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Book Review

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

Inside V

by on May 16, 2017

Inside V, by Paula Priamos

 

Death. Taxes. The onslaught of summer. With the turn of June, Los Angeles is assailed with super-heated layers of plasma-smog, anginaiac freeways, and Angelyne sightings. The rituals begin, paramount being the stuffing of beach bags with tubes of SPF 90 and first aid kits. Don’t forget to pack a couple of summer reads – you know, those paperbacks you can casually flip through in about the time it takes to get sun-blistered, but not feel totally ashamed about toting. Inside V, Paula Priamos’ first novel, is one such book. Its brisk pacing, hooky chapters, and Los Angeles setting make for a noirish wedge to stuff between beach towels and a damp bathing suit.

Inside V belongs to that most Los Angeles of genres, the detective thriller linked inextricably to the city itself. This genre, which I’ll refer to as Sunshine Noir, originated in Chandler’s hard-boiled classics, and goes strong today, as evidenced in Michael Connely’s architectonic potboilers and James’ Ellroy’s pugilistic historiographic meta-fiction, to say nothing of the endless film iterations (picture Jack Nicholson with a band-aid on his nose). What makes Inside V stand apart from its Sunshine Noir cousins, is Priamos’ gentle shunning of certain genre expectations. Not only is Priamos’ narrator, a former defense lawyer named Ava (or “V” to her dashing husband, Grant), not a detective, but Ava’s conflict is overwhelmingly internal – hence the title. To achieve this, Priamos dials back the physical violence inherent in Sunshine Noir and channels the strife internally, into a cognized landscape of deceit, mistrust, and manipulation. Not only does Inside V eschew genre norms by privileging interiority, but the book departs from the phallic gaze of these male-dominated thrillers by focalizing through a female protagonist. While Ava is certainly not the first female-narrator in Sunshine Noir, this is still a rare enough conceit to give the book a certain charm.

(Here I feel compelled to insert a slight disclaimer: in spite of the aforementioned genre about-faces, the ending of the book does, in some respects, retreat to norms. I won’t spoil anything, but apparently blood must be spilled, though here we can measure it in droplets instead of buckets.)

Inside V opens with Ava’s husband, the almost comically sexy Grant, being prosecuted for statutory rape. While Grant vehemently denies any indiscretion against the teen-aged Latina in question, he seems resigned to a prison sentence given mounting and damning evidence. Meanwhile, Ava wears a stoic smile to her husband’s court hearings, hoping her nightmare will soon end. From the start, Ava wavers about Grant’s culpability; while at first she wills herself to believe her husband’s innocence, soon the rape-victim’s testimony has Ava second-guessing. This pendulum between Grant’s guilt and innocence swings throughout the book, both for Ava and the reader, and this is where Inside V shines. Priamos masterfully balances a series of enigmas, parsing out information and characters like carefully laid breadcrumbs. Just when Ava feels certain about Grant, Priamos adds a new wrinkle. Sustaining mystery in this way carries with it the risk of twists and red herrings over-complicating the story to a comical degree; however, Priamos’ twists are embedded in small, almost mundane details – a forgotten wallet, a suspicious pharmacist. Rather than feel contrived, the shifting mystery acts instead to amplify Ava’s character as she devolves into a nearly unreliable narrator.

All of this takes place on a road trip of sorts in which Priamos revels in the most Los Angeles of locations, from Jerry’s Deli, to Trader Joe’s, to Monty’s Steak House, and to a Palm Springs resort that stands-in for any of a variety of the desert oasis’s mid-century modern hotels. (On a side-note: the book does leave Southern California for a minute, though it says a lot that this is the weakest section of the novel.) Road trips provide opportunities for deep thinking, and Ava goes deep, particularly into her past. This interior journey evokes powerful memories of envy, jealously, and betrayal that problematize relationships, and layers the book’s Sunshine Noir trappings in a gauze of reflection. Along the way, Ava takes stock of her life, assessing her flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes as a way of determining the ultimate mystery of the book, whether or not she should stay with Grant.

Taken as a whole, Inside V can be read both a mystery and a study of jealousy taken to its grim extremes. Yet, in spite of a hearty dose of dark themes, Inside V‘s brisk prose and day-tripping narrative avoid the typically nerve-wracking tension of its grimmer cousins. Instead, Priamos provides us with an appetizing slice of mystery and allure, a perfect palliative for a third degree sunburn. Better yet, by working against genre, Priamos has achieved the rarest feat of all: she has written a Sunshine Noir protagonist that is, against all odds, relatable.

