Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Waste Land, by John Beer

Beer Waste Land

Searching the Rubble: The Waste Land and Other Poems by John Beer

Bryce Bullins

2010

Poetry

$14.00; 110 pages

Ann Arbor: Canarium Books

ISBN 978-0-98223796-4-9

 

The audacity of naming your book after T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece is staggering. Mark that audacity a notch higher when the cover of the new book is a facsimile of the original, appearing identical in all aspects spare the author’s name. It sets up an expectation so high that if the mark is not reached, utter disappointment and even a touch of anger may surface. It’s a good thing then that John Beer’s latest collection hits that mark and goes a step further, serving up a remarkable example of contemporary poetry both in style and content.

Beer doesn’t try to copy Eliot as much as he tries to reframe the foundations of “The Waste Land” for a new age. Structurally, both poems contain five distinct sections and tones of voice and are closely tied to one another in overall arc and theme. Beer uses just as many allusions as Eliot did, though the footnotes are lacking (more on that later). Beer avoids the lyricism of Eliot in favor of more casual, though no less direct, prosody (in a way, Beer’s brute address creates a kind of lyricism in itself). Beer seems to take a slight jab, albeit in jest, at Eliot in the second part of his “Waste Land”: “O O that T.S. Eliot / he’s such a shrinking violet / and if you think I sigh a lot / try life with T.S. Eliot.” Beer self-deprecatingly admits that his “Waste Land” doesn’t have the same weight of Eliot’s but in the next two lines, Beer iterates quite subtly that “…you don’t need to be a hero.”

In truth, Beer’s “Waste Land” does carry weight and heft to it. Rather than writing through the lens of a world ravaged by the end of the first World War, Beer writes through the gorilla glass of the 21st century and the end of the most protracted conflict in U.S. history.

Beer’s “Waste Land” is our reflection in that glass, staring back at us, sometimes mockingly, sometimes sincere, but always with a sharpened edge.

The anaphora of the unknown city at the beginning of the poem is the most strikingly obvious example of this new world in that the city itself is never mentioned (though alluded to in the title as either Chicago or possibly New Orleans) but the vague descriptions given to the city could be for any place on this planet and speaks to the ever encroaching globalization in which everything becomes so blurred and hegemonic that scarcely any identity yet remains. It’s simultaneously foreign and familiar, cultivating a sense of unease but utter captivation with the words on the page that seem to sink into our marrow the more we read them.

The other poems that make up the “Other Poems” section of Beer’s book are equally exceptional in their own right. Punctuated by dry wit and a practiced tightness, each poem flows smoothly and interconnects with one another in a showcase of excellent book layout. For example, the three poems entitled “Flowers”: each begins the same way, verbatim, followed by a new situation for the couple in the poem. The emotions that these situations bring to the surface are reinforced and expanded upon over the pieces that sit in between each version of “Flowers” creating an overarching narrative. It’s a fascinating style choice and one that I found worked quite well.

“Sonnets to Morpheus” is a section rife with humor (because the Morpheus in question is not that of Greek myth but the Morpheus of the Wachowskis Matrix film trilogy) and seriousness. Beer sprinkles lines taken directly from the films such as Neo’s now famous line “I know kung fu” and pairs it with beautiful prosody such as “Their music fell into my heart / like an unexpected taxi” and “…The children line up / beside the pond. They never realize / we poison them with their own reflected breath.” It is a testament to Beer’s ability as a poet that he is able to combine such disparate topics together yet create something thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking.

The only thing baffling about Beer’s collection is that he leaves out the footnote markings for the notes that appear in the back of book. For a book that is trying to imitate Eliot’s original, it comes as a glaring omission. However, rather than vexed or annoyed with the discovery of the notes, it made me thirsty to revisit Beer’s words immediately, catching the nuances and allusions that had been missed on a first reading. Like Eliot before him, Beer can be read for the sheer aesthetics of the line or for the expertness of his craftwork that make those aesthetics possible.

