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Book Review

Sing the Song

by on February 8, 2017

Sing the Song, by Meredith Alling

Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy

 

Meredith Alling’s Sing the Song collects twenty-seven strange and muscular flash fictions. My second take on these stories was how well they are crafted, and how well they work, given their brevity. At the sentence level, there is not a single superfluous word. My first take on these stories, the read-for-pleasure, no note taking first impression, landed on the first sentence of each story. Most, if not all, are so very confident, brazen, even, that they are almost stories in and of themselves.  A few to consider:

“Some babies drink soda the second they are born.” (“Other Babies”)
“I was the only blonde at a redhead party.” (“Redhead Party”)
“Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions.” (“Ancient Ham”)
“The exam room is a mess and I feel right at home.” (“Treatment”)
“Catherine on a wormless morning, praying to God.” (“Hellsure”)

How could one not read on?

The pieces are unified not by any of the usual methods: overlapping characters, or place or even topic, but by approach. The language used in the telling is one tick away from the expected. Instead of going weird, the author veers askew, and manages all this with brevity and understatement. Each piece exhibits control and a preference for lean sentences. When there’s dialog, it’s truncated. This sort of tamped-down language is the perfect base for the oddities that follow. The stories teeter gently in different directions: the absurd, the fantastical, the sad. Then, there comes the sucker-punch.

“Small Man” opens, “A small man walked out from behind my uncle’s television once. He just walked out my uncle says, and then walked down the hall. No big deal.” Alling writes of curious and unlikely things situated in a world we think we know. The narrators talk the way we talk, and find their lives as confounding as we do ours.

“Small Man,” continues, “Sometimes when I tell the story about my uncle, people think it’s funny, but it’s not. It’s serious. Hello. My uncle was sitting right there in his brown corderoy recliner with a plate of potatoes.” The man has a regular house, regular wife, regular dinner. No hysterics. It’s just a thing that happened. Many of the stories are like this one—not a huge identifiable arc, but rather an offering. Here’s a thing that could happen to some random dude who only wants to chomp on his dinner already. Then when the wife comes home, of course she’s not so sure, but she goes along. What we’re left with is the sense of their relationship that you do what you do for love, and that feeling is so simple and honest, that it backs up the whole story.

There are no tricky verbal gymnastics here; it’s all very low-key, often colloquial, but I’m convinced that this is all part of Alling’s strategy. Instead of using overwrought or poetic language, she writes in brisk unfettered sentences, clipped and to the point. It’s just a little to the side, which allows the action of the stories to bloom.

In “Ancient Ham,” the most absurdist tale of the lot, a wise ham answers the questions of the populace. This is only after they gift him with sewing needles and a little poke.

Most questions are about health, wealth, or love. They must be yes or no questions. The Ancient Ham answers by bobbing left or right. Left is no, right is yes. When the ham answers, people scream. … The air around the Ancient Ham swells with sweet breath. This makes the Ancient ham teeter with delight. Get it real delighted, it will vibrate. The women clutch their hips, men flex their thighs.

Like “Small Man,” its point isn’t the fantastical things that happen, so much as the endpoint, here a revealing moment between a mother and daughter. “The girl looks up, lips glistening. ‘Aren’t you beautiful,’ the mother says. The Ancient Ham bobs right, right, right.” Both stories start with the absurd, spin outward, then land squarely on a moment of connection. This trajectory, from whimsy to the final emotional note, managed in only a few pages, is is evidence of the control with which Alling writes.

In “Sample Sale,” the passive, crabby, sleepless narrator is first in line to buy a designer bag. Alling takes what feels like a real-world, albeit hideous, situation, a queue at a warehouse sale, then drops in an out-of–place character and allows things to escalate. Aggression and jealousy reign, and soon enough, there’s a brawl. The narrator ends up on the ground, confessing to these rabid strangers that she cannot sleep, that she is afraid of burglars. But then the warehouse opens, and they’re off. “’You’d better move,’ said the woman fanning herself. She was gently kicking my waist with her loafer. ‘You don’t look like you’re going to make it.’” The misguided energy, the distracted half-compassion of the other ladies feels very realistic. As with a number of the other stories, people are in the same physical space bumping along with their own agendas.