 

Inside V is available now through Rare Bird Books.

 

Kirk Sever’s writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk’s work has earned him runner-up status in both the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Aware and the Northridge Fiction Award. He currently teaches writing at California State University at Northridge.

Book Review

The End of Pink

by on May 11, 2017

The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger

Review by Julia Landrum

 

Whether exploring P.T. Barnum’s FiJi Mermaid feeling like a “tease,” a woman trying to recover after giving birth, animal magnetism, Benjamin Franklin, the symbolical head, or phantasmagoria, the poems in The End of Pink are a fascinating play on science, the pursuit of it and pseudosciences, feminism, and emotion. Nuernberger writes with vocabulary specific to the topic she is writing about, such as psychology, to both fit the overall topic of the poem and stays on the reader’s mind long after the book has been read. She has serious moments in the poems that bring truth, sincerity, and real, human elements in a world of speakers based off surreal settings. For instance, in “The Symbolical Head (1883) As When Was the Last Time?” Nuernberger writes,

Let’s vivisect my brain and see
if it’s in there. You have your porcelain man
with the black-lined map of his loggings

and then ends the poem with “I miss you, you know, I miss you so”. Not only is there creative use of language and a mix of subject matter, but there is also a valuable core to this book. Many poems relate to women’s rights, specifically about consent and social norms around child birth. For instance, “P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid Exhibition As I was Not the Girl I think I was” discusses the idea of consent when the Fiji mermaid is thinking of talking to her lover and thinks, “I’ll ask him about the shock of this ‘tease’ and i’ll ask him who the honorable representative from Missouri raped and who the one from Indiana and if 1 in 5 women I pass on the street have been raped, how many in 5 of the men I pass on the street have raped and I’ll ask him if when I was naked and just wanted oral, did I have it coming and escape on pure luck?”. These lines in the prose poem speak volumes about consent and rape culture. The fact that they are coming from a “tease,” the faked mermaid, makes the poem even more interesting and highlights the importance of consent.

Whether the loss of a child or the body changes resulting from having a child, several poems revolve around this theme. In the poem “The End of Pink” the speaker states, “my nipples are brown now” as a result of having a child, the speaker then compares herself to a wounded mouse they try to let go in a field a hawk circles over. The poems reads,

We used tongs to straighten
the sideways spine trapped so
unaccountably wrong. The fat creature
limped himself into the grass
and further, the bird moved on

In the comparison of the speaker to the mouse, the speaker admits to feeling deformed in one way or another. Another possibility could be the speaker feels watched or socially obligated to do certain things. When the mouse gets away for a day, so does the speaker–but it is only one day. Obligations and healing are a rough cycle pulling at both the speaker and the mouse.The poem “Property Lines “ also talks about a woman’s experience with child bearing. Nuernberger writes, “We lived three springs on that field beside the pear trees where we buried the baby I miscarried at 16 weeks. She was so real and unreal I came to believe she was a breath now, running her fingers through the ironweed”. She uses nature imagery and writes an emotional narrative poem to discuss the harsh realities having a miscarriage can make one feel.

Overall, The End of Pink is a poetry book full of well-researched and interesting poems. It is well deserving of its James Laughlin Award. No matter what your area of interest, it is worth the read. There is something for everyone in this book whether it is the interesting subjects, the vocabulary, the style of storytelling, the way emotion is hinted at and then unhinged like a mousetrap, or the realities of motherhood and loss, this book has something all poets and readers of poetry can enjoy.

 

The End of Pink is available now through BOA Editions.

 

Julia Landrum is graduating from the University of Central Missouri with an English BA. She has been published in the Laurell Review and her school’s student literary magazine, Arcade. She has worked as an assistant editor for Pleiades: Literature in Context.

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

Popular Music and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

by on March 3, 2017

Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Review by Katharine Coldiron

 

 

 

In the middle of writing an ekphrastic novella based on an album I loved, I discovered to my surprise that music and literature don’t cross paths much. Bob Dylan is often viewed as a poet, and Yeats has been set to music by more than one artist, but still, it’s not often that the two media reflect on one another.

However, two small-press books of poetry from 2016 prove exceptions. Popular Musi
c
, by Kelly Schirmann (Black Ocean), and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone) both explicitly call on musical influences to work at their subjects. In Schirmann’s case, the subject is life as a Millennial woman; for Willis-Abdurraqib, it’s life (and death) as a young black man. Both books explore multiple modes of poetry (often veering into prose), and both books boast artistic confidence and maturity well beyond debut-book status.

