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John Venegas

Book Review

The Consequences of My Body

by on March 23, 2017

The Consequences of My Body, by Maged Zaher

 

There is an assumption that a lot of us hold, myself included, that existence follows a linear progression. Sometimes, this manifests as an immediate experience of time dragging us forward through events we can only guess at. Sometimes it is more existential, such as believing one’s self to be part of a progressing humanity, the latest and most efficient thing yet produced by evolution. It is because of this assumption that works like The Consequences of My Body by Maghed Zaher prove incredibly valuable. At the heart of this poetry collection is an attempt to grapple with the question of personal importance, of relevance, legacy, and meaning. It is a quietly powerful work, at once beautifully afraid and resigned to its own momentum.

One of the first and most consistent thematic elements that appears throughout Consequences is romantic love. It appears in many facets, from the desire for sexual release to the capacity for distraction that love bears. The quality of the poetry is such that, were romantic love really the deepest idea being explored, the collection would be worthy of reading anyway. But as you immerse yourself in the text, you may begin to see that the beating question is not romantic love – it is whether or not you matter. To some, that distinction may be splitting hairs, particularly when the scope is limited to two people, but examine the fear that ghosts behind so many lines throughout the text.

Where do you want to meet on Wednesday? – I mean name the city – I will figure out something – tell me what time of the day works for you

Enough of this rambling – I will push send – you are insanely beautiful

It would be easy to write these off as the words of an over eager potential lover. But arguably the same speaker says the following as well.

Beneath the act of seeking / There is a void / Except that each death, dies / As it escapes the memories / Of the young

This is the voice of someone on the precipice, unable to look away from the vastness before them, and that vastness is beautiful and terrifying. It renders the love, the need for love, as not just an end in itself but the search for an anchor to some kind of stable reality. In a deeply personal and intimate way, Zaher’s poetry wades out into a river of identity and gets caught in the current. By mattering to someone, there is the potential to find meaning.

This exploration is not limited to the vehicle of love, either. Identity through political philosophy, racial heritage, national history, and spiritual experience are all sources of both solidarity and isolation.

I am a bad worshipper / Answering to the movement of the clouds / So easy to sit awaiting you

Lines like this again and again echo with a need to be noticed, a need to be acknowledged, even if through divine judgment. I don’t, by any stretch, mean that in a condescending way. We are a social species, after all. This is a humbling, empowering baring of vulnerabilities. Occasionally, that exposure is uncomfortable for even the reader, as there are more than a few glimpses of the obsession that such needs can become. This flavors the poetry with a tinge of mania that keeps it exciting and challenging, especially when considered with its repeated use of confessional tone.

I particularly enjoy the choice of title for this collection, The Consequences of My Body. The potential for meaning ranges wildly, from the question of whether or not the speaker exists beyond the physical shell, to the notion of legacy as a result of a life lived, to the effects on the self from having and pursuing desires. That spectrum of possibility reflects and encapsulates the poetry behind it, a fragment of iceberg betraying the expanse beneath it.

 

The Consequences of My Body is available now through Nightboat Books.

Book Review

Genevieves

by on March 9, 2017

Genevieves by Henry Hoke

 

One of the strangest criticisms that is still levied against fiction is that it serves as some form of addictive and detrimental escapism. There is a multitude of problems with this narrow-minded perspective, the least of which is not its inherent hypocrisy, but perhaps the most important of that multitude is that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of reality and truth. You and I do not, cannot, have the same perspective. And our perspectives are the mediums through which we sense and interact with everything. In short, our realities are inherently different. The act of using escapism as a derogatory term and a crime of which fiction can be accused of assumes that there is only one objective reality, one fundamental truth that somehow always conveniently manages to serve to the benefit of a select few. As I sat reading Henry Hoke’s new book Genevieves, it occurred to me how important literature like Hoke’s reality-bending collection of stories is, given the prevalence of societal ignorance. What we have here is a reality intentionally shattered along its dimensional axes and displayed in all of its beauty and curiosities.

Genevieves is a chimeral, prismatic collection of stories, the potential meanings of which depend on how you rotate it. The stories serve as standalone elements as easily as they do part of an overarching whole. As one might expect, this is in large part due to the writing and narrative consistencies, but just as responsible are the Genevieves that so poignantly “exist”. Are we looking at a collection of women unified by a name and thematic purposes? The same woman experienced by disparate peoples? Does it even matter? This question of identity plays again and again throughout the book, with almost every character shifting within the arbitrary structures of their daily lives, and with the mundane and the fantastical constantly forgetting who is on first. You would think that this dismantling of definition and presumption would lead to an intellectual and emotional crisis, and maybe it still will, but Hoke takes the time to remind us that there is still life to be lived.

