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John Venegas

Book Review

Standing on Earth

by on June 15, 2017

Standing on Earth, by Mohsen Emadi

Translated by Lyn Coffin

 

What does it mean to be “grounded”? Some of us take it as a powerful compliment, a suggestion that we or our works of art possess some kind of immersive quality that is more objective concerning physical reality. Some of us take it as an imprisoning insult, a thing that wraps python-thick chains around the creativity of the soul and binds it to the immobility of a single form. In both perspectives, there is an assumption of choice, an agency that is taken for granted and given credit and blame, and there is an inherent binaric other, either a flighty lack of seriousness or a drowning unimaginativeness. Those binary qualities are no coincidences – they are born in cultures that define themselves in opposition, that treat fluid identities as unquantifiable at best and threateningly alien at worst. What does “grounded” mean to an immigrant? To a refugee? To an exile? To someone who can see the myriad differences and the far from coincidental similarities between two patches of earth?

I was at Universal Studios, sitting at a table in a food court, waiting for the Waterworld show to begin. I was bored and hot, but not enough that I was going to spend four dollars on a bottle of water. I reached into my bag to pull out my phone and check my lack of messages for the third time, when I grabbed something I hadn’t expected. A small poetry collection translated by Lyn Coffin. Mohsen Emadi’s Standing on Earth, as it so happens, but I’m sure you knew that by now. Being the good little Western half-breed that I am, I had no idea who Mohsen Emadi was. I opened to the first page.

I was there.
An unborn child
playful among guns.
The sun rises
and I carry your death,
womb by womb.

That is how the book starts. There is enough in those six lines that I could spend the rest of the review unpacking them and still have enough for an essay afterward. But in the interest of keeping this readable, I will instead pose another question: are those six lines grounded? If you will excuse my forwardness, the answers are yes, and no, if we are using the binaries. We have a speaker, recalling a life before a life, living amongst weapons, bathing in the sun’s radiance, and heralding the night we all fear. These are six lines that play with time and space and identity and yet somehow are fundamentally relatable, to a genuinely horrifying degree.

There is no better flavor sampler for Standing on Earth. We are treated to beauty and terror, the inversion of assumed stability, and a questioning of that which we hold in the depths of our hearts as inviolate and fundamental. As you move from poem to poem, there is a sensation that Emadi has been forced (which is not to say he is unwilling) to witness a multiverse of realities and that this collection is something akin to an attempt to layer them over one another. It begs questions that can only germinate in minds aware that existence stretches beyond the sensible.

Structurally, the poems are rarely given standalone titles, as if actively resisting definition, and there is a sense of almost constant motion from poem to poem. I say “almost” because there are a few titles and few definite changes in style that arrive rather suddenly, as if the speaker(s) did not expect them and are trying on new identities. While much of the poem has a fairly simple layout in terms of alignment and spacing, there is a moment of fascinating derivation. The poem “my skull…” indents on a whim and repeatedly, and it is the only work in the collection to do so. It felt like a twitch, like a spasm, as if even a basic and otherwise conformity becomes unpalatable. It is a powerful reminder of everything going on beneath the surface, of the pressure building below even the already evident venting within the language.

My skull’s
a cup of wine
and a Chinese painter
painted
on the edge
a herd
of
horses
racing
inebriated.

Given the sheer scale of perspectives that Emadi is trying to amalgamate, it is little surprise that the topics covered are multitudinous as well. Everything from general relativity to colonialism to narcotics to grammar is covered with at least the kind of gaze you reserve for the person who has caught your eye through the bus window and made you to wonder at the depth of their life. But some topics, noticeably time, space, and love, repeatedly return to center stage, not so much out of a direct effort to focalize them, but rather in the vein of a nervous tick – incessant internal questioning from the minds of the speaker(s), a heady cocktail of self-doubt and adrenaline that compels flight and fight. They are covered beautifully and nervously and passionately, spared no distraction in their not always pleasant detail.

As something of a side note, I do not speak Persian by any stretch, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Lyn Coffin’s translations, but I am still incredibly impressed by them. To translate any work is to rewrite it, not only in the direct terms of language to language but in the sense of finding a common ground between two thought-processes that can capture the essence of the original. To put it simply, Lyn Coffin’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency, because Mohsen Emadi’s words are beautiful and brimming with potency. While I have no doubt that actually knowing Persian and reading the original poems would enhance the experience that is Standing on Earth, I have no small admiration and appreciation for this version.

