Gently Read Literature, Spring 2014


The new issue of Gently Read Literature is now available. If you’d like to order a copy, send $4.00 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” with “Gently Read Literature” in the memo line to

Daniel Casey
816 Indiana St.
Lawrence, KS 66044

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GENTLY READ LITERATURE

Spring 2014 Issue

3—The Hidden Ordinary: Glenda Burgess on Two Poets

7—True Stories from a Mexican Prison: Deborah Clearman on Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree by Mary Ellen Sanger

10—Gazing Upon Broken Mirrors: Wes Bishop on Lee Upton’s The Tao of Humiliation

14—Notions of Beauty and Materiality: Sally Deskins on Yona Harvey’s Hemming the Water

17—Tragic Histories: Ed Davis on Michael Harris’s Romantic History

22—Terse Lyricism: Daniela Gioseffi on Alfredo de Palchi’s Paradigm: New and Selected Poems 1947-2009

25—A Transcaucasian Mind: Mike Walker on Arslan Khasavov’s Sense

34—The Anti-Mayberry: Rebecca Stoebe on Earplugs by Bram Riddlebarger

37—The Delicate and Precarious: Catherine Bailey Kyle on Glenn Shaheen’s Unchecked Savagery

40—Dogs Don’t Fall in Love: Eileen Austen on Jane Vandenburgh’s The Wrong Dog Dream

44—Tangibly Intangible: Kelly Lydick on Brian Mihok’s The Quantum Manual of Style

49—Loss of Distinction: Jordan Wheatley on Sandy Florian’s Boxing the Compass

55—Ambiences: Bonnie ZoBell on Doug Holder’s Eating Grief at 3 AM

59—Thomas Pynchon’s Escape to the Bleeding Edge by Jesse Lambertson

66—The Culmination of a Life’s Close Attention: Karen Craigo on Sydney Lea’s I Was Thinking of Beauty

69—Burnette Saxifrage: Bonnie ZoBell on Jen Michalski’s The Tide King

74—Assembling a Diverse Literary Society: Kayla Rodney on the Anthology Dismantle

79—Nature’s Lens: Karen Craigo on Paula Bohince’s The Children

82—Intimacy and Exposure: C.P. DeSimone on Sean Thomas Dougherty’s All You Ask For Is Longing

Gently Read Literature, Winter 2014


Gently Read Literature’s first issue of 2014 is out now.

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The Winter 2014 issue includes fiction reviews of authors such as Peter Cherches, Kirby Gann, Pamela Erens, Bonnie ZoBell, George Guida, Valerie Fioravanti, Adam Berlin, Luanne Rice, Bruce Holbert, Linda Lappin, and Juliet Marillier.

As well as poetry reviews of collections by Caryl Pagel, Emma Bolden, Elizabeth Robinson, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Bill Yarrow, Frances Hatfield, John Gosslee, Marjorie Maddox, Gerald Fleming, Kristina Marie Darling, Mary Biddinger, Terry Blackhawk, francine j. harris, Jamie Sharpe, Alex Dimitrov, Petrosino, Carrie Olivia Adams, Jeffery Pethybridge, Julie Marie Wade, and Olivia Stiffler.

We’d love for you’ to subscribe to GRL to receive this as well as the Spring issue (released in May) and the Fall issue (released in September). A year subscription is only $10 and will be delivered to your email as a PDF.

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

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey at

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St.

Lawrence, KS 66044

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Gently Read Literature
Reviews of Contemporary Poetry & Literary Fiction
Winter 2014

Contents

4—Colleen Abel on Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death

6—Christina M. Rau on Emma Bolden’s poetry collection Maleficae

10—Amy Pence on reading On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson

12—Michael Kasper reviews the novel Lift Your Right Arm by Peter Cherches

15—Making Music from the Badlands of Horror Vacui: Virginia Konchan reviews Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Swamp Isthmus

18—Parth Vasa reviews Kirby Gann’s novel Ghosting

21—David Appelbaum on Bill Yarrow’s Pointed Sentences

24—Ed Davis reviews the novel The Virgins by Pamela Erens

27—Robin Martin reviews Bonnie ZoBell’s short stories in The Whack Job Girls

30—Fred Misurella reviews George Guida’s short fictions in The Pope Stories

32—Bonnie ZoBell reviews Valerie Fioravanti’s short story collection Garbage Night at the Opera

35—Grace Curtis reviews Frances Hatfield’s poetry collection Rudiments of Flight

37—Robin Martin reviews Adam Berlin’s novel The Number of Missing

40—Christina M. Rau reviews John Gosslee’s Blitzkrieg

43—David Berridge reviews the anthology Homage to Etal Adnan

51—Brief Alphabet of Grief: Carolyn Perry Reviews Local News from Someplace Else by Marjorie Maddox

