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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. http://clsferguson.wix.com/clsferguson

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.

Book Review

The Last Wolf & Herman

by on September 8, 2016

unnamedThe Last Wolf, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Herman, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

At the outset of this review, I must admit to a bias: I am predisposed in favor of audacity and the blending of chaos and symmetry.  This is not a perspective that all potential readers will share with me and I can say, quite objectively, that the writing of Laszlo Krasznahorkai is not for all potential readers.  But for those of you that enjoy brilliant use of language, clever re-purposing of convention, and seamless immersion into vivid perspectives, I dare you to find better than The Last Wolf and Herman, two novellas written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes and John Batki, respectively.

The Last Wolf is the sentence of a man who, through a case of mistaken identity, is invited to write the story of the last wolf of Extremadura, a region in Spain.  You read that line correctly.  This is the sentence of that man.  The entire work, spanning seventy pages, is written as a single, unbroken, grammatically correct sentence.  In creative writing classes and workshops, authors are perpetually warned against ridiculousness such as this.  They are told that readers do not want to devote the thought and energy required to follow, much less unpack, a work that so thoroughly contradicts traditional narrative structure.  To hell with that.  The Last Wolf is a work of true art, operating under its constraint with such a rigor and life that it seems hardly bound to any rules at all.  The contours of this sentence are shaped in such a way that an experienced reader and writer can actually see the craft as it unfolds, as if watching Krasznahorkai mold everything into its proper place.  And despite there being only one sentence, the narrative and the manner in which it is delivered never feels incomplete.  Pace changes, social commentary, and all of the necessary pieces of the plot’s mosaic are presented as if the story were a mystery, asking the reader to truly participate in the creation of this work.  In the moments where the text slows and looms toward a possible break in thought or an “appropriate” period, it suddenly rushes off again on a new train of ideas, bound in almost perpetual motion.  Which, incidentally, keeps the read from ever being boring.  Of course, the constraint is not merely there for its own sake – it helps to wonderfully encapsulate the perspective of the narrator, who is caught on some seemingly inevitable and relentless descent in perspective, lost in his own melancholy and frustration, so desperate to escape it that he seeks to live someone else’s lie.  He knows that his story, and his part of this story, must come to an end, and so he drags it out to such a length that you wonder if he might not have died after that first and only period.

By contrast, Herman is, on the surface, a more traditional pair of stories.  It consists of “The Game Warden” and “The Death of a Craft”, two short stories so wildly different that I would have believed anyone who had told me they were written by different authors.  It is as if Krasznahorkai, after writing The Last Wolf, then set out to show his grasp of familiar narrative, as if to retroactively justify his previous boldness.  And I can genuinely say I enjoyed these stories even more than the larger novella.  Both stories provide a wealth of commentary on human excess and existential motivation, but they approach the topics from entirely separate angles.  “The Game Warden” could almost be classified as a satirical take on the hero’s journey, if not for its profoundly serious conclusion.  A simple story about a hunter and groundskeeper, the titular Herman, trying to hold back the advance of nature quickly and systematically devolves into a visceral, brutal examination of human arrogance, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance.  “The Death of Craft” is one of the finest examples of atmospheric writing I have ever read, with the use of language and narrative tone so perfectly encapsulating a hedonistic mindset that I found myself feeling wanton and unclean as I read.  The story involves the same general setting and chronology of events as “The Game Warden”, but it does so through the eyes of a traveling group of sensationalist dilettantes, with perspectives about as far from Herman’s as it is possible to have.  Krasznahorkai’s chameleonic skill in writing such vastly different narrations is incredible, immersive, and engrossing.

Do yourself a favor and pick up these companion pieces.  They are not long, but they are so well written that they hold up and present fascinating value whether they are read in a quick sitting or whether they are deliberately unpacked and interpreted.  I could not be more impressed by my introduction to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s work, and I cannot wait to read more.

 

The Last Wolf and Herman are available for preorder now from New Directions.