This is a choose-your-own-adventure. Not this story, this and what happens in it is set in stone and you can’t have any effect on it. I mean, y’know, this is a choose adventure, this everything. You can sit down. Or not.

If she grows up, Maggie wants to be a carrier pigeon.

This kind of humor returns against and again throughout the book, largely to counterpoint moments of disquieting collapse and existential concern. Physical, tangible boundaries are no more sacred than conceptual ones in Genevieves. There are violations of personal space and privacy, life-threatening danger, and repeating discomfort with truly opening one’s eye. The book is sympathetic to the dislocation and collateral damage caused by a real perspective shift, and it acknowledges that such a shift does not always have an emotionally rewarding consequence, despite our tendency in the literary world to glorify it. But it for all the book’s encouragement of open-mindedness, it does not yield in its drive toward those shifts. Progress in understanding cannot be sacrificed in deconstruction.

You can pretend to be asleep, but you can’t pretend to be awake.

As you can tell, I love all of the philosophical meat that Genevieves provides for chewing, but where this book really outdoes itself is in its structure and use of language. This is, quite simply, a great example of craft in truly capable hands. Line by line, the text is handled with such care that I’m hesitant to simply classify this as prose rather than prose poetry. This is an existential book with the rambling and redundancies pruned and removed like the excess from a bonsai. It is amusingly and humbly self-aware, at times opening up like the best conversation you’ve never had, profoundly deep and immediately relatable.

I can finish this writing with a flourish, to indicate I’m done. I can hand it to my brother, to read, to show him how close I came. A stack of paper to burn along with my sister. And I’ll go to the emergency room and find Dani, out of the woods and sleeping soundly. I’ll touch her forehead and feel my own temperature, and stay with her until she wakes, in the hope that she’ll see me in a different light, a face already changed.

I know I’ve harped on this a lot, but return value will never not (I enjoy double negatives) be important to me, and you’ll have nothing to fear from Genevieves in that department. The dual nature of the book, as a collection and as a singular narrative, allows for reading in all manner of ways. I’ve found myself returning to sections within sections, committing the unforgivable sin of taking lines out of their intended contexts and letting them play. Again, such is the strength of Hoke’s writing here that there is always value in doing this. I dare you to not let your mind run wild with the possibilities of lines such as “Look into your baby daughter’s eyes, and think only this: that she will excel at something that doesn’t exist yet.” This book is very much worth your time, if for no other reason than it allows you to participate in the dreaded escapism and appreciate that what you assume is reality is yours and yours alone.

 

Genevieves will be available May 1, 2017 from Subito Press.

Book Review

Dust Bunny City

by on February 24, 2017

Dust Bunny City

Written by Bud Smith, Illustrated by Rae Buleri

 

I believe I will always find instances of men baring their emotional vulnerabilities to be beautiful. That is not to say that it is always done effectively or consciously, but it is the beginning of transformation. It is a necessary step in the direction of abolishing misogyny and sexism. It is an act of courage and humility in the face of societal pressure to conform to arrogance. Dust Bunny City is an instance, one that is both effective and conscious, of deeply intimate vulnerability. It embraces romantic love and all of love’s inherent madness, sacrifice, and harmonizing capacity. And it achieves these states through simple self-awareness and a subsequent learned self-acceptance, existing as a touching template for emotional attunement.

Dust Bunny City is a book of poetry, prose, and illustrations that seems to be at home floating in and out of form while consistently capturing the sensations that are its goal. The words, as the book phrases it, come from Bud Smith, and they are the vehicle through which we explore the speaker’s perspective of his marriage. The poems and prose run the emotional gamut, changing from playful and curious to nervous and desperate from section to section, sometimes even within the same poem. They are smart without ostentation, and have beautiful turns of phrase that make even simple language give the reader a depthless cycle for reflection.

you actually do
get a balloon
to flush

and that feels important.
beautiful.
like good news.
success on the way.
an obstacle removed.

The love the speaker has for his wife is consistently apparent throughout the work. But you will not find sexist angelicizing or fawning seduction here. The speaker knows he is in love and he embraces it. He reveals the fear he has when his wife is physically distant, the sense of incompleteness in her absence, as well as the fulfillment he experiences when performing the absurd or the mundane alongside her.  One of the most touching moments, for me, was in the poem “Wonder of the World”, where the speaker receives something that most of us would dismissively refer to as corny, and yet he takes it in as a token of true affection, something that makes him truly happy.

