forms resonate and may define the topics that emerge from the poems: death as a looming possibility, the disconcerting nature of human relationships, the warming presence of nature – especially animals – and places… In what is said arises the possibility of an answer, even if it is only an evanescent one.

The translation of these pieces may look like a simple task considering what Catherine Hammond has achieved. Or simply reading García Valdés’ original. In both cases there is a deceiving sense of normalcy. The difficulty seems to be placed in the interpretation or the evaluation of the words we read, rather than in the words themselves. The subtle dramatic points where the poem shifts gears or makes a turn are, nonetheless, difficult to capture in a translation. Hammond gently wrestles with then in a way comparable to the approach favored in Spanish by the author; it is a matter of punctuation, or the resonance of a few words. In that delicate process, Catherine Hammond achieves the essential task without too many concessions to translators’ tendency to make the translation look more natural than the original.

The second element I think poses a very interesting challenge for the translator is the delicate balance between distance and affection that crosses the book. It’s not ease to parallel García Valdés’ austere – but elegant and warm – Castilian phrasing. It may be hard for many readers to respond to both languages alike, but I would like to encourage everyone to search for that subtlety. Luckily, Cardboard House Press facilitates that approach with a bilingual edition. And we were all alive carefully in both languages.

 

And We Were All Alive is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Benito del Pliego is a Spanish born poet, translator and professor at Appalachian State University, in North Carolina. DiazGrey Ed. has recently published, in a bilingual edition, one of his poetry books, Fábula/Fable. His poems have been included in anthologies such as Forrest Gander’s Panic Cure. Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century (2013) and Malditos latinos malditos sudacas. Poesía iberoamericana made in USA (México, 2010). He has translated into Spanish, in collaboration with Andrés Fisher, selections of poetry by Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and Gertrude Stein.

Book Review

A Life of Adventure and Delight

by on August 3, 2017

 

Review by Liz von Klemperer

Superman, Cosmo, & Other False Idols: In Akhil Sharma’s first short story collection, the consumption of American media plays out in real time

In his first short story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, Akhil Sharma presents the American Dream as a Wizard of Oz sham.  Forces like Cosmopolitan Magazine and Marvel Comics are the culprits behind the curtain, pulling the strings to the happily-ever-after narratives his characters crave.  Sharma presents a darkly comedic take on the Indian immigrant experience, as his characters unsuccessfully seek affirmation through fast and easy pleasure peddled by American media.  What results is a melancholy and at turns tender exploration of the human psyche at it’s most vulnerable.

Sharma’s characters fumble to bridge the gap between traditional Indian and commercial American cultures.  Arranged marriages are a pervading theme, and Sharma describes them as pragmatic unions orchestrated by parents and often between two strangers.  This contrasts starkly with the concept of love touted by the American media, which sells a narrative of spontaneous and consuming passion.  In The Well, for example, Pavan, a first generation immigrant, “falls in love” with a host of fictional characters, such as Mrs. Muir form The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Spider Man’s Mary Jane, and Wonder Woman.  His dreams of a partnership that’s worlds away from the dysfunction of his parents arranged marriage.  After seeing his parents fight as a child, for example, he vows to give a flower to his future wife every day.  But when Pavan grows up and meets Betsy, a blonde American woman, he blatantly ignores her request that their relationship be casual and physical.  He tells her he loves her, and even goes so far as to not use a condom in hopes that by impregnating her she will fall in love with him back.  Unsurprisingly this manipulative method of fostering love backfires, and Bestys pregnancy ends in an abortion.  Pavan, with all his misguided idealism and supersized dreams of love, is left blinking and stunned.  No matter what cultural norms feed and facilitate a romantic union, dysfunction and heartache have no cultural boundaries.

In Sharma’s stories, the desire to latch onto shiny promises of comfort and understanding come to head with the very nature of American media, which is meant to reel a consumer in and sell a product.  In this case, the product is an idea, and Sharma’s characters have invested heavily.  Sharma casts his characters as earnest fools who have fallen into a masterfully laid trap, and are subsequently forced to recon with their naiveté.  While Betsy is jaded and unable to stomach googley eyed romance, Pavan has taken the American love story to heart.  To Pavan, Spider Man is not just a story, it is a possible alternative to his parents passive aggressive, dysfunctional relationship.  Sharma lays bare how the media we consume is fundamentally at odds with reality as well as dangerously misleading, especially for those who consume whole heartedly.  Sharma is also playing with the classic idea of the United States as the Promised Land, where people can seek futures of new and boundless possibility.  In Sharma’s world, his characters are shackled by their circumstances, whether it is isolation or hardship, and there is no American Dream tale to be found.

