Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century

2013
Poetry
$12; 128 pages
SplitLevel Texts
ISBN:  978-0985811136

 

 

 

The Sun Has Gone Out: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century
by Bryce Bullins

There is an infestation of spiders in Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century. No less than a dozen references to spiders or spiderlike qualities exist in Meng’s text and it’s wholly fitting: what better creature best embodies the complexity of time than one who spins webs as intricate and unfathomably raw as the spider? There is great concern for time in Solar Eclipse and Meng’s attentiveness to its passage is humbling while simultaneously sprawling.

Meng asserts that “We could all benefit / from risking temporality / more often” and her verse echoes this sentiment. Solar Eclipse navigates the course and events of a year from the day of the eclipse (22 July, 2009) to the following year but in such a way that it feels as though time is seemingly lost in the process of recollection. Experiments in space, form, and language create a hazy, though still discernible, presence of grounding in some form of the present.

Interspersed within the collection are several diary entries that serve as poetic-prose sections that seek, whether intentionally or otherwise, to stabilize us in the temporality of the year. These diary entries are the most vulnerable pieces in Solar Eclipse because of their earnest honesty. In “M, Tu, W, Th, F” Meng asserts that “learning to want impossible things is a sort of freedom worms & crocodiles don’t know.” In this oddly humorous musing, Meng is subtly pointing out the flaws in our own ability to yearn for impossibility. The virtue of it being impossible makes us want it that much more and makes the lack of it that much stronger. In so many words, it is the drive that keeps us pressing onward.

The most striking aspect of Solar Eclipse is how it deftly rests on a blade’s edge of the necropastoral[1]. While never overtly approaching the bleakness of ecocatastrophe, Meng’s allusions are grounded heavily in the present moment that creates the conditions possible for ecocatastrophe: her verse occupies a space where blog entries coexist with goat farmers in Uruguay and “whatever nascent understanding we’d had about empathy / had its limbs hacked off / right from the start.” This is to say nothing of the countless other pastoral tropes Meng conjures up, but her verse often subverts them as in “Game Reserve”:

Just because there is no eagle
doesn’t mean the eagle isn’t here.
Or maybe ‘eagle’ is really the name for ‘crow’;
And the group of them
above me is saying so.

If the eagle represents the majesty of the world before ecocatastrophe takes its toll, then the crows are what remains after. There is no more deft an analogy than a murder of crows circling above us, occupying the space of the beautiful world we have destroyed.

It is in this world that Meng seeks to illustrate individual flairs of hopelessness, anxiety, optimism, and banality. By doing so, Meng captures a climatology all her own of a life lived now. Whether we are present for it as well (read: aware) is a separate matter entirely.

[1] See Joyelle McSweeny’s essay on the necropastoral, in which she probes the political-aesthetic paradigm and its inability to be separated from nature

Book Review: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know

2014
Poetry
$18; 144 pages
Subito Press
ISBN: 978-0990661214

 

 

Something Like That: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know
by Bryce Bullins

Erasures, when done exceptionally, can create a landscape wholly unique. Paradoxically, the willful redaction of text can enhance, if not make better, a narrative. For example, Yedda Morrison’s Darkness erases, or more accurately whites-out, large portions of the first chapter of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In doing so, Morrison doesn’t so much rewrite Conrad’s narrative but rather enhances it by bringing the natural world to the forefront. Similarly, through this same process of careful and willful redaction, Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch have made something quite unique with their work As We Know.

Written in diary entries from April 30th to July 1st, As We Know seeks to abolish identity and embrace banality. Days pass with vignettes of stoops and flowers in the park, internalization of anxieties and ponderousness, and musings on the nature of umbrellas. Most striking is the lack of gender identifiers of the writer and no hints to let us peel away whatever may be there. It’s a brilliant and bold move. By removing gender identifiers, arguably the identity of a narrator is dismantled, at which point we are able to become more invested in the language on the page as we now have a blank space with which to connect with work in myriad ways. In essence, our own biases, whatever they may be, are dismantled via the absence of identity, leaving us with an unfiltered dialogue with the text itself.