The above illustration is from that poem, “Wonder of the World”, and it is a beautiful snapshot of the elegant and simple art from Rae Buleri. In the interest of clarity, I admit I am an appreciative but utterly uneducated admirer of visual art. But I find Rae’s works in this book to be the perfect compliment to her husband’s words. They are never obstructive, a problem I’ve encountered before in literary works with visual accompaniment, and while they are attached to certain poems, they float through the text like nebulous reflections of Smith’s words. They provide the reader with an echo, an idea, that can flavor or spawn perspectives from which to view the text. Like the words, they move on their own whims between meandering and playful to sharp and edged, often combining the range of their spectrum into conceptual chimeras that are at once impressive and humble. Probably their strongest attribute is in their ability to reinforce one of the central themes running through the text – the idea that love is deeply personal and conceptually strange, that it requires interaction and cannot be fully fleshed out through description or depiction alone.

If one is going to engage with a text on these levels, then I find the value of re-approachability to be critical. Dust Bunny City excels here because it achieves that exceedingly difficult combination of layered depth and linguistic straightforwardness. It never tries to be ambiguous, and yet it manages to carry you in a satisfying way through ideas that can’t fully be explained. It never dumbs down its delivery or its themes, because it engages you as a peer, as someone to be trusted and confided in. And, quite simply, the book isn’t afraid to be happy. That isn’t to say that it is naïve or blindly optimistic. Dust Bunny City appreciates the beauty in front of it and knows that, without it, life is not complete.

 

Dust Bunny City is available now through Disorder Press.

Book Review

Blood on Blood

by on February 16, 2017

Blood on Blood, by Devin Kelly

 

There is an awkward, uncomfortable history of politicians seeking to utilize the work of Bruce Springsteen to rally support during their campaigns.  Most notable was Ronald Reagan, most recent was Chris Christie, and in many cases it seems to stem either from misunderstanding the work of “The Boss” or not caring to examine anything beyond the title “Born in the USA”.  We live in a time in which ideals and ideologies, including masculinity and patriotism, have finally, if begrudgingly, been subjected to open questioning.  Our celebrities are flawed (shocker) and our romanticizations of our past don’t hold up.  Springsteen’s music has been, with varying levels of success, celebratory of what it means to be an American and to be a man.  But times change.  Devin Kelly’s poetry collection, Blood on Blood, takes the music of the icon, breaks it down, and remakes it into something no less powerful.  Perhaps even more so.  The result is a fascinating exercise in examining the inescapable and yet nebulous relationships between people and the power of their subjective realities.

Even without the subtitle “A Reimagining of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska”, it is thoroughly apparent what Springsteen’s music means to Kelly.  From titles to specific lines of poetry, Blood on Blood uses the album Nebraska as its jumping off point to dive into the same issues that Springsteen has addressed throughout his career.  But the key to the subtitle is the word “reimagining”; what it means to be a man, to be a patriot, and to advocate for the disenfranchised, have evolved, especially by becoming less and less monochromatic.  Kelly’s poetry tackles fatherhood and brotherhood with an intimacy that such relationships are rarely allowed (and yet often possess).

…Nothing exists

but time & what it does to you, how you
can’t help but notice the melanoma
spotting up your father’s hands, how he

sometimes has to wear gloves to keep
the sun from killing him. Forget about
all of that & try to imagine a life

without the need to be by his side.
You have his handprint decorating
the thin room of your skin.

This is the eternal question of legacy, of life and death, of coming to terms with the dimension of time and its momentum.  This is the voice of a son who is compelled to refuse “weakness”, to deny the very existence of fear (and perhaps compassion), and attempt to honor his father by worrying in silence, likely the same father who taught him such values in the first place.  The deep roots of traditionally masculine behavior are being tripped over, even pulled at and torn, as they lay in the path of a human connection.

When a mind undergoes a perspective shift, it is impossible to keep that change localized.  The same complications that arise in the face of old masculinity also rear their heads when confronted by what it means to be American, both in Springsteen’s songs, and particularly in Kelly’s poetry.  In poems such as “Middle America” and “Frank Drives North on 385 Toward Chadron”, Kelly raises what one can euphemistically call the complicated legacy of the United States and treats it with the same confusion and yearning that he does for the perspective of son and brother.

It began with a river & its crossing,
a whisker of grain pulled out of a dead

boy’s mouth, fur strung tight & propped
with bone. A gunshot, a silence,

& another.

 

…They say gold,
but all I see is the play of sun on rust,
old Chevy’s stacked into a Stonehenge
made of rusted metal & the whims of old men.

