November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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4 Good Books

REPORT

This Is for Life:

Kathryn Levy’s Disquieting Reports

Review by Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles

Book Title: Reports; Type: Poetry
New Rivers Press, 2013
ISBN #: 978-0-89823-286-8 9  ($14.95)
83 pages; 6″ x 9″
Color: Tan/Cream 

The semi-divine, for some of us, alchemist of language and sentiment, Rainer Maria Rilke, once advised 19-year-old fledgling poet, Franz Kappus, that “nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism.” I take his memorable exhortation to mind as I pick up Kathryn Levy’s newly published second book of poems Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) and reflect on some of the strange pleasures I found in “art” as showcased in it.

LEVY

First of all, the volume is slim enough to seem non-threatening when you first see or pick it up. It is also a brief eighty pages of similarly slim, down-the-left-margin-running poems. Its cover is as evocative a cover for a book of poems as I believe any could and should be. And how apropos these initial, superficial observations seem! for in its four-part span, various themes will be tried after: here loneliness, there rage; here love, there the indiscriminate, indistinct sweepings in and out of random indecision or death—or, which is worse (a poem in Reports assures us), even paralysis, a state that takes many forms. The book works as lure. It invites, then beautifully unsettles.

Indeed, Levy’s poems in Reports seem to provide a need as well as create a demand for the book’s well-chosen title, for what is experienced in these poems is the result of intense witnessing, of personal or shared elations, of personal or shared shocks. Many of the poems take hold of a reader and run him/her through a sort of psychic gauntlet, one that is as strangely ravishing as it is intensely frightening.

Four poems from Reports that illustrate what I have tried to phrase adequately are: “In the Place in the Woods”, “Wedding”, “A Wonderful Life” and “Exposed to the Winds.” Each of these briskly paced pieces called out for specific attention, shocking me awake (with harrowing surprise) as did a few other pieces in this disquieting second collection I will not be able to get to at present.

Disquieting is no hyperbole. Levy’s “In the Place in the Woods” proves this from beginning to end. Here is a narrative dilemma, lyrically elided, presenting a child, a woman, a blind man, a not clarified “they” in a sort of “selva oscura” where “the shooting continues.” As if Levy had ripped this poem’s situation right out of our now too-routine for this type of crime headlines, a child “clutches/ rage in his fists” and:

… points
his gun at the sky and
the trees those leaves
the birds who keep flying
for he believes “they/ have to be taught”:
I can’t see
anymore – so I have to hang
onto this gun…

Words like shooting, begs, blind, closet, bends, pounding, clutches, tumbles, explosion, murder, rage, sacrificed, refusing, pokes, hang, gun possess us in unremitting sequence from the first line to the last until we have become every character in the tragic “In the Place in the Woods.” We become the enraged child, the woman who tries to stop and comfort him, the blind man who hides, even the trees, leaves and birds at one remove from their exit. We become, too, the undisclosed “they” − those who witness, those who move on as if “uncaring,” those who must “be taught.” This poem’s great strength, if brevity and pacing are put after, is its inconclusive finger-pointing. Who is at fault for setting innocence to rage? Who is its victim?

Levy’s “Wedding,” a second poem from Reports, moves us from blind rage to a marital celebration. In this also lyrically elided poem, the poet conjures up a common scene – a wedding. Here there is song and dance and ritual “patterns”—here, too, these give way to “the ground/ slipping beneath us” as we are whisked by emotion and metaphor to this startling comparison:

….like watching your wake
as the boat presses

into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller − this
could lead us to death −

for a marriage contract is, in faith and legality, a risk – a departure into deeper, unpredictable waters. And here again the poet “grasps” for grounding and possibly control by locking in on the minister who witnesses, but who also places “hands upon hands” and declares, “…This/ is for life -” Are we at a celebration or arrived at another kind of “wake”? The reader is given no easy or conclusive answer. A marital vow, after all, promises no sureties. By this point readers of Reports can be left feeling as if they had begun a poem by George Oppen or Louise Gluck and arrived somewhere else entirely. Its four times depicted “flowers” seem to conceal more than they decorate.