As We Know has a meta-sensibility to its willful destruction of identity. Within the first four pages a quote from Georges Bataille appears in which we are given firm notice that As We Know is taking on the job of the formless and is attempting to “(1) [debase] objects by stripping them of pretensions—in the case of words, pretensions to meaning—and (2) [attack] the very condition on which meaning depends, the structural opposition between definite terms.” We are immediately told what’s at stake by taking away all that is usually at stake. This is to say nothing of the underlying conceptual aspects of As We Know. To quote from the artist’s statement, “As We Know attempts to intervene into the gendered history of editorial intervention as it has played out in the famous cases of figures such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson.” By not concerning itself with identity from the outset, the tension that generally exists between ownership and authorship dissipates. Though it is clear that there is still some consternation in the text as at times: entries often flow together seamlessly, almost as if one day bleeds into the next with little to separate the preceding day(s), and yet there are times when there are clearly conflicted voices, one of which is giving what is tantamount to stage directions: “(figure out how to organize those better)” and “(figure out where to make these past or present tense)”. This struggle never quite manifests into open aggression but instead subtly stews beneath the work, begging questions as we move forward in time. There is no resolution by the end, only hints at a partial and tenuous closure when we reach the acknowledgements and are given a simple dedication: “this book is for Emily and Dorothy.”

As We Know deftly uses the art of strike-through to cultivate its attentiveness to banality and temporality. The grounding for this banality comes from a quote from Roland Barthes, which serves as an epigraph (as presented in the format of As We Know):

; whatever he writes
, it will always be a vested discourse, in which the body
will make its appearance (banality is discourse without body).
In other words, what he writes proceeds from a corrected banality.

As We Know isn’t merely “corrected banality” but perfected banality: each entry is clearly marked with a day, sections marked with timestamps, and the erased structure of the work makes it feel as though these were a series of never-ending connections due in large part to the repetitious banality that makes up our own days. As mentioned, days bleed together as simply as turning the page, so much so to that when we were cognizant of being on May 5th it is suddenly May 20th.  Strikingly, this preponderance of time dilation is one of As We Know‘s greatest strengths.

When taken out of the context of the work at large, the entries still work exceedingly well as standalone pieces. Take for example the excerpt the Sierra Nevada Review published in volume 25 from May 22:

As We Know 1

No knowledge of the preceding days is necessary to feel the weight of this entry, allowing it to work and flex its integrity entirely on its own as a self-contained micro narrative. Placed into the context of the full body of work, its weight is certainly enhanced, but because of the way in which As We Know is constructed, it lends itself naturally to vignettes rather than predicating itself on needing the entire body to function. Apropos, considering the dynamics of authorship and voice within.

When not tarrying with bringing the past to the present and grounding the timeline of As We Know somewhere within the confines of an abstract present, the struck-through text, by and large, tends to remove what would otherwise be superfluous details and descriptions. It is ironic then, that these superfluous details and descriptions are what enhance the banality of our lives. More correctly, these superfluous things merely give us the illusion of enhancement. What is banal is always banal, no matter how one dresses it.

As We Know is an experiment in language and presentation devoid of all frivolity and pretension as established by Bataille. It is direct, bare, and nearly holistic in its austerity. Its complexities are vast and often times lend to the meta-narrative of our own lives in that As We Know, intentionally or otherwise, winds up confronting us with our own subjectivity to both content and form.

 

Book Review: The Glass Castle

 

Untitled

 

January 17, 2005

ISBN: 074324754X

Scribner, New York

 

 

 

 

 

It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes:

Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle: A Memoir

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

“What I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes,” writes Walls in the first few pages of her memoir. Some of Walls’ earliest memories are of a fire that engulfed her, running up the tutu-like skirt of her pretty pink dress, as she stood on a stool, hovering over her family’s stove, boiling hot dogs. She was only three years old. Her mother, Rose Mary, a self-proclaimed artist, sat just a room away, painting. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d often ask her children “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls’ childhood was one ruled by an emotionally-absent mother and an alcoholic father, who instead of parenting their four children, more often than not ignored and neglected them.