My favorite line in the whole collection is “Meaning is utopian.” Not only does it capture the entirety of the collection in the way the first six lines do, but the multi-faceted power on display in three words is the kind of genius that most of us can only aspire to. Utopia, or perfection, is a goal that must always be pursued but never attained. It can’t actually be attained, because perfection is impossible, but even if it were, it would represent true and total stagnation, an end of all possibility and potential. And yet we must seek it out, because the search for it is the effort to better ourselves, to build upon what has come before and allow our descendants to do the same. Meaning is the same; it is impossible to achieve by its very definition, and yet the search for it encapsulates the whole of the human experience. That struggle reveals everything about us. In an age where we are coerced into thinking all else as “other”, an age where the defining battles are between “us” and “them”, an age where we all think ourselves as living in Winthrop’s city on a hill, we need more books like Standing on Earth. We need more reminders that we are all standing here, grounded, on our little patch of earth.

 

Standing on Earth is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Forbidden Fruit

by on May 26, 2017

Forbidden Fruit, by Stanley Gazemba

 

When most people talk about immersion today, they refer to it as an element of a visual medium. This makes some degree of sense, given how visual our species is. Technology has allowed us to create images of unprecedented creativity and realism. In literature, however, immersion is often only discussed in genres of fiction that are expected to engage in no small amount of world building – science fiction and fantasy, usually. This is a shame, really, because no work of fiction should take for granted that its readers will, by default, be fully engaged with the text. There is an onus on the author to respect that, in order to build a world, even one meant to acutely mirror our own, the world and its inhabitants must truly feel alive. Rarely do we encounter a better example of this than Stanley Gazemba’s Forbidden Fruit, a novel about a community in Kenya, a novel that embodies the earth itself and our experience of it.

One of the first things you will realize about Forbidden Fruit is that it is among the least pretentious novels you will have ever read. This is not meant as a slight against what some might erroneously consider loftier fiction – rather, it is meant to convey that Gazemba’s novel is the epitome of “down to earth”. It deals with the human condition, not in some overtly existential or cosmological sense, but by showing the daily lives of a community that must work directly for its subsistence and which engages with the very real stressors drawing it in every conceivable direction. The text is immediately and powerfully relatable to anyone who has had to really work for a living, not only in the trials and rewards of such a life but especially with regards to what effect this has on human relationships. This is the real meat of the novel’s perspective on the human condition. It embraces the idea that we are inherently social creatures (regardless of our level of introversion) and explores the concept that our lives are a struggle between the desires of the self and the bonds of community. To be sure, the novel does not suggest that the two things are always or inherently opposed, but as separate entities they can and will inevitably find moments of opposition.

The examples of this are plentiful: a poor and loyal husband and father presented with the opportunity for an affair with a beautiful and wealthy woman; a mother and wife dealing with the inherent and unfair instability of a patriarchal culture; a boy forced to deal with the harsher realities of the adult world; a woman who married out of an earnest and intense love realizing that she is no longer the object of her husband’s focus; a sloppy bachelor with aspirations of true romantic connections but a streak of independence and pride holding him back. Gazemba travels freely between these characters and more, not binding the story to any one mind but making sure that each is fleshed out and present to experience the consequences, good or bad, of life in this village. The very structure of the text reflects the relationship between the individual and the community, showing the former as very much a part of the latter, and the latter only defined by the collective of the former. It actually takes some getting used to if you are familiar with texts designed to be hyperfocused and constrained to the mind of a single protagonist. An argument can be made that Ombima is the central character of Forbidden Fruit, but the actions and thoughts of almost every other character are as impactful as his own.

If this tackling of the human condition can be thought of as immersion on a character level, then Forbidden Fruit has no shortage of immersion on a more traditional level. Quite simply, this is one of the more vivid and rich depictions of a setting for a novel that I have ever encountered. If you will forgive the Ameri-Anglo centrism I was educated in, I am reminded of Fenimore Cooper or Tolkein in the attention given to beautiful vistas, but without the moments of getting lost that can appear in works like Last of the Mohicans or Fellowship of the Ring. The feel of the wet mud, the smell of banana trees, even the impact of a hoe on earth too dry to till are all completely engrossing. This is no less true of what would be considered the more unpleasant sensations: the tearing of barbed wire on skin, the sound of gasping for air, the air inside a contentious hospital waiting room. Though polite about it, Gazemba is insistent that his reader be there, in the moment, with their senses occupied and their ability to avoid empathy compromised. The world in which the community and the individual live is no less a part of that relationship, equally shaped by and shaping its participants.