56—Deborah Bogen reviews Gerald Fleming’s prose poetry collection The Choreographer

59—Sally Deskins on Kristina Marie Darling’s VOW

61—An Insurgency of Language: Stacia M. Fleegal’s review of Mary Biddinger’s poetry collection O Holy Insurgency

63—Suzanne Hard on Luanne Rice’s novel The Lemon Orchard

65—Margaret Rozga reviews Terry Blackhawk’s poetry collection The Light Between

68—Jonterri Gadson reviews allegiance by francine j. harris

71—Emilie Esther-Ann Schnabel reviews Animal Husbandry Today by Jamie Sharpe

73—Samantha Duncan reviews Alex Dimitrov’s poetry collection Begging for It

75—Sing a Song of Darkness: Katherine Yets on Hymn for the Black Terrific by Kiki Petrosino

78—Help Me Solve a Mystery, Who is Who and Where are We?: Katherine Yets on Carrie Olivia Adams’ Forty-One Jane Doe’s

82—The Poem is a Ritual that Conceals: C. Kubasta reviews Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, the Bright Treatise

85—Acceptance Inside an Envelope: Katherine Yets reviews of Julie Marie Wade’s poetry collection Postage Due

88—Olivia Stiffler’s poetry collection Otherwise, We Are Safe reviewed by Margaret Rozga

92—Twenty Poets Talking: Robert Archambeau reviews the anthology Password Primeval

95—Channeling the Prose Poem’s Ancestry: Steven Wingate reviews the anthology Family Portrait: American Prose Poetry

98—James Wharton reviews Bruce Holbert’s novel Lonesome Animals

101—Shaina Mugan reviews Linda Lappin’s Signatures in Stone

103—Things Redefined: Ayesha Ali Reviews Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

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

Gently Read Literature, 2013 Spring Issue


Now that Spring is finally here, so is a new issue of Gently Read Literature. The Spring Issue has some brilliant poetry and fiction reviews as always as well as some interesting literary essays. This issue’s most interesting feature is a special section devoted to impressions, personal essays, and summaries from attendees to this year’s AWP Conference is Boston.

Take a look at the contents–

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Special Feature Essay on the AWP Conference Boston

Featuring Mary Biddinger, Heather Bowlan, Dianne Turgeon Richardson, Kris Bigalk, Mark Jenkins, & Suzanne Cope

Reviews & Essays

Taste and See: Michelle Ovalle Reviews Tropicalia by Emma Trelles

An Act of Witness: Tawnysha Greene Reviews Pamela Uschuk’s Wild in the Plaza of Memory

An Untroubled Poet: David Appelbaum Reviews Laurie Filipelli’s Elseplace

Unclear Dreams: Stacie Theis Reviews Patricia Goodwin’s When Two Women Die

What Remains: Ben Moeller-Gaa Reviews Kristina Marie Darling’s Melancholia (An Essay)

A Reach For Our Better Angels: Sophfronia Scott Reviews Robert Vivian’s Tall Grass Trilogy

The Mystery of Faith: Zachary Boissonneau Reviews Ira Sadoff’s True Faith

The Sestina and Ardor: An Essay by Marilyn Krysl

An Inner World: Maria Espinosa Reviews Paul Christensen’s Strangers in Paradise

Images of Water: Lisa Cole Reviews Edith Sodergran’s Salt Ballads as translated by Brooklyn Copeland

Finding One Thing in Another: Jeffrey DeLotto Reviews Anne Whitehouse’s The Refrain

Colors of Emotion and Mind: Jesse A. Lambertson Reviews Neil de la Flor’s An Elephant’s Memory of Blizzards

Die Now, Die Then: Jesse A. Lambertson Reviews Robert Day’s Where I am Now

Accordions in the Mind: Lisa Cole Reviews Juliet Cook’s Poisonous Beautyskull Lollipop

In the Midst of Anxiety: Victoria McCoy Reviews Matthew Cooperman’s Still: Of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move

Getting Away With It: Lisa Cole Reviews Listen to Her Heart by Amy Berkowitz

o louvre of the world, Poetry and Grammar: Emma Bolden Reviews Emily Carr’s 13 ways of Happily

Life in the Margins: Ben Moeller-Gaa Reviews Kristina Marie Darling’s Petrachan

One-on-One, Writer & Reader: Linda Lappin Interview with Thomas Kennedy

Love at the Speed of Sound: Sophfronia Scott on Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat

The Drive to Connect: Stephen Page Ponders Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language

Stolen Identity: Alyssa Jocson Reviews Eric Goodman’s Twelfth & Race

Literary Combat for History’s Collective Memory of the South before the American Civil War: An Essay by Forest Balderson

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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

Subscribe to Gently Read Literature: Become a Subscriber & Support Book Reviewing


Greetings from Gently Read Literature,

 

Some of you may have notice that GRL has been absent of late with our most recent issue being released in May. This is because GRL is going through a format change.

