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Book Review

Book Review

Flowers Among the Carrion

by on December 27, 2016

patecoverFlowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry, by James Pate

 

If you mention the word “Gothic” in many circles today, there is usually an automatic association with architecture such as those from European Catholic churches.  Some might think of a novel, such as Shelley’s Frankenstein or, adding a dose of the American South, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But Gothic poetry rarely receives recognition, usually finding itself subsumed into some larger movement and treated as little more than the result of a poet’s depressive moments.  This is nothing short of a shame.  Poetry is, by its very nature, a medium that allows the reader to engage with language on a primal, deeply intimate level and address the profound questions of reality in deceptively simple ways.  The Gothic (and that is to say the truly Gothic, with its inherent existential crises and its use of the sublime) is and should be right at home within poetry, given the freedom to express that which both seduces and terrifies us.  In his essay collection Flowers Among the Carrion, James Pate explores several beautiful, powerful examples of Gothic poetry and he argues for their relevance and value within the zeitgeist of today.

In this collection, Pate writes about the work of four Gothic poets: Sade Murphy, Johannes Goransson, Joyelle McSweeny, and Feng Sun Chen.  Right from the start, the breadth of perspective is both impressive and engaging.  This is not poetry coming from white English males, which is immediately refreshing.  One of the central thematic aspects of Gothic literature is its questioning of presumed human significance, and this questioning is experienced across gender, racial, and national lines, through the whole of the species.  What Pate does use more traditionally recognized Gothic writers for is to frame the discussion, either through the use of apt quotes or occasional comparison.  The effect is to unify the Gothic and show it as an evolving entity that has greatly benefited from the addition of new, previously unrecognized voices.  This in turn helps new readers engage by exposing heterogeneous literature that offers several layers of connection.

We want something – God, History, and Reason are the usual suspects – to mend the rupture, to fill in the gap.  We want the seamless whole.  But the Big Ideas don’t answer those basic questions anymore, no matter how many white-knuckled attempts are made.

This effort of increasing visibility is greatly helped by the quality of writing in the essays.  Though the collection is short, Pate takes his time dissecting what he finds significant and delivers his analysis in a way that does not condescend or dumb down.  He addresses existential questions and inversions of traditional symbols.  Most importantly, he respects the process of using truly beautiful language to represent the horrifying and the psychologically imposing.  Pate presents the reader with an accurate and concise historical framework in which to view these authors, and this efficiency is consistent throughout the essays.  He raises fascinating points but trusts the reader enough to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Many Romantics were influenced by Platonic thought, but this doesn’t take away their materialism – it simply complicates it, suggesting that materialism is never a given…

Of particular note in this collection is the manner in which Pate writes about it.  It combines the freedom of a thought-piece with the intellectual rigor of academic papers and strikes an appreciable balance between the two.  There isn’t a single citation of secondary sources throughout the book, and there isn’t the need for one.  Pate is interacting with the poetry on a personal level and relaying his subjective perspective.  At the same time, the reader is never given cause to question his experience and knowledge of Gothic poetry.  He focuses on vital phrases and diction choices and is at no loss for words when deconstructing them.  The result is something that feels comfortably informal and approachable, while passionate enough to be taken seriously.

When the Internet exploded onto the technological and socio-economic scenes, it was met with boundless optimism and a surety that promised its power to allow humanity to ascend.  This is poignantly similar to the ages of Reason and Enlightenment, where the new information swelled the breasts of intellectuals and showed seemingly infinite possibilities.  Gothic poetry serves the same purpose now that it did then.  It questions, not out of pessimism but out of a healthy skepticism that challenges movements that consider themselves unstoppable.  It is the manifestation of human doubt, of a primal understanding that, while we have come a considerable distance, we have a responsibility to check our egos against the vastness of existence.  Pate’s essays do a stellar job of helping us reconnect with this necessary experience, and of helping us to acknowledge and appreciate the beauty in the process itself.

 

Flowers Among the Carrion is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior

by on December 15, 2016

ebeidYou Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, by Carolina Ebeid

 

It is perhaps most difficult to see beauty when it lives in and around something horrid.  But the focus of vision does not preclude it from existing.  A pristine sky is unconcerned with tragedy and violence beneath it, and there is a strength in character, I think, in having the capacity to recognize both simultaneously.  That strength flows through You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, a poetry collection written by Carolina Ebeid, in abundance.  This book is a fundamentally intense and vivid exploration of the universe we exist in and distort for ourselves, and one that embraces the echoing dualities of our lives not as contradictions but as ends of cyclical spectrums.