Schirmann’s poetry sticks largely to narrative and vignettes, but she causes small details to loom large. Most of her poems are no longer than a page, and some are even shorter. The narrative flow gives the reader the sense of sliding in and out of different parts of Schirmann’s mind.

All my friends
are moving to Los Angeles
She’s a fascist, says the Goodwill clerk
& hands me a new book
Wanting to learn a thing or two
is a dangerous position to be in
Girls just wanna have fun
says the loudspeaker
& the people swing
their brightly colored arms

As interesting as her poetry is, the prose is possibly even more effective. Popular Music is divided into six sections, alternating between prose and poetry.  The prose segments each tell a single story almost as a fable, beginning with a memory and ending with a life lesson. That sounds tedious, but in practice it’s stunning. The prose also hits as hard as the poetry, if not harder, because Schirmann brings a poet’s sensibility to both rendering detail and making thematic connections.

Schirmann varies between real-life details and this kind of spare, unadorned analysis. She really shines, though, as her prose lifts into the lyric register toward the end of each prose section. “Music makes space for us, entire continents of space,” she proposes. “It provides us with new languages and images with which to describe it to one another, new emotional esthetics with which to interpret the experience of Living. It even provides us with a person to which we can outsource the interpretation of this experience. Out of this mouth, our feelings flow.”

This is definitely a point of view to which Willis-Abdurraqib would subscribe. His book is not explicitly about music, but musical artists of all kinds are name-dropped throughout it: Jay-Z, Taking Back Sunday, Nick Drake, Kanye, many more. One poem is named “At the House Party Where We Found Out Whitney Houston was Dead”:

We, the war generation.
The only way we know how to bury our dead
is with blood, or sweat, or sex
or anything pouring from wet skin
to signify we were here, and the wooden floor
of a basement belonging to an old house on Neil Avenue
makes as good a burial ground as any
says the small boom box now playing DJ
in the center of this room,
and the Whitney CD inside,
pouring out of the speakers just loudly enough
to let everyone in this room
get a small taste of Whitney alive and young,

Music is not the only thread that ties these poems together. The poetry takes multiple forms: narrative, visual, prose, couplets, and even sideways, the words running vertically from the bottom of the page to the top. However, the book is all of a piece. Partially this unity derives from a series of refrains: dispatches from a barbershop, memories of a shooting, a dead mother’s voice. The book also holds together via its recurring themes: violence, funerals, the urban environment, poetry itself, and, most importantly, blackness.

…And child, when you take skin swollen and damp from the river and the blood, and you throw it in the heat, everything pops. You gotta cover your eyes, baby. Hold them children close. My mama’s mama said that’s how God made the south. Said there was nothing but grass and then, one day, all this wet black skin. Said it popped so loud when they set them down in the blazing stomach of the new world, them plantation fields split clean open and then there was cotton. And then idle hands for the picking, and then war, and after that, we all woke up with our skin covered in hot grease, birds following us everywhere and so at least we was eating good.

Need I say more? Willis-Abdurraqib’s words speak for themselves more powerfully than anything I could say to recommend them. Read this book; live inside this poet’s skin. His is a poetic voice as strong and impactful as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, a mourning, shouting, singing vox populi.

 

Popular Music is available through Black Ocean Press.

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is available through Button Poetry.

Book Review

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black

by on February 28, 2017

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, by Patricia Lockwood

Review by T.M. Lawson

 

There are too many (or maybe not enough) words to state my worship of Patricia Lockwood. I forget if it was her infamous “Rape Joke”, or the lesser known but still as psychically-charged “He Marries the Stuffed Owl Exhibit At the Indiana Welcome Center”, that drew me into her orbit as some free-falling fan-cum-satellite, but Lockwood is a young immortal in the literary world. Her art of infusing social critique and commentary with divine poetics is evidence enough; her chapbook (Balloon Pop Outlaw Black released by Octopus Books, 2012) was followed up by Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual (Penguin, 2014). Her “sext” series on Twitter illustrates that she can take a medium and run away with it, provoking the internet with post-coital spasms (sometimes mistaken as a seizure).

