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


The Development, John Barth, Houghton Mifflin

the-development

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

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

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

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

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.

Drinking, Drugs, Love, Boredom: Nathan Logan on east central indiana by Daniel Bailey


Muncie, Indiana. Population: 65,287. Home of Ball State University and former home of the Ball Corporation (the people who make ball jars). East central Indiana. With the declining economy in the United States, small towns like Muncie, once hubs for manufacturing and industry, have experienced a shift in population. Instead of a base of blue collar workers, Muncie’s population has become supplemented by college students, creating a tension in once what was called “Middletown.” What do those who graduate from such places think about after four years? If twenty-somethings become “stuck” in these towns, how do their lives become defined? Drinking/Drugs. Love. Boredom.

These are things that Daniel Bailey is thinking about in east central indiana, his first e-book forthcoming from bearcreekfeed. The first three poems in the collection all have drug references: i want to smoke meth with you, meth is the mid-western drug, and i want to get drunk with you. Drinking is the cliché for poets, but Bailey is after more than self-indulgence. He doesn’t want to be alone; “i want to raise dinosaurs / from birth to death with you.” His speakers try to seduce others to share in the misery/apathy that he experiences: “you are good weather / you are rain in late august” and “i cannot possibly tell you everything i feel / and that is an amazing feeling.” The “You” is hope; “You” is so close.

Of course, if seduction doesn’t work, escape with another is the next best option in meth is a mid-western drug. Bailey tells us that “what we’ve been looking for is a hole / in which to bury these gators we call our lives.” Starting over, escaping the heaviness of a town that doesn’t have a name. But sometimes escape cannot happen, and boredom takes over, like in the poem “all my good deeds”:
for i am about to eat chuck berry’s heart
and halle berry’s heart
and dave berry’s heart
and burn up like a viking funeral
on a river of ducks

if i could shrink to the size of a pea
i would paint myself green
and write air bud screenplays
The heaviness of being in a small town drives Bailey’s speakers to strangeness, and from that boredom rises sadness: “the flames that touch my face will touch my sadness very soon / and my sadness will grow up with all ten fingers in its mouth.”

Despite these feelings of melancholy, Bailey’s speakers do, by accident or not, find beauty and humor in the situations they find themselves in. In poem for the trying, the speaker notes that, “[his/her] teeth are always little moons orbiting [his/her] tongue.” And in the next poem, we went downtown, that speaker notes that, “we were like a buttgrab at a funeral.” The strangeness of small town life doesn’t end alone in an apartment drinking or doing drugs, but it follows Bailey’s speakers everywhere they go.

east central indiana isn’t just Muncie. It’s Moorhead. It’s Fargo. Miles from the big cities where there’s always something fun to. Bailey’s speakers find solace in temporary escape – getting drunk and thinking about the unanswerable questions in life. Revelation does some for some of these people, as well as a sense of strangeness that can never be quite shaken off. Small towners only need to ask themselves one question to be east central indiana: “what is the cornfield singing tonight?”

*

Nathan Logan is a MFA candidate at Minnesota State University Moorhead and the editor of the online poetry magazine Spooky Boyfriend. Some of his work has appeared in: Literary Tonic, No Posit, Robot Melon, The Scrambler, The Subterranean Quarterly, and Superficial Flesh.

The Ordinary into the Fantastic: Suzanne Ordus on Larissa Szporluk’s Embryos & Idiots


Embryos & Idiots, Larissa Szporluk, Tupelo Press

embryos-and-idiots 

 

Embryos & Idiots, Larissa Szporluk’s fourth book in ten years, creates a myth about the fall of a mythic creature, Anoton. The book’s title comes from Paradise Lost, Book III and refers to those who are immature or without intelligence. Remember, Paradise Lost, Book III deals with the fall of Satan. Here, though, Szporluk seems to be addressing the fall of demons. Her themes are destruction, atonement, evil nature, and relying on others.  Though the book’s title and section markers come from Milton, the work stands on its own making the story readily accessible. Landscape apparently sparked Szporluk’s story more than Milton, when asked in an interview about the story’s inspiration she cited a small mountain, Monte Circeo in Sabaudia, Italy, that according to her “looks like a gigantic head staring up at the sky.” In fact, this gigantic head becomes the main character, Anoton. Anoton falls from grace by betraying his mother. He tells the king his Mother is harboring plant and animal life, a grave offense in the strictly mineral Kingdom of Od, and as a result, his mother is killed. In revenge, Anoton’s Father beheads him and from his severed head an island is formed. 