The poetry of this collection is not beholden to any one style.  The traditional mixes with the experimental as if the words are trying on different outfits.  Some poems exist in the tightest, most suffocating confines, while others sprawl out and leave luxurious gaps between their limbs.  The deliberate control over spacing and line breaks is regularly impressive throughout the book and, as one would expect, this allows for endless reengagement.  The greatest risk in this situation for a poetry collection is that the poems may end up feeling disorganized and hastily slapped together to fill space.  But Ebeid’s work handles any potential worry along such lines by utilizing a powerful and consistent tonal and thematic undercurrent.  Almost every poem utilizes evocative natural imagery and the duality beauty and grief.  This experience grips the reader in an intensely emotional way, forcing us to feel everything.  This is not a drug meant to banish pain or a device meant to torture.  The poetry embraces life in its sublime extremities.

In order to accomplish these sensations, Ebeid juxtaposes the almost unnervingly intimate with the sensory overload of the vast.  The various speakers of the collection are skeptical mothers, witnesses and victims of carnage, hopeful dreamers, and more, not to mention amalgams of all different types.

When I fell in love, I spoke / as a child & and dressed as a child

I lifted a lavender / heart, not the form inside / your rib cage

Again and again we find a contradiction-defying inclusion of innocence and experience as the poems move at random through time.  Whole lives are incorporated in this way, especially if one imagines speakers moving from poem to poem.  This collection, I feel, will get no small amount of recognition for its laments and remembrances, and rightly so.  But it includes much more than passive, negative reaction, and is all the stronger for it.  The full gamut of emotions is at play here and there is no shortage of critique.  Hypocrisy and inaction are exposed for the complicity they are, and traditional systems of comfort or explanation are challenged.

rings of white gold bring attention / bring persistence bring faith / in the persistence of what seems / most fated to die says the book

Aside from the sheer richness of the wordplay, I think one of my favorite aspects of this collection is its recognition of poetry as an interactive experience.  The use of varied structure and minimalist language provide the groundwork, allowing the reader to unpack and fill space with her own perspective.  But the poems will, at times, even directly engage the reader.  One stanza from the last poem in the collection reads like this:

reader, / I am emptied of me & you / of you / yourself keeps swarming out / until we are standing in a wide pool

Normally, this kind of direct address is frowned upon as lacking subtlety or wit.  But I think the poetry here more than makes its own case.  The speaker wants you to remember that you are reading.  Just as you are encouraged to embrace the good and the bad, the beautiful and the tragic, and the full extent of nature and humanity, you are also reminded that you are both inside and outside of the work itself.  It leaves the reader with a responsibility to carry this perspective with them beyond the closing of the book.  One could even read that stanza in a challenge.  Is the pool blood or some other essential?  Now that the speaker has emptied herself of herself, do you not have the responsibility to do the same?  The swarming out certainly indicates that the process has begun.

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who seeks, if you will pardon the cliché, food for thought.  The poetry here is infinitely digestible.  It is the kind of literature that you can and should keep reengaging with after thorough bouts of contemplation.  It operates on the vividly physical and the imposingly metaphysical, asking deeply complicated questions.  But it does not shrink from its own challenges.  It hints at origin points of answers and lays bare its suspicions.

 

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

Suite for Barbara Loden

by on December 13, 2016

suiteforbl-cover-front-235x299Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Lèger

Translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cècile Menon

 

A little backstory: In 1970, Barbara Loden wrote, produced, directed, and stared in a film called Wanda, which was semi-autobiographical, inspired by the true story of a woman who thanked a judge for sending her to prison, and the only feature film that Loden would ever write or direct.  Despite winning some early awards and critical acclaim, it was never widely distributed or seen in the United States.  As of today, thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated and appreciative individuals, the film has seen a restoration and is gaining some of the notoriety it deserves.  Enter Nathalie Lèger and Suite for Barbara Loden, a short novel that hybridizes literary styles in order to tell the not so simple stories of Barbara Loden, of Wanda, and of Nathalie herself as she attempts to construct the text from within and without.  The result is nothing short of wonderful.  As readers we are presented with a book that can exist in multiple spaces, resonating with frequencies that are simultaneously attuned for feminists, writers, survivors, and their allies.  It is a book from which humbling messages can be gleamed or which can satisfy on a purely linguistic, structural level.