Forbidden Fruit is a truly quality novel that has, for all of its grounded nature, an inexhaustible wealth of ideas to address. Are you a Marxist looking for the class struggle? Present. Are you a Feminist looking for how woman resist the contradictions and subtler oppressions of patriarchy? Present. Are you a reader in the United States who is in need of greater exposure to literature from a different culture that feels both familiar and decidedly new? Present. Or are you looking for a novel that you can sit down with, read, and truly and totally experience? This is the book for you.

 

Forbidden Fruit will be available June 2017 through The Mantle, and is available now for pre-sale.

Book Review

Confetti-Ash

by on May 18, 2017

Confetti-Ash, Selected Poems of Salvador Novo

Translated by Anthony Seidman and David Shook

 

In 1581, Sir Philip Sydney completed the The Defence of Posey. It was a response to an argument from a Puritan minister who claimed that the arts, particularly poetry, were egregious affronts. In The Defence, Sydney makes several comparisons between the act of writing poetry and godliness, specifically referring to both as the act of “making”. He claimed that poetry was paying honor and homage to God himself, as it was a human imitation of the creation of the universe. To be fair, I do not agree with such a lofty juxtaposition, if for no other reason than I believe poetry can only come from the mortal, those bound for death. But I am reminded of Sydney’s impassioned argument as I read Confetti-Ash, an amazing collection of Salvador Novo’s poetry translated to English by Anthony Seidman and David Shook. As the reader moves through the text and steps into the mind of the collection’s many speakers, we are presented with an ensemble of the human experience, treated with the curiosity of an inspired, curious, powerful, and even hubristic being. The real divine comparison here is not to the god of the Abrahamic tradition, but to Prometheus, or perhaps more appropriately, Huehuecoyotl – beings with an intrinsic link to the human condition, and who can appreciate our multi-facetedness.

Confetti-Ash is a collection with an almost compulsive need to run the gamut of extreme emotion. This is, as one would expect, due in large part to the choices made by Seidman and Shook, and they deserve plenty of credit for including a truly quality selection of Novo’s work. But it is primarily a result of Novo’s brazen ethos. He was known for being unapologetically homosexual in a country with a conservative Catholic elite, and his determination is present in several poems.

Ha descendido el cielo / por los ferrocarriles de la lluvia / Contemplacion. Egoaltruismo. / Cristianismo. Narciso.

Heaven has descended / via the railroad of rain / Contemplation. Ego-altruism. / Christianity. Narcissus.

This is a voice unafraid of divine judgment and aware of the hypocrisies present in so many dogmas and their social implementations. But it is not critical for the sake of vengeance or the need to rebel. Rather, it is peaceful in the sense of doing what the speaker feels needs to be done, regardless of the consequences. This peace will constantly give way to passion, however, in both of what we would consider positive and negative emotions. Genuine anger and fear weave in and out of an embrace with an emphatic need for love.

Por la calle habia / en cartels rojos y en bocas asperas, / extranas palabras / que se grababan en mi cerebro como enigmas / y habia acciones y efectos / cuyo motivo me preocupaba indagar.

On the street there were / words on red posters, gruff voices / strange words that stuck in my brain, like riddles, / and there were acts and results, / whose motives made me worry about finding them out.

On the surface, a stanza like this seems to be ambiguous, to the point of reluctance. But such is the effect of Novo’s work that even the seemingly mundane is laced with emotion. The reader can feel the blur of images and sounds and their inherently visceral nature. The reader is confronted with the idea that a determination to not look away will not necessarily lead to clarity, that bravery in the face of fear will not inherently bring understanding or a peaceful resolution. In point of fact, there is an implicit suggestion that bravery appears only in the face of the fear of the unknown. And the riddles add an intellectual dimension to the fear and the courage, teasing us on an Oedipean level because we are perhaps all tragic protagonists who must know.

As Jorge Ortega and Anthony Seidman point out in their respective foreword and afterword, Salvador Novo is almost criminally underappreciated with regards to the upper echelons of Mexican poets. He is a writer that aggressively resists easy labeling and confinement, unafraid of explore everything from gender role reversal within a binary system to agonizing grief at the thought of losing a loved one. And yet there always remains an undercurrent of mischief and impetus, as if something beyond even Novo’s understanding compels him to move and cause no small amount of strife. The speakers of his poetry are spirits that revel in and dread the newness, the protean metamorphosis they engender. In this I am reminded of W.E.B. DuBois, Gloria Anzaldua, Prometheus, and the shaping of a new identity, where a Mexican must confront his Spanish, his Azteca, and his Mexicano, the duality that is in and of itself something entirely separate.

