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John Venegas

Book Review

Belladonna

by on September 28, 2017

Novel by Dasa Drndic
Translation by Celia Hawkesworth
Review by John Venegas

 

It is seductively easy to view humanity’s forward trek in time as story of progress. We look at the history of our species and construct narratives that make us feel good about ourselves, about our lot in life and the cost to get us there. By “we”, of course, I mean those of us in positions of privilege – those of us standing on the ashes of others. We pick and choose elements from stories of history that were already curated for the purpose of comfort, further rendering the delicious fat into something we can use to make everything else more palatable. But, worse than this, we violently reject anything that might disrupt our gluttonous meal, aggressively dismissing the bitter taste at best, even destroying the nuisance if we become sufficiently afraid.

As a person of privilege, I found Belladonna hard to swallow. It is a novel by Croatian author Dasa Drndic and it tells the story of Andreas Ban, a psychologist and author who seeks, above all else, escape. More than that, Belladonna is a withering, merciless examination of humanity’s existential relationship with history, one in which the burnt and bleeding remains of the victims are lain at our feet. Andreas, the novel’s protagonist, is a man dealing with partial dislocation – not a result of his circumstances but a thing of his own doing. Through his work, he has come to see the side of humanity that most of us like to pretend is not there or is only present in “bad” people, and he seeks comfort in the past. This fails, of course, because his eye, having been opened, cannot completely shut again.

That outer landscape, for Andreas a falsely real landscape, has sucked up, demolished, devoured his internal world,

This novel is not difficult because of its language, its structure, or its tone. As a matter of fact, all three of these facets, and several more besides, are incredibly beautiful. No, Belladonna is one of those rare novels that is truly demanding. The story is presented in such a way that it pulls you back to vigilance. The text is awash with details and minutia that, on a surface level, add an intense vividness to the immersion, but which also grab your chin and hold your gaze. It is a constant reminder that you are too easily distracted, that you cannot pretend your way to innocence, and that ignorance is no excuse. Moreover, the novel makes you aware that there are, and always will be, things that you do not know. There is always more information to discover, another perspective yet unaccounted for. The delivery of Andreas’ story and the stories that he sifts through are delivered in pieces, in fragments, all rich in detail but by their very existence and definition incomplete. The effect of reading this is dramatically potent, a reminder that the seeking of truth is an obligation without end.

Those others, those who had and still have a single-track life and a present without creases, arranged in drawers stupidly named “life”, in which there are neither wars nor displacements, in which weddings are all alike, just as funerals are, in which in fact there is no life, those people could not invite because they floated in their safe hatars where the lawns are soft and one’s steps springy, while he had fallen out of frame, hanging and swaying from a rusty hook and creating disorder. What would they talk about? What would they touch upon?

The flow of Belladonna is something in which you will lose yourself. Much of the novel is straightforward, matter of fact delivery that is trusting enough of its reader to infer the commentary being delivered in the description of events. But all the while this style builds in subtle intensity until the text can no longer stand the pressure and releases in amazing climaxes in which Drndic waxes poetic and unleashes sensations of long, elegant sentences that appeal to anyone with a taste for language. Further still, Drndic is beholden to no one in the path she takes to tell this story. The text does not care if you are impatient. In yet another beautiful echo of the novel’s message, the text will drag out the care and concern from you, if there is any to truly give. Belladonna is not a book for those of us with short attention spans or the inability to invest beyond a superficial level. This flow and style feel very important to the novel on multiple levels. First, they seem to be the one (perhaps unintentional) concession the text makes to the difficulty of its subject matter. There is an argument to be made that an uncomfortable truth finds better purchase when beautifully delivered. Second, they feel inherently respectful to the voices they help advocate for. Belladonna interrupts its prose in multiple instances to deliver extensive lists of the murdered, letters between characters, and pictures that provide yet more of the fragments of those that we have tried to forget. The care that was put into the construction of Belladonna is as much a tribute as any other memorial.

I do not speak Croatian, but given the masterclass in English on display, special acknowledgement should be given to Celia Hawkesworth, who has translated works from Drndic before. My understanding is that Drndic has an expert grasp of English and English literature, so to me it says something significant that Hawkesworth was asked to translate this work. The end product is a joy to read and seems to sacrifice none of Drndic’s characteristic visceral empathy.