In Surrounded by Sleep, Sharma approaches immigrant indoctrination into American culture through the perspective of a child when ten-year-old Ajay prays to Superman after his older brother Birji’s near fatal swimming pool accident.  After the accident, Ajay’s mother creates a shrine and prays constantly, hoping that her display of piety will convince God to spare her child.  Ajay then Americanizes this practice by substituting Krishna with American cultural idols, like Superman.  Ajay imagines God as like Clark Kent, with “a gray cardigan, slacks, and thick glasses.”  Ajay entreats God to make his brother well again, and also asks God to make him rich and famous.  At ten he is already steeped in the narrative of the American superhero, whose beginnings are always “distinguished by misfortune,” and wants to believe that his success will be in direct proportion to his suffering.  In the hospital, he loses himself in fantasy novels in which the hero, “had an undiscovered talent that made him famous when it was revealed.”  Within the superhero narrative lays the American bootstrap mentality, the concept that, through trials and tribulations, the little guy can succeed and rise to the top.  Despite Ajay’s earnest desire to make meaning out of his suffering, he ultimately concludes “the world was always real, whether you were reading or sleeping, and that it eroded you every day.”  There is no corollary reward, or obligatory triumphant ending.  At the end of the story, Ajay and his father drive by the pool where Birji drowned, and Ajay reflects that people swam there without knowing the tragedy that transpired there.  Unlike in a Marvel comic, strife often has no redemption, and the world continues ambivalently.

This collection is prescient today because it exemplifies the ways in which the Ellis Island narrative has been thwarted and replaced by that of Trumpian isolationism and fear.  If not Lady Liberty, what cultural icons can serve as bastions of wholesome American values?  In a country where our president is an ex reality TV host, who do we look to?  Super Man, Spider Man, and Wonder Woman are easily digestible figures to turn to for Sharma’s characters.  These are, of course, merely shiny scraps that offer no true or lasting message.

In addition to having bought into glossy magazine covers, his characters are unremittingly selfish.  Pavan wants affection but is blind to the wishes of his partner.  Ajay wants his brother to get better, but couched in this plea is heroic glory and redemption for himself.  To top it all off, Sharma’s characters often do not change despite being forced to recognize the error of their ways.  No, this is not a shining immigrant story of strife and redemption, nor is it the immigrant story of disenfranchisement and racism.  It is a stark, unrelenting portrait of humans navigating their all too human desires.  There is one welcomed break from cynicism contained in these stories, however.  Unlike the stock ideas of success and intimacy his characters adhere to, his characters themselves are not pretty or glorious.  They are, as protagonist Gopal Maurya concludes in Cosmopolitan, “dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on the inside.”  Their desires, sorrows and failures are hard to look at, but they are pure, raw.

 

A Life of Adventure and Delight is available now through W.W. Norton & Company.

 

Liz von Klemperer is a writer, lover, and succulent fosterer.  Her reviews appear in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Brooklyn Rail, LAMBDA Literary, and beyond.  Find more at lizvk.com.

Book Review

Standing on Earth

by on June 15, 2017

Standing on Earth, by Mohsen Emadi

Translated by Lyn Coffin

 

What does it mean to be “grounded”? Some of us take it as a powerful compliment, a suggestion that we or our works of art possess some kind of immersive quality that is more objective concerning physical reality. Some of us take it as an imprisoning insult, a thing that wraps python-thick chains around the creativity of the soul and binds it to the immobility of a single form. In both perspectives, there is an assumption of choice, an agency that is taken for granted and given credit and blame, and there is an inherent binaric other, either a flighty lack of seriousness or a drowning unimaginativeness. Those binary qualities are no coincidences – they are born in cultures that define themselves in opposition, that treat fluid identities as unquantifiable at best and threateningly alien at worst. What does “grounded” mean to an immigrant? To a refugee? To an exile? To someone who can see the myriad differences and the far from coincidental similarities between two patches of earth?

I was at Universal Studios, sitting at a table in a food court, waiting for the Waterworld show to begin. I was bored and hot, but not enough that I was going to spend four dollars on a bottle of water. I reached into my bag to pull out my phone and check my lack of messages for the third time, when I grabbed something I hadn’t expected. A small poetry collection translated by Lyn Coffin. Mohsen Emadi’s Standing on Earth, as it so happens, but I’m sure you knew that by now. Being the good little Western half-breed that I am, I had no idea who Mohsen Emadi was. I opened to the first page.

I was there.
An unborn child
playful among guns.
The sun rises
and I carry your death,
womb by womb.

That is how the book starts. There is enough in those six lines that I could spend the rest of the review unpacking them and still have enough for an essay afterward. But in the interest of keeping this readable, I will instead pose another question: are those six lines grounded? If you will excuse my forwardness, the answers are yes, and no, if we are using the binaries. We have a speaker, recalling a life before a life, living amongst weapons, bathing in the sun’s radiance, and heralding the night we all fear. These are six lines that play with time and space and identity and yet somehow are fundamentally relatable, to a genuinely horrifying degree.

There is no better flavor sampler for Standing on Earth. We are treated to beauty and terror, the inversion of assumed stability, and a questioning of that which we hold in the depths of our hearts as inviolate and fundamental. As you move from poem to poem, there is a sensation that Emadi has been forced (which is not to say he is unwilling) to witness a multiverse of realities and that this collection is something akin to an attempt to layer them over one another. It begs questions that can only germinate in minds aware that existence stretches beyond the sensible.

Structurally, the poems are rarely given standalone titles, as if actively resisting definition, and there is a sense of almost constant motion from poem to poem. I say “almost” because there are a few titles and few definite changes in style that arrive rather suddenly, as if the speaker(s) did not expect them and are trying on new identities. While much of the poem has a fairly simple layout in terms of alignment and spacing, there is a moment of fascinating derivation. The poem “my skull…” indents on a whim and repeatedly, and it is the only work in the collection to do so. It felt like a twitch, like a spasm, as if even a basic and otherwise conformity becomes unpalatable. It is a powerful reminder of everything going on beneath the surface, of the pressure building below even the already evident venting within the language.