Beer’s language and the pure emotive feeling his poems exude make each one feel as if it is city unto itself. They are built from the ground up to be a marvel and each one feels different than the last, crafting a truly unique voice over the entire body of work. Of course there are thematic elements that tie them all together, just as there are common similarities between cities that make them feel the same, but it’s the subtle changes and the atmosphere of each that makes them special and significant in their own right.

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Bryce Bullins is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 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.

Book Review: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

February 2013

Bloomsbury USA

ISBN: 978-1608199679

 

Christine Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts, is a heartwarming and genuinely thoughtful look at the glitz and glamor in today’s star obsessed, reality television watching material world. Sneed successfully humanizes Renn Ivins and his complicated family, highlighting their flaws and sufferings in a circumspect and close-to-home manner. Sneed’s lens offers the reader a candid and, at times, humbling view of what it takes to find your way in life – no matter who your daddy is. It is as if Sneed possesses a powerful fluorescent light that out-shines the stardom of Hollywood, allowing the reader to see beyond the spotlight of fame to discover the everyday worries and disappointments of these seemingly advantaged families. Renn’s slew of ex-wives  and lovers and late life insecurities remind us that they have as many, if not more issues than the “normal” or “average” American family. Addressing aging, self-acceptance and love, Sneed proves that with the right insight and understanding we can all find our place in life—whether it was where we thought we would be or where we never thought we would ever be. Her insight is astounding and her delivery is flawless.

Sneed stands strong as a fiction contender. She is a refreshing alternative to the ghostwritten tell-alls and celebrity biographies that assault our senses from every angle—in  book and grocery stores nationwide and I am sure the public would agree that the truthfulness of this story rivals those. Her story is light in a way that it even has the tendency to poke fun at itself—there is a novel about a famous family within the novel about a famous family. Melanie (ex-wife #2) publishes a memoir titled This is Not Gold, and reflects on whether or not some of her decisions were for the reasons she had thought.

In chapter eight, titled “A Good Person,” Sneed bestows the opportunity upon the reader to examine Renn under a microscope. The reader learns that he keeps detailed and rigorous journals of his life and feelings. These journals start at the first of every year and are promptly burned at the end. In this chapter, Sneed reveals the desperation that so many have to “tell their story.” How misinterpreted one’s life can become. Renn keeps two journals: one to be published postmortem and a second that is personal. He defends his keeping of a journal, revealing that it “…is where I write down things that I have done or thoughts I have had that sometimes make it hard to sleep at night…Despite the risks, I need to keep this second journal because it’s like a pressure valve—if it weren’t there, my life would blow up” (173). Most people with jobs, families and stress can relate to needing a similar sort of release.

With this novel Sneed reminds her readers that at the heart of things we are all the same. We struggle, we fight, we suffer and we do terribly embarrassing things—no matter our age or stature. We wish that we could control how people view us—and though we may not have a post mortem memoir that is worthy of publication, we do have pride and a sense of self-preservation that is inherent in almost everyone. There is a humanizing detail to every persona and perhaps if one were to take the time to step back and look, we would all discover that money, fame, popularity, and success are all just things and with those things come grief, sadness, disappointment and self-realization.

 

 

Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.

 

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Book Review: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace

2008

Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-0143115281

 

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a well-crafted novel that will leave any reader feeling fortunate that he is not David Laurie. Laurie, a seemingly successful professor in Africa’s Cape Town, loses almost everything through a series of questionable decisions that are then followed by a series of unfortunate events. When his life goes awry, he flees to the African countryside and his daughter, Lucy, only to find that his life’s difficulties continue to amass amidst the turmoil of South Africa. In a place where life should be simpler, easier, Laurie discovers true pain and agony—the sort that can only come from someone harming those you love and the realization that you are useless in the matter. He discovers that the danger that lurks around every corner is not exclusive to the city—perhaps even worse in the countryside where areas tend to have their own practices and hierarchies.

