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

Poetry that Jingles, a Good Value: Zinta Aistars on Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf


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The Heaven-Sent Leaf, Katy Lederer, BOA Editions

What do poets know of money? What do poets know of capital? Katy Lederer asks and answers such questions in A Nietzschean Revival and throughout her new collection of poetry, The Heaven-Sent Leaf. And why not the poet, perhaps the best stockbroker of all in tendering the crumpled and transparent leaves of the spirit, exhibited here as expert in capital. Life is, after all, all about transaction, barter, the give and take between human beings, or between oneself and oneself—the hardest bargain of all. Katy Lederer, poet and author, is also Brainworker,
To learn to keep distance.
To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.
Along the dark edge of this reason. Along the dark edge of this mind’s little prison,
inside of its bars now a silky white cat.
Howling.
Crawling in its little cage.
Inside of its cage is the bright light of morning.
Inside of its cage is the light of disease.
To learn to be an animal. To learn to be that primal.
To know who will slip you the fresh dish of milk.
To long for your manager’s written approval.
So soon am I up for my year-end review?
The moon above settles into its shadow.
I am howling at you.
Lederer titles more than one poem, Brainworker. There are four of them, in fact. And so you begin to sense the spinning we do in our every day routines, work work work, and then home, and then work work work, and all of it about transaction, some profitable, some not. This collection is money (transaction) put into poetry, and if at first glance that seems an odd fit, Lederer proves the fit is very near like that of a glove.

To know something of Lederer’s background explains this fascination. She is also author of several books, notably a memoir, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included on Publishers Weekly list of Best Nonfiction Books of 2003, which tells of her family ties to some of the best known names and faces around Las Vegas poker tables. For the poet, it could just as well have gone the other way, to becoming a card shark, but instead, her pull is toward poetry, even while working as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in New York City.

I can’t speak for her poker-playing skills, no doubt remarkable, but Lederer’s poetry chinks into place, has the solid feel of coin on a green felt table, and slips easily into a rich bank of poetic capital. There are plenty of lines such as, “In the wallet of his soul he files the crisp new bills of morning,” (from The Tender Wish to Buy This World) to keep the analogy flowing. And they work, mostly. Although it doesn’t take many pages in to already sense the Lederer style: a naming of observations, almost a grocery list at times (“To avoid the whole mendacious thing./To sign yet another financial release.”); fragmented sentences and phrases (“Orange-red eyes like small, derogatory suns.” “Not wanting to do.” “Systemic and assembles with great calm.”); questions without answers (“We can’t let go? Why are we laughing now?”). This is not an entirely bad thing, not at all. A writer, a poet, seeks to find one’s own recognizable voice. A reader can find in it an agreeable echo, a mirror to one’s own, and so become a fan. The line to toe here is to not become overly predictable, still leaving room for the occasional surprise.

Lederer’s use of the analogy of money as capital to be traded in for pieces and parts of life does not narrow her range. With this premise, she explores the topics all poets adore: love, sex (what more profound transaction!), the daily aspects of a life well or less well lived, and, finally, death. She sets her stage against the backdrop of the big city, but the big city clamor still reverberates against any landscape where people meet. Money is a great symbol and so is not limiting, no more than she who possesses it imbues it with meaning and power. The exchange of value for value, or value for lack of it, resounds through every line, and with it, the echo of a void inside the self, “the lobotomized wishes—/Where brains once were …/Hear the awful racket of their want.”

This is a collection of poetry that jingles in the mind like loose coins in a deep pocket long after it’s read. You’ll pardon the analogy stretched here, but it is accurate. If on first reading, the poems seem simple enough, almost predictable in style (list-fragment-question), you can’t help but find your fingers wandering the linings of that pocket and playing with the coins, testing their value, enjoying the jingle, rubbing them one against the other, until they are warm in the palm and ready for trade. Lederer’s poetry is a good value.

The Word is the Thing: Laurie Junkins on Sally Van Doren’s Sex At Noon Taxes


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Sex At Noon Taxes, Sally Van Doren, Louisiana State University Press

“A linguaphile’s dream” is the description that comes to mind when reading Sally Van Doren’s first book of poetry, which won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets in 2007. Beginning with the palindromic title Sex At Noon Taxes, this collection is all about words and the myriad grammatical devices within the English language. Van Doren’s remarkable ear for rhythm and sound is immediately apparent, and the reader cannot help but be pulled into her obvious sense of joy in language. The strength of this book is the way she fits words together in often surprising ways to create new and delightful effects of sound, rhythm, and syntax. She does not shy away from lowbrow references, either, if they contribute to the fun, as in “Pasture”:
Categorize a cough.
Catch a calf, laugh,
fart. Forget the phonics
of the focal/fecal. Phrase

fashion and effuse. Frigid
sapphirine captures the
fragment.
In this example, as in many of the other poems, the sound and rhythm of each word is depended upon heavily for effect. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, even parts of speech – no trick of language and poetry is left unused. These are tools available to any writer who has been to middle school, but Van Doren uses them in a way that is truly special.