 

Instead of publishing every month as we have done for the past few years, Gently Read Literature will now publish three times a year—a Summer (September), Winter (January), and Spring (May) issue.

 

Gently Read Literature has reached a crossroads. On September 1st, GRL will release its Summer 2012 issue which will be comprised of 23 review essays on contemporary poetry and literary fiction and be over 70 pages. GRL’s Summer issue will feature the same in-depth review essays that you’ve come to expect and enjoy; this Summer’s issue will see reviews of recent work by Traci Brimhall, Terese Svoboda, Sarah Falkner, Peter Richards, Maxine Kumin, Ron Padgett, and Jane Lazarre among others.

 

Our Summer 2012 issue will be the last free issue of Gently Read Literature. Although I’ve strived to make GRL as accessible as possible over the last 4 years, it has no longer become feasible to continue on as a free publication.

 

Subscriptions to Gently Read Literature will start with the January 2013 issue, which will be sent to subscribers as a downloadable PDF and made available online.

 

A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (three issues) will be $10.

 

 

If you would like to become a subscriber to Gently Read Literature, you can send payment via PayPal to the email address gentlyreadlit@ymail.com

Or

Mail a check to

Daniel Casey

20698 Drake Ct

Rogers, MN 55374

 

After the release of the Summer Issue, only subscribers will receive email updates like this one.

 

I hope you’ll continue our conversation by becoming a subscriber.

Thank You for Your Support

Daniel Casey, Founding Editor

 

 

 

Take a look at our past issues:

May 2012, http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_may

April 2012, http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_apr

March 2012, http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_mar

February 2012, http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_feb

January 2012, http://issuu.com/gently_read_literature/docs/grl_jan

Gently Read Literature can now be purchased for download to your Nook or Kindle!


 

Gently Read Literature can now be purchased for download to your Nook or Kindle!

Not only will Gently Read Literature be sent free to our list of subscribers every month but also we will offer digital download to you e-reader, tablet, or hand-held device.

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Barnes & Noble Nook

Gently Read Literature, November 2011

Gently Read Literature, October 2011

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Amazon Kindle

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Gently Read Literature, November 2011

Gently Curved Roads: Aleathia Drehmer on Shaindel Beers’ A Brief History of Time


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A Brief History of Time, Shaindel Beers, Salt Publishing

A Brief History of Time by Shaindel Beers reveals her tensions at the duplicity of her life which finds her sometimes stuck back on the Midwestern farm of her childhood, still struggling to shed the air of baled hay and sweat from her existence, to the cold and calculated marks left by the city she always longed to be in. The temptation and memories of home, no matter how bittersweet, are never fully released by Shaindel.

This is Shaindel Beers’ first full length collection of poetry and Salt Publishing could not have done a better job in its presentation. The high gloss cover depicts the essence of the prairie with fields and a windmill all encased by barbed wire. There is blue sky for miles and the edges of the book are faintly branded with a repeated Art Nouveau design. The title is done in a beautiful script that invokes the feeling that a feather quill was used. All of these visual cues set the tone for the reader before they even open the book that their journey will lead them to distant, but familiar lands with surprises tucked into the periphery.

Shaindel has several recurring themes in A Brief History of Time and they are masterfully intertwined to take you on an adventure through her childhood and her impressionable years living in the Midwest which are laced with quiet longing to be somewhere else, to really see if the grass is greener on the other side.

This theme becomes evident in the poem “Elegy for a Past Life” where Shaindel speaks of the curse of every young person stuck in a small town, let alone rural America where you know more livestock than you do people. This poem is rich in capturing the idea of escapism both figuratively and literally. There is something sad about it that tastes of unrealized hope:

“Back then at sixteen
I thought we’d make it out together,
And become writers, the only job we could imagine
Where we wouldn’t smell like shit or hay or cows

But too many months passed when I didn’t bleed
And when we were safe, the test negative
And burned in the rubbish heap behind the barn,
You left, too afraid of being trapped
In a cornfield town
To wait for me.”

and in the poem “Why Gold-digging Fails” we find young girls wanting above and beyond what they have, desiring fancy, well-to-do boyfriends, because a good and honest man never seems to do when they are in the thick of the moment:

“and there was that odd moment of recognition
and fumbling for words
when quantum theory hit me and I realized
if we’d tried harder instead of merely flirting
in parking lots at the beach and the Dairy Queen
and the drive-in that sold gallons of homemade root beer
either of us could be that chubby blonde woman
with the fat baby”

Along this gently curved road through her life, Shaindel explores very touching episodes of love and loss. She looks acutely at her own misgivings as a wife and girlfriend, and all the while staying true to the fact that she wishes she could erase these blemishes of character. In the poem that captures the book’s title, “A Brief History of Time”, we see prime example of this idea:

“I’m no good at this love thing

nonetheless, I keep trying, like the benchwarmer
who begs to be sent in and is carried out crushed every time.
I wish just once someone would
cry out from the stands, Quit putting her in there.”

In the poem “First Love”, there is a tenderness that is wrapped in aloofness about love. It is as if she cannot allow herself to connect with him personally, to show how vulnerable her love is, so she focuses on things that can be mended, on things that give results:

“I’d fold his hands in mine
Like folding sugar into butter
And lead him past my disapproving parents
To my makeshift triage
Under the fluorescent buzz of bathroom lights.”

Shaindel’s piece “Rebuttal Evidence” shows how distant from love she has to stay in order to maintain emotional survival. It feels like she tries to save the rest of us from her inability to materialize love, to let us off the hook for possibly feeling this way as well:

“Maybe this is my abstract way of loving,
Which I didn’t ask for, but which seems to have always been my way—
That existential struggle between the self and other—
the way I never see where I end and begin in relation to the world,
which somehow always seems to puzzle or offend.”

Perhaps her greatest achievements come in her keen observation of the interaction of people and how the human condition is lost on many. In my favorite poem in this collection, “Triptych….The Light, The End, The Light”, the title suggests that there will be three defined sections to this piece, but the lines of separation are thin and one must read carefully to find them. The poem starts out surreal and gives us the first light:

“I slide into the soil.
The metallic taste of dirt fills me—
nose, mouth, and lungs. Days pass.
A sharp stab of light wakes me
when a shovel breaks ground, just missing
my head. It is little Jimmy Millican,
from next door, attempting again,
to dig to China.”

and “the end” is something quite moving, but no less tragic than if a bomb went off in the center of town. The character’s misery steady and shouldered the best it can be:

“Stop fucking around Jimmy—It’s not
funny! That astounding sound of loneliness
when the first shovelful of dirt
hit your mother’s coffin—“ but he trails off,
train of thought lost in a cloud of numbness.
Jimmy reaches down, pulls me out—
his father’s gone again.”

This poem’s last light is evident. The whole piece is a small journey of losses and discovery that lead to more losses. It pulls on the heart about how hard it is to be a child and lose one parent to death and one to loneliness.

Shaindel has a firm grasp on history and science and a delicate touch to her language. Her poems are by no means simple and many are written without stanzas leaving the reader to climb each mountain of a poem and hope they are prepared for the descent. She digs into hard subjects like cancer, death, and backhanded prostitution. In this collection, some of the longer pieces tended to drag out and I wondered if less might have equaled more for me. There are touches of her academia in this book as well, as Shaindel entertains several sestinas and a grand work based on mythology called “The Calypso Diaries”.

A Brief History of Time touches so many emotional buttons for me as a woman and as a reader, and I could go on quoting tender lines and well-crafted images for hours. Shaindel’s understanding of human relationships, even the dark edges of them, puts one in the moment hoping and wishing for sunny outcomes for the characters in her poems that never really materialize, leaving the reader slightly disheartened, but feeling alive in the craft of the tale she has spun. Many of her poems linger in the heart and the mind allowing for an easy path to return to her work again and again.

Imaginary Landscapes: The Village and the Desert in Egyptian novels, Ahmad Saidullah


Tales from Dayrut by Mohamed Mustagab001

Mohamed Mustagab. Tales from Dayrut. Translated by Humphrey Davies.
Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2008. 204 pages.

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Miral Al-Tahawy. Gazelle Tracks. Translated by Anthony Calderbank, Garnet Publishing, 2008. 94 pages.

  1. The Village

Cities, villages and deserts form the landscapes of the Egyptian literary imagination. The novel, which emerged in Egypt after the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, locates the tension between the traditional and the modern in these contested terrains.

In his essay on embargoed literature, the Palestinian thinker Edward Said noted with regret that Naguib Mahfouz was one of the few Arab writers known to the west, largely for his Cairo trilogy. Unlike Mahfouz, who spurned an academic post for a lifetime of bureaucracy, Mohamed Mustagab was born in Dayrut al-Sharif, a village in the Upper Nile Delta, and had little formal schooling. Despite his disadvantages, he became general director of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo.

