Category — Books/Reviews
Two Book Reviews
by Mary Kane
Reviewed by Miriam O’Neal
Author: Mary Kane
Published By: One Bird Book
ISBN-10: 149 4838427
Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com
Door, Mary Kane’s first full-length volume of poems, has the fullness of a mature writer. This is a poet who has practiced her craft extensively and with intensity. The door of the title poem turns out to be the broad expanse of a man’s back. Other doors turn out to be memories, windows, spaces between trees, death, ideas…. Each contains a threshold and a frame. Each invites entry or exit; from unconsciousness to consciousness, from the past to the future, from grief to acceptance, from the real to the surreal.
Over the course of the first 5 poems of Door we move from,
- the ‘black door’ of a man’s back ‘opening/ to a church where the flat/hat of a single congregant/ accommodates despair
- to the ‘black coat’ in a series of photographs, which reminds the speaker of an early time when ‘Doctors and clergymen’ visited people in their homes.
- to ‘several varieties of morning light, all of them useful for reflection….’, in the daytime memory of a dream of an extramarital affair,
- to a woman named Mary Ann, who exists in a painting by that name, but whom the speaker invites you to imagine as yourself.
- to lemons in a daughter’s drawing that elicit layers of awareness of grief, desire, the loss of innocence, and more.
Real and imagined characters, artists, writers, and family members enter and leave the rooms of these poems, the action often takes place in a kitchen, on a sidewalk, in a dream, and other places. One wonderful characteristic of the poems in Door, is that Kane manages to persuade you to suspend your disbelief early on by providing familiar and ordinary details through which to view the worlds these poems inhabit.
Each poem operates as a report or a musing. We read the odd details of dreams or memories; the propositions she presents begin to reveal our own unconsciousness to us. I do not mean she preaches to us; she discusses matters with us. In “The Listener” we meet Joe, who
…cups one hand
behind his ear and crouches
in a scraped out space beneath a sidewalk, in hiding
in the dark nine-tenths of who I am….
It’s difficult to say how many times I have read this particular poem, but every time I read it I am amazed by its ability to clarify the particular reality of an acknowledged hidden self who understands what we are about. We each have a ‘Joe’ within, a ‘listener,’ that hidden part of ourselves with whom we long to merge; we “long to sit at dinner// with [our] entirety….”, even though until this moment we haven’t had a name for that self or for that longing.
A lot of what opens the door for the reader of these poems is Kane’s ability to remove us from the predictable immediately. Her titles and opening lines set up expectations of a one kind only to displace us by way of curious images or ideas. You might imagine you know what to expect from a poem whose title is, “Better Than Catholicism,” but you would be mistaken.
A man walks up Main Street
with a cardboard box on his head
and decides he likes it
better than Catholicism
but not so much
as a cigarette at a bar.
It’s important to say that Kane never reaches for the polemical. If she’s writing about religion, she’s not claiming it’s rightness or wrongness, she’s writing about the longing that one’s connection to a religion may or may not fulfill. That theme of longing is echoed in “Love Poem #279”, whose opening lines tell us “A poet is someone who is stupid/ enough to keep scratching….”, and with the closing lines of “Love Poem — Egret”,
which closes with,
…. I used to be
made of bird too, my fast
heart, my voice hidden
in foliage, my ready flight.
That sense of past life is one way that the poems address the presence of absence.
Absences create spaces. Spaces are to be entered.
Kane’s poems startle me into awareness again and again. There is the line from “A Fine Red New of Capillaries In The Shape Of A Human Head” where the speaker claims, “If you bring forth what is in you, that’s the Gospel of Thomas.” Thomas was the apostle who doubted that Christ has risen, so was invited to place his fingers in the wound in Christ’s side as proof that this was Christ. As such, this single line provides a quick insight or an afternoon of contemplation. What is the place of doubt in the human psyche?
There is also an intense awareness of how we inhabit the physical world as in the poem “Measure” where,
In the first winter
two sisters skate at night, lying on their backs
on the ice afterward, their ears and fingers
cold, the creak and moan of thick ice
widening the night….
Like a painter who knows her brushes, Kane has captured the experience of night skating precisely with a few strokes, including the sound of ice refreezing in the dark, which makes the night feel deeper, broader, and more mysterious.
If you review the table of contents of Door, it might seem that she sometimes goes too far with her titles. There are 7 poems whose titles are 9 or more words long, and 1 exceeds 20 words. These are juxtaposed with the single word titles like ‘Door” and “Measure,” “Parnate” and “Evidence.” I mention the titles only because they are, all of them, the kinds of titles, whether brief or extensive, that take on the work of doors themselves, framing the spaces of the poems, insuring that when you enter, you know how you got there, especially because where you end up can be so unexpected.
One of the remarkable characteristics of Kane’s work is her capacity for an undercurrent of droll humor. Imaginary characters like Eleanor, Ellen, a woman sitting on clouds or in a tree, and 3 women having tea, arrive with strange news or casseroles, or a photo of a window and a field; a poem shows up with mud on its trousers. The reader feels she knows the cast from somewhere else. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Woolf, Whitman, Dickinson, Cezanne, Kitaj, Degas, and others show up to referee, infer, or illuminate situations. Yet there is not a single presence that feels self-conscious. They inhabit the poems as naturally as the birds— herons, orioles, egrets, the shadow of a hawk.
A common practice of reviewers is to examine a collection of poems for its arc. I won’t claim to have found one in Door. What I find is a wandering, as in the aboriginal ‘walk about’, which is defined by some as a rite of passage of adolescence, but is also related to the practice of leaving ordinary/daily life without notice when a ceremony must be attended to. The poems lead the reader on and on, from room to room, world to world, vision to vision. The first and title poem “Door” ends with the line “I only have to change/ utterly to enter.” The final poem “There Will Be A Woman Written In As A Wren,” suggests the transformation has occurred when one last character is introduced, “…there’ll be a young boy tossing a baseball in the air, higher and higher, always catching it in his glove….”. His easiness with ball and glove, in spite of ever growing distance between the two suggests a way of living with it all— with longing, with absence, with wonder, with grief: stand still, wait, receive, release. Repeat.
Door, by Mary Kane (ISBN 13: 978-149483423)
One Bird Book
35 Brush Hill Circle
Hatchville, MA 02536
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 WithWhat We’re Given is currently looking for a home.
From These Roots
by Audrie Clifford
Reviewed by Eileen Dandashi
Title: From These Roots
Author: Audrie Clifford
Published By: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
(March 4, 2014)
Audrie’s books are so unique. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. She tells us that some are purely fiction, some are memoirs and others are a combination. She’s got stories in her, this feisty-tell-it-how-it-is-80-year-old, who puts just enough fictional material in a factual setting that you have to read it.
Her story about her mother and grandmother was researched through family and her own memory. It is her mother’s story, but it’s hers and well as her brother and sisters. The absolutely clever way she begins the book keeps you reading, after all, doesn’t everyone want to find out what the dead have to say?
I’ve been dead a good long while now. I didn’t mean to scare you by saying that, but I didn’t want you to think that I was alive and that you could communicate with me.
I died in 1939, which was a considerable time ago, but you know how folks say that as long as there is anyone who remembers you, you’re really not gone? Well, it’s true. There are only two granddaughters left who have the vaguest memory of me, and those two girls are getting old, so I won’t be around much longer, I guess. I’ll just be fading into that blur of ancestors that we all have, and I don’t know if there are individual spirits among them. Guess I’ll be finding out pretty soon.
I liked the book for the story itself, the relationships been daughter and mothers. I was touched by the purely unselfish acts that women did for each other. It also described life as it used to be. I am not as old as Audrie, but I know life was simpler in the 1950s. But in the early 1900s when Florence, lived, there was very little of what we’ve come to expect today. Yep, outhouses were the norm in lots of the United States since much of it was rural. People did their own canning of summer harvests to tie them over through the hard months of winter. Poverty during the depression years was the new norm. Cars were a rarity. Doctors may know what you have, but have nothing to make it go away. And if they know what something is, there were no pills to pop, just herbs and natural ways to get over something. Addy, one of Emma’s children, had the Cuban itch. What is the Cuban itch you ask? The doctor had such a novel way to get rid of it! Hey, you gotta’ read the book, I can’t tell! People had to rely on themselves whenever they could, but also found help was available from the graciousness of others who had a little more than they did. Life was simple, yet difficult.
Women have always had to be strong. They were survivors. They still are. Our environment and challenges have changed, but the struggle continues. I’d like to think that our genes have been conditioned by our ancestors dealing with adversity. Women have always been thus challenged. We shall overcome and be stronger for it.
Audrie writes from her heart in a very entertaining way. I really have enjoyed all her books to date. I hope that you’ll choose to read one. Below are the covers of her books with purchase links from Amazon. Below that are links to my previous reviews of her three other books.
Book Jacket Blurb: Most of us don’t live in exactly the same style as our parents. It is the nature of the child to break away and to see a life more in keeping with their own inclinations. From These Roots tells the stories of Florence, a woman of the early 20th century and her daughter, Emma. Both women faced the challenges of poverty and heartbreak and yet, neither woman let circumstances define her.
As women of the modern age, we are inclined to give ourselves credit for our strength and courage in overcoming obstacles, never wondering where those qualities came from.
Perhaps the best thing to inherit from your ancestors is neither money nor beauty. It is the ability to cope with adversity.
A warm, but unsparing look at the events that occur in many of our lifetimes. Florence tells the tales of her own life and that of one of her daughters. They were both good women, but while Florence accepted betrayal and heartbreak in a docile manner as was proper at the turn of the twentieth century, Emma was more inclined to fight back or to get even. Their strength and endurance, along with that of other mothers has been left as a legacy to the women of today. “Great story about the joys and sorrows all families face during a lifetime.”
Another Damn Newcomer https://eileendandashi.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=852&action=edit
A bit of information about Audrie Clifford:
My first book was factual, my second and third books were fiction, From These Roots is both.
I always knew that I wanted to tell my mother’s story because I found it to be almost unbelievable. What I needed to put it in an acceptable format was someone to tell the story from an all-seeing point of view. My mother’s mother seemed to be a perfect solution. The only problem was that I hadn’t known my grandmother. She died when I was only five-years old, after seeing her one time.
Family history, however, gave me some of the known facts of her life and she became “Florence” in my book. All I had to do was write the story to conform to the known facts.
My mother’s story (“Emma” in the book) was written to be as true to her reality as I could make it. She really, truly did intend to commit murder, and admitted it quite casually to me. She really, truly did deliver another woman’s baby in the desert.
Most women don’t have those kinds of stories, so that’s why I felt hers should be told.
The book I’m currently working on was decided on as a bit of challenge to me. This is a story of an ordinary life as told by a nine-year old.
About Eileen Dandashi:
“I am a lover of books, both reading and writing. My mission is to encourage people to see the treasures that lie between the pages. I enjoy conversing with authors, fellow bloggers who have anything to do with books and have a particular thrill seeing writers newly published. I am a past teacher of music, English as a secondary language, and French. I have traveled and lived in much of the Middle East, Arab speaking countries and would like to share my experiences and knowledge through the printed word.”
November 5, 2014 Comments Off on BOOKS/Reviews
The Universal Poet
Review of Sándor Kányádi’s poetry volume
“In Contemporary Tense”
by Emil Fischer
Book Review: “In Contemporary Tense” by Sándor Kányádi, poetry translated from the Hungarian by Paul Sohar, introduction by the translator.
Published by Irodalmi Jelen (Romania) and Iniquity Press (David Roskos, POB 906, Island Heights, NJ 08732, USA), 2013.
Hard cover, full color, 6X9, 342 pages; USBN: 1-877968-49-8
Available on amazon.com or the publisher, $19.50.
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It’s unusual to have a little-known poet introduced in a densely packed 300-plus page tome, but Sándor Kányádi, the prominent Hungarian poet, is not entirely a newcomer to the English-speaking world; “Dancing Embers,” a neat selection of his best-loved poems, was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2002 to critical acclaim, and the present volume lists four pages of magazine and anthology acknowledgements. Thus, his name may resonate with many lovers of poetry.