Poetry is often argued as “dead” or “irrelevant” because of the changing of the guard; the clash of new and old generations arguing over how it should be used. In a way, they are right; poetry is dead—the old generation’s conception of poetry. Poetry is a phoenix. The Beat generation endured this transformation, the Confessionals suffered it, the Spoken Word poets ignored it (sometimes preferring to be separate)—and the same for the Lockwood-esque writers who reject convention while warping it to suit their means. Melissa Brody (So Sad Today and Last Sext), Kate Durbin (who claims that ‘they’ don’t pick Poet Laureates who use “cunt” in their poetry) and dozens of other emerging writers who blur the line of poetic form and sensibilities. It was the same for Romantics as it is for these Millennial writers: poetry is dead, long live poetry.

Patricia Lockwood could be seen as an anomaly in the literary world: no M.F.A., no elite connections, straight out of Kansas, completely organic in conception. In a way, I feel that this has given her an advantage over the M.F.A. graduates; not in measures of talent, but it is understandably difficult to create a heterogeneous writing population if most of these writers are graduating from the same universities and programs, taught by the same writers and professors, applying the same angles of theory with minor variations—literary inbreeding. In workshops, writers sometimes feel the pressure to conform and align the content to some “politically [literary-fashionable] correct” view, because in a way the workshop acts as a focus group, a miniature audience. Lockwood circumvented this and went straight for the jugular, a different sort of poetry: pop cultural, passionate, filthy, grotesque (Walt Whitman doing the nursing?), yet dry and critical at the same time. Highbrow meets lowbrow. This type of art resonates with the reasonably educated or at least hip reader.

I had the privilege of reading her second book before reading her first. Popeye is a surprising motif to decorate the cover, some freakish monster right out of an Adult Swim cartoon. In some ways, this book is the prequel to Fatherland Motherland Homelandsexual—pungent sexuality in that book has more in common with fisting than Wordsworth, while Balloon Pop Outlaw Black seems to have been corseted. This is Lockwood easing into poetics, not quite comfortable but on her way to challenging conventions. But everyone has to start somewhere, and it is interesting to map growth from her first book to her latest.

For example, she spends fifteen pages on deconstructing cartoon Popeye and the ideas that prop him up, “He has never worn a mustache, because he is not capable of growing a mustache. This is because he lacks both the letters M and W.” The poem is exactly Lockwoodian: prose stuffed into verse form, with a touch of irony and wit as she questions the everyday.

One of my favorite poems of hers in this book is “The Construction of a Forest for the Stage”:

…If a woman lives in the forest, we build
her a half-log cabin out of only the visible sides
of trees. She is self-sufficient; in her hand, the play
opens out like a hundred-blade jackknife, and
she cuts her name, and then all of us are watching …\

She plays upon the idea that not only are the characters and speaker watching, but we the readers as well. The whole poem is about performance, “construction” of identities and roles and social expectations. Then there is the equitable relationship the woman has with the forest, both as objects in the spotlight (the forest as backdrop, the woman as an actress). Lockwood’s poetry in this chapbook is surprisingly dense with detail, metaphor, and narrative that sometimes it feels like the page is choking with words. In other parts, the content becomes plain weird. Delightfully, isolatingly weird. (There’s a multi-page miniature epic reboot of Jonah; a boy on some sort of philosophical nautical adventure with a female whale, among other bizarre inventions.)

What sets it apart from other poetry collections is how much of a story Lockwood is portraying, really pushing prose poetry and the line between the two genres meet to its limit. Stylistically, more than half of the content is not traditional verse form, making this feel like a hybrid short story/poetry collection than any poetry that the regular reader might be more familiar with. After all of the conventional and traditional poetry I’ve read, even those that defy these stylings somehow repeat them; Lockwood’s gamble on prose-dominant styling works for her topsy-turvy message. The overwhelming depth of strange bedfellows she brings out (the dictionary salesmen whose “teeth are all / black gaps”, two halves of a horse speaking to each other, fathers and mothers of all varieties) creates a horrific symphony, the chorus being Lockwood’s deadpan wry observation of our natural (and unnatural) world.

A good instance of this is her frequent mention of forest as not just a subject and setting, but as a character, like a background character slowly being fleshed out into a supporting role. Another peculiarity is within the form of the poetry, particularly “Killed With an Apple Corer, She Asks What Does That Make Me”, which ends on a comma, leaving the entire piece hanging on the pause, experiencing the waiting. It brought to mind the old cellophane reels and a strip stilling, images slowly burning – that’s what her poem evoked. If you enjoyed her latest book Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals, you’ll adore this early look into Patricia Lockwood’s brain and the poetic tentacles testing out a sea of words.

