Monthly Archives: April 2014

Book Review: Of Gods & Strangers by Tina Chang

Chang front cover rgb low res

by Laurie Macfee

2011
Poetry
$15.95; 103 pgs.
NY: Four Way Books
ISBN 978-1-935536-17-8

When I began Tina Chang’s entrancing Of Gods & Strangers, Monty Python could be heard in the back of my mind saying, “And now, for something completely different.” From the form of poems on the pages, to titles like the indescribably wonderful “Bitch Tree”, “Self-Portrait as Empress Dowager” or “Flesh Elegy”, to the content, which sweeps from personal to historical to political, I knew this was going to be a completely different ride.

I read with a quickening, as if I couldn’t turn pages fast enough, even while wanting to slow down and savor lines. My heart beat faster, the way it does with a novel I can’t put down: it is 3am and the arc of someone’s voice won’t release me. This is an important and heart-breaking work by the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. How can a book be set down, upon reading lines like these, found in “Substantial”:

If I try to tell the truth, parachutes the size of fists
rain down in a territory in which they are not welcome.

If I live out my lies, I see a woman’s sketched face
on the charcoal surface of a field where she

breaks apart on the pond’s puzzle. I get on all fours,
low to the ground as if in an emergency.

I hide under desks, cover my ears, put on
a gas mask to look like a skeleton of an extinct insect.

Perhaps that was my ancestor’s story and not mine
when the blast of sirens rang through the city….

The way Chang layers images (fists, skeleton) with locations (territory, under desks), emotions (not welcome) with imperatives (an emergency), sounds of words (extinct insect) with sounds in the narrative (blast of sirens), then lands softly on a political/historic/familial truth (ancestor’s story not mine) that leads us to a simple statement hidden a couple lines later, “Who is listening / if not me?” All this makes her work immediately compelling, haunting, masterful.

Structurally, Chang’s poems are a study in form. How the lines sit on the page inform the reading of each. She uses numbers to create lists, prose-like poems (though there appear to be purposeful breaks), traditional structures like couplets or tercets, long sweeping as well as short chopped lines, solid masses of text, a poem that is 3/4s italics, double spaces between lines, stars to separate stanzas, words instead of numbers in a series (one, two, trois, four), or words that wander a page. The result is a push-pull, and we are falling, then wrapped, bound in the expected and repeated embrace of a couplet then buffeted into intellectualism found in contemporary indexing. But woven through this diversity of appearances is a personal thread of identity, so that it does not feel like she is trying on dresses so much as showing us the complexity of her owned wardrobe.

Chang writes fearlessly from a woman’s standpoint, whether talking about break-ups or “Sex Gospels”, genocide or natural disasters. Some of her experiences echo my own, such as “The Story of Girls” but most do not, like the series of ten poems sprinkled throughout the book about the last Chinese Empress Dowager. However I am grounded in her lyric and social consciousness, the way she trusts the reader to make links between ideas without spelling it out: “I dream I am whipping a donkey / and I don’t want to be whipping a donkey…./ Love is breaking me.” She strips away all pretense, is unblinking and raw. In “Possibility”, Chang writes that when she was a girl, her mother’s lover bought her a small cross and sat her on his lap, how she thought “he could be my lover too”, the fierce and almost brutal reality she ends with, “The man sat still, letting the young girl / kiss him, then never came back. / This is how dark it can get, the heart says. / And the heart fasts for years until / it is lean.”

Chang’s images can jar, like “The butchers with their smeared aprons croon with knives” in her poem “Baguio”. They can seduce with epic or horrible beauty, like the opening “All night long there was digging, and the bodies like accordions / bent into their own dying instruments, and even after this, / after the quake, there was, in news reports, still singing” from the poem “Praise”. They can touch on the philosophical or self aware, “What is it that I want / in all these disappearing cities?” or the humorous, “I was sitting on the bitch tree, smirky and small.” But the great joy in reading Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers is her endings. Her poems are waves that carry you to the place you didn’t know you needed to go, and crash you.

I read the poem “Foraging and Dodging” maybe seven times. It begins with a stranger, which links to the title of the book, and explores the way love can wound, “Think of the horseshoe, the imprint / it made when thrown against / the door. Think of the woman / who dodges it and keeps loving / the man who threw it.” There is such ferocious revelation and hope in how Chang navigates the strangers who rule our lives as gods. The last stanza ends, “as she drove away, the bend / in the road coming into her / field of vision, as if life / loved her back, as if / she had a chance.”

Buy this book today. Ask me if you can borrow my copy. Check it out of the SNC Poetry Center. Whatever you do, this is a book to be read.

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Laurie Macfee_headshotLaurie Macfee is in the MFA Writing/Poetry program at Sierra Nevada College. Currently, she is the Redfield Fellow in Book Arts at the Black Rock Press, Poetry Editor of the Sierra Nevada Review, and an adjunct in the art department at the University of Nevada, Reno. She lives with her husband artist Joseph DeLappe and their cats Pixel and Izzie in Reno.

