Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts is a Finalist for the LA Times 2013 Book Prize


The LA Times announced its book prize finalists for 2013. Among those listed for poetry was Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts. On Ghosts is a brilliant collection and the strongest work among the LA Times finalists.

Amy Pence reviewed On Ghosts for Gently Read Literature’s Winter 2014 issue, below is her review.  If you’d like to read more reviews of contemporary poetry and literary fiction, please consider subscribing to Gently Read Literature.

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On Reading On Ghosts: Amy Pence Reviews Elizabeth Robinson

On Ghosts
Elizabeth Robinson
Solid Objects, 2013

1)       That I  am reading Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts on Halloween could be pure accident.  Or is it?   Could occasion be one of those “conditions” that Robinson writes in her “Explanatory Note” that “calibrate individuals or places, make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness”? (p. 3)

Robinson’s hybrid book—a blend of poetry, essay passages, personal narrative, quotations from writers manifesting the ghostly and a descriptive cataloging of murky photographs— proceeds—as she tells us—circuitously—and meditates less on what ghosts are, than how they “infest” (Robinson’s word) us metaphorically.  An image of a building’s support beams once infested with termites—then painted over—initiates the book:  how are we like these “porous” beams, and so, vulnerable to being haunted?  How are we broken?

2)       That I listen to Schubert, that poverty-stricken musician—the Romantic hero who went to an early grave—was it typhoid or was it syphilis?—as I read On Ghosts might be another condition of my hauntedness.

After Robinson discloses a personal narrative involving her self-effacing grandmother (now deceased), she vividly shows us how the “ghostly” presences in us.  In the passage “Aftermath,” she writes, “That to be alive is in so many ways is to be haunted anyway, to be coursed through with hesitations”(p. 24).

Hesitations define the book.  Robinson’s prose style: the insistence on the declarative combined with her technique of stopping and starting, her tendency to erase what came before, or to merely adumbrate a thought or an image gives the book its peculiar power.  In “Incident One,” a particularly tragic and beautiful prose poem, she writes:  “Over and over the loop of his life rubs on its seam until the stitches rough up his skin and the garment comes apart.  Dual ravel” (p. 13).

3)       That I am beginning to regret my ticket to ride the “Terror Train” later this evening while reading On Ghosts also heightens my perception.

Most admirable are Robinson’s statements that ring like flashpoints:  her narrative style may seem random, plain even.  However, as the prose piece “The Nature of Association” unwinds, for instance, we may think we are left with a sketchy description of the narrator’s preoccupation with a pore on her shoulder.  The piece concludes:  “I hope you understand this and its relation to haunting. Embodiment always troubles us, but here you have no clearer example of its effect” (p. 48).

4)       That the gloom crawls in and around the leaves of all the trees as far as I can see out my window, so that leaf and tone become indistinct while reading On Ghosts further “infests” my reading.

We begin to expect, in addition to an accumulation of  “Incidents”— narratives in which the speaker reveals her own specific haunting—the attendant accumulation of word photographs; some are related to what she has encountered, others not.  Not coincidentally, these are practically non-descriptions in that they trace what isn’t there.

…it is hard to see anything of significance in this photo.  Note however the

ghost’s baby tooth crumbling in a dish on the kitchen counter

(foreground) and further back in the room, the boom box that

went on at random times, always when there was a Harry Potter

story tape in it. (From “Photograph #1,” p. 15)

By resisting description, we are left not-seeing the little we may have seen.

The nature of ghosts, their incessancy, the way they activate…

5)       That the screen freezes and the cursor will not move when I type the words above, so that I hastily handwrite what I’ve already written,  then CTRL-ALT-DEL and recover my document with all but this last half-thought while writing about On Ghosts seriously spooks me.

Nonetheless, or perhaps moretheless, On Ghosts, once read, redirects the reader to attend to presences of all kinds.  Once haunted, Robinson warns us at the outset:  “There’s now a little alleyway, between the self and the not-self…The new not-selfness is exquisitely sensitive to presence but its own absence has been thrown into the realm of the nonlinguistic” (“Explanatory Note,” p. 5).  Hence, the not-I has been moved to a wondrous silence.

Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013


GENTLY READ LITERATURE, Fall 2013

GENTLY READ LITERATURE, Fall 2013

The Fall 2013 issue of Gently Read Literature is available now. Take a look at the contents listed below and if this sounds like a good line up to you, you should probably subscribe.

A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF.

You can subscribe via PayPal ( https://www.paypal.com/webapps/mpp/make-online-payments ) to the email address gentlyreadlit@ymail.com

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St.

Lawrence, KS 66044

Contents

(Critic, Author, Work)

4—Caroline Crew: On Male Privilege, The Exorcist, & Women Writers Who Won’t Step Down

7—Sophfronia Scott: The Making of a Classic, Review of Pamela Erens The Virgins

14—Alyssa Jocson: Forever Quirky and Fantastically Flawed and Ridiculous, Review of Madeline McDonnell Penny, n.