My skull’s
a cup of wine
and a Chinese painter
painted
on the edge
a herd
of
horses
racing
inebriated.

Given the sheer scale of perspectives that Emadi is trying to amalgamate, it is little surprise that the topics covered are multitudinous as well. Everything from general relativity to colonialism to narcotics to grammar is covered with at least the kind of gaze you reserve for the person who has caught your eye through the bus window and made you to wonder at the depth of their life. But some topics, noticeably time, space, and love, repeatedly return to center stage, not so much out of a direct effort to focalize them, but rather in the vein of a nervous tick – incessant internal questioning from the minds of the speaker(s), a heady cocktail of self-doubt and adrenaline that compels flight and fight. They are covered beautifully and nervously and passionately, spared no distraction in their not always pleasant detail.

As something of a side note, I do not speak Persian by any stretch, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Lyn Coffin’s translations, but I am still incredibly impressed by them. To translate any work is to rewrite it, not only in the direct terms of language to language but in the sense of finding a common ground between two thought-processes that can capture the essence of the original. To put it simply, Lyn Coffin’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency, because Mohsen Emadi’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency. While I have no doubt that actually knowing Persian and reading the original poems would enhance the experience that is Standing on Earth, I have no small admiration and appreciation for this version.

My favorite line in the whole collection is “Meaning is utopian.” Not only does it capture the entirety of the collection in the way the first six lines do, but the multi-faceted power on display in three words is the kind of genius that most of us can only aspire to. Utopia, or perfection, is a goal that must always be pursued but never attained. It can’t actually be attained, because perfection is impossible, but even if it were, it would represent true and total stagnation, an end of all possibility and potential. And yet we must seek it out, because the search for it is the effort to better ourselves, to build upon what has come before and allow our descendants to do the same. Meaning is the same; it is impossible to achieve by its very definition, and yet the search for it encapsulates the whole of the human experience. That struggle reveals everything about us. In an age where we are coerced into thinking all else as “other”, an age where the defining battles are between “us” and “them”, an age where we all think ourselves as living in Winthrop’s city on a hill, we need more books like Standing on Earth. We need more reminders that we are all standing here, grounded, on our little patch of earth.

 

Standing on Earth is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Overpour

by on June 13, 2017

Overpour, by Jane Wong

 

Jane Wong opens Overpour with, “For years I lived this way: with words / That had to do with carrion / I have learned to cast away my enemies / I have lit their insides clean.” Upon first read, the words captured me in a way I did not understand. I wrote them down on the post-it note I use as a bookmark and took the words with me as I read the rest of the collection. Each time I encountered lines that made me pause my reading, I read the post-it and tried to imagine its connection to the poem on the page. I was delightfully surprised that although Wong’s poetry is a reflection of different topics like nature, war, and animals, there is an interesting interweave of language occurring on the page (sometimes evident and sometimes you need a post-it to remind you).

Wong’s poetry reflects topics that are disorienting and, at times, slightly unfamiliar. However, the narrative style of poems allows the reader to follow and reflect on one’s role as a reader and participator. Many of Wong’s poems do something interesting: they pair up the city with the country, they pair up human and animal. However, these images are not spoken about in binaries where the reader gets one or the other. Instead, they are spoken about together and create an interesting conversation —a call and response, if you will. Within this ongoing conversation, Wong points to different questions that we should all be asking about our world; questions about violence, poverty, and fulfillment. Though there is no one answer, the themes of these poems force us to see ourselves in this struggle; a struggle that compels us to question our contribution to the problem and what it is we’re doing to solve it.

Overpour is divided into three different sections but perhaps what is most notable is how  historical, political, and social contexts appear to haunt Wong’s poetry. In The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry (poeticsofhaunting.com), she states “A poetics of haunting insists on invocation: a deliberate, powerful, and provocative move towards haunted places. How does history —particularly the history of war, colonialism, and marginalization— impact the work of Asian American poets across time and space? How does language act as a haunting space of intervention and activism?” Wong’s poetry reflects her attempt to answer these questions. In doing so, she inhabits her mother’s voice in a series of poems titled Twenty-Four, Thirty, Twenty-Nine, Forty-Three, and Twenty-Five. Throughout these poems, the speaker exemplifies a search for the self. In Twenty-Four, the speaker writes about her marriage and having children. It is in this poem that the title makes an appearance: “Overpour, / of regret, there is too / much blood in a cow / to comprehend.” Here the speaker does anything but overpour the situation. In fact, this is only a snippet of this individual in this particular moment in time. There are still many years left to recount and as such, we are encouraged to read on. The rest of the poems in Wong’s collection are amalgamations of particular moments and memories. All of these moments deserve to be read —all at once or one at the time, you decide.

 

Overpour is available now through Action Books.

 

 

Book Review

Multiple Choice

by on June 1, 2017

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

Translated by Megan McDowell

Review by T.m. Lawson

 

Perhaps it is the cover design’s callback to blue books that provokes a nostalgia that seems to be trendy these days. (Has it ever not been trendy to peddle the past?) Or maybe it is the clever title in conjunction with the design: Is this book A) fiction? B) Nonfiction? C) Poetry? D) All of the above? Or E) None of the above? Alejandro Zambra punctures the distinctive lines between genres in this collection, earning the proud The New Yorker praise that he is indeed “Latin America’s new literary star.”