György Faludy, a contemporary compatriot poet, yielded the title of “the best living Hungarian poet” to Kányádi; anyone interested in modern Hungarian poetry need only pick up this volume and keep sampling it, the way poetry is best enjoyed. Daunting as the sheer amount of material may seem at first, in Paul Sohar’s translation, the lines come in a natural flow whether in conventional form or in free verse or a unique blend of both. The poet’s eclecticism guarantees a great variety of approaches and styles; never a dull moment, never a hackneyed metaphor, never a theme not worth exploring. The poems added to the 2002 selection are of the same high quality and interest and include several longer late works not yet available at that time. Nitpickers may question the inclusion of two or three pages of ditties from story books. Skip them if you don’t want to stoop to children’s level, but don’t miss the longer tale, “The Curious Moon;” it can be read as sci-fi full of social significance and political parody. Such interpretation would rarely be amiss anywhere in this volume.
One more thing about the length of the book: the collection is couched in additional prose material, mostly commentary and elucidation but the incisive introduction by the translator should be especially helpful to readers not familiar with Hungarian literature, and it’s not very often that even such ancillary material is credited with prior publication. Almost all poems bear a date and even footnotes where absolutely necessary – the language barrier is not the only one to be overcome in translation.
With these caveats out of the way let’s look at the contents. We see poets coming from Eastern Europe in two preconceived models: either the rustic native talent full of natural wisdom and contemptuous of western decadence or the cunning intellectual sophisticate filled with irony and enamored of western decadence. Neither of these notions applies to Kányádi – or else they both do. He came from a poor peasant family and had a barefoot childhood in a small village of Transylvania, but his subsidized boarding school education catapulted his mind into the wider world of ideas very early on. By the time he finished college with a teacher’s certificate he was a recognized poet and got a job as a magazine editor, living in a major city of Transylvania. But images of country life remained iconic in his poetry and hardscrabble existence determinative of his sensibilities.
The stubble was so cruel to my feet
(their burning even night rest couldn’t treat).
So often I stopped stumbling just to cry,
lizards had a better fate than I.
At least a bird, a butterfly or a bee,
but it was a pilot I most wanted to be.
My pitcher was so easy to destroy,
yet always I remained a waterboy.
(From “The Waterboy”, p.91)
Sounds a little old-fashioned? While Kanyadi has pursued formal poetry all his life he has not hesitated to venture into free style when the poem demanded it like in the eponymous poem:
I fear him
you fear him
we fear him
you fear him
This works better in the original, because Hungarian conjugation incorporates not only the pronoun but some indication of the object in the verb. The poem is dated from the ’80s, before the regime change, from the era of Ceaucescu dictatorship, a deadly combination of strict communism and even stricter Romanian nationalism that forced the Hungarian poet into either silence or subterfuge in his poetry. In any case, in a situation much too complicated for the waterboy to retain his identity; by this time it had the city sophisticate indelibly superimposed on it, just as the Rumanian citizenship was stamped on the ethnic Hungarian and the communist ideology on the liberal. With all these dualities stretching the poet in different directions it’s no wonder he remained very eclectic in his poetry, using conventional forms and free verse with equal skill and most often in the service of a cause. Number one being the survival of his ethnic minority which he saw ensured only by building bridges to the majority Rumanian population through their poets. He did not only translate their works into Hungarian but dedicated numerous poems to them.
he set the potholes of the sidewalk
to music with his melodious gait
he made a downpour loosen its strings
and the brightest rainbow replicate
(From “My Friend Aurel Gurghianu”, p.257)
In addition, he seeks to better the situation of his people by agitating for the survival of ethnic minorities all over the world; thus he is a cosmopolitan nationalist, feeling kinship with minority cultures condemned to extinction:
down in mexico or far
up north in a Vancouver park
where I saw how natives are
apt to sit around and daze
at the last flickerings of hope
hands dropped on their knees they hold
with us the same end of the rope
I was in those distant lands
so sad and shocked to realize
how our vacant gaze had turned
us into Indians with eyes
that a funeral could’ve hewn
on a sunday afternoon
(From “Oil Print” p. 225)
But enough of Kányádi the polemicist; let’s see how he stacks up as a poet, how he uses his craft, what if anything special he has to offer. His ability to combine images with social issues in a creative way is well demonstrated by the above quotes. However, his best virtue lies in the way he can thread a narrative in a long poem with propulsive force and yet in a deceptively simple and direct language, and this cannot be illustrated; one has to pick up the book to appreciate the magic by which he can compel the reader to follow him in a forest of words page after page. Another unique feature of his long poems is the amalgam of styles he puts together, sometimes even a pastiche of poems quoted in Romanian, French and German. Yet the divergent pieces hang together, echoing and reinforcing one another. The most notable of these long poems is “All Soul’s Day in Vienna:”
They will braid you too some day
in a wreath with pomp replete
but the world will feel as cold and
strange as this Vienna street
In the whitewashed cathedral of
the augustine order I got to pass
an evening with my back against a pillar
listening to mozart’s requiem mass
The opus magnum of his later years, “Mane and Skull”, was written against the background of the Balkan wars of the ’90s that sorely tried the poet’s faith in mankind and in god but also inspired some of his most fervent lines:
You piously hide your face
behind the mounds of our sins
leaving us without a clue
you trespass oh lord by using us
to do your trespassing for you
In “Heretic Telegrams” Kányádi presents a chapbook of poems about poetry and Eastern Europe inspired by his meeting in Rotterdam with Zbigniew Herbert, the noted Polish poet, in 1988; some of his most experimental approaches are demonstrated therein. In addition, he is a master of his own version of the sonnet that utilizes the shorter Hungarian tetrameter lines; he has a number of updated Aesop fable and historical events cast in that form. Whatever the subject or the form his language is always poetic and his metaphors are breathlessly fresh:
Vacant barnyard, vacant hut:
the sadness of church bells
with the tongue torn out.
(“Fall”, p. 69)
And his descriptions are always vivid, merciless in their precision; here is how he brings his aging father to life on the page:
Skin and bone,
Face worn down to skull.
Time whittled to a pin.
(“A Song Choking up on Itself”, p.82)
The enthusiasm of this review is partially due to the translation. Paul Sohar has succeeded in giving us Kányádi in fluid and modern English translation. Even the formal poems have the natural flow of the language; they are never rhyme driven, never twisted out of shape by inversions or other nineteenth century tricks of the trade. The large number of prior publications also attest to the quality of his work; this is the fifth publication of his “All Souls’ Day” and in its fifth version. Most modern translators do not bother with reproducing formal poetry, but Sohar meticulously retains stanzas and line length. He sometimes thins out the rhymes but retains enough to show the form; often he changes “aabb” scheme to “abcb,” which is sufficient to evoke the feel of the original. What he gives us in this book is not a prosaic synopsis of each poem but an English version of it. This is a must read for anyone interested in Eastern European literature – or just good poetry from anywhere.
About the reviewer:
Emil Fischer is a closet writer not by design but by the laws of the literary market place. He has written an unpublished novel and his diary is full of poems. Or scribblings he privately calls poetry. Lately he’s had a few poems published in Buckle &, Chiron, To Topos, Visions International, etc., and a book review in Orbis.
Paul Sohar received the 2014 Irodalmi Jelen Translation Prize for “In Contemporary Tense”, a volume of poems by Sandor Kanyadi (a prominent Romanian-Hungarian poet) in his English translation, available from Iniquity Press (2013) via Amazon.com. You can read more of Sohar’s work and translations here:
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August 29, 2014 Comments Off on In Contemporary Tense/Book Review
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″
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.
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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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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
….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, because 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:
self to staunch the lode
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.
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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, 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.
 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.
 See discussions about the possibility of adapting a compensated living-donor organ transplantation program in the United States for more insight into the debate.
 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/)
[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.
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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).
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on 4 Good Books
Lots of books, few reviewers… So, herewith, a selection to choose from (AND MORE ABOUT SOME OF THESE LATER…) Foozler Runs, by Stephen Poleskie, Onager Editions, Ithaca, NY, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-60047-929-8$16.95
OK, so it took me most of the summer to get around to reading this book, but it rocks, so I don’t mind that I finally finished it, albeit as the dog days of August were being polluted with heavy rains… Kind of fit with the tenor of the tale, a story about a failed golf pro from a failed family who carries his failures with him in the trunk of his car. You’ll know what I mean when you get there…. Poleskie writes with a wry humor that reveals itself nicely in bits and pieces from kinky sex scenes to bovine pleasures and displeasures. Poleskie proceeds to amuse and surprise. His handling of the language is agile, colorful, and clear evidence that talent — as life — can be as multi-faceted as one chooses to make it.
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Players of Strange, Meaningless Games: The Art of Hawk Alfredson, with Hector Gramme. Hypnagog Books, 2014. ISBN 9781497560833. $19.95. Cover image: “August in Wonderland”. 70 color images.
Surrealism dead? Or just become Magic Realism? And as unreal as the paintings are the writings of Hector Gramme, a Swedish writer and friend of Alfredson who wrote most of entries especially for and specific to the images with which they appear. Hawk and his wife photographer Mia Hanson (who photographed all the paintings for this book), live in New York where they once were long-time residents of the Hotel Chelsea and now live in Washington Heights. This compilation, in addition to making for some good reading, introduces the reader to Alfredson, who shares some of the influences that helped shape his artist’s life, and that brought him to New York. An enjoyable presentation of the art and artistry of Alfredson in combination with an enjoyable poetic read.
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The Reharkening, by Stephen Todd Booker, from The Black Mountain Press, ISBN 978-1-940605-90-6, Asheville, NC.
Death Row poet Stephen Todd Booker’s poetry reflects where a man’s mind goes when his body is consigned to stand still. The several volumes and many individual poems he’s published are a casting of the web of the spider on the wall in his cell, which he visits in the pages of this latest volume, The Reharkening. Booker remains defiant in these poems, pointing out deficiencies in the system where outsiders live, a world he sees only on television, or can read about in newspapers, books and other peoples’ poetry. Thus, perhaps, the acknowledgements of numerous well-known poets. I wonder what, if anything, he would have written had his life taken a different turn and he were consigned to making a choice between living a so-called normal life, writing poetry nights and weekends when he wasn’t tending bar, teaching high school or even trading securities on Wall Street. In that case, this reviewer might want to read more.
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#specialcharacters, by Larissa Shmailo, from Unlikely Books, ISBN 978-0-9708750-8-2, Lafayette, LA. www.unlikelystories.org.
Shmailo’s poetry and prose poems present an interior and exterior life in “no holds barred” fashion that will make a lot of readers uneasy. If you’ve forgotten how to write the truth as you see it, read this book and rediscover how to tell it like it is. With the incorporation of several languages ( I don’t know if these are stolen phrases or evidence of fluency), her style and reach are impressive. Shmailo is alive in the moment and willing to share, a voice in itself that deserves listening.
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Imagining the Audience: Viewing Positions in Curatorial and Artistic Practice, a production of the Swedish Exhibition Agency in collaboration with Mobile Art Production and CuratorLab; edited by Magdalena Malm and Annika Wik. From Art & Theory Publishing. Bi-Lingual (Swedish and English).
The next time you go into a museum or exhibition space, don’t just look at the art. Look at the way it’s displayed. Why is this painting or sculpture there? Who selected the typeface and layout on the title cards? How did the lighting get to be positioned and directed “just so”? Why are you standing where you are? Imagining the Audience contextualizes these and other considerations that occupy curators’ minds and lives; their efforts are often and easily overlooked. This book in an explanation and appreciation of their art, and the services they perform.