16—Jaime Boler: Think Twice Before Opening Boxes, Review of Norah Labiner Let the Dark Flower Blossom

20—Suzanne Hard: Persistent Empathy, Review of Anne Leigh Parrish All the Roads that Lead from Home

22—Suzanne Hard: Ill-equipped, Perhaps, Deserving of Compassion, Laura Kasischke If A Stranger Approaches You

25—Eileen Austen: In Search of Narrative, Review of Alicia Kozameh Ostrich Legs

31—Kelly Lydick: Unconsciously Conscious, Review of Bernadette Mayer Ethics of Sleep

35—Glenda Burgess: Art of the Discarded and Reclaimed, Review of Dana Johnson Elsewhere, California

37—Christine Cody: A Missive from the Deities, Review of Anne Germanacos In the Time of Girls

40—Matthew Mahaney: A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own Adventure, Review of Loren Erdrich & Sierra Nelson I Take Back the Sponge Cake

44—Allan B. Rubin: An Edifying Compendium, Review of Daniela Gioseffi Pioneering Italian American Culture

47—Maria Espinosa: Of Craving, Of Touch, Review of Susan Sherman The Light That Puts an End to Dreams

50—Pamela Klein: Uncomfortably Dangerous Poetry, Review of Rauan Klassnik The Moon’s Jaw

53—Bill Pruitt: Questionable Insight, Review of Hugh Martin The Stick Soldiers

57—Bill Pruitt: Xenotransplantation, Review of Bruce Beasley Theophobia

60—Holly Helscher: The Complexity of Choices, Review of Gila Green King of the Class

63—Glenn Halak: Poetic Persona vs Poetry, Review of Helene Cardona Dreaming My Animal Selves

68—Glenn Halak: The Invisible Man, Review of William Pitt Root’s translation of Pablo Neruda

78—Cory Johnston: Forms of Detachment in Holocaust Literature

A Departure from the Midwest Sojourn: James Reiss on BH Fairchild’s Usher


usher

Usher, B. H. Fairchild, W. W. Norton & Company

A few years ago in an Introduction to Poetry course I taught at Miami University in Ohio I assigned a dozen-or-so ballads and narrative poems, including the anonymous “Bonny Barbara Allen,” Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and X. J. Kennedy’s “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day.” The last question in my pop quiz asked my 45 undergraduates which poem they liked best. More than half of them wrote that they preferred B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul.” I was taken aback by their responses. At 110 lines “Body and Soul” was the longest poem assigned. It was probably the most difficult and complex poem in the group. As anyone who has read Fairchild’s free-verse narrative about a 1946 baseball game in Commerce, Oklahoma, with its ragtag team of post–Depression/WWII players—to whom a fifteen-year-old offers himself as a rookie—“Body and Soul” is as ponderable as it is riveting. The fifteen-year old, who happens to be the Hall-of-Fame slugger Mickey Mantle, bats five home runs and embarrasses the gang of down-and-out townies. In his final line Fairchild describes “the blonde and blue-eyed” Mantle as one “who will not easily be forgiven.” Lesser poets commemorating an event of local lore might have ended this line with the word “forgotten,” thereby sentimentalizing the occasion and placing Mantle on a predictable pedestal—or mantelpiece! In describing his poem’s hero as “not easily. . .forgiven,” Fairchild tossed my undergraduates a curved ball, as if to say, “The winner does not take all but, rather, takes on lots of Bronx cheers, a ballpark of hard feelings.” Despite its dilemmas—or perhaps because of them—my students voted for “Body and Soul” and spoke up about it one day in a class that I recall was unusually animated.

“The Art of the Lathe” came out about 10 years ago and walked off with a hefty armful of awards due to the power of poems like “Body and Soul.” In 2002, having signed on with a large commercial press, Fairchild won what is arguably our third most prestigious book prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, for his dauntingly titled “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest.” If the phrase, “memory systems,” sounds like scientific jargon, bear in mind that “the art of the lathe” could just as well be seen as a science. At any rate, Fairchild has never harbored a Romantic poet’s distaste for science. As the son of a lathe operator, he would never, like Poe, have referred to science as a “Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.” Neither would Fairchild have ever embraced Wordsworth’s distrust of “our meddling intellect.”

On the contrary, in his new fifth full-length book Fairchild’s love for the intellect is as ardent as his passion for the oil fields of Texas and the sand hills of Kansas. His latest poems are peopled with philosophers—Gödel, Hume, Wittgenstein—as well as theologians—Niebuhr, Tillich—who, though they most certainly are not depicted as spitting wads of the Red Man chewing tobacco Fairchild festishizes, seem to sprout out of urban sidewalks as if out of winter wheat fields. Fairchild’s eggheaded obsession with the “ontic” appears insatiable. No poet I know in his generation is as preoccupied as Fairchild with the nature of being. Even the author of “Ideas of Order,” Wallace Stevens, slouches alongside of Fairchild when it comes to dealing with the history of philosophy.

To be sure, Fairchild’s epigraph-laden book teems with wrecked tractors and rusted pickups. With small family farms having gone bankrupt thanks to gigantic agribusinesses that have commandeered the land; with hog and chicken “factories” whose animals never see the light of day—something is rotten in mid-America. Fairchild may not be one of those “Socialists” John McCain and Sarah Palin recently whined about. But in thinking about abandoned towns in our nation’s heartland, the poet remembers that “Eugene Debs set up The People’s College in Fort Scott,” Kansas. At one point Fairchild is so riled, his grassroots agenda so clear, that he refers to the legendary Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency as “Comrade Debs.”