Coetzee seems to be reiterating the theme of a man’s “goodness” and mortality as he did in his earlier novel, Slow Man, and again in his later novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. Both of his earlier novels present the reader with a main character who has suffered greatly and personally (though the placement of the injury varies a bit between the two). Laurie has a less-than-passionate, and at brief moments confusing, affair with his student Tiffany and much like the one that occurs between the magistrate and barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, it leads him to experience a series of struggles. Laurie’s struggles begin with the loss of his career and continue to escalate after he retreats to his daughter’s smallholding in the country.

Coetzee uses a chronological structure (with a sprinkling of flashbacks) in Disgrace to heighten the tension of the plot. Laurie’s series of unfortunate circumstances comprise the girth of the novel, leaving the reader feeling as if he is barely able to tread water. There are two very significant robbery scenes in this novel that act almost as a structural framework for the story. When Lucy and Laurie experience the first robbery scene, in chapter eleven, it is a harsh blow; however, when Laurie returns to his home in chapter twenty and finds it too has been burglarized the reader cannot help but feel as if his heads are being pressed below the surface. The second robbery scene unfolds like this: “[it is]…no ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases…who at this moment is wearing his shoes?…from the bathroom…a bad smell…a pigeon…expired in the basin…the lights are cut off, the telephone is dead” (176). This scene, however powerful it may be on its own, is next to devastating in its context. It also reveals the depths of sorrow that Laurie needs to reach to spur him to change—to make a commitment to something that is otherwise uncomfortable.

Coetzee excels at the development of characters with flaws and insecurities; he has proved his talent for characterization novel and novel again. It seems he has also found a niche in the troubled middle-aged man who has lost his passion and is only spurred into reality after an affair with a younger woman goes terribly wrong. Perhaps Coetzee is using such stories to warn his peers of careless decisions—or perhaps he is revealing a little something of himself and his views through a new and hopelessly defective character. Whatever Coetzee’s intentions are, his result is a deeply revelatory and moving experience for his reader, one that resonates in such an unsettling way that it is not likely to leave them for quite a while.

 

 

Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.

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Review of “Vanitas, Rough” by Lisa Russ Spaar

By Emily Provencher

Publisher’s Weekly called Spaar’s latest work, “An entrancing world of lush language and passionate imaginings.” Vanitas, Rough features poems about the synchronicity of simplistic complexities in the often mundane face of everyday realities. In the piece, “Trailing Mary & Martha: 3 AM,” Spaar speaks of “unfathomable barking / [and] jaw dumpsters in the cul-de-sacs.” Not the craziest of poetic happenings, but written with poise and understanding.

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The first time, I read this entire book of poetry without having any idea of what the title of the collection meant, or how the cover image related to the work inside the bind. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of poems, and then I decided to look up the definition of the word “vanitas.” It is, “a still-life painting of a 17th-century Dutch genre containing symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability.” (google.com) The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and abundance in some sects of mythology, especially Greek and Roman. The cover of this collection alone is a beautiful metaphor representing the inevitable rising and falling of abundance and goodness versus the bleakness one encounters throughout different periods of time.

“the shear, the jabbing jaws / in elbow high gloves / & up to the briary cervix, a welter historical,”

A line from one of the early poems, “Old Rose,” had my mouth watering for more sublimely tantalizing words. The overall content of this series of poems is of nothing truly shocking or out of the ordinary, but is still wonderful to read. The language Spaar uses throughout her poetry is astounding.

“Vanitas, Rough” features the hypnotizing lines, “your tongue in me is mine, too… / drunken wasp grazing semen yolk / of split, glazed oyster shells, / Death blowing soap bubbles / out the orbital sockets…” These phrasings captivate readers due to their close-to-absurd wording. They force the reader to go back and read the line over and over because of the terrifically strange content.

It can be difficult for authors to eloquently capture the banality of longing. In Vanitas, Rough, Spaar calls to Emily Dickinson as a muse in “Spring Fever” and “Outliving Emily,” channeling the metric empress of the nineteenth century in her lines of carefully constructed syntax in her pithy diction throughout this series.