It would be hard to find a novel more topically relevant today than Belladonna. We are surrounded by and tied to a rising tide of sexist, racist, fascist nationalism, whether we call the United States, Britain, Myanmar, or Palestine home. In an interview with the Paris Review, Drndic says that “Art cannot change the world, but it can change us. Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become. In this domain, the so-called intellectuals have enormously failed—by being silent, by committing treason,”. Belladonna is call to action, a blaring alarm to those of us who have been patting ourselves on the back because we supposedly dealt with the problem, to those of us who lie to ourselves and blame a few bad apples. It is the kind of novel that finds itself unfortunately essential, and brilliantly unquiet.

 

Belladonna will be available in October, thanks to New Directions.

Book Review

Tertulia

by on August 22, 2017

Chapbook by Seth Pennington
Review by John Venegas

Let’s get something sorted out before we get started: you are a mind, a soul if you want, spinning in circles on the skin of a planet that is spinning in circles in the grip of a star that is spinning in circles with a horde of its siblings that are moving inconceivably fast through the universe. Does that give you vertigo? Lovecraftian dread? Can you imagine that mind, your mind, being pulled along by an impossibly circuitous current, given the flickering light of consciousness to try and amass some semblance of a personal picture of everything? We all deal with this, one way or another. Some accept it. Some are fascinated, terrified, or confused, or some combination of the three. Some stick their head in the stand and wait for it to end. I didn’t imagine that I would find a beautiful, touching, and measured response to these ideas in a tiny little chapbook. But, thanks to Seth Pennington, I am very much enjoying being proven wrong.

To be clear, the poetry chapbook Tertulia is no heady science fiction romp. It is a text that embeds itself in the deeply, often uncomfortably personal. It spends little time staring up at the stars, dreaming, instead wading into a river of sensation and emotion that it is not entirely sure it will be able to emerge from. Tertulia looks at the microcosms, the reflections of the impossible vastness that can be found within the people that we love, the people that we hate, and the people to which we never give any thought. When you hear writers talk about getting into the flow, it is usually in reference to some flood of genius that compels them to write. Such an idea is romanticized and dramatized to no end, but here, in my opinion, is evidence of the real thing – an experience of flow for the intense, frightening thing it can be.

a new leg and terror at living with death
having been so certain, more certain than
any other day’s death you had

known. The blue on your lawn, it’s lying
so light the green is showing through,
as if color could be purer

This is fascinating use of spacing and structure, in a way that, intentional or not, encapsulates the experience and potential of writing poetry. For me, the power of the stanza break is critical. The pause, the holding of breath, feels as though the speaker is hesitating, waiting for something. When combined with the subjects under discussion, it is as if the speaker is afraid after having invoked death while simultaneously dealing with an array of color that feels unnatural. The speaker is giving us glimpses, moments in time and space that can only be conveyed through words. The chapbook is full of moments like this, where not an ounce of space is wasted and the fat is trimmed away. The speaker seems to be giving us only what is most important in the moment, be it the smell of sweat or the sight of aging pendulous breasts or the taste of dirt and forgotten lovers. It is precise poetry that knows how to hide its seams.

With the word choice and structure being so specific, it is little wonder that the language works exceedingly well. I found myself feeling genuinely guilty as I read, because there were several moments where the quality of the word play had me grinning like an idiot or marveling at the taste in my mouth, only to realize or remember that the thing being described was tragic or solemn. It’s like seeing a beautiful person at a funeral and forgetting where you are for a long moment.

Your family finds you bent over beyond your
breasts, the silver hair of your lip wet with
effort, with violent prayerfuls of sweat. And finally
when you move to speak, only dirt can
all from your mouth –
your wanting to taste him.

My choices of excerpts aside, there is far more than only lament. A tertulia is a gathering, often of artists, for the purposes of discussion and, while I cannot be certain that the title was chose for this reason, it is at least quite the coincidence that we see a wide array of passions on display. Lovers thirst and reassure. Families reminisce and bicker. Friends are born and multiply. As the current drags you, the reader, further and further out in the water and feeds you glimpses of lives, of moments, you can see the pattern, the echoes of answers to those questions of mortality and time and legacy and impermanence. This little chapbook does what often takes the whole of novels and compendiums, touching that deepest spark in all of us and reminding us to open out eyes and see.

 

Tertulia is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.