The hardest thing is the words, how long it takes, he says, taking a sip of his drink, the concentration you need to work out what goes with what, how to put together a single sentence.  I had no idea that shaping a sentence was so difficult, all the possible ways there are to do it, even the simplest sentence, as soon as it’s written down, all the hesitations, all the problems.

The moment that quote is describing is an encounter with New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, and it elegantly encapsulates much of what is going on in Suite for Barbara Loden.  The idea applies equally well to speaking or to writing, really any use of language, once your mind has been exposed to the possibilities of discourse.  Through its own structure it displays the very concept it is explaining.  The commas are the hesitations.  The “concentration you need to work out what goes with what” is immediately evident – despite the constant pausing and reluctance and reconsideration, the sentences are grammatically correct throughout.  Moreover, the spirit of the quote, even though it is put in the mouth of Mantle, flows through Loden and Lèger as character and narrator of this text.  The care and deliberate choices being made give shape to truly unique and emotionally ensnaring read.  And this permeation, this blurring of boundaries between entities and experiences, eventually leads to an immersion that combines the pieces of the text in eye-opening ways.

To sum up.  A woman is pretending to be another (this we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.

The layering of reader, author, narrator, characters, and characters created by characters in this book is beautifully reflective and reality-distorting, akin to looking into one of two opposing and parallel mirrors as they echo into infinity.  This extends to the book’s relationship to its visual counterpart.  Like the film, the book never insists upon itself or makes claims at profundity.  The language used, while consistently harmonious and contemplative, is never superfluous or pedantic.  Several parts are delivered in a manner all too familiar to anyone who has written and read screenplays, though the attention to evocative detail in these sections is indicative of both a skilled prose writer who cannot abandon her craft and of a talented screenwriter who has a singular vision to put to page.  Despite switching characters and focalization, the text’s pacing and tone make its constituent parts feel unified, further reinforcing the storytelling continuum that exists at the book’s center.

I know from experience that to gain access to the dead you must enter this mausoleum that’s filled with papers and objects, a seal place, full to bursting yet completely empty, where there is barely room for you to stand upright.

Have you ever been in a room that contains people talking, and perhaps you are even part of the conversation, and the quietest person in that room says something that catches you totally off guard with both its conceptual power and its simultaneous humility?  That is the closest non-literary experience I can associate with reading Suite for Barbara Loden.  I never cease to marvel at or enjoy texts that, in a relatively short space (this book isn’t even 120 pages), manage to capture the essence of depthless experiences.  The book, like the film and actress it shadows, is an intricate, multi-faceted metacommentary on feminism, misogyny, film, personal identity, and, in the book’s specific case, writing.  It wears the bruises of abuse and dominance as evidence of a contradictory, self-serving system that trips over itself in the effort to perpetuate.  It explores the empathy and the obsession required to write and to understand someone else’s story.  I sincerely hope that this book is spared the confused ignominy that kept Wanda as a relative unknown for so long, because it deserves to be read.  By simply existing as it does, it earns its voice.

 

Suite for Barbara Loden is available now through Dorothy, A Publishing Project.

Book Review

Bruja

by on December 8, 2016

bruja-frontcover-final-1170x1783Bruja, by Wendy Ortiz

 

There is quite the argument going on about the significance of dreams.  Psychological and neurological studies of dreams often lean toward the conclusion that dreams are nothing more than the random firing of neurons displaying a kaleidoscopic patina of memories, fantasies, and nightmares.  I am sure that many of you, and I include myself in that number, have felt a deep and poignant significance to dreams, especially as they relate to the creative process.  In Wendy Ortiz’s dreamoir, Bruja, she finds an utterly fascinating middle ground between the two perspectives.  Except that even “middle ground” is insufficient; rather, she presents an inclusive, paradigm-shifting theory in narrative form, one that embraces the interconnectedness of stories, focalization, the unconscious, and how we construct reality.