If ever they did provide for their children it was by virtue of some sort of thievery. And often their crimes included the children’s participation. “Mom’s plan was for her and Maureen to go into the dressing room . . . with an armful of new clothes for Maureen to try on,” Walls writes. “When they came out . . . Lori, Brian, and I would create a ruckus to distract the clerk while Mom hid a dress under a raincoat she would be carrying on her arm.”

Consistently creditors caught up with the Walls family, and the children, acclimated to this lifestyle, were always on point when their father announced it was “time to skeedaddle.” They gathered the few belongings they could carry escaping into the dark of night. After years of dead-end jobs and countless “skeedaddles” from one town after another, Rex Walls, wife and kids in tow, returned to his hometown of Welch, Virginia. Rather than the contentment one might expect to find in their father’s hometown, what followed were more years of discontent. Rex and Rose Mary purchased a dilapidated house lacking electricity and running water. The children, consequently, were reared in a home abundant in filth, deprived of food, warmth, and sanity.

Despite the volatile childhood that unfolds within the pages of her memoir, Walls’ does not portray her parents as monsters. Rather, she describes them as she saw them, through the eyes of a child. The portraits Walls paints of each member of her family are vivid: each with their own voice, demeanor, and personality. Readers will come away from this memoir feeling as if they’ve come to know Rex, Rose Mary, Lori, Brian, Maureen, and Jeanette herself. There is nothing refined about the words that fall from the lips of innocence onto the page of Walls’ memoir. And so as readers we find that what remains is a story of unadulterated love within a family.

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Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.

 

 

 

Book Review: Tender at the Bone

Tender at the Bone

 

May 25, 2010

Random House, New York

ISBN: 978-0812981117

 

 

 

 

“Food could be a way of making sense of the world”:

Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

Reichl’s parents were big entertainers. Reichl’s mother, endearingly nicknamed “the queen of mold,” bragged that she could “make a meal out of anything” and tested this claim on the many occasions when the Reichls hosted events in their home. At a young age Reichl designated herself the buffet table monitor, standing guard over the guests and shooing them away from the most hazardous of the dishes. When her older brother announced his engagement Reichl’s mother insisted on hosting the engagement party leading to over 26 of the guests taking trips to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. When the calls started coming in asking if it could have been the food, Reichl’s mother responded “Nonsense. We all feel fine. And we ate everything.”

Reichl’s mother is bi-polar and because her sickness consumed both parents Reichl learned early on how to care for herself. When her parents abandoned her to take a trip to Europe Reichl was left with her maternal grandmother who then pawned her off on Aunt Birdie, the mother of her father’s first wife and her cook, Alice. Reichl’s time with them is one of her most cherished memories, in the kitchen learning to cook dumplings and chicken croquette.

Reichl grew up in the kitchen, listening to and relating stories while preparing ingredients for simple or extravagant dishes, fostered by those who shared her love of food. Included in this memoir is a collection of treasured recipes that are representative of significant moments in Reichl’s life. Rather than a simple narrative of a woman’s coming of age, these recipes enrich and add flavor to Reichl’s story.

Time after time Reichl faced abandonment by her parents. This continually led her to the kitchen, where in her youth, she found nurturing from her adopted grandmother and the family’s hired cook. In her young adulthood she found comfort in preparing her own dishes for friends and lovers. Despite the constant absence of her parents, Reichl’s readers are sure to find that her childhood and adolescence were brimming with love because her kitchen was always full with devoted and affectionate characters who aided her in “making sense of the world.”

 

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Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.

