November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Source & Language: 3 Book Reviews




Distinctive Layers 

of Source and Language

Review by Miriam O’Neal

Mary Szybist’s 2013 National Book Award winning book, Incarnadine, from Graywolf Press, is one of those rare collections whose verses weigh simultaneously and on the heart. Everything moves in these poems; Mary folds laundry, a woman crosses an ancient square toward a mutilated man, sunlight sifts through the branches of a pear tree in leaf. Annunciation is the ground and the air of the poems. Szybist re-sees the story of Mary’s visit from the Angel Gabriel, then relocates the story both in time and perspective. We see Mary from Gabriel’s point of view and Gabriel from hers. Mary emerges from kitchens, laundry rooms, offices, and other locales of contemporary life. And there are other stories as well.

In “Another True Story,” (the title suggesting we accept stories of saints and angels as true), we read about the Jewish/American soldier in Florence in 1945 who was adopted by a pigeon. For several days the bird perches on the soldier’s shoulder as on a branch of a tree. The Florentines begin to believe he must be a new sort of Saint Francis.

There are time lapses that matter, as in “Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove,” in which the stanzas are organized concretely on the page so that the reader experiences the quickly shifting gaze of the speaker trying to count how many birds are in a particular tree. The poem also includes a timeline down the left side of the page, each verse represented by a passage of seconds or minutes; 3:21, 3:24, etc. Until time stands still, arrested at 3:33, which is we experience the speaker’s anxiety, rising out of her inability to distract herself by bird counting any further, from her heart’s efforts to forget someone.

She cannot move forward.

-3:33 ……..
I am tired
of paying attention. The birds are all the same

-3:33 to me. It’s too warm to stay still in the sun leaning
over this wood fence to try to get a better look
into the branches. Why

-3:33 do pigeons gather in this tree
or that one, why do I miss you

-3:33 now, but not now,
my old idea of you, the feeling for you I lost
and remade so many times until it was

-3:33 something strange as your touch
was familiar. …..

Szybist understands the value of risky play. Her poems take on a variety of shapes. Besides the stagger of “Too Many Pigeons…” there is the star burst shape of “How (Not) to Talk of God,” Lines radiate from a central, empty space on the page, each line listing ways God is referenced: “who is enough, who is more than enough/ who should be extolled with our sugared tongues///who know the scent of dust, the scent of each sparrow/ whose shadow does not flicker under streetlights/ who can feel without exaggerating anything….”.
The empty space formed by spokes of the lines has its own sound, and the closed circle of ‘who’s at the core cause a kind of radiation or shimmer on the page. In “It is Pretty to Think,” a poem in the form of a diagrammed sentence, while clearly ‘built’ reads as organically as the many other poems that rely on familiar couplet, tercet, and other traditional stanza forms.
Many of the poems in Incarnadine present visible, distinctive layers of source and language. “Annunciation in Byrd and Bush” uses excerpts of speeches by both Senator Robert Byrd and George W. Bush made just prior to the final decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But the words are spoken to a young woman reading: “at the far end of a meadow…”.

The president goes on. The president goes
on and on. Though the senator complains
The language of diplomacy is imbued with courtesy…

Who can bear it? I’d rather fasten the words
to a girl, for instance, lounging at the far end of a meadow,…..
She yawns, silver bracelets clicking
as she stretches her arms—

her cerulean sky studded with green, almost golden pears
hanging from honey-colored branches.

In her blue dress, she is just a bit of sky,
just a blank bit
fallen into a meadow.

The stranger speaks from the leafy shade.
Show uncertainty and the world will drift
toward tragedy—
Bluster and swagger, she says,

He steps toward her.
She pulls her bright scarf tight.
For this, he says, everybody prayed.
A lot of people. He leans on a branch,
his ear bluish in shadow.

Each time I read this poem I discover another layer inside the obvious layers. It works like some kind of strange, word trifle presented in a clear, glass cylinder. The president; stranger; angel of the annunciation takes on a bluish tone; becomes, perhaps the snake in the grass of Eden? The girl reading her book becomes the vessel, but of what? Is she the repository of truth or the well of our own denial to see truth? Or is she what will be left? What history cannot unmake— a girl in dappled shade, her finger holding the place in a book that she will pick up again when all of this is over?