 

The first section lures readers in by closely following Anoton and his story of the fall. In Boulders, the opening poem, we get a luscious description of the inside of the human body. Anoton knows that his Mother is hiding forbidden insect life:

      He knew she was hiding a bee. He could hear it

      zapping inside her, trapped in the amber

      nook that led to her mineral uterus.

     

      He had been born with that sound,

      the rain of maracas, maraud of a rose, and so lived

      in his mind with a wax city, silver hives

     

      of see-through honey, …

Szporluk’s imagination is vibrant, turning the body into stones and minerals capable of encasing insect life. Her use of the words “zapping” and “trapped” evoke the buzz of a bee in closed quarters snagging readers with her vivid story and ideas. 

 

She steps the mineral aspect up in Pornography, a poem where we truly feel the Mother’s pain summed up brilliantly in one word—pornography—and in one image—her brain in a jar. Here Anoton’s mother’s brain, “in a flask of boric acid,” is on display in the royal courtyard and has “zithered the air/like luciferin, a glowing warning.” In general, titles do not contribute significantly, but here the title is perfect for the poem fully resonating with the Mother’s pain and violation as it perfectly and succinctly describes this act of publicly displaying the brain, an intimate and private organ. The mineral descriptions caustically penetrate both the displayed and the viewer.

 

Anoton’s confession of atonement and remorse to his Mother in Stars and Marrow in a simple and touching way lets readers enter Anoton’s own brain.  He explains to his Mother that:

          There is so much good

          in the worst of us, so much bad

          in the best.  I found succor in the devil

          when the angels cooked my head.

Anoton is acknowledging how unexpected family betrayal is. Surprisingly he tells his Mother that he has suffered like she did. With the poem’s intimate letter style, readers feel privy to Anoton’s confession. While the book’s section one focuses primarily on Anotons story, sections two and three widely crack open Anoton’s myth, so that “everything starts talking,” ranging from the historical to personal. We hear from a mental patient, knight, a seed, God, clowns, Joan of Arc and witches. Szporluk should be applauded for her wide application of Anoton’s story, but it have been nice to have stayed longer in Anoton’s fascinating world and story. In any event, readers will be impressed by how Szporluk accessibly weaves Anoton’s fall through these different characters.   

 

Readers will enjoy traveling to the kingdom of Od and experiencing the wild things that happen there as Szporluk’s language is honed and meaty. Like Anoton’s betrayal, Szporluk also deals with tough moments in life as seen in the last poem, Satan at Length. We glimpse miracles not only in Satan’s mouth, but also in the struggling introspective poet, giving promise of more stellar work to come, when Szporluk says:

          I dream of the seaside,

          of the lone ravine of my own

          dead yawn, like a room

          with nobody else, and I know

          why I’m last in line,

          after the cattle.

This is a poet truly capable of turning the ordinary into the fantastic and carving complete worlds on grains of sand.

After a Certain Point, all I can say is, “You Must Read This”: John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy reviewed by Sumita Chakraborty


divine-comedy

Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography: Three New Works, John Kinsella, WW Norton

 

 

 

A review of John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy could easily consist of four words: you must read this. Or, perhaps two words would suit—words that Kinsella himself uses in a poem in the book, Dream Canto: Cross on the Hill:

Wedged into granite, the cross on Wongborel

is Easter’s singularity—a one-cross Calvary

for ecumenical sublimity, the degrees of observation

 

increased by lessening, quickening trees.

The words I refer to are “ecumenical sublimity”: words that, particularly when joined together in a phrase, describe the volume’s aggregate tone, the way its broad reach and massive goals are realized through Kinsella’s careful attention to detail and painstakingly controlled ecstasies.

 

I have spent the last two months with this book, and have gone through numerous revisions of this review. After the first handful of pages, everything I say with the intent of convincing you to read Divine Comedy becomes a mere reiteration of Kinsella’s own words, for, as a poet-critic, Kinsella has written a book that contains both arts.

 

In argument’s stead, I want to tell you what Kinsella’s volume told me about itself. It is neither a translation nor a rehashing of the Dante: Kinsella calls it “a distraction” on Dante’s texts. Several of Kinsella’s cantos reference Dante’s (not to mention the canticles and the overall project themselves), and while, as the poet writes, his book is not written in terza rima, it is largely comprised of tercets and remains generally faithful to Dante’s structure. But Kinsella’s Divine Comedy is “not necessarily confined” to its namesake: as the poet writes, it is meant to be “paralleled with and read against” the Dante.