 

Book Review: Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness

2013
Poetry
$14; 120 pages
Canarium Books
ISBN: 9780984947126

 

 

 

 

“I am in the human world and not in the human world.”
Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness
By Bryce Bullins

Paul Killebrew’s latest collection of poetry, Ethical Consciousness, is statement of experience and of uncertainty, of anxiety and surefootedness, and of the ability of the human mind to process everything and nothing simultaneously. Killebrew’s verse is terse beyond measure yet reads in a flowing, precise manner. We become lost, overwhelmed even (in the best senses of the word) in the menagerie of language Killebrew has collected. Its construction is deliberately deliberate with single lines like “dark compromises” (“Exclamations in Earnest”) or “meticulous pagination” (“Muted Flags”) carrying their own gravity within the gravity of the poem at large. On their own, complexities are ripe within the tangible worlds Killebrew creates via the explorations of the metaphysical and subconscious desire of not only himself as a poet but the narrators of each poem (arguably the same but room for interpretation is vast). With the addition of the reader, invariably involved in the progression of the poem, these connections become immediate and resonant.

Killebrew has the ability to produce devastating lines of poetry that come unexpectedly but are immediately welcome and pummel a reader with deft weightiness. For example, in the title poem:

It’s as if the self
were a series of
statements
occasionally arranged
in dizzying
complexity but
mostly repeating
ten or eleven sentences
from the brief oeuvre
of a personality
that grows only
like a balloon—

The meta presence of this particular excerpt is overwhelming: Killebrew is using a blanketing statement to make reference to the very thing we are doing at the moment of discovery in the reading and what Killebrew has already put on the page here and the preceding 22 pages: a series of mostly the same thoughts, despite variations, repeating again and again, and yet are still utterly engaging and relevant precisely because of their repetition. This is brilliant verse.

There is a tremendous strength in the language of Ethical Consciousness. It’s common language but not in a risible sense. The language presented here has a color palette all its own, unique to the worlds Killebrew is painting via his fast firing neuron verse. Despite these previously unknown shades, his verse is cogent and striking.

With its fast paced, line of flight construction, attention to emotive details while navigating away from sentimentality, and its ability to pull one into the world of forms it creates, Ethical Consciousness sits in an ether all its own. This is poetry that speaks best when it speaks for itself. To superimpose meaning or theory on to it outside of the personal experience of reading it for oneself would do disservice to it. This is intimate poetry that demands attention and rightfully deserves it.

Book Review: Partyknife by Dan Magers

2012
Poetry
$15 Print; $5 PDF; 92 pages
Birds, LLC
ISBN: 9780982617779

 

 

 

Shut Up and Play the Hits1: Dan Magers’ Partyknife
Bryce Bullins

“Tamaki asks me to talk dirty to her without being degrading, / but I don’t know the difference.”
“Love is a prelude to an afterthought.”
“I had an anxiety attack during the three-way. / I see through all appearance and know abundance.”

These are opening lines to poems in Dan Magers’ collection Partyknife, the collective sigh of palpable dread of being an up-and-coming adult in a world none of us will ever be able to get in touch with again while simultaneously bursting at the seams with the joy of being alive in such an insane moment.

Partyknife is nuanced poetry in readers digest post-ironic form. Magers’ verse is melodramatic, angry, and hopeful in the most modern sense of the word. It is filled with the directness of language we only fantasize of using out loud because we are too aloof in our own shoes at the byzantine carnival of the 21st century. The brusqueness of his content and its blasé approach to more or less everything captivates a reader in such a way that we both marvel and make faces of disgust at the seemingly cavalier attitude of Magers’ narrator. Scathing but poignant remarks such as “we were not fuck buddies. / We were not even buddies. / We were just fucks.” leaves a reader slack jawed with its audaciousness to simply say it as it is. At a deeper level, Magers mines into the vein of language most of us could only hope to use to express our inner turmoil. Magers has managed to acquire the gall we lack and in taking such a risk, his verse pays dividends in its delivery and resonance both on and off the page. These are poems catchy enough to remember for weeks after reading.

Fitting then that Partyknife is designed as a 7’’ vinyl and presents itself as an EP for a band that ought to exist but never will. The poems even have track lengths. It’s a playful anachronism in that despite the common conception of vinyl being an archaic form in the age of digital formats (primarily MP3), analog recordings and pressings remain of a higher fidelity.