In recent conversation with a friend who has no background in the Christian shape of faith, I wondered if a large part of my love of this collection rose out of my knowledge of the gospel story of the Annunciation and my inculcation from childhood in all things “Mary”. I’ve come to the conclusion that though the poems speak a certain language to me for that reason, Szybist’s work here remakes those stories to address a contemporary desire for both contemplation and revelation, no matter our relation to the original stories. If we know anything of our human history, we know it is strewn with actions resulting from the will to believe something, even if that something is, there is no god or there are many gods or god lives inside us, etc. In her poem, “The Cathars,” a woman watches the return the village’s men, all of whom have been blinded and have had their lips cut from their faces for speaking heresy against the Catholic church. She considers what she sees:

I am one of the women at the edge of the hill
watching you stagger magnificently,
steadily back.

All of your faces tender with holes
starting to darken and scab

and I don’t understand how you could
believe in anything that much
that isn’t me.

And who is that woman? Perhaps she is God incarnate,
or Mary,
or mother,
or all, or any one of us.


Incarnadine: ISBN 978-1-55507-635-4
Mary Szybist
80 pages, 7.5”x 9”, paperback, full color ($15.00)
First Edition 2013

Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, MN 55401

About the reviewer:

Miriam O’Neal has published poems and/or reviews in AGNI, Marlboro Review, Louisiana Literature, Birmingham Review, and The Guidebook, as well as elsewhere. Her translation of Italian poet, Alda Merini earned her a Beginning Translator’s Fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in 2007. Her manuscript, We Start with What We’re Given is currently looking for a home.

* * * * *


On Her Own Path

 Review by Diana Manole

Flavia Cosma’s On Paths Known to No One (Červená Barva Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2012, ISBN 978-0-9844732-6-7) is a wonderfully crafted collection of poems that spans two continents and brings together some of her defining themes and stylistic traits, attesting to the artistic path she has carved in her work. The book opens with George Elliott Clarke’s “Introduction,” an excellent poem in its own right, which points a visceral male gaze at a more delicate feminine collection of poems. It identifies Cosma as the “honest poet… as diligent as hunger” but also as “a Dickinson seduced by Plath” who shows that the light has “the consistency of shadows,” “Eden hosts angels—and maggots,” and love “just doesn’t suit pretty words.”

Indeed, Cosma’s vision is defined by complementary attitudes, which unwrap a world hidden under “layers of silence” (62), without spoiling or cheapening its raw beauty. On one hand, she uncovers the humanity of the natural landscape through surprising anthropomorphic details. The evening is “a brave maiden” (6) and the “rock’s heart / Full of longings, / Sighs” (5), while the “sun-baked stones” (22) get old. Even traces of human spirituality are integrated into the natural medium, such as the “white crosses / Carved into rocks” (21).  On the other hand, most of Cosma’s lyrical characters gradually regain their primordial natural aspects and eventually dissolve into the surrounding landscape. A “man fancies he is / Both a bird and the sky” (19), a boy has the “steel of the sea in his gaze” (40), and two young lovers, with “weeping, willow-like arms” eventually “melt into each other, gently turning into / A fragile young tree with soft branches” (29).

Combining the two perspectives, Cosma excels at offering glimpses of reality, highlighting wonders of the everyday life most of us take for granted. A “waft of barbecued fish” (13) immediately places us on the shore of the Aegean Sea, where everything seems at the same time familiar and ritualistic:

The heat wave opens its arms and forgets

The savage embrace of the day past […]

A mother leads her daughters by the hand,

Clothed in wall-like white […]

Temporary, silence returns,

Frights disappear. (13).

But the poet also finds her way to “the land of the unseen and the unknown,” of the nymphs, satyrs, and “men-fish”, “wild eyed sirens with tresses flouncing in the wind” (16), “wicked fairies [who] moan, yelp, throw themselves against walls” (31), “Large flocks of ghosts [that] lie in wait / Through endless oozing hours” (67).

The sea gets special treatment in the first section of the book, “Songs at the Aegean Sea.” It births young though ancient-looking statues (7), caressing them with quiet, dancing waves (6). Like “a blue lung, [it] breathes noisily” (15), while the fish “congregate for prayer / Lighting coral candles / In deep, subterranean churches” (38). Cosma’s relationship to the water reaches intensely erotic tones, as in an act of bitter-sweet consummation: “This gentle lover / With its slippery body; / I drink its green tears and once again, / His bitter, salty kiss / Inebriates me” (20). The sea eventually seizes and carries the poet away, releasing her from her burdening humanity: “My burning skin, / The stony breasts, / The frightened heart, / Writhing in my chest” (14).