4) Artistic Revolution/Art & Transformation: “Art can not be empty, because the history of humanity repeats itself and is frightening. It is up to the artist to manifest himself through his work, and bequeath an interpretation of his time , a message.” Brazilian multimedia artist Duda Penteado has divided his time over the last 20 years between the United States and Brazil. In recent years, he’s devoted much of his work to the issues of peace, globalization, diaspora, dual citizenship and other geopolitical and social phenomena of the 21st Century. This book, ARTISTIC REVOLUTION, ARTE & TRANSFORMAÇÃO, focuses on the transformative power of art and presents his creative technique called ARTISTIC SYMPHONY. The book is the result of over two years of work with the participation of important art critics and writers in both Brazil and the United States, including Katia Canton, Olivio Guedes, Oscar D ´Ambrosio, Joao Eduardo Hidalgo, George N . Preston, Alejandro Anreus, Jose Rodeiro and Carlos Hernandez. Launched in partnership with the publishing company of GRUPO REAÇÃO NATURAL , this book was released simultaneously in May 2014, with a website featuring interviews, lectures, reviews and special introduction of a new art project in the Amazon. For more information, see: www.gruporeacaonatural.com.br For more information about Penteado, see: www.dudapenteado.com.br, http://old.ragazine.cc/2013/11/brazil-transformation/ and http://old.ragazine.cc/2012/04/brazilian-art/ 3) 101 Vagina: “Dedicated to our bodies and our sexuality, our deepest desires and most delicate vulnerability.” From Taboo Books, ISBN 979-0-0874090-0-3, Melbourne, Australia. Can be purchased online at www.101vagina.com. Photographed by Philip Werner, introduction by Toni Childs and commentary by each of the anonymous women whose pudenda appear in this collection, along with a useful footnote on why the title “vagina,” and not vulva, pudenda or another term more in keeping with the body part actually portrayed. The traveling exhibition is scheduled for New York, June 3-8, 2014, and Toronto, June 14-22. 2) Biology of Luck: Trials and tribulations as author Jacob M. Appel guides the reader through a New York City as seen by insiders and tourists, alike. All the while our hero, Larry Bloom, stakes claim to an unlikely romance with a young woman less attuned to wishful thinking than her immediate physical needs. Unusually articulate, this book is a day-in-the-life tale of its characters’ highs and lows that proves most days, when you pay attention, are about like any other. Elephant Rock Books (www.elephantrockbooks.com), ISBN 978-0-9753746-8-9. $16.00 1) The Great Grandmother Light
“New and Selected Poems” by Joe Weil, NYQ Books, The New York Quarterly Foundation. 201 pages. ISBN 978-1-935520-80-1. $16.95. What you see is what you get from Joe Weil, whether in person or in print. Part professor, part labor union steward, part poet, all Irish, Weil’s poetry captures life at a personal ground zero that entertains and informs about life’s promise and perpetual denoument. Nothing is overlooked, all the strengths and weaknesses of the past come forward, as in “Weil, You Suck, or Perpetually in Right”:
The taste of failure has sand in it and there’s no way to rid the mouth of grit, and I remember loafing home after wondering why God would send seven balls to right. It was God who did it. had to be. Usually, a right fielder could pick his drawers from the crack of his ass, practice spitting between his teeth, have a zen experience watching puffs of sand blow in from second base.
But no: Seven balls, three in one inning, all rolling to the edge of the train tracks after I missed them, and mr. Zelinger telling his son’s team to hit the ball to that lame red-haired kid in right, bringing all the ruthless Darwinian exploitation of weakness to bear down on my nine-year-old head….
Personal poems that reflect the universal human condition without being a bit maudlin are not easy to find, yet they exist throughout this collection of work that goes back decades. A contemporary poet whose work will long reflect the angst and spirit of our time. — MRF Adam Fitzgerald’s review: http://tinyurl.com/kbw6r4u. Former student, friend, accomplice and fellow poet, Adam Fitzgerald comments on “The Great Grandmother Light”.
August 23, 2014 Comments Off on Catching up on BOOKS
WRITING BLUE HIGHWAYS
William Least Heat-Moon’s Story
of How a Book Happened
by John Smelcer
In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon began a 14,000 miles, 38-state, multi-year journey in his van named Ghost Dancing. He took only lesser-traveled back roads, those indicated in blue on road maps. Along the way, he met people from all walks of life. As the miles accumulated, the idea for a book began to take root. The manuscript traveled its own journey toward publication. When Blue Highways finally came out in 1982, it spent 42 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The following excerpt is from Heat-Moon’s just-released Writing Blue Highways (University of Missouri Press, 2014), in which the author tells the story of how his masterpiece “happened.” In this chapter aptly titled, “The Secret Society Begins to Emerge,” the publisher (Atlantic Monthly Press) has been whittling down the length of the ponderous manuscript. Unexpectedly, the editor, Peter Davison, calls to deliver the devastating news that that they can’t include any of the photographs in the book due to escalating printing costs. As a photojournalist, Heat-Moon understood the importance of the images and how much the book’s success depended on them.
Although our paths had crossed a couple times in the past two decades, it wasn’t until after I moved to Missouri in the summer of 2013 that Heat-Moon and I struck up a friendship, having occasional lunch in Columbia while discussing current writing projects, and even doing a book signing together. Blue Highways has long been one of my favorite books; I’ve taught it several times alongside Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. If it’s one of yours and you want to learn more about the book’s backstory, or if you are a writer who wants to learn about another writer’s struggles to get his book published, read Writing Blue Highways.
– John Smelcer
From Chapter IX:
One afternoon Peter Davison phoned to say the price of the book would be $13.50. A couple of days later he called
again to say it would have to be $15.95. “There’s an invisible seventeen-dollar barrier these days,” he said, “and we can’t let it go higher than that.” The next week it did, and he phoned to take up the issue a third time. “Somebody here seriously underestimated the length of your manuscript. It’s pushing two hundred thousand words. The ink on your pages weighs more than the paper.”
My condensations and dumped widows had worked — perhaps too well. That was the good news. Then came the bad, the ugly: “The photographs are driving the price of the book too high. I’m sorry to tell you this, but we’re going to have to leave them out. After all, the Atlantic proved they aren’t necessary.”
I’d humbugged experienced word-editors on the length of the book, and now the piper wanted his pay. A long silence before I could speak. Please don’t do that. “We have to,” he said. “The public’s not going to pay seventeen dollars for this book. I know the decision upsets you, but there’s no other choice.” I thought before I answered. There is another choice. “Which is?” I’ll withdraw the manuscript. The conversation had become strained. “You’re making a mistake,” he said. “A big, serious mistake.” Click, line dead. Well, boys, there you have it.
That evening Lucy was unhappy: “After four years, you find an editor to believe in your book, and then in one phone call Mister Big-Time-Author casts him aside before the book even exists? Have you lost your mind? I wondered the same thing and tossed the issue around, but I couldn’t see things as just a matter of money. The pictures of thirty-seven people, two cats, and one dog were integral and critical: A photograph can go where words cannot.
The incentive for the journey began with an urge to make environmental portraits of authentic habitants of the American backcountry. In the beginning was not the word but the image; when the book was without form, and void, there were photographs — “light-writing” — and the pictures gave off energy and sustained the journey when little else did. And on the road, the growing album gave purpose to mileage and promised a seed-bed for something larger as a gallery grew into a garden.
Those faces became prima facie evidence requiring more than just captions or notes; they demanded voice so they could attest to their lives, and even when words began rising to make affirming images subservient, to eliminate them was errantly wrong. Origins, seeds, and inceptive impulses belonged to the work as much as did their results: Blue Highways began not with a typewriter but with a camera.
When I went to bed that night, I told Lucy removing the photographs would be a death stroke to the book, and she said, “Saying no to a yes is also a death stroke.”
A ringing phone pulled me awake the next morning. It was Davison whose hello was a grudging “You win.” His fast turnabout removed any chance I would have to talk myself out of a sound principle.
My medieval notion about the Great Wheel — and one other thing — had me ready for the next rotation… My “next” was the Book of the Month Club turning down Blue Highways after two readers said they saw no significant audience for a story about “some guy in a truck going nowhere.”
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July 10, 2014 Comments Off on Writing Blue Highways
Hitting the Base Notes
“The Beautiful American”
by Jeanne Mackin
NAL Trade Paperback Original
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
I first met Jeanne Mackin during a visit with her husband, Steve Poleskie, at their home in Ithaca, New York. I was about to leave when Jeanne showed up and offered to make lunch, which turned out to be turkey and cheese with honey on sourdough bread – with white wine, of course. It was a delightful interlude on a beautiful day when I was in Ithaca on other business and took what I thought would be just a moment to say hello to Steve.
The next time I saw her, last summer, she had just signed a two-book deal and shared her anxiety about being able to finish both on deadline, which did not seem to be too far off. As it is, she finished the first, which is The Beautiful American, a wonderful tale of the interwoven lives of two women, a protagonist whose beauty and fame led her in a direction of lively adventure, a flight from personal sorrow and ultimate but shadowed fame, while the other experienced the fascination of living a dream, seeing it shattered and then literally and figuratively having it reborn. I don’t know anything about the second book, but I trust it will be as engaging as the first.
The Beautiful American, of course, is Lee Miller, a girl from Poughkeepsie, New York, who became a Vogue model, lover, mistress and protogé of the Surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray, friend of Picasso and numerous other Surrealist luminaries living in Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and one of the most influential photographers of World War II. The narrator is Nora, Mackin’s creation, a parallel figure in Miller’s life whose own story carries the reader along through highs and lows of the artistic life, France under fascism into and through World War II, and briefly into the second half of the Twentieth Century when the women cross paths a final time and their personal triumphs and fortunes are revealed.
Mackin’s ability to craft characters and re-create history, writing stories inside stories to generate a literary DNA, in this case a double helix of main events that drive one another to the end, marks her special talent as novelist and story teller. Mackin gives us scenes and situations that fit together and come apart like Russian dolls, one by one until the last, with detail that gives perspective to the whole, wherein the construction becomes complete and absolute.
Events recounted from Miller’s life give shape to the kind of woman she understandably could and did become. The influence she had on those around her colors the fabric of the tale. But this story is as much about Nora, childhood friend, confidante, parfumer extraordinaire, and one of the many people in Miller’s life the goddess purportedly and purposefully betrayed – simply because she could. We pick up a book to read about the life of a famous American, and end up as interested in the complexities of normality that afflict the fictional narrator. One might ask, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Who is more important? Who is more real, who would we rather be?
From that fragile web and in this book, Mackin weaves together lives hauled up through muddy waters of the past into a kind of light where hardship hardly matters any more. A satisfying resolution to a story of note about two women that just as easily could have ended in despair.
About the reviewer:
Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him on the “About Us” page.
Also in this issue: Foldes’ interview with Jeanne Mackin
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on The Beautiful American/Book Review
Cassandra’s Song: Beautiful Rush
by Marc Vincenz
Poetry, 88 pp.
Unlikely Books 2014
Winner of the 2013 Unlikely Mississippi Award
by Larissa Shmailo
One day in Hong Kong not so very long ago, a Swiss businessman named Marc Vincenz was hit upside the head by Calliope, Erato, and Polyhymnia all at once. At the muses’ insistence, Vincenz left behind 2,000 employees and the Orient, and surrendered to the life of a poet. Today, as becomes a servant of the muse, he is dutifully prolific, with seven books, and several chaps. A prominent translator of German poets and editor of Madhat and FULCRUM, Vincenz is also the force behind a new nonprofit serving small presses, Evolution Arts.
As might be expected, Vincenz’s poetry is cosmopolitan, wise, and colorful, brimming with the life of the many countries and people he has known. With Beautiful Rush, however, there is an ethereal and transcendent quality to his verse, a subtler and softer beauty to the language. The muses are gentler here, and the poet, although he sings of death and chaos, seems lightly touched by their wings.
This ethereal, otherworldly quality appear even in poems that speak of tuberculosis, gin bottles, guns, or war, and the many miseries, psychic and physical, to which we humans are heir. From the section, “How to Die of Beauty”:
when the sea
shakes the walls
and an infinity
of ghostly shoes lines blue-eyed
where I am not yet dead
I am not quite
— “Simenon’s Speck of Gladness”
There is the feeling that Vincenz is writing the final haiku of a samurai before seppuku who suddenly sees the beauty of the overcast sky. There immediacy to the verse in Beautiful Rush, supported structurally by Vincenz’s choice of short lines and spare stanzas. The white space on the page gives room and air to the poems, so that even its imprisoned denizens can breathe.