Book Review: We the Animals by Justin Torres

Review by Chelsea Archer

we-the-animals

 

Justin Torres

We the Animals

2012

Mariner Books

9780547844190

“Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by now the more he has the foundation of prudence not yet fitting up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains” (Plato).

This quote opens a novel telling of wild youth, family dysfunction, brotherly bonds, and the unconditional love that persists in the most trying of settings. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a slender yet heartrending debut novel that tracks the unnamed narrator and his two brothers through their less than perfect childhood.

Justin Torres molds this fictional world into a quasi-autobiographical tale written in first person plural, a less-well-used and complicated ploy that’s instantly noticeable (much like Jeffery Eugenides’ bestselling novel The Virgin Suicides). But through it all, the mesmerizing story of a boy reaching for manhood stands all on its own, pulling the reader toward absolution.

The “We” are three sons of an interracial couple, Ma and Paps. When the book begins, the narrator is nearly 7, and his two brothers only a few years older. They stick closely together, eating, playing, and fighting as a single unit. In these moments of connected “we” the brothers are revealed, “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped out spoons against our empty bowels; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots.” At times this unity can make it difficult to distinguish each individual personality. However, the narrative does break into first person singular at seemingly random intervals throughout the novel and then entirely takes over the closing chapter. “I pressed my hand against the glass, suddenly embarrassed, needing the cold. That’s how it sometimes was with Ma; I needed to press myself against something cold and hard, or I’d get dizzy.” The reader now sees this character’s differences, the things that make him who he is. Though usually running wild with his brothers, the narrator is an intelligent, curious, and sensitive little boy.

The book is comprised of brief chapters progressing through a roughly chronological telling of the brother’s younger years. There’s a jagged edge to these chapters that are reminiscent of memory–fragmented, only focused on the brightest moment, the most painful instant captured for all to see while the mundane fades to bare awakening. These moments paint a disjointed image of personal growth, emotional development, and a new sexual understanding.

As the end fast approaches, and the narrative POV changes to first person singular, a sharp line is drawn between who the narrator was and who the narrator wishes to be. The diction and sentence structure play against each other, one simple while the other is complex, giving the last line a final knockout punch. “Everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost.”

We the Animals is an imperfect debut novel that grips the edges of your soul and refuses to let go, leaving a haunting final impression that is certainly worth the read.

Book Review: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore

Review by Chelsea Archer

who will run the frog hospital

Lorrie Moore

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

1994

Vintage

978-1-4000-3382-9

“In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by the light; they’ve grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy nights. Me, I’m eating for a flashback.”

The first paragraph of Laurie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital opens a novel telling of wild youth, unseized potential, and adult disappointment. Known for her short story collections, Moore’s second full length novel brings together elements of short fiction as the narrative tracks protagonist, Berie, through recollections of her childhood in upstate New York and recognizes the unfulfilled status of her marriage and adult life.

The story begins in first person present where it introduces Berie and her husband Daniel in Paris. We are given an immediate impression of discontent before being whooshed back to her childhood. The story subsequently pops back and forth between the past and present for the remainder of the novel. In these spaces between time we gain insight into who Berie truly is and who she once was.

In a present conversation with her husband, Berie lies about her past, a lie that brings us, the reader, into her confidence. “‘You’re no hoodlum.’ ‘That’s true,’ I say sighing. And in this lie I feel close to him, so grateful to him, so full of pity. It goes like that. Our talk goes something like that” (48). While the majority of the novel takes place in Berie’s past, it acts like a framing point, a way for us to understand who this woman is and how she became this way. Without these flashbacks the shadow of a woman that Berie has become would hold no emotion or interest due to lack of context.

As we bounce back and follow Berie around a small town called Horsehearts, we witness life in the 1970’s. Here, teenagers smoked weed, listened to records, and drank booze–the horror of Vietnam far from their minds. Berie and her best friend Sils (the beautiful one) sneak out at night, use fake ID’s, and allow strange men to drive them home, yet their reputations remain intact, the mask of sensible girls pulled firmly into place.

Now, it can happen that flashbacks can become tiresome, can begin to feel unimportant, but Moore does a smart thing–for every 20 or 30 pages of flashback, she inserts a short burst of flash forward. “When, three years later, LaRoue hung herself in the county hospital psychiatric ward, the nurses arriving too late to cut her down, I would remember this exuberance, the hollow nervousness and yet the genuine sororal note, rattling around there, trying to get out” (140). These moments serve to make the past feel more immediate, to give it a solid footing in the present moment. We now understand the stakes in that the moment that the protagonist doesn’t.

It’s these elements that make Who Will Run the Frog Hospital such a poignant and entertaining novel. At the close of the story we realize what the narrative tells us–the past makes us who we are in the present and forces us to remember the ideals that were once of such import. Simply because time has passed and things have changed does not mean that the same things we cherished as children no longer touch our hearts.