By the nature of our physical senses, our perceptions of reality are inherently reconstructions.  Every conscious (and many an unconscious) moment, our minds take in information from the immediate past and assemble a structure that helps us to make workable sense out of existence.  In a very real sense, reality is a story we tell ourselves.  Bruja utilizes this concept to its fullest extent, but with an important constraint – it chooses to abandon any pretense of agreed upon linear structure.  By tapping into the dreams of the narrator, the text accepts the at least partially arbitrary nature of time, cause and effect, and significance.  While nominally organized by monthly chronological order, each section of the story delivers dream after dream, exhibiting the impossible alongside the cyclical and the seemingly random.

A silver shimmer moved through the outdoor fountain. A huge swordfish pushed through the water and hit air. Panic set in—the swordfish was the size of a small truck. I wanted to look but also wanted to run. I knew that many things would suddenly be growing huge in size. I wasn’t sure where to go.

This tone of delivery is thoroughly consistent throughout the book and it is beautifully appropriate.  The absurd and the amazing are presented as matter-of-fact and curious.  This flavor is not blasé and it is not meant to be; this comes from a perspective that routinely witnesses the miraculous and the terrible and which understands that they are not mutually exclusive, as if acknowledging the awe-inspiring while being ready to “run”.

One of the recurring elements in Bruja is packing and repacking luggage.  It is usually delivered in an almost throwaway fashion, at the opening of a section, and it frames the text that follows.  It is among the most significant symbolic acts in a text that one could argue is made entirely of symbolic acts.  The ideas of always being on the move, of refusing to settle, of living moments of lives rather than merely a life, are all tremendously powerful.  These ideas run smack into those of dreams as the narrator is quite literally packing and repacking these memories and fantasies and nightmares, rearranging them to see how they fit inside the container that is her own mind.  There is, at times, an almost desperate, obsessive-compulsive drive to accomplish this.

I packed my bags at least three times. I was booked on a trip to New York but I wondered if I would ever make it because the damn bags needed to be packed and unpacked and packed again.

What the text is describing, among other things, is the process of trying to make sense of a life and its myriad possibilities.  The narrator’s lovers meld together into a psychosexual amalgam, then fray apart into their own fragments in time.  The narrator is at times passive and submissive and at other times violent, ecstatic, and enraged.  Moreover, the experiences regularly refuse simple binary opposition – the text never renders judgment on behavior or beauty, because it cannot and remain honest.  The first thing I did after finishing the book was read it a second time, backwards, and not an ounce of meaning was lost for me.  Bruja remains loyal to one of its central themes: denying the linear mandatory primacy.

We had no sense of time; there was just the walking back and forth in this mysterious and beautiful place, knowing the beach was within walking distance.

I know I have been waxing philosophical in this review, but that is because I find Bruja so fascinating.  Even its title feels wonderfully apt; bruja is the Spanish word for witch, and Ortiz has commandeered it to encapsulate the experience of a woman who, by coming to understand secret knowledge about the universe, manifests the power to manipulate reality itself.  But, critically, the text never treats reality as an illusion.  The traumas, the loves, the living that is shown and hinted at throughout the book are no less real for their continual metamorphoses.  The malleable nature of experience does not render experience invalid or ineffectual.  Bruja conveys all of this with a simple, graceful elegance, baring the vulnerabilities of a soul without fear of rejection or the pride of showmanship, but with a hope that the presence of the reader will manifest even more possibilities.  It never forces you to reject your conclusions, but after reading it, you will be unable to accept your perspective as the only one.

 

Bruja is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Book Review

Storm Toward Morning

by on December 6, 2016

41bgmqbdr1lStorm Toward Morning, by Malachi Black

Review by Alana Folsom

 

There are some poetry books that ask to be read for their emotional impact—for the pure punch to the gut that their lines deliver—and then there are books that more subtly creep into your bloodstream. These books aren’t loud, but they remain beautiful and heavy in the part of your stomach that always feels a little hollow. Malachi Black’s debut book Storm Toward Morning is the latter: a subtle and delicate sneak. Most of this comes, for me, in my awe over Black’s use of form, syntax, and sound. As I read, I trust that the poet behind each word, who lay every comma like a brick, is doing so intentionally. The fact that Black has an explanatory companion to Storm Toward Morning online only affirms what his poems simmer with: control.