True to the poetic traditions of East and West alike, Vincenz’s codas are pregnant with meaning, posing to the reader the accursed questions of human life. From “She, at Heart, a Blue Whale”:
Is this the world that I’ve come to know
on the back of my hand?
The heroine of Beautiful Rush is the doomed Cassandra, who is the voice of several poems in this collection, and who, like the poet, has seen it all. From “Cassandra’s Designated Light”:
Isn’t there potential for chaos
in everything we see or touch?
. . .
Who is the patriarch?
and who the master?
the I in her?
And who the sky
that hangs above,
blue and in its foul temper?
and from “Cassandra Knows How to Die of Beauty”:
The name, love,
is crossed out.
O to write
letter after letter
a fruitless cause.
A letter, of course,
seems like immortality.
The beauty of Beautiful Rush is not innocent beauty, callow and untried. It is a beauty that has been scarred, and yet rises to sing. It is, as the poet says, beauty to die for.
About the author:
Larissa Shmailo’s newest collection of poetry is #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books). Larissa is the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses.
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on Beautiful Rush/Book Review
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.
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
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,
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 all, or any one of us.
Incarnadine: ISBN 978-1-55507-635-4
80 pages, 7.5”x 9”, paperback, full color ($15.00)
First Edition 2013
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)
128 pages, 6”x 9”, paperback, full color ($14.00)
First Edition 2012
Červená Barva Press
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.
* * * * *
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)
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 2013www.jadedibisproductions.com
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.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Source & Language: 3 Book Reviews
A DIRT ROAD HANGS FROM THE SKY:
POEMS BY CLAUDIA SEREA
by Barbara Rosenthal
Judging this book by its cover is exactly the right thing to do. The cover is black, matte, waxy, subtle, pliable; it yields but springs back. Its large, strong, cramped capital block letters, once white, are now broken, scratched, distressed. The illustration, placed on a vertical axis between the title above and author below, looks at first to be the eye of a fox or cat or snake, but come closer and you’ll realize that its vertical pupil is the silhouette of a girl. We see her from the back. She’s stepping into the scene, a receding forest path. When we take a breath, allow ourselves to open the cover and follow, we tread A Dirt Road Hangs from the Sky, fifty-eight harrowing poems by Claudia Serea, telling in their sparse but unsparing way of the brutal Communist era in her native Romania.
With a nod to those who’ve trod the road before, notably the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose political endurance and formal craft have been a compass, Serea finds images in nature to serve as statements of witness. She shows us grim political realities through windows of breathtakingly sharp, poignant, original metaphor and observation. And she writes with great restraint — lines of only three to six words within stanzas of two to four lines within poems of four to fifteen stanzas, and one, “The Dictionary”, a ten-page self-contained section.
From “The Dictionary”:
A succession of sounds
to which a face is attached
From “Valea Piersicilor
Oh green valley,
where the arms of the trees rise in surrender
and the roots kneel in the ground,
how quiet you are.
Some in first person, some through the eyes of her grandmother or other relatives old enough to have had direct experience, Claudia Serea writes enduringly of the mundane and the spiritual without falling into traps of sensationalization, saturation, poetification, schooling or slam-cadence. She keeps her own voice evenly pitched, steadily thrumming, then suddenly sings or screams out a black-edged half-rhyme or a brilliant note of contrast.
This body of work is almost flawless. Its few tiny stumbles serve merely to make perfectionists wish only that everything in the world were as nearly as perfect. Only that the numbered partitions don’t differentiate themselves, and within the poems a few possessive/noun combinations that might have been plural/verb; a few extra gazes at the sky, rain, kisses, slivers of soap and shuffling feet; and the editor might have inserted a historical forward for those of us who must pause our reading to refer to outside scholarship so we don’t miss a single step. This reviewer mentions these things only out of duty, for they exist among passages as significant and intense as this:
From “A song on the radio”:
Fall has come.
It flows from the barrel.
Farewell is the young wine
you pour into the evening’s glass.
It’s sweet and tart like summer
with a hint of grass
broken under our bodies.
Take a sip, love,
Fall has come.
* * * * *
Serea, Claudia, A Dirt Road Hangs From the Sky, 8th House Publishing, Montreal, Canada, 2013. ISBN 978-1-926716-24-4
About the reviewer:
Barbara Rosenthal is a New York artist and writer of existential themes. Four of her books have been published by Visual Studies Workshop Press. Cold Turkey at the Dog Run will be published by Deadly Chaps Press this spring.
* * * * *
by Cherise Wyneken
Grace Marie Grafton’s latest book of poetry, published by Hip Pocket Press, draws one in with its intriguing title, “Jester,” and by the colorful cover depicting a jester’s antics. Continuing in the mood of the title, the book is formatted in sections reminiscent of acts in an old-fashioned vaudeville show: Improv’, Impersonations, Singing the Blues, and Last Act.
One soon finds that the acts are not mere buffoonery, but poetry, giving us a picture of Grafton’s prowess of imagination and skill. She becomes the jester herself as she puts words together in imaginative ploys. Words that leap from the inspiration she found in a line or title of a poem, a piece of art, or its title.
In the first section, Improv’, “Flying home from a lost wedding” is the title of a poem by Rosmarie Waldrop. Grafton’s version is an evocative example of an improvisation that suggests that everything has gone awry: The hasp of the chest flew open when it/landed in the spring-awakened field and the whole town/and all its environs would become parade.
“Background” in Impersonation, depicts a woman’s picture of herself as a seventeen-year-old who thinks she is acting like a sophisticated woman. It is a memory which she has taken with her all of her life where she says, there’ll always/be my youth as suggested from John Ashbery’s line about time: time that one seizes/and takes along with one is running through the holes…
“The Nude Out West,” is a perfect example of Singing the Blues taken from Joyce Treman’s painting “The Nude Out West.” Here Grafton aptly makes us feel the nude’s regrets:
A fireplace and couch became
her cloister, for thirteen years she wept
about the time she’d wasted dressed in
black and white, then stood up and
taught herself to walk again.
In Last Act, from Claude Monet’s painting “On the cliffs – Dieppe” we are treated to “Maids’ afternoon off,” where through the eyes of the poem Grafton imparts how it would feel to be alive in that scene: how they wish to dangle on ropes down/the steep rock drop, above dangerous water – and They want to risk/coming near the monster, then escape,
Grafton’s poems are filled with splashes of bright colors and inventive specific images: A motif of wildflowers, “Look,”/ I said, /they have owl’s eyes above the white/belly,” from the poem “Approach” for Melissa Kwasny.
We think of a jester as one who entertains. Grace Grafton’s poems do just that. The book is a work of art fit for a king. I highly recommend it to all lovers and would-be lovers of poetry.
Grace Grafton is the author of five previous collections of poetry. She taught for many years in the California Poets In The Schools program, for which she was awarded twelve California Arts Council grants. She was named Teacher of the Year by the River of Words annual student poetry contest co-sponsored by Robert Hass, United State Poet Laureate.
About the reviewer:
Cherise Wyneken is a freelance writer and contributor to the Oakland Chronicle, where this review first appeared. You can read more about her at: email@example.com.
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on A Dirt Road Hangs…/Book Reviews
the PHOTOGRAPHY spot
Special Photograph no. 203A. Thomas Bede was charged with ‘suborn a witness’ at Sydney Quarter Sessions on 11 December 1928, for which he was fined £8. No other details known.
City of Shadows
Sydney police photographs 1920-1950
In the early part of the 20th century police routinely went to places that respectable people did their best to avoid, the dark places where bad things happened. They were just doing their job – asking questions, taking photographs, writing reports. But now, nearly a century later, the fruit of that footwork offers us the most extraordinary and intimate record of the more troubled sides of everyday life in early 20th-century Australia.
The series includes around 2500 “special photographs” taken by New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and 1930. These “special photographs” were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney, and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of “men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension.” Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, “the subjects of the Special Photographs seem to have been allowed – perhaps invited – to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked. Their photographic identity thus seems constructed out of a potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style (haircut, clothing, accessories) and physical characteristic.”
-Sydney Living Museums
Published by: Historic Houses Trust of NSW
240 pages | Hardback
Author : Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams
Get the City of Shadows book here
Information about the exhibition at Sydney Living Museums
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Photo Editor’s Choice / March-April 2014
the PHOTOGRAPHY spot
Straße der Jugend
(Street of Youth)
A photographic work about poverty in Germany
When I first viewed Stephanie Steinkopf’s “Manhattan” I was expecting in seeing photographs from New York City’s most famous borough and not the downtrodden of those living in a nearly vacant apartment complex in a small village outside of Berlin, Germany.
The photographs give insight into the lives of residents in an area of eastern Germany where the promise of prosperity after reunification never was realized. Steinkopf, over four years, was able gain the residents’ trust to photograph very personal moments. Hopefully, the socially concerned photographer will continue using her medium to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Unfortunately the self-published book, in its second edition, is out of print. With luck, another edition is in the works.
– Chuck Haupt, Ragazine’s Photo Editor
…How do people live here 23 years after the fall of the wall? What do the residents wish for? What are their dreams, visions, hopes and fears? What does their everyday life look like? „Straße der Jugend“, „Street of Youth“ is printed on the main road’s sign, leading past Manhattan. It once was to be a road to the future. What future is there here to be had?” …Manhattan: Street of Youth“ offers us an insight into everyday life. These portrayals are the result of ongoing contact with the residents, full of sadness, disillusion, hope and happiness. They are portrayals of life here, of life now, both young and old, of men and women, of being there but wanting not to be, of personal and regional tragedy.
-From Manhattan, text by Jens Thomas
About the photographer:
Stephanie Steinkopf (1978) earned an MA in Ethnomusicology, Contemporary History and Latin American Studies before starting to study photography. She graduated from the Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin in 2012. Her long-term project ‘Manhattan – Street of Youth’ won first prize in the Vattenfall Photo Awards in 2012. In early 2013, Steinkopf’s work was presented in several gallery exhibitions, e.g., C|O Berlin, Kunstverein Tiergarten | Galerie Nord, etc. Her work is focused on long-term projects based on the development of close relationships with individuals. Steinkopf is a freelance photographer in Berlin.
Exhibition at Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Gute Aussichten – new German photography 2013/2014, Febuary 7 till March 23
For the PHOTOGRAPHY spot submissions, please see guidelines at ragazine.cc/submissions/
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Photo Editor’s Choice / Jan-Feb 2014
2 Flights of Fancy
Reviews by Silvia Scheibli
Poised in Flight (ISBN #9781482734225)
A.J. Huffman & April Salzano, eds.
198 pages, 6” x 9”, paperback, greyscale ($7.50)
Kind of a Hurricane Press
Two poetry anthologies are hot off the press, one from the grapefruit capital of the U.S., Florida, the other from the avocado state of California. First up is the anthology, Poised in Flight, an anthology centered upon the theme of “wings,” edited by A.J. Huffman and April Salzano and published by Kind of a Hurricane press from Daytona Beach, Florida. The editors “asked the writing community to ponder the theme of wings.” The result is that “several (contributors) delved into the fantastical flights and follies of mythical icons. Some took us on metaphorical flights of passage and transcendence.” Ultimately, the editors were overwhelmed with submissions and ended up with a substantial 198 page book comprising poems by some 70 poets. Too many poets to list, but some familiar names include, Michael H. Brownstein, Esteban Colon, Patricia L. Goodman, Heller Levinson, Lylanne Musselman, Sy Roth, Carol Smallwood, Diana Woodcock, Dana Yost and Ed Zahniser.