Alling writes convincingly of characters who have no idea of themselves. Many want to connect, but don’t have the tools, as in “Whistle Baby,” where the narrator cannot, will not agree with the parents of a baby that their child is a living, breathing miracle simply because the baby sort-of whistle-spits. The beauty of this story is that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Alling nails the cool smugness of the parents, as seen in the letter the wife sends to the unimpressed narrator:

Sam,

We’ve tried to be good neighbors. Clover is a good baby, and a special baby we see now (and as suspected). A lot of people are interested and some TV shows too, but not you? Maybe we misunderstand, If you want to visit, please do.

Sam tries, really tries, but is only left to wonder, “I feel hot and tired and confused and alone and wonder if this is better, right now.” This last line is such a heartbreak, because we try so hard at times, but really have no way to judge if we’re humaning properly.

Flash fiction, when done right, as it is here, carries a wallop like no other. None of these stories felt like another, and yet the group feels cohesive. I suspect this is because while they start out with a shot, they all twist about, and each find their own emotional note, leaving the reader spent.

 

Sing the Song is available now through Future Tense Books.

 

Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and installation artist living on a houseboat in northern California. Prior to that, she spent a decade in voluntary exile in the high desert of New Mexico. Her writing can be found in Jabberwock, Harpur Palate, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, and others. She works for the literary reading series Why There Are Words and teaches experimental prose.

Book Review

Meet Me Here At Dawn

by on February 2, 2017

Meet Me Here At Dawn, by Sophie Klahr

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Book Review

Fish in Exile

by on January 25, 2017

Fish in Exile, Vi Khi Nao

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fish in Exile is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

The Braid

by on January 18, 2017

9781928650393The Braid, by Lauren Levin

Review by Raul Ruiz

 

You don’t know me, so what’s my opinion worth to you? What could I possibly do to qualify my belief that this new book, The Braid by Lauren Levin, is a spectacular, awe-inspiring project that will become an important book in the genre of the long poem? I am now going to stand on my head for an hour just to prove it to you. Faith, after all, is half the work of living.

It has been some time since I’ve encountered a book of poetry with such scope. Levin’s ability to form room enough for her poems to expand and meander while sustaining an incredibly singular tenor makes me want to touch the green sky. And though the book is enormous in content and in its aim to complicate structure (in other words, to claim it completely), I want to focus on the two aspects that I think are Levin’s greatest art: her attention to the liminal, and the necessities of motherhood writ large.

First, can I show you a tiny handful of this book’s light? From the first poem, “The Braid,”

Between myself and where everyone is
Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away between where my body stops and the world begins
It doesn’t have to be chronological, though she was born

If that’s the space, the braid weaves around a space impossible to fill
In that emptiness I watch time drift in her, accumulate, while elsewhere it doesn’t build up, it drifts and is sold

The first aspect I want to focus on is The Braid‘s function as a book about accumulation and refraction as a means to generate liminal regions. Levin is a master at creating spaces where opposite energies meet to form crowded empty forms, a perfect formal technique to denote the contemporary solitude among the frequencies of endless information abutting our lives. Here, Apollinaire’s poem “Mirabeau Bridge” (which begins, “Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away…”) crowds the space and time that a birth establishes to create an emptiness where time grows, where “a space impossible to fill” is born. This attention to liminality as foundational to loneliness sprouts blossoms of meaning throughout, so much so that I have often kissed the pages of this book, often in public, with eyes all starry.

The second aspect deals with what parenting actually necessitates. I am not a father, but I am not completely ill-equipped to discuss this, I don’t think, having been a first-row witness to the work of my own parents (is this going to get mushy? you must be asking yourself). Here, can I just go ahead and show you another bit from the book? This one from the poem titled, “I Want Our Minds to Be the Same,”

I keep reading Pasolini’s poem “Rage”
It’s about exiting a rose-shaped sphere of safety
and becoming public property
And because safety is intolerable but so is being property
because whether you are known or unknown is intolerable
the poem speaks truly to say that this condition is the author of rage

I dreamed that I asked my mom if she was annoyed with me
She said yes and that bugged me

Holy oxytocin! I want to focus our attention on Levin’s use of the word “property.” It is no accident, I think, that she uses the word in relation to Pasolini’s work. For what Levin is talking about when she talks about property isn’t a chip in the large schema of commerce and ownership (though these concepts are indeed enormous tectonic plates that push against the form), but more the age-old concept of each of us belonging to each. In exploring the work of motherhood, Levin inhabits a mode of writing that asks the reader to think about their own relationship to selflessness and selfishness, to how we make ourselves the “property” of others, of how we serve all others stuck in the puke of this our current world. Because just as the daughter in the poems, Alejandra, at some point says, “I want to grow a tree and chop it down,” so are all of us the agents of tremendous violence. And yet, we are loved nonetheless. There are endless fields that require tending to. The enormity of these poems makes room enough for us all to find our form of courage.