More important, as far as I’m concerned, is the way this book goes beyond social realism and regionalism, breaking ground that may not be wholly “new,” but that marks the most significant departure from Fairchild’s Midwest Sojourn I’ve seen thus far. This book’s title poem is at least as masterly as any of Frank Bidart’s best persona poems. Paul Mariani may be right, on the basis of its title poem, to call this collection “an American classic.”

Sporting approximately 160 lines, halfway between the length of “Prufrock” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Usher” is an epistolary dramatic monologue spoken in hexameters—a relaxed version of Homer’s dactylic hexameter—by a young Jewish theology student, Nathan Gold. The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City, where Gold works part-time in a movie theater during the 1950s. Like Fairchild lamenting the desecration of our hinterland, Gold condemns the “goddamned Cross Bronx Expressway” masterminded by the Big Wormy Apple’s kingpin city planner, Robert Moses, who razed whole neighborhoods to build it. Much as I appreciate the vigor of Gold—and Fairchild’s—critique, what I consider to be a matter of greater concern in this poem is the way it uses Loew’s 83rd Street Theater as a metaphor. In ushering “drunks, bums, lovers, priests, housewives,/ cops, street punks shooting up, whores giving blowjobs / in the balcony,” Gold resembles Dante’s guide, Virgil. For that matter, Gold assumes the role of someone leading masses of Athenians to sit in Plato’s cave and view shadows. For all their lack of substance, these images represent mid–twentieth century pop culture: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, as well as Hubert’s Dime Museum and Al Flosso’s magic shop—New York City mired in what Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized Fifties.” Fairchild is starstruck by freak shows featuring “lovely Olga / and her beard, Sealo the Seal Boy, The Armless Wonder, / Albert-Alberta”; another monologue, the 80-plus-line “Frieda Pushnik,” is spoken by an armless, legless girl. But the most poignant, bizarre character to emerge in the title poem, “Usher”—and, for me, in the entire book—is Gold’s sister, Sivan. In the Dear-Sollie letter written to his brother, Gold says their sister is dying from “glioblastoma multiforme,” brain cancer. Because her doctors won’t prescribe enough Dilaudid to relieve her pain, Gold must cruise the streets for narcotics.

Still, lowlife characters and a dying sister are a sideshow. Gold’s ontological ruminations give way to the poem’s climactic lollapalooza. When you recall that Sivan’s cancer involves a “fat tumor / feeding on the brain, burning from the center / out,” you pay closer attention to the excruciating final lines that replicate Sivan’s medical condition in their description of what happens inside the movie theater after the projectionist falls asleep during a Grace Kelly movie, with

film
sticking, flap, flap, then stuck, no one to turn the lamp off ,
small ghosts of smoke, a black hole starting at the center
of the frame (the Big Bang must have looked like that),
flame eating outward at the curling edges, spreading,
Grace swallowed slowly by the widening fire, then gone,
the film snaps, bringing down an avalanche of light,
the sun’s flood a billion years from now, earth sucked
into the flames, lurid, omnivorous, the whole room
stunned and silvered with it, shadows peeled away,
each gray scarf, each shawl of darkness lifted, the audience
revealed in all their nakedness, their uncoveredness
and soiled humanity, among the candy wrappers,
condoms, butts, crushed Dixie cups, as we wait for Grace
to reappear. . .and for Sivan.

Tense shifts abound in this slow-motion moment that lasts from Genesis to the Apocalypse. Grace Kelly’s given name acquires mythic significance, as does that of Sivan—which means “spring season,” the Hebrew equivalent of our “May” or “June,” girls’ given names.

As the saying goes, “Even Homer nodded.” Certain poems here, most notably “Hart Crane in Havana,” strike me as not entirely successful experiments. And in places Fairchild can be lachrymose, melodramatic, sanctimonious. But “Hume,” “The Deer,” “Madonna and Child, Perryton, Texas, 1967,” “Moth” and the hilarious “Final Exam” would be faves in any Introduction to Poetry course—along with “Frieda Pushkin” and the über-magnificent title poem. I like to think of this book as striving to rebuild Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.” Insofar as the way it handles the Gold family during the 1950s and after 9/11, I think of it as somehow Salingeresque. “The Cottonwood Lounge” and “What He Said” are amazing syntactic tours de force. As Fairchild himself might exclaim, “I mean, for God’s sake”!

Regarding the book’s cover art, a detail from Edward Hopper’s moody masterpiece, “New York Movie”: Many poets in Fairchild’s generation had fallen in love with Hopper’s paintings even before Lloyd Goodrich came out with his mega-book in connection with a Hopper exhibition at the Whitney Museum in the early 1970s. Up until now I’ve associated Fairchild’s work with paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield and Thomas Eakins—though never Grant Wood. Well, Hopper’s “New York Movie” is a thing of beauty and a joy to see, as ever. It’s a perfect fit for “Usher.”

*

James Reiss, whose surname rhymes with “peace,” has had poems in such places as The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, Slate and Virginia Quarterly Review. His most recent book is “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems.” His personal Web site is http://www.jamesreiss.com/

The War Against February: Claudia Smith on Shane Jones’ novel Light Boxes


light boxes

Light Boxes, Shane Jones, Publishing Genius Press

“We sat on the hill. We watched the flames inside the balloons heat the fabric to neon colors. The children played Prediction.” so begins Shane Jones’ Light Boxes, a short novel about war, winter, child abduction, all set against a somewhere-else-in-place-and –time world. Light Boxes is 167 short pages, bound in a book small enough to fit in my rather large purse. The front and back covers are a winter scape, white against white. The book itself is filled with wintery light, teacups, and reminiscent imagery.

The novel centers around a small family; Thaddeus, a balloonist who declares war against February; Selah, his wife; and Bianca, his daughter who is taken, along with many other children in the village who keep disappearing. The story that follows is one that we’ve all grown up and read about before; the child taken, a land frozen, a land populated by villagers and their children who say portentous things. Jones’ world is beautiful in part because it is drawn from a landscape of fairytales and childhood myths. Men drink from teacups painted with tiny balloons. There are kites, cottages, professors – all familiar images and archetypes we read about as children, when we read stories about brothers and sisters tumbling into a wintery world at the back of a wardrobe. Death, as it often is in childhood, is at once fascinating and sinister, and never quite understood.

Light Boxes is a visual book, full of metaphor. When a mother shakes out a bed sheet it disintegrates into a little blizzard; balloons float into empty holes in the sky; vines and flowers and blood flow from flesh. Before I gave myself over to the imagery, I felt a bit as if I were reading myself into a Magritte painting. After awhile, the arresting imagery and metaphor became ordinary, as I settled into Jones’ dreamlike world.

Reading about the war against February, I was reminded of a beloved book from my childhood. I pulled it off the shelves of the library, and I remember that the card inside indicated it hadn’t been checked out in over a decade. The book, At The Back Of The North Wind, a children’s novel by George MacDonald, was published about a hundred years before I was born. It’s about the adventures of a small boy, and the North Wind, who is personified in a beautiful, violent, beloved woman. I was too young to understand all the Victorian symbols, and I still probably wouldn’t know all their meanings if I were to return to that fat book next week. But, like MacDonald, Jones tackles death, forgiveness, love, and futility. February is a personification of something deep within the people who populate the book. And, like MacDonald’s book, I don’t think a reader needs a key to unlock its meaning.

Each chapter in Light Boxes is a sharp, short glimpse. They move much the way flash fiction does, cutting into a larger world. Some glimpses are strikingly intimate, and certain images are repeated throughout; people are often transfixed, mouths filled with snow. Violence is often so delicate and painterly that it sneaks up on the reader lingering as dreams sometimes do.

A Quiet Ending to a Loud Story: Sam Friedman on Prescription for a Superior Existence by Josh Emmons


prescription-for-a-superior-existence

Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons, Scribner

The title Prescription for a Superior Existence calls to mind some archetypal self-help book that one might be better off avoiding. In fact, it is the uninventive name of the cult in the novel and feels like a place-holder lying in wait for the author to select something more edgy. The novel’s cover is equally uninteresting: a nicely-made bed in a rather picture-perfect bedroom. And frankly, upon completion of reading the book the relevance of the image to the story is indiscernible. However, it is only here where Emmons seems to have any dearth of creativity. PASE is a thought-out, well-orchestrated adventure of seemingly random and out-of-control events that consistently hide the truth, which is part of what seems to make the novel so universally true. One must return to the old adage of judging books by their cover, because the contents of this seemingly obtuse jacket are vibrant.

The opening two pages of Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence contain all of the pieces of an introductory paragraph to a well-thought-out academic argumentation essay: reference to the ensuing themes, citation of a few important facts, a summation of some points, and, of course, a hook. The hook is a simple one, but its simplicity is no detriment to its size: “…at midnight on Sunday I will, after delivering a euology that is both inspirational and absolute, with a solemnity great enough for the occasion, conduct and preside over – I am choosing my words carefully and none other will do – the end of the world.” Even the first paragraph betrays themes important to the life of main character Jack Smith: “In this part of the world it is light for half the year and dark the other half. Sometimes at night I look at the halos around the window blinds and breathe in salty air redolent of afternoon trips to the beach I took as a boy, my hands enclosed in my parents’, my feet leaving collapsed imprints in the sand, my mind a whirl of whitewashed images. I remember how the shaded bodies lying under candy-cane umbrellas groped for one another, and how I pulled my mother and father toward the ice-cream vendors, and how I fell in love with the girls who slouched beside their crumbling sandcastles. The sun an unblinking eye on our actions. The waves forever trying to reach us. From the beginning there was so much longing, and from the beginning I could hardly bear it.

Immediately this paragraph touches on the issues of parentage, romance, and a crushing reality that seems at times to be inescapable. To the book’s advantage, in particular, is the staggering relevance of its placement in time; global warming and the financial recession are both present in the novel’s diegesis. It is this devilish presentation of temporal relevance that allows Emmons to illicit all of the questions he does with the introduction of the cult, “Prescription for a Superior Existence.” Is the world really coming to an end, if this cult is referencing a real scientific truth? Is religion the answer? What will happen if I don’t make the right choice? The relevance of the story’s setting forces the reader into a temporary mania that makes Jack Smith’s own mania more tangible.

PASE is, in part, a thinly-veiled criticism of contemporary culture and its excesses: the workaholic, alcoholic, substance abuser; the normal member of society with nothing to look forward to but the “next thing.” Emmons accurately diagnoses contemporary American society’s ailment. Upon Jack Smith’s admission into PASE, he goes to see Ms. Anderson, the center’s director. She tells him: “‘Like most people, you are unhappy because you aren’t fulfilled by what you have. You always want more, and that more is never enough. Throughout your life you’ve desired things, only to find after getting them that contentment lies in the next thing. And the next and the next and the next. Sadly but predictably, the result of all this deferred satisfaction for you and others has been the same: anxiety and depression. And if allowed to continue it will lead finally to the crowning tragedy, ambivalence.’”

This presentation of terrifying truths out of the mouth of someone one might fear, an administrative figure in a cult, feeds into one of the things that Emmons and Prescription do so well: to accurately and viscerally create the feeling of being trapped in the PASE center, as well as the complete process of being brainwashed or converted. Jack Smith describes his mental processes, and the reader is able to watch his thoughts and opinions transform: first insisting not to take part in the center whatsoever, then in pretending to take part while secretly mocking the whole process, deciding to just take part because it’s really not so bad and what else is he going to do, and finally being completely devoted to the entire religion.

The perception of cults in general gets addressed thoroughly and seamlessly in the novel: “‘You’re trying to kill me.’ ‘No.” She smiled beatifically. ‘We are trying to save you.’” A cult, in general, presents itself as the entity – the thing that will save mankind from himself and return him to God – that would abduct people for “their [own] sake,” and brainwash them into following their ways. What PASE does in such an exciting way is it clashes these two things, the “outside” versus the “inside,” and the way they are both flawed. The solution is not so polarized as people perpetually look for. Emmons presents, in his fanatical characters and storylines, the underlying lesson of balance: balance between excess and asceticism, balance between complete reproach of cults/religion as false and misleading, and complete acceptance and total support. At the end of the novel, PASE is not abolished, but there is no final Synergy (death of the entire cult). Likewise, Jack and his love-interest Mary Shoale return to San Francisco but he continues to be a Paser, ostensibly. Compromise. Balance. This is mirrored in his writing style: balance between tons of literary device and straight dialog. Prescription is the story of a man in flux, flailing between extremes until the answers come to him. It is neither admonition of religion nor of the normal life. The solution, perhaps, is that there is no solution. Although he seems to suggest that love is all you can truly find to make life bearable, to make it even wonderful.

Despite how outlandish some of its unpredictable revelations may be, somehow they seem to stick the moment they hit. They even seem to register beforehand, if subconsciously. Facts as inconceivable in the beginning as the fact that Montgomery Shoale, the leader and founder of PASE, turns out to be the main character’s rapist biological father seem to be presciently revealed and undeniably true despite a superficial implausibility. This seems to adhere to the Buddhist-like phrase that ends the novel: “…this is all there was, is, and ever will be.” There is comfort to be found in the novel’s devil-may-care sense of narrative flow.

Emmons writes very similarly to Chuck Palahniuk in his use of the anti-heroic main character whose vices play a heavy role in his life and whose slightly unsavory sexual habits are a point of contention. This comparison is by no means a rebuke or insult, either. Like Palahniuk, Emmons controls pace and rhythm deftly while never letting the story drag and consistently evading predictability. He manages to cherry-pick the kinds of events that lie on the fringe of believability, but never meander outside of realism.

Indeed, the structure of PASE’s narrative itself calls to mind Palahniuk’s Survivor, beginning with the End and retelling what came before, what led to this character’s final ostensible moment of demise. Emmons even calls to mind the metaphor, “I may be as confused as a pilot with spatial disorientation, in danger of mistaking a graveyard spiral for a safe landing, when up is really down, sky is earth, and life – suddenly and irreversibly – is really death,” where Palahniuk’s main character is on a plane plummeting to Earth. Further comparisons can be drawn in that Survivor, too, is about a fictional pleasure-avoidant cult, and the perceived imminence of death. Perhaps Emmons’s key distinction from Palahniuk, however, is his language style; where Palahniuk swears by a rugged, fleshy tone, Emmons employs slightly more romanticized flourishes of language.

Everything is in its right place in PASE, even when it might seem to the contrary at first. The pendulum may swing wildly, but it always returns to center. And the story serves as a firm reminder that no matter how great the diversion from the straight line from A to B, there can always be a quiet ending to a loud story. To quote Bjorn Bjornson, a villager in the Scandanavian village in which Jack Smith finds himself for the beginning-slash-end of the book:
“In religion, in the end, the new is neither better nor worse than the old; beliefs and insights swirl and constellate over time without shedding any greater light than what has pulsed weakly throughout the ages. Reason and passion enact a tortoise and hare race in our hearts, and what seems true and beautiful today may seem false and hideous tomorrow.”

The Adaptation/Adoption of Form: Nici Lee on Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn


narrow-road

Narrow Road to the Interior, Kimiko Hahn, WW Norton

Although reading Kimiko Hahn’s intimate and revealing collection of poems, Narrow Road to the Interior, can give a small shock of voyeurism, the inward view she provides is no quick, easy glance. The constant speaker of Hahn’s poems presents to the reader a reflection of a woman faceted by more than gender and performance roles; she is an outsider bounded by more than race, language, or choice. The forms she chooses, often appropriated from the Japanese tanka or zuihitsu, parallel her blurrily outlined identity—with the tanka she can morph natural images into memories (as she seamlessly does in Cranberry Island, Late Summer), with the zuihitsu she can slide between scenes and topics.

A tension between specificity and uncertainty marks most of her poems—Hahn’s speaker seems to be earnestly searching for some, one genuine truth. Her drive for precision is evident in the second poem of the book, Utica Station. As the poem carries us forward in meandering thought like a train moving forward through various images, the speaker keeps returning to an analysis of her own heart. In trying to find the right metaphor for her heart, Hahn refines the ways it could be viewed: “My heart is swollen, large as newborn”; “My heart is swollen. As if a gland not a muscle”; “My heart is swollen, as if—a hot water bottle”; “As if a party balloon.” The end of the poem concludes the search: “That’s what the heart was—swollen—like a mother weeping for something.”

Aware of language’s nebulous lines of definition, Hahn denies isolated words the ability to capture specific truth. She calls attention to the dubious relationship between the construction of words and their sound—in Cuts from the Zuihitsu on My Daughter she gives “the steam” and “the esteem” sole places on consecutive lines. In Opening Her Text, the appearance of words contrasts with their meaning as in one line where she distinguishes between “sacred” and “scared.” This device, born from an attention that refuses to repose on one level, blurs the subject that little bit more.

In her approach to meaning and image, Hahn becomes expansive—if truth cannot be found in the singular, then perhaps it exists in the overlap of pluralities. Perhaps this is why in Sparrow she writes, “I always wonder about translations but can never recall enough Japanese to measure a text for myself…Now I rely on translators and have collected five versions.” In the first poem of her book, Compass, Hahn not only explains why she chose the zuihitsu as a form—it “feels encompassing”—but also expresses dissatisfaction with how it has been defined—no definitions “offered the sense of disorder that feels so integral.” In Compass, Hahn intimates the inadequacy of ordered images and words to capture a reality that exists outside the lines.

A Warmhearted Journey: Amy Schrader on Stefan Merrill Block’s The Story of Forgetting


story-of-forgetting

The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block, Random House

I’ve been reading poetry almost exclusively for about three years running, so I was both excited and a little wary upon picking up The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block’s debut novel. It had been so long since I’d read so many words at one go…I guess I’d forgotten how one can become immersed in a story, carried effortlessly along by fictional devices. Luckily, Block’s novel provided an immediate reminder of such pleasures.

The novel’s strength lies in the clear, compelling voices of the two main characters, Abel Haggard and Seth Waller. Block moves seamlessly between these two narrative threads. Abel Haggard, a 68-year old hunchbacked hermit, is constantly haunted by memories of his now-absent family. Seth Waller is an awkward adolescent who strives for what he hopes will be an impenetrable protective wall, or “Mastery of Nothingness,” but actually manifests more as “weirdness with nothing to compensate for it…nothing greater or more profound than its zit-encrusted, slouching, skittish, Too-Smart surface.” (225) These two characters are simultaneously repulsive and endearing, and my fondness for them kept me reading.

The plot is relatively simple: Seth embarks on a research project to uncover his mother’s mysterious family history in order to fully understand her familial curse of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The plot also captured my interest for most of the book—a genetic mystery novel!—although the final discovery is not particularly surprising or unexpected, which was a little disappointing. The main storyline intercuts two different threads: textbook-ish and scientific information about Alzheimer’s disease, and a fable about Isidora, a mythical land of forgetting. I enjoyed the science more than the myth; the Isidora chapters come across as too broad, and a little heavy-handed in terms of the allegory and “memory loss” symbolism.

Perhaps my poetry bias caused me to be particularly charmed by the novel’s sharp and well-defined details. Block is deft at setting a scene, fleshing out even the most minor characters: Abel’s horse (Iona); Abel’s truck (humorously named The Horseless Iona); and Seth’s classmate Victoria Bennett, nicknamed The Sloth “slouching and sluggish…her hair was a long brown tangle…whenever possible, she avoided predators by disappearing into the trees.” (79) Block certainly knows his social outcasts presenting them with humor as well as unflinching honesty.

The author also offers many lovely—almost lyrical—moments, such as the description of the game Seth plays with his mother before her illness takes over: “My mom and I also had another game…one of us would start to pretend to be the other…” (125) The novel was the most interesting and original in these moments, and the interactions that Abel and Seth have with the more minor characters best reveal their foundational human-ness. In the end, I wanted a little more of these elements—and less of high-concept historical mystery and science—but enjoyed the warmhearted journey nonetheless.

Nature in its Raw: R.L. Greenfield on Charles Wright’s Littlefoot


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Littlefoot, Charles Wright, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

This book-length poem is stunning;  I read it all the way through beginning in the evening and concluding the next morning. Then I decided to re-read, to find out why and how it is so wise and rich of a book. But I couldn’t. Littlefoot is not paraphraseable, and I was thinking of obtaining a neat answer which is exactly what this book does not afford. As if there is a plain English that can better state the meaning of a pure poem. No, there is no explanation of Poetry and Art or Beauty and Love. And I do not like to re-read a book immediately, especially a thrilling and deep book like this one. Let it sit for a year and then read it again. Its revelations are always like the inscrutability of Nature. And how words always are about something other than we think.

Wright’s book is a lifetime of experience–Charles Wright who was born in 1935 and who loves to dwell in the natural world of Virginia, Appalachia, North Carolina, Italy to name just a few of the places he has called home. The natural world washes over him day and night wherever he dwells. It speaks to him. He merely translates the language of the cosmos into these songs and brief tales, episodes, and epiphanies. When you read this book you will fathom that most books that purport to be books of poetry do not compare favorably with this one in the realm of truth, beauty and the good. This is a liberating book.

Everywhere one reads in Littlefoot one is freed from the constraints of the commercial order and its false worship of phony means and ends that cling like leeches to individual citizens and would-be persons. However, this book does not sermonize or issue propaganda. It feels the world about it with its fingers and eyes and with its ears and its nose and mouth. It is amazed at what it feels or senses while imagining and transforming what it is sensing. And it disappears as it were before our eyes and ears–we who are watching, listening, thinking, remembering, and forgetting. This book disturbs our habitual methods of experiencing life breaking up our neat little monologues and our false epistemologies.

It is clear as we read that we really do not know what we thought we knew. Words themselves have no attachment to nature;  nature is alone and independent of words. Nature is wise, possibly, but then again Nature doesn’t give a damn for the word or this discussion being perfectly content to be itself or not itself. Nature doesn’t need man the artist in order to exist or to be happy or sad or guilty or proud. Charles Wright sings of the inestimable power and detailed beauty of Nature in its raw, sprawling representation and of his own privileged position as observer/poet with respect to this vast world of evolving forms.

Unified Fragmentation: Alonzo McBride on John Barth’s The Development


The Development, John Barth, Houghton Mifflin

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John Barth seemingly vanished for a few orbits of the earth but he has popped up again with an interiorly-crossed, densely constructed set of short stories, The Development. And as he has popped up, he brings with him his continual sense of his own act of writing. Barth writes with a strong and clear sense that he is in the act of writing a narrative, but these nine stories must also be seen as an act of writing by the reader. John Barth wants his readers to pay attention to the artifice in the technology of bookish art (some call this “literature”) because that is how he hurrahs for laughter at the world developing around him and within him. We know that John Barth (b. 1930) is getting older, so readers know that the narrative voice(s) in the stories of The Development is obviously meant to reflect an older person’s attention to the world around him vis-à-vis the neighborhood featured and skewered in the collection.

There are elements of brilliant, deliberate disjunction built into these tales. Barth sets these stories in a set of neighborhoods run by Tidewater Communities, Inc. on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland making a point of continually coming back to this area with community names such as Dorchester, Avon, Kent, Oxford, and Cambridge. He draws relationships between these neighborhoods and that distant inspiration for their naming across the Atlantic. At first glance, this action seems to embrace the threads of time between points of great culture and refinement held from England carried forth to America the New World. However, all that nice rumination ends with the simple phrase on Cambridge and Oxford, “pleasant small towns both, but absent anything remotely like Brit counterparts’ venerable universities.” (74) Whish! There goes the beauty of English tradition, and John Barth replaces it with a simulacrum of townships with cool sounding names exhibiting little or no meaningful or long lasting value. That simple phrase is so deftly handled by Barth that with it he suggests a large, open, connected world only to clip off those connections at the first chance he gets (or makes for himself), leaving a string with little origin floating in space.

The kinds of life Barth portrays in these neighborhoods and towns walled by gates of metal and 24 Hr guards are steeped in love, family deaths, and toga parties. Their conversations are traced deliberately through following them looking for peeping toms over hedges and fences, waiting in lines at their gated communities for the 24 Hr guards to wave them in, and debating whether to rebuild their hurricane destroyed landscape with green-friendly roofs. These are lives lived at the end of suburban streets and inside brightly lit perfectly decorated living rooms, and Barth does a fine job at showing these lives lived in jokes, pain, and jobs.

Barth’s skill in fabricating these lives presents Readers (as he likes to capitalize in direct address) a gift of dialectic thinking through his act of chopping every scene up into aspects for direct consideration. This is unified fragmentation if there is such a thing, and John Barth like his (yeah, I will do it) precursors Jorge Luis Borges and particularly William S Burroughs have done so well in the past. John Barth has created nine pieces of fabulist work for today’s culture and today’s politics.

