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Book Review

Smooth-Talking Dog

by on November 8, 2016

smooth_talking_dog_coverSmooth-Talking Dog by Roberto Castillo Udiarte

Translated by Anthony Seidman


The saying “misery loves company” has always irked me for some reason. Perhaps, because the connotation that it often takes is of a miserable person wanting to take you along for the journey. But really, I believe it comes from a more meaningful place – that of empathy. Poets – or any sort of artist for that matter – that can capture the ideologies of a generation, that feel left out of what society has to offer, and articulate it in a way that resonates with people on a large scale are important due to the fact that they make even the outsider feel understood. Their empathetic nature reminds us we all have somewhere we can belong.  Yes, while some may romanticize the follies or self-destructive actions of another’s life, the true beauty in the work is in its ability to cross boundaries and resist expectations. Ultimately they capture the humanity in life in places that it may not be easy to find.

Castillo Udiarte is one these poets. His work delves deep into the darkness of human nature, yet somehow comes back with an air of hopefulness. One could say he is a veteran of that path. Since 1985 he has published over half a dozen poetry books in Spanish; however, up until recently very little of his work has been available in the English language. This is all despite the fact that he translated many of his contemporaries in such as Bukowski into Spanish during his lifetime. Now, thanks to Phoneme Media and the poet/translator Anthony Seidman, there is a full-length collection of Castillo Udiarte’s work available in English.

The collection Smooth-Talking Dog gives readers a taste of what many have been experiencing for quite some time. Poetry that bites, poetry that stings, poetry that takes you to the darkest places in order to beat you down, and poetry that picks you back up again. The words Castillo Udiarte writes take you to another world, one of back alleys and corrupt cops, folklore and superstition, family and remembrance, office workers and prostitutes. It is an examination of the human existence of all sides of life that has a deep level of honesty to it. Many of the poems are short yet poignant pieces that envelope in their sentimentality:

Last night,
with the December rain,
the memory of Felipe
entered our house, one of my grandfathers
the one from the eternal garden.

I dreamed of him
thirty years younger,
smiling, his face pockmarked,
and his long lizard’s tail.
And in the dream
he told me of his exploits during the reign of Cardenas,
of his arrival at the border,
the construction of the Tijuana dam,
his job as a barman,
his first wife, his adopted son, and
the interminable shots of tequila.

A blue
Leakage flooded this morning,
And I don’t know how to explain to my daughters
That they too are part of my grandfather.

During a recent literary festival in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of seeing Castillo Udiarte read his work. He presented a reprisal of his performative poem “The Magician of the Mirrors’ Final Show”. While Seidman accompanied him on stage providing a translation of the words that asked people from all walks of life to “step right up step right up” to witness the show, Phoneme Media’s editor David Shook walked around holding up a mirror in front of each audience member. The mirror was held awkwardly and intimately close to your face – forcing you to really examine and sit with yourself. At the conclusion of the poem the mirror was smashed. The magic trick here could be many things, but in that moment everyone’s reflection was taken into that same mirror and subsequently destroyed. It did not matter if you were a publisher from Mexico City, a community college professor from the Valley, a store clerk, or anything between. Everyone was captured in that same mirror.

That is the power of the work. It solicits everyone equally. Allowing everyone a moment to be felt. To feel heard. To feel beautiful.


Smooth-Talking Dog is available December 13, 2016 through Phoneme Media.



Book Review

The Orchid Stories

by on November 2, 2016

tumblr_odeja9lykb1s9mfo5o1_1280The Orchid Stories, by Kenward Elmslie


If there is any hope of fully understanding what language and literature are capable of, then nothing can be held as sacred.  Not sacred in the sense of subjective moralities, but sacred as an unquestionable, inviolate principle.  There are, in my opinion, no universal truths about literature and language, despite centuries of philosophers and critics searching for them.  “Universal truths” attempt to confine and restrain things of perpetual motion, and with them, we would not have works like The Orchid Stories by Kenward Elmslie.  The word that I keep returning to when considering this text is “multidimensional”, and I mean that in the vein of a true reality altering context.  This is a novel, or it is a collection of interrelated short stories, or it is both.  This is a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of language that twists and inverts and prisms, immune to easy interpretation and existential consensus.

I am not using hyperbole when I say that there may be no practical end to the metaphors I could use to describe the experience of reading the language of this book.  A shaman, high on narcotics, experiencing the dilation of time and space.  An artificial intelligence processing a rapid succession of human behaviors and attempting to compile a working grammatical base for the English language.  A homeless man walking along a crowded city street, shouting his fever and frustrations at the giant buildings and the ants that mill about them.

“A feeling of immense power surged through me, as if outward moving weather map arrows were under my control, and were speeding from the Arctic Circle, in all directions, gathering momentum, darkening skies above valleys and mountains into a huge black bruise.  Ach, the bigger the surge, the fainter the tune, the bigger the mystery, the sadder the letdown.”

So much of the book is written like this, with rushes of sensation abruptly punctuated by confounding comparisons and deeply intimate but untranslated conjecture.  It is infuriating and fascinating in the same breath.  The Orchid Stories is written with an entirely unique sense of language, one that shares vague similarities to that which dominates our culture but also one that operates on an entirely different level.  The effect of this is that the book is ultimately unconcerned with anything but the conversation that is writing itself.  This is a book written for writers, borrowing established literary conventions and putting pieces of them in a fashion reminiscent of a child building a franken-toy out of plastic limbs and repurposed joints.

The structure of this text is not, in the strictest sense, unprecedented.  Many other authors, of which the most well-known is probably Joyce, have blended styles and techniques to deliver narrative in a way that never permits the brain to relax and become complacent.  But Elmslie extends this ethos to the narrative being told.  The text will tell part of one story in prose, then jump to another part of another story and tell it as the script of a play, then digress into some truly beautiful poetry, only to return to the original prose, as if completely incapable or unwilling to present one narrative perspective.  If this sounds intimidating or frustrating, that is because it is.  But it is also the kind of thing that those with a love of the complex potential for language live for.

“I looked up.  Attack of ‘trapdoor-it is’ – nostalgia for the ‘Native Innards’ box reposing back in Hode…

Wisps.  Streaks.  Puffing up.  Laser vibrations / constricted on my thumbnail.  Instant intensity! / Circles in assorted colors widen – steady flow. / Hurts my eyes.”

And in taking the time to carefully read, a reader realizes that the story being told, while open to interpretation, is not sacrificed for its unconventional delivery.  The narrator(s) of the story deals with very real trauma and multiple methods of processing it, and the text itself can be seen as the mind’s attempt to grapple with that trauma, in the mold of Kafka or Vonnegut.  The multitude of cultural and geographical references help to engender the feeling of a narrator freed from anchoring at a particular point of spacetime, as does the constant references to physical motion.  The narrator, and the text through which we experience the narrator, never cease their momentum.  Even character identities are not stable.  The Bubbers become the Mummys with little to no explanation.  The narrator is never given a name, leaving only his language for us to identify him.  This is the impermanence subjectivity of meaning woven through the whole of the text, and it reflects the inconstancy of dealing with pain, confusion, and the need for clarity.