For the uninitiated, MP3s are subpar to vinyl, or any analog based recording for that matter, because MP3s are compressed audio while analog recordings are not. In being compressed, the vibrancy and dynamism that can be heard in analog recordings is lost (this assumes you have the proper equipment to get the most out of that analog, however). CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg sums it up nicely: “An analog recording corresponds the variations in air pressure of the original sound. A digital recording is a series of numbers that correspond to the sound’s continuous variations, but the numbers have to be reconverted to analog signals before they can be listened to. Listening to a well-recorded LP, you hear humans making music; with digital it’s more about sound for sound’s sake.”2

Naturally then, the only viable form for Partyknife is that of the 7’’ vinyl. Partyknife would never be found on the iTunes store because its quality would be diminished in that garbage compression. The ability for abrasiveness is lost in digital formats. The language of humans is lost in compression and tiptoeing niceties. Partyknife is essential reading/listening because it’s the best kind of dangerous: it captures an emotional zeitgeist and it doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of it. It exists for itself and on its own, within and without the temporality it defines.

1 Also the name of a documentary about the final show of the seminal NYC band, LCD Soundsystem and there are arguably parallels to their music/lyrics and Partyknife.

2 http://www.cnet.com/news/why-does-analog-sound-better-than-digital/

Book Review: The Goldfinch

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others,

 that in the end, we become diguised to ourlves.”

-Francois De La Rochefoucauld

the goldfinch

Review by Courtney Berti

Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

Little Brown

ISBN 978-0-316-05543-7

 

Why would anyone want to read a novel about the typical American teenager: after his mother dies, a promising thirteen-year-old moves in with his gambling drug-addict father, falls in with the wrong kids at school, does drugs, becomes an alcoholic, grows up, repeats father’s mistakes…It sounds like the plotline for a dramatic television series for teenagers. But the truth is that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is less for an uninformed teenaged audience, and more for a jaded and cynical adult audience. How does one figure?

Written from the first person perspective, readers are plunged inside the head of thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker at the moment when his upright, stable, fairly happy world is turned upside down forever. Initially, we see Theo making his first bad decision with his friend Tom, leading him to be suspended. His mother is escorting him to school to address the suspension and his behavior with his teachers when they are caught by a rainstorm. The two of them duck into The Hague to take shelter, browse for a bit, and in the moment we are introduced to the subject in the title (The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius 1654) an explosion occurs that kills Theo’s mom and brings him face to face with fate in the form of an older gentleman by the name of Welty. Welty, in his last moments, gives Theo a ring that later leads him to an antique shop where he meets a lifelong friend by the name of Hobie who remains for Theo, and readers, a stable moral compass throughout the rest of the novel—a necessary character for a novel that tries to tackle questions such as: What is good or evil? Does fate exist? Is there a god? Does any of it mean anything?

It is in the stating of these questions, and in the stylistic choices that Tartt makes, that a number of risks are taken in the realm of what constitutes literature. For example, the twists of fate and the surprisingly happy ending are what have led more than one reviewer to identify (and criticize) The Goldfinch as Dickensian, in nature. Stephen King goes so far as to call Theo a “21st century Oliver Twist…” The criticism is that all of the loose ends of the novel are tied in a nice neat bow in a manner typical of Dickens as well as pop fiction and genre writers—pleasing to the unlearned reader of fiction but infuriatingly predictable to the student and writer of literature. In her essay, “The Breakout Element: Unpredictability and the Novel,” writer Lan Samantha Chang calls this neat wrap-up, “resolution of plot, at the expense of characters.”

Because of this tendency to break away from character for the sake of resolution, the end of The Goldfinch is, perhaps, the most notable risk taken by Tartt. The narrative style of the last chapter of the book changes drastically so that the main character, Theo, and his friends are indirectly addressing the reader while the characters are basking in the reverie of disasters righted and lessons learned, very much like the end of A Christmas Carol. In some cases Theo actually does address the reader (who he, ironically, suspects does not exist) but a good example of the tone near the end is when his best friend Boris says, “And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do—? Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple” (745).