The language in this collection is beautiful, but when I was finished reading the book, I did not find myself changed or moved from the experience. Nonetheless, Vanitas, Rough is a beautifully written catalogue of poetry and it is very enjoyable to read.Spaar uses words to illustrate a bizarre myriad of alluring images in her latest publication, it is a great work that writers and readers alike will appreciate.

Author Bio:

Emily Provencher is a twenty one year old english major focusing on poetry at Sierra Nevada College in North Lake Tahoe. Originally from Southern New Hampshire, she moved to California for all the wrong reasons and is still absolutely relishing her decisions to move west three years later. Emily enjoys pondering the mysteries of the universe, drinking Guatemalan coffee, mining for precious stones, reading Tarot cards, cultivating and sustaining of the miracle life from the Earth, and reading and writing poetry with any and all chances she gets. She is new to editing and blogging, but having a pen in hand is simply second nature to her. Emily accepts all criticisms to her work, but she will also not hesitate to criticize yours.

 

Rigger Death And Hoist Another: Dear God! Yes!

 

Dear god! Should have been all I could say about this (by: Chris Muravez)

Rigger Death & Hoist Another by: Laura McCullough (ISBN: 978-1-937854-29-4, Black Lawrence Press, $14)

 

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A professor of mine once said of writers, “We are witnesses” and this line of thought can be felt throughout Laura McCullough’s new collection of poetry Rigger Death & Hoist Another. McCullough has an intellectual and realist personality whose affectatious nature helps to bridge the gap between an academic life and a working class mind. I had the great fortune of meeting her last year at a reading here at Sierra Nevada College. The wisdom and love of life she presented to us has affected me greatly, and can be found throughout much of her works.

The theme of a life worth living is prevalent in her first section titled Membrane where she give us a glimpse of an existence floating and observing the various facets of life that can be found in this world. Of the scottish rigger in the collection’s namesake poem she writes “Oil is distilled, too, as are memories” leads into her ability to create a connecting thought when she continues with:

why we hoist another one, nosing and tasting,
taking sips and rolling our lost
histories around the tongue, so they penetrate-
and distill-
the scarred membranes
hidden inside our mouths

Here McCullough demonstrates the ability to make deep philosophical connections through the seemingly simple act of enjoying a drink. Like Proust with booze. Yet this collection goes beyond that and delves into the reflective realms of C.K. Williams or Sharon Olds. McCullough has injected her works with academic certainty coupled with the wisdom of a woman who has never lost the spark for life. The second section of her work, Dandelions, presents us with the different seeds she has sown throughout her life. Talking about one’s children has been a focus of many poets and has been accomplished in various ways. There is always a lingering doubt within a parent’s mind about how well they raised their family. More often than not, this question is asked straight forward in a confessional looking for absolution from the audience. Yet McCullough has the wisdom to know that nothing is stagnant, and to attempt a redemption from an anonymous audience is foolhardy. Rather, her focus is more on a presentation of what her contribution to our world is. About her son she writes “his body like a ball soaring over the green of this unspeakable world.”

In They Dream of AK-47s she writes about her son’s experiences with a hunting club, a topic long held in reserve for masculinity. Destroying these gender barriers through paternal pedagogy, she gives her son a book of poetry:

Then, on his twenty-first birthday,
Hunter reads one of Jack’s poems out loud.

I ask him what he thinks of it,
but he refuses to comment silence
another weapon
he’s learned how to shoot.

Everyday, I tell Hunter I love him.
Everyday, he says, Hush Ma, I know.

This example shows her formatting; a style whose enjambed lines, indented line breaks, and singular words that put a thought or sense into the reader’s rearward thoughts, that connects seemingly unconnected and disjointed themes in a logic of a poetic witness.

