Hidden In Scenic Vistas: Amy Henry on Kris Farmen’s The Devil’s Share

The Devil’s Share, Kris Farmen, McRoy & Blackburn Publishers, 2010

“Jack, she scolded, you take that old-time stuff way too seriously. Those days are long gone.”

So laments Jack’s mother after he’s ditched school, yet again, to explore the woods outside his family’s home in a small Alaskan town. Jack seems genetically disposed to adventure as his parents had homesteaded in the Wrangell Mountains before his birth. Now they were living in town, working regular jobs, because the Federal government and the Parks Service had moved residents out of the hills to create protected wild lands. Now, with college pending, Jack’s eager to hold off and spend a year back in those same mountains as a guide for a family friend who caters to the scientists and tourists who fly in to study the native plants or hunt.

Thus begins his quest, one that introduces him to an entirely different world that is hidden in the scenic vistas of snow-capped mountains and icy streams. His new boss flies him into the interior of the Yukon to his lodge, and Jack easily adapts to difficult work with the camp horses and maintaining the cabins. He learns to guide, track, and especially to get by on very few material comforts. To say he’s found his niche is an understatement. But it doesn’t last long, and a very different set of circumstances overtake him. Miles away from any communication or assistance, he has to navigate nature’s dangers as well as the surprising criminal element that hides within the park system.

In a place where a horse can fall into a glacier crevasse and a man has to keep track of how few bullets he has left for defense, anything can happen. And the fact that it wasn’t just the animals but savage humans he had to fear makes reading it tense and scary. And yet, Jack is no Boy Scout. The author, Kris Farmen, takes a risk by making his protagonist less than perfect. At times, he’s vicious and retaliatory. The risk pays off in a story that is far more believable than if Jack was a saint.

Clearly, this is a work of literary fiction, yet it has the elements of suspense that you’d find in a crime novel. I hit the second half of the book at about midnight, and there was no option for sleep after that. I could barely breathe as I stayed up and finished the book. The exhaustion the next day was worth it. For one thing, the survival story of endless cold and dinners of furry animals (if there was to be any dinner at all) locked me into the story. As a reader, I felt incredibly wimpy to imagine that a person could do all this to survive when I can barely go without coffee without terrible consequences. The character of Jack is complete: we know what he thinks, dreams about, hopes for, and regrets. We sense his loyalty and his morality even while we may be horrified at his actions. The details of the Alaskan regions are specific, as are the ways he kills, skins, and eats all sorts of prey.

My only real distraction in the novel has to do with the opinions of virtually every character against both the Federal government and the Canadian park service-at times I felt like there was too much commentary on the actions of both against private landowners in regard to public policy. Obviously, it’s a sensitive subject when a family home could be taken forcibly, then used for the ranger’s use or to rent for tourists or even left empty to decay. So the repetition of the acrimony towards the government was a little tiresome, yet in the denouement, Farmen ties it together in a way that actually makes sense. Again, he takes the risk of letting the reader decide the issue, after showing both sides, and I think this sort of resolution again makes the story that much more captivating.

Deliver Certainty: Amy Henry on Manoel de Barros’s Birds for a Demolition

Birds for a Demolition, Manoel de Barros, Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010

“Poetry is to flap without wings.”

Birds for a Demolition is a compilation of a variety of poetry styles by Manoel de Barros, with some arranged more formally in stanzas and others appearing as short proverbs. A repeating topic is his early life in Brazil, in a region called the Pantanal. His small town and his childhood home next to a river clearly holds significance. He talks about the river often, and even uses the word as a verb at times. His voice is both somber and humorous, and when he gets a bit nostalgic, he reveals both.

In Invented Memoir II, he writes of his birthday as a boy, when his mother had no gift to give him. So she gave him a river.

…The same river that had always passed behind our house.
I liked the gift more than if it had been candy from the peddler.
My brother pouted, he liked the river as well.
Our mother promised him he’d get a tree for his birthday.
A tree covered in birds.
I heard this promise and thought it was fine.
The birds would spend the day on the banks of my river.
At night, they’d sleep in my brother’s tree.
My brother teased that his present got flowers in September.
And a river doesn’t get flowers!
I told him a tree doesn’t get piranhas.
What united us was swimming naked in the river with the herons.
In this regard, our life was a caress.

Apparently, the river was something he held on to, both as a personal touchstone and a poetic motif.  While the poetry within this covers almost 50 years of his work, the focus remains much the same. Vines, lizards, adobe buildings, trees, and even ants are woven into more serious topics. In Ants,

I didn’t need to read Saint Paul, Saint Augustine,
Saint Jerome, or Thomas of Aquinas,
Not even Saint Francis of Assisi—
To arrive at God.
Ants showed him to me.

(I have a doctorate in ants).

In just these six lines he does two things: reveals his inferred truth regarding life and creation, yet throws in a twist of humor with his doctorate remark. This pattern of mixing the serious with the blithe makes the collection much more vibrant and appealing. He does this in short proverbs in “The Book of Nothing”:

There are many serious ways to say nothing, but only poetry is true.

My dawn is going to open at dusk.

To have more certainty I have to know more imperfections.

I wanted to be read by stones.

Words hide me without much care.

Wherever I am not, words find me.

There are histories so true that at times it seems they are invented.

I want the word that fits in the beak of a small bird.