The variety of styles and approaches to the flight theme is quite amazing, attesting to the careful attention given by editors, Huffman and Salzano, to this project. A short poem, “Icarus,” by Janet Butler springs directly from the “mythical icon” perspective:
He made the joyous leap
momentarily, from worries
Brother, now, to all things light
and soaring, he feels
power in shadows
shadows that follow then fade from sight
as he climbs that wide blue highway
to a dead end street.
while Martin Willitts, Jr.’s poem, “Finding the Blue Huron,” explores metaphorical flight:
The Great Huron invented stillness,
and practiced yoga on one leg with the cranes.
It wore white morning light, like a robe.
It knew the patterns of fish;
the purpose of waiting to see
what happens next;
the patience of finding
what you need
and when to get it.
My wife bending her neck in blue reading light,
studies the same intense stillness
as if her life depended upon it.
I balance on one leg finding what I need
and not wanting to disturb it.
And, finally, from the perspective of “passage and transcendence,” we get Alan Britt’s dedication to Andy Warhol superstar and renowned artist in her own right, Ultra Violet, in his poem, “This Time the Clouds.”
This time the clouds
rub their hips
against the branches of our thoughts.
Dried leaves tumble
to the blacktop covered
by redyellow ashes.
Clouds on ice-skates
circle these leaves,
darkening our thoughts,
stirring our imaginations.
Poised in Flight is a lively anthology that is perfect for reading in spurts or at length while RVing your way cross-country or curled beside a December fireplace. This book comes highly recommended.
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Ekphrastia Gone Wild (ISBN: 978-0-9820584-6-6)
Rick Lupert, ed.
145 pages, 51/2” x 81/2”, paperback, full color ($15.00)
Ain’t Got No Press
15522 Stagg Street
Van Nuys, CA 91406
From flight to flights of fancy via the ekphrastic imagination comes the latest anthology from poet, editor and publisher, Rick Lupert’s Van Nuys, California based Ain’t Got No Press. Lupert’s latest anthology, Ekphrastia Gone Wild, is an attractive 145 page collection of, indeed, wild poems by 87 poets exploring the subject of art in every way imaginable. In his introduction, Lupert says, “The relationship between an ekphrastic poem and its subject, the original artwork, has the potential to be more of a recreation of that artwork itself, perhaps more so than just an interpretation of it.” Again, too many poets to list, but a few familiar names include Bruce Taylor, Daniel Y. Harris, David Chorlton, Elleraine Lockie, Fiona Curran, Gerald Locklin, Jim Bennett, Kenneth Pobo, Laurel Ann Bogen, Noel Sleboda, Robert Wynne and, of course, Nobel Laureate, Wislawa Szmborska. A number of poets in this somewhat international anthology hail from Canada, the U.K. and beyond.
As mentioned, these poets explore art in a variety of ways. Notice, for example, from his poem, “Mona Lisa Smiles,” Dan Fitzgerald’s humorous take on Leonardo’s Mona Lisa through the eyes of Mona Lisa herself:
Look at this poor sap
trying to become famous
by painting my picture.
I can see by the drawing
in the next room
that he already did my sister.
Wait till he finds out
I’ve given him the clap.
Then there’s Helen Bar-Lev’s more serious glimpse into Van Gogh’s soul in her poem, “Van Gogh Self-Portrait”:
Brush strokes swirl his face
stir the air around him
into a halo of colours
blue eyes agonized
by their own brilliance
or Wislawa Szymborska’s worldy take on Vermeer’s milkmaid:
So long as that woman from Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.
There are many notable poems in Ekphrastia Gone Wild: Doris Lueth Stengel’s “Last Supper,” Gerald Locklin’s “Frans Hals: Boy with a Lute circa 1625,” Johnmichael Simon’s “The Firing Squad,” Mira Martin-Parker’s “De Young De Young,” and Alan Britt’s “Ode to Velázquez,” a poem which is dedicated to Ragazine’s own José Rodeiro.
An anthology of immense variety, Ekphrastia Gone Wild comes highly recommended for its sheer breadth and depth of originality. As you pack Poised in Flight into the RV, or tuck it under your arm while heading for a glass of Shiraz beside the fireplace, pick up a copy of Ekphrastia Gone Wild as well. You’ll be glad you did.
About the reviewer:
Silvia Scheibli lives in Arizona close to the Mexican border where she taught English to bilingual high school students. Her poems were translated into Spanish and included in La Adelfa Amarga, an anthology published in Lima, Peru. Her poems regularly appear in magazines and journals both in the U.S. and abroad. She is a participating poet in the We Are You Project International (www.weareyouproject.org).
* * * * *
Coffee House Confessions
Review by David Fraser
Coffee House Confessions
First Edition 2013
Silver Birch Press
On the dust jacket the last sentence says, “Ellaraine writes every day in a coffee shop no matter where she is in the world.” That’s a lot of writing, a lot of watching and being watched, and a lot of coffee. She has assembled in Coffee House Confessions, a unique chapbook of 26 poems that explores the lives of characters she meets directly or vicariously in these sanctuaries for one of the world’s greatest addictions.
In “White Noise and Other Muses” she is in Starbucks, her muse haven to watch, witness, and lay down rough drafts. Here is a safe haven to dissect the patrons and not unkindly spit them out on paper. In the opening poem “Java Genetics” she talks of “a gene seed planted by need/when primal people had no written words” and here we see the archetypal draw of the coffee shop, like the fire at night where prehistoric families gathered to tell stories, to share images and communion, sheltered from the cold of night and the darkness surrounding them.
She tells us that she starts “to feel one with it all” and that line is a message to herself and to us: “That you are a part of what flows and glows / falls and rises, purrs and dances.” I don’t drink coffee, although once I did; prefer tea and chi lattes, but I can’t help identifying with her voyeurism and her invention in her poetic storytelling. For me I invent lives and stories from a window of light seen in a small house beside the railway tracks while I am on a speeding train. Ellaraine does the same in the stillness of the coffee shops of the world from Seattle, Silicon Valley, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Mexico. She reminds us that not in all places where coffee is consumed in public is there the freedom we have in North America. Some poets are imprisoned for their words.
Good poets can’t help themselves. There is that need again to be a part of what is around them, to draw it in, to recreate and invent the world that they see and hear and Ellaraine does this very effectively in many of these poems. She brings her own imagination to what and who she observes. In the poem “In the Privacy of the Public” she observes two women, a mother and a daughter who share agony and consolation. The portrait is so delicately drawn for us in the details; sea-green eyes, one rimmed red, a hand, a napkin for a eye, ice melting in a glass, coffee untouched and cold. We see these two women as in a bubble amid the “clamor of the coffee shop.”
Not without a sense of humour, Ellaraine invents whole back stories to the lives that she observes, the family man who is a truck driver, the attorney with The New York Times borrowed from the sales rack on his way into the coffee shop, the war vet hero who desperately wants his independence, the crazy lady and others. At times we get into the whimsical side of her poet’s brain with poems that hint at sensual desires.
There’s World Cup Coffee man on the patio
Lips encircling a cigarette
In bad boy demeanor
Suckle love chiseling his cheekbones”
She says, “I wonder whether his hands / are as hazardous / as the come-hither nicotine”
In another poem it is a man in a cowboy hat, “Eyes blue as Montana Big Sky.” And in another we see a mental intimacy with a blind Japanese man who expects her in her favourite chair close to him and is upset if someone beats her to it. We see the details again that inhabit her poetry so effectively, small intimations, a shoulder tap, a piece of chocolate offered. She says, “I like this limited relationship / The almost romance of it / The quiet between us and the mystique.”
In her closing poems she tackles weighty metaphysical issues of guilt and redemption, her theft of a dress that she presented in a red wrapped box for her mother at Christmas. In the present her stolen purse brings on this memory , but it is the gratitude she has for all the returned contents thrown from a car window, that were of no use to the adolescent thieves that is so emotive. And she reminds us in “You’ve Come A Long Way Baby” that in the early days of coffee shops in Edwardian England, you would encounter only men, just as in those days women were not accepted as writers and needed to deceive to be published. She says, “I was the Bohemian camouflaged / As a man in black corduroy knickers / Alone in the corner.”
Ellaraine has her stack of chapbooks beside her as she writes at Starbucks and in the cafes of the world and she is out there documenting her environment in quirky, entertaining, and meaningful ways.
About the reviewer:
David Fraser lives in Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island. He is the editor of Ascent Aspirations Magazine. His poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Rocksalt, An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry. He has published five collections of poetry and is a member of the League of Canadian Poets.
* * * * *
Review by Miriam O’Neal
104 pages, 6” x 9”, paperback, full color ($18.95)
For several days now, the rain has come down in fits and starts; cloud clusters, pushed by heavy breezes, burst open just a few seconds at a time. Then, sun; steam; heat. No rainbows; just yellow glare. Then, gray again. It is
That search for both acceptance and the long view is embedded in Ben Berman’s book of poems, Strange Borderlands. The poems bring the reader deep into the back-country of Zimbabwe. They introduce weather and landscapes so real I can feel the skin of my neck needled by my own salt, my own body immersed in close, midnight air, the cold wet floor of the shop that sells soap and dried fish.
The people who inhabit the poems (friends, students, glue-sniffing children, missionaries) now inhabit my imagination. If I don’t actually know them, I know of them. They are real. And the weather of desire permeates the poems: the desire to be part of, wrestles with the knowledge of being apart from. There is the desire to do well pressing upon the desire to do good. There are the competing desires to free and be free of; to make a home in the unfamiliar. In his poem “Ars Poetica?,” Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” The speaker of the poems in Strange Borderlands finds himself as such a house. We follow him through his tour as a Peace Corp volunteer and back to the States where he encounters his own, new otherness. His “invisible guests” are the people he left behind in Zimbabwe, who haunt his sleep and his days.
Midway through Berman’s book we encounter “On Detachment and Delicacies,” a brief, lyric narrative about participating in the butchering of goats. It speaks from that moment on the bridge between 2 worlds when acceptance finally meets the long view. The psyche points out to the self, For now, on the map of your life, you are here, and nowhere else.
Even slaughter grows somewhat methodic—
You hold the heads to calm the spasmodic
fits of their feet, focus on precision,
how the right cut, like a good revision
can produce a more deft and seamless
As an ars poetica this has to be the most visceral metaphor for writing I’ve encountered. Yet it also reads as a record a moment on the strange borderland of the book’s title, of this man who reaches for figurative analogy as instinctively as the goats’ owner reaches for the sharp blade.
of course I felt intimately involved, close
to life and death and viscerally engrossed
but I was dumping hearts into a bucket
and wanted life to feel delicate,
The couplets of this deceptively little poem, with their rhymes and near rhymes, alternate between the two worlds as along the border between the exterior land of full engagement with life, death, and survival, and the interior country of the mind which insists on naming the things of both worlds, both the heart and the heart-felt. The final couplet tells us he
wanted to handle each flimsy liver
with the fine alertness of a lover.
Located midway through the collection, “On Detachment and Delicacies” marks a transition from poems full of the immediacy of the lived life in Zimbabwe, to those more reflective poems in which the speaker tries, at least, to make his way to the long view; tries to look back with some kind of gained wisdom, but often with only an admitted confusion about what has been gained and/or lost.
In the early poems we hear the voices of the speaker and his new comrades as they negotiate attitudes, expectations and different languages. In section V of “Interruptions,” two students who scheme to send pictures of a fly-ridden friend to the USA asking for donations: “Tell them to send money— save African boy’s life.” The boy instructs his teacher. In other poems graves are dug, chickens are slaughtered, the students teach their teacher about ‘beatings’.
In “Learning Shona,” which is the language of Zimbabwe, we hear how easily sounds change meaning on the tongue.
I learned to pray and with ass sound
almost exactly the same..
Perceptions can be confusing too,
…and it wasn’t just
language either, I’d see a man
suffering gum disease and write home
about the beautiful toothless smiles.