The use of imagery here is beautiful and fascinating.  In the first quote, the callbacks to “Manifest Destiny” and the rampant racial violence that birthed and forged the nation are echoed through time, a cycle that repeats itself as gunshots and silence.  In the second quote, the images are supposed to subvert the supposed beauty of gold, but paradoxically they themselves are beautiful and tragic.  Should the fact that the “whims of old men” now compose ruins be lamented or celebrated?  The speaker seems to feel both, as I think we should.  The title of this collection, Blood on Blood, now takes on meanings that Springsteen likely never imagined when he wrote the phrase into his song.  Is this the blood that bonds families and friends, or is it the blood of a seemingly endless cycle of war and abuse?  Are the two mutually exclusive?

This collection is full of beautiful and tragic vistas, and perhaps its strongest attribute is its willingness to confront both.  While I am hesitant to use such a descriptor, I feel compelled to describe Blood on Blood as very “American”.  I don’t mean to say, by any means, that the collection encompasses what it means to be from the United States, or that the collection holds some abstract quality vital to the definition.  But it is very much the product of a perspective that has opened the floodgates to its past, refusing to look away, determined to witness the bad and to search for the dreams of what could be.  There is guilt and there is hope, two qualities that seem alarmingly rare in an environment where fear and excuses fill the void.  In this, I think Kelly actually exceeds his inspiration for this collection, both in ambition and in success.  Blood on Blood possesses a humility and a consistent strength in baring its vulnerabilities, setting itself apart from so much else that is described as “colloquially American”.

 

Blood on Blood is available now through Unknown Press.

Book Review

Meet Me Here At Dawn

by on February 2, 2017

Meet Me Here At Dawn, by Sophie Klahr

 

One of the things about poetry that will never cease to fascinate me is its potential to activate all of the senses. I am not referring to the imagination reconstruction metaphor and imagery in the mind’s eye. Prose can accomplish that just as well as poetry. Instead, I am speaking of poetry’s power to touch on and engender profound sensations, to create an experience of reading that is both immersive and penetrating. These interactions are unique to each reader, but they are only ever present in poetry of true quality, where each word or space has been chosen with meticulous care for its relationship to every other. Sophie Klahr’s Meet Me Here at Dawn is a collection of poems that accomplishes exactly that; it is a series of works that stand on their individual legs and which blend together into a beautiful mosaic that you can feel down into your toes.

When wading out into this collection, one of the first things you will likely notice is the use of space. Some poems are brief and to the point. Some poems meander like a river, filling the landscape of the page according to their own whims. Some are confessional and hesitantly eager. Others are grieving and dignified. The opening poem, “Prayer”, reads like a whisper into the aether, while “Departures” stops and starts, as if taking its time to consider each line and stanza before speaking, or as if letting each line or couplet echo and become part of a conversation. This is always open to interpretation, but I did not read the speakers of this collection as the same individual. Even within a singular poem like “Departures”, there is room for multiple speakers or, at the very least, a single speaker whose perspective evolves over the course of the poem. So when the collection starts with the whisper that is “Prayer”, it is as if a single voice releases the pressure of a dam, giving room for dozens of other voices to finally be heard. The effect was incredible, and made even more so as I read through it the second time, because as I read through I could hear the other voices beginning to rise like those in a harmonizing choir. Each sound empowered the others beside it without sacrificing its own strength, and the empty or negative space became a playground for reverberation.

there’s a girl, a bed, a gun, a fire
You want her to be a body of water    a city    you can disappear

The majority of that strength stems from the femininity of the experiences in the language. The collection presents an earnest, emotional, and visceral exploration of the nature of and circumstances surrounding the nebulous idea of womanhood. The tactile facet of this exploration is felt in almost every poem. Hypocritical stigmas and double standards are left to wither in the light. Repression and oppression are left to crack under their own insensible weight. Everything is given a level playing field and treated with curiosity. The sucking of a cock and the tonguing of an anus are regarded alongside sliced oranges and flowering fields. You can feel everything as you read. Klahr does not need to describe sexual release, or the sticky acidity of fruit, or the indescribable sensation of “punctured convention” and the air it releases. And this is not limited to the positive or neutral. The loss of a child, the loss of the ability to have children, and physical victimization are all incorporated as part of the potential of life, and they are not spared the same vivid immersion. Importantly, none of these experiences are treated as essential or central to the idea of being a woman, because that is not the point of the poetry. But they are laid out as part of the potential for a life, for a human experience.

What aperture makes a woman?
I bring the sea in. I do no research
whatsoever.