Note that the proverb style he uses above uses large breaks of space (caesuras or caesurae??) to give you time to stop and reflect rather than move quickly through the verses. Lastly, he applies a paragraph form to some self-deprecating words of explanation in a section called “Desiring to Be“:  “I write an archaic Manoel-esque idiolect (Idiolect is the dialect idiots use to speak to the walls and with the flies.)  I need to upset meanings.  Purposelessness is healthier than solemnity.  (To cleanse a certain solemnity from words, I use manure.)…The cerebral touches in my writing are just a precaution to avoid succumbing to the temptation to make myself less foolish than others.  I am highly regarded for my foolishness.  Of this I deliver certainty.”

Terrifying for Their Brevity: Amy Henry on Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life

Black Life, Dorothea Lasky, Wave Books, 2010

Dorothea Lasky’s new book, Black Life, brims with the chaos of real life and real people, fighting to express themselves when shiny and happy words aren’t sufficient. A unifying component of the poems is frequent references to her father’s battle with dementia, and sprinkled among these are tiny images, made all the more terrifying for their brevity: helpless rest home patients with bald baby heads being beaten by staff. Fire as both purifier and destroyer also makes appearances in unexpected contexts.

Talking about life, she twists around the state of health into the dimensions of inner and outer well-being, with the two often in fierce juxtaposition. She muses on Emily Dickinson’s muse, on anorexia, and refers to pop culture as freely as old boyfriends and husbands. Her voice alters from that of a hyperactive teen, to a stalker, to an overly-kind ghost. In all of it, she is seldom quiet or sedate.

In frequent references to poetry, she contrasts the kinds of poetry that exist: pretty and intangible or ugly and real. Therein, she makes it appear that it would be worse to be ignored than blasphemed, and that flowery prose often hides an uncertain intent. From “I Am a Politician”,

I am a politician
Just watch:
I will be very nice to you
But when I turn around I will write the creepiest poems about you that
Have ever been written.
Or worse yet,
I will write nothing about you at all
And will instead
Write about the water cascading endlessly in the ocean
Full of flowers and lovers at their very best…

She doesn’t hide from revealing insecurity, such that her poems often appear inspired by it. In “I Just Feel So Bad”, she expresses both loneliness as well as the concept of needing pain in order to function, trying to understand what she has to give and what she can take when thinking “nice” thoughts doesn’t work. Her answer is in the final phrases:

I have no home
No bread
I am destitute
But inside me
Is a little voice
That must speak
It gets louder when you listen

“ARS Poetica” has a kinesthetic energy to it, almost as if it’s the adverbs that matter most…being whatever needs being, but in a big way.

There is a romantic abandon in me always
I want to feel the dread for others
I only feel it through song
Only through song am I able to sum up so many words into a few
Like when he said I am no good
I am no good
Goodness is not the point anymore
Holding on to things
Now that’s the point

The collection is varied and intense. Being about a decade older than Lasky, there were moments when I wanted to tell her to relax a bit and slow down. To realize that not all problems will be resolved as quickly as we’d like, but that it’s okay to wait them out. The vivid descriptions and staccato action at times felt like it was too edgy to get close to, like the wild person at the party who gets the attention and the laughs but who is terrifying to be alone with for more than a moment. Yet the liveliness prevails and relays an enthusiasm that I hope essentially remains.

What Excuse Is There For Flowers: Amy Henry on Maribor by Demosthenes Agrafiotis

Maribor, Demosthenes Agrafiotis, Post-Apollo Press, 2010

Maribor is a collection of poetry from Demosthenes Agrafiotis that focuses on the complexities of old versus new, especially in relation to civilization and historical regions in Europe. The title comes from Maribor, a city in Slovenia, and in many of the poems, we see the poet’s intention to try and make sense out of what remains from the past when combined with new attitudes and new technology. He refers to “the ridiculousness of names” and how people are “alive in a dead language”. He asserts that “narration becomes a lesson (moralistic) about the present” and how “time produces uneven memories”. Throughout, you can sense there is a hope in both the betterment of life for people in these complicated regions, as well as a wish for older traditions of the culture to remain intact.

The vivacity of the language is important; as a language dies out so does its cultural continuity. Idioms, phrases, and simple humor are lost along with a language, features that find no place in a new language. Consider the history of the Slovenia people in regard to their location: they came under the Austrian Hapsburg Rule, later forming Yugoslavia. For a time, Germany occupied Yugoslavia, attempted to part it out piecemeal. After his failure, it returned to its prewar Yugoslavian identity. Later, Slovenia was able to free themselves from Yugoslavia fairly peacefully, and now their own nation is part of both the European Union and NATO. In just a century, massive challenges presented themselves and yet the language remains. In #7 he illustrates how the two usually don’t mesh:

the survival
and the denial will be preserved
for the end
the falsehoods
the nuances of deception
are no longer postponed
trapped in feigned docility
in incomplete sentences

One of the longest pieces is #48, where he discusses all of the topics in a stream-of-consciousness style about the combination of tourists and residents in this land of history and folklore:

so what did you expect?

what fraction of language
to be dedicated
to the surface of objects
to the inertia of events
to the entropy of the world
to the elasticity of sounds?
the words slide on all
the voids.

Is the regional history relevant to understanding this poetry? Without understanding the fractures and domination that sometimes troubled this nation, one can’t possibly realize Agrafiotis’ references and the foundation of his words. Even though the emphasis seems to be on a larger significance of place, many of the poems appeal as well on a personal level. He considers, briefly, what excuse there is for flowers other than to enjoy their beauty? And how our concentration is lost on signposts and headlines so much that we miss the subtler details of life that have far deeper meanings.