 

The Braid is available now through Krupskaya.

 

Raul Ruiz earned an MFA from San Francisco State University and has worked with writers at San Quentin State Prison. He is currently at work on his first book of poems.

Book Review

The Warren

by on January 12, 2017

9780765393159The Warren, by Brian Evenson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Warren is available now through Tor.com

Book Review

Baloney

by on January 10, 2017

9781552453391_cover1_rb_fullcoverBaloney by Maxime Raymond Bock

Translated by Pablo Strauss

 

Baloney is a new novella by emerging French-Canadian writer Maxime Raymond Bock, translated from the original French by Pablo Strauss. The book presents a fascinating character study of the utterly unremarkable but prolific fictional poet Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte, as he navigates various poetry circles and a vaguely imitative bohemian lifestyle. From the first opening lines of the book, we understand that we are being introduced not to a poet of great stature or prominence – but the exact opposite – a kind of faux-poet whose nickname within the East-Montreal poetry scene was “Baloney,” and whose complete poetry output was perceived as such. The unexceptional nature of Lacerte seemed to have been stamped on him upon his very birth, a day that saw “ninety-four other people” born in Quebec on November 18th, 1941. The novella begins thusly and like all masters of opening sentences, Bock has given us everything we need to know about our protagonist with beautiful restraint and an unmitigated frankness that colors the entirety of this wonderful entry from the Quebec literary scene.

The novella is narrated by a struggling – and much younger – poet, who meets Lacerte at a poetry reading. The narrator, who remains without a name throughout, has lost his knack for poetry and has traded in his creative faculties for the banality of family life and a career. After meeting Lacerte the narrator finds a strange degenerate company in him. He hopes that by merely being around Lacerte, he’ll be able to foster the creative spark he lost to the creative wasteland of family life. Upon going through Lacerte’s archive of writings however, the narrator soon discovers Lacerte’s writings to be “meagre pickings,” and “Just plain bad really: even as a failed fellow poet, I couldn’t find another way to slice it.” The narrator resigns to the fact that Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte was indeed, baloney. A fraud of the highest order. Regardless of this discovery, the narrator maintains a closeness to Lacerte until his final days, for reasons that remain unqualified and unknown even to the narrator.

Stylistically, the book often feels like a picaresque novel, as it chronicles Lacerte’s bohemian adventures. From running away from a lumber camp as a child, to a bizzare and derelict life in South America, to the East Montreal poetry scene, the novella is void of any true plot and replaced by the fractured events of Lacerte’s life. A lifelong poseur and true anti-hero, Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte rests on the periphery of the poetry world – and the actual world for that matter – never quite getting the recognition he desires, despite an extensive output that the narrator calls at one point, “typical hackneyed mad-genius writer shit.” Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte is the poster child of the deadbeat artist. A career faux-poet. Interestingly, Bock does well to not insert any sentimentality into our reading of Lacerte. If there is any empathy directed toward Lacerte, it is directed toward his utter disconnection from his family. A family where the closest member Yves – Lacerte’s brother – has been dead for fifteen years by the time the narrator meets Raymond. Otherwise, there is nothing but what the narrator calls a “morbid curiosity,” for a writer that spent all his life “borrowing, imitating, slipping through the cracks pretending, and pretending only to himself.” At its best, Baloney reveals the artifice of the poet lifestyle as some kind of game to be played, as something easily hacked, and evidently, a kind of con. Ultimately, Lacerte is a kind of has-been picaro figure: bumming and conning his way through life, while undergoing very little change, and possessing a cliche wanderlust that nearly gets him killed in South America. All of the cliche bohemian / “beat” traits abound within Robert “Baloney” Lacerte, to a degree that borders on the satirical. “Baloney” Lacerte is a “beat” but without the spiritual hunger and transcendence – without anything at all really.