I highly recommend this book, unless your preferences are limited only to popular writing.  The Orchid Stories is complex and demanding.  You cannot read this text quickly and begin to grasp its depth.  It is as if it was written specifically to defy a quick glance, with careful sequences of words that are delightfully absurd enough to make your brain instinctively pause and process meaning.  It has the same addictive qualities of any series of engaging puzzles or riddles or word problems, leaving you satisfied upon coming to a conclusion and yet eager to parse more.


The Orchid Stories is available now through The Song Cave.

Book Review

Defiant Pose

by on October 27, 2016

defiantpose-coverDefiant Pose, by Stewart Home


Editor’s Note: This review contains NSFW material.

Mary Louise Pratt introduced the definition of what she referred to as “contact zones” into the study of the critical theories of literature.  Contact zones are the spaces where two or more cultures “meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”.  The literature produced in such spaces can push boundaries and destabilize comfort zones like no other kind, because it exists as racial ideological confrontation in text form.  It challenges for the sake of challenging, often co-opting symbols and idols of the cultures creating the contact zone in order to mold images and ideas that can be beatific, horrifying, or both.  Defiant Pose by Stewart Home is such a piece of literature.  It is a visceral, transgressive, surrealist exploration of culture and counter-culture, one that subverts everything it comes into contact with, even itself, and one that pins the reader’s eyes open.

Defiant Pose revolves around the character of Terry Blake, an English skinhead anarchist who relentlessly presses on in the pursuit of ideological disruption and sexual gratification.  To be clear, the use of skinhead here refers to the original definition, that of people motivated by an attachment to the working class and a general disgust with bourgeois and hippie culture, often associated with the punk scene and anarchism.  It does not refer to the Neo-Nazi cultures that have borrowed aesthetics from the skinheads.  Terry is an idealized avatar of this original skinhead culture, from his tireless dedication to his cause to his vast knowledge of competing ideologies to his almost supernatural sexual prowess.  He is dominant in almost all things, able to out argue, out fuck, and outwit practically any obstacle in his path.  As the novel lays out its story, it reads less like a fictionalized account of rebellion and more like a counter-culture wet dream.

Love juice boiled through his prick like workers pouring out of a factory after a mass meeting has decided on a strike

And this is entirely intentional.  The novel is absurd, rife with coincidences and red herrings of meaning, leaving the reader as energized and frustrated as Terry is in the rare moments where he is denied sexual release.  The effects of this are fascinating.  Defiant Pose simultaneously serves as both glorification and critique of this style of counter-culture, aggressively exposing itself and its subjects to the reader, to shock and satirize.  The novel is consistently pornographic, describing sexual encounters in detail and yet never losing the absurdist, surrealist nature in such descriptions, flaunting its sexuality in the same manner an action movie might pseudo-worship violence.  The work is completely unconcerned with accessibility for those who are unwilling to shore up their sensibilities and consider why these depictions may carry commentary in and of themselves.

This forced intimacy is very much the product of contact zones.  Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are all utilized to show how they are zones on a non-linear spectrum, rather than wholly identifiable and separate concepts.  Anarchism, nihilism, fascism, communism, and capitalism are all at war (quite literally, eventually) with one another, and each is gutted to reveal the hypocrisy and inconsistency of its inner workings.  There are consistent appropriations by these allegedly distinct entities or schools of thought, ranging from a Neo-Nazi who is caught having homosexual intercourse with individuals of ethnic minorities to a police officer whose public image is against racism but who instigates riots and hate crimes in a convoluted plot to better protect his community.  In particular, the Union Jack is used again and again, specifically with the intent of co-opting what it represents.  Terry wears it as a pattern for his underwear, and the coalition he engineers wears it as they go into battle.

Hundreds of soul brothers had donned Union Jack t-shirts in a move they knew would put the fear of God into the partisans of the League of Racial Loyalists. Imagine the confusion of the average fascist once he was confronted by a multiracial army clad in what the bigots believed was their own triumphal flag!

There is a dissonant pride in both Terry and the mob at their success of pillaging the symbol to wear it over what they consider important to them.  For the mob, the Union Jack now protects their bodies like the crosses that medieval crusaders would paint on their hauberks and shields.  For Terry, the Union Jack cradles his penis and stares his sexual partners in the face any time his pants are removed.

Defiant Pose is a novel that has attracted and will attract a wash of criticism.  Accusations of racism, sexism, and moral depravity have been levied against it and, to be absolutely clear, all three of those things are abundantly present in this novel.  But those accusations are also missing the point.  These elements are tools used to make social critique and commentary.  The text is a kind of mimetic, fun-house mirror, intentionally distorting and objectifying but still ultimately showing a glaring reflection of a society with deep-seeded, otherwise ignored flaws.  When Joyce Grant, Terry’s girlfriend and the only person that he concedes occasional sexual dominance to, willingly engages in orgies or pisses in Terry’s mouth, she is owning her own sexuality.  When Brian Smith, a racist nationalist who cannot reconcile his fears and his closeted homosexuality, tries to “valiantly” inspire his tribe into battle, he is violently reminded that his perspective and actions have consequences.  This fun-house effect continues even unto the end of the story, which I will not spoil here, because while the novel is twenty-five years old, I would argue not enough people have read it.  The ending is completely unexpected and yet somehow wholly appropriate as a capstone for the text, both absurd and enjoyably frustrating.  In light of the recent “Brexit” vote and the rise of Donald Trump and the “alt-right” in the United States, I find myself glad that Defiant Pose is screaming its perspective into the saturated air and forcing us to come to terms with that which we would normally shun.


Defiant Pose is available now from Penny-Ante Editions.

Book Review

Shelter in Place

by on October 25, 2016

cover_9781609453640_817_600Shelter In Place, by Alexander Maksik


In Alexander Maksik’s Shelter in Place, Joseph March is a recent college graduate with little ambition beyond bartending and having fun with his friends until he falls into all-consuming, slavish love with Tess Wolff. While they are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, Joseph learns that his mother has beaten a stranger to death with a hammer when she witnesses him striking his wife and children. His mother’s unforeseen act of violence and subsequent murder conviction cause his sister, Claire, to abandon the family completely, while Joseph and Tess follow his father to live in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, close to the prison. From an isolated and lonely present moment, decades after his mother’s crime, Joseph reflects on his mother’s mental health in light of his own untreated mental illness, his obsession with Tess, and his feelings of loss at her eventual abandonment.