Book Review

These Possible Lives

by on August 10, 2017

Essays by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
Review by John Venegas

I imagine that most of us are worried, on some level, how we will be remembered. A lot of that is the standard issue fear of mortality that helps keep us alive. Some of it is philosophical and existential, the kind of question that you only arrive at when you get some hint of the scale of what is around you. Will your life fit into a book? How about sixty pages? How about ten? I hold no pretense that I will be deserving of such a thing, but I can’t lie: I now want Fleur Jaeggy to write of me when I am dead. Her short essay collection, These Possible Lives, explores the lives, deaths, and worlds of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. At less than sixty pages that are maybe three and a half by five inches, this was the kind of book that, as a reviewer, I immediately assume I will have to pair with something else to write a review of decent length. I enjoy being wrong. Jaeggy’s minimalist style and ethereal technique crafted such depth that I feel like I have stepped into an ocean of time.

On the most basic level, These Possible Lives is an examination of the personalities of writers and the toll the art can take. The essays render the lives of the ahead-of-his-time De Quincey, the vibrant Keats, and melancholic Schwob into impressionistic paintings. They standard historical fare – the circumstances of births, marriages, addictions, and deaths – but with such precisely wrought language that you could be forgiven for wondering whether or not you’d strayed far from the history itself. There is a whimsy here, not driven by lack of curiosity or impulsiveness, but by the currents of time. We can only experience fragments of the lives on display, through our mutual connection to the zeitgeist, so we are compelled to fill the unoccupied sections with our own perspectives. Jaeggy is our guide through this process, eloquently and elegantly rendering the fragments in such a way the authors of which she speaks can only be human. Jaeggy becomes a ghost of literature’s past, to borrow from Dickens, showing us only what we need to see.

This process starts with the trimming of the fat. Think about what Jaeggy is trying to do. She is encompassing the lives of three authors in less than sixty pages, in a manner that is both true to history and artistically creative. Most of us would consider such a thing impossible, and rightly so, because most of us can’t do it, or do it well. The trick, it seems, is in parsing out what it is that truly matters, not just in a text, but in a life. This is carving a statue out from within another statue, with the end result being more meaningful and engrossing than the original.

It would be necessary to reassure him of the identity of objects in the room. At times he discerned the ‘footprints of angels’ and would address himself to the deceased.

A simple, beautifully efficient way to reminisce about a touched mind. There is no wasted space, no hyperbole to lionize or demonize how De Quincey’s mind worked. And yet it is like a match to the kindling in our imaginations, leaving us to see what we will, be it actual angels in conversation with a poet or a slow, burgeoning freedom from sanity. And every possibility between.

His face colored slightly, turning into a mask of gold. His eyes stayed open imperiously. No one could close his eyelids. The room smoked of grief.

Here we are presented with the death mask of Marcel Schwob, one of the most influential and (here in the United States) criminally under-recognized writers of the late nineteenth century. Assuming that a piece of literature exists in conversation with itself, what does the quote above have to say to Dickinson’s depictions of death? Or Shelley’s fallen pharaoh? Jaeggy has painted Schwob as a man whose resolve could not be broken in the end, who passed in a manner that kings of old could only emulate at great expense.

But the text, for all its hidden depth and intensity, does not pretend to be above a soul of wit and charm. There are moments of quiet levity and delicious word play, especially when the text is fleshing out the world these artists lived in. Henry Fuseli is described as having eaten “raw meat in order to obtain splendid dreams”. Wordsworth is described as using a “buttery knife to cut the pages of a first-edition Burke”. It comes across as an acknowledgment that, for all our seriousness and for all the dramatic consequences of our actions, the lives of writers are strange and, at times, nonsensical. We are a weird folk, neither the demi-gods that history would make of us nor the vagrants our cultures often accuse us of being, but shamans with our fungi and tin-foil hats, never quite sure to whom we are speaking.

A special note must be made for the other major voice at play here: translator Minna Zallman Proctor. I do not speak Italian, but what has been presented here in English is nothing short of truly beautiful, and Parker’s work is no small part of that. I can only imagine the difficulty of translating something that so acutely focuses on brevity and efficiency. To pour over the proper word choice, to capture the essence of something so precise – it is awe-inspiring, a worthy tribute to the original text and its author simply by existing as it does.

In case you cannot tell, I highly recommend this book. I have soft spots for the most efficient uses of language (even if I don’t even come close to managing it myself) and deceptively deep work that challenges our assumptions of fact and fiction, and I struggle to think of a better example of either than These Possible Lives.

 

These Possible Lives is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

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.

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