Who reads to be startled? Who takes his/her time to enact and/or join a poet in such inconclusive witnessing? Perhaps readers who demand, like Levy, that poetry take them to the breath-taking edge, daringly – with nothing freely given or mapped out before or after. Thus “A Wonderful Life,” also in Reports, flashes on and off, and, like a bolt of lightning, dazzles and singes. It begins innocently enough with laughing and “a party at/ Christmas time.” The speaker in the poem ventures to a store and is unable to decide on what to purchase. Why the confusion? Is there nothing left? Is the money at hand too little? Why the anxiety that leads to “Tearing/ the dollars to pieces”? Levy changes voice for pictorial dilemma as economic collapse is considered and distant, Scrooge-like “men with the gold/ bars in their pockets” are judged, even as they are shown:

laughing at a dinner, mumbling at the bedside
of another friend who is dying – and
gripping the bars as tightly as they can…

A line further we read: “In/ this world you have to survive.” Clear accusation also does not assuage in Reports. Instead readers are made to ask, “For What?…For/  what?”

Kathryn Levy’s Reports is a collection of truly risky psychical dilemmas survived; the strange power of the whole, as in its parts, is its brave gleaning into the multifaceted nature of what is ultimately, in our moral-hungry world, termed beautiful or meaningful. Like “Exposed to the Winds,” one of its final poems, asks, “will the storms ever stop?…./….did you think the storms were the worst of night?” The paralyzing answer is “rush through these halls/ to find/ even one sound// they are all gone.” So are clever or tender words to appraise this book of poems. Whoever reads it can either hide in an actual or metaphorical closet like the blind man mentioned earlier or else rise to witness, report.

About Kathryn Levy:

Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) and Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions, 2006), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (NYC Ballet Education Department, 1996), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications including Slate, Cimarron Review, Hanging Loose, Provincetown Arts, The Seattle Review, The Minnesota Review, The Southampton Review, and the Manhattan Poetry Review, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and Sea, We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. She has received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation. Levy was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City. 

Kathryn Levy’s website for more information: http://kathryn-levy.com

Kathryn Levy’s email: kalevy@aol.com

About the reviewer: 

Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles is currently a high school teacher and former adjunct professor of writing and literature at Miami-Dade College and St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an MFA in Creative Writing graduate of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a poet, literary critic, translator, plus enthusiastic advocate for peace-making via ecological and spiritual renewal.

 

 * * *

  Whale

Whale of Desire, a Jacob’s Wrestle

Review by Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles

 

Whale of Desire, by Micah Towery; Cat In the Sun Press, 2013
ISBN/EAN13: 099115231X (9780991152315) ($12.00)
76 pages; US Trade Paper, 5.5″ x 8.5″, English, B&W
https://www.createspace.com/4536534

….What unlike things must meet and mate;
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

-Herman Melville, from “Art”

 

I recently read Micah Towery’s first book of poems Whale of Desire (Cat in the Sun Press 2014) and came away from the experience thinking of two key figures: Jacob and Herman Melville. Jacob, of biblical renown, came easily to mind due to the uneasy wrestle between the personal and spiritual observed in the poems of Whale of Desire, moreover, Towerybecause of how Towery attempts to keep these many times dual strains immediate, arresting, fortifying, even while establishing a name for himself. I thought also of Herman Melville, not only because he and his work are alluded to directly and indirectly in the volume, but because Melville’s lines above, taken from his poem/credo “Art,” neatly summarize, for me, the best of what is to be found in Micah Towery’s Whale of Desire, that is, a poet’s wrestle to have the material and transcendental fuse.

That many of the poems in Whale of Desire conjure up a poet/Jacob can be quickly seen in the personal and spiritual “wrestlings with the angel” that turn into poems like “Hunter (Seraph)” and “Moth (Psalm 39).”  In “Hunter (Seraph)” readers come across a man (the poet?) who:

“…enrapts him-
self to staunch the lode
that leaks
out in a cold brume and sags
around him, high in the tree,
where he and his body hang,
in hopes that once today

he’ll spear a searching ray
into some chest –
after which he’ll lay his able back
down and rest…”

Readers are further told that the end of this “staunch” effort, which also mirrors the Passion of Christ and perhaps even the subsequent piercing of his side, is that “searching ray”, which is among “the first/ fruits of them that sleep.” But a “searching ray” to understand himself, others, the divine? For sure all three, but mostly the divine one being addressed as both giver and destroyer of beauty in “Moth (Psalm 39)” where a reader overhears how the divine one snatches:

… away another’s beauty

in gloating silence, leaves us bleached,
belly-up whales on the sand’s ecru…

while a few lines later the same man/moth complains, “Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?”, which question leads to the bitter-sweet:

… your beauty
is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while you consume
me with the blows of your hand – my beauty,
a moth, feeding, still hungry.”