In the last section of the book, The Door, McCullough continues her process of presenting the world in a way that only a poet can. She connects multiple themes that have presented themselves throughout into an almost omniscient commentary that is unwavering, unforgiving, and fearless. “What we need is a queer god” is her claim in Queerness Means Questioning Mythical Norms. I can’t help but love everything about this line. The audacity of the claim would leave spineless readers running for the door. The notion of being able to replace gods at will gives us the power over them. It is a complete reversal of hierarchies, gender norms, and theology. This, in a sense, portrays McCullough’s writing, personality, and wisdom at its best.

McCullough has given us an unapologetic work designed to provide commentary, tell a story, and confess without turning into a banal mewling that so many poets fall into. Too often. Yet her sass is coupled with a unique tenderness that comes from a knowledge only gained through experience. This tenderness is one that gives hope, determination, and foresight to all witnesses of our time. She has challenged everything from parenthood, gender, hierarchies, capital, and faith. Her challenges are that of questions more than critiques. And in questioning she is able to present a universal hope for the future as she writes in The Flags We Raise:

When I say beautiful boy, a flag
is raised in in my chest
that belongs to no country,
but the one all hostages to fortune live in,
one with no boarders
which can not be escaped from,
and of which there is no government,
only taxes, death, and
of course, what pleasures
we can steal along the way.

Chris Muravez is a near 30 college student because he spent way too much time mucking about in the military. He doesn’t regret it; well, at least not as much as what he ate for dinner last night. He likes reading Proust, shopping for sweaters, and laughing in the back of his mind when people challenge his “manhood” for those things. He currently writes poetry and is on a never-ending quest for the perfect pair of wingtip boots.

Reading Matthew Sweeney’s Horse Music

By Bryce Bullins

“Naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages, with an earthly vehicle, unearthly horses, old man that I am, I wander astray.” Thus marks the opening page of Matthew Sweeney’s latest collection of poetry, Horse Music (Bloodaxe Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-85224-967-0). It is a quote from Franz Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, and a wholly fitting one, along with quotes from Edward Lear and Walter de la Mare, that serves as a preface to the poetry collected here. It’s the sort of biting, awkwardly funny, self-deprecation that Sweeney’s poetry often evokes. Horse Music has no overall theme per-se, but rather, is a collection of one-off fables about dwarves, recollections of long-dead or still living relatives, and of loves present and former. In a phrase: it is a sweeping exploration of life. Sweeney’s voice is unique in that while combining traditional narrative style poetry (albeit condensed narratives and often in media res) he blends elements of black humor, Kafkaesque territories, and what Sweeney himself calls “alternative realism”, to hook his readers and make Horse Music a pleasure to experience from cover to cover.

Horse-Music-Matthew-Sweeney

The poems in Horse Music don’t stray far from Sweeney’s other work, and rightfully so. After publishing poetry collections since 1981, it is fair to say Sweeney has found his voice. Horse Music may represent the flourishing of his voice, however. Deftly paced and lyric, Horse Music is amalgam of voices from across literary tracts. Influences of Kafka are abundant, unsurprisingly so, given Sweeney’s extensive background in German literature, specifically Kafka, but there is a more subtle craftsmanship at work here. Sweeney deliberately makes strides away from not only the two domineering figures of Irish poetry: W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney (though there is a poem for Seamus Heaney within Horse Music, “The Tunnel”) but his contemporaries, Paul Muldoon and Ian Duhig. Sweeney keeps what the British Council on Literature calls an “inherited Irish interest in narrative”[1] while keeping a keen interest in the themes in the great works of German literature. There is no disrespect toward his fellow Irishmen but rather a nuanced respect that Sweeney builds over their foundations and then takes toward new horizons. Gone are the “well-made-poems” and in their place come byzantine ornamentations in the form of micro-narratives that spread out across ages. If Sweeney’s poems were written in such a way as to ape Yeats or Heaney, they would be nowhere near as enjoyable as they are in their present form.