Mustagab belongs to the sixties generation of writers who broke with the patrician literary traditions of Mahfouzian Cairo. Typically, these writers’ canvases were villages in the Nile delta, not cities, teeming with peasants looking for work. The Dayrut that is recreated in Mustagab’s fiction overturns the romanticized nativism of the earliest Egyptian countryside novels of Yusuf Idris and Haqqi (Idris is cited in one story). Gone is the ornate “fusha” of Ottoman-period writers replaced by a leaner, sparer prose that emits sparks of violence, deadpan irony and humour.

The grand themes of justice and the destinies of generations of old families in the face of change have also withered away. Salamah Musa’s Fabianism that had influenced Mahfouz’s generation did not appeal to the younger writers. The 1919 revolution, Nasser’s stillborn pan-Arab socialism, the 1967 defeat, and Sadat’s compromises marked Egyptian writings of that period, including Mustagab’s and El-Bisatie’s works, with a sense of the unreal and the absurd that was influenced by European existentialist, absurdist and surrealist writings and by the nouveau roman.

In Mustagab’s excellent Tales from Dayrut, a collection of fourteen stories and a novella, any attempt to impose order or bureaucracy results in chaos, a natural order of things which is unsettling but also, at times, humorous. In “Bughayli Bridge,” a police officer’s search for a murder weapon in Dayruti Canal leads to unending discoveries of various skeletons and body parts that result in wild scenes. An elderly man stops and requests that they search for his five children. The behaviour of the chorus of spectators leads the police, frustrated and rapidly losing control, to abandon the crime scene, but not before the bridge collapses and the spectators fall into the water.

“The water of the canal filled with wheat stalks, turmoil, sycomore-fig branches, divers, peasant caps, arms, legs, timbers from the boat, and weeds from the bottom of the bridge. The spume scattered by the raging waves took on a bloody colour, like that of wisdom.”

The inevitability of an order, that overpowers human laws and individual identity, and repeats itself indefinitely is exemplified in the folkloric telling of “Horseman Adore Perfumes.” In this story without an ending, three generations of riders meet their deaths at the hands of the enchantress, with identical re-enactments of the quest and funeral rites. In another tale, a man is squashed like a bug

Clan feuds, as in “The Battle of the Camel,” which also seem to exist above the law, are narrated baldly without mercy or explanation, as if to suggest a commonplace occurrence in the village, a ritual rural order. Mustagab invokes assassinations and kidnappings as part of Dayrut’s ineluctable code of follies but in “A Woman,” there is courage and humour. The beautiful Mrs. N who “suffers from conspicuous desire for unbuttonedness” manages to thwart her assassin through a stunning reversal from her rooftop.

In “The Edge of the Day,” Mustagab’s scene-setting is done through an exhaustive catalogue of details in which every human action is described simultaneously with the accompaniment of different events in nature, however infinitesimal, ranging from grass, leaves, birds to beetles. The effect of conveying a simple act through such minute parallels is alienating, and imbues the ordinary with an enlarged perspective that does not fit within the reader’s scope. We are left grasping for meaning.

The most daring of Mustagab’s stories is “The J-B-Rs.”  Told in the form of a hadith, it narrates the parables of the Great Jabir whose last words the superstitious villagers rush to obey. He changes his deathbed instructions from “get a camel” to “get a mule” with devastating and hilarious effect to his final wish, “get a pig.”

In other stories, Mustagab uses footnotes and gazette entries about Dayrut for effect. In “The Offering,” the village, again, is the protagonist. The inhabitants have lost their powers of speech and develop a language of gestures and percussion which they use at weddings and ceremonies. They adapt and become prosperous using their skills until another disorder overtakes them.

Mustagab’s setpiece is a novella, “The Secret Life of Nu‘man Abd Al-Hafiz,” which won the State Incentive Prize in 1984, and was named among the top hundred books in the Arab world of the twentieth century. Although the novella does not have a specific name in Arabic, the well-established form, supposedly the oldest in the region, is usually picaresque, with an anti-hero as the protagonist. Nu‘man’s birth, circumcision, his engorged member and wedding are narrated in the same deadpan, somewhat hieratic, semi-heroic style. Bathos results.

Mustagab, who died in 2006, deserves to be known better in the west for his work is inventive, horrifying and humorous in turn and has some similarities with Ismail Kadare’s novels.

  1. The Desert and the Village

Miral Al-Tahawy’s short, intricate novels focus on women and their lot in the patriachal society of desert dwellers. Born into a noble Bedouin family, Al-Tahawy, an associate professor at Cairo University, who is working on a thesis on the desert novel, has had to struggle against the wishes of her family who did not want her to teach in Cairo.

In Gazelle Tracks, Al-Tahawy’s third novel, Muhra, the heroine, is born to Mutlig and Sahla of the clans Al-Shafei and Minazi’ of the Bani Sulaym. Both sides of Muhra’s family had been granted the noble privileges of safeguarding Hajj and merchant caravans through desert routes.

Although Muhra’s ancestor Jidd Minazi’ had hunted with King Faisal ibn Saud (who had romanticized the Bedouin lifestyle for its purity and detachment but refuses to listen to Mutlig’s plea to return to his ancestral lands in the Hijaz), the discovery of oil, the post-colonial division of states, and the movement of Jewish immigrants into Palestine made the movements of Bedouin tribes across borders awkward for many rulers. Muhammed Ali, the suzerain of Egypt, gave the nobles Nileside estates where they put up their goat-hair tents in front of their lavish mansions and lived with their families, falcons and horses tended by Black slaves acquired through travels.

Muhra’s family regard themselves as the true Arabs, the real owners of the land that they opened up for hunting and commerce all the way to the Red Sea. Mutlig boasts that his ancestor Jidd Munazi was the first to discover the source of the Nile, much before the Europeans.

The Bedouin nobles see the Gharabwa and Baramwa, their neighbours in Egypt, as little more than thieving peasants whose Arab stock has been diluted with Turkish blood. This fixation with purity of lineage is evident in the pursuit of falconry and horses and is applied to human bloodlines.

Intermarriage, mostly to first cousins such as Mutlig, Sahla and Hind, is a way of preserving this purity. Although young Mutlig molests slave girls, Lamloum, Sahla’s father, marries her off and her beautiful younger sister Hind to their cousin against their will. Lamlam excuses this by exclaiming that, “a girl will marry her cousin even if it is the last thing she wants.”

Sahla’s father goes on to say that “an Arab girl is like an obedient she-camel. The place where you tether her is the place she kneels, the place you lead her, that’s where she goes.” Muhra remembers the women in the household mentioning the ballad of Khayaliyyah, a young women who caught the eye of royalty and was fed to the crocodiles by Muhra’s ancestor so that she would “remain a thoroughbred, and not be mounted by a peasant, even if he were Abbas I, King of Egypt.”

Al-Tahawy handles Muhra’s quest to find out the truth about her mother through memories, photographs and the paintings of one Pierre Kamm, a European artist also known as Sulayman, who was fond of Sahla and her sister Hind, and who perished in the desert. The presence of European adventurers and travelers such as Dorvetti are also evoked along with the fatal attraction to European luxuries.

As the presence of women (despite their storytelling) is muted in the book, it is Muhra’s father, ironically, who emerges as the most memorable character. A rake in his younger days, he now embodies the plight of uprooted Bedouin nobility. Steeped in desert lore, he keeps his nostalgia for the desert alive through his love of poetry and literature.

Mutlig sets himself up as a falconry and equestrian expert. He hopes to sell that one horse or falcon that would make him “Sheikh Al-Arab,” without realizing that the best stables and stud farms are now in Europe. He entertains visiting dignitaries and travels to the Alps with a prince to hunt for gyre falcons with a GPS. While he keeps up his petitions to King Faisal, he maintains his lavish lifestyle by selling his parcels of land to the peasants he despises.

Gazelle Tracks is a lyrical and powerful book that should win many readers in the west even if they are unfamiliar with Bedouin culture in Egypt. Al-Tahawy’s telling is fluid, with frequent shifts in perspective. She draws upon the apocrypha of Hatim Ta’i, and quartrains from desert lays, and desert lore to frame the narrative. The twisted loops and skeins that the senile bird trapper Abu Shreek uses to snare falcons provide the best metaphor for Al-Tahawy’s highly digressive narrative style which somehow ties up all the loose ends in the end. Fittingly, for this elegiac novel, the phrase “gazelle tracks” refers to a constellation of stars in the night sky whose origins lie in a myth of loss and grief.

In his essay, Edward Said imputed the neglect of writing from that part of the world to anti-Arab sentiment in the west. One should be grateful that occidentalist interest in Arab culture has been piqued recently, even if that is owed to a morbid and perverse post-9/11 curiosity.

Al-Aswany, Rafik Schami, Adonis, Hanan al-Shaykh, Al-Ghitani, Tayyib Saleh, Elias Khoury, Ahdaf Soueif, and Edwar Al-Kharrat are some fine writers whose popularity is growing in the west. The American University in Cairo Press has a current list of over 60 translated writers in its Modern Arabic Literature series alone.

Compared to South Asian writers, true, high literary honours may have eluded most of these writers (with the exception of Nuruddin Farah who writes in English) in the western world, but it’s only a matter of time before their works in English win a major prize or two.

This pair of fine translations of Egyptian writers sets a fine precedent.

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Ahmad Saidullah is a prize-winning author from Toronto, Canada. A winner of the CBC Literary Award for the title story, his Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories, which was published in Canada and India in 2008, received rave reviews. The book was shortlisted for The Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2009. A French translation of Happiness will be published in Canada by the University of Ottawa Press in 2009.

Ample Substance: Maria Espinosa on Pamela Uschuk’s Crazy Love


CrazyLove

Crazy Love, Pamela Uschuk, Wings Press

Pamela Uschuk is the author of four volumes of poetry as well as numerous chapbooks, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Her work has been translated into a dozen languages. She has been featured at international conferences, has spent years traveling, and has taught creative writing to Native American students on reservations in the west. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado

Her poems in this 84-page collection are dense and richly textured. The work has an improvisational quality. She may leap from a single image to contemplations far removed, winding through a trajectory of vivid memories, and reflections. Everything is grist for the mill—material that other writers might put into diaries, memoirs, or novels may be compressed into a few lines or a poem.

Nature in its many forms permeates her consciousness, from a single flower, a tomato plant, a trapped bird, to mountains, sky, ocean. This love of nature mingles with love of husband, family, and friends.

In “Saving the Cormorant on Albermarle Sound.” She writes:

Numb and saturated by spray, it is now
I love you most, love your thick purple wrist
Straining to hold the bird above hungry waves,
Love the deft gentleness of your swollen hand
That cuts brutal knots without wounding the bird
Who stares at you resolute as its barbed restraint

When finally, through the last styrene twist,
You fling the huge bird free…
We are stunned….as we paddle back to shore
Above the condemned rows of sea bass and all
Those snared in darkness we’ll never see.

Social and political concerns run throughout her work, as in “Sunday News on the Navajo Rez.”

Stopped at a gas station outside Gallup…
and a white pickup pulls up.
The woman my age, wrapped in a red Pendleton coat…
Oh you hear something about what happened up in Colorado
We trade what we know about the monster avalanche
That closed Highway 40…
We don’t have much time for news here
What with the baby goats and lambs…
her fingers
tapped out the names of her daughters, especially the last
ready to head with her company
to a desert, far across the unknown globe, where villagers
also raise goats and avalanches take the form
of a roadside waiting to explode.

“Flying Through Thunder” presents the overwhelming awareness of nature as at once a reality larger, more durable than human emotions, and at the same time tender, ephemeral as a flower. It progresses through images that stir thoughts and memories, shifting back and forth from the storm through which her plane is actually flying

From expectant sunflowers, mountain bluebirds, western meadowlarks….
the small turbo prop pitches toward glacial peaks…
I remember the way my stomach dropped as a child pumping my swing higher…
my brother dared me to jump
Bombs away. We’re hit. Jump. Jump….
How could I….foresee
that in a few years my brother would be
drafted to paratrooper school
to ruin his young knees
when he landed just off the training mark
preparing for Vietnam?
When the army found out he attended rallies, preached peace. He
was shipped to Da Nang, to dousings
with Agent Orange
to the burning of village peoples, to daily mortar attacks
and sniper fire he still fights…
Now as the plane lunges, engines
steady above the Continental Divide.
I regard razor backed ridges
older than memory
vaster than scars. They comfort me
in their lack of pity…

She is able to condense entire life stories into a few lines, as in “Bell Note” written in memory of her father.

Sometimes, Dad, there is no loneliness like an ad for the superbowl
all those coaches blunders you’d cuss out
or the lies of politicians on TV
smiling as they staggered like possums
on the sides of reasons highway…
[…]
Remember driving cross-country year
after year from Michigan to Colorado….
What did you say to Mom, who sat
knitting or reading in the back seat, when
she’d startle like a rock dove, head
jerking up at us with her shriek
“We’re going the wrong way!
That field’s on fire. It’s heading
right for us!” Maybe her delusions knew that
the fire was always heading for us, her heart,
that you’d always keep her from the flames.

With their multiple images and swift traversals of thought, her poems provide ample substance for reflection. They are best savored when read slowly, preferably several times, in order to absorb their full impact.

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Maria Espinosa is a novelist, poet, and translator. She has also has taught Creative Writing and English as a Second Language. She has published four novels, two chapbooks of poetry, and a critically acclaimed translation of George Sand’s novel, Lélia. Her novel, Longing, received an American Book Award. Dying Unfinished, her most recent novel, just published by Wings Press, deals with the characters in Longing from a different perspective.

Through Tradition to Bewildering Extremes: Stephan Delbos on Bill Berkson’s New & Selected Poems


bill berkson

Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems, Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press

Portrait and Dream gathers more than fifty years of Bill Berkson’s poetry in all its formed formlessness into one volume. A second generation New York School poet, Berkson was a close friend of Frank O’Hara, and remains an active member of New York’s poetic and artistic community. Reading through Portrait and Dream – no small task due to its size and range – one finds Berkson’s avant-garde agenda struggling to suppress a curt sensitivity which breaks the surface of the poems in rare moments of emotional strength.

Berkson’s poetry has been linguistically inventive from the very beginning. The aesthetic of the New York School often ranked sound and energy before literal sense, and experimentation was considered an end in itself. Many of Berkson’s poems bounce off the mind like radar waves, each phrase forming its own succinct, independent expression while groping toward a nebulous subject, mood or tone. “Sunday Afternoon,” from All You Want, published in 1966, is one example.

What would the new fork bring me? and why
are porticos assuming sulfur? Leave its
cowbells charge is forces on the husks It is
no special translucence we bring to you, Dick and
Scarab, my ring of electric, morning…

The opening question catches the reader’s attention, but the ensuing lines thwart any expectations of continuity or easy comprehension. There are some delightful phrases here, such as “porticos assuming sulfur,” but a casual reader seeking sense or emotional engagement from the poem will be disappointed. Berkson’s more experimental work is as engaging as a Rubik’s cube: some readers will return to his poems again and again, hoping to “figure them out” or gain new insights into their workings. More skeptical readers, however, will be alienated by the poems and frustrated by the suspicion that there is no meaning behind the verbal magic.

Fortunately, Berkson is a consummate craftsman when he wants to be, and his skill with the traditional aspects of prosody stand in stark relief to the sometimes blinding opacity of his forays to lexical limits. Throughout Portrait and Dream one finds individual lines and phrases which delight for their sound, and less often, their sense. Such gems are enough to convince that Berkson isn’t simply slinging words. To provide only two personally pleasing examples: “She lay livid among the party favors,” from “Russian New Year,” and “History itches,” from “History.” Phrases such as these, which are innovative without being incomprehensible, sensually familiar without being traditional, stand out from the difficult poems which surround them.

Berkson’s guiding aesthetic is certainly not sentimentality or emotional lyricism. Instead he favors a cold, at times sterile approach to poetry. Nonetheless, a handful of poems in Portrait and Dream stand out for their emotional acuity. Often these are poems dedicated to friends who have died, or poems that spring out of an equally resonant emotional experience. “Rendition,” from After the Medusa, published in 2008, is one example short enough to quote in its entirety.

The song Willem de Kooning said
He wanted played at his funeralFrank
Sinatra’s “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest
Night of the Week”never happened.

What he got instead was selected
Arias from Verdi’s Aidaa scratchy rendition indeed,
As angelic choirs muttered softly among themselves
In unison: “Aidafucking Aida.”

The poem quietly displays Berkson’s mastery of form in traditional rather than novel ways. The simple narrative utterance is pulled through two quatrains and kept taut by subtle off rhymes: “said/happened/selected/indeed.” Berkson’s linguistic inventiveness, his search for the perfect phrase, is evident in phrases like “a scratchy rendition.” At the same time, Berkson, speaking for his dead friend, is bold enough to make a clear statement on death, music, kitsch, and the wishes of the dying, a statement which gathers strength for its stark succinctness. Berkson seems to have shed his experimental mantle, or at least become more comfortable and trusting of clear emotional statements. Though the final lines of “Rendition” balk at sentimentality, the poem makes clear the narrator’s feelings for his dead friend and his regret that his wishes were not respected. The unspoken fear, of course, is that Berkson’s wishes won’t be respected, either.

Those who have an interest in the New York School or avant-garde American poetics won’t need a book review to convince them to buy Portrait and Dream. It is an essential collection from one of the avant-garde’s most outstanding    and longstanding  representatives. Readers who seek poems which are grounded in emotional resonance and narrative will be disappointed by much of this collection, however. Nonetheless, the scope of the book shows that Berkson is not an innovative upstart to be scoffed at by traditionalists, but a craftsman who for fifty years has pursued his own voice relentlessly through tradition to bewildering extremes.

*

Stephan Delbos is a New England-born poet living in Prague, where he teaches at University and edits The Prague Revue. His poetry and essays have been featured most recently or are forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Zoland Poetry, Rain Taxi and Poetry International.