The relative brevity of Baloney allows us just enough time with a character as unfortunate as Lacerte. It’s almost as if Bock cleverly did not deem Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte worthy of any more of the reader’s time. There was no room for elaborations or chapter long diversions. Bock felt like there was simply nothing more to be said, and that is perhaps the most powerful statement made here: Lacerte’s unremarkable life is easily chronicled within eighty-eight swift pages, and that’s that. Move along.

Baloney ultimately reveals the sometimes hyperbolic idealism and fetishism of the poet lifestyle as empty, via the con of Lacerte’s life as a “poet.” Baloney also nicely cements Maxime Raymond Bock’s position at the forefront of an exciting literary scene in Quebec, and thanks to Pablo Strauss’ surefire English translation, should put Bock on the literary radar of anglophone readers as well.

 

Baloney is now available via Coach House Books.

Book Review

Bottom’s Dream

by on January 5, 2017

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

Translated by John E. Woods

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

: ›Anna Mooh=Mooh!‹ –

and

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review

Flowers Among the Carrion

by on December 27, 2016

patecoverFlowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry, by James Pate

 

If you mention the word “Gothic” in many circles today, there is usually an automatic association with architecture such as those from European Catholic churches.  Some might think of a novel, such as Shelley’s Frankenstein or, adding a dose of the American South, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But Gothic poetry rarely receives recognition, usually finding itself subsumed into some larger movement and treated as little more than the result of a poet’s depressive moments.  This is nothing short of a shame.  Poetry is, by its very nature, a medium that allows the reader to engage with language on a primal, deeply intimate level and address the profound questions of reality in deceptively simple ways.  The Gothic (and that is to say the truly Gothic, with its inherent existential crises and its use of the sublime) is and should be right at home within poetry, given the freedom to express that which both seduces and terrifies us.  In his essay collection Flowers Among the Carrion, James Pate explores several beautiful, powerful examples of Gothic poetry and he argues for their relevance and value within the zeitgeist of today.

In this collection, Pate writes about the work of four Gothic poets: Sade Murphy, Johannes Goransson, Joyelle McSweeny, and Feng Sun Chen.  Right from the start, the breadth of perspective is both impressive and engaging.  This is not poetry coming from white English males, which is immediately refreshing.  One of the central thematic aspects of Gothic literature is its questioning of presumed human significance, and this questioning is experienced across gender, racial, and national lines, through the whole of the species.  What Pate does use more traditionally recognized Gothic writers for is to frame the discussion, either through the use of apt quotes or occasional comparison.  The effect is to unify the Gothic and show it as an evolving entity that has greatly benefited from the addition of new, previously unrecognized voices.  This in turn helps new readers engage by exposing heterogeneous literature that offers several layers of connection.

We want something – God, History, and Reason are the usual suspects – to mend the rupture, to fill in the gap.  We want the seamless whole.  But the Big Ideas don’t answer those basic questions anymore, no matter how many white-knuckled attempts are made.

This effort of increasing visibility is greatly helped by the quality of writing in the essays.  Though the collection is short, Pate takes his time dissecting what he finds significant and delivers his analysis in a way that does not condescend or dumb down.  He addresses existential questions and inversions of traditional symbols.  Most importantly, he respects the process of using truly beautiful language to represent the horrifying and the psychologically imposing.  Pate presents the reader with an accurate and concise historical framework in which to view these authors, and this efficiency is consistent throughout the essays.  He raises fascinating points but trusts the reader enough to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Many Romantics were influenced by Platonic thought, but this doesn’t take away their materialism – it simply complicates it, suggesting that materialism is never a given…

Of particular note in this collection is the manner in which Pate writes about it.  It combines the freedom of a thought-piece with the intellectual rigor of academic papers and strikes an appreciable balance between the two.  There isn’t a single citation of secondary sources throughout the book, and there isn’t the need for one.  Pate is interacting with the poetry on a personal level and relaying his subjective perspective.  At the same time, the reader is never given cause to question his experience and knowledge of Gothic poetry.  He focuses on vital phrases and diction choices and is at no loss for words when deconstructing them.  The result is something that feels comfortably informal and approachable, while passionate enough to be taken seriously.