Maksik reveals his protagonist’s tenuous lucidity, in part, through the moments Joseph breaks away from his narrative, directing his anger and hopelessness at the specter of his long dead parents, his sister, Tess, and even the reader. And yet, these rants and apologies reveal a character trying to come to terms with the violence he has been subjected to and participated in. The structure of the novel further illuminates Joseph’s dubious mental health. Maksik’s chapters are short – often merely a page and a half or less – and elliptical. Speaking to the reader, Joseph explains, “Forgive me, for today I am discursive. What a word that one, too, what sound, what meaning. Discursive, digressive and meandering. And baroque too. And absurd.”  Maksik circles around the epicenter of a few, vivid and violent moments of Joseph’s life, delaying the specifics of these pivotal events until late in the novel. He returns to the same phrases and thoughts, and repeats the same summary of events, often telling them out of order. Although the recursiveness can, at times, be frustrating, this technique most often increases the tension and brings the reader into Joseph’s disoriented mind.

One of the most effective expressions of Joseph’s erratic state of mind is the lush and vivid metaphor of tar and bird. So often, a character’s disability is a metaphor for something lacking in their personality. Not so in Maksik’s novel. Instead, Maksik’s language describes something that Joseph, himself, acknowledges is nearly impossible to explain to those who do not experience it. While Joseph is never officially diagnosed, Maksik describes the highs and lows of bipolar disorder with heartbreaking beauty and terror. He writes, “I saw thick tar inching through my body. Then, as the pain sharpened, a blue-black bird, its talons piercing my lungs.” Joseph wonders if his tar and bird is his mother’s legacy. Early in the novel, Maksik details Joseph’s graduation dinner: “…I saw, or believed I saw in my mother’s eyes, the dark settling talons, the slow-flowing tar. And this vision chilled me. This quick belief that within her lived the same thing that lived in me.” However, Maksik does not romanticize Joseph’s mental illness or simplify his mistakes as merely a product of his disability or genetics. Joseph notes, “Perhaps my insistence on some magical correlation between us is only wishful, an invention without evidence. Perhaps in the end there is no shared beast, no common fog.” This ambiguity effectively complicates Joseph and his family dynamic.

Even more compelling than the tar and the bird metaphor is the metaphor in the very title of the novel. In the face of natural disasters, people are sometimes forced to evacuate their homes and take refuge out of the path of danger. But some disasters are impossible to outrun, making it necessary to shelter in place. This survival plan requires people to seal themselves off in a small, windowless, interior room of a building, rather than flee. Throughout the novel, Maksik employs this form of refuge as a metaphor for the ways Joseph attempts to protect himself from untreated mental illness, heartbreak, violence, and family discord. With lyric beauty, Maksik explores how these dangers permeate Joseph’s environment like a chemical leak or biological contamination.

There is a moment in which Joseph recalls playing hide and seek with Tess. Joseph hides and when Tess finally finds him in a closet, he explains:

There were boots and shoes and sandals all around us. She reached up and pulled my father’s old down parka from its hanger and covered us with it. Her hand above us on the sleeve. I pulled the door closed. The wind and rain and thunder were shaking the house.

We stayed on the floor for hours, breathing, bundled in the pitch dark listening to the storm.

This doesn’t merely reflect Joseph’s desire to remain in a small, protected space, away from the everyone save Tess. It is one example of how he conflates her with this safe space. But a shelter in place is a temporary protection, not a long term solution. And to stay in such a personal fortress for too long is to eventually suffocate on your own toxic air. Joseph hunkers down in his murky shelter where love and co-dependency are indistinguishable and tells us readers, “I worry that Tess remains nebulous. And that cannot be. You must see her for any of this to matter. It is not the story, it is her. It is Tess I am trying to translate.” His attempts at translating Tess are not entirely effective. This is because, while Maksik doesn’t romanticize mental illness, Tess certainly does. She rarely acknowledges the destruction the murder leveled on Joseph’s family and instead uses it to justify her rage and give her a sense of purpose. And Joseph’s unflinching devotion to Tess can be frustrating, even pathetic. However, in Joseph’s ability to love Tess and his complete belief in her, Maksik explores human resiliency, forgiveness, and love in the aftermath of violence.


Shelter in Place is available now through Europa Editions.

Book Review


by on October 19, 2016

downloadReel, by Tobias Carroll


Tobias Carroll’s Reel is a fascinating observation on interconnectedness, cause and effect, and the absurdity of the arbitrary values we imbue upon moments of our lives.

This novel shows a penchant for defying prediction.  Its plot is cleverly arranged such that there are teasing moments where the reader is encouraged to guess at what might come next, only for those guesses to prove completely wrong.  This is not a case of twists for the sake of twists; rather, the sequences of events play out as the lives of two people would, unexpected because real lives are just that.  Despite the connective bookends at the beginning and end of the novel, there is a consistent rejection of storytelling conventions that never calls attention to itself and therefore avoids causing the story to stumble.  Red herrings are raised again and again (one in particular would make Chekhov roll in his grave), but even calling them “red herrings” is problematic, because they are more akin to the details that two obsessive, meaning-driven people like the protagonists would consistently take note of.  We as readers immediately attach meaning and have to confront the fact that any disappointment in the lack of significance for those elements is both our fault and misplaced.  In this, Reel serves as a meta-commentary on art and its consumption, beyond the surface layer the protagonists’ employment.  The novel highlights the subjectivity of experience and how easily such experiences can be manipulated or even randomly and irrevocably altered.

While nothing happens in the novel that would easily fit under the definition of absurdist, it still leaves such a taste in the mouth, which leaves considerable food for thought.  The sequence of the plot plays out in what I can best describe as a romantic comedy in reverse, where the fated meeting of the protagonists occurs early and the story ends with an unexpected, almost deus-worthy connection.  The effect of this is powerful in how it asks the reader to look beyond quick impressions and dismissive leaps to presumptive conclusions.  In its own way, it subtly shows the consequences of not exploring the truth depth in people and how that lack of curiosity and engagement engenders feelings of isolation and stagnation.  At yet, despite that, the characters of the novel are profoundly affected by their interaction, even when that interaction is brief and unpleasant.  Imagine how often your mind discards other people from its memory, even those who momentarily frustrate or obstruct you.  In a true hallmark of quality storytelling, Reel highlights the potential of imagining people complexly, and without being preachy about it.

One moment of particular note is the catalyst for the story’s action.  Early on, Timon, one of the protagonists, attempts to start something like a mosh pit, though his efforts to make it inclusive are highly suspect, and he ends up alone, thrashing and wantonly impacting people for what is probably close to half an hour.  The moment is beautifully symbolic for reasons that will become apparent when you read Reel, but for me, by the end of the novel, one idea inspired by that moment stuck out from the rest.  There is, I think, a subtle class commentary underpinning much of this novel.  We the readers are essentially presented with the effects of boredom and how it drives so much of what those of the middle and upper classes do.  Timon in particular, while acutely aware of his depression and dissatisfaction, seems curiously oblivious to his privilege, especially and most immediately with regards to the fact that he has a wealthy family to react against in the first place.  This is not to take away from very real fear of being coerced into becoming something he does not want to be, but his one man mosh pits still resonate with the idea that his struggle is as much a form of acting out as it is any real expression.  In this, I think Carroll’s work is much more self-aware than other books that have societal disillusionment as a theme, such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.  Timon might not feel the significance of receiving wads of twenties for lunch with his grandfather, but the reader definitely does.

I think the last word should go to Marianne, the novel’s other protagonist.  She is a woman of displacement, or perhaps it is better to say that she is a woman of repeated placement.  If Timon represents a locus of indecisiveness, then Marianne is a commitment to action.  She and Timon are very similar in many ways, especially concerning their mutual uncertainty and their talent for over-analysis, but Marianne possesses a strength that I think the novel is suggesting would do many people like her some good.  She makes decisions for her own reasons, even if she deeply questions those decisions and reasons, rather than allowing herself to be dragged along for the ride and submitting what little control she has.  There are, of course, unintended consequences to this, and she is no less guilty of presumptiveness than Timon, but the same could be said of anyone and anyone’s actions.

Overall, Reel is both an easy read and a deeply philosophical book, which is no meager feat.  It leaves you wanting to consider other people in more substantial ways, if for no other reason that you understand wanting to be treated as a person with depth.


Reel is available now through Rare Bird Books.

Book Review

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means

by on October 13, 2016

9781938103919-frontcoverOrigins of the Universe and What It All Means, by Carole Firstman


Mob justice, internet shaming, and the court of public opinion – we live in a time where much of what we considered private has been and will be exposed, for better or worse.  Sometimes, it does tremendous good, shedding light on genuine evil that is operating in the shadows.  Other times, it can be a thing of true cruelty, unfairly and brutally harming someone beyond what a transgression might actually call for.  And often times we are wildly inconsistent about what we are or are not willing to excuse.  The real failing in all of this comes when we fail to imagine people complexly, when we give in to the impulse to treat our heroes as infallible and our villains as inhuman.  Carole Firstman’s Origins of the Universe and What It All Means stands in subtle yet brilliant contrast to that overly simplistic worldview, taking its readers to a place where they must consider the full extent of what it means to be human.

On the surface, Origins is a memoir.  But much of the real substance of the novel lies in its exploration of cause and effect, particularly with regard to how they relate to the narrator’s self-image.  The symbolic wealth present here is hard to overstate – the resonance of the biological tree of arachnids, the scientific descriptions of the effects of brain chemistry, and the repeated use of evolution to frame the narrator’s thoughts are clever and powerful.  As we watch the narrator delve into her relationship with her father, we are very much presented with the daughter of a scientist, a daughter who has inherited his near obsessive need for methodology and objective pattern.  She is detail-oriented and precise, turning over her memories again and again to look for patterns or new evidence.  But she is also very much a daughter of her mother, a character who, while not receiving nearly as much exposure as the father, presents an influence just as strong as his.  The narrator cannot simply excuse her father’s behavior, either as a consequence of his mental state or as the product of some ideology.  She has strong, instinctual emotions, and an emotional intelligence that her father seems to lack, and she is forced to come to terms with the internal duality this creates.

Dad created a perfectly detailed but flat rendition of a non-human organism. He created the center of his montage universe. Mom created an imperfect portrait of the woman who came before us, a rendition that oozes with sharp-tongued personality.

Structurally, Origins does a fantastic job of using this duality again and again to energize everything from pacing to plot.  Tangential memories are frequent and always feel vital to the main story being told, without feeling overt in their relevance.  Deeply introspective and confessional moments are cut with descriptions of action that are allowed to speak for themselves.  Conversations and other dialogue are used sparingly but usually with impeccable timing and layer upon layer of meaning.  If the narration can be said to spare little expense in expounding on possibilities, then the dialogue can be said to be both minimalist and extremely effective.  This efficiency extends to the chapters themselves, which are arranged to serve as both independent individual stories and part of a greater whole.  Any one of these chapters could be excised from the text and presented as its own work to proper acclaim.  And yet somehow the overall novel feels like a real novel, rather than an anthology.  The chapters also manage to reinforce the clinical, scientific nature of the text.  In their self-existence, they can stand as small specimens to be examined and studied.

The thing really being examined at the heart of Origins is the narrator’s relationship with her father, and the whole of the experience, from the reader’s standpoint, is beautiful and upsetting.  There are several heartbreaking or genuinely uncomfortable moments where, were this a work of rote fiction, we would likely see the narrator’s father descend into some villainous madness.  But there are moments where he is every bit a hero, whether in something small like picking up his daughter from school or something huge like saving her life in an earthquake.  The narrator genuinely does not know “how to feel” about the man, and she seems to slowly come to a place where she realizes that she must feel all of it in order to remain honest.  This in turn allows her to realize that she in turn is not the “protagonist” of existence, an understanding that most of us fail to acquire.  Firstman’s use of this is exceptionally powerful in a first person novel, and watching her narrator understand that events happen, rather than happen to her, is valuable and profound.

Wait. I take that back. Truth be told, I actually do understand why he is the way he is. What I wonder is why I ended up with such a parent.

I think my favorite contradiction in Origins is the simple rejection of simplicity.  Firstman does not attempt anything revolutionary with language or adorn her words with copious flourish.  The narrative is relatively straightforward in a climate where experimental is increasingly the order of the day.  But like the narrator, I was left humbled and appreciative of the fact that, despite my brain’s attempts otherwise, the universe and its meaning cannot be reduced down to basic concepts such as good and evil.  The novel isn’t claiming that such concepts do not exist or are irrelevant, but it is pointing out that we all exist as a combination of those concepts, and many, many more.


Origins of the Universe and What It All Means is available now through Dzanc Books.

Book Review

The Walled Wife

by on October 11, 2016

s-l1000The Walled Wife, by Nicelle Davis

Review by CLS Ferguson

Magic by division

of threes.

emp / ti / ness—

worth / less / ness—

rooms must be

filled with

sac / ri / fice—

Nicelle Davis’s brilliant collection is equal parts poetry collection and performed historicity, centered around the myth of the walled wife. Academics and lay readers can relate to Davis’ portrayal of the wife through her writing—she is no woman and therefore every woman.  The poetry works upon and against the historical accounts of the myth included as epigraphs included in the section entitled “case studies.” Davis answers Performance Studies scholar Della Polluck’s charge in her book, Exceptional Spaces, to make history go, rather than go away.