I highly recommend this book to all of our readers, especially those of you who, like me, are irrevocably and blessedly Mexican. But the truth is as the world is dragged kicking and screaming into multi-cultural self-awareness, we can also use the beautifully written and translated Confetti-Ash as a reminder that we are neither the origin of this expansion of the human mind nor its endpoint.

 

Confetti-Ash is available now through The Bitter Oleander Press.

Book Review

My country, tonight

by on May 9, 2017

My country, tonight by Josué Guébo

 

It is an artist’s privilege and curse to have the opportunity to render the horrific beautiful. Privilege because it is an opportunity to illuminate and to express even in the face of the soul-crushing, curse because it requires the artist to stare into an abyss that we can never be sure isn’t staring back. I am not referring to sugar-coating, the act of softening the physical and emotional impact of something truly painful. I am also not glorifying the terrible or suggesting that some abstract “goodness” is inherently present in the otherwise devastating. What I am saying is that artists can create and give voice to our living nightmares, and that such a thing can be truly beautiful. Case in point: My country, tonight, by Josué Guébo. This small collection of poetry, translated by Todd Fredson, is an exercise in brazen catharsis, a squaring of the shoulders to confront the pain and the rage and the wounds at the feet of exploitative oppressors. As Fredson points out in his eloquent introduction, Guébo’s home nation of Ivory Coast has been rocked with political instability and infighting, the most recent of which has resulted in two civil wars in less than fifteen years, and which stems largely from the gross callousness and cruelty of French colonization.

This is a background that should not be unfamiliar to the modern day children of colonized peoples or students of history. Guébo’s portrayal of violence and suffering and their resulting confusion and questions echo voices like those of Achebe and Marquez as he demands to know what the hell the point of all of it was. Where My country stands on its own powerful legs is in its fire and its drive.

Repeat your words / Bleeding with the fee / Of my refusal to bow / Pure refusal / Broth of refusal / Sap of refusal / Refusal / Thickens

This is the voice of someone who knows the names of the dead and the broken and whose resistance is coalescing before our very eyes. This is an identity taking shape, a concept and a thing made out of some original template but which has taken on the congealed elements of circumstance, like the blood of the fallen. That identity absorbs the impact of the “words” and the “fee”, embracing the disfiguration such things carry with them and allowing them to expedite the rebirth.

Using this passion, Guébo speaks with his own voice and with the voice of his people throughout the collection, making it near impossible to distinguish between the two. His poetry works on more layers than I can easily keep track of, equal parts call to action, funeral song, legal injunction, and existential narrative. It exists beyond a simple documentation of the injustices done to his people. Each page of poetry can be taken as its own separate poem or a continuation of the voice from the previous page. There is one speaker who is both an individual and a collective, which have vision over an entire nation and beyond, from the graveyards to bombed-out cities to empty homes to the whole of the continent.

Now what is it / Twin / My voice / From one side of the ocean to the other / What is it / Magma in the hustle of bankrupt laughter

Every poem is charged like this, fueled by the “magma” behind the “laughter”. Reading this page after page is a draining, intense, unsettling experience that demands further attention. And that is in no small part due to the beauty of the language on display. To put it simply, Guébo has an elegant grasp of language and a clear desire to wield it. In the original French (which itself is heavily influenced by the local native language of Ivory Coast), the words flow as if written for melody, singing with sarcasm and a need for action. Fredson’s translation into English does the original plenty of justice, allowing the reader to experience a kind of harmonized duet where Guébo commands the lead.

Tout ce que le pollen / Des hasards convenus / Porte à sa serre / Tout

The last particular note I’d like to make is one that I have brought up many times in the past – the power of a good title. Like the poetry behind it, the title of My country, tonight works on more levels than are easily kept track of. Is the speaker of the title referring to imminent revolution, the taking back of a stolen homeland? Is the speaker worried about the tenuousness of his nation given the circling predators waiting to feed off of it? Is the title the opening of an address to a people, to the land itself, an address that seeks communion with a collective spirit that has long been ravaged? These are the gifts of great poetry, the marvelous ambiguity and the heady rush of perspective evolution. Guébo’s efforts here provide both in ample quantities while never getting distracted from his intent and message. It beautifully renders the horrific, letting us bask in the glow of its ravenous fire.