While Sweeney’s poetry is at times self-referential, it would be remiss to call it “confessional.” Instead, Sweeney obfuscates his poems in ornate tapestries of illusion and black humor. Nowhere is this expressed more than in this reviewer’s favorite poem in the collection, “Waiting”, wherein Sweeny bemoans the perils of always waiting for one thing or another and the doldrums produced therein:

I’d like to knife my partner, the postman,
my publisher, the bank teller, my neighbor.
One day I’ll emigrate to Antarctica
and befriend the penguins there. (9-12)

Sweeney is able to parse words we usually don’t want to consider together to create a new fiction for us to partake in, all the while still grounding us in the present.

It is clear from Sweeney’s writing that he stays away from the heady realm of surrealism and magical realism but rather focuses on connections, subtle and otherwise, in the form of metaphor and fantastic imagery. In “Sausages”, Sweeney makes connections between the “six [of them] inhabiting the same gut… / waiting on the hot pan with spitting oil” (1-3) to his “long-dead grandfather” (6). More grim is that each sausage has within them a meta-piece of said grandfather. Sweeney is able to take something as banal as frying up sausages and is able to trace the lines of interconnectivity in them to an intensely personal plain. Though the image is initially grotesque, it becomes something of an episode of bittersweet memory:

…so my grandfather lights a cigarette,
opens a bottle of Guinness and swigs it,
sitting down at the far end of the table
the table I will sit at when you’re browned,
and I’ll eat you, one by one, with mustard,
raising a black glass to my grandfather. (16-21)

Horse Music is at times morose, but more often than not, heartfelt and warm. The broadness of its scope is well suited to its narratives and its intrigues. It is the everydayness of Sweeney’s poetry that makes it so appealing now and what will make it so enduring for the future. Horse Music is available now via Bloodaxe Books and is distributed in North America by Dufour Editions Inc.

Journal Review: The Georgia Review

by Laurie Macfee

GRSummer13

The Georgia Review
Summer 2013
$15.00
Published quarterly by University of Georgia
143 pp. plus front and back matter
ISBN 0016-8386
http://garev.uga.edu/

 

The Georgia Review has been publishing a cross-section of poetry, fiction, essays, art, and reviews since 1947. Based at University of Georgia, the journal is internationally distributed and published quarterly. It is widely considered one of the finer literary publications in America. At 143 pgs, the Summer 2013 issue packs in eight poems, two fiction pieces, one essay, a painting folio, six book reviews, a note to readers, and most importantly, a special non-fiction feature, Judith Kitchen’s remarkable “Circus Train.”

In editor Stephen Corey’s front piece, To Our Readers, he notes, “During my 30 years with The Georgia Review, the journal has published just a few works that approximate the length of Judith Kitchen’s ‘The Circus Train.’” He queries whether perhaps we need to devise a new category for pieces such as this inventive and moving, “segmented but forcefully interwoven study of memory and mortality,” which is 55 pgs long. The last piece of this length was featured in 1985. For comparison, the environmental essay “Near and Distant Bears,” a treatise on climate change by Scott Russell Sanders, is a mere 12 pgs.  The two short fiction pieces, also environmental in nature, come in at 9 pages for David Griffith’s “Blight,” and 10 pgs for Jerry McGahan’s “The Deer Walking Upside Down.”

Why go on about the length of this work? Because what The Georgia Review has allowed with Kitchen’s breath taking, genre-bending reflection on her upcoming death from cancer, is the room to recreate a life. The back and forth segments mimic the waiting for letters (“wings of thought”) to arrive in the mail.  “Everything on hold while time crossed the country in its three-hour increments.” The generosity of space allows her to ruminate and build a case for her memories that lap like waves at the edges of our shore:

 

“…because the only snow is that of memory, and you will miss it acutely with a soft smile as you picture it spreading over the lawns, settling on fences until they carry their burden oh so lightly along their length, the celebration of cardinal or jay as they add their brief glint of color. Soft smile as you step out in boots to scoop up the past, letting it trickle over your face where you lick at its fake confection. Soft smile in perpetual summer twisting your heart where yes you miss snow you miss snow you miss snow.”

