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Civil Coping Mechanisms

Book Review


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

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


by on June 30, 2016

gaijin-cover_Gaijin, by Jordan Okumura


There is no one way to process grief. We’ve all heard of Kubler-Ross’ five stages, but the process is as personal and unique as the people dealing with it. There is, I think, a strong temptation in many of us to look away when another experiences trauma, be it out of fear or guilt. But in Jordan Okumura’s Gaijin, we have an opportunity to witness something as beautiful as it is painful and transformative as it is deconstructive. The book is an exploration of the intimacy of grief and a documentation of one particular battle with it. Like its protagonist, the book continually undertakes an identity crisis. There are repeated attempts at following a traditional story structure, all of which wade back into a river of sensory and emotional information. This is not a flaw. Rather, it is a profound envelopment in a very human thought process, a process in the midst of resolving trauma. The language and tone alternate between overflowing consciousness and sudden focus, dancing as an intelligent, stimulated mind is want to do. Despite its inherent whimsy, the flow of the text is never stuttering or devoid of gravitas. As a reader, you can focus on fragmented concepts or grand revelations and neither will leave you wanting.


Fathers. Reaped from the ash of untended graves. I sit close to the edge of the uneven grass. With the wind spitting such heavy gusts, I cannot open my eyes to see that this grass has grown over all of the names.


The intensity of the revelations is matched by the scale of the reflections. Gaijin is caught between endless pairings – childhood and “maturity”, “male” and “female”, light and dark, realism and surrealism – and it makes no apologies. Of course, it is easy to avoid needing apologies when the language is of such quality that the author has ensnared the reader regardless.


They wanted to tear away at our beginnings, the way the sky tears apart cloud cover over the ocean. The need to dissipate more than reveal, to make room for memory.


This process of experience is not delivered to the reader in what one might consider to be “real” time. Jumps are made at random (again, as the mind is inclined to do), and this has two major effects: first, it shows that Okumura trusts her readers to comprehend a non-traditional narrative and to bear witness to the events as described, and second, it allows Okumura to show that neither the grief nor the trauma exist in isolation. Systems of oppression, be they sexist, racist, or classist, constantly make their presences felt, interfering with emotional grounding and trying to enforce alien perspective on a protagonist born of multiple worlds. There is a latent acceptance of the idea that the world turns regardless of your need to take a breath. Interestingly, Gaijin doesn’t use this notion to cynically suggest that such a breath is unimportant. Rather, there is a hint that the difficulty of the breath makes it all the more valuable.

I am reminded of caterpillars as I reflect on Okumura’s work. There is a constant sensation of layers in the words, some solid and some transparent, simultaneously oppressive and peeling. The protagonist is burrowing her way out, through walls that the world has wrapped around her, and through some walls she has helped construct. But of critical importance here is the avoidance of another cliché, in the idea that the emerging lifeform is the goal, some beautiful endpoint that needs to be arrived at or else the process was a waste of time. The caterpillar was and is beautiful. The transformative process of the grief was and is beautiful, every bit as much as whatever awaits on the other side. To render something terrible into something beautiful through language, without sacrificing any of the subject’s gravitas, is, I think, a goal every writer should strive to achieve. I believe Jordan has achieved that in Gaijin. And whether or not you have yet to discover tragedy, reading this will help you to understand the uniqueness of the experience and our relationships to it.


Gaijin by Jordan Okumura is now available through ccm

Book Review

The Women

by on March 30, 2016

The Women cover

The Women, by Ashley Farmer


Ashley Farmer’s The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2016) is many things: the result of unpacking and repacking research, a careful methodical exposure of the subjugation of women, a call to action, and a book of poetry. Farmer takes fragments of information from the results she encountered as she searched women-related phrases and presents the reader with entries that do not regurgitate the research but collates and engages with the results.


In many ways, The Women is not just another collection pointing out the existence of a problem. Its poems warn us about the danger of treating women as subservient, but they are also calls to action, encouraging us to reexamine our perspectives on women and encouraging women to be proactive in defining their images for themselves. Though this collection is about women, it is not merely written for women. Farmer’s poems offer a how-to guide that moves away from “just another woman complaining” and suggests solutions through active “chopping up, stitching together, and writing through the texts.”

One of the major strengths of Farmer’s poems is the variation in style and structure since she presents fragments that we can then take and add our own personal experiences or observations. The book is divided into three sections where she plays with the notion of time by dealing with the past, the present, and the future. Each section elaborates on how women were seen, how they are seen now, and ends with an argument for how women should be seen. The idea of time is also emphasized with the different poem styles: prose poems, list poems, and narrative poems. The diverging styles offer us different ways of viewing and addressing the way in which women have been undermined and rendered powerless.