“We are shaped by story,” writes Lauren K. Alleyne in her introduction to The Walled Wife. She explains the plot from which Davis pulls her collection: “The master builder, Rada is building a citadel, Skadar [and] it’s believed that a woman must be buried within the walls of edifices in order for the buildings to stand.” The woman must be sacrificed, and writes Alleyne, “by inhabiting the perspective of the wife, Davis is able to also explore/explode the action.”

Nicelle’s word play and use of footnoting lays a foundation for the reader’s journey from the beginning. Her first poem, starting the first section: Wall One—Case Studies, which I included as an epigraph, is entitled As a Story Goes: Structurally. The base of the narrative begins and is always coming back to the body, the building, the body in the building. The paradox of the body that will no longer breathe as a means for the building to survive is also encapsulated in the play between a religion that may shun exactly what it is practicing and building upon: superstition. The wife is relied upon to make the building strong.

Further entrenching the patriarchy in the practice of walling the wife is the theme of man seeing himself as savior. In her piece, In Some Versions, the Husband Sends a Bird to Save His Wife, the husband becomes a bird, wanting to save his wife, but the river and winds keep him away. She wants him to save her, but he doesn’t, saying merely to have faith.

Have faith, he tells her. But

it is difficult, she cries. He assures her it wouldn’t be faith3

if it were easy.

Even the husband king does not have the strength to save his wife, but requires that she endure.

It is not only the husband that the walled wife has a relationship with. She also communicates with Rada, the builder. When reading the first section, it is helpful to the reader to reference the footnotes contained in the second section, Wall Two—Foot Notes. The walled wife buries the deepest and most appealing, truthful, insightful emotion in her footnotes or subtext. For example, door.6 I give that. The little 6 wedged between is the vaginal cavity, the opening to the womb. The builder giving her “that” is actually his permission for all who enter and exit the church to pass through her most inner and sacred entrance.

In the first section, Flesh Price demonstrates the loss of connection between the walled wife and her son, ending with a shore is all I know how to cling to. 9 The footnotes allows the reader to see the poems as skeletons so that s/he can interpret and allow the wife to fade a bit into the wall. The footnotes allow no such escape, as demonstrated by #9: In me is a little girl I’ve locked away. When she tries to escape I slap her until palms bleed, that is to say I sing myself to sleep when her tears surface on my face.

Dripping with Liquid Flesh: Parts of an Egg furthers the analogy of the female reproductive system. The analogy of the egg is quite literally analogous to the female reproductive system, but beyond that, there is a depth of betrayal that gives further insight into the anguish of the wife. She mourns the loss of a child she did in fact birth and mother as well as a daughter who never was—who may be the child she yet wishes to conceive or perhaps the child is the wife herself.

The third section, Girl Inside, is an exploration of the author finding herself through the walled wife, this is especially apparent in My Little Box Head Responds/Objects to Found Poetry and the Rewriting of “The Ballad of the Walled-Up Wife”: What I found in “The Wife” is this: I thought I would dig her up, but I only discovered my desire to be brought down, to be bound. In Experiments in Being Buried, the author tries on different walls, until she ends up masterbating in someone else’s bed, as if to demonstrate the equal feelings of pleasure and awkwardness that come with being buried alive.

She continues in this section from awkwardness to pain with Vila: Sacrifice, in which the author names pieces of the body given as a sacrifice in the wall. Ravens Fly in Threes serves as a reminder of being alive and free. The emotion of letting love go manifests as a physical splitting as the author attempts to set herself free, though maybe never successfully.

The fourth section, Wall Three—Retelling: A Countdown serves as the acceptance the author attempts to find of becoming The Walled Wife. In Third Hour of Being Buried Alive, the Wife Thinks of her Last Day in Church: Or Sharp Edges Hidden in the Seamstress, Davis plays with the concept of distancing the elocutionary sacred from the elocutionary profane, as set forth by Paul Edwards in his 1999 Theatre Annual article, Unstoried, by placing them within the same woman as she resists the wall around her. At the End: Day One furthers this by removing all possible romanticizing of the wall (I piss myself . . . I shit myself). The author indicts her readers in First Night in the Wall, the Wife Begins to Haunt Herself, making us all question whether we are always already haunting ourselves:

I claw at the bricks—can hardly keep a fainting swell from drowning me. Mama, she says, mama. And the song stops with mama. Now that she isn’t swallowing all air—I scream the church is falling, and her feet echo like a mischief of rats in my cellar.

The wife hears a daughter she doesn’t have, in the church she has become, screaming out as the only way to save it—though it has consumed and perhaps killed her. In Rada Hears the Wife Crying, the wife, perhaps the author weeps, mourns the loss of her life and her freedom, though when her perpetrator asks what is wrong, she denies her own grief. The reality of her husband betraying her and the stages of grief she experiences from being buried alive become a part of the wife in this section. After the irreparable harm that her perpetrators have cause her, they attempt to smooth things over with the wife in this section of the collection, as if to make amends, but there is never an offer of reparations. In the last poem of this section, Rada Goes to the First Day of Congregation, the man who caused her this pain and loss and the wife herself experience an acceptance of all that has happened after struggling with God. This is a home for a love greater than our individual bodies can hold.

The fifth section contains only one poem, The only words worth reading are written in the margins, suggesting perhaps all of our worthiness is at least slightly off center.

Overall, The Walled Wife commands the reader to acknowledge this woman who has been essentially erased by men, by patriarchy, buried in the walls of a church. The writing is impeccably crafted, each word selected and masterfully placed to take us on the journey of the wife’s betrayal, suffering, rebellion, grief, and acceptance. While most of us do not literally end of physically trapped in a wall, the process Nicelle Davis leads us through in her writing, through the metaphor of the walled wife, leaves us all with a bit better understanding and acceptance of our own demons and walls.


The Walled Wife is available now through Red Hen Press.

CLS Ferguson, PhD speaks, signs, acts, publishes, sings, performs, writes, paints, teaches and rarely relaxes.  She and her husband, Rich are raising their daughter and their Bernese Mountain Border Collie Mutt in Alhambra, CA.

Book Review

The Wine-Dark Sea

by on October 6, 2016

sb016_svalina_cover-front-300The Wine-Dark Sea, by Mathias Svalina


There is a lot we take for granted.  This is not an indictment of anyone – in this age of information it is impossible for everything to stay relevant to everyone.  But it is something to be accounted for, because its effects can be more profound than we can appreciate.  For example, when William Gladstone counted the mentions of colors in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”, he found that there wasn’t a single mention of the color we call “blue”.  In fact, there may very well be no ancient Greek stories that contain the word or its concept.  Blue is something we take for granted.  We are surrounded by it every day in our water and in our skies and, despite this near omnipresence, it is rendered by our minds as background information.  It is believed that the Greeks did not have a notion of the color blue, that they might not have even seen what we see as blue.  Homer described the sea in his Odyssey as “wine-dark”, and this is where Mathias Svalina gets the title and ethos of his collection, The Wine-Dark Sea.  But Svalina’s work is so much more than a clever title – it embodies the exposure of that which we take for granted, the information lost in the imperfect nature of communication, and the novelty and significance of seeing the world through another’s eyes.