The fusion of actions described above become a startling transformation or revelation, like many others in this book, that brings to mind the Suffering Servant Christ, St. John of the Cross’s moth in “Super Flumina Babylonis” or from Book One (Desire and Detachment) from his Dark Night of the Soul, John Donne’s hammer and anvil in “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” several meditations in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and Leda of William Butler Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” a startling revelation or transformation which is uneasily arrived at suddenly, finally, which is “the point” of such a redeeming, though we are not told this directly, struggle.

Two other Jacob’s wrestle lyrics of power and refreshed, even fortifying imagery are “Prologue” and “On The Refrain Taken From An Old Hymn.” In “Prologue”  readers are told quite literally that a “hammer was the face of God” and several lines later “But man tired/ seeing his own face in the face of the hammer, when he met/ the hammer in the cool of the morning,/ every morning,” lines which lead to a wholly original and surprising conclusion. “On The Refrain Taken From An Old Hymn,” the poem that closes this book, the poet tells his soul “Be still” no less than ten times in a poem of twenty three lines and he tells it to be so with deeply sensed and down-to-earth catalogued images like the “condensation on a beer glass,” “my father deep in reading contemplation/ or when napping/ or thick stained glass” or the “way my mother draws blood from her patients.” Whale of Desire closes with ten be stills, but, of course, we come to sense this cannot and will not be so, hence an ongoing wrestling and its tripartite consolation: transformation, revelation, poetry.

Indeed among the highest felicities of Towery’s first book is the rarity of coming across an American writer of any age, male or female, especially one with Christian leanings, who can wrest and share such spiritual grandeur in mostly formal poetry without turning it into the one-scent pleases all potpourri of prevalent consumerist pseudo-mysticism or without rapping one over the head with hand-me-down, splintery ruler platitudes. While Micah Towery’s Whale of Desire also brilliantly engages more day-to-day coming-of-age themes, among them growing up, work, the experiential souvenirs of travel, falling in love, plus a young man’s trying to make sense of things, which more directly honor material pursuits, I revel in the fact that I am left “feeding, still hungry” by the spiritual honesty and mystical questing of this first book. I am tempted to refer loosely to two more figures Whale of Desire made me recall as I close, figures who could lead to another topic completely, Jonah and Jack Kerouac. Those who know these two prophetic figures and who go on to read Whale of Desire will know how, so far, Micah Towery’s trajectory seems to mirror and simultaneously deviate from these figures and their studied, much talked about paths.

About the author:

Micah Towery helps run thethepoetry.com and teaches at Indiana University – South Bend.

About the Reviewer:

Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles is currently a high school teacher and former adjunct professor of writing and literature at Miami-Dade College and St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an MFA in Creative Writing graduate of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a poet, literary critic, translator, plus enthusiastic advocate for peace-making via ecological and spiritual renewal.

 * * *

kidney

* * *

The Kidney Sellers:

A Journey of Discovery in Iran

* **

Review by Matthew Ray

The Kidney Sellers: A Journey of Discovery in Iran
by Sigrid Fry-Revere, Carolina Academic Press, 2014

ISBN 978-1-55507-635-4  Hardback $35, 254 pages

A post from Bioethics International on the bioethics.net blog[i] from October 2013 acknowledged, “Paying living donors for their kidneys would reduce the number of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients on dialysis and transplant wait lists, and save the healthcare system money.”  What this post does not state is that doing so also has the potential to vastly improve the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.  With this idea at the fore, Drs. Fry-Revere and Bastani recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with donees, donors, administrators, and overseers of the Iranian system from throughout the country.  Upon their return to the United States, Dr. Fry-Revere’s interns at the Center for Ethical Solutions[ii] began translating the many hours of footage and compiling this information into usable data to garner insight about the Iranian system.

Whereas Dr. Fry-Revere admits that she initially intended to publish this information as a manuscript, the nature of her findings changed that portrayal into one of discourse.  She gives an honest reflection about her pre-conceived notions before and during her trip, and lays out those preconceptions throughout the book as they become applicable.  This presentation lends itself well to gaining an understanding of how the country’s religious and social dogmas direct the mechanism of transplantation, as well as how we as a predominantly Western audience may check our preconceptions while grappling with understanding the book.  Many of the facets of a system espoused as “altruistic” must necessarily discuss socio-political mores of the system in question.  Since Iran is a predominantly Muslim country and seemingly devoid of much “Western” influence[1], the format as a book telling the story intertwined with an expose of the system aids in understanding how Drs. Fry-Revere and Bastani came to their conclusions about the nature and scope of the Iranian system, in addition to its benefits and shortcomings.