I’m inclined to agree; it surprises me that the book was not more of a splash in the U.S. considering our literary love affair with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, and our recent history with the transformation testing in schools. The No Child Left Behind Bush-era policy has left behind a scar in children’s education and a belief that governments are not concerned with an educated populace but pliable citizens. Zambra hits on these notes very well. In his short story, Text #1, the narrator’s former grade school teacher, now a retired bus driver, serves as an embittered voice as he asserts to his former students, “[School] is rotten, but the world is rotten […] They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry—you weren’t educated, you were trained.” The narrator notes immediately that “it sounded aggressive, but there was no contempt in his tone, or, at least, none directed at us.”

The whole of the book plays with form, mirroring a standard testing packet as it transitions from word choice to longer texts. This in itself is novel, however Zambra takes off with the constrictions, effectively blowing my mind with each page. Consider this excerpt from “I. Excluded Term”, in which the reader (or tester) should “mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.”

1. MULTIPLE                                                    4. FIVE
A) manifold                                                         A) six
B) numerous                                                        B) seven
C) untold                                                            C) eight
D) five                                                                D) nine
E) two                                                                E) one

2. CHOICE                                                       6. BODY
A) voice                                                             A) dust
B) one                                                                B) ashes
C) decision                                                         C) dirt
D) preference                                                      D) grit
E) alternative                                                     E) smut

One could sooner pick the prettiest star in the heavens than decide on a selection. Zambra boxes the reader in while liberating diction; indeed, how could you pick a word that does not belong when you really think about the direction they take you? It’s clever work, but it goes beyond simple cleverness. Zambra makes this section the most poetic out of all of them because of the compressed nature of exercises and the limited real estate given to the ideas he spreads on the page. It feels holistic how one “exercise” leaps to the next, all of them seeming to complement one another and build on each other like bricks. They are simple selections, not ten dollar words by any stretch of the imagination. Alejandro does magic with simplicity, and it plays to his literary strengths. My favorite pair end off this section appropriately:

23. SILENCE                                                  24. SILENCE
A) fidelity                                                         A) silence
B) complicity                                                     B) silence
C) loyalty                                                         C) silence
D) conspiracy                                                    D) silence
E) cowardice                                                     E) silence

The other sections include II. Sentence Order, III. Sentence Completion, IV. Sentence Elimination, V. Reading Comprehension (in which he gives three long prose selections called Texts and asks intricate questions analyzing the content). The second section is Zambra’s most enjoyable because of how it twists the brain and requires participation from the reader; it does not request. Instead, Alejandro sets up a “build your own adventure”, sculptural in tone depending on the reader’s placement. It requires brain activity, no passive intake of information.

26. The second                                                                  27. A child
1. You try to remember your first Communion.                     1. You dream that you lose a child.
2. You try to remember your first masturbation.                    2. You wake up.
3. You try to remember the first time you had sex.                3. You cry.
4. You try to remember the first death in your life.                4. You lose a child.
5. And the second.                                                            5. You cry.

A) 1-5-2-3-4                                                                  A) 1-2-4-3-5
B) 1-2-5-3-4                                                                  B) 1-2-3-5-4
C) 1-2-3-5-4                                                                  C) 2-3-4-5-1
D) 4-5-1-2-3                                                                  D) 3-4-5-1-2
E) 4-3-2-1-5                                                                  E) 4-5-3-1-2

This is Zambra waking up the reader and putting some semblance of stress that is akin to … dare I say, a final exam? But there is too much self-awareness, too much good humor as he pokes fun at all sorts of themes and subjects (the writer’s life, soured relationships, family arguments, a woman’s breast cancer) to be weighed down by any overt academic influence this format could take on. Alejandro Zambra is daring the reader to pick up the blue book and take a test, which begs the question: what does it mean to pass?

 

Multiple Choice is available now through Penguin Random House.

Book Review

Luna Park

by on May 30, 2017

Luna Park, by Luis Cardoza y Aragon

Translated by Anthony Seidman

Review by Kristin Kaz

 

I was four years old in kindergarten, which is when I learned how to identify coins using my fingers alone. Is this a common lesson for young capitalists? Hands thrusting into deep, dark cotton sacks, fingering the heavy ridges of a quarter, the slightness of a dime. The nickel and the penny were hardest to distinguish for a while, but I got the hang of it. Eventually.

And now I so rarely use my hands to explore the world.

I lost my way.
Where was I?
I rambled along singing!

This work, this collection, I’ll tell you first how it feels, and then how it feels.

Luna Park is a slim text, bound in cardboard and wrapped with a smooth, heavier stock. Is this recycled paper?[1] Difficult to say without my eyes, but there is something organic about it all. I drag my nails against the cover and it sounds like marbles. Like a rain drum. The pages themselves are slighter, still smooth, and they make a pud-pud-pud sort of thwacking sound against themselves as I flip swiftly through them. There is something nostalgic about the presentation. I have it. There I am, at the start of a new school year, wrapping text books in paper bags. This is the comfortable, familiar part of the process. This is what my fingers and nose can tell me about how this work feels.

This is what my eyes can tell you.