Keeping a collection like this on track in the face of its myriad voices and experiences is no small task, and it took me into the second read to realize how Klahr accomplished it. To be clear, they all felt unified, but I could not immediately discern why that was the case for my experience reading her work. Ultimately, the answer lay, as you might have suspected, in the title: dawn. Throughout the collection, the colors of the dawn splash onto the page and bleed into poem after poem. As referenced above, there is the orange of sliced fruit, but there is also the yellow of pollen draping an entire city, as well as post-coital blood staining bed sheets. There are fires in homes and on beaches, engulfing bodies and even light itself. Think of the palette of dawn, that reversed twilight, and all the things poetry has taught us to think of alongside it. The birth of a new day and the birth of a child. The awakening of minds and of the body as a sexual participant. The conflagration that consumes a beautiful or terrifying night. With a simple repetition of associated colors, Klahr invokes primal and yet spectrum spanning feelings that fill the mind with amber light, and she displays how that light can resurrect and incinerate.

A childhood of lush wasp-haunted pears and dust
the thin light caught on the long-dead rat in the basement.

As you can probably tell by now, I very much recommend picking this book up. It is a short read, barely hitting sixty pages, but any experience with poetry will tell you that this is no shortcoming. There is endless food for thought and re-readability, and in a time where we still have to have millions strong marches to ensure women are recognized as human beings, I find it hard to think of a better vehicle to convey perspective.

 

Meet Me Here At Dawn is available now through YesYes Books.

 

Book Review

Fish in Exile

by on January 25, 2017

Fish in Exile, Vi Khi Nao

 

Many people have their own techniques for dealing with trauma.  Some of these techniques are learned in the mouth of the dragon, born out of necessity and scars.  Some are useless and catchy platitudes cooked up by people who have been blessedly free of real hardship.  Many people on both sides, and along the rest of the spectrum, will offer their advice on how to emerge from the cages made of grief and loss.  But ultimately the keys to those cages are all unique to the imprisoned individuals.  Our ability to cope is crafted by our own hands and cannot be made for us.  This is one of the ideas lying at the core of Vi Khi Nao’s beautiful and excruciating Fish in Exile, an unabashed immersion into one of the core agonies of the human experience and the rebounding echoes of its consequences.  It is a novel of shatterings, where the best laid plans and boundaries are sundered and left to shape new perspectives.

The story at the core of Fish in Exile is not entirely unfamiliar – a couple that the novel names Ethos and Catholic are parents who have lost their two children to inexplicable happenstance on a beach.  The novel centers around the relationship between Catholic and Ethos, two people who care deeply for one another but who are unable to cross the ocean of grief between them.  But the way in which Vi Khi Nao breathes painful new life into the story is by taking it deeper that most any author would be comfortable venturing.  No part of this experience is left sugar-coated or unexplored.  The sexual tension between husband and wife bleeds through the text as they both yearn for intimacy from the person they love most but cannot psychologically dissociate intercourse from procreation in light of what has happened.  This unreleased tension bubbles over toward taboo moments that threaten to shatter relationships and lives, ranging from the relatively mundane in the form of adultery to the illegal in the form of statutory and incest.  Through the perspectives of side characters, we see how the parents become the objects of well-intentioned but completely ineffective gestures and gawking from their communities.  The way in which societies often turn tragedies into spectacles is eviscerated by the novel as cruel and the height of selfishness.  Even the reader is pulled into this critique, as we find ourselves engrossed in this sensory overload of sexual awkwardness and emotional loss.

She lifts the waistband of my briefs and lowers it to my thighs. The daisies crawl out, falling onto the comforter like confetti.

My wife stares at my eyes, and then at my deflowered penis.  She alternates this ping-pong gaze for five seconds before wiping the daisies swiftly away from my penis and leaping off the bed. She sobs her way into the bathroom and closes the door.

The reason Vi Khi Nao is able to get the reader to sit and engage with this guilty excitement is because of some fantastic and exquisitely sharp prose.  Fish in Exile reads quickly thanks to its effortless flow and direct delivery, and these lend themselves to riding the emotional wave that the book takes us through.  The language is smart but not pedantic and it is wonderfully crafted in that special way that lets you forget you are reading text on the page as the words fit together.  Nao then combines this with a clever structure for the novel that completes the effect of the experience.  The book starts from Ethos’ perspective and we spend the first third of the text over his shoulder and in his mind, watching him struggle and fail to breach the defenses that Catholic has built around her body and mind.  The middle section of the book is reserved for several of the important secondary characters, such as Callisto, Lidia, and Ethos’ mother, who attempt to fill the yawning gaps between the main characters and, at times, attempt to hold them together or drive them apart.  The final section and say belongs to Catholic, who must deal with more pain and obstacles than any other character and whose arc ultimately shapes the narrative itself.  This layout perfectly encapsulates the journey of the characters and the plot.  I don’t know about you, but I find few things more satisfying than reading a book like this, where everything resonates and harmonizes throughout the text to reveal the meticulous care with which the novel was written.