When the Internet exploded onto the technological and socio-economic scenes, it was met with boundless optimism and a surety that promised its power to allow humanity to ascend.  This is poignantly similar to the ages of Reason and Enlightenment, where the new information swelled the breasts of intellectuals and showed seemingly infinite possibilities.  Gothic poetry serves the same purpose now that it did then.  It questions, not out of pessimism but out of a healthy skepticism that challenges movements that consider themselves unstoppable.  It is the manifestation of human doubt, of a primal understanding that, while we have come a considerable distance, we have a responsibility to check our egos against the vastness of existence.  Pate’s essays do a stellar job of helping us reconnect with this necessary experience, and of helping us to acknowledge and appreciate the beauty in the process itself.

 

Flowers Among the Carrion is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior

by on December 15, 2016

ebeidYou Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, by Carolina Ebeid

 

It is perhaps most difficult to see beauty when it lives in and around something horrid.  But the focus of vision does not preclude it from existing.  A pristine sky is unconcerned with tragedy and violence beneath it, and there is a strength in character, I think, in having the capacity to recognize both simultaneously.  That strength flows through You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, a poetry collection written by Carolina Ebeid, in abundance.  This book is a fundamentally intense and vivid exploration of the universe we exist in and distort for ourselves, and one that embraces the echoing dualities of our lives not as contradictions but as ends of cyclical spectrums.

The poetry of this collection is not beholden to any one style.  The traditional mixes with the experimental as if the words are trying on different outfits.  Some poems exist in the tightest, most suffocating confines, while others sprawl out and leave luxurious gaps between their limbs.  The deliberate control over spacing and line breaks is regularly impressive throughout the book and, as one would expect, this allows for endless reengagement.  The greatest risk in this situation for a poetry collection is that the poems may end up feeling disorganized and hastily slapped together to fill space.  But Ebeid’s work handles any potential worry along such lines by utilizing a powerful and consistent tonal and thematic undercurrent.  Almost every poem utilizes evocative natural imagery and the duality beauty and grief.  This experience grips the reader in an intensely emotional way, forcing us to feel everything.  This is not a drug meant to banish pain or a device meant to torture.  The poetry embraces life in its sublime extremities.

In order to accomplish these sensations, Ebeid juxtaposes the almost unnervingly intimate with the sensory overload of the vast.  The various speakers of the collection are skeptical mothers, witnesses and victims of carnage, hopeful dreamers, and more, not to mention amalgams of all different types.

When I fell in love, I spoke / as a child & and dressed as a child

I lifted a lavender / heart, not the form inside / your rib cage

Again and again we find a contradiction-defying inclusion of innocence and experience as the poems move at random through time.  Whole lives are incorporated in this way, especially if one imagines speakers moving from poem to poem.  This collection, I feel, will get no small amount of recognition for its laments and remembrances, and rightly so.  But it includes much more than passive, negative reaction, and is all the stronger for it.  The full gamut of emotions is at play here and there is no shortage of critique.  Hypocrisy and inaction are exposed for the complicity they are, and traditional systems of comfort or explanation are challenged.

rings of white gold bring attention / bring persistence bring faith / in the persistence of what seems / most fated to die says the book

Aside from the sheer richness of the wordplay, I think one of my favorite aspects of this collection is its recognition of poetry as an interactive experience.  The use of varied structure and minimalist language provide the groundwork, allowing the reader to unpack and fill space with her own perspective.  But the poems will, at times, even directly engage the reader.  One stanza from the last poem in the collection reads like this:

reader, / I am emptied of me & you / of you / yourself keeps swarming out / until we are standing in a wide pool

Normally, this kind of direct address is frowned upon as lacking subtlety or wit.  But I think the poetry here more than makes its own case.  The speaker wants you to remember that you are reading.  Just as you are encouraged to embrace the good and the bad, the beautiful and the tragic, and the full extent of nature and humanity, you are also reminded that you are both inside and outside of the work itself.  It leaves the reader with a responsibility to carry this perspective with them beyond the closing of the book.  One could even read that stanza in a challenge.  Is the pool blood or some other essential?  Now that the speaker has emptied herself of herself, do you not have the responsibility to do the same?  The swarming out certainly indicates that the process has begun.

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who seeks, if you will pardon the cliché, food for thought.  The poetry here is infinitely digestible.  It is the kind of literature that you can and should keep reengaging with after thorough bouts of contemplation.  It operates on the vividly physical and the imposingly metaphysical, asking deeply complicated questions.  But it does not shrink from its own challenges.  It hints at origin points of answers and lays bare its suspicions.