Later in the poem we learn
I confused a woman with a room,
announced, excuse me, but I’d like
to enter you as I tried to squeeze
What I admire most about these poems, beyond their intense imagery and the tensions constructed between dark and light, is the clear love and respect this poet demonstrates for his subject matter. There is a human scale to each poem that helps the reader walk the trails of this landscape however unfamiliar they may have been until that moment. Whether it is the image of a Peace Corp volunteer unwittingly perching himself on a coffin as he hitches a ride to town in the bed of a friend’s truck, or of the same man perched on a barstool in midafternoon back in the States, who feels caught by the hook of belonging to that other place, we arrive, each time in the realm of dislocation, in that “desire to remain just one person” which memory steals from us again and again. In these poems we recognize it as if we have crossed the border too.
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.
* * * * *
Hot to the Touch
Review by Boris Dralyuk
Natural History of Asphalt (ISBN: ISBN 9781304181787)
116 pages, 6” x 9,” paperback, full color ($9.98)
First Edition 2013
The prose poems of Anthony Seidman’s Natural History of Asphalt are every bit as hard as the “vast and ugly” avenues of North Hollywood – the San Fernando Valley town where the poet makes his home. They are dark
as pitch but, under a certain slant of light, they shimmer. They rise from the Valley’s potholed roads and parking lots, which reverberate with paved-over scars and traumas, like waves of refracted light in the blazing desert heat: “Sunday, the San Fernando Valley is a plain of empty parking lots, with the Tongva gone, bones under the macadam. Their women of ochre-smeared faces now dance and feast in the underworld. Their men hunt ghost deer. All the juniper-berries they desire. All the yucca and jackrabbit.”
Like these parking lots, in a country where every day is a travesty of summer, the poems are hot to the touch, even blistering. In one of the most powerful pieces in this collection, a young Latino boy runs to a corner store for a Hershey bar, scorching his tender bare feet: “I set the boy down and hold up his feet to see the damage; his soles are now two blisters, in parts parchment yellow, in other parts translucent sheaves of epidermis. One blister ruptures, mustard colored plasma oozes thick as penicillin.” At the end, when the boy is being carted away in a Fire Department ambulance, the poet finds himself unwittingly – but wholeheartedly – adopting the injured and frightened child. These poems call us to adopt what we never intended to own— towns seemingly scrubbed of any real humanity, full of circumspect strangers with whom we haven’t a word in common. But a living heart beats beneath the asphalt, and “Christmas lights flicker over the bar-top.” We are surprised by a pride of place: “These foothills, chaparral, are my country, these gas stations, these sub-par public schools, vacant lots and miles of asphalt… they are the sigil I behold through smog.” And when we realize with the poet that “All of us are marooned here,” at the landlocked bar Las Playas, the taste of loneliness, which is “acrid, aspirin on the tongue,” slowly melts away.
About the reviewer:
Boris Dralyuk is poet and translator who holds a PhD in Slavic languages and literature from UCLA and is the translator of Leo Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need (2010), A Slap in the Face: Four Russian Futurist Manifestos (2013), and Anton Chekhov’s Little Trilogy (2013); co-translator of Polina Barskova’s The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems (2011) and Dariusz Sośnicki’s The World Shared: Poems (2014); and author of the monograph Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907–1934 (2012). He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Anthology of Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky (2015). He has received various prizes for his translations.
November 2, 2013 Comments Off on 5 Good Books/Reviews
Writings of Kurt Tucholsky (Berlinica)
by Fred Roberts
When I was in high school in the 70’s, I had a book called “Prelude to War”, the first in a Time-Life series about World War II. The most fascinating chapter of the book was a collage of photos documenting the Weimar Republic days of Germany’s capital, “Dizzy, Decadent Berlin”. The collage of photos, many of them rather risqué, portrayed the gaiety and wildness of Berlin’s nightlife. My newly found interest led me to two films of the era. “Der blaue Engel” (1930) with Marlene Dietrich captured the decadence and perhaps cold-bloodedness of that cabaret scene. Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) showed another side of Berlin, as the police and the underworld raced against each other to capture a child murderer. These ran on PBS at the time, and both left lasting impressions on me. A pair of silent movies “Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt” (1927), a film collage of one day in the life of that metropolis and “Menschen am Sonntag” (1930) – co-written by Billy Wilder, showing the typical Sunday pastimes of Berlin’s residents, complete a well-rounded cinematic documentation of 1920s’ Berlin. Add to that Berthold Brecht’s film “Kuhle Wampe” (1932) which is more political and portrays the working class experience of that era. If you never felt a fascination for this unique period in history a viewing of these films will whet your appetite for an important English-language book release “Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic”, writings of Kurt Tucholsky in Berlinica, translated by Cindy Opitz and edited by Eva C. Schweitzer. It is surprising that someone as brilliant as Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) could be virtually unknown in the English language. Tucholsky, a Berliner himself, was a leading satirist in Germany whose keen cultural, social, and especially political observations were unparalleled for the time, and maybe even today. His political satires, compelling and prescient warnings against the right wing tendencies of the time, would be enough to cement his reputation. The statements he made are so honest that they somehow set themselves above agenda, they are more in service to justice and democracy than to a transient political whim. It is not about preaching to the converted but rather making the guilty uncomfortable. Perhaps that is why the Nazi’s hated him so much. The Berlinica collection establishes that feeling early on in the piece “Three Biographies”: “Peter Panter … Born May 8, 1891 … The premature child is so hard of hearing in his left ear as a young boy that he already seems destined for a career in justice.” “Berlin! Berlin!” is an excellent first acquaintanceship with Tucholsky. The foreword by Anne Nelson and Introduction by Ian King give a good synopsis of the zeitgeist of the period and of Tucholsky’s biography and significance for anyone completely unfamiliar. The selection shows the many sides of Tucholsky in articles and a small selection of his poetry, interspersed with numerous photographs. Ample footnotes explain the background of the pieces as well as any references that might be obscure today. The volume follows a clear concept, namely Tucholsky’s writings centering on Berlin, organized into four distinct historical periods. The writings span the years 1907 through 1932. This was surely the only way to do it, given the amount of articles, stories and poems that Tucholsky wrote in his lifetime. In that respect the focus on Berlin is clever, given the general interest in that time and place in history. The volume contains several titles that are considered classics in the German language. One gem “Ape Cage” about a baboon exhibit at the Berlin Zoo reads like a cousin to Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”. A number of wry observations lead us to ask, who is the real spectacle? The apes in the cage, or the visitors? My favorite, “Where do the Holes in Cheese Come From?” is one of the first pieces of Tucholsky’s that I read (in German) I had considered it untranslatable, so was happy to find it accomplished here. A child asks his parents an innocent question his parents can’t answer and receives a runaround in return. The child is finally sent to bed but the question enters into the conversation among the evening party, leading to absurd extremes. “Central Office” is a timeless Orwellian snapshot of the decay inevitable in any organization. Just as timeless is the “Brief Outline of the National Economy” which teaches more about economics than an Economics 101 class. “The Times are Screaming For Satire” is another famous piece of Tucholsky’s which has fortunately been included, showing how the profit-oriented theater business transforms the richest satire into toothless entertainment. Echoes of Saturday Night Live in that. Here and there one encounters passages that ring eerily true today, about the complacent mainstream media, the absurdity of war, the disappearance of the middle class, wages that no one can live on, bitter attacks on child poverty (“A Children’s Hell in Berlin”). On an allegorical level the piece “Lion on the Loose” reminds of the recent manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. In “Leaving Berlin” one encounters the quote, “Now that’s the typical money man of our time… A tough guy when the going gets tough. He won’t let anyone get him down. Doesn’t sweat the small stuff; doesn’t read books; doesn’t give a damn about anything but his business.” Sound familiar? The most remarkable piece is the article “Röhm”, written 1932 about the head of Hitler’s SA, about whom accusations of homosexuality had been publicized. It shows the high standards to which Tucholsky adhered in his writing. He did not mock the man but took to task the “radical leftist press” for doing so. As long as Röhm did not abuse his position to seduce his subordinates, his private life should be off limits. Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain are the historical names I think of when searching for writers on a level with Tucholsky. Tom Lehrer, in the 1960s, comes to mind, too. But one is hard put to find satire of this caliber in America today. One thing in recent times that comes close is Stephen Colbert’s speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that ironic speech directly challenging the Administration and Press in ways that no one had dared during the five years previous. In reading “Berlin! Berlin!”, that place and time in history becomes something universal. Berlin is today and now. The social and political battles fought then are the same challenging us today, the human observations as applicable today as they were then. The translation by Cindy Opitz is contemporary English, but for my feeling the thoughts sounded exactly like Tucholsky. It is the first time I’ve read him outside of German. Compliments to Ms. Opitz. It is not easy to capture Tucholsky in English. I hope that more translations will be forthcoming, especially a volume focused on his political satires. The times are screaming for satire. Berlinica Publishing 255 West 43rd St. New York, NY, 10036 ISBN: 978-1-935902-21-8
Tucholsky in English: kurttucholsky.blogspot.com (my own translations)
August 31, 2013 1 Comment
A Stunning Brew of Shadow Operatives,
Double Agents, Renegade Scientists
and Secret Societies…
A Review of William Tyree’s The Fellowship
by Matthew Hoffman
In The Fellowship, author William Tyree infuses the variety of literary work often described as a “page-turner” with a smart and stunning brew of shadowy operatives, double agents, renegade scientists, secret societies, historical precedent and globe-hopping action that is both immensely entertaining and startlingly plausible. Tyree’s fiction picks up where his previous novel (Line of Succession, also a great read) left off and places the reader in a world where the United States is recovering from an attempted coup in which a series of coordinated terror attacks have nearly toppled the U.S. government. The body count of those in line for the position of “leader of the free world” is high, and sitting in the White House, thanks to the heroics of intelligence operative Blake Carver, is President Eva Hudson, former Secretary of the Treasury.
Carver is on exile from field work while congressional hearings attempt to get to the bottom of just what has happened and who was involved. Carver, laying low and confined to deskwork is part of a team monitoring Operation Crossbow; a project ostensibly designed to track the involvement of Adrian Zhu, a brilliant bio-engineer, and his involvement in any military projects. But Crossbow has spun out of control. Zhu, last seen attending the opera in Rome has disappeared into an armored vehicle and been involved in a shoot-out that has left a number of fatalities and a tantalizing clue: An octagon-shaped piece of red silk inscribed with a Latin phrase translated roughly as “Prepared for pain and torment, in God’s name.”
Shortly after Zhu vanishes, events involving high-ranking political figures subjected to a rather grisly form of torture hearkening back to the Inquisition, begin to unfold in other parts of the United States and Europe. Thus begins an adventure that compels the suits in the Intelligence Agency to release Carver back into the field to unravel a byzantine tapestry involving religious zealots, holy relics, lethal nanotechnology, reanimating biotechnology and a metaphysical obsession and rivalry of two former members of the Third Reich that leads to a heart-pounding showdown in the bowels of Vatican City.
Intrigued? I hope so, but it would be a disservice to Mr. Tyree’s wonderfully ornate construction to reveal too much of the storyline. Similarly, it would be unfair to the reader to compromise the thrill and pleasure of untangling the thread of the underlying mystery that motivates the various factions commanded by the fascinating characters who populate the world of The Fellowship.
Speaking of these characters, Mr. Tyree has created a magnificent anchor to his novels in the personage of Blake Carver. Neither a martini-quaffing, suave, super spy like Bond, nor a whisky slugging loner out of Chandler or Cain, Carver is a rock-solid, clean-shaven, lapsed-Mormon whose psychological tic is a hyperthymesia, or photographic recall of all that he has experienced. (A word one will no doubt find useful for casually dropping at the next cocktail party or chance encounter with Oliver Sacks.) In addition to the book’s engrossing dramatis personae replete with political functionaries, fugitive hackers, double agents and religious fanatics (among others) The Fellowship spirits the reader on a journey to a fascinating exploration of the trajectories of two characters critical to the action of the story, Heinz Lang and Sebastian Wolf. In a fascinating detour from the current day action, The Fellowship chronicles Wolf and Lang’s years as Reich School cadets and Tyree displays a genius for introducing an unsettling ambiguity into these characters. The novel leads the reader to a climax and denouement that is entirely satisfying, yet which intimates a possible, and for this reader, much-wished-for sequel.