The emphasis on word play and sound combination is a strategy akin to l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y, to which Van Doren refers – with an arguably appropriate lack of clarity of meaning – in the poem “Story”:
Once you forgot
syncopation and
an enemy stomped
on your bigamist

poetics. Convert
to anomaly. Purge
l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e,
purse and narrate.
Several of the poems in the collection not only make use of the grammatical tools of the English language, but also attempt to define the very devices they use. Poems such as “Preposition,” “Conjunction,” and “Pronoun/Preposition” are obvious examples. From “Pronoun/Punctuation”:
He who parsed us left us with a floating
colon, an ellipsis enjambed by a full-stop.

We had paced with a question
taped to our backs; in post-op

it slimmed to an exclamation point.
Commas shadow us; brackets enclose

our parentheses.

Van Doren’s nod to the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y aesthetic seems appropriate given the way she tends to use words as objects separate from their meanings, but even such accomplished word play can’t carry an entire collection. By the point at which we reach the three poems on parts of speech, the reader begins to feel as if he or she has picked up an eccentrically-written grammar book. Too, when the trope makes up all the content of the poem, the poet’s self-consciousness is glaring, as is a certain lack of depth – an absence of emotional connection, tension, or transition. At first the reader may be so taken with the skillful use of language that she would overlook the lack of substance, but when there are dozens of one-dimensional poems in a row, the shallow nature of them becomes readily apparent.

Toward the end of the collection, Van Doren depends less on linguistic devices and more on image with a dash of the narrative that, in particular, deals with matters of women and girls. Here, Van Doren’s use of figurative language is well-wrought and interesting, and her lyricism is well-crafted, but these poems also lack emotional resonance or charge. Van Doren sets up a scene, situation, or question in each poem, but then tends to stop or trail off too early, failing to surprise, transform, or emotionally engage the reader.

Despite these shortcomings, Van Doren has a command of language and an ear for musicality that few contemporary poets can claim to possess, and this is no small accomplishment. It should be remembered, as well, that this is her first collection. When her work develops the substance to match her use of language, it will be a knockout.

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


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Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons, Scribner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Schizophrenic than Southern: Ashly Hood on Katie Crouch’s novel Girls in Trucks


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Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch, Back Bay Books

Katie Crouch’s debut novel, Girls in Trucks, is a story that spans twenty years in the life of a South Carolina debutante, but the voice throughout the text is uneven, pithy at times, and ultimately leaves one wondering, “how many mint juleps did this woman have while she wrote this?” The narrative begins with a background on our protagonist Sarah Walter’s Southern upbringing and opens at “dancing school,”(or debutante society in a group dubbed The Camellia’s,) establishing place, time, and a murky motive for the rest of the story. The Ted Wheeler episode is, however, just odd, and doesn’t really set up with the rest of the story, nor does it really come back in any form later in the novel. The radical shift between chapters One and Two seems, in retrospect, a harbinger of the schizophrenic voice that dominates the rest of the narrative.

Sarah Walters is a Southern debutante who flees the South for college up North, presumably in search of herself. Brief vignettes of different men, drinking, and drugs make for a patchwork of chapters and information, skipping forward at annoyingly random intervals and occasionally describing the lives of some of Sarah’s friends, having nothing to do with Sarah’s own destructive path. The power of some of the narration and realness of the dialogue in places is not, unfortunately, enough to keep the reader from feeling as though the rug is constantly being pulled from under her. The drinking is brought up casually, discarded, and comes back later, used almost as a conversation piece; granted, drinking is a fairly central activity for those of us lucky enough to live in the South, but it seems to lurk dangerously in the background before being forgotten altogether. Likewise, the references to pot are annoying and have little to do with anything, other than typical teenage/young adult experimentation.