How can I apologize if I don’t feel anything? If it doesn’t hurt to make an apology, why don’t I just do it? I decide I will make a point to apologize to him. But when? He has disappeared to another place in the house. The silence.

While on a personal note, I will also mention that, as a student of Greek mythology, I found Nao’s use of the Persephone myth and the callbacks to Greek tragedy to be beautifully handled.  It is unfortunately common to see mythologies of the ancient world called upon in unsubtle and obtuse fashion, more for their “cool factor” than for any real metaphorical resonance.  But here the novel handles the relationship with brutal sincerity and surprising levity simultaneously.  In one go, the text highlights the patriarchy’s utter inability to fully understand or appreciate motherhood, the biological imperatives that form the foundation of parenthood, and the acceptance of the notion that grief can never really be extinguished, only embraced as part of the human experience.  It shows that some things are even beyond the reach of gods, and yet no tragedy is so great that it cannot be overcome.

Given the intensity of the subject matter, I cannot recommend this novel for the purposes of an easy read.  But I do encourage anyone who might have difficulty with such a notion to steel themselves and open Fish in Exile.  It is a fantastic example of the beauty that can be found in tragedy and trauma, and I am not referring to the notion of happy endings.  Rather, the resiliency and the capacity to work through difficulty are what are on display here.

 

Fish in Exile is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

The Warren

by on January 12, 2017

9780765393159The Warren, by Brian Evenson

 

For a consumer of science fiction, the genre has become an increasingly bloated thing saturated with the grandiose and the absurd.  Most movies in the genre are shameless reproductions of better films from several decades ago.  Many novels that have large scale exposure in the genre are either bogged down in YA tropes or intended as little more than spec scripts written in prose.  This is particularly unfortunate in the case of literature, because well-written text can accomplish things that a monstrous CGI budget can only dream of.  In the rush to dazzle and explode, even on the page, so many science fiction works seem to lose sight of how to remain relatable and effective.  Enter The Warren, by Brian Evenson.  In eighty six pages of masterful writing, The Warren takes us back to the true potential of the genre, simultaneously asking cosmologically existential questions and lacing those questions with fascinating and unnerving intimacy.

The Warren is the story of an individual named X who is living alone in an underground facility, which itself exists in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  He not only faces the prospect of potentially being the last of his kind but also the responsibility of staying alive for the sake of the numerous “personalities” that have been implanted into him.  Upon finishing the novella, one of the first things you will be confronted with is the sheer amount of ground covered in spite of the work’s size.  Any veteran of the genre will be familiar with the themes present here – isolation, identity, technology, survival, memory and the passage of time, trust, humanity – but that they are all present without getting in each other’s way and while being well and truly addressed, rather than glossed over, is incredibly impressive.  The only way this is achievable is through efficient use of language, and Evenson does not disappoint.  No time is wasted in the read.  The pacing moves quickly and the reader is only presented with exposition in ways that drive the plot forward.  If you have read any of my previous reviews, you may have noted that I have a particular fondness for texts that do not hold the reader’s hand as they move, ones that trust their readers to have the wherewithal and experience to make their own conclusions.  The Warren is an exemplar of this technique.  It drops you right into the thoughts and actions of the “protagonist” and allows you to pick up the nature of the situation and environment through context and subtle presentation.  In a sense, this is mandated by the audacity of trying to cover such a weighty story in so few pages.  But the novella never disappoints.

What was true and what was rumor, it was difficult to say: it is impossible for me to be objective about the opinions of all the selves contained within me, for I hear not only their words but feel along with them the weight of their conviction.

This kind of delivery lends itself beautiful to one of the most important parts of this kind of fiction – generating atmosphere.  Both the reader and the protagonist are dropped into a world that feels familiar enough to make some sense but strange enough that neither are sure anything or anyone can be trusted.  Senses are constantly on edge, sometimes through fear but just as often through the triggering of an insatiable hunger for more information.  Very little in the text behaves the way you would expect it to, not out of a need to be contrarian but rather because we have been trained to treat the symbolism and tropes of the genre as mandatory and predictable.  The combination of these effects lead to a text that can be read quickly or slowly without sacrificing any energy, and which can be read over and over again through different lenses.  Is X suffering from dissociative identity disorder or is he really a vessel for different consciousnesses?  Is there ultimately a difference?  People in our world are beginning to realize the significance of allowing people to define their own identities, so does X have any say in what is or isn’t human?  Is the story X constructs to make sense of his reality any less valid than our own?