And I know that there’s a criticism of poetry often bandied about: that poets are writing for other poets. But Storm Toward Morning is the who gives a fuck? reply to that question. Black’s awareness of craft sparkles in its precision and, sometimes, humor (like “Ode to the Sun,” which opens with “You repeat yourself like no one/ I know…”).

I don’t want to lie, though: I struggle at times in this collection to grasp onto something beyond craft, and spent the week after I’d first read the book wondering if craft was enough. After re-reading this collection, though, I think that it is: that the skill embroidered into every poem is what makes each poem beautiful. Can I call a poem a Faberge egg and not be a douche?

In a text exchange with a friend, I called STM “intellectual” and when she asked if I meant “show offy,” I knew the word intellectual was wrong: these poems hum with confidence, seem to emit an I-know-what-I’m-doing bing at the end of each line. They’re not showing off, their just skillful. The moments that Black seems to be saying directly to other poets do you see what we can do? are the strongest. “Insomnia & So On,” for example, begins with the lines “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth/ each morning. Unfasten all the bones//that make a head, and let me rest: unknown/ among the oboe-throated geese gone south” (7)—I could keep quoting, but the prosody’s muscularity is evident in these opening lines. The smoothness of the end-rhyme is the least impressive part of these couplets; more expert is the movement of meter, which begins with stress after stress to communicate the quite literal stress of the unsleeping speaker and then transitions into a lulling iambic pentameter. Within the meter, though, each word holds a sonic resonance that complements the beat, but also operates singularly: the long “o” sounds pull you forward through the entire poem and that construct a network of images (animals, weather, domestic life).

Storm Toward Morning tackles insomnia, depression, subjectivity, and faith. Underneath all this headiness and potential grand philosophy, though, is a simple and pressing question that the book circles: what is living? Interestingly, STM erases all notions of an individual speaker through repetition and divergent self- and poetic-definition, so the question is never rooted in the personal, a move that seems invigorating and new because of its anti-confessional bent. In “Traveling by Train,” for example, the poem ends with “…you’re lost/ between the meter and the desperate rhyme/ of clacking tracks. Home is nothing here./ You’re gone and in the going; can’t come back” (6). This “you” here seems to be the reader, lost to what the speaker knows (and there’s humor here, too: a glimpse into self-deprecation and diminishment) is a “desperate” rhyme, yet the reader remains “in the going”. The syntax in the poem’s final line seems to capitulate rather than declare: “can’t come back” is its own clause and doesn’t speak directly to “you’re gone”—in other words, the syntax is playing with our expectations, is calling for our attention  over the loud train sounds. The poem is aware of itself and yet it able to remain within the poem, like an actor believably addressing and then ignoring the fourth wall.

Interesting, too, the book is filled with poems that actively define both “I”s and “you”s—“I am the black strokes on the baby grant” (5), “I am an element” (25), “I am the harvest” (47) as well as “…you were the bottom of a birthday hat” (8), “you are the gulf/ between the hoped-for/ and the happening” (36), just to cite a few. These definitions, which often come in odes or in addresses to God, serve the effect of multiplying the speaker and the reader, who is sometimes the “you” as in “Travelling by Train,” but is often not. This isn’t a book about ego, about the self as individual, and perhaps that is why it doesn’t ever read as “show-offy”—because there’s no one thing/ person that these poems point to. Instead, these poems point to poetry itself: they are sonnets, they are odes, they are, most of all, asking to be read and read again so you can sink into the layers of craft that blanket each line.

 

Storm Toward Morning is available now through Copper Canyon Press.

 

Alana Folsom recently graduated with an MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, where she was Editor-in-Chief of their literary magazine, 45th Parallel. Her poetry has been published in The Journal, Hobart, and Apogee, and is forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review; her critical writing has been published in The Iowa Review and the Rumpus. Follow her at @axfolsom.

Book Review

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by on November 22, 2016

9780306824067My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by Keith Morris (with Jim Ruland)

 

Keith Morris, founding member of the classic Los Angeles hardcore punk bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks, has just released a new memoir that takes us back to the embryonic days of the Los Angeles punk scene. A career renaissance man, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, charts Morris from his youth in the sleepy south bay town of Hermosa Beach, to his notorious stature as frontman of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, to his battle with diabetes and formation of OFF! My Damage strips away the legend of Morris and sheds light into areas of his life that have been unilluminated until now. With so many rock memoirs being bloated exercises in ego and hyperbole, My Damage takes the road less traveled and paints Morris as humble punk rock guru. The book ultimately solidifies Morris amongst the most likeable guys in a musical landscape that is filled with so many titanic egos.