In contrast to the solar grace of the Aegean poems, Cosma’s rendering of the Argentinean “vast artificial Paradises” has a darker, though still delicate feeling of time and nature, as well as a paradoxical sense of order and symmetry. Her walks bring her to a cemetery, “a village with rectangular streets”, where she glimpses “flowery, lily-white bones, / Quietly resting in small boxes” (82). As she sees it, the Museum is also “a kind of cemetery” where “Colourless images still testify / About societies, schools and communes” that disappeared, “swept by time’s waters” centuries ago (83). In “Sunset Reflections,” the combination of mythical and consumerism is overwhelming: “And old artisan shapes shinny knifes / With handles carved from mighty antlers, / Prehistoric scales and large bird’s claws. / Anything goes for a dollar” (84). Cosma’s sensibility allows her to see an Argentinean world “built of cardboard” where “nothing happens, /Life moves forward only in dreams” (94), but the dreams actually belong to the “long lost people” (90).

Cosma’s love lyrics are, however, the most jarring, melting together the collection’s main themes and stylistic characteristics. The poem that lends its title to the entire collection is a painful expression of longing for the loved one. When taking a walk in a place where they once were together, nature alleviates the pain: “I would howl, / I would cry, / But the sea does it better, / While, bit by bit, the sun slackens / This unbearable craving of you” (115).  The last lyric, however, ends the book on an optimistic note. In a world that has been technologically reduced to a manageable scale, the heart finds new means to heal and be reborn: “A new love awaits me in every airport, / Replacing an old one / With delicate petals, / Broken off from a star” (128).

On Paths Known to No One reveals Cosma as a highly sensitive artist, overwhelmed by a world where “victims turn into butchers” and the “crutch of the one-legged assassin / Beats its drum closer and closer / To the door of my mind” (68), foreshadowing imminent death. Hurt, she tries to hide among “thinner book pages,” wishes to become “a silvery silk thread,” and to “find a quiet hiding place / High in the clear sky / High in a dream” (68). Her lyrics do exactly that, attempting to defeat the unavoidable passing of flesh but also counterbalance ugliness and violence by masterfully imagining a parallel world “out of a few words, / Or a fleeting smile”  (98).

On Paths Known to No One (ISBN 978-0-9844732-6-7)
Flavia Cosma
128 pages, 6”x 9”, paperback, full color ($14.00)

First Edition 2012
Červená Barva Press
Somerville, Massachusetts

About the reviewer:

Diana Manole, PhD (University of Toronto), is a Romanian-Canadian  stage and TV director, award-winning writer, and scholar. She has published eight collections of poems and plays and several academic articles and book chapters, while teaching courses in Cultural Studies, History and Theory of Theatre and Performance, Film Analysis, and Directing at several universities in Ontario, Canada.


 * * * * *


Architectural Precision

Review by Grayson Del Faro

An Honest Ghost is more than one book: in a sense, it is both two books and five hundred books. The novel is delicately collaged from sentences appropriated from hundreds of sources and has been published by Jaded Ibis Press in two formats: one interactive and digital, the other traditionally printed and bound. Each edition of the novel creates a drastically separate but equally innovative read. In it, author Rick Whitaker guides you through both his life and his own library, curating the words read and yet allowing the reader to curate their own knowledge of the sources; throughout, the reader must make the decisions of when to disrupt the careful narrative of the tapestry to peek behind the individual curtain of each sentence.

With architectural precision, Whitaker builds the story of a man teetering between surprise parenthood, mercurial romance, literary influence, and the indelibility of memory. Beginning with a short paragraph quilting together Walter Benjamin, André Gide, Hart Crane, Rob Stephenson, and Susan Sontag, respectively, the author draws himself as close to narrator as the sentences to each other:

I am unpacking my library. I have been able to start work again on my novel. It is growing very slowly. There are limits to what can be said. Life lived by quotations.

Regardless of the edition, this library of attributions to the novel is equal parts body and concept. In the interactive book for iPad, the sources bubble up from the sentence itself at the will and touch of the reader, a system envisioned by the author over the eight years the book was under construction.