Book Review

Poor Love Machine

by on September 6, 2016

PLMCover-1-e1460339402418Poor Love Machine by Kim Hyesoon

 

Kim Hyesoon has long been held in high regard as a master of Korean letters. Originally published in Seoul in 1997, Poor Love Machine was chosen for the Kim Su-yŏng Poetry Prize, arguably South Korea’s most coveted accolade. Recently, and with the assistance of another Korean literary luminary in Don Mee Choi, her works have been graciously translated into English. Choi’s recent translation of Hyesoon comes in the form of the poetry collection Poor Love Machine, an eloquent meditation on corporeal misery, and the crushing spaces the body inhabits.

The opening piece in the collection titled “Rat,” is packed with the overarching thematic qualities found in the collection, and is perhaps the most telling and intimate insight into the mind of Hyesoon and the temporal space her subjects reside.

Do people know how much it hurts the darkness when you turn the light on in the middle of the night?

“Rat” meditates on the speaker’s desire for a certain darkness to maintain within their life – specifically the essence of darkness that defines their body. Light is seen as something foreign and destructive to the relative solitude and solace that is found within the speaker’s bodily darkness. In one such attack the light places on the darkness, the speaker equates the experience eloquently to that of a pinned down beatle: “When the light is switched on inside my darkness, I buzz like a beetle pinned down, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, and shake my head wildly, my mandibles  holding onto a black string.” The body is not only a source of misery with Hyesoon, but it has also come to represent a symbol of the grotesque.

Choi’s translation of Poor Love Machine is worthy of its own critical review. The English translation of Poor Love Machine can feel opaque – with certain passages being thorny and vaguely impenetrable. This can be explained quite easily by Choi’s careful translation, and devotion to not compromising the inherent playfulness of Hyesoon’s Korean. It would have been easy for Choi to have bypassed the idiosyncratic nature of Hyesoon’s language, and opted for a more streamlined and accessible English text, but she decided to grace us with a wonderful translation that is combative, stunning, and at times challenging.

In the semi-titular poem “Poor Love Machines Trapped in Rain,” the theme of the human body being represented as something that is prone to being destroyed or “crushed” is on display:

The crushed body gets erased / then is crushed again

In Kim Hyesoon’s world the body is a consistent source of misery, and of cosmic constraint and disillusionment. In the piece titled “Driving in the Downpour,” Hyesoon lamentably asks, “why have I lived so long in the same body[?]” There is a strong thread of dissatisfaction with the body in this collection that really propels it forward at a manic, nervous pace. This feeling of neurosis bleeds from the page in pieces like “Sunstroke,” where the stylistic choice to use repetition only adds to its feverish nature:

Get submerged / get submerged in the blazing sun / get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

“Sunstroke” relies heavily on a vaguely Steinian poetic elliptical style. This becomes most apparent in the following three lines:

Hear something as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun / Hear something then don’t hear then hear again / as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

This puts an emphasis once more on the body and the space that it inhabits. “Sunstroke” portrays the sun as a cleansing, almost spiritual entity, where the body is a source of pain and must be purged. Unlike collection opener “Rat,” where light was seen as something intrusive and destructive, Hyesoon attributes the sun to be a kind of corporeal reprieve. The speaker relates the sound of being submerged in the sun to that of a “voice I have wanted to hear for a thousand years.” The longing and insatiable desire for the body to enter a kind of cosmic oblivion free from the violence of the human body is at the heart of “Sunstroke” and Poor Love Machine.

It would be remiss to not highlight the cultural context for this collection’s release in Korea during the 1990’s. It’s release and acclaim represented a trailblazing moment for female Korean writers, and has long been seen as a crucial Korean feminist tome. The concrete misery conveyed by Hyesoon in this collection, is the collective misery of a turbulent Korea during the 1990’s, a country that witnessed vast cultural and social upheaval. Nearly 20 years later, and now with a wonderful English translation, this collection has the promise of being just as important and vital to the world of English letters. 20 years on, in times of great global uncertainty and misery, Poor Love Machine couldn’t feel more relevant.

 

Poor Love Machine is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

On The Edge

by on September 1, 2016

41p6CV9+ABL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

 

It is perhaps easier to see the beauty in art when that art deals with a subject that is, for lack of a better term, beautiful.  On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes, does not deal in what most of us would consider beautiful.  But there is no denying the skill, emotive eloquence, and resonant power of this book.  It openly attacks youth-worshiping culture and sentimental idealism in a way that demands the reader listen, laying down the gauntlet after having slapped the face of naïve ignorance.  It manages to be both allegorical and extremely direct, doggedly rejecting subtlety but somehow rife with commentary and implications that take multiple reads to fully process.  This is the kind of book that, given its density and tone, you will want to reward yourself for having finished, and yet that same reward may very well be another crack at the text.

One of the best things about truly skilled authors is that, when they break “the rules” of writing, they do so in ruthlessly effective fashion, making their violations serve a purpose and enhance the atmosphere of the work.  Chirbes’ version of this is his mercilessly long paragraphs.  Whole sections of pages, whole pages, and even multiple pages can be taken up by the same interconnected, unbroken thought process.  Even to an experienced reader, this can be intimidating.  But the way to make this style work to the author’s advantage is to make excellent use of language and make the block feel authentic to the speaker.  Esteban, the novel’s protagonist, is bitter and desperate and intelligent and utterly lost.  His sentences are rarely complicated but they are delivered one after the other in otherwise unbroken litanies expressing his grievances and observations.  These paragraphs possess a deceptive and clever flow that both speed the process of reading them and immediately convey to the reader that Esteban has had enough time to carefully hone his thoughts in a highly organized and extensive essay on society.

Those thoughts are rarely unclear.  A reader can turn to any page of the text and pull something biting and poignant – “If money serves any purpose at all, it at least buys innocence for your descendants”.  But the lack of ambiguity is not a hindrance in the novel.  If anything, it assists the reader’s digestion.  The point is made, and the text moves on.  But that is not to say that there is not room for interpretation.  Moreover, while the novel gives us ample amounts of Esteban’s perspective, it doesn’t seem entirely settled on the idea that he is “right”.  For example, consider the following quote: “The easiest way to attract attention is to do extravagant, stupid things.  Standing out from the crowd because of your work is a lot harder.”  On the surface, the point is simple and particularly relevant in an age where Kim Kardashian and Farrah Abraham get more attention than most genuine, supremely talented artists.  But is this quote the resulting point of view of a bitter old man who watches as wealth and culture have left him behind?  Or is it the voice of someone who has suffered greatly from a system that extends far beyond his control?  An argument can be made for both, or neither.

Special note should be given for one of the most powerful and difficult moments in the book, in which Esteban gives his elderly, disabled father a bath.  The experience is described in intimate, uncomfortable detail that would be familiar to any who have dealt with such a situation before.  This is the book’s crescendo, where the sum total of its philosophy and perspective can be found in a multi-layered event.  And while it is perhaps the most strenuous part of the book to read, it deserves the utmost care while reading.  The relationship between generations of families and of nations, the human needs for understanding and respect, and the visceral, grimy nature of the book’s perspective on the world are all addressed as part of an intense metaphor.  It many ways, it leaves the strongest and most lasting impression.

Mr. Chirbes has written many stellar novels, and this definitely deserves to be counted among them.  On The Edge presents a demanding critique of modern Western society, including culture and economics, in such a way that it avoids the common pitfalls of soapbox preaching and not trusting the reader to common to their own conclusions.  The book is not for those who do not value a challenge, but, in all honesty, why wouldn’t we?

 

On The Edge is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

 

 

Book Review

The Surrender

by on August 30, 2016

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The Surrender, by Scott Esposito

 

2016 has been a year where many great novels, memoirs, and books of poetry regarding sexuality, identity, and the challenging of the gender binaries have been released. Authors like Susan Faludi, Drew Nellins Smith, and Robert Coné have found an imaginative way to present the aforementioned topics while allowing even the readers who may feel far removed from the topics to become absorbed in the literature. The same can be said about Scott Esposito’s collection of essays, The Surrender.