Luna Park (1924, 2016) is Luis Cardoza Y Aragón’s first collection of poetry. It is translated from the Spanish by Anthony Seidman, thrust into the thick of this decade’s hazy Twitter feed by Alan Mills, and steeped in the kinetic energy of Daniel Godínez-Nivón’s graphics.

From this critical living, restless,
A new soul has flourished:
Tender and strong,
Beautiful and sweet,
Like a flower of steel.

The beauty of a work like Luna Park is its ability to transcend time and space – or, rather, the ability to so clearly encapsulate the speed at which we hurtle through time, through space; the push-pull of experience and innocence; the jarring, grotesque specter of age that stalks us through the funfair.

The one who doesn’t reside in the future doesn’t exist.
The future started yesterday.

My third reading of Luna Park is punctuated by the metronome of relentlessly tack-tacking fingers on an ergonomic keyboard. I put the book in my back pocket (this is a book that fits in your back pocket), where I keep it while I carry my cat through the house to the kitchen, where I pace back and forth, cat slung over one shoulder, left-handedly nosing my way through the experience of Luis Cardoza Y Aragón’s poetry.

La vie s’en va…
A woman, with her gaze,
Tells me:
“Live it up”
Life shouts out
“Follow that woman”

This is not poetry to be read passively, to be enjoyed on some quiet Sunday.
This is poetry that begs to be read in motion; this is poetry that pushes you up and out.
This is poetry of exile, of transcendence, of momentum, of vitality.
This is poetry that tells you to live.
So you live.

 

Luna Park is available now through Cardboard House Press.

 

Photo of Luis Cardoza Y Aragón and Carlos Mérida in Paris, 1927 from litearturaguatemalteca.org

[1] It is recycled paper.

Book Review

Forbidden Fruit

by on May 26, 2017

Forbidden Fruit, by Stanley Gazemba

 

When most people talk about immersion today, they refer to it as an element of a visual medium. This makes some degree of sense, given how visual our species is. Technology has allowed us to create images of unprecedented creativity and realism. In literature, however, immersion is often only discussed in genres of fiction that are expected to engage in no small amount of world building – science fiction and fantasy, usually. This is a shame, really, because no work of fiction should take for granted that its readers will, by default, be fully engaged with the text. There is an onus on the author to respect that, in order to build a world, even one meant to acutely mirror our own, the world and its inhabitants must truly feel alive. Rarely do we encounter a better example of this than Stanley Gazemba’s Forbidden Fruit, a novel about a community in Kenya, a novel that embodies the earth itself and our experience of it.

One of the first things you will realize about Forbidden Fruit is that it is among the least pretentious novels you will have ever read. This is not meant as a slight against what some might erroneously consider loftier fiction – rather, it is meant to convey that Gazemba’s novel is the epitome of “down to earth”. It deals with the human condition, not in some overtly existential or cosmological sense, but by showing the daily lives of a community that must work directly for its subsistence and which engages with the very real stressors drawing it in every conceivable direction. The text is immediately and powerfully relatable to anyone who has had to really work for a living, not only in the trials and rewards of such a life but especially with regards to what effect this has on human relationships. This is the real meat of the novel’s perspective on the human condition. It embraces the idea that we are inherently social creatures (regardless of our level of introversion) and explores the concept that our lives are a struggle between the desires of the self and the bonds of community. To be sure, the novel does not suggest that the two things are always or inherently opposed, but as separate entities they can and will inevitably find moments of opposition.

The examples of this are plentiful: a poor and loyal husband and father presented with the opportunity for an affair with a beautiful and wealthy woman; a mother and wife dealing with the inherent and unfair instability of a patriarchal culture; a boy forced to deal with the harsher realities of the adult world; a woman who married out of an earnest and intense love realizing that she is no longer the object of her husband’s focus; a sloppy bachelor with aspirations of true romantic connections but a streak of independence and pride holding him back. Gazemba travels freely between these characters and more, not binding the story to any one mind but making sure that each is fleshed out and present to experience the consequences, good or bad, of life in this village. The very structure of the text reflects the relationship between the individual and the community, showing the former as very much a part of the latter, and the latter only defined by the collective of the former. It actually takes some getting used to if you are familiar with texts designed to be hyperfocused and constrained to the mind of a single protagonist. An argument can be made that Ombima is the central character of Forbidden Fruit, but the actions and thoughts of almost every other character are as impactful as his own.

If this tackling of the human condition can be thought of as immersion on a character level, then Forbidden Fruit has no shortage of immersion on a more traditional level. Quite simply, this is one of the more vivid and rich depictions of a setting for a novel that I have ever encountered. If you will forgive the Ameri-Anglo centrism I was educated in, I am reminded of Fenimore Cooper or Tolkein in the attention given to beautiful vistas, but without the moments of getting lost that can appear in works like Last of the Mohicans or Fellowship of the Ring. The feel of the wet mud, the smell of banana trees, even the impact of a hoe on earth too dry to till are all completely engrossing. This is no less true of what would be considered the more unpleasant sensations: the tearing of barbed wire on skin, the sound of gasping for air, the air inside a contentious hospital waiting room. Though polite about it, Gazemba is insistent that his reader be there, in the moment, with their senses occupied and their ability to avoid empathy compromised. The world in which the community and the individual live is no less a part of that relationship, equally shaped by and shaping its participants.