While this digital edition was the intended format of the novel, the print edition offers a different sorting of the same library. The list itself comprises almost one third of the total pages in the book and must be frequently and frantically flipped to, adding heavily to the book’s presence as a physical artifact. This also causes the novel to be read not from beginning to end, but from front to back and back again and again. The effect of these names and titles stacked together creates visions of the shelves of Whitaker’s personal library from which each was borrowed. After reading a disarmingly elegant sentence, you may flip to the source only to find it was taken from your favorite author and wonder why there was no sense of déjà vu. Sometimes there is déjà vu. Scanning a page, you may be shocked to find three sentences in that chapter from different works by E. M Forster, or one from that book sitting still unread on your nightstand. Perhaps you open to the list thinking there is no way that line is not from Proust to be shocked by the name you find there instead. To any reader as bibliophilic as the author, this list is a literary lottery. Each reader’s personal taste plays a powerful role in reading the novel. Three separate times, I found a sentence so popping with charm that I searched out its origins only to find each had come from the exact same book, a copy of which I quickly found. As I placed it on my bookshelf, I pictured it in Whitaker’s, introducing me to a unique kind of literary kinship.

The prose itself rollercoasters through the narrative, combining words originally hundreds of years and genres apart into compounds almost chemical. Some sentences flow into the next like breath into air; others spark, fire and gunpowder. When combined, certain sentences create the strikingly cerebral dissonance of the white space in poetry. Others knit together so tightly, a reader may wonder how those sentences were written, let alone published, without each other’s company. Some of them baffle while many delight, yet all fit. At times, happenings are as vague as feelings.

The titles from which the words are drawn are more diverse than the selections from the first paragraph of the book suggest. The narrator’s 9-year-old son, who arrives suddenly at the doorstep beginning the story, speaks both Camus and Fitzgerald. His outrageous mother, Eleanor, is pulled from histories of Eleanor of Aquitaine more than once. David, the narrator’s young, rich, and troublesome lover is often melodramatically Victorian, and alternatively, bursts from a contemporary nonfiction text on parenting adopted teens. (This is an autobiographical Easter egg—the author’s actual son was adopted as a teen.) The narrator himself is frequently disillusioned in the bitter words of D. H. Lawrence.

The author’s unusual resolve to preserve the tense and punctuation of each appropriation forces the reader’s attention, almost to the point of obsession, while simultaneously nurturing a healthy puzzlement. Both reader and narrator are questioned, characters have said and say within a paragraph, and the occasional slash of a line break cuts through the lilt of narration:

Again I had to confess my ignorance. “I’ll be right over,” I said. “But you’re not in New York, are you?” O Mary, go and call the cattle home / For I’m sick in my heart and fain would lie down. “The arrangement,” David notes laconically, “sounded very promising, so we decided to go. There was a man there called a folk-singer,” says David with venom, “and, naturally, everybody had to hear some folk songs.” At dinner he didn’t realize the girls sitting at the next table were boys. “And this guy says, ‘I don’t care if it’s the fucking queen of England!’”

“A poet, I dare say.” It is two o’clock in the morning. I have nothing to say.

Through the various editions of the book, much of what is left unsaid is shown. While only the print edition has the text laid over an atmospheric background image repeated on each page, the text in both editions is interspersed with spreads of dreamlike images created from internet videos photographed and pixelated by publisher Debra Di Blasi. In them, human figures jump, scream, and remove clothing floating before cool and textural sea- and cloudscapes. These enigmatic intermissions enrich the characters’ uncertainties and darknesses occasionally lurking around the corners of Whitaker’s deft phrasing and exploding wit.

An Honest Ghost is as dually dark and pithy as the play by Shakespeare from which it takes its name, although unlike Hamlet, it contains only a single abrupt death. Sorry to spoil it, reader. More subtly so, however, the literally and figuratively Joycean end to Whitaker’s book proves it is one novel worth five hundred.

An Honest Ghost (ISBN 978-1937543389)
Rick Whitaker
210 pages, 5.9” x 8.9”, paperback,
black and white edition ($16.99) – full color illustrated edition ($49.00)
Jaded Ibis Press
first edition

About the reviewer:

Grayson Del Faro’s poems have appeared in Fragments, Ellipsis Literature and Art, and The Evergreen Review, among others, as well as in an installation at the Seattle Art Museum. His comics were serialized weekly in The Cooper Point Journal from 2011 to 2012. He lives in Cascadia.