 

My country, tonight is available now through Action Books.

 

Book Review

Apocalypse All the Time

by on May 2, 2017

Apocalypse All The Time, by David S. Atkinson

 

“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

That’s probably because I have a copy of David S. Atkinson’s Apocalypse All The Time. If you will forgive the egregiously obvious quote, then I can explain. Apocalypse All The Time is an absurdist science fiction novel set in a future that is both ridiculous and alarmingly familiar. The protagonist, a man named Marshall, is living in an age where, as the title probably indicates, the world is repeatedly ending. Or almost ending. Catastrophes come and go like fashion trends, making the population collectively lose its mind again and again, only for the Apocalyptic Amelioration Agency to swoop in and save the day. Not a single chapter passes without an inconceivably dire threat rearing its devastating head, and yet we the reader, along with Marshall, stare somewhat bemused by the whole enterprise.

Apocalypse is a novel that wades out deep into the swollen river of post-apocalyptic fiction, plops itself down right in the middle, and demands that the river break around it. We see everything we might expect from this sub-genre, but presented in ways that are sardonically entertaining and cleverly utilized. The book borrows from literally every such tale I can think of, from the Book of Revelations to Cabin in the Woods to The Road, and, at its best, teases you with the threat of cliché before surprising you in a way that satisfies and relieves. The main way this is accomplished is through its protagonist, Marshall. He starts the novel about as boring as boring can get, resigned to his assembly line life with no ambition or even joy in what he does and a determined willingness to ignore the inconsistencies of his world that gnaw at him. The narration, though in third person, is in large part delivered from over Marshall’s shoulder and colored by his insisted upon apathy. This is juxtaposed with the fact that horrible catastrophes are happening all around him, and often to him directly. Floods, ice ages, volcanoes, giant lizards, and cosmic radiation seem to take turns threatening human existence, and while these cause understandable bouts of panic, Marshall’s passive ennui is both amusing and frustrating.

Great cracks would open and swallow up men without thought, without intention. Buildings would crumble. People would die. Continents would shift. Life would change forever.

Marshall yawned. He rubbed sleep from his eyes.

It is here that Apocalypse performs its most impressive feat. It teases you with the worry that its sequence of events might get too ridiculous, or that Marshall’s attitude might become grating, or one of several other pitfalls for this type of fiction is approaching. But the balancing act here is very impressive. The pacing and tone leave just enough urgency and suspense that, despite the otherwise sardonic approach, there is a very real sensation that something powerful and dangerous lurks around the bend.

Sure, people think they have thoughts. If they had time to finally focus on them and put them down somehow, that would surely be a wondrous thing. But, do they? Do they really? Is that what they would find when they finally try, or would they turn out to be empty, all that crowding in their brains apparently only having been the illusion of thought, perhaps merely a substitute for it?

So what then might be the point of delving into the story of this mundane man amidst the many ends of the world? In all honesty, the answer is whatever you might make of it. That is, of course, the case for any piece of art, but what I am specifically referring to here is that I don’t believe Atkinson is insisting upon a message or suggesting a meaning. This is surprisingly refreshing. Often this kind of fiction, even the kind that mocks its own sense of importance, can clearly be broken down into sections that push ideologies. Science fiction is inherently a commentary on the direction that human societies have taken and are taking. And in that sense, Atkinson is not attempting to be discrete with his depictions of mindless herd mentality or of blind faith in the preservation of the status quo. But the lens through which we witness these things comes from a flawed and, at times, frustrating protagonist. The value judgments he places on how people behave and how the social order is arranged don’t carry the insistence that we see in so many “heroes”.

Marshall backed away, as if the piles of humanity weren’t fornicating in all directions. It wasn’t really shocking, though it startled him at first. At least, it wasn’t any more shocking than any of the other times it happened.

In particular, the ending of the novel I find a fascinating anti-resolution, the kind that leaves you feeling satisfied in its challenging need for asymmetry. I won’t spoil it here, but the end is a surprise on multiple levels and I think even if you are looking for it, you will not predict the outcome. It is, in and of itself, a clever commentary on the whole endeavor, of surviving and of telling ourselves stories of survival. Apocalypse is a novel that has my mind routinely returning to, considering everything from the philosophical implications of a biblical flood to the physics of a man-made Ice Age. Given how in love our society seems to be with tales about the end of everything, I consider this mandatory reading for anyone taking hyperbole too seriously.

 

Apocalypse All the Time is available now through Literary Wanderlust.

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

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