There are several places where Crouch’s intention does seem to shine through, however; “Snow in Bangladesh,” while tonally bitter, resigned and sarcastic, ends with a bit of hope, and sounds also much more adult than many of the previous chapters. In the chapter where Sarah and her current boy toy travel to Vermont to visit fellow Camellia Bitsy and her husband John, the narration and dialogic exchange ring very true and the interaction between John and Sarah leaves us wondering if she will ever find a good man. In the chapter where Sarah, old friend (and recovering drug addict) Charlotte, and Bitsy lunch together in Manhattan (where, apparently, most Southern girls end up), the exchanges are biting, resentful, and somewhat Sex and the City-ish, but nonetheless more real than much of the first half of the book; it is in this chapter that we find out Bitsy has cancer, and not long to live. Therefore, in Bitsy’s chapter of post-mortem observation over her husband’s new girl, the prose is finally, truly beautiful, and may be what Crouch struggled find throughout the entire novel.

I found myself unable to stick with this novel for long, and felt it to be more of a series of essays than a cohesive narrative; that said, however, the end of the novel—the last 3 chapters or so–were far more compelling and mature than the rest of the story. It felt as though both Crouch and her protagonist finally reached adulthood, a time to put away childish things and realize that, no matter how we start our lives, there is hope, after all.

The Past Still Remains: J. Michael Wahlgren on Idra Novey’s The Next Country


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The Next Country, Idra Novey, Alice James Books

There is a certain jadedness implied from one time to another, from one place to another in Idra Novey’s debut poetry collection, The Next Country. With a simple lexicon and the introduction of objects, people and places, Novey paints a bittersweet situation which rides upon the past. The rhymes are punctual and apropos, one of which carries from the poem Property,
From his bedroom,
Neruda saw a painted board

Wash ashore, chipped
And blue, soggy from the sea.
to the poem Trans,
To speak of origins requires mastery
Of the verb to be. I used to be, for example
A little unwieldy. What an organ,
People said. To play me well
Demanded both hands & feet.

With a constant method of hiding & revealing, similar to Neruda’s desk from the sea, this book almost whispers the words to the reader. The process of revealing within The Next Country is a method used by Novey to lure the reader into a hopeful “next“: whether a broken automobile will run, whether or not a man will become successful, whether an octopus’ seventh arm will refasten.
Within the book, there remains an unseen.

So much grows on the unseen face.
(from From the Small Book of Returns)

…we’d missed into the unseen.
(from Maddox Road)
A bittersweet-like situation of leaving one’s origin to find another place is present. It doesn’t specify whether this place, traveled to by automobile, or by foot, is a better place, just that it remains another place. Hands and fingers, mouths and hallucinogenic berries are all objects handled by Novey. Though at an arm’s length, the taste of berries (“we lick at our fingers”) and a burning book (“the smell still in her hair) are prevalent images which hint at the importance of the past. Is there a sense of hope in the book‘s future?

What Novey is hinting at is that, no, there isn’t a sense of hope until one experiences it oneself. The moment that someone lives in (“My everything as symbol, though probably of nothing new”) and one’s surroundings define the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation begins as strange. The symbol here and an important image in the book is the slipping of one’s hand into another father’s palm,
Where you slipped your hand
Once
Into the palm
Of somebody else’s father.
If there is an elixir in this book, there’s someone else waiting for it, not you. The father here is symbolic. It is representative of a new country. When Novey tackles the fields, this sense of hope becomes alive. The past and present unite in Novey’s words (“For a second, you are everywhere / you have ever been”). A sense of strangeness remains.

Though we end with an image of roaming the fields, the past still remains. There is no burying, doing away with, burning, etc. the past. It is as tangible as a girl’s hair, or as potent as a hallucinogenic berry. As The Next Country whispers its words (“We’ve started now to whisper, strangers still. To settle on meanings, to speak again”) in one of the later poems in the book, At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows, the “speaking again” remains undefined; but it does not remain unseen. There are strange words that have come about and meanings which imply a bitter past. Novey tells it as it is: a history of brokenness and a hope of becoming complete.

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


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Narrow Road to the Interior, Kimiko Hahn, WW Norton

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

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

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

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

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


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The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block, Random House

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

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

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

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

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

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


littlefoot

Littlefoot, Charles Wright, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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

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

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

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

Three New Poets I Met at Bread Loaf by Steve Wingate


The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti, BOA Editions

boatloads

Mission Work, Aaron Baker, Houghton Mifflin

mission-work

Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone, Janice N. Harrington, BOA Editions

even-the-hollow1

A decade ago, I didn’t think twice about taking a day off and hunkering down with a novel. Diaper changes and pre-school pickups have temporarily obliterated such big bouts of reading, but lately poetry has been coming to my rescue. While novels demand large swaths of time, poetry asks for an opposite kind of attention that is perfectly suited to shorter sittings. This August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference I had the pleasure to meet three poets whose prize-winning debut collections—two received the Poulin Prize from BOA Editions, one the Bakeless Prize from Bread Loaf—have saved my reading bacon and created worlds as rich as those I find in novels.