 

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

Suite for Barbara Loden

by on December 13, 2016

suiteforbl-cover-front-235x299Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Lèger

Translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cècile Menon

 

A little backstory: In 1970, Barbara Loden wrote, produced, directed, and stared in a film called Wanda, which was semi-autobiographical, inspired by the true story of a woman who thanked a judge for sending her to prison, and the only feature film that Loden would ever write or direct.  Despite winning some early awards and critical acclaim, it was never widely distributed or seen in the United States.  As of today, thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated and appreciative individuals, the film has seen a restoration and is gaining some of the notoriety it deserves.  Enter Nathalie Lèger and Suite for Barbara Loden, a short novel that hybridizes literary styles in order to tell the not so simple stories of Barbara Loden, of Wanda, and of Nathalie herself as she attempts to construct the text from within and without.  The result is nothing short of wonderful.  As readers we are presented with a book that can exist in multiple spaces, resonating with frequencies that are simultaneously attuned for feminists, writers, survivors, and their allies.  It is a book from which humbling messages can be gleamed or which can satisfy on a purely linguistic, structural level.

The hardest thing is the words, how long it takes, he says, taking a sip of his drink, the concentration you need to work out what goes with what, how to put together a single sentence.  I had no idea that shaping a sentence was so difficult, all the possible ways there are to do it, even the simplest sentence, as soon as it’s written down, all the hesitations, all the problems.

The moment that quote is describing is an encounter with New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, and it elegantly encapsulates much of what is going on in Suite for Barbara Loden.  The idea applies equally well to speaking or to writing, really any use of language, once your mind has been exposed to the possibilities of discourse.  Through its own structure it displays the very concept it is explaining.  The commas are the hesitations.  The “concentration you need to work out what goes with what” is immediately evident – despite the constant pausing and reluctance and reconsideration, the sentences are grammatically correct throughout.  Moreover, the spirit of the quote, even though it is put in the mouth of Mantle, flows through Loden and Lèger as character and narrator of this text.  The care and deliberate choices being made give shape to truly unique and emotionally ensnaring read.  And this permeation, this blurring of boundaries between entities and experiences, eventually leads to an immersion that combines the pieces of the text in eye-opening ways.

To sum up.  A woman is pretending to be another (this we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.

The layering of reader, author, narrator, characters, and characters created by characters in this book is beautifully reflective and reality-distorting, akin to looking into one of two opposing and parallel mirrors as they echo into infinity.  This extends to the book’s relationship to its visual counterpart.  Like the film, the book never insists upon itself or makes claims at profundity.  The language used, while consistently harmonious and contemplative, is never superfluous or pedantic.  Several parts are delivered in a manner all too familiar to anyone who has written and read screenplays, though the attention to evocative detail in these sections is indicative of both a skilled prose writer who cannot abandon her craft and of a talented screenwriter who has a singular vision to put to page.  Despite switching characters and focalization, the text’s pacing and tone make its constituent parts feel unified, further reinforcing the storytelling continuum that exists at the book’s center.

I know from experience that to gain access to the dead you must enter this mausoleum that’s filled with papers and objects, a seal place, full to bursting yet completely empty, where there is barely room for you to stand upright.

Have you ever been in a room that contains people talking, and perhaps you are even part of the conversation, and the quietest person in that room says something that catches you totally off guard with both its conceptual power and its simultaneous humility?  That is the closest non-literary experience I can associate with reading Suite for Barbara Loden.  I never cease to marvel at or enjoy texts that, in a relatively short space (this book isn’t even 120 pages), manage to capture the essence of depthless experiences.  The book, like the film and actress it shadows, is an intricate, multi-faceted metacommentary on feminism, misogyny, film, personal identity, and, in the book’s specific case, writing.  It wears the bruises of abuse and dominance as evidence of a contradictory, self-serving system that trips over itself in the effort to perpetuate.  It explores the empathy and the obsession required to write and to understand someone else’s story.  I sincerely hope that this book is spared the confused ignominy that kept Wanda as a relative unknown for so long, because it deserves to be read.  By simply existing as it does, it earns its voice.

 

Suite for Barbara Loden is available now through Dorothy, A Publishing Project.