The structure of The Wine-Dark Sea is our first resonant presentation of the theme and tone of the overall work.  There are seventy-six poems, each no longer than a single page and yet wholly owning their own spaces, each sharing their title with the collection itself.  The effects of this are fascinating.  As one glances at the table of contents, seeing the repeating title over and over again creates a kind of literary metronome that at once links the poems and gives the reader a taste of mystery, encouraging the reader to delve and pry and find out what makes these pieces different from one another.  The physical act of turning or scrolling through pages as you read and seeing the title repeated over different poems, each with unique forms and curious observations, reminds one of the tide, continually rolling in again and again with familiarity and strangely new configurations.

a comb with teeth

bent back.

Around me the white

draws a ring,

a one.

The choices of language and imagery in The Wine-Dark Sea continually reinforces this contradiction in a truly engaging fashion.  Unlike the ancient Greeks, contemporary readers definitely have a concept of blue and the idea of a “wine-dark sea” can be unnatural for many of us, leading to both a beautiful strangeness and a sense of foreboding.  There is an undeniable taste of hope in stanzas such as “My utopia opens / from both directions: the beautiful line, / the glossy rind.”  But dark wine shares colors with blood and infections, noted in lines such as “That rot / at play” and “Yet water / continues to reflect / the black pain / of mountains”.  From poem to poem, and even from line to line, there are repeated and random jumps as the speaker(s) regard their vivid, vibrant surroundings with seemingly contradictory ideas.  There is an attempt to regard the forest and its trees simultaneously, and it stretches the capacity of the speaker(s) to engage with it.  The fear and the need are deeply personal and vulnerably intimate, often confessional or conspiratorial in nature.

While I may be harping on the connection to Homer’s epic too much, I cannot help but feel that there is a strong reflection between the speaker(s) of this poem and the figures of that ancient tale.  If one assumes that there is a single speaker, then The Wine-Dark Sea attempts the same thing that Ulysses did, another attempt to reimagine the struggle of a single individual in the face of vast and daunting forces.  But unlike the Odyssey, this collection and its speaker(s) are acutely aware of the flaws – “When the drugs wear off / I am the car / beneath the tarp.”  Flipping that perspective on its head, if one assumes each poem has its own speaker, then there are poems that sing like sirens and lament like souls trapped in Hades.  And the borders between the those individuals, as well as those between them and the speakers, fall away as quickly as they appear – “In the sun I carry / everyone I know & I / am carried on their backs / They are the wine-dark sea.  And I / am the wine-dark sea.”  In becoming the wine-dark sea, their blood mixes and becomes indistinguishable.  People are rendered into both obstacle and companion, making them immediately complex and forcing the reader to consider their layers.

Though The Wine-Dark Sea is not long, I highly recommend taking your time with it.  Like all quality minimalist poetry, the language here is extremely dense and open to interpretation.  Rather like water, it aggressively resists further compression and yet flows in a way that feels very natural.  The collection does an amazing job at feeling like both a compilation and a complete work, fluidly moving back and forth between the two depending on the angle of perspective.  More than likely, that is one of the primary points of the work.  Light heavily refracts through water, and that water only appears as blue or wine-dark in our minds.  There is nothing inherently “real” to either idea.  We are encouraged to read of the pain and pleasure of The Wine-Dark Sea and be reminded of our uniqueness, both as a thing to be cherished and a force for which we must compensate.


The Wine-Dark Sea is available now through Sidebrow Books.

Book Review

Blind Spot

by on October 4, 2016

blind-spot-cover2-cr-e1477633102497Blind Spot, by Harold Abramowitz

Review by Gretchelle Quiambao


There are novels that challenge your notions of conventional writing and there are novels that make you reflect on your own memories of past regrets and disappointments. Harold Abramowitz’s Blind Spot does both, all the while deliberately using language to create dynamic storytelling that leaves the reader eager to find out more about each character. Divided into three parts, the novel tells the stories of trauma and does so in a way that leaves readers anticipating more.

Abramowitz’s novel inspired me to look outside of what is to be expected and saw that syntax can be played with to creatively tell a narrative. Through repetition more is revealed about our characters’ thoughts and insights. The repetition also helps to develop a visual of the scenes in Abramowitz’s narrative, “The hotel was set in the mountains, set high in the mountains. The hotel was well known as a place to go for cures for one’s ills. The hotel was set atop a great mountain range, and he turned his head.” The Part I- Hotel was my favorite of the three narratives in the book because, to me, it was the most interesting and mysterious. Through a series of intersecting dreams and memories I was able to piece together the story of a character but still had room to interpret the narrative in my own way and be guided to create an ending for the character that still remains unknown.

Throughout the novel, I was constantly trying to decipher whether or not the narrator was reliving dreams or memories in the story. Figuring out what was truth was part of the mystery of the novel.  As the narrator continued, more and more was revealed about the character’s true self, “He felt despair, real despair, and that, in and of itself, was something new, was enough to make him cry.” This novel was a display of life’s traumas and a reminder that dreams are often formed from our own desire to relive memories no matter how painful they may be. The stories made me self-reflect and forced me to confront the feeling of loss but at the same time feel consoled.

Through repetition and looping, I was able to get more insight into the state of the characters and build a relationship with the story. Although he is a truly detailed storyteller, Abramowitz also keeps enough information vague to have the reader relate to the narrative. This open ended storytelling allowed me to interpret the narrative for myself.  Whatever might not have been resolved in his narration was for left me to complete.

The most interesting and exciting aspect of Abramowitz’s writing is his ability to use syntax in a creative way that does not distract from the narrative. I found his style poetic, stirring, and challenging. Through a series of syntactic looping and duplication we learn more about our characters’ reflections on the traumas that they have endured. This helped me to become more engrossed into the novel and kept me wanting to learn more. I wanted each repeated line to divulge more about their experiences and thoughts so that I could weave together the narrator’s story. For me, this novel truly highlights the use of language and syntax. Language structures becomes the star of this novel as you continue to read through and find that his syntactic loops become more apparent. The way Abramowitz uses language in his storytelling is one that few can emulate successfully.