Forbidden Fruit is a truly quality novel that has, for all of its grounded nature, an inexhaustible wealth of ideas to address. Are you a Marxist looking for the class struggle? Present. Are you a Feminist looking for how woman resist the contradictions and subtler oppressions of patriarchy? Present. Are you a reader in the United States who is in need of greater exposure to literature from a different culture that feels both familiar and decidedly new? Present. Or are you looking for a novel that you can sit down with, read, and truly and totally experience? This is the book for you.

 

Forbidden Fruit will be available June 2017 through The Mantle, and is available now for pre-sale.

Book Review

Mouths

by on May 23, 2017

Mouths, by Claire Marie Stancek

Review by Kamden Hilliard

 

Stancek’s MOUTHS is, well, mouthy: obsessed with the physics, politics, violences, psychologies, and musics of the oral. This mouthyness, though, is still concerned with its craft—it abilities and inabilities to say. In an early poem, “Moth,” she reflects on the language we’ve been left. In this poem “The moths

…press     mouthless    faces to the books
and the books crumble    into new   language

eaten having eaten this     a language     and this                 is what remains this is remains

These ‘remains’ recall Wallace Stevens’ obsession with “a new knowledge of reality”[1]. Stancek, too, seems invested in a ‘new knowledge,’ one divested from the violences of “a language of war and difference… a language that expands and takes over other smaller languages.”[2]

As she pushes from the normative bends of syntax and diction, her poems swim toward a knowledge that is associative, cumulative, and transhistorical. The syntax of MOUTHS is anti-syntactical, post-structural, yet, oddly familiar. In some ways, MOUTHS, speaks in quotes, references, inside jokes, and paraphrases in that particularly modern way which often substitutes the speaker’s own voice for allegiance with texts outside of the speaker. The movement is not directional but revisionary, constantly considering and redressing itself on the page. The opening poem, “Swarm” teaches the reader of these twists

            revolt turning too into skin & skin
swarming       warm arm arc          ark

“Swarming,” devolves to “warm,” which in turn devolves to “arm,” then sonically darts to “arc” and “ark.” Similarly, a series of poems in the first section (“HUMAN WHAT THIRST COULD DRAIN YOU”)— “Moth,” “Root,” “Wind,” and “Warm”— all open on a string of associative mutations, “Moth,” sings out a litany of old, middle, and muddled English terms for mouth– “mouthe, mowth, mowthe, moth, moighte”. Yet, Staneck is not satisfied with play in abstraction—the poems consistently ground the reader with the desperate pragmatism of daily life “in sidewalk chalk, blue              blurry with dew…”.

This collection centers itself “in the shadowy realms of music, half-phrases / of songs and their moods…” and the track list is Whitmanesque in variance. Among the intertextual addresses are Lil Wayne, Lil Kim, Milton, Keats, Drake, Whitman, Bhanu Kapil, Brandon Shimoda, Shane McCrae, Fred Moten, and TC Tolbert. At their most effective they swim up into the line, as if destined to express what the poet knows, wants, but fails to voice. At their more complicated (and possibly critical) moments, the poems sound like someone you might know—using a Drake line in conversation, not to quote Drake, exactly, but perhaps, to access a feeling offered by Drake’s social space. In this way, the poems mouth through themselves. They work to arrange a sequence of meaning out of the detritus of this society, this earth.

Stancek’s poetics embrace a kind of bricoleurism as reality and navigate physical, emotional, and linguistic landscapes best they can. The poems know that “what is it to hold but to echo?” and respond with a breathless kind of pleading. There is an impossibility of linear time that makes mouthing unsatisfying, yet, “repetition again intervenes / in time”. She continues:

The repetition makes time and wastes time. Time sticks on the line, running forwards and backwards…

Later, in the same section, she elaborates,

Is standing and waiting what repetition is trying to effect? A way outside speed and time? Both Drake and Milton linger on the line ends, dragging the line on and asking it to be longer—Drake through repetition, and Milton through enjambment. Even still, it’s time that poets beg for…

It feels disingenuous to ask why one would “beg” for time. We all beg for time. We beg to be understood and to understand others all the while sensing the possible (inevitable?) failures. In “half-life,” the speaker’s date is “crying / and hyperventilating in bed and need[s] to cancel” while the speaker “becomes thick with goosebumps”. There are no individual failures in these poems, but failures of structure, sound, syntax, symbol “and after the end of human life, / what ephemera remain”. This talk of failure lends to a convenient, apocalyptic reading of the landscape where “shadows below showed little difference between life and live”. Staneck advises: “Find a buyer or be / sold Approach with the purpose of attacking,” which, regardless of the collection’s limitations, insists upon survival.