The essays supplement each other. They come together to form a magical journey that does not have a beginning, middle, or end. It is perhaps Esposito’s refusal to conform to a predisposed format that fascinated me. I wanted to keep reading because of the way the words moved on the page. Sure, it sounds a bit silly to say as such, but I found that within a matter of pages Esposito was able to take me from staring into a mirror at a woman who is captivated by her appearance to the heartbreaking pain a young boy feels as he sneakily tries on his sister’s bra. The incident with the bra is the first of a lifetime of feeling both shame and happiness. The narrator confides in the reader: “I had never felt revulsion at the thought of something I was wearing. I had never felt any feeling that remotely resembled this” but at the same time reveals: “Minutes later I wanted nothing more that to wear it outside of the bathroom, but I knew I couldn’t.” The contradictory revelation points to the way much of this essay is written. The narrator has many experiences where he is both shameful and enchanted to be wearing women clothing. Scenes like the one described above beg a larger question and one that should be directed to society: are we suppressing individuals by what we tell them to wear or by what we tell them not to wear?

Another reason I enjoyed The Surrender is because it is many things at once. The collection can be viewed as a memoir, film criticism, essay, theory, and even perhaps as a bibliography of sorts. Esposito’s last essay, “The Surrender,” conveniently reveals a sort of works cited where he divulges the different books and authors who have influenced him in some way or another. I can definitely see Esposito’s collection being taught in a Queer Studies or Women Studies class. At least, I hope a professor will encounter Esposito’s collection and get the same valuable information I received in the matter of a hundred pages or so and share the information with students in the hope of creating a dialogue both in and out of the classroom.

If one thing is to be learned from reading the collection is that identity is fluid. We live in a society where the media dictates what women and men should be wearing and how they should be acting. However, identity is not always related to our gender. Our identity constantly changes as we associate ourselves with other individuals and the different personas we constantly take in order to feel like we belong. This intersectionality of identities creates borders that we must see beyond. Ultimately, the reader is able to take away that identity is fluid not stagnant and is instead formed by the way in which an individual is socialized. I believe the point of Esposito’s words is to remind us that we can change the way we view each other. We can argue for the fluidity of identity and a remapping of our cultural topography.

 

The Surrender is available now through Anomalous Press.

Book Review

Alien Weaving

by on August 25, 2016

alien-weaving-cover-350x450Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander

 

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato writes about a man who has literally added an entire dimension to his thinking.  The man’s eyes are opened to the world’s depth and complexity in a way that nearly blinds him twice.  And when he tries to share his newfound knowledge with his friends, they reject him and it in favor of their comforting darkness.  I cannot help but think of the Allegory of the Cave when I read Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander.  The protagonist of the story, a woman named Kathrada, reads as if she is stepping into the glare of the sun, her skin and retinas searing but vehemently resisting destruction, as if through sheer determination she can transcend physical limitation.  She goes on a psychological and metaphysical journey that somehow encompasses the entire planet and yet never truly leaves the confines of her cacophonous mind.  The result of this transformative trial of endurance is that she becomes a prophet of perspective.

The first thing that takes hold of you as you read Alien Weaving is the language.  From the first paragraph, the complexity and the intricacy of the word choice and sentence structure are of paramount importance.  It could said that this is the case for any work of literature, regardless of quality, but the difference here is that Alexander is using every vocabulary tool the English language can provide to describe the sensations and thought processes that Kathrada experiences.  It transcends pretention through sublime specificity, and it makes no apology for its quest to find the place where language and reason meet.  In fact, the closest thing to an apology is a demand of the reader: “You must excuse the complexity of my aboriginal fulguration, of my feral-first seeing.”  And, indeed, you must, if you have any hope of traversing the text.  Make no mistake – this work is demanding, challenging, and complex.  It is not for casual reading, winding down, or clearing the mind.  Kathrada has had her mind opened to the hypercomplexity of the cosmos and its vast interconnectedness, and she has no reason to wait for those who lack curiosity.  The words pour from her like light that simply cannot be contained by her physical vessel.