Book Review

Bruja

by on December 8, 2016

bruja-frontcover-final-1170x1783Bruja, by Wendy Ortiz

 

There is quite the argument going on about the significance of dreams.  Psychological and neurological studies of dreams often lean toward the conclusion that dreams are nothing more than the random firing of neurons displaying a kaleidoscopic patina of memories, fantasies, and nightmares.  I am sure that many of you, and I include myself in that number, have felt a deep and poignant significance to dreams, especially as they relate to the creative process.  In Wendy Ortiz’s dreamoir, Bruja, she finds an utterly fascinating middle ground between the two perspectives.  Except that even “middle ground” is insufficient; rather, she presents an inclusive, paradigm-shifting theory in narrative form, one that embraces the interconnectedness of stories, focalization, the unconscious, and how we construct reality.

By the nature of our physical senses, our perceptions of reality are inherently reconstructions.  Every conscious (and many an unconscious) moment, our minds take in information from the immediate past and assemble a structure that helps us to make workable sense out of existence.  In a very real sense, reality is a story we tell ourselves.  Bruja utilizes this concept to its fullest extent, but with an important constraint – it chooses to abandon any pretense of agreed upon linear structure.  By tapping into the dreams of the narrator, the text accepts the at least partially arbitrary nature of time, cause and effect, and significance.  While nominally organized by monthly chronological order, each section of the story delivers dream after dream, exhibiting the impossible alongside the cyclical and the seemingly random.

A silver shimmer moved through the outdoor fountain. A huge swordfish pushed through the water and hit air. Panic set in—the swordfish was the size of a small truck. I wanted to look but also wanted to run. I knew that many things would suddenly be growing huge in size. I wasn’t sure where to go.

This tone of delivery is thoroughly consistent throughout the book and it is beautifully appropriate.  The absurd and the amazing are presented as matter-of-fact and curious.  This flavor is not blasé and it is not meant to be; this comes from a perspective that routinely witnesses the miraculous and the terrible and which understands that they are not mutually exclusive, as if acknowledging the awe-inspiring while being ready to “run”.

One of the recurring elements in Bruja is packing and repacking luggage.  It is usually delivered in an almost throwaway fashion, at the opening of a section, and it frames the text that follows.  It is among the most significant symbolic acts in a text that one could argue is made entirely of symbolic acts.  The ideas of always being on the move, of refusing to settle, of living moments of lives rather than merely a life, are all tremendously powerful.  These ideas run smack into those of dreams as the narrator is quite literally packing and repacking these memories and fantasies and nightmares, rearranging them to see how they fit inside the container that is her own mind.  There is, at times, an almost desperate, obsessive-compulsive drive to accomplish this.

I packed my bags at least three times. I was booked on a trip to New York but I wondered if I would ever make it because the damn bags needed to be packed and unpacked and packed again.

What the text is describing, among other things, is the process of trying to make sense of a life and its myriad possibilities.  The narrator’s lovers meld together into a psychosexual amalgam, then fray apart into their own fragments in time.  The narrator is at times passive and submissive and at other times violent, ecstatic, and enraged.  Moreover, the experiences regularly refuse simple binary opposition – the text never renders judgment on behavior or beauty, because it cannot and remain honest.  The first thing I did after finishing the book was read it a second time, backwards, and not an ounce of meaning was lost for me.  Bruja remains loyal to one of its central themes: denying the linear mandatory primacy.

We had no sense of time; there was just the walking back and forth in this mysterious and beautiful place, knowing the beach was within walking distance.

I know I have been waxing philosophical in this review, but that is because I find Bruja so fascinating.  Even its title feels wonderfully apt; bruja is the Spanish word for witch, and Ortiz has commandeered it to encapsulate the experience of a woman who, by coming to understand secret knowledge about the universe, manifests the power to manipulate reality itself.  But, critically, the text never treats reality as an illusion.  The traumas, the loves, the living that is shown and hinted at throughout the book are no less real for their continual metamorphoses.  The malleable nature of experience does not render experience invalid or ineffectual.  Bruja conveys all of this with a simple, graceful elegance, baring the vulnerabilities of a soul without fear of rejection or the pride of showmanship, but with a hope that the presence of the reader will manifest even more possibilities.  It never forces you to reject your conclusions, but after reading it, you will be unable to accept your perspective as the only one.