Wallace Stevens, along with Whitman (who haunts “Green”), occupies a vast and problematic parcel of the American literary landscape. Stevens has been written about and at and around, but Terrance Hayes, in his “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” does a particularly complicated justice, writing

Who is not more than his limitations?
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness…[3]

These complicated, gifted figures populate much of modern poetry and it is the duty (one of many duties) of the poet to reckon with these complications alongside their own positionality. Stancek is invested in a revolutionary, activist poetics that begs its readers to question the varied quirks of reality and what one might do with, against, through them. Yet, the collection often feels un-raced. The mouth is an abstract, often non-human thing, yet when we consider the human mouth, one does wonder on the raced mouth. Who has access to the kind of joyful, poetic deviance at work in MOUTHS? This is unclear. The reader, then, must engage in the kind of reading championed by Hayes in “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” that considers the (im)possibility of “limitations.” Stancek almost sings her reader out of the English language, its syntaxes, its structural violences, and its insistence on narrative control. This book balances critical theory and an experimental poetics with a dexterity that is sure to draw admiration, disdain, confusion, and pleasure. Yet Staneck is terribly relatable, especially in those vulnerable, honest, human moments:

Please give me time
And by me, I mean us. And by us I mean: you, you, you

 I want to believe her. I do.

 

[1] from Stevens’ poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself”

[2] from Staneck’s interview with The Daily Californian (http://www.dailycal.org/2015/02/12/poet-teacher-claire-stancek-talks-power-words-mouths/)

[3] Hayes’ “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” was originally published in Lighthead

 

Mouths is available now through Noemi Press.

 

Kamden is a reader at Gigantic Sequins, an editor at Jellyfish Magazine, and goes by Kam. They got posi vibes from The Ucross Foundation, The Davidson Institute, and Callaloo. The author of two chapbooks: DISTRESS TOLERANCE (Magic Helicopter Press, 2016) and PERCEIVED DISTANCE FROM IMPACT (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), Kam stays busy. Find their work in The Black Warrior Review, West Branch, Salt Hill, and other sunspots.

Book Review

Confetti-Ash

by on May 18, 2017

Confetti-Ash, Selected Poems of Salvador Novo

Translated by Anthony Seidman and David Shook

 

In 1581, Sir Philip Sydney completed the The Defence of Posey. It was a response to an argument from a Puritan minister who claimed that the arts, particularly poetry, were egregious affronts. In The Defence, Sydney makes several comparisons between the act of writing poetry and godliness, specifically referring to both as the act of “making”. He claimed that poetry was paying honor and homage to God himself, as it was a human imitation of the creation of the universe. To be fair, I do not agree with such a lofty juxtaposition, if for no other reason than I believe poetry can only come from the mortal, those bound for death. But I am reminded of Sydney’s impassioned argument as I read Confetti-Ash, an amazing collection of Salvador Novo’s poetry translated to English by Anthony Seidman and David Shook. As the reader moves through the text and steps into the mind of the collection’s many speakers, we are presented with an ensemble of the human experience, treated with the curiosity of an inspired, curious, powerful, and even hubristic being. The real divine comparison here is not to the god of the Abrahamic tradition, but to Prometheus, or perhaps more appropriately, Huehuecoyotl – beings with an intrinsic link to the human condition, and who can appreciate our multi-facetedness.

Confetti-Ash is a collection with an almost compulsive need to run the gamut of extreme emotion. This is, as one would expect, due in large part to the choices made by Seidman and Shook, and they deserve plenty of credit for including a truly quality selection of Novo’s work. But it is primarily a result of Novo’s brazen ethos. He was known for being unapologetically homosexual in a country with a conservative Catholic elite, and his determination is present in several poems.

Ha descendido el cielo / por los ferrocarriles de la lluvia / Contemplacion. Egoaltruismo. / Cristianismo. Narciso.

Heaven has descended / via the railroad of rain / Contemplation. Ego-altruism. / Christianity. Narcissus.

This is a voice unafraid of divine judgment and aware of the hypocrisies present in so many dogmas and their social implementations. But it is not critical for the sake of vengeance or the need to rebel. Rather, it is peaceful in the sense of doing what the speaker feels needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. This peace will constantly give way to passion, however, in both of what we would consider positive and negative emotions. Genuine anger and fear weave in and out of an embrace with an emphatic need for love.

Por la calle habia / en cartels rojos y en bocas asperas, / extranas palabras / que se grababan en mi cerebro como enigmas / y habia acciones y efectos / cuyo motivo me preocupaba indagar.

On the street there were / words on red posters, gruff voices / strange words that stuck in my brain, like riddles, / and there were acts and results, / whose motives made me worry about finding them out.

On the surface, a stanza like this seems to be ambiguous, to the point of reluctance. But such is the effect of Novo’s work that even the seemingly mundane is laced with emotion. The reader can feel the blur of images and sounds and their inherently visceral nature. The reader is confronted with the idea that a determination to not look away will not necessarily lead to clarity, that bravery in the face of fear will not inherently bring understanding or a peaceful resolution. In point of fact, there is an implicit suggestion that bravery appears only in the face of the fear of the unknown. And the riddles add an intellectual dimension to the fear and the courage, teasing us on an Oedipean level because we are perhaps all tragic protagonists who must know.

As Jorge Ortega and Anthony Seidman point out in their respective foreword and afterword, Salvador Novo is almost criminally underappreciated with regards to the upper echelons of Mexican poets. He is a writer that aggressively resists easy labeling and confinement, unafraid of explore everything from gender role reversal within a binary system to agonizing grief at the thought of losing a loved one. And yet there always remains an undercurrent of mischief and impetus, as if something beyond even Novo’s understanding compels him to move and cause no small amount of strife. The speakers of his poetry are spirits that revel in and dread the newness, the protean metamorphosis they engender. In this I am reminded of W.E.B. DuBois, Gloria Anzaldua, Prometheus, and the shaping of a new identity, where a Mexican must confront his Spanish, his Azteca, and his Mexicano, the duality that is in and of itself something entirely separate.