What I found to be more compelling about her entries are the ones that almost read like a list. The repetition of key phrases like “women are” or “women fall” reminded me, as a woman, of many instances where I have heard those same phrases being directed at myself or at others. Though the book is not extremely long or difficult to comprehend, there were times where I had to step away from it because of the reminded that, even in the twenty-first century, women are still subjected to oppression by both men and women. I see rejection of women online and in person and it saddens me how we often fail to see it. Farmer’s poems shed a light to the areas of subjugation women face —areas that might go unnoticed and as a result get perpetrated over and over again. One of the two epigraphs in the collection illustrates how we sometimes fail to recognize these small instances:

Q: “Why has society always been hard on women?”

A: “Society hasn’t always been hard on women. Hope I helped!”

—Exchange between strangers, Yahoo! Answers


No, it didn’t help. The individual who answered the question chose to ignore a question that could have had many answers. Though answering a Yahoo! question will not solve the ongoing problem of women being perceived as unassertive, unable to think for themselves, and dependent, providing a proper answer is one step in the right direction. At least, I think, Farmer would agree.


The Women is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms

Book Review

The Sky Isn’t Blue

by on March 15, 2016


The Sky Isn’t Blue, by Janice Lee


Bear with me for a moment.

Have you ever been in group therapy? Group therapy has a stigma, partially deserved and largely undeserved, for being this boring, sad assemblage of people half-whispering self-help mantras or trying to find their collective “happy places”. But do you know what the real purpose of group therapy is? Empathy. In moments of depression and confusion, it is almost impossible not to feel an intense abandonment and persecution, as if the insanity of the world has turned its whimsical focus on you and you alone. Group therapy is meant to reveal to the individual seeking help that they are much more than just an individual; to lift the veil blocking out light and sound and connection with other people, many of whom are experiencing eerily similar pain and perceived isolation.


Why do I bring this up? Because Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue is a beautiful exercise in empathy born of shared experience. Typically authors are discouraged from being brave with their work, especially now when most of us are expected to churn out models from and for the assembly line. But this book tries to be so many things at once that it is a miracle it isn’t crushed under the weight of its ambition or the sheer number of concepts it brings to the table. Here are just a few:


This book is confessional. The language alternates between hesitant and reserved and vomitous and unfiltered. It speaks with the voice of one who has a great deal of difficulty divulging the personal information at hand, and with the voice of one who holds her hand over flame anyway, expelling the admissions out some deep seeded need. “Tide Pools & Rain”, for example, is, to me, a beautiful treatise of guilt and the acceptance of emotional vulnerability.


This book is metaphysical. Is the book made of essays? Poems? Short stories? Yes to all, and no to all. The speaker(s) sits in a perpetual stillness between violently contrasting dichotomies: pain and pleasure; hope and memory; elation and grief; suffocation and isolation; empirical observation and sublime hallucination. And yet neither the stillness nor the boundaries between the dichotomies are impermeable, to the speaker’s wonder and terror. “Mornings in Bed” encapsulates this succinctly, taking one of the simplest throwaway moments of your day and using it to highlight the madness of opposing forces.


This book is explanatory. The text is inevitably drawn back to a state of defending poetry, defending poets, and defending expression. The work needs you to understand what it means to write, to write poetry, what poetry is, and what an author is. Or, perhaps, the work is going to do everything it can with the English language to try and explain it to you. And the way the work goes about this is not using textbook definitions or even elaborate rules; the book does its absolute damndest to induce sensory experiences. You can be told fire is hot, but it does not prepare you for touching flame. “The Salton Sea” is as much argumentative as it is a compilation of memory, switching back and forth between poignant citations and symbolic recollection.


I would hope that any potential reader could see the empathetic value in such a work. Lee is expressing a great deal of what it is to live as a writer, and not the cliché stereotypes of the mopey half-bum or the misunderstood genius. She explores what it can be like for someone whose mind has intimately experienced the existential crises that can arise from confronting the nature of the world around you. She explores the frustration and maniacal joy of trying to express transcendence with mortal language. But critically, she seems to never ask for sympathy. This is not a social media post begging for attention or meaningless platitudes. It is an intimate look into a mind “touched” by some Hegelian sense of spirit and possessed by a need to make a proper record of what it sees.


If it isn’t clear by now, I highly recommend this book. It is easy to read and yet wonderfully complex, giving you ample reason to pick it up again and again.


The Sky Isn’t Blue is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms.