A Much, Much Darker Palette: Zinta Aistars on Temporary People by Steve Gillis


Temporary People, Steve Gillis, Black Lawrence Press

temporary-people

Years ago, I saw the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show about a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, played out on a movie stage while the rest of the world watched. Steven Gillis’s novel, Temporary People, reminded me of that movie only with a much, much darker palette of colors. Add a touch of the surreal and you have Gillis, aptly likened to Kurt Vonnegut.

Temporary People is called a fable by the author in the first pages of his story. In this tale, the island of Bamerita, floating unattached some 2,000 miles south of Iceland, has become a movie set directed by the madman, Teddy Lamb (aka the General):
The scenes for Teddy’s movie are shot out of sequence and no one can say for certain what the film’s about. Even when the soldiers come and order us into our costumes, we’re not shown a script. At best, we hear rumors that the movie’s a multi-generational saga weaved through the telling and retelling of a 3,000 year old fable. The focus of the fable changes, however, each time the rumor’s repeated. Teddy reviews all the daily rushes, assesses the caliber of our performance. Everyone’s uneasy about how they appear. The perception we give is not always intended. Our fear isn’t artistic but rather a concern for our safety. In evaluating the scenes, Teddy’s impatient with people who disappoint him. Those found deficient are removed from the film and rarely heard from again. ‘That,’ Teddy says, ‘is show biz.’
Under this guise of movie making, Teddy rules as a slaughtering dictator would, doing so with a perverted sense of humor. Madness, if you will. The previous government officials are filmed as they are tied to logs, and then pulled in two, set to float on the ocean waves. The population of Bamerita falls quietly into place after that until, of course, they rise to revolt as any population given time and wearing away of patience with brutality will. A crew of “actors” (i.e. citizens) takes the lead with characters such as Andre Mafante, an insurance salesman who tries to promote non-violent means of revolt, and his friend, Emilo, whose rebelliousness culminates in sewing his own ears, eyes, and mouth shut. One of Gillis’s most disturbing scenes is when Teddy torments Emilo into unwilling laughter and pained screams, effectively tearing up his stitched mouth into meaty shreds.

The satire is effective. Gillis is successful in painting madness—the irrational behavior of an oppressive government, the mass fear in response, and the distortion of reality that taking away basic liberties must involve when one manipulates many. If this echoes current political scenarios, it should. In his characters, Gillis illustrates different forms of resistance and rebellion—indifference, self-serving cowardice, passive and active resistance, heroic if perhaps misguided protest and bloody coups—with of all of it done with a touch of Hollywood.

An Underlying Sadness: Mary C. Johansen on City of Refuge by Tom Piazza


City of Refuge, Tom Piazza, Harper

city-of-refuge

The two families at the heart of Tom Piazza’s novel, City of Refuge, reflect the racial and economic diversity of most American cities. What separates them from other Americans is the city they live in. New Orleans, in all its beauty—and devastation after Hurricane Katrina struck—is the soul of the story. Anyone who has read Why New Orleans Matters, a book length essay that Tom Piazza wrote a few months after the hurricane, knows that Piazza loves the Big Easy. Although his love is not blind, it is in evidence from the first pages of City of Refuge, which describe a spontaneous parade marching through the Lower Ninth Ward, to the last pages depicting the first straggly Mardi Gras celebrated after the levees broke and the city was flooded. In comparison to the detail and emotional tenor that Tom Piazza gives to New Orleans in the novel, the story of the Williams’ and Donaldson’s and their separate sagas before, during and after the storm seems almost incidental.

The story begins on the Friday before the hurricane hit. We first meet SJ Williams, a black, working class carpenter living in the Lower Ninth Ward; his sister Lucy, an on-again, off-again drug user and Lucy’s son, Wesley who is on the brink of becoming a criminal. We catch a glimpse the of Williams’s life during the weekend that precedes the storm. It is a fairly typical life, touched by drugs and crime, of many in the poorer areas of the city.

Craig Donaldson lives in a leafy suburb near the Tulane University campus with his wife, Alice and their two young children, Annie and Malcolm. He is the editor of Gumbo, an alternative city newspaper, and he makes enough money for Alice to be a stay-at-home mom. Craig and Alice are planning Malcolm’s birthday party when we meet them. Alice is the epitome of white middle class urban angst. She complains about raising her children in the heart of New Orleans. The school system is hobbled by crumbling buildings and lack of adequate funding. The whole city is hobbled by an antiquated infrastructure. Crime is rampant. Craig, originally from the mid West, is passionate about New Orleans, its culture, its music, its food. The last thing on his mind is leaving. Yet, Alice’s discomfort is an almost constant background noise in their marriage. And in the background of these first chapters, like white noise, are the weather reports which become more and more dire as the weekend wears on.

Hurricane Katrina seems like it will pose no more of a problem than some of the bigger hurricanes that have struck New Orleans in the recent past—some flooding, loss of electricity, damaged homes and a few days of disruption in normal activity. But, as the storm gathers strength during the weekend, evacuation becomes less and less of an option and more of a necessity. Unfortunately, evacuation is feasible only for those who have both the financial resources and a car. Craig and Alice wait until it becomes clear that the storm will cause major damage before they evacuate with tens of thousands of others. The Donaldson’s can’t.

What follows are the divergent paths that each family takes in order to regain some semblance of normalcy. Craig and his family endure ten hours of traffic jams only to find gasoline supplies drying up along the major routes and motels hopelessly overcrowded. They end up in Elkton, a suburb of Chicago, staying with Alice’s aunt and uncle. A far worse fate befalls SJ and his family. They experience Hurricane Katrina in all its wrath. The major breach of the levees occurred along the Lower Ninth Ward. Over ten feet of water flooded SJ’s house. Like so many other nameless heroes, SJ spends the day after the storm rescuing people who are trapped in a river filled with dangerous debris. His family is scattered after the hurricane. Wesley ends up in Albany, a place that might as well be another planet to him, with a couple of empty nesters who have volunteered to take displaced hurricane victims in. Wesley’s attempt to understand and communicate with the elderly couple creates the most emotionally charged interactions of the book. In comparison, the description of Lucy’s stay in one of many camps set up by volunteer organizations is stilted. SJ finds himself in Houston staying with his cousins, in shock and suffering from severe depression. The family is reunited in the suburbs of Houston feeling out-of-place and lonely in this land of cars and malls.

As each family grapples with long-term relocation and whether to return to the crippled city, we learn, through Craig’s and SJ’s trips back to New Orleans, of the damage that brought the city to its knees. Piazza’s prose comes alive in his descriptions of the horror and devastation in the city he loves. The work “toxic” appears routinely. The devastated city is a place of sour smells, sickening mold growing profusely on indoor walls, decaying bodies and a brownish sludge that covers everything the flood waters touched.

As everyone begins to adapt to their new lives, there is an underlying sadness in the realization that many families will not return to New Orleans, and those that do return will find a city that remains dysfunctional in so many ways. Tom Piazza has written a touching narrative steeped in the history of what has to be some of the darkest days America will ever encounter. It is fitting that we are left wondering whether the Williams’ and the Donaldson’s will find happiness in their new lives. After all, three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still remains on it knees. And the rest of the world is wondering too.

Forgiving the flawed and fallible: Larissa Kyzer on Leah Hager Cohen’s novel House Lights


House Lights, Leah Hager Cohen, WW Norton

 
 

 

 

 

In the opening pages of Leah Hager Cohen’s House Lights, Beatrice Fisher-Hart recalls a moment during her workday as a ‘historical interpreter’ at a restored Underground Railroad station. During a routine tour, a little boy asks Beatrice personal questions about herself, rather than about the character she is representing. “It threw me,” she recalls,

having him break the fourth wall, as they would have said in my acting class, having him crack everyone’s willing suspension of disbelief. It was as if someone had switched on the house lights in the middle of a dramatic performance, suddenly illuminating the larger reality in which the play was being staged.

While the metaphor that immediately presents itself in the passage is, of course, the analogy drawn between a theatrical performance and Real Life, House Lights’ strength as a novel lies in its ability to transcend this somewhat bland metaphorical framework and reach instead towards a surprisingly textured and subtle reflection on relationships, culpability, and one’s ability to forgive. Beatrice’s coming of age is intertwined inexorably not in her ability to take on a role and play her part. Rather, it becomes her central goal to be like the little boy in the above anecdote—to shatter the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that defines her family life and history. To be, above all things, ‘an actor’—a force of action, an instigator. “My dream is to act, I had written,” she reflects mid-way through the novel, “and I believed I meant acting as in theater,”

The words sound different to me now, as I look back on who I was then, fast approaching my twentieth birthday…playing the same role I had performed all my life, and all the while so critically unable to act.

 

House Lights pivots around Beatrice’s discovery that her father, a noted psychologist and professor, has a history of sexually harassing his clients and students. Although information about his conduct has been carefully slanted and, more often than not, withheld from Beatrice (who meanwhile constructed an image of her father as a “beautifully, effortlessly moral” man), when one of his dissertation supervisees furnishes tape-recorded proof of his behavior, she is forced to reckon with not only her image of her parents, but also of herself. “I felt sullied by what I was learning about my father, about my mother’s complicity, and, worst of all, what felt like my own complicity, too,” she explains,

Not because I’d known; I hadn’t. Simply because I had loved him, and us, had believed in and been buttressed by my ready belief, the story of us Fisher-Harts being nobler and smarter and finer than average.

What Cohen emphasizes throughout the course of the novel is that complicity—in the form of either “ready belief” or a lack of action—is an offense on par with the transgressions that her characters spend the novel struggling to understand and overcome. House Lights reads as a repeating cycle of action met with inaction: a character is wronged by someone close to them, but then exacerbates and complicates the situation by refusing to face the problem head on, by even ignoring it all together.

 

Beatrice’s mother Sarah enacts this cycle most fully throughout House Lights. As a child, Sarah was practically abandoned by her mother, the “legendary actress” Margaret Fourcey, who sent her to live with relatives while Margaret pursued her career, remarried, and had another child. As an adult, Sarah cuts off almost all contact with her mother, stifling any possibility of resolution with her, even when Margaret attempts to reconcile. Beatrice herself replicates this cycle with her father, leaving home shortly after she finds out about the accusations made against him, and refusing to accept his apology when he finally does offer it.

 

Having made a concerted effort to do away with artifice and a mythologized sense of her family’s superiority, Beatrice cannot set these recognitions aside. Her point-of-view seems to constrict at the very moment that it expands, allowing her to see her parents for the flawed people that they are, but not able to forgive them their fallibility. But forgiveness, House Lights asserts, is not a matter of ignoring wrongs or pretending that time can ever truly eradicate certain emotional wounds. Rather, within the novel, forgiveness becomes the ability to be empathetic with those who have inflicted the most harm to you: “…This much is clear,” Beatrice says of her father, “it isn’t and never will be all right with me, the choices he’s made as a father. Which is different from hating him. Which does not preclude compassion.”

It Hurt Quite A Bit, Actually: Marsha McSpadden reviews More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss


More Than It Hurts You, Darin Strauss, Dutton

 

 

Meet Josh Goldin, a Long Island Jew.  His harmless flirting with a co-worker (he can’t quite be bothered enough to remember their name) and TGIF moment (complete with “the butter smell off somebody’s microwave popcorn”) is interrupted by the news that his eight-month-old son has been placed in intensive care at the local hospital. Yet, don’t feel sorry for Josh.  As he drives to the hospital, he learns “Derek Jeter had rolled an ankle and would have to go on the DL.  This stole Josh’s concentration—Shit, right in midseason?  Immediately there was the firmer, canceling voice in his head, Forget Jeter!  What’s wrong with you?

 

Ostensibly, this book claims to have Munchausen by proxy at its center, though if you are looking for a rich, psychological study of characters conflicted by this condition and how they negotiate their relationships, you won’t find it within these pages.  Strauss doesn’t commit to the pathology of the disease.  Instead, it’s dismissed, insultingly so, as “modern mania, attention.  That’s what drives these parents to it.  The only fulfillment these mothers are after is the fulfillment of the spotlight.”  Dori, the mother accused of sickening her son, is drawn pancake-thin without the psychological makeup necessary for her character.  Don’t feel sorry for her either.  She’s “pretty” and that seems to be enough of a reason for everyone to love her.  Josh and Dori never discuss the “Incident” at the hospital or the circumstances surrounding their son’s illness.  Once the child is released from the hospital, Dori lament the pitfalls of Netflix (“When you’re at work, they just sit there on the table in the hall, those Netflix movies, and I know I can’t watch them, because I have to wait for you to come home from work to watch them with, and by that time I don’t even want to.”) with her husband, whom she affectionately refers to as “Mr. Goldin.”  Really, Mr. Strauss? 

 

Conveniently, months after the initial medical Incident, neither the Goldins nor Dr. Stokes, the attending doctor so black she’s “purple” and wears “the professional face of physicians and prostitutes,” can forget about what happened.  In fact, they individually obsess and ruminate on it when they aren’t otherwise pondering the entrapment of our culture.  Without reason, the Goldins hire an attorney, just in case, and Dr. Stokes prepares herself “to light the fuse” simply because “the idea of mothers harming their children could work up the most intimate fury in her.”  Strauss tells us that these women—Dori and Darlene—are not happy yet the tone in which he describes their actions is unconvincing and ultimately their actions are explained away:  “[Darlene] turned over and tried focusing on the warmth and smoothness of her high-thread-count sheets (Darlene hadn’t fully abandoned nice things when Leo left).”  

 

With mentions of MTV, McDonalds, BabyBjorn, Coldplay, Frogger, Seinfeld, Verizon, Kinko’s, Fiji water, Dean & DeLuca, GM, Pfizer, Pizza Hut, Finding Nemo, and cameos by Jon Stewart, Glenn Close, Ludacris, Greta van Sustren, Tucker Carlson, and Sanjay Gupta,

it seems as though Strauss is more concerned with brand-name dropping as some sort of social commentary than actually providing characters and dialogue that can comment on either the situation at hand or a world where a reckless news media distort the facts of the case beyond comprehension.  Some of the dialogue seems so incidental, the reader wonders why it’s there when other, more pertinent conversations – those telling conversations that must have taken place between the Goldins and Dori’s confessions to her mother group and lawyer – were omitted. 

 

For two months, as Josh attests, he commits to his “Flawless Father Plan.”  Then for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he grows tired of his both his son and his marriage, and his focus wanes.  Predictably, as Josh turns away from the family for a sales conference, Dori hurts the baby again to get back at Josh since he “had been sort of a cock about helping with parenty stuff.”  And it works.  Josh, admittedly not the smartest guy around as he can’t even differentiate between the two hospital visits, admires Dori for how well she holds up after her commitment to motherhood is questioned.  It should be noted that he never questions that commitment nor does the attorney.

 

Just like the newscasts Strauss wants to skewer, the sensational story is the only thing to keep the reader turning pages.  The descriptions are choppy (“chaotic breasts,” “his T-shirty room,” “moist and heavy socks feeling like tongues on her feet,” “soft mittens of Muzak,” “draft-beer pull was sneezing up glasses of Heineken”), point of view shifts into the most menial of characters wandering by, the characters themselves are contradictory, there are several loose ends that never find resolution.  The first few chapters feel like writing exercises—the writer warming up to his story, trying to find each character’s purpose, the reader confused by their importance.  By the time Strauss gets into the groove of the story and it’s necessary for the reader to feel something for these characters, it’s too late.  Strauss presents characters most people would avoid in public situations – empty people filled with sexist, racist, homophobic, materialistic thoughts – and asks the reader to spend 400 pages mired down in the character’s shallow thoughts.  Josh, a sales exec, has an eye for things “with broad if shallow appeal.”  It seems, in fact, as though this book were written for him.  Eventually the reader grows tired of each character’s musings on whether they should talk and longs to see a meaningful conversation come to fruition.

If it starts crooked, it’ll end up straight: Linda Lappin on John Domini’s A Tomb on the Periphery


A Tomb on the Periphery, John Domini, Gival Press

 

 

A Neapolitan proverb runs: “See Naples, then die,” suggesting that life is incomplete without a glimpse of Naples, while hinting that the experience may be overwhelming. Thus was it to eighteenth-century travelers who described the place as “a paradise inhabited by devils,” blaming the exhalations of Vesuvius for the city’s turbulence and torpor.  Not much has changed since then as we may gather from A Tomb on the Periphery, the second volume in his Naples trilogy.

 

The action opens in a newly excavated tomb where young Fabbrizio has come on his motorino with Shanti, a sexy American hippy-tourist who wants to worship the Great Mother in an unspoiled shrine. Fabbrizio, drop-out from archeological studies and expert forger of artifacts, has the right connections to slip her over the fence at midnight. But nothing is what it seems in Naples. Shanti is a jewel thief come to plunder grave goods. From a teenage mummy, Fabbrizio plucks a necklace triggering a series of transformative events bringing tragedy to some and redemption to others.

 

An African immigrant hiding in the tomb witnesses the robbery. Survivor of a sea- journey in which his daughter drowned, both the cops and camorra for the theft will blame him. For N’mbor lava, recovering the necklace is his only chance to avoid deportation. Meanwhile, Fabbrizio who had expected an easy conquest of “l’Americana,” will have initiations of a different order: he witnesses a murder and suffers hallucinations with the dead owner of the necklace speaking to him across the dark abyss of time, foretelling imminent danger.  

 

In this crime story, it’s the reader who does the detecting, all the while soaking in the atmosphere, as scattered clues are unearthed and reassembled—like the link between the drowned girl and the mummy. In each fragment is a flash of authentic Naples—vividly drawn with its colors, dirt, and slums; its thugs and bureaucrats; its joy, sensuality, and corruption. As we zip along with Fabbrizio on his motorino through streets redolent of garlic, sewers, and garbage; trilling with cell phones, glittering with knives, and tinkling with charms against the evil-eye, we are worlds away from what Domini has described as the “chianti-dazed Anglo-American romance of Italy.” What carries this book through occasional roughness of plot is the extraordinary energy and plasticity of its language. Rich, jaunty, and cocky like Fabbrizio himself, Domini’s language startles, stabs, tickles and at times dazzles delighting us from the first page. As in this discovery of the mummy:

Most of the corpse remained under the dirt, since for a discovery like this the dig crew worked with teaspoons, with watercolor brushes. But the visible bits might’ve been some subterranean neon, more tawny than white, its electricity uncovered while still abuzz. Also you could just make out a wink of tomb jewelry. Or you could so long as the moon hung postcard-full. Already however Fabbrizio understood he’d made a terrible mistake.

 

A quote from Shakespeare’s Tempest serves as an incipit. In that play, crime and corruption are merely momentary but necessary phases in a greater design of healing harmony. So it is for most of the characters in this novel, proving another bit of Neapolitan wisdom—storto viene, dritto va, or “If it starts crooked, it’ll end up straight,” which is exactly what happens to Fabbrizio in more ways than one.

 

*

 

Linda Lappin,  poet, novelist, and translator lives in Rome where she directs the Centro Pokkoli. www.pokkoli.org  She is the author of The Etruscan ( Wynkin deWorde,  2004)  and Katherine’s Wish (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008).  Her websites are www.lindalappin.net and www.theetruscan.com

“Teetering on a Necessary Boundary”: Tony Trigilio examines George Kalamaras’ Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors


Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, George Kalamaras, The Bitter Oleander Press

For those already familiar with George Kalamaras’s work, it should come as no surprise that his fourth full-length collection of poetry, Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, portrays the meeting of East and West in glimpses of meaningful cacophony rather than as scenes for artistic colonization. The book emerged from a 1994 Fulbright Fellowship in India and reads as an extended maturation of the experiences initially chronicled in his first collection, The Theory and Function of Mangoes. Kalamaras has been a student of the traditions of India for 36 years and has practiced Hindu yoga for almost 25 years. Rather than write as just an observer (and, thus, flirt with aesthetic imperialism), Kalamaras composes with the honest gaze of a religious writer making art from the intersection of devotion and doubt.

 

The poems are smart, warm, and technically sharp. Kalamaras’s relentless use of the second-person “you” in his interior pilgrimage could be an alienating gimmick in the hands of a less polished writer. Instead, the pronoun of direct address accumulates throughout the book as a nimble mode of self-scrutiny. No matter our varied religious backgrounds, the body is our shared, universal heritage in these poems. In What is Open the speaker’s tonguing of his raw canker sore (a recurring image in the book for India’s ability to disinhibit the body) reminds him that, no matter how far he might physically be from his home in Indiana or how deeply felt India might be, each experience is one in which “[y]ou melt at this moment of mixed blood, / the incision point of sun in rain.”(31) This incision point is a stable, albeit prickly, frame of mind to which the traveler aspires. Yet stability is not possible in the deliberate dialogic messiness of this speaker’s journey as he loses a little of the self and continuously refashions subjectivity in nearly every poem.

 

Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors is suspicious of our desire for mastery, especially in the important sequence of poems that includes A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things, A Theory of the Origin of Birth, A Theory of the Choke of Dust, and A Theory of the Shape of Palms.  These poems are not idle, navel-gazing excursions as their titles suggest; instead they grow more tactile as the speaker’s pilgrimage continues, reconsidering the abstracted “function of the confusion of things” as, eventually, the embodied experience of “the choke of dust” and “the shape of palms.” A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things establishes this tension between abstraction and physicality with the speaker imagining his sudden death and eventual cremation in an Indian charnel ground:

                   . . . .  You feel your skin begin

 

to burn, the fragment of time called Me

drop away, Mother Ganga clock through

 

your no-longer-ticking heart.  For hours and hours,

rich volcanic lapse spins black butterflies

 

that catch the Banaras breeze like bits

of burnt air, that settle tiny birds

 

into the hair of a passing stranger, in the dhoti

folds of a pilgrim with brass bowl, that bathe

 

the banks of this most holy river

with the dark light of your death. (51)

Kalamaras’s kinetic line trajectories move with circularity, befitting the cyclical logic of the Subcontinent rather than the propositional logic of the European tradition. The speaker’s imagined death shines a “dark light” on cycles of creation and destruction, on seeds planted in the holy river Ganges and continually reborn as “a sadhu in holy Hardwar, // a computer analyst in Eureka, California, / a cowboy on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a flea in the fur // of a Mongolian pony, some swatch of dust / above an Indiana doorway.”

 

For Kalamaras, collage is both an instance of broken syntax and a way to re-suture meaning from the fissures of language. He re-imagines the traditional narrative of discovery in the lyric poem with innovative linguistic and structural schemas enacting in the poems the disorientation that accompanies the dizzying cultural exchanges of this particular journey. After all, the speaker in these poems is half a world away from his home; he is ash at the banks of the Ganges and dust above an Indiana doorway. The title poem of the book is a collage itself as material from the first section of the poem reappears in the second section cut-up and rearranged as a way of linguistically dramatizing the cyclical nature of death and rebirth in Hindu tradition. In this way, the misapprehensions of speech become just as valuable as our fictions of lyric transparency:  I am an underwater underside, you hear in the street, // certain you’ve mistaken the scrape of a bicycle tire / for salt.” (The Underwater Underside, 44) In one of the most important poems of the book, Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve, Kalamaras extends linguistic chance and play to the sacred speech of mantras. “What makes a word or phrase / change or skew?” he asks.  The answer is spatial and experiential as much as it is verbal; it emerges in the way the body moves in space and in the way a word can “consummate the curve / of sound you now mouth to be.” (121)

 

Like most of the poems, Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve is composed through enjambed couplets, staging the meeting of East and West in fractured lines and the self-reflecting white space between stanzas. However, the poem also incorporates traditional quatrains and Olson-like projective lines (reminding us just how closely the score of Projectivist Verse on the page resembles the one speech-breath-thought of Ginsberg’s East-West fusion). Like Kalamaras’s Buddha in Sarnath and the Shape of Dissolve, the poems unfold in a landscape where postmodern indeterminacy collides with sacred language. What remains from this collision is a malleable self mapped in variable speech:

          [. . . .]  Or do you need something more?  The shift

 

and vowel of two letters more?  You consider those two

remaining sounds, n and a, rolling them into a single point

 

of negation:  na.  India-na, you say, India-

na, you repeat over and again, mouthing the syllables

 

in the slow motion of a goldfish testing borders

of a bowl. (123)

As a space of play and linguistic flux, the “India/Indiana” pun projects onto the subjunctive world of the “as if,” suggesting that the visions of this pilgrimage are, at best, provisional. Unlike conventional poetry of the sacred, these poems prefer variance over verity:

          [. . . .]  India-na, you tongue once more, as if

 

you are saying no to dust, sweat, religious wars,

quiet, poverty, Pepsi, peace.  As if none of these exist

 

back home.  As if you are affirming Indiana — a place

you’ve never really loved — and dismissing what you know

 

of where you are right now.  And where you are is

at Ashoka’s pillar, moved by the cut of the letters

 

charting The Middle Way, but unable to decipher

the script.

The poem dramatizes the Buddhist middle-way between attachment and aversion, chronicling how the uncanny and troubling can be quotidian in both India and “India-na.” At any moment in the book, a holy man might emerge from isolation and, remarkably, lift a stone block with a cloth tied to his penis “to demonstrate / his transcendence of sexuality.” (The Milk of Shadows, 24) You might drop dead suddenly on a Banaras street as in A Theory of the Function of the Confusion of Things and be reborn as dust mites Indiana, or you might find yourself reduced to trading malaria pills on the black market for your lunch (The Lamps are Brought In). The speaker cannot master the uncanny residue of his cultural exchange in a land that he knows, ultimately, is not his own. With Indiana always in the offing, the speaker’s pilgrimage blurs the boundaries between West and East into the “shape of dissolve” that is crucial to this spiritual practice.

 

It is too easy for the critic to argue that the Western artist who writes about Asia is succumbing to an “easy Easternness,” as one of the earliest reviewers of Ginsberg’s Buddhist-inspired poems once wrote. For a poet such as Kalamaras, the writing process is inextricable from spiritual “dissolve”: writing is not a dissolution of the self, but an investigation of the allure and limitation of self-attachment. The result is a linguistic and spatial “dissolve” that is much scarier than the transcendentalist religious experience—and is something readers of contemporary poetry have come to expect. In the Orientalist narratives that emerge too often from Western writers, the cultural colonizer recasts Asia in relation to himself, but in Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors, Kalamaras teeters necessarily on a boundary between ambiguity and certainty knowing, “You can’t imagine ever going home / and you can’t stay” (Icon, 95).

*

Tony Trigilio’s recent or forthcoming books include the poetry collection The Lama’s English Lessons (Three Candles), the chapbook With the Memory, Which is Enormous (Main Street Rag), and the anthology Visions and Divisions:  American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (co-edited with Tim Prchal; Rutgers University Press).  He teaches at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the program in Creative Writing – Poetry and co-edits the poetry journal Court Green.

 

“All Crazy as Pet Loons,” Tana Young reviews God Particles by Thomas Lux


God Particles by Thomas Lux, Houghton Mifflin

 

Wet or dry, the sugar of religious training is evident in Thomas Lux’s book of poems, God Particles. For instance, the poem entitled Antinomianism, for those of you not of the faith, is the moral equivalent of do as I say, not as I do, a spiritual conundrum, to which Lux counters, “my ass!” (33). His lines are fraught with the glee of one for whom the traditions and rituals of genteel southern life include church, BB guns, nine irons, and glasses of lemonade upon doilies sipped in the evening on the front porch. Lux views the world through a skewed lens of one who knows intimately the manners of his southern white culture, but who questions the moral validity of such a life. His poem 5,495 recounts with almost sado-masochistic glee Jesus’ scourging with the cat-o’-nine-tails while neurotically examining and splitting hairs over who has suffered more and how. 

 

Lux calls into question the validity of all religious, quasi-religious social and political governing systems, which includes all of us, mostly, and all the good we purport to do. In his peculiar carnivalesque view, we are each guilty of commoditizing every relic, the wholesale selling off of every parcel in Eden, of every nuanced spiritual encounter, of every quiet truth that can only be known within the heart. There’s no reasonable explanation for these tendencies of ours, other than to satisfy the nefarious ends of our unendingly gratuitous desires. That we brutalize smaller beings for their shiny beauty comes from no higher reason than that we happen to be, at any particular moment, in possession of a sharp stick, a rifle, or golf club and so must knock that thing to kingdom come. We are naturally predisposed to such pastimes.

 

The poet doesn’t necessarily eschew the religious. He juxtaposes the deeds and words of Stalin with those of Ghandi, the Amish, Quakers, Buddhists, Episcopalians, Baha‘i, Mennonites, and Jains in The Utopian Wars and Their Feet Shall Slide in Due Time. Thomas Lux points us toward the deeper truth about our condition, emphasizes the crazier edge of the human race, which with rare exceptions include all of us. Lux depicts slavery, the gas chamber carried on the back, and the Bataan death march as a way to open the greater truth of our cruelty to one another in times of war, of the constancy of our social inequities, and of our tendencies to exacerbate the differences in our philosophical underpinnings. Lux suggests we’re all consigned to the same asylum, no matter what our fine linen suits might suggest. In First Song, he pulls the reader back to our common origins, saying, “when we had more time and bellies full enough with food, we sang of love. But it began with stones and sharpened sticks, then sharpened sticks hardened in fire” (11). We all participate in the cruel traditions of the tribal pecking order.

 

Against those traditions, in Section III, Lux becomes more straightforward in his desire to be a good son to his mother and father and a good father to his daughter. The voice of longing abuts against the strangeness of our various cruelties. Lux implies we must learn to play nicely together utilizing the continuum of poetry’s heritage: the Homeric grand epic on one end and the domestic intimacy of the Sapphic at the other. He is resoundingly critical of human doings, at both ends of the scale. Though the speaker is unreliable because of his connection to questionable pastimes, he tattles with the assurance of one who has witnessed first-hand the illogic of this brutality. He is one of us, and thus, suffers from the same bouts of cruelty as do we all revealing our secret meanness toward those who can’t fight back. 

 

Lux’s poems waltz us through our petty pastimes. Yet, the jacket cover holds the viewer several hundred feet in the air hovering over clusters of polite folk scattered about in lawn chairs engaged in intense conversation. Soon enough, the scene implies, we’re all floating out of here, one-by-one.  While still in residence and in the face of our collective insanity, it behooves each of us to behave ourselves more intelligently and to enact policies of mercy and of kindness, which when boiled down becomes the adage: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you. God Particles points readers toward the bigger picture making us question the obvious disparities between humans and lesser beings, and contrasts that against the divine, which willingly explodes, so that each of us has something to hold onto to keep us from going too far a field in our awful mess.

 

 

Lux is gleeful in his representation of our awfulness, which is on par with the activities of pubescent boys in a parking lot with fire crackers and a mangy cat, making its life miserable, because they can. Which brings us to the question: Why would Lux say that God explodes Him or Herself, raining pieces down on the earth?  Because, Lux reasons, thankfully, God is not us. Even more thankfully, we are not gods. Without some small bit of sugar washing over us, we have little hope of surviving our own moral stupidity. We’re all crazy as pet loons, always have been, uh-huh, always gonna be.

“Rude Music of Life,” Alison Morse reviews Geoff Herbach’s The Miracle Letters of T.Rimberg


The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg by Geoff Herbach, Three Rivers Press

 

Geoff Herbach’s first novel, The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, tells the story of a middle-aged American man, Theodore Rimberg, whose plan to commit suicide propels him into a year-long journey from the Midwest to Europe to Green Bay, Wisconsin. This trek is replete with quixotic adventures in places like a Polish prison, Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and the Green Bay Packers football stadium. T.’s story is told in his own, first-person voice presented by Herbach in a series of letters, journal entries, and interview transcripts. And what a voice it is: bluntly lyrical, whiny and philosophical, geekily hip, and sometimes wise even in its histrionic self-absorption. It is Theodore Rimberg’s voice that makes this novel sing.

 

T.’s many letters are arias of mixed feelings, mixed morals, blame, loathing, and self-discovery making dramatic mental leaps: “Shrooms taste terrible,” T. writes from a bar in Amsterdam, “but okay with a Coke.  I love Coke.  It is a perfectly refreshing drink, except for what cane worker in Haiti paid with his back for this sugar?” They try to make amends to people in his past, “Dear Sherri Staltz…I’m sorry I repeatedly touched your knees and legs backstage during the high school production of Our Town,” and people he has never met, “Dear Anne Frank…I wish you were an old lady in your adopted home, Queens, New York, an anonymous old lady, sweet and fat, living among Koreans and Russians, all displaced, but alive.” They rail against the likes of Bill Clinton and Madonna “in 1986 you caused me to have an erection that lasted for eight days…Look at the horrifying little pop singers you helped spawn. Their music is all about vibrating sex organs;” and are usually punctuated by the announcement of his impending suicide: “Just thought you should know I’m going to kill myself.” 

 

In between letters, Herbach weaves in a year of T.’s journal entries and a series of interviews between T. and a sympathetic Green Bay priest who believes T. to be a “perfect vehicle for God’s work.” These passages told in T.’s singular voice help clarify the narrative alluded to in his letters, the story of a suicide-obsessed guy who receives a fortune from a father who abandoned him when he was a boy. This unexpected inheritance prompts T. to quit his hated job, leave Minneapolis where his ex-wife, children, and ex-girlfriend refuse to see him, and go searching for his dad, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who may live somewhere between Antwerp, Belgium and Warsaw, Poland. T. leaves for Europe intent on finding his dad and committing suicide.

 

The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg is a classic epistolary novel and a story of the American Jewish immigrant experience with a nod to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. All three novels use letters to reveal the inner lives of their male characters and, like Bellow’s Herzog, T. is a Midwestern Jew who writes letters to everyone who ever influenced him in an effort to make sense of his mid-life crisis. Like Safran Foer’s Jonathan, T. searches for self-understanding by looking to his family’s Eastern European Jewish past.  “History shapes people,” says T. “I had no history…[Dad] hid everything and disappeared.  But secrets just leave this empty space.”  What sets T. Rimberg apart from these other American Jewish male characters is his voice, a Gen-X mix of popular culture, higher-learning, and passionate emotion.

 

“Dear David,” writes T. to his brother, “What better way to celebrate the life and works of Karl Marx than to get totally naked in a staff meeting?” And in a letter to Aunt Jemima:

…I know from listening to NPR one morning a few years ago that you are named after one of the biblical Job’s daughters.  Poor, misused Aunt Jemima. 

              Job was Jewish. 

              I am real and I see Nazis and I’m in a city that was decimated by Nazis and my dad was born here and he was a Jew.  That was bad.  So don’t complain!  You’re a racist trademark with a hanky on your head.  Still I always loved you and your friend Mrs. Butterworth.

T., as imagined by Geoff Herbach, is a stand-up comedian. His letters are monologues that could easily be read out loud, which makes a lot of sense considering that Herbach honed his writing (and wrote this novel) during a four year stint with Lit 6, a Midwestern literary group that specialized in edgy, funny, live radio plays performed in theaters and aired on Minnesota Public Radio. Herbach’s sentences leap off the page and demand to be heard.

 

But T. is also a fully realized character. Herbach gives him insight, heart and memories of the Jewish Holocaust as well as great one liners:

…No building left standing.  I could tell you this from my dreams where I am dead, a ghost, floating above the burning city…A brick wall blocking a street, blocking off the whole neighborhood.  Everyone inside, dead.  I’ve dreamt them dying.  What a lovely energy comes from these streets.  I understand, I empathize.  I have solidarity with the dead.

By the end of The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, it becomes all but impossible not to love T.’s all-too human frailties, his larger than life passion for small things like White Castle hamburgers and fake maple syrup, or his need for love and connection. The story of his life is satisfying, surprising tale full of twists, turns, and hope. The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, suicidal anti-hero, is a story about hope, told in a voice that is full of the funny, sad, often rude music of life.

“Nice, but that’s all,” Cicily Janus on Nathaniel Bellows’ Why Speak?


Why Speak?, Nathaniel Bellows, W.W. Norton
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

In Why Speak?, Nathaniel Bellows debut book of poetry, I find myself wondering why the poet is calling this a book of poetry rather than a memoir stolen from an overwritten book of his musings. Bellows works take a retrospective glimpse at one’s childhood and brilliantly paints landscapes and still-life bowls of past fruits from his memory. All the while, Bellows leaves out the true emotionally wrought excitement, perk, or pull that would normally lead a reader from page to page.   

 

His words without a doubt are well placed within what some would call prose rather than traditional or even experimental forms of poetry. Within the second part of the book, Bellows Foaling is unfolded before the reader as a series of images rather than something that has true meaning or something with real substance:

The hay was wet with blood and something that looked like tea. In the boughs of the firs behind the barn, where the chickens roost and drop their waste on the rusted cars hood, the cock was crowing. He cries at all hours for no reason. One time he cried all night

 

and no one came.  The next day half the hens were gone—only feathers left in wads around the yard. …………

 

With a knife I shaved soap into a bucket to wash down the horses. The shavings were white like the feathers I’d found in the fields—the place the fox had gone to finish the goose. In a shaded spot beneath the trees. 

This poignant series of descriptions is nice, but that’s all. I can see feathers, I can see the foal as it’s born in other parts of this “poem” but to tell you the truth, I would rather read Black Beauty again as an adult than this. Every poem, every peek, and insight into this life is utterly boring. For a writer who has blurbs and publishing contracts through an esteemed publisher such as Norton, I have to wonder if maybe they were lacking in something “middle” American to put out for the world to fall asleep to. 

 

The Boston Review heralds this as collection on the back of the book as coming from a novelist who has an “ear for sturdy, rhythmic lines, writes with wide-eyed candor of both the marvelous and the grotesque,” actually it is quite the opposite. Where is this rhythm?  In the third part of the book, in the poem An Attempt there are more awkward line breaks and phrases that again read as prose, instead of the poetry promised within the pages:

            The children dragged bluefish alongside the boat having lured them with

            flies. The fish flew as they were yanked from the waves, like sparks

jumping and spoons spinning in a sink’s cloudy pool. I thought of the fish

 

while looking at the bird, a living jewel sullied in the garden shadows. I

thought of you. Your gift to me a capacity for sympathy, mostly because

at times I feel sorry for you.  Not in the way I feel for the fish. Or the

 

bird whose beauty seemed absurd the longer I watched it

The rhythm is lost among the length of the phrases, the awkward breaks, and, most of all, the subject matter. How do fish flying and spoons spinning in a dirty sink relate to one another? Maybe my imagination is wrought with a surplus of traditionalists, or the imagery of Frost, Thoreau, or even Angelou for this caged bird is one that needs to stay home. 

 

Perhaps, I shouldn’t be so harsh for there is a wonderful display of self-indulgent skill in this book. The length of the book says enough and his words and his command of the language are clearly not amateur. His novel, On This Day, was marvelous and full of memorable characters and scenes. But as to the poetry…I would have rather read this as a series of prose musings, maybe backstory for his memoir. Yet in this form, the question “Why speak?” simply cannot be answered in the positive, and the art of what Bellows attempted to achieve seems as lost as the answer to his symbolic question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Disguised Existence,” Abbas Bazzi on Elise Partridge’s Chameleon Hours


Elise Partridge, Chameleon Hours, University of Chicago Press

 

The poems from Elise partridge’s Chameleon Hours read like a chameleon’s back as it fades into and out of its surroundings. Each poem resembles a chameleon’s scaly exterior, and each scale has its own texture and blend of tones. These individual hues connect to form a grandeur creature—her book, which exposes the subtle movements of her disguised existence.

 

In Elegy, the constant disguise formed by these tones becomes genuine while the misunderstood hypocrisy is a sad affair for Partridge, one as sad as a “funeral elegy;” because the narrator, parenthetically, lacks empathy and understanding for Partridge’s plight. The narrator assumes Partridge’s past disguise is nothing more than a deceitful trick, so the narrator contradicts Partridge:

            No one can ever say I told lies.

            (She faded below her cracking disguise,

            Fixed as a dead-leaf butterfly’s) (26)

With the same consistent disguise, the dead-leaf butterfly gets its name from our many impressions of dead leaves, so we “rightfully” go on calling it, “the dead-leaf butterfly;” a name defined by survival and elaborated on in Gnomic Verses from the Anglo-Saxon, the first poem from section two. In it, Partridge speaks in the voice of something archaic and mythical: the gnomes who are the mythical protectors of the earth’s treasures. They hold the job of ordering purpose to every existing entity and diversely allocating sustenance and purpose to all of existence:

            Kings shall rule kingdoms. Winter cold is keenest,

            Summer sun the most searing,

            Fall freest with her hand. Fate is almighty. (35)

 

But what is most remarkable from Gnomic Verses from the Anglo-Saxon, happens after lines thirteen and fourteen when the assignments turn frightening, “Lovers meet in secret, monsters skulk/In the swamp, stars seed the sky.” And just as “stars seed the sky,” the Gnomes, through Partridge’s faculties, begin a scary prognosis of the future, where everything collides and tries to clash with its opposite through the initial symbolism of troops that “stand together, a glorious band:”

            Light lunges at dark, life parries death,

            Good clashes with evil, the old with the young,

The opposites collided once the ambitions of corruption gain success. In line ten, Partridge abruptly shifts from the act of “Salmon spawn in northernmost streams” to a corrupt king rewarding his “cronies” with “rings.” With autosuggestion working imperatively on the reader, corruption, war, and death create the disguise necessary for survival. The underground, the animal kingdom, are the necessary ingredients conceptually forming the symbols of the chameleon:

            All of us wait in the Lord’s arms

            For the decree he ordains, darkly, in secret

            Only God knows where out souls will go.

And as Gnomic Verses from the Anglo­-Saxon concludes, we are reminded of Elegy, how the dead-leaf butterfly was left without an explanation for its disguise, and it’s apparent that that reason has been unearthed in the Gnomic verses.

 

There exists in Chameleon Hours the fear of war, conflict, and death. This fear is resounded exponentially in Gnomic Verses from the Anglo­-Saxon, because we’re witnessing the warnings of human bloodshed and the uncertainty of our existence. And, strangely enough, we find these warnings perpetuated further during contemporary times.  In World War II Watchtower, Partridge chastises a group of boys who play pretend inside a turret of a WWII beach in coastal France. We identify more easily with this contemporary setting, because we recognize the symbols, “doughnuts, cigarettes, whiffs of paint thinner—“(91). And historically, the setting in World War II Watchtower is less mythical and literally not ancient. With this reality, the reading of Partridge is a fully relevant experience, because her use of recent WWII history in the form of warnings becomes understood and believed:

            After a day swinging horseshoe crabs—

            Tideline helmet—

The boys grab dinner: doughnuts, cigarettes,

            Whiffs of paint thinner—

            Then crouch in these rough walls

            And test their echoes

 

            Lost boys, don’t bivouac here.

            Guage your luck, in the lighthourse-glare,

            And go:

            Your open eyes aren’t freckled with Omaha sand;

            You’re not the great-uncle bobbing at Juno (91)

 

World War II Watchtower insists the boys remove the unnecessary, pretentious disguise of their warring great uncles to prevent constant, repetitive war and to achieve something besides an early death. Empathy for Partridge is granted to her once having understood Chameleon Hours. After having read World War II Watchtower, which is unlike Elegy’s and Gnomic Verses from the Anglo­-Saxon’s support for maintaining a necessary disguise, we come away feeling sympathetic and protective of Partridge’s disguises.