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor was penned by Morris, with Jim Ruland (founder of local So-Cal reading series, “Vermin on the Mount”) lending a contributing hand. The book is written in a fairly conversational tone, with Morris’s deadpan, self-deprecating humor appearing in flourishes. The delivery is as blunt and direct as Morris’s extensive musical catalog, and Ruland does well here to not obscure Morris’s true voice in favor of more richly stylized prose. The result is a wild and no holds barred trip down memory lane to the beginnings of Southern California hardcore punk, and a look at the life and survival of one of its main progenitors. My Damage is not unlike other rock memoirs. Passages and anecdotes of spiraling excess (Morris smoking crack with David Lee Roth), battles with alcohol abuse, inter-band rivalries, and cautionary tales of the music industry are all here. What separates My Damage however, is the tenderness by which Morris describes his battles with addiction, diabetes, and a world that has been perpetually “up his ass.” Unlike so many of Morris’s peers, his tone is charmingly affable throughout My Damage, which gives it an endearing quality that is lacking in the memoirs of Morris’s peers.

My Damage not only chronicles the personal struggles of Morris, but also charts the nascent hardcore punk movement that helped shape not only the underground and DIY ethos of the scene in Los Angeles, but worldwide. We are given intimate accounts of the seminal Black Flag and Circle Jerks, the untapped promise of Morris’s oft-forgotten Bug Lamp, as well as his late career revival via his current outfit, OFF! For fans of the hardcore punk movement, My Damage provides more than enough to satisfy. Recording sessions for classic records like Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” EP, and the Circle Jerks’ debut Group Sex, are all told in wonderful detail.

Morris also reflects upon Black Flag’s infamous early performances, including the legendary Polliwog Park performance, which cemented Black Flag’s reputation as anti-establishment torch bearers and all-around threat to the safe and sterile Reagan suburbia. Morris also looks back on encounters with the police, with some confrontations resulting in extreme violence and abuse. There are stories of riotous gigs in Hollywood, and of police rushing into venues in riot gear. Through these anecdotes, My Damage proves itself to be a chronicle of a different time, a time that is perhaps hard to understand in 2016, where a punk rock “threat” sounds absurd and infantile. The music Morris made with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, was a very real perceived threat to Reagan’s America, and was truly transgressive on a level that is hard to comprehend.

Lesser known facts about Morris abound here. His somewhat untold story as self-proclaimed “A&R boy” for Virgin Records in the late 90’s and early 2000’s is described in some detail. His struggles adapting to the office world of fax machines, copy machines, and conference calls are particularly comical. His short comments on being sent by Virgin to see a Vampire Weekend showcase in New York City and being so disappointed that he left mid-set because they sounded like “Paul Simon’s backing band when he discovered world beat,” provided some laughs.

Beyond all the band tensions, touring mishaps, stoned rampages, and weighing in on the dross of the music industry, Morris’s fights with diabetes and addiction really take center stage here. In his conversational candor, Morris recalls falling into a diabetic coma in Norway, just hours before he was set to perform with Norwegian punk legends Turbonegro. There’s also the time Morris passed out and crashed his car while driving to Amoeba Records, due to toxic levels of acid in his blood brought on by the diabetes. His battles to remain sober are inspiring, and are written here to the point where his struggles become universal and relatable.

Ultimately, My Damage has something for even the most fringe fan of punk. For those looking to get an insight into the early hardcore punk scene, there is more than enough. For those looking for a cynical take on the music industry, that’s here in spades. For someone looking for an unlikely source of inspiration when it comes to battling diabetes and kicking drugs and alcoholism, look no further. My Damage holds no punches, and where it outshines other memoirs is in its ability to present true human spirit in a way that isn’t overreaching or self-aggrandizing. With My Damage Morris cements his place as the ultimate punk rock every-man. And we love him for it.

 

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor is available through Da Capo Press.