I found Blind Spot to be a comforting and interesting novel about trauma that also displays how language can be fluid. The novel’s structure plays just as much of a role in the storytelling as the actual stories themselves. With each reveal of the narrator’s most in-depth thoughts, more connections and questions were resolved within the story. I found the novel to be not just an example of premier storytelling but a great display of how to play with language structures to entice your reader into your story. I felt myself jealous at Abramowitz’s ability to manipulate syntax to his advantage. He was able to create a compelling narrative by using unconventional structures in an effortless way.

This novel shows how poetry and narrative can come together in harmony. Abramowitz’s structure mimics the way in which we relive our own traumas, dreams, and memories. The repetition reminds us that there is comfort in thinking of the past and little resolve in trying to make sense of it all. In the most positive way, he reminds his readers about the traumas of everyday life and encourages them to embrace their own memories of loss and pain.


Blind Spot is now available through Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Gretchelle Quiambao is a writer and linguist based in Los Angeles.


Book Review

Ford Over

by on September 30, 2016

focover-1Ford Over, by John Pluecker


If you listen to media coverage, or the insensate fear-mongering demagogues that get the most media attention, immigration is described as, at best, something that requires ephemeral and nebulous “reform” and, at worst, an avenue through which murderers and rapists will gain access to your home.  There is a distinct and intense distrust of the brown “Other”, originating in the “Other’s” brownness and rationalized with all manner of dehumanizing fictions.  In the face of such ignorant and racist brutality, a work like John Pluecker’s Ford Over serves as a poignant, dynamic reminders of the fact that the only cure for such a disease is a dose of perspective.

Ford Over is a collection of hybrid poetry that immerses itself in the concepts and sensations that it explores.  Every single poem has its own unique structure, ranging from simple stanzas to whole paragraph stanzas of prose poetry to cut out words laid out on maps.  Some poems see their lines placed under rigid, uncompromising control, while others are delivered with whimsy worthy of a summer breeze.  Ford Over is not a text seeking to convey a single perspective; rather it presents its material in a wealth of poetry’s beautiful and myriad options, never confining the reader but always asking the reader to consider the unexplored. The text cannot be reduced to a generic amalgamation of preconceived notions, nor can it be forced to fit those notions after the fact.

This careful and yet spontaneous application of varying structures reinforces two of the work’s main focuses: the natural world, and how we interact with it.  To the first, Ford Over repeatedly returns to natural imagery, from “Clouds charge with beige and dark” in “Vista” to “plod plots of earth / into Serpentines” in “Strange,”.  The poetry makes constant use of landscape, giving it life and resonance with the people crossing it, putting the very earth in motion as both motive force and character.  In “Fording the Guadalupe”, the collective “we” fords rivers again and again, adding a certain Sisyphean quality to the effort that echoes the struggles of Mexican immigrants in their journeys.  But there is progress in the poem, along with the suggestion of sacrifice, that leave open the possibility of success.  The power of rivers to change the very land, to guide the presence and efforts of humans, is a textual emphasis very reminiscent of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in that, like Hughes’ famous poem, Ford Over utilizes the timeless, elemental power of water as witness and sibling to the enduring people being described.

But human interaction with this vivid natural world is given no less attention through the text.  Ford Over is replete with maps and landscape art, most of which are labeled or even covered in text.  These geographical representations cover from California to Texas and from San Fernando to San Luis, and they outline everything from parts of continents to rolling hillsides.  Often times, such as in the case of “The Hunt” or “Ioyaiene”, these maps are the canvas on which the poetry is delivered, further rendering setting into character.  The effects of this treatment are twofold.  First, in order to explore the poetry, the reader is forced to read the land.  The poetry is literally being shaped by the heart of the place from which it springs.  Poetic structure becomes indistinguishable from borders that we have created and imbued with significance.  Second, the whole arbitrary nature of geographical identification is brought into focus.  To be clear, I use “arbitrary” without its modern negative connotation.  The point is that the definitions and borders which we assign to places and peoples are human constructs, as much as our poetry is.  The artificiality of these labels is only highlighted when the land, as an entity in near perpetual motion, shifts and redefines itself and continues well beyond the scope of our boundaries.

This shifting, tectonic immersion is sealed and assured by the brilliant use of language throughout Ford Over.  In the past, when referring to the use of language, I was usually writing of authors using English to convey their text.  Here, Pluecker transitions back and forth between English and expertly utilized Spanish, simultaneously highlighting cultural differences while slowly welding them together to create something else entirely.  He utilizes “untranslation”, in which he begins translating from Spanish to English but soon abandons the effort, only to return again.  Many works he does not translate at all, from English or from Spanish.  On a personal note, I found this to be an exceptionally powerful tool, as I am half white and half Mexican and have felt the pull of both cultures acutely.  The fluctuation in translation is not a thing of frustration – it serves the further break artificial boundaries and to remind the reader of the boundaries’ artificiality in the first place.

As with so many superb compilations of poetry, Ford Over lends itself to quick reading or to in-depth unpacking, as well as to as much rereading as the heart desires.  It hardly ever speaks directly about the focus of its text, and is made all the better for it.  It allows a reader who might otherwise be walled off by their own assumptions to experience something beyond borders.


Ford Over is available now through Noemi Press.


Book Review

Hardly War

by on September 27, 2016

hardly_war_final_for_website_largeHardly War by Don Mee Choi


Hardly War is Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi’s latest offering and is a work that is boundless in its formal scope and the traumatic history it details.

The collection chronicles the Korean War through poetry, short prose, photographs, bits of letters, a postcard – and remarkably – an opera. Hardly War is a text that is in perpetual conversation with other texts, other histories, other forms. Choi alludes to and cites Korean avant-garde poet Yi Sang, children’s songs, films, Gertrude Stein, and French literary theorists. The dizzying degree of self-aware and referential academia within the collection might prove troublesome for some readers, but  combined with the hybridity of the forms, and the accretion of allusions, quotes, and snippets, Hardly War becomes something more elevated than your typical literary experience. Hardly War is a brilliantly prismatic work, that proves itself to be a challenging but ultimately rewarding book.

At times Hardly War feels vaguely intrusive and deeply voyeuristic. Almost like Choi is giving the reader access to her family’s deepest and most wounded personal artifacts. The accumulation of the various hybrid forms and pieces of postcards and photographs – some with little to no translation or caption – amount to something like a vicious and mad index of the Korean war. The result is a deeply intimate look at the geopolitical climate and national identity of a Korea in turmoil during the 40’s and 50’s.

The photographs that scatter across Hardly War were taken by Choi’s father on his various trips as a war photographer throughout Southeast Asia during the Vietnam and Korean wars. Many of the photographs used in the collection don’t depict the violence of war, leaving one to wonder how much violence Choi’s father saw – or rather – was able to capture. Many of the photographs depict the faces of children or high ranking military officials. There are relatively little images of death – apart from some men posing with a tranquilized tiger – and nothing of explosions or gunfire. The closest we get to a semblance of war is a photograph of two expressionless children gazing into the camera, standing in front of a tank. The photograph is neither disturbing nor graphic, and the children don’t appear to be in any immediate danger. We aren’t even sure which side of the war they represent. An uncharacteristic war image to be sure, but as Choi reiterates throughout this collection, this was “hardly war.”