Paperback: 526 pages
8 x 5.2 x 1.2 inches
Massive Publishing, 2013
About the Reviewer:
Matthew Hoffman co-wrote the screenplay for the hybrid-documentary “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” and he also researched and authored for Metrobooks the first published mass-market biography on legendary crooner Tony Bennett. The musical, “Presidential Suite,” which he co-authored will receive its world premier in Los Angeles this September with an exclusive five-week run.
August 31, 2013 Comments Off on The Fellowship/Book Review
Identity, Multigenrism, and the Historicity
of Jean Toomer’s Cane, and the Rise
of the Harlem Renaissance
By Lucille Clifton and John Smelcer
Jean Toomer’s Cane is widely considered the first major text of the Harlem Renaissance, which is generally regarded as beginning in 1923, with the publication of Cane, and ending in 1929, though the precise boundaries are debatable. But what is the multi-generic Cane? It can be argued that Toomer’s masterpiece, a herald of a new era literary and artistic expression, is a precursor to the modern short story cycle, a form which took off almost immediately after its publication.
For more than eighty years Cane has defied easy classification as to its genre. The book consists of twenty-nine separate units divided by three simple visual images: fifteen poems interspersed between seven short stories, six prose sketches, and one extended short story (“Kabnis,” which Toomer called a play though it is neither wholly a play, either), which utilizes, in places, the use of play-writing dialogue, complete with stage directions, thereby making Cane a mixed-bag of literary techniques and genres. Some of the prose sketches may even be argued to be prose poems. It has been variously called a “novel,” a “collage,” a “poetic novel,” and even an “anti-novel.” Regardless of its genre, Cane is an important modernist text, depicting the horrors of a world of lynchings, race riots, and Jim Crow (Scruggs, 1).
Robert Bone called Cane “a collection which forms one of the distinguished achievements in the writings of Americans” (81). Bernard Bell and Odette Martin said essentially the same thing: that Cane holds a unique place in American literature (Bell, 11; Martin, 6). But for more than forty years after its initial publication in 1923, Cane was all but forgotten until a resurgence of African-American literature in the late 1960s resuscitated interest in it, culminating in the book’s republication in 1967 by University Place. But the question remains today as it did then: What is Cane? As Arna Bontemps asks in the “Introduction” to Harper & Row’s 1967 re-issue of Cane, in what genre is this “odd and provocative form” (x) to be classified?
On its initial publication in 1923, critics praised Cane as an innovation, a landmark in American literature, mostly for its unique portrayal of Blacks and the sheer poetic beauty of the book’s language. Others cited its remarkable uniqueness from anything that came before it. W. E. B. DuBois extolled the book’s importance in The Crisis, the magazine he then edited for the NAACP, and Charles S. Johnson remarked of Toomer in the “Introduction” to the 1969 re-publication of Cane that his was the “most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation” (vii). And Toomer’s friend and mentor, Waldo Frank, wrote in the foreword to the original 1923 publication that “Cane is a harbinger of a literary force of whose incalculable future I believe no reader of this book will be in doubt” (iii).
Unfortunately, the promise of a stellar literary career never materialized. Within a few years, Toomer disappeared from the literary scene altogether. In his lifelong search for meaning of the self as artist, Toomer turned to the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, where he eventually established a local Gurdjieff Group in Harlem, attracting such artists as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Toomer remained involved with the Gurdjieff group until 1934.
But Toomer’s ultimate disappearance from the American literary scene came about largely, if not entirely, from his own doings. With all the praise applauding Cane as a Negro work, Toomer himself began to state that he was not a Negro. He considered himself a new type of man. In his personal correspondence, Toomer said he was mixed with Scotch, Welsh, German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and some dark blood. Indeed, he was often mistaken for being Eastern Indian, Native American, and even Latin American. He wrote a series of letters stating, “The fact that I am not [emphasis mine] a Negro is a negative, and not of main importance” (September 18, 1930; Toomer Collection). Shortly thereafter, Toomer wrote to James Weldon Johnson saying essentially the same thing about his Negro-ness and declining to allow some of the poems in Cane to be included in The Book of American Negro Poetry, which Johnson was then editing. Finally, in December 1934, Toomer wrote to the Baltimore Afro-American, “I do not really know whether there is any colored blood in me or not” (1).
Toomer essentially disappeared from the literary scene altogether after these proclamations. He was rarely heard of again and Cane languished until 1967 when the rising interest in Black literature spurred University Place to produce a cloth re-printing of Cane. Ironically, Toomer, then 73 years old, was invited to write an introduction, but he died on March 30th before the letter arrived.
While it is true that Cane largely languished until 1967, it is not entirely so. Some Afro-American writers and scholars still thought about Cane. Indeed, in August 1964, the University of California sponsored the Conference on the Negro Writer in the United States, held outside Monterey. Among the faculty were Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), James Baldwin, Robert Bone, and Kenneth Rexroth (Bontemps and Bone would both eventually provide introductions to Cane). Ralph Ellison, who had agreed to contribute, did not arrive, and conference-goers noted the conspicuous absence of Langston Hughes, who had not been invited. Participants included over 200 educators, writers, intellectuals, and social workers. Arna Bontemps gave a “spell-binding” discussion of Cane. When he was finished, he was confronted with an overwhelming number of hands. The audience wanted to know more about Toomer. Kenneth Rexroth correctly stated that most of the audience had never heard of Toomer before but now wanted to hear more (Kent, 180).
In 1969, encouraged by the success of the University Place reprinting, Harper and Row made the work more available in its paperback Perennial Classics series, including an excellent Introduction by Arna Bontemps, and Cane was once again a success. Despite his denunciation of his Negro-ness, Toomer’s reputation was resurrected, and today Cane is held as an important literary landmark in African American literature.
After his death, some 30,000 items of Toomer’s were donated to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Among the items included numerous manuscripts (novels, short stories, autobiographies, correspondences, and Natalie Mann, a play that would eventually be published) that opened up the way for increased scholarly study about the writer. Since then, a great deal has been learned about the man. The plethora of material continues to raise the question of Toomer’s racial identity and the significance of that identity to understanding Cane. Some critics (Scruggs and VanDemarr, et. al.) even question the reliability of Toomer’s autobiographical statements. Some of these materials were later complied and edited into The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (1980), edited by Darwin Turner.
Aside from questions of Toomer’s racial identity and Cane’s long, bumpy ride from overnight fame to relative obscurity, what is to be done about the question of the book’s genre classification? A significant number of articles have been published in recent decades trying to answer this question. As a whole, they have produced some ingenious commentary on the role of myth (most obviously Cain and the notion of the Black Messiah), as well as commentary on the influence of symbolism, philosophy, and the role of women characters in binding the multiple forms in Cane. Critics such as Marion Berghahn have pointed out Toomer’s use of African symbolism, which was connected with a then (as it is today) contemporary interest in “authentic” experience, a hearkening to African heritage.
Other interesting suggestions for unlocking the mystery of Cane’s structural unity includes the discovery in the early 1970s that Cane is organized based on principles of the Blues (McKeever, 61). However, in his essay “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance,” George Hutchinson says it was jazz, not The Blues that inspired Cane, even discussing Cane’s improvisational style. Jazz was more than simply a new kind of uniquely American music; it was a lifestyle instrumental in defining the emerging Harlem Renaissance. F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the term Jazz Age in his novel This Side of Paradise and in his (1920) short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). Fitzgerald earned a reputation as the symbol of the Jazz Age.
Nowhere in Steven Tracy’s essay “The Blues Novel” does he even mention Toomer. One of the reasons for arguing that Cane’s structure is influenced by jazz is the way Toomer develops many of his sketches, four of which have poetic refrains, which repeat at the beginning, middle, and end. Two others, “Calling Jesus” and “Rhobert,” incorporate short musical (poetic) refrains within the body.
Although poetically brilliant and lyrically beautiful in diction, symbolism, and intensity, Cane certainly cannot be labeled as merely a book of poetry, although it is a book containing poetry. Conversely, because of the intermittent use of poetry, Cane is neither a short story collection. Of the idea that Cane is a novel (even a poetic or lyric novel), Toomer himself informed publisher Horace Liveright in a letter he wrote shortly before the publication of Cane, that he [Toomer] had no familiarity with the composition of a novel and did not consider Cane to be a novel (Jean Toomer Collection, 1923). And although the book uses dramatic, theatrical techniques (in the form of play-dialogue, especially in “Kabnis,” possibly “borrowed” from Eugene O’Neill), it is neither a play, although Toomer himself called “Kabnis” a play in three acts. The prose sketches, short fictional descriptions of a character or place, Toomer called his “attempt at an artistic record of Negro and mixed blood America” (Toomer Collection, March 24, 1923).
It can be argued that Cane is a short story cycle, alternatively providing a microscopic and macroscopic examination of the nature of the African American experience in the United States. If it is, then Cane (along with Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg) is a precursor to the modern short story cycle, which uses the recurrence of patterns in theme, symbol, images, trope, character, place, words, and even phrases (among other elements) to treat the same theme from different angles. Indeed, the short story cycle, or some hybrid version of it, was in vogue immediately following the publication of Cane, including William Carlos William’s “In the American Grain” (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time” (1924).
Toomer’s placement of each poem, story, or sketch is significant, serving to increase the intertextuality of the short story cycle, complementing and building on itself. Even the space or gaps between the stories has a function, allowing interpretation for what is unsaid by the author. In some ways, the poems and the episodic sketches and stories are like snapshots, revealing a broad scope of place and events outside the constraints of the linear structures and temporality generally given to novels.
While many early critics noted the recurrence of themes in Cane’s divisions, they did not fully understand the synthetic unity of the collected work; that came later, especially throughout the 1970s after Cane’s republication, which explains Arna Bontemps’ statement that Cane has an “odd and provocative” structure. And what of the three visual images which separate the three divisions? As Robert Bone and Blyden Jackson point out, Toomer uses words almost as a plastic medium. George Hutchinson says of Cane’s multi-generic structure in “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance”:
“The work that really broke the mold and helped inspire new forms of African American fiction was . . . Jean Toomer’s multi-generic tour de force, Cane. While not exactly a novel, Cane explored many of the different possibilities that would be taken up by others and worked out in novelistic form . . . infusing the work with the improvisatory qualities and the rhythms of African American spirituals and jazz. Toomer’s creation of a hybrid literary form consonant with new types of popular culture suggested exciting possibilities for black literary experimentation.”(52)
As stated above, Cane is divided into three cycles. The first is what has been termed the Southern Cycle, the second the Northern Cycle, and the final unit (“Kabnis”) is a synthesis of the two: of a Northern Negro’s experience in the brutal (yet beautiful) South. Toomer himself represents the divisions by his use of a symbol on the page preceding each new division. A downward curve announces section one (representing both the southern portion of a sphere and the beginning of a diurnal cycle); an upward curve introduces section two (representing the northern portion of a sphere and the second half of a diurnal cycle); and an unconnected circle (a whole sphere), made by bringing both former symbols together (but not combined or joined), represents the synthesis of the first two parts of Cane (including the complete annual cycle of the seasons as Cane spans one year).
In the third cycle, Ralph Kabnis is a Northern Negro whose quest takes him from his home in Washington (and New York), “which he always half-way despised” (84) in search of the other half of the Afro-American heritage to be found in Georgia. The whole work, then, read as a cycle, is a representation of Toomer’s piercing insight into the deep inadequacies of North and South, based on his perceptions of the internal contradictions in both, with the culminating cycle, “Kabnis,” being a portrait of the Negro writer (Toomer), reflecting his inability to clearly articulate his vision. The artist-hero of the cycles experiences history as he moves through time, from pre-American African experience, through post-reconstruction, to the modern Black experience in the North. In part, Cane is Toomer’s attempt to articulate questions of his own racial identity.