The author provide continuous discourse with strong, yet hopeful, condemnation for the US system of organ transplantation.  To quote,

“The United States should be ashamed to be outdone by a country like Iran. This is not to suggest that what Iranian has done is flawless. The Iranians should be more proactive about informed consent and provide life-long health insurance for donors, and [since the systems are regionally governed] some are lacking in the financial and medical resources necessary to make any form of organ-procurement system work. It also would improve the Iranian system if they could find a way to take the bargaining out of living-kidney donation, perhaps by raising the government contribution to the going rate of four or five million tomans [approximately US $50,000, when adjusted for purchasing power parity and the benefits received by donors] so fewer donors will haggle for more, and fewer will feel cheated or undervalued. The United States, on the other hand, could introduce compensated living-kidney donation without facing most of the problems Iran has faced. Unlike Iran, informed consent is already part of the U.S. medical and social ethos, and administratively, paying donors instead of paying for dialysis would be an easy transition.[iii]”

While arguing that neither the American nor Iranian systems are perfect, the author makes powerful, and compelling, recommendations to aid in our plight facing the shortage of adequate transplantable organs.   Given the gravity both in lost quality of life and in financial mismanagement, it seems that our system could greatly benefit from some of their insight.  If we can learn from mistakes made, and adapt our policies to allow for the possibility of compensated donation, then the understanding Dr. Fry-Revere has brought back from Iran could be used to greatly change the way we approach transplantation, and for the better.

End Stage Renal Disease presents an immensely problematic issue in modern medicine.  If we can alleviate some of the bottleneck to advancing our stance on the issue of compensated altruistic living-donor organ transplantation, we can begin to reshape the system of management of these complicated patients.  The Kidney Sellers details a compelling account of not only how we can benefit from the lessons learned in Iran, it also gives us the opportunity to use this information to benefit many, many people in the process.

 

[1] I say this as a Westerner who has been to the Middle-east on vacation, but never to Iran, and never having lived in a totalitarian state.  I do not have any firsthand experience with the country, and much of my understanding comes from the published news-media and in discussion with acquaintances about the area.

[1] See discussions about the possibility of adapting a compensated living-donor organ transplantation program in the United States for more insight into the debate.

[1] I say this as a Westerner who has been to the Middle-east on vacation, but never to Iran, and never having lived in a totalitarian state.  I do not have any firsthand experience with the country, and much of my understanding comes from the published news-media and in discussion with acquaintances about the area.

[i] bioethics.net. 2013/10/paying-kidney-donors-can-save-help-patients/)

[ii] www.ethical-solutions.org

[iii] Kidney Sellers, pp. 291

i Kidney Sellers, pp.7

ii Kidney Sellers, pp.8

 

About the reviewer:

Mat Ray has an MA in Bioethics from NYU, and is in his last year of medical school at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.  He plans to become a full-spectrum family physician and work with the National Health Services Corps to provide medical services to people in  medically under-served communities in the Northwestern regions of the US.  He has worked with the Center for Ethical Solutions since 2009 as an intern, and was promoted to scholar in 2010.  His  interests include understanding how decisions affect quality of life outcomes, and how those surrounding the medical course for death and dying can be better implemented to ensure a peaceful and fulfilling end to life.

* * *

pink

 

In the Pink

by William Taylor, Jr.

In the Pink, by A. D. Winans
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (January 8, 2014)
ISBN-10: 149475455X ; ISBN-13: 978-1494754556
English, 156 pages, 6″ x 9″ 

Fittingly enough, I read most of In the Pink, A.D. Winans’ first collection of short stories,  in the heart of the San Francisco’s Financial District while on my lunch break.  I sat on a stone bench on Market Street in the midst of a busy afternoon.  I ate my sandwich and watched the people bustling past, imagining any number of them as characters from Winans’ colorful stories.  Today’s  San Francisco has gone through some changes since the incarnation captured in Winans’ tales, but if you dig beneath the surface a bit, you realize most of the difference is superficial.  A city is always in flux, but the people on the streets are its heart, and they tend not to change overmuch. The drunks, the junkies and the crazies crash and rush about me as I eat my lunch, their curses and laughter ringing in my ears.