It may be that Boris is challenging Theo (and readers) a little too bluntly to abandon strictly black-and-white thinking (along with all the other little things the reader is asked to think about), as if the lesson of the book was not already learned by readers in the telling of it. Perhaps this is why some critics will call it a masterpiece like the artwork upon which the story is based, and why other’s will call it a children’s book for adults. Only in children’s books is the underlying lesson so tediously re-stated, but I think that Tartt pulls it off. The happy note on which the book ends is exactly what is needed as the reward for the reader who has experienced so much misery along with Theo for ten years of his life and at least a couple weeks of our own.

Not to say that the book is a miserable read, by any means. Tartt manages to draw readers so completely into the psyche of Theo via long, meandering, almost stream of consciousness paragraphs that we are sympathetic with his cause and feel as tortured as he throughout the novel. While this doesn’t sound particularly fun, I would argue that Tartt takes a risk by daring readers to explore the uncomfortable places of one’s own consciousness by writing in the first person, but also by creating a highly introspective, philosophical character who feels separated from the goings on of his everyday reality.

For starters, the book is divided into separate sections with their own labels, indicative of Theo’s emotional climate contained therein, (i.e. “Morphine Lollipop,” or “Wind, Sand and Stars,”), and Tartt manages, through her writing, to help us make sense of why each section is labelled as it is. For example, in the chapter entitled, “The Idiot,” we see Theo talking to himself: “…I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, all human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor…” etc.

Upon further examination, one sees that the title of this chapter (and its contents) is a criticism of modern American culture, which Tartt shows us throughout the novel—from New York to Las Vegas she uses pop-culture, art, film, and literature references to show their impact on Theo’s psyche. His choices and responses to this culture are demonstrated through his highly-conscious, deeply poetic, and philosophical persona.

Like this passage in which Theo is harried in the thrum of typical, every-day life for possibly the first time since he was thirteen, we see that it is not only the chapter headings, but the style of these long and winding passages, which are carefully crafted to reflect Theo’s state of mind. I believe that this is why, initially, the book feels slow and drawn out—reflecting a young boy’s half-stunned half-dead state of grieving almost too closely without giving any sense of a way out. But, once the story gets rolling and the reader is allowed to feel some relief along with Theo when he meets his friend Boris, these passages start to feel more natural, and then, dare I say, more like the stream of one’s own thoughts. Such is Tartt’s ability to display the vast emotional landscape of her main character.

As I said, I think that The Goldfinch is geared towards an audience of cynical and jaded adults. Not only does Tartt show readers how very little Theo is helped in tending to his emotional stability as a child, but also how this emotional state is carried on through adulthood. Tartt shows us the fast pace of the world and a man so caught up in it since he was thirteen that he must keep going or be overcome entirely, but by what? Theo acquired a painting, The Goldfinch, from The Hague on a day it was blown up. The explosion killed his mother and the painting serves as a metaphor for his emotions concerning her death—wrapped up tight in duct tape, a secret, hidden forever from himself and the world. The turnaround of the novel comes when Theo discovers that his friend Boris switched the painting for a magazine when they were kids and it has been sold to a person in Amsterdam. This metaphorically puts Theo in a place so distant from his feelings that he doesn’t even recognize them anymore—they are so far away that they are foreign.

Perhaps the ultimate criticism of American culture, therefore, is in the neat and risky resolution. Perhaps Tartt decides to “spell it out” for her readers because the point of the novel is to show how people have lost the emotional understanding to intuitively garner the meaning of the novel for themselves due to constant exposure to a culture that is too fast-paced, too dependent on drugs to drown out emotional problems, too distracted to feel—just like Theo. If this is the case, then the neat ending is the perfect ending to wrap it all up.