In The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti focuses on rendering moments when his characters become intensely aware of human vulnerability—physical, psychic, and spiritual. A boy watches a squirrel die; a fish gets carried off by a raptor. In Albergotti’s lines, which tend toward the vernacular, there is an implicit questioning of language itself as a tool of human comprehension and expression. “I do not believe a special providence / makes this world say anything,” (24) he writes. And people never seem to be able to get their words out right, as in Bad Language:
We fear to speak, and silence coats the night air.
So we are dumb, as quiet as the kitchen pans
hanging on their cabinet hooks. What words
do we even have? (25)
Such lines bespeak a muteness in the face of our desire to know, and since the desire to know gets so tied up with the Big Questions of Being, it’s no surprise that The Boatloads hovers close to religion. God makes several appearances, and both Jesus and Abraham make cameos; but it is the non-appearance of the divine as in Poem in Which God Does Not Appear that most occupies Albergotti. This non-appearance, often represented as of silence, aligns closely to human difficulties of language and communication.
The music of the spheres may be a great symphony
of unbroken silence: void, more void, a crescendo
of void. (41)

The last song of the one true god
is silent because the one true god
sings in a vacuum behind the thick,
black wall. (73)
One can never accuse Albergotti, with his weaving together of human and divine muteness, of shirking his poetic duty to dig toward the core of life.

The people of Aaron Baker’s Mission Work, meanwhile, find themselves in a far more primordial predicament. The collection is set in the remote Chimbu highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the author spent part of his childhood with missionary parents. In it, language takes a back seat as a tool for understanding life to the objects and movements of the physical world. In Chimbu Wedding, we are thrown into a world where the narrator, too young to make intellectual sense of his world, must rely on what he can sense and imagine:
When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. (3)
For Baker’s characters, understanding the world through the senses is a fundamental condition of life, just as muteness is for Albergotti’s. But this state is not limited to the young man we witness growing up in a place he does not know; the Kuman tribespeople we meet dwell in the same situation as they come to terms with the foreignness that has entered their community. One example of the interplay between cultures comes in Zero in the Branches, which describes a Japanese plane stuck in a tree.
Look: high in the canopy, forty years
since it fell almost to earth, the fuselage
hangs, its Rising Sun a circle of rust. ( 28 )

In a sense, the entire world of Mission Work becomes foreign, since anything its characters see is either alien in its essence or made alien by the presence of another culture. Baker’s use of variety of voices shifts attention away from autobiographical elements and toward his theme: the deep self-questioning that occurs on both sides of the fence whenever cultures interact. Mission Work includes poems in the voice of the Kuman natives, as well as observational poems with more abstracted narrators. Throughout the collection Baker shows people attempting to bride the gap between cultures, though he knows that some bridges cannot be crossed. In Second Genesis, for example, he writes:
We’ll be a single son of this country
when each has killed half of the other. ( 18 )

Janice N. Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone also dwells in place, and it creates its world with an authorial I even more effaced than Baker’s. The place is the American south in the mid-20th century, and before we meet its people we learn, from Harrington’s intense, cadence-driven lines, that we will be reading a poetry that calls out and sings to the world. The propulsive Alexandrine opening couplet of The Thief’s Tabernacle, which begins the collection, marks Harrington as the most rhythmically driven of these three poets:
If I steal the wan light from these penitent clouds
and take from their pewter cups dull coins full of rain (15)
So enmeshed are Harrington’s poems in the voice that we may not immediately realize we are reading a family narrative. We meet people and follow them around for a quarter of the collection before an I tentatively begins to assert itself. Only as we sink into her character do we recognize that we are reading a family history—as well as a social history—which began before her birth. We see “a school bus, / the one they used to carry colored kids / from biscuit to book and back again” (39). In The Warning Comes Down, we learn that:
France is where daddies go,
overseas, in silver-bellied planes, and maybe
they’ll come home again, tomorrow, tomorrow. (57)

The poems grow in scope and depth as the I comes of age, encountering the world and and embracing the forces that shaped her. Things become less innocent, less nurtured by the history of her family and more thrown into the history of her society as we meet “A Negro family going north, one of thousands leaving…” (70), then in Benham’s Disk:
My niece calls and exclaims, Guess what.
Yesterday I was white but now I’m black. (79)
Harrington’s intimate approach to social history—working first and foremost with the things and sounds of her characters’ world—gives Hollow a certain kinship with Mission Work. Toward the end she reminds us, in lines that might have found a home in Baker’s collection, that:
Vision is born of violence. All your memories
are mulattoes. (77)

*

Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at http://www.stevenwingate.com