This structural arrangement allows for various treatments of the same theme from different perspectives. This method may have been borrowed from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and his The Triumph of the Egg, which has a good many of the elements found in Cane, especially the incorporation of short stories, poems, and even illustrations. Toomer and Anderson corresponded during the formation of Cane. Other literary influences on Toomer during that time included the writing of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Coleridge, Blake, Shaw, Ibsen, Goethe, Santayana, Dreiser, Lewis, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, and of course, Waldo Frank. Several of William Blake’s famous images include sketches of Blacks being lynched, which influenced his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (Klonsky, 46-48). Blake was a master of symbolism and myth, something which Toomer succeeds in Cane.
It is likely that Toomer was also influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” which was receiving great fanfare in America about the time he was composing the middle section of Cane and revising “Kabnis.” In a letter to Horace Liveright in January, 1923, Toomer comments that he had indeed read “The Wasteland” (Fabre and Feith, 2).
Some critics (Blyden Jackson, et. al.) point to the drama of Eugene O’Neill as another influence on Cane’s form (Hutchinson, 52). Yet Cane achieves a higher complexity than either O’Neill’s or Anderson’s works. The cyclic design and the interrelatedness of the stories themselves is much more ambitious, even tying together the underlying impulse toward nurturing an inherent and composite myth. Toomer knew both these authors’ works and he especially admired Anderson, with whom he corresponded, their exchanges discussed in an essay by Darwin Turner and some of the letters catalogued in the Jean Toomer Collection at Fisk University.
Cane was not written chronologically; the first and third cycles were written first, followed by the middle cycle. Also, companion pieces were written and incorporated into the manuscript sporadically throughout 1922, especially in November. The cyclical nature of the work allows for establishing connections between, for instance, the “son” in “Song of the Son” in the beginning of the book and the extended short story, “Kabnis” at the end of the book.
Indeed, most of the stories or sketches in Cane have companion pieces in the other cycles, a hallmark of the modern short story cycle. In such a reading, the author reveals the optimism of the first against the experience and wisdom of the latter. Read as such, Cane is a transcending representation of different perspectives of the same racial North-South dichotomies over time and especially geography (particularly Georgia and Washington D. C.).
This cyclical perspective also reveals the pity of Toomer’s northern characters whose limited choices range from staying in the South and suffering for it (recall how the first division of Cane ends in a lynching and all the other violence in that cycle), and existing in the North essentially as refugees from the South. “Beehive,” the first poem in the Northern Cycle, is a portrait of the busy life in a city. “Kabnis” is a compromise, a synthesis in which Toomer suggests that a new American heritage must be defined — a new kind of American (one which he argued for all his life). In “Kabnis,” the play-dialogue section clearly indicates this juxtaposition of the North-South Negro experience and attitudes. At one point, a stone with a note wrapped around it shatters a window. The note seemingly threatens Kabnis to leave the South at once: “You northern nigger,” it reads, “its time fer y t leave. Git along now” (90).
Some critics, such as Edward Margolies in his Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth Century Negro American Authors, have misconstrued Cane’s theme, arguing that “the work celebrates the passion and instincts of black persons close to the soil as opposed to the corruption of their spirit and vitality in the cities” (39). Such a misreading fails to comprehend the real case against the South which Kabnis makes in the final division (cycle) of Cane and ignores the disturbing scenes of a legacy of violence. The first cycle of Cane ends with the story of Tom Burwell being burned alive at the stake in “Blood-Burning Moon,” a story in which a white male has an affair with a Black woman, whose confusion about the complexities of color inform the tragic conclusion of the story:
“A great flame muffled in black smoke shot upward. The mob yelled. The mob was silent. Now Tom could be seen within the flames. Only his head, erect, lean, like a blackened stone. Stench of burning flesh soaked the air. Tom’s eyes popped. His head settled downward. The mob yelled.” (34)
Not to be outdone, “Kabnis” includes the horrifying murder of Mame Lamkins:
“Layman: White folks know that niggers talk, an they don’t mind jes so long as nothing comes of it, so here goes. She was in the family-way, Mame Lamkins was. They killed her in th street, an some white man seein the risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an the kid fell out. It was living; but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it and stuck it t a tree.” (90)
The backdrop of the Southern cycles of Cane is a contradictory landscape of natural beauty, depicted in Toomer’s gorgeous poetic and lyric diction, against the harsh brutality of Southern racial culture. Throughout Cane, Toomer depicts White Southerners as seeing Blacks as nothing more than animals, compared to a cow in the above-mentioned passage and in another instance when Layman says, “The white folks (reckon I oughtn’t tell it) had jes knocked two others like you kill a cow—brained um with an ax” (88). Indeed, Cane is considerably influenced by Toomer’s three-month stay in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921, during which time he lived in a shack and “began to realize the hardship the Blacks suffered both socially and economically” (“Jean Toomer”, 2).
During those months, the Sparta Ishmaelite was filled with the stories of violence and deprivation heaped on Blacks, the headlines almost always masked as suspicious suicides, such as the story of a 35-year-old woman who emptied a shotgun into her belly. This period marked the high point of Southern lynching of Blacks and may be the spark which influenced Toomer to create Ralph Kabnis, a Northern Negro who eventually panics and flees the South, convinced that he is to be lynched. In a letter to Waldo Frank, Toomer briefly suggests that he barely escaped a serious situation himself (04/26/1922, Toomer Collection).
Another issue that Toomer investigates in Cane is interracial sexual relationships, miscegenation, and the plight of Negro women, possibly influenced by witnessing the sadness and suffering of his own mother, Nina Toomer, whose life was to show her son the anguished dependencies and bewildering existences of women, a dominate motif in Cane. His juxtaposed stories, “Bona and Paul” and “Blood Burning Down” contrast how in one the urge is surrendered to, while in the other a reluctance develops in which Paul is able to reverse the course of his relationship. Other counter-posed sketches include “Rhobert” and “Calling Jesus,” and “Avey” and “Seventh Street” in which Toomer regards the promise of freedom in the new land (the North; Washington D. C. and Chicago) in contrast to the insufficiency of security and alienation in “Avey.” “Reapers” and “November Cotton Flower” are another example of a pairing in the South-North cycles in which Toomer returns to his motif of feminine beauty.
Blyden Jackson incorrectly asserts that “no single character or group of characters appears in more than one story or sketch” (319). Jackson overlooks the repetition of character-types and the repeated use of several characters such as Barlo, David Georgia, Father John, and of course, the narrator/artist-hero that appears under a variety of different names.
Frequently, a word, phrase, image, trope, or a symbol in one poem or sketch is mirrored in other parts of Cane, including “Evening Song,” a companion piece to “Fern,” which shares a common landscape used in “Withered Skin.” Another example is the recurring moon, like the ubiquitous cane fields, a constant throughout the cycles. The blood-colored moon foreshadows lynching. These repetitions are, again, hallmarks of the modern short story cycle. Such parallels exist throughout Cane and are part of the extraordinary complexity and richness of the work. Other repetitions include pines, cane, canebrakes, cane fields, moon, flames and fire, smoke and dusk (both obscure), violence and lynching, references to Christ and Christianity, imaginative imagery of Africa, miscegenation, and references to women. Toomer almost always compares the land to a woman. Sometimes the repeated words or symbols are combined, as in “Becky”, the second sketch in the book, in which Toomer states twice on the same page, “The pines whispered to Jesus” (5).
Adding to the complexity of Cane is Toomer’s use of the cycles of nature and the cycles of religion. For instance, in “Esther,” Toomer reveals the false prophecy of a Black messiah who misleads the devout Esther with his deceitful actions.
Although no one in Cane actually migrates, the book is nonetheless considered a work on Black migration (Griffin, 27). For instance, the Southern cycle ends with Louisa asking in “Blood-Burning Moon”, “Where have all the people gone?” The answer: they have moved north, Toomer’s keen observation of the mass migrations of Blacks northward to escape the economic hardships and outrages of the South. Indeed, abruptly after the lynching, the reader hurriedly “migrates” to the North as the Northern cycle begins.
In “Who Set You Flowin’?,” Farah Jasmine Griffin comments that Toomer accurately “foreshadows . . . the lynching which spurs the movement of the text North” and that he “establishes one of the major tropes of the migration narrative,” that is “violence on the black body as a trope to signify the violence of the South and as a major catalyst for migration” (24-25), a reasonable catalyst why the main character in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man runs away.
Whatever Cane may be, a long-forgotten one-hit wonder or a genre-less masterpiece of American literary ingenuity, it has greatly influenced subsequent African American writers, many of whom have used his mixed-literary device/mixed-genre style in their own writing. This influence is evident in, among others, Alice Walker’s Living By the Word, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, By the Light of My Father’s Smile, and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Walker provides a front cover blurb on the Norton edition in which she says, “Cane has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” Toomer’s influence is also evident in Maya Angelou’s Gather Together in My Name and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, and in four books by Nikki Giovanni: Those Who Ride the Night Wind, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, Blues: For All the Change, and Acolytes. No doubt, a great many writers (African-American and otherwise) to come after Toomer were influenced by Cane.
Without question, the newly republished Cane, gaining a popular national momentum, made possible new ways for Black literary expression during and after the explosion of African-American literature in the late 1960s. As Robert Bone writes on the dustcover of Cane, “Jean Toomer belongs to that first rank of writers who use words almost as a plastic medium, shaping new meanings from an original and highly personal style.” While Toomer may be one of the most ambiguous figures in American literary history, that malleable plastic medium is his generous gift.
About the authors:
John Smelcer and Lucille Clifton met at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, NJ, in the fall of 2006 and began this collaboration a year later. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Lucille was “discovered” by Langston Hughes, who included her poems in his 1969 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. Over the years, Lucille taught at Columbia and Dartmouth. Her poetry books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland and as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poetry. In 2007, she received the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement. She died in Baltimore in February of 2010 at the age of 73. John Smelcer, the author of a numerous books of poetry and ethnic American literature, was recently a Clifford D. Clark Fellow at Binghamton University in upstate New York. After Lucille’s passing, it would be a couple years before John completed this article. You can read more about him in “About Us.”
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin, 1992.
—–. The Triumph of the Egg. New York: Wang and Hill, 1962.
Baltimore Afro-American, December 1, 1934. [cited in J. Benson and M. Dillard’s biography, Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.]
Bell, Barnard. “Portrait of the Artist as High Priest of Soul: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” Black World, 13 (1974).
Berghahn, Marion. Images of Africa in Black American Literature. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.
Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.
—–. Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction. New York:
Fabre, Genevieve and Michael Feith (eds.). Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001.
Fitgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. New York: Cambridge University
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Who Set You Flowin’? The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner’s, 1924.
Hutchinson, George. “The Novel of the Negro Renaissance” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, M. Graham (Ed.).Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Jackson, Blyden. “Cane: An Issue of Genre.” The Twenties (Ed. Warren French). DeLand: Everett and Edwards, 1975.
“Jean Toomer.” Accessed 11/10/2008 at www.afropoets.net/jeantoomer.html
Jean Toomer Collection. Nashville: Fisk University. [archives accessed in person during the two week Jewish holidays break in October, 2008].
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Kent, George. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1990.
Klonsky, Milton. William Blake: The Seer and His Visions. New York: Harmony Books, 1977.
Margolies, Edward. Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth Century Negro American Authors. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968.
Martin, Odette. “Cane: Method and Myth.” Obsidian, 2 (1976).
McKeever, Benjamin. “Cane as Blues.” Negro American Literature Forum, 3 (1970).
Scruggs, Charles and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1923.
—–. Cane. “Introduction by Arna Bontemps.” New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Tracy, Steven. “The Blues Novel.” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, M. Graham (Ed.).Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Turner, Darwin. “Intersection of Paths: The Correspondence Between Jean Toomer and Sherwood Anderson.” CLA Journal, 17 (1974), 455-62.
—–. The Wayward and the Seeking: The Collected Writings of Jean Toomer. Washington, D. C.: Howard UP, 1980.
Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain. 1925.
August 31, 2013 Comments Off on Jean Toomer’s “Cane”/John Smelcer