What makes The Goldfinch so brilliant, apart from the beauty in the writing itself, the complexity (and simplicity) of language, the depth of thought and emotion, is that by the end of an otherwise harrying tale, the reader feels relief, a sense of freedom from his or her own thoughts and the anxieties surrounding the belief that, “We don’t get to choose the people we are. Because—isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—?”(761). And here, in this sense of relief, we understand why the book is named after and centered around a painting of a finch that is shackled to a perch by a chain drilled into a piece of wood by the culture of the man who maintained it.

 

 

Courtney BertiCourtney Berti lives in South Lake Tahoe with her dog and her boyfriend, Kelley. She will receive her MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College by January 2015.

Book Review: House of Deer by Sasha Steensen

2014
Poetry
$15.95; 88 pages
Albany: Fence Books
ISBN: 978-1934200773

 

 

 

 

Knocking at the Door: Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer
Bryce Bullins

Sasha Steensen’s latest poetry offering, House of Deer, is a fascinating exploration of language, family, the self, the other, and connections both internal and external to all of those things. It continues Steensen’s exploration and deconstruction of language to its purest forms and parts, and in doing so establishes an approachable framework for both critical analysis and aesthetic enjoyment.

House of Deer is entrenched in the past. Nostalgia and memories drip from this book like a noxious nectar that beckons the reader to visit moments of time they may have never even lived through. Steensen’s excellent awareness of the line, attention to detail, and tone transport us to rural Ohio circa 1970. From the typeface on both the book cover and the titles of poems, which is reminiscent of the title cards to Little House on The Prairie, the collection makes no qualms about what its intentions or aims are. House of Deer doesn’t expressly stick to this 1970s homage however. For example, the lengthy and prose based “The Girl and the Deer” creates a narrative that dances back and forth from the perspective of deer and girl with aptly named sections “The Girl”, “The Girl and the Deer”, “The Deer”, etc. all while unfolding what reads like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. While there are hints of time contextualization, nothing leads one to believe that this poem is expressly set in a specific time or place. Its narrative is capable of existing at any time. Framed another way, poems like “The Girl and the Deer” and “Fragments” exist in all places at once escaping our dogmatic expressions of time and memory.

At its best moments, House of Deer is frank and sparse. Steensen’s delivery is sharp, poignant, and at times jaw dropping in its ability to express authentic darkness so succinctly. As an example:

1977finds
house of saud’s
daughter stoned to death
&one Burchfield sister (9yrs old)
locked in a closet
while the other (13 yrs old)
aborts her father’s baby

What’s so strange about this from a reading perspective is that her objective tone isn’t anything new or experimental. Rather than write in a manner that intentionally obfuscates and confuses a reader, Steensen grounds her work in a tangible and present way few other poets can achieve. Its beauty lies in its ability to be visceral without feeling affected.

The non-spacing of words adds to House of Deer‘s already rich texture of language. As in “1804woodsmen”:

1804woodsmen &woodswomen &woodschildren
cut a road right before you
&hereinafter
ahistory of Garrettsville, Ohio:

Rather than feeling arbitrary or intentionally confounding, the tightness and closeness of the words represents a quick thought much in the vein of Cummings or of Williams; something that is meant to be read briskly, as much of our own thoughts are when they are finally strung together. In the case of “1804woodsmen” this tightness may refer to the close knit community of Garretsville, Ohio. The word associations and sounds that come out of these connection of seemingly unrelated words opens gateways to new avenues of language we would have never gone down otherwise. The brilliance in this lies in its deceptively simple execution. It’s not enough to simply tie any two words together in such a manner; it’s the deft selection of those words. Language is repetition and so it stands to reason that the poems in House of Deer can be read and re-read a hundred times and each time something new could be gleaned from its pages.

The complexity of language, of reminiscence, of past as present and future as one, commingle and make House of Deer a collection that is as captivating as it is melancholic. It demands a reader’s attention with its noise and subtlety. House of Deer beckons at its closure: “Come forth peril, little pearl in the darkness”. The peril Steensen speaks to is not necessarily a dangerous one, but rather one that is capable of vast illumination. Though it carries a heavy burden with it, its undertaking is essential.

 

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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: 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.