 

This lyric essay alone is reason to purchase the issue, as it will undoubtedly be anthologized for years to come, poetic language building the narrative in sections that fall in and out of focus. It is haunting, and unforgettable. In the end, Kitchen leaves us with this thought: “To conjure the circus train… it must have meant something as it moved across my horizon and vanished into the haze. It must have meant something, because it keeps trailing its scarf of smoke.”

There are only a spare eight poems in this issue.  In comparison, The Iowa Review featured 38 poems. I went to several back issues of The Georgia Review, to see if the length of Kitchen’s piece limited the poetry selection but the fall/spring/winter issues only feature 13/14/9 poems each. Seemingly, a breadth of poetry is not the focus (as a poet, it is something I look for). However, this issue begins with a piece by Al Maginnes, which is a mark in the win column. In “Music from Small Towns,” he writes about blue collar boys who, “play their version of a place/that didn’t have a name before it became a song.” Since he opens the journal, Maginnes sets the tone for the entire spread, a melancholy, somewhat wistful narrative on memory.  Since I had the great luck to hear him read at SNC last month, I could hear his voice in my ear as I read. Maginnes has such talent in capturing this world.

Other poems that stood out included Jack Ridl’s “Practicing Chinese Ink Drawing,” a lovely moment of re-awakening of an artist to the scene presented in front of him, “my brushstrokes/carry the feel/of listless/luck – languid/and precise….” And even more compelling, was Robert Wrigley’s “16 Down,” about the names for a part of a knife, “choil or ricsasso,” how the speaker fell in love with the words, with the fact that there were multiple ways to talk about the place where the haft disappeared into the handle.

It is refreshing that The Georgia Review includes a section dedicated to art. Paintings by Maine artist John Winship are featured on the covers, and in an 8-pg folio on glossy paper inside.  These 10 pieces represent a body of work, Presentiments, for which the managing editor wrote a 2-pg intro to help ground the reader. Based at least partially on Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name, the work seems to rise out of the “domestically grassy, shady vision of past moments,” that Dickinson mined. The oil and acrylic pieces are Hopperesque in their narrative, single figures or couples caught in a shadowed landscape.

The book reviews included an interesting critique of two new books on film critic Pauline Kael; a review of three new books out in 2013 about the work of Sylvia Plath; a new book on the selected correspondence of Kenneth Patchen; a book of essays and cartoons by Tim Kreider; in a double cameo, a critique of the newest Al Maginnes book “Inventing Constellations;” and a wonderful review by Sian Griffiths of Eric Sasson’s unflinching portraits of gay men’s lives in “Margins of Tolerance.” 

Because I count, only two of the eight poets, two of the six book reviewers, and none of the regular essays, fiction, or art are by women in this issue.  So, for a body count of the 20 writers/artists listed in the table of contents, only five have a vagina. And of the eight books reviewed, only two were by women. One might imagine that 75% of the writers in the United States are men. But I digress – or do I?  The Georgia Review is a lion in the literary world, which is why these numbers are so problematic.

If I had to choose adjectives for The Georgia Review, they would be upstanding, elegant, and safe. Perhaps attempting to represent the best of literary tradition requires choosing more traditional work, taking care not to offend? Besides Judith Kitchen’s piece, none of the work pushes at the edges – this is not a journal intended to shake the status quo. It is lovely and palatable and known, like a Hopper painting. Which is not to say without quality. It has the imprimatur of arrival, a resume-maker if you are emerging. The writers in this issue seem to be established or at least mid-career. It is just too bad that artwork isn’t chosen that pushes as hard as Scott Russell Sanders does on the environment, or as Emily Dickinson pushed at the traditions of her day. Or that more women are seemingly not up to their standard, or part of the literary tradition they cover. Maybe I just picked up a depressingly testosterone-filled issue. It seems like such an old saw at this point, except that it obviously is not. But I would buy this issue for Judith Kitchen’s piece alone – it is worth the expenditure.