 

Bruja is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Book Review

Storm Toward Morning

by on December 6, 2016

41bgmqbdr1lStorm Toward Morning, by Malachi Black

Review by Alana Folsom

 

There are some poetry books that ask to be read for their emotional impact—for the pure punch to the gut that their lines deliver—and then there are books that more subtly creep into your bloodstream. These books aren’t loud, but they remain beautiful and heavy in the part of your stomach that always feels a little hollow. Malachi Black’s debut book Storm Toward Morning is the latter: a subtle and delicate sneak. Most of this comes, for me, in my awe over Black’s use of form, syntax, and sound. As I read, I trust that the poet behind each word, who lay every comma like a brick, is doing so intentionally. The fact that Black has an explanatory companion to Storm Toward Morning online only affirms what his poems simmer with: control.

And I know that there’s a criticism of poetry often bandied about: that poets are writing for other poets. But Storm Toward Morning is the who gives a fuck? reply to that question. Black’s awareness of craft sparkles in its precision and, sometimes, humor (like “Ode to the Sun,” which opens with “You repeat yourself like no one/ I know…”).

I don’t want to lie, though: I struggle at times in this collection to grasp onto something beyond craft, and spent the week after I’d first read the book wondering if craft was enough. After re-reading this collection, though, I think that it is: that the skill embroidered into every poem is what makes each poem beautiful. Can I call a poem a Faberge egg and not be a douche?

In a text exchange with a friend, I called STM “intellectual” and when she asked if I meant “show offy,” I knew the word intellectual was wrong: these poems hum with confidence, seem to emit an I-know-what-I’m-doing bing at the end of each line. They’re not showing off, their just skillful. The moments that Black seems to be saying directly to other poets do you see what we can do? are the strongest. “Insomnia & So On,” for example, begins with the lines “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth/ each morning. Unfasten all the bones//that make a head, and let me rest: unknown/ among the oboe-throated geese gone south” (7)—I could keep quoting, but the prosody’s muscularity is evident in these opening lines. The smoothness of the end-rhyme is the least impressive part of these couplets; more expert is the movement of meter, which begins with stress after stress to communicate the quite literal stress of the unsleeping speaker and then transitions into a lulling iambic pentameter. Within the meter, though, each word holds a sonic resonance that complements the beat, but also operates singularly: the long “o” sounds pull you forward through the entire poem and that construct a network of images (animals, weather, domestic life).

Storm Toward Morning tackles insomnia, depression, subjectivity, and faith. Underneath all this headiness and potential grand philosophy, though, is a simple and pressing question that the book circles: what is living? Interestingly, STM erases all notions of an individual speaker through repetition and divergent self- and poetic-definition, so the question is never rooted in the personal, a move that seems invigorating and new because of its anti-confessional bent. In “Traveling by Train,” for example, the poem ends with “…you’re lost/ between the meter and the desperate rhyme/ of clacking tracks. Home is nothing here./ You’re gone and in the going; can’t come back” (6). This “you” here seems to be the reader, lost to what the speaker knows (and there’s humor here, too: a glimpse into self-deprecation and diminishment) is a “desperate” rhyme, yet the reader remains “in the going”. The syntax in the poem’s final line seems to capitulate rather than declare: “can’t come back” is its own clause and doesn’t speak directly to “you’re gone”—in other words, the syntax is playing with our expectations, is calling for our attention  over the loud train sounds. The poem is aware of itself and yet it able to remain within the poem, like an actor believably addressing and then ignoring the fourth wall.

Interesting, too, the book is filled with poems that actively define both “I”s and “you”s—“I am the black strokes on the baby grant” (5), “I am an element” (25), “I am the harvest” (47) as well as “…you were the bottom of a birthday hat” (8), “you are the gulf/ between the hoped-for/ and the happening” (36), just to cite a few. These definitions, which often come in odes or in addresses to God, serve the effect of multiplying the speaker and the reader, who is sometimes the “you” as in “Travelling by Train,” but is often not. This isn’t a book about ego, about the self as individual, and perhaps that is why it doesn’t ever read as “show-offy”—because there’s no one thing/ person that these poems point to. Instead, these poems point to poetry itself: they are sonnets, they are odes, they are, most of all, asking to be read and read again so you can sink into the layers of craft that blanket each line.

 

Storm Toward Morning is available now through Copper Canyon Press.

 

Alana Folsom recently graduated with an MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, where she was Editor-in-Chief of their literary magazine, 45th Parallel. Her poetry has been published in The Journal, Hobart, and Apogee, and is forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review; her critical writing has been published in The Iowa Review and the Rumpus. Follow her at @axfolsom.

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