 

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black is available through Octopus Books.

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

Sonata in K

by on February 22, 2017

Sonata in K by Karen An-Hwei Lee

 

Sonata in K is the debut novel by San Diego based poet Karen An-Hwei Lee. Naturally, much of Sonata in K feels exceedingly poetic at times – the prose majestic and ornate – but the real pleasure derived from reading Sonata in K comes from the inventive imagination behind this kaleidoscopic work.

Sonata in K is a finely crafted intellectual novel packed with lush and decadent language that brings the 20th century Czech writer back to life in tender detail. The prose possesses an elevated, intellectual quality to it that never wanders too far into abstraction and always dazzles. Lee also doesn’t shy away from a cornucopic use of language. Ever the polyglot, Lee incorporates German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Japanese (to recall just a few), that accrete to form a text that is rich in language, culture, and ideas.

However, the novel’s great successes are not only to be found within the ornate prose. Sonata in K is a living, breathing, ornament of self-consciousness, intertextuality, and playfulness that when combined with a simulacrum (or maybe not) of Kafka, becomes a wholly original literary enterprise. The playfulness of the novel is apparent from the preface, where the reader is told that “K is not K.” and that “Kafka-San is not Franz Kafka.” The reader only has to venture a few pages in before understanding that these declarations are nothing more than a playful ruse. Kafka-san is indeed Kafka, albeit reimagined, reincarnated, possibly holographic, or all of the above.

The novel follows a Nisei interpreter named “K,” who has been chosen to be a translator for the recently revived Kafka or “Kafka-san.” The story is set in modern day Los Angeles and takes place over the course of a few days, as the interpreter “K” escorts Kafka-san to and from a hotel to meetings with the very kafkaesque studio executives Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2. The meetings between Kafka-san and these men become more absurd as the frequency of the sessions increase. Kafka-san begins to find himself tangled in a web of bizarre script ideas involving a rhinoceros in love that the men allege the origins of to Kafka-san. In a subtle indictment of the entertainment industry at large, when talking about Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 Kafka-san remarks:

Couldn’t tell whether they were ingenious artists, con-artists, or hooligans.

As a playful allusion to Kafka’s harsh authoritarian father Hermann, Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 represent some of the biggest thematic ideas of Kafka’s works. They are a representation of the absurd and enigmatic bureaucracy of the entertainment world. These menschen also possess a vague and possibly illusory authority over Kafka-san, as it is hinted that they were the ones who brought Kafka-san back to life, and therefore have the power to send him “back into the ether.”

During his stay in Los Angeles, K and Kafka-san visit LA Live, Koreatown, and the Malibu coast – among other notable locales – making many gastronomical stops along the way. He marvels at the eradication of tuberculosis, the local hockey team, the apocalyptic levels of smog, underground aquifers, and pasteurized cream. The oft-jaundiced view of Los Angeles is satirized here to an extent, but by the end of the novel, despite the “shmutz of Angeleno air,” Kafka-san seems to be reinvigorated by the city:

Never felt it so keenly, not in the days of my youth, under the household tyranny of my father. Hermann. The original Mister Mann, yes. Yes. Never when I was flying kites as a university student, this shop-girl or that shop-girl… Now, I am weary with a maelstrom desire to live.

Sonata in K is also in constant conversation with the letters Kafka wrote during his life that were then published posthumously. There are allusions to these letters throughout the text, and most notably in the letters from Kafka-san to Max Brod that appear scattered throughout. Letter topics range from marveling over his 129th birthday, to the presence of thousands of bottles of mineral water at a cafe, to radishes not being radishes, and the knowledge that his sisters have since passed away. In particular, the astonishment over the thousands of bottles of mineral water alludes to a letter Kafka wrote while living out his final days in the Viennese sanatorium, where his tuberculosis gave him a “desire for good mineral water.” This sharp intertextuality is one of the many aspects of Sonata in K that makes it such an intellectually stimulating and pleasurable read for both the scholarly and casual Kafka enthusiast.

That said, one does not need to be wholly familiar with the late Czech writer to enjoy Lee’s remarkable debut novel. Sonata in K provides a banquet of elevated ideas and consciousness that should place it on many best of lists within the indie literary circuit. Through Sonata in K, Lee has given us a richly inventive text that will not only please fans of Kafka, but also the polyglot, the satirist, the poet, the stylist, and yes, the Angeleno foodie.

 

Sonata in K is now available via Ellipsis 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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