Book Review

Lost Privilege Company

by on November 17, 2016

lpccoverfinalLost Privilege Company, or the book of listening

By The Blunt Research Group

 

It is not hard to get people to think about their legacies.  For many of us, it is one of the driving factors of our lives, sometimes passing the boundary of obsession with how we will be remembered.  But I think the question of legacy is far more complicated that most are willing to acknowledge.  It exists beyond mere perception and the excuse of plausible deniability.  I believe The Blunt Research Group is operating under such a notion with their collection Lost Privilege Company, or the book of listening.  The group, the members of which importantly remain nameless in the book, have taken up the cause of creating wonderfully imperfect echoes of voices long past.  In doing so, the reader is asked to disengage from self-absorption and consider what is truly happening around them.  Lost Privilege Company, or the book of listening is a combination of poetry collection and an almost polite manifesto, one that holds up the fragments of lives and souls and memories so that we might look upon what we have wrought.

The poetry of Lost Privilege Company is created and delivered within a fascinating and horrifying constraint – every phrase of the poem comes from the case files of imprisoned juveniles, a disproportionate amount of whom were children of color.  Many of these children were offered up for pseudo-scientific experimentation and left at the mercy of eugenics researchers who sought evidence to confirm their deeply prejudiced beliefs.  Make no mistake: this is not a conspiracy theory or something out of an Orwell novel.  As the introduction to the book explains, such “science” is a very real part of American (and especially Californian) history.  This context, the pulling of lines from case files, adds a deeply unsettling and immersive quality to the poems.  To be sure, the poems are beautiful on their own, crafted with intimate care and profound connections, but the atmosphere around each of them is akin to having discovered the case files yourself and being forced to confront the ashes of potential beauty.

     as a method of discipline

the boy’s mother put coal oil on paper           lit it
and held it to her children’s feet

The “inmates” are described as having been incarcerated for antisocial behavior and delinquency, and each poem is constructed as a tribute to one of the children.  The refusal to obey traditional structure pays homage to those who, even at a young age, would defy the enforcement of social norms.  The interspersing of lines from the wards throughout each poem echoes the judgment and psychological intrusions that these “professionals” would force upon the children.  The fading of names behind the text of each poem is a beautiful, bone-chilling, and multi-level reminder of how little is left of the victims.  Many of these children were sterilized.  Many of them died.  Many had their sanity and identities discarded for the sin of nonconformity.  But the files, and now these poems, are what remain.  Doubtless for many cases, they are the only recourse to memory left.

   not a dirtier boy   in the house vile
and effeminate

taking short cuts across orchards

The second half of the book is given over to a space called “the book of listening”.  Here, the form changes from poetry to prose, or perhaps prose poetry.  It makes no attempt to define itself.  Each page of this section contains a stand-alone thought, or sequence of thoughts, that never plays out in more than a paragraph.

Having somehow gained permission to listen to an unknown voice, must one pledge not to harm or betray that voice?  What would that mean?  And would it ever be possible not to break one’s vow, one’s oath, to the voices one has solicited?

In our sociological environment, one that has yet again proven itself to be full of echo chambers and unknown voices, I find the thoughts presented of Lost Privilege Company to be beautiful and poignant.  The text questions and questions, leaving little unexamined, exploring good intentions and responsibility, as well as whether ignorance is any excuse.  Are we absolved of the sins of our fellow humans simply because we were not aware of the atrocities or the hate that spawned them?  What obligation do we have in the aftermath of such things, even (or perhaps especially) when all that is left are the pieces of past?  I described this section of the book as a “polite” manifesto, and I really mean that.  This is not meant to indoctrinate or make demands.  Rather, it asks questions and leaves you to sit in your new awareness, having pricked the bubble of your comfort zone.

In reading this book, I am reminded of a quote that is very debatably attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  To be clear, this quote is hilariously and depressingly ironic because of its gender bias and because that kind of willful inaction in the face of tragedy is a hallmark of the conservatism Burke championed.  But the spirit of the quote, the idea that inaction is dangerous and creates complicity, is powerfully echoed in Lost Privilege Company.  The book stretches out its hands, full of the remnants of the otherwise unremembered, and asks you what will you do now.