I highly recommend this book to all of our readers, especially those of you who, like me, are irrevocably and blessedly Mexican. But the truth is as the world is dragged kicking and screaming into multi-cultural self-awareness, we can also use the beautifully written and translated Confetti-Ash as a reminder that we are neither the origin of this expansion of the human mind nor its endpoint.

 

Confetti-Ash is available now through The Bitter Oleander Press.

Book Review

Inside V

by on May 16, 2017

Inside V, by Paula Priamos

 

Death. Taxes. The onslaught of summer. With the turn of June, Los Angeles is assailed with super-heated layers of plasma-smog, anginaiac freeways, and Angelyne sightings. The rituals begin, paramount being the stuffing of beach bags with tubes of SPF 90 and first aid kits. Don’t forget to pack a couple of summer reads – you know, those paperbacks you can casually flip through in about the time it takes to get sun-blistered, but not feel totally ashamed about toting. Inside V, Paula Priamos’ first novel, is one such book. Its brisk pacing, hooky chapters, and Los Angeles setting make for a noirish wedge to stuff between beach towels and a damp bathing suit.

Inside V belongs to that most Los Angeles of genres, the detective thriller linked inextricably to the city itself. This genre, which I’ll refer to as Sunshine Noir, originated in Chandler’s hard-boiled classics, and goes strong today, as evidenced in Michael Connely’s architectonic potboilers and James’ Ellroy’s pugilistic historiographic meta-fiction, to say nothing of the endless film iterations (picture Jack Nicholson with a band-aid on his nose). What makes Inside V stand apart from its Sunshine Noir cousins, is Priamos’ gentle shunning of certain genre expectations. Not only is Priamos’ narrator, a former defense lawyer named Ava (or “V” to her dashing husband, Grant), not a detective, but Ava’s conflict is overwhelmingly internal – hence the title. To achieve this, Priamos dials back the physical violence inherent in Sunshine Noir and channels the strife internally, into a cognized landscape of deceit, mistrust, and manipulation. Not only does Inside V eschew genre norms by privileging interiority, but the book departs from the phallic gaze of these male-dominated thrillers by focalizing through a female protagonist. While Ava is certainly not the first female-narrator in Sunshine Noir, this is still a rare enough conceit to give the book a certain charm.

(Here I feel compelled to insert a slight disclaimer: in spite of the aforementioned genre about-faces, the ending of the book does, in some respects, retreat to norms. I won’t spoil anything, but apparently blood must be spilled, though here we can measure it in droplets instead of buckets.)

Inside V opens with Ava’s husband, the almost comically sexy Grant, being prosecuted for statutory rape. While Grant vehemently denies any indiscretion against the teen-aged Latina in question, he seems resigned to a prison sentence given mounting and damning evidence. Meanwhile, Ava wears a stoic smile to her husband’s court hearings, hoping her nightmare will soon end. From the start, Ava wavers about Grant’s culpability; while at first she wills herself to believe her husband’s innocence, soon the rape-victim’s testimony has Ava second-guessing. This pendulum between Grant’s guilt and innocence swings throughout the book, both for Ava and the reader, and this is where Inside V shines. Priamos masterfully balances a series of enigmas, parsing out information and characters like carefully laid breadcrumbs. Just when Ava feels certain about Grant, Priamos adds a new wrinkle. Sustaining mystery in this way carries with it the risk of twists and red herrings over-complicating the story to a comical degree; however, Priamos’ twists are embedded in small, almost mundane details – a forgotten wallet, a suspicious pharmacist. Rather than feel contrived, the shifting mystery acts instead to amplify Ava’s character as she devolves into a nearly unreliable narrator.

All of this takes place on a road trip of sorts in which Priamos revels in the most Los Angeles of locations, from Jerry’s Deli, to Trader Joe’s, to Monty’s Steak House, and to a Palm Springs resort that stands-in for any of a variety of the desert oasis’s mid-century modern hotels. (On a side-note: the book does leave Southern California for a minute, though it says a lot that this is the weakest section of the novel.) Road trips provide opportunities for deep thinking, and Ava goes deep, particularly into her past. This interior journey evokes powerful memories of envy, jealously, and betrayal that problematize relationships, and layers the book’s Sunshine Noir trappings in a gauze of reflection. Along the way, Ava takes stock of her life, assessing her flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes as a way of determining the ultimate mystery of the book, whether or not she should stay with Grant.

Taken as a whole, Inside V can be read both a mystery and a study of jealousy taken to its grim extremes. Yet, in spite of a hearty dose of dark themes, Inside V‘s brisk prose and day-tripping narrative avoid the typically nerve-wracking tension of its grimmer cousins. Instead, Priamos provides us with an appetizing slice of mystery and allure, a perfect palliative for a third degree sunburn. Better yet, by working against genre, Priamos has achieved the rarest feat of all: she has written a Sunshine Noir protagonist that is, against all odds, relatable.

 

Inside V is available now through Rare Bird Books.

 

Kirk Sever’s writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk’s work has earned him runner-up status in both the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Aware and the Northridge Fiction Award. He currently teaches writing at California State University at Northridge.

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