The Scraps for Forgotten Cities: Matt DeBenedictis on Noah Cicero’s Treatise


Treatise, Noah Cicero, A-Head Publishing

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Let’s deal with this elephant in the room; I’m just going throw it into a lake so we can be done with it and move on with a steady momentum. There is just no way around it. You see you can’t talk about Noah Cicero and his writing without talking about his city of residence Youngstown, Ohio. I’ve tried to just write about the characters Noah creates and the story he builds upon, but then it comes rushing in—that damned elephant. Where do they struggle? What former manufacturing Mecca of the Midwest? That’s right Youngstown. But let me be clear this topic that must be addressed is not a bad thing, this is actually one of Noah’s toppling the mountain strengths.

Youngstown screams its own existence out in Noah Cicero’s stories and words. Now when I say obvious it’s not because he throws cheap city references into the faces of readers like he’s taking everyone on a sight seeing tour making sure to make note of a famous hot dog stand or something of that nature. The strife and anger that resides and breeds like a mutated rabbit in such an unsettling city as Youngstown is found in all of Noah’s words. Noah’s words hold harshness and quickness to them, and with most stories being built on character’s thoughts rather than long drawn out dialog the true presence of Youngstown is always felt in how characters tend to abide in a vulgar anger reaction to the hopelessness of their situation. All this creates a trademark that always points back to Youngstown, just like how the echo of doom sound Tony Iommi made in Black Sabbath always harked back to life in the unemployed city of Birmingham, England no matter what pile of apocalyptic visions Ozzy sang about.

The first thing I ever read by Noah Cicero was a short story published online by Bear Parade called ‘The Living And The Dead.’ Its opening grabbed me and shook me all while reminding me to be happy I never went back the city I grew up in—Youngstown. The short story opens with:
3am. A young man throws a body into the river. The body splashes. The man looks at the sinking body. It sinks. The river he threw the body in is the Mahoning River. One of the most toxic rivers in the world.
Right there are two of the most striking things about Noah Cicero’s work. You can’t escape them. One is the quick Hemmingway-like sentences and the other is his assertion of Youngstown being the crux of the death. The Mahoning River is pure pollution with a hint of water in it, there is no doubt about that, but by saying such a thing here, right at the beginning of the story, Youngstown is being called the true pollution that stands out when compared to the world.

In Treatise, Noah Cicero address the toxicity of Youngstown by pointing out what the city has to be proud of, muck and filth, and if that is what the city can give the world than nothing more than that should be expected:
Youngstown did produce some good businessmen who are all in prison now for bribery and racketeering. Our most famous millionaires were Debartlo who owned the San Francisco 49ers who is in prison, Micky Monus who owned Phar More who is in prison. We had a famous lawyer named Goldberg who is in prison. And we had a famous congressman named Jim Traficant who was in a prison mental ward. Our four most famous citizens, the leaders and representatives to the world of our community have all been sent to prison.

Treatise is a different book for Noah Cicero. Its length is much longer than either of his books (The Condemned, a collection of short stories, and The Human War, a novella) and most importantly in Treatise Noah takes the cycle of comfort he’s created in his books and burns it, buries it, and then salts the earth just for a good measure. Treatise is a stepping out. Generally Noah’s characters live in their thoughts, were they usually spend much of the story sorting out strife and trying to be happy while having no hope of things getting overall any better for themselves. In the end they just settle for a quick fix. But not in Treatise, in Treatise the main character Masil seeks to change his life no matter how drastically he has to lower himself and loose himself to do so, and he doesn’t care what anyone has to voice up about his decisions. This is not the normal highlighted person in a Noah Cicero book.

Now from what I understand the actual form, structure, and even characters in Treatise are “modern remixes” of My Life by Anton Chekhov. To be honest I had never heard of Anton Chekhov until I read Treatise, but from what I have gathered in a quick search sponsored by google I should read some of his work and I should have known of that work was earlier in my life, but what should I expect. My lackluster literary education took place in Youngstown.

In The Human War (Fugue State Press, 2003) Noah’s main character writhes through the city’s bars, diners, and strip clubs were his thoughts all wrestle around trying to figure out life on the eve of the second war with Iraq. The character never gets a real answer or a sense of happiness that will actually last, but in Treatise Masil gets the answers and the new life he is searching for. Masil’s journey to “not end up like his father” (as one character describes it) begins with telling his father about downgrading from the upper-middle class that his father lied, cheated, and sold any decency left to be in so he can go work in a factory.
Standing there, my balls grew large and brave, “Fuck your money.” My father grew angry with this. To deny his money, meant that I denied his whole being, his whole sense of self-worth, his identity, his world view, the very rocks, pillars, shingles and aluminum siding that made him who he was. Even though who he was, was a collection of television sitcoms spanning from the seventies to the present.
I’m not going to lead out anymore of the actual story from here because every story ever written seems rather flat and almost vapid when you explain it out; there is nothing to grab onto and enjoy that way. It’s like trying to recreate what made a stand up comic magical to see. You can’t do it. What I will say is what makes Treatise such a stand out book for Noah Cicero. Treatise is the only literary book that has been able to fully capture the struggle and voices that exist in the cities that were left for dead when the companies that feed the community left for cheaper labor overseas. In a town where there is nothing to hope for in personal progress, just being happy to be alive is the only American dream left, that is the scraps off the table left for the forgotten cities.