 

Lost Privilege Company is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

States of Terror

by on November 15, 2016

statesofterrorStates of Terror, Vol. 3

edited by Matt E. Lewis and Keith McCleary

 

It is incredibly easy to become desensitized to the “horrifying”. Mainstream horror, regardless of the medium, all too often mistakes disgust for fear and utilize the grotesque and the visceral without understanding the difference between discomfort and dread. True fear is a thing intimately familiar and yet fundamentally alien, a state of mind that taps into the primal need to survive and defy the vastness of an unfathomable cosmos. Whether we run from the psychopath with a meat cleaver or stare into the eye of a Lovecraftian abyssal, we are reacting to the same drives, the same existential nightmares, and the same fear of oblivion. But when we are exposed to gore or brutality or monstrosity that exists for its own sake, we are subconsciously and unintentionally encouraged that fear is merely a fantasy, a high to be tasted rather than a vehicle to explore what it is to be mortal and of dubious significance.

 

I believe this perspective is why I enjoyed States of Terror Vol. 3 so much. The book is an anthology of independent short stories that plays out like a menagerie of forgotten dreams. Each story takes up its own “monster”, its own fear-inducing subject, and brings it to life like a scientist too wrapped up in the means to comprehend the ends. But the goal is not to cause fear. This anthology is much smarter than that. It generates real fear through its storytelling, as a byproduct of the tales being told. It does not tell you that you should be afraid. Through consistently quality writing, it describes things that are genuinely terrifying and allows you to confront them yourself.

 

and forced more and more of my hand inside the widening and convulsing opening I created, working the lower jaw down farther from the upper until at last with a little elbow grease and a heave it gave way with a crack,

– Justin Hudnall, “Hierarchy of Meats”

 

In order for the fear to not be the ends, the characters must be multi-dimensional. States of Terror takes this idea and fully embraces it, not only giving their characters depth but fleshing out the emotions and psychologies of both predators and prey. There are no damsels in distress, mindless heroes, or inexplicable villains. Moreover, the lines between the supernatural and the psychological are so blurred they might as well be nonexistent. Some stories present very human dangers and distrust. Others present nightmares given form, existing to spite the notion of the impossible. Many stories can be seen as the minds of victims processing trauma. All of the stories make a point to give that which are afraid of a relatable dimension. The things that drive the monsters are the things that drive us, and the reader is left unable to honestly say where one ends and another begins.

 

Hunger: a stone. Ache in the gut, twist in the spine, red behind the eyes. Sharpness of the teeth hunger. Frog bird frog fish mud hiker stork coon possum frog—sharper sharper sharper every bite. My stomach, not: fullness. An elsewhere hunger in words.

– Gabriella Santiago, “Words and Things”

 

That ambiguity is the source of the most fundamental dread in States of Terror. Our own minds are often the best tools with which to scare us, allowing our imaginations to conjure the most personal of demons. This anthology understands this and, while it uses ideas and creatures with some notoriety, it draws the reader in and leaves the reader staring at mutated fun-house reflections.

 

On a more basic level, States of Terror, Vol 3. is just plain well-written. It never really insists upon itself and it uses spine-tingling creepiness to create layer upon layer of atmosphere. Some stories are very traditionally delivered, with concise effectiveness and little to no wasted space. Others play with language as the inconstant medium that it is, denying the reader an easy pace and drawing every word and phrase into focus like the digits and limbs of a corpse that has been bent into a disturbingly creative new shape. The changes in style really help the readability of the whole anthology. None of the stories feel like duplicates. Those that have more familiar elements engender the feeling of exchanging sweat-inducing tales around a campfire. Those that are more experimental are like the instant of waking up in the middle of the night and hoping that reality is as you remember it.

Her that looked like me but was cold and hairless. Felt the growing cold and the swift darkness. Dragged her into the light, the orange beacon where stones were thrown and I tasted salty descending. Slowly. Into the warmth of the ruddy whispers and watched her boil.

– Janice Lee, “Growing Colder”

 

One thing about this book that cannot be overlooked is that, while it is the last of a three part series, it stands entirely well on its own, not unlike the stories that comprise it. I have not read either Vol. 1 or Vol. 2, and while reading Vol. 3, I never felt like I was missing part of the experience. That said, the quality of Vol. 3 is such that I now fully intend to read both of the first two volumes. States of Terror, Vol. 3 is fun and dread-inducing and it remains quality literature throughout, never forgetting what it set out to do.

 

States of Terror Vol. 3 is available now through Ayahuasca Publishing

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.

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