In a prose vignette titled “6.25,” Choi’s father hears the engine of a Yak-9 North Korean fighter jet, and chases after it with his camera in tow. The plane ultimately eludes him and he is unable to capture it on film. This is suggestive and symbolic of her father’s experience as a war photographer and works to illustrate one of the main overarching themes that we take away from Choi’s latest collection. Photographing the actual mechanics and physicality of war in any form seems to be elusive, and all we are left with is a smorgasbord of war time personal effects (i.e. photographs of children, postcards of military ships, etc). Hardly War in this way ultimately challenges our preconceptions of what war is supposed to look like and manifest as. The title itself, Hardly War, defines itself around the irony of what the war experience is supposed to be. For Choi’s father, and many Koreans, the war was “hardly” a war at all: “That late afternoon the yet-to-be nation’s newspapers were in print, but no photos of the war appeared in any of them. After all it was hardly war…”

Their is a heightened degree of playful self-awareness that marks Hardly War from start to finish. This is apparent in the various forms that make up the collection and in Choi’s stylistic choices. One vignette features several lines of Korean script followed by the line “I refuse to translate” repeated five times. This is one of the more rebellious gestures within the text that suggests feelings of resentment and anger towards the imperialistic and colonial nature of translation. The act of translation to English being a kind of western affront; a colonial gesture. However, given that the majority of Hardly War is written in English, Choi is perhaps suggesting that language is rendered moot and unreliable in its attempts to communicate anything in the face of war.

In the short piece titled, “Neocolony’s Colony,” we are given Vietnamese and English translation side by side. Each English line however, ends with an emphatic militarized “Sir!”

Me Binh Tai / Me been there, Sir!

Me Binh Hoa / Me been high, Sir!

The oppressive and imperialistic nature of translation is laid bare in this instance. Here, translation from Vietnamese to English is seen as an act of ultimate obedience, from a Vietnamese soldier to an unnamed high-ranking American military official – we presume. The result of reading the translation from Vietnamese to English across the page creates a dehumanizing effect, and as the piece moves down the page, the lines become more self-deprecating.

Me Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat / Me flunky & fuck that, Sir!

Me Tay Vinh / Me terrible, Sir!

The end of the piece is highlighted by ME ~ OW written in bold and all caps. Choi’s playfulness here touches a sentimental note, as we are given an allusion to the noise a cat makes, but also phonetically the phrase aligns with the crude and vaguely racist English translation of the speaker:

Me flunky…

Me hate milk…

Me terrible…

Hardly War is a brilliant and layered collection that forces us to reexamine the codes of language and our conceptual notions of war. An act of protest in itself, Hardly War gives us a fresh and often complex perspective on a war that is often called the “forgotten war.”


Hardly War by Don Mee Choi is available now from Wave Books.



Book Review

Here Lies Memory

by on September 13, 2016

memory-front-webHere Lies Memory, by Doug Rice


It doesn’t take long, when studying philosophy or the physical sciences, to be confronted with the subjectivity of reality.  We take in the world, the universe, through our senses and make of them what we will, not by choice, but because that is our only option.  We are compelled by and confined to our individual perspectives.  In reading Here Lies Memory by Doug Rice, I experienced an intense immersion within these very concepts.  This novel is a thought-piece on inconstancy of “fact”, a textual representation of the necessity and fallibility of sculpting an image of existence.

Every tactile element in Here Lies Memory resonates with the details of remembrance and perspective.  The story follows two families in Pittsburgh and how the members of these families try to make sense of their circumstances and environment.  The characters vary wildly in their origins and goals, at times seeming to exist purely to contradict one another.  There is rarely a moment where they openly agree with one another, and the questioning of each other’s intentions or recollections is constant.  Similarly, the city itself is an incredibly deep setting, presented almost exhaustive detail, crusted with grit and grime.  But the environment is never meant to disgust or repel.  Instead, it serves to make the city seem labyrinthine, with layer after layer, turn after turn, connection after connection.  It is the brain upon which the lives of the characters fire like the impulses of neurons – brief, bright, and intent on making a lasting impressing.

One of the simultaneously most frustrating and enjoyable parts of this novel is that you can never be entirely sure anything is really happening.  The depth of detail for the characters and the city disguise the decidedly surrealist nature of the text.  Sex workers, elderly men, mothers, and children will stop what they are doing and begin pontificating on the nature of life and the struggle of acquiring what you most desire in this world, without provocation or request.  That is by no means to say that such individuals are not capable of this type of conjecture, but it happens with such consistency that it reinforces the feeling of Pittsburgh as a whole, thinking entity, the pieces of which are locked in an existential conversation that they cannot escape from.  Moreover, as characters deal with the scars of trauma, ranging from the sudden and total disappearance of one’s child, to the horrors of the Vietnam War, to the living nightmare of incestuous rape, their recollections and reimaginings are constantly subjected to obscurity and confusion.  Again, the novel is rather clear in its implication that the traumatic events did in fact happen.  But as the characters try to process the sources of their anguish, they simultaneously fight for clarity and escape, to safeguard and abandon the memories of what happened.  It is a hauntingly effective and realistic depiction of the consequences of abuse.

With its multi-faceted characters, rich setting, and inconstancy of memory, Here Lies Memory only makes sense – and keeps everything in some kind of organization – through its skilled use of language.  The narrator of the novel has a cadence through which it delivers the text, and that cadence is reminiscent of mantra and epic poetry.  More specifically, it reminds me of stories that originated in oral traditions, prior to the advent or widespread use of writing, where the only way to preserve and share such tales was through memorization.  The dialogue of the characters does not abandon this pacing and tone either, further reinforcing the image of one mind in conversation with itself.  The text uses the words “remember” and “remembered” a total of one hundred and twenty seven times, as if it is trying to chant encouragement to itself or its readers or even its characters.  The whole of the novel feels as though the narrator is deeply driven to pass on the story and the stories contained within it, lest any of them or their protagonists suffer the second death of being forgotten.

Mr. Rice has accomplished something incredibly difficult and has done so with superlative skill.  He has made the surreal feel real, he has blurred the lines between the macrocosm and the microcosm, and he has somehow managed to contribute to the conversation of trauma and abuse in a manner that is not only unprecedented but which feels entirely necessary.  Here Lies Memory is a fantastic work that will require multiple reads to fully process and will never make you regret picking it up.


Here Lies Memory is available now through Black Scat Books.

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