There are times when I look back at this writing and do not recognize what I have written. There are moments, whole pages even, that are written in my hand, to be sure, but that I have no memory of writing. When I awake, I sometimes find myself deep in the warren before the writing desk, with the charcoal grasped tight in my hand and no memory of how I arrived there.

My favorite thing about The Warren is also something that I did not pick up on until reading through a second time: the novella, among many other things, is a meta-commentary on story-telling.  To be fair, in our post-post-modern world, this is an increasingly common thing.  But Everson tries his hand at it in a way that blends seamlessly into the story being told and the atmosphere being created.  X is, in a way, a carrier of stories, one of the last ones.  So much of the human response to mortality and the vastness of the cosmos comes in the form of stories and our hope that said stories will survive beyond us, as if those stories are a form in which we can continue to exist.  One of science fiction’s strengths is its ability to show us of the scale of things.  Ingenuity, hope, and terror are all equally valid responses to that scale, and they are not mutually exclusive.  The Warren raises the stakes and reminds us that when we look out into the void or into ourselves, what we find is not beholden to our expectations.

 

The Warren is available now through Tor.com

Book Review

Bottom’s Dream

by on January 5, 2017

BD-Einband-15-11-18.inddBottom’s Dream, by Arno Schmidt

Translated by John E. Woods

 

I have always been wary of books that demand attention. Garish covers, deliberately awkward page or font sizes, titles that sound like lines from failed experimental poetry – the need to stand out is understandable, especially in a literary market, but all too often it stems from a lack of substance on the page.  So when Zachary Jensen, ACR’s editor-in-chief, asked me to review Arno Schmidt’s fourteen hundred page, fourteen pound Bottom’s Dream, I was rather skeptical.  After I realized I would have to put my back into holding the thing up to read, I opened to a random page and found what I assumed to be a garbled mess, as if someone had ground up a dozen novels in a blender and randomly rearranged them character by character.  When I got home and sat down in my reading chair (yes, I have a reading chair), I was unable to read the book in my normal, comfortable fashion.  The top of the page was too far away. The book’s center-mass meant my arms had to extend out to hold it. The edge pressed into my thigh like an impatient dog, eager to play. In the book’s afterword, translator John E. Woods describes a conversation with Schmidt in which the author wonders why anyone would want to read the entirety of the novel. For Woods, the answer lay in the act of translation, of meeting and equaling an arduous task. For me, Bottom’s Dream became something of an obsession, a physical and psychological white elephant that squatted in my thoughts, filled my vision, and defied just about all of my expectations. This text is a leviathan ouroboros, locked in a constant, cyclical metamorphosis and magnifying a simple, organic process to an impossibly vast scale so that we might see the inherent complexity within.

Aristotle’s concept of beauty, particularly the idea that one cannot assess beauty without taking into account the whole of the thing being examined, is deeply resonant here.  When I opened to the random page and found the madness on display, there was no way I could have appreciated what was happening.  That is not to say that sections of this novel cannot stand alone, because many of them can, but engaging with Bottom’s Dream is a process of translation, transliteration, and seminal deconstruction.  Reading this version is akin to being included halfway into the process of decoding the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls. On that note, I have nothing but respect and admiration for John E. Woods and what I imagine must have been both the height and the terror of a translator’s career. The novel has a reputation for being “untranslatable” and, even in an English version, the text is as intimidating as it is enticing.  The reader, if they wish to engage with the novel, simply has to start from the beginning and naturally grow accustomed to the manner in which the text presents itself.  Strangely, this actually lends itself to finding the end.  The reader builds forward momentum as pieces of the work are effortlessly linked together and the de-encryption becomes a bread crumb trail leading toward revelation.

Piquefully wrencht at My gate=key hand : !) / (Whereupon W, (half awakened & puzzld) : ››Silly dolly !‹‹. (P, actually a passable thorobred=literatus), made more=notes in His allen : ….) / (And Fr came sprinting back)

If you are not used to the experimental in literature, that quote must seem at least a little insane.  But I encourage you to remain calm and take in the whole of what you are seeing.  This is literature almost decoupled from a temporal constraint.  The multiple, seemingly redundant and “incorrect” uses of punctuation are options given to you.  The misspelled words and phrases coupled with = are themselves deconstructions of the very languages being used to relay the ideas.  This is text as it is being formed in the author’s mind, and as it is being reformed in the reader’s mind.  On the one hand, we are presented with the writing and the rewriting, as deliberate choices are made and reconsidered in real time.  On the other, we are watching the diagraming of the text on the page, complete with concrete and abstract notes that trail off into infinity.  It is the literal manifestation of the cycle of subjectivity in literature.