The majority of In the Pink’s stories take place in San Francisco during the 1960s and 70s and appear in roughly chronological order.  In the first few stories the protagonist appears as a young boy just experiencing puberty and all that goes along with it.  Later we follow him through his young adulthood while serving overseas in Panama, then back to San Francisco as he eases into middle age.

As the title suggests, the common theme in the collection, other than the city of San Francisco itself,  is sexual experience, in all its glory and horror.  In the first story, the narrator is a young man on the edge of puberty, experiencing the wonders of sexual awakening through spending some quality time with his boyhood friend’s stepsister in the backyard tree house.  The experience is humorously awkward though ultimately educational for the narrator, who eventually walks home with the understanding that everything, somehow, had changed.

During the stories set in Panama and eventually back in San Francisco, the sexual encounters remain less than blissful, and have the ring of hard-won truth about them. Winans doesn’t flinch from the messiness of human relations.  Throughout the book we encounter a variety of people, many of them seeking some kind of answer in sex and generally finding only more confusion.  After detailing his first true sexual experience (with a two dollar street whore) the narrator concludes “The whole thing took less than thirty seconds and left me feeling as badly as I have ever felt in my life.”  But the seeker remains undaunted, and moves on to the next bar room, the next bedroom.  By the end of the collection, we’ve encountered enough prostitutes, drunks and just plain crazy folk to populate a Bukowski novel.

And there is certainly a Bukowski influence in these stories.  Winans and Bukowski were friends who corresponded for years, and during the 1970s, Winans published Bukowski’s work extensively through his Second Coming Press.  In the two men’s work you can feel a similar take on the absurdity of the lives of the down and out.  While Bukowski chronicled it in the streets, bars and skid row rooms of Los Angeles, Winans did the same in the City by the Bay.  The specter of Bukowski even makes a brief appearance in one of the more fantastical stories in the collection:  The narrator is spending a harrowing evening with a woman who may or may not be a witch who may or may not possess the power to turn men into living dildos.   As he attempts a hasty retreat, the woman tells him, “You know, I once had a poet named Bukowski, but he escaped.”

The other writer that immediately comes to mind when reading Winans’ work is Jack Micheline, whose writing Winans has longtime championed.  Fittingly enough, and quite by accident, the last book I read before Winans’ was a collection of stories by Micheline, published by Second Coming Press.  Like Winans’, Micheline’s book chronicles the horror and the joy of the lives of artists, bohemians and other outcasts on the fringe of society as they live their chaotic lives in San Francisco.  Micheline’s work shone with an empathy for the mad, the poets, the dreamers and the outcasts.  Winans’ stories come at you from a similar place.  Like Winans, Micheline revealed the soul of San Francisco through the eyes of the downtrodden and lost in his poetry and stories, and through them you can experience the city one again as it was when it was a more hospitable place for poets, artists and others not particularly adept at making the rent.  As well as being entertaining tales in their own right, the stories in In the Pink also make good reading for students of the cultural history of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

While upon the surface some of the stories in the collection might appear samey (narrator drinks in a bar and ends up having an unsettling sexual encounter with someone he meets there), the characters and situations encountered are diverse enough to make each story a unique experience.     The book is branded fiction, but it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that the majority of the pieces are largely autobiographical.  In Roses Trapped in Cubes of Ice, one of the early stories made up of a powerful collage of images from various moments of a life, the narrator incriminates his grandmother for the fact of his becoming a writer: “She bought me my first typewriter, and told me to become a writer.  I don’t know whether to thank or curse her.  All I ever wanted to do was retire.”  In my mind, I hear these words coming, in perfect dead-pan fashion, from Winans’ own mouth while sipping a beer somewhere in the Mission neighborhood which, along with North Beach, provides the settings for many of the stories in the collection.

Like much of Bukowski’s work, Winans’ stories are crafted with simple and effective unadorned prose.  The unmistakeable music of spoken language flows through these stories.  From beginning to end, In the Pink is a solid, entertaining read that manages, with a unique voice, to capture the spirit and the people of a San Francisco that doesn’t quite exist anymore.  Or maybe does, if you know the right neighborhoods.

 

 

About the Reviewer:

William Taylor Jr. is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and a cat named Trouble. His work has been widely published in the small press and across the internet in such publications as Poesy, Anthills and The Chiron Review. He is the author of several chapbooks and his latest books are So Much Is Burning (sunnyoutside, 2006) and Words For Songs Never Written, (Centennial Press, 2007).