But for all of her intellectual apotheosis, Kathrada is still remarkably human, and that fact keeps Alien Weaving accessible and relatable through the myriad vistas and experiences.  As so many revelations are, the concepts that she encounters and describes are alternately beautiful and horrifying.  The aloof distance in the tone (made ironic by the use of the 1st person) buffers tragedies in a fashion reminiscent of Vonnegut – “When I renounced the Christ child as phasma I was no longer spared by believers, I was plunged into thickets of anathema, and then labeled as protectress of infernos.”  The descriptive terms are vivid and poignant, but the many sentences like these are spoken of in remembrance, almost as if they had happened to someone else, a possibility that, given the transformation of the character, is philosophically justifiable.  This distance cracks more than once, however, giving the reader critical insights – “I am an exile because of this fierce resistance I carry about me.  I refuse to be a resident within the statutes of crime.”  Lines like this are delivered with sudden venom and a flavor of defensiveness as if, even post-evolution, she still feels an instinctive impulsive to guard and justify herself.  Moreover, the work’s repeated invocation of the concept of vertigo is very telling.  Kathrada is overtaken by it more than once.  As she slips in and out of the flow of time, across the wide expanses of nations, and between schools of thought, she seems to be able to sense the sheer distance she has traveled and can traveled.  She finds it nauseating as often as any other descriptor.  Whether her alchemical reshaping is, as of yet, incomplete, or she exists in some Christ-like duality of human and divine is left for the reader to decide.

Alien Weaving is an amazing text and something of a love letter to the act of writing.  When Kathrada opens the text by stating “I create.”, she means that on multiple levels.  She understands now that, as a writer dedicated to her craft and crafted by her experiences, she possesses the tools and capacity to shape reality itself.  Moreover, she understands the responsibility that comes with such power, but she does not let it burden her.  She weaves in spite of the wounds, allowing blood the mix into the tones, forsaking the pristine in favor of the real.  Mr. Alexander has presented a masterclass in the use of language and the interconnectedness of emotion, thought, and existence.  I would encourage anyone who dreams of being a writer to engage this text again and again, so that they might see what can be achieved through choice alone.

 

Alien Weaving is now available through Anonymous Energy.

Book Review

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems

by on August 23, 2016

diseno-de-tapa-kyn-taniya-print1Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Taniya

There is something to be said about the importance of translation in regards to literature. I would not have been able to experience the work of so many writers that I love and admire if it were not for the endeavor of translators. Sometimes, the translation is coupled with a work being re-issued after many years, shining light on authors that may not have had much exposure outside their language. Allowing the work to breathe new life and hopefully widen the reach of their powerful words. When I am handed a book of translation it is quite frequently an exciting moment. The gravity of the process that it took in order for the book to reach my hands does not fall lightly on me. This was especially true with the book Radio: Wireless Poem In Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Tania.

 

Originally published in Mexico in 1924, where it now considered a cult classic of the estridentista avant-garde movement, Radio has now been translated after 92 years for a new audience to experience. The first thing that strikes about this bi-lingual collection is the sheer modernity of the work. The poems in this short collection feel like they could have easily been composed today as they were in the early 1920’s.

 

Poems discussing wireless technology and celestial objects, making reference to radio waves, could be seamlessly interchanged to discussions of cell phones and Wi-Fi signals. An example of this is in the poem “Midnight Frolic”:

 

           Silence

Listen to the conversation of words

in the atmosphere.

 

There is an insupportable confusion of terrestrial voices

and of strange voices

faraway

 

The feeling of connection in these poems – that is hopeful in many ways – still bleed so beautifully into the feelings of unease that has only grown exponentially as technology has grown. Today the voices we hear are schizophrenic and never ending (unless you are lucky enough to pass through a data dead zone which is becoming more and more infrequent). The idea of broadcasting yourself out in the world is still such a novel idea today, one that I grapple with on frequent occasion. Because it is still so new, the rules and etiquette are ever changing, what may be socially acceptable one day may be strange another day. You just have to listen to the right voices.

 

The concepts and feelings in regards to technology are coupled with social unrest, political instability on a global level, and loss of loved ones to make poems whose words are cutting, sincere, and contemplative. In the poem “… IU IIIUUU IU …” (of which there is a great recording online of the poet reading it) we are presented with broadcasts of problems and occurrences around the world: Deaths in Chicago, unrest in Bagdad, sports heroes, and more all for sale to consumers at low prices. So quick and accessible it would be a shame not to take it all in.

 

When I read these poems I was given the realization of how much the world has really not changed. There have been advancements in technology that have pushed us closer together, closer to the stars, yet closer to oblivion; however the sentiment, the soul of what concerns us as human beings is still very much the same. The poems that live within this collection are fresh, and vibrant. Just as alive as when they were written.

 

Radio by Kyn Tania is available through Cardboard House Press

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