Amidst all of this individualistic wordplay, there is something tangible going on.  The novel, to put it simply, has a plot.  An aging writer meets with married translators to discuss the translation of the writing and themes of Edgar Allan Poe.  In that discussion, ideas of existentialism, sexuality, and raw sensation are all at the forefront, as anyone familiar with Poe’s work might expect.  There is a palpable and uncomfortable sexual tension between Daniel, the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, and Franziska, the sixteen year old daughter of the translators.  Questions of perspective and privacy, ideology and boundaries, lace every interaction and line of dialogue.  In the end, Bottom’s Dream can easily be seen as a mammoth meta-commentary on the acts of writing and reading, of probing into the most guarded moments of characters, or of shouldering the responsibility of constructing lives to be lived on the page.  Arrogance and sexism rear their ugly heads again and again, particularly in some of Daniel’s words, but the novel is not concerned with portraying any of its characters as wholly innocent or wholly noble or wholly despicable.  They are like the text that they exist in, sitting in a kind of quantum superposition, dependent on observation for any kind of reality.

›In a similar frame of mind was jacopone of Todi; when, enraptured by those tongues of fire and penetrated by rays of divine light in its fullness, he wanted about as if out of his senses; now singing; now weeping; from time to time venting his emotions in sighs.

When more traditionally leaning prose asserts itself, such as in the above quote, the text makes use of its momentary (and illusory) stability to be very clear in its portrayal of ambiguity.  And yet it is an ambiguity that should feel familiar to anyone who reads anything with even a modicum of complexity.  Is it all that strange that someone might feel the need to sing and weep? To expel emotion?  Is it really a contradiction that divine fire and light, while empowering, also engender madness?  Do the venting sighs at the end of the quote need to be either relief or resignation, or can they be both?  Bottom’s Dream never tells the reader how to feel about any of its meticulous jumble of language or its uncomfortable situations or any of its fourteen hundred pages.  It really doesn’t even ask the questions in a direct way.  It prefers to present the reader with an endless assortment of moments in which you feel compelled to ask.

One of the many questions to be asked is why the novel uses side columns throughout its length.  These columns appear on either side of the text and sometimes their boundaries are momentarily ignored or utilized in an unconventional way.  And far from being explanatory or supplementary, these columns include more of the same text, neither independent nor dependent from the main body.  It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I realized that, when reading in the traditional Western left to right fashion, Bottom’s Dream opens and closes with text in these columns.  Its very first and very last words, excluding titles and epigraphs, are:

: ›Anna Mooh=Mooh!‹ –

and

(: No wheel to my wagon. Still I’m rowling along.)

Given the novel’s use of language, character, and structure’s thus far, it is easy to assume that the columns are providing yet more space for contribution and interpretation.  They allow Schmidt to include thoughts that hover around and weave through the main story, providing commentary and tangents at the same time.  There is something curiously Joyce-esque in this technique, but its use here is far too unique to be labeled as merely imitative.  For me, the use of columns is a tangible reminder that there is never one voice or thought process dominating Bottom’s Dream.  Like looking at a stone pillar or edifice with inscription on multiple sides, reading the text gives the feeling that it can be rotated to present entirely new information that has only been hinted at previously.  The novel is an amalgam of history in literature, with layers etched on top of and around one another, bursting at the seams and, as the earlier quote suggests, venting the pressure of its emotions.  In a strange and poetic sense, the presence of the columns and the sheer size of the novel make it feel like a physical edifice of alien design.  Even when translated, the text emanates the presence of disturbed geniuses of the past, including Joyce, Poe, and Schmidt himself.

The novel gets its title from a quote from another literary titan; specifically, William Shakespeare and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The beginning of the quote is actually used as something of an epigraph at the start of the novel, but the epigraph ends before the title’s reference can be included.  The remainder of the quote reads “I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom;…”.  I do not know why Schmidt left this part of the quote off of his epigraph.  Perhaps he felt that to finish it would reveal too much or be too unsubtle a reference.  But I find it incredibly apt now.  On several levels, this novel feels like it has no bottom.  There is no concrete surface on which to land and situate one’s self.  This is not a work that will leave you with closure or a tightly wrapped gift of understanding.  It is a dream, the meaning of which will never retain stability for any length of time.  It is unwieldy and unconsciously aggressive, filling empty spaces with its own shifting, distorting mass like a tidal wave.  I encourage you to approach this novel only if you enjoy the swarming possibilities of language and have the patience to let the rip tide pull beyond your comfort zone.

 

Bottom’s Dream is available now through Dalkey Archive Press.

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.

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