 

With, and against. Each canticle is preceded by a preface, in which the poet details the origins, the method, and some of the labor behind his work, including both the theoretical and the nitty-gritty. In the preface to his Purgatorio—which is where we begin, for Kinsella does not travel in Dante’s order—Kinsella writes that he believes we permanently reside in a state of purgatory. In a manner analogous, but far from identical, to the way Dante follows Virgil through hell and purgatory and then follows Beatrice to heaven, we follow Kinsella through Purgatorio, then to Paradiso, and last to Inferno.        

 

In Purgatorio, Kinsella deals with how tethered and linked we are to the land, and we start to notice the significance of the many birds—creatures that deal in both sky and earth—that appear in the volume. In Paradiso, he presents a driven attempt to achieve some form of sublime ecstasy, while complicating that attempt with a straightforward admission: “Celestial bliss is not an option: we’ve got responsibilities to the land,” he writes. An effort to struggle toward paradise leads Kinsella and his speakers toward hell, a movement that is also complicated by yet another admission when he writes, “I do not like Dante’s Inferno.” He continues:

I do not like his judgments nor punishments. Its grotesqueries are not adequately deconstructive in terms of the self, and Virgil seems too relieved that this, at least, is not his lot. It’s a smug work. For me, hell is what we live with, and each of these grotesqueries, as maybe Dante would agree, lives with us here and now.

 

Kinsella’s book emerges as the embodiment of a struggle to exist on a day-to-day basis, nestled in purgatory along with hell, our minds fixed on paradise. Marjorie Perloff writes that the volume “marks no ascent from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso.” Yet, Kinsella’s book does have a motion. Entrenched in land, it wavers between skies and depths; while not an ascent, it is certainly not still. It is more of a fraught trembling: a poet’s response to string theory.

 

It is no surprise that Kinsella calls upon Derrida. A poem in Inferno names and deals with Derrida and Dante in tandem, and Derrida’s “différance” is mentioned in Purgatorio. Différance emerges in the poem Dream Canto: Torch Bearing:

I am out and about in a clear but dark night,

torch in hand, shining into the tree-tops;

beam weak enough not to alarm

 

roosting birds too much—I am seeking

out the epistemological ambiguity of owls

and tawny frogmouths, as if différance

 

were my own words fragmented as flashes

and twinges of branches, leaves, claws, feathers.

In Divine Comedy, Kinsella’s “own words,” his speakers’ words, actively play with différance, with the verbs to defer and to differ, with “epistemological ambiguity.” More still, Kinsella demonstrates that he is aware, as Derrida was, of the disturbance that words cause: he knows that he will inevitably “alarm” the “roosting birds,” so he tries instead not to rustle them “too much.”

 

One of Divine Comedy’s most astonishing feats is its utter lack of pretension. It is self-conscious in the best sense of the word: it does not gesture frantically at his own theoretical, historical, and canonical foundation. Its verse is graceful. Its poems do not groan under their weight. It does not strain to sound intelligent. The book simply is intelligent. Further, the self-analytical work that the poet performs in the prefaces enhances the volume, adding an additional layer of artistry. And, simultaneously, Kinsella keeps a sharp eye to culture: The Kinks’ song “Lola” makes an appearance, as do Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Neither of these moves—or the many similar ones, for that matter—feel contrived: Kinsella on Derrida is as matter-of-factly elegant as Kinsella on pop culture. Cantos of “weirdos,” “heebie-jeebies,” “velintroquizing,” and “antipodean emergence ” share equal prominence, with ease.

 

One moment in Divine Comedy strikes me as weak. The poem Canto of Ghosts: The Indolent in Purgatorio begins with the clause, “Ghosts fuck with my head / like clichés,” and I find myself seeking some different opening remark. It is not the expletive that bothers me, for this is not the only time an expletive appears in Divine Comedy—see the Canto of Shit (Eighth circle, second bolgia, 18) in Inferno—but rather its position in this particular poem. The word “fuck” is caustic, a jolt of acid, and I wonder whether it may have been more effective if it were placed later in the poem, where it would have startled the reader out of any possible complacency. Instead, Kinsella warns me that I am about to be jarred, and in doing so, dampens the effect of the word.

 

I am beginning to reach that point in this review where there is very little else to say. Kinsella has not only given us a spectacular book of poetry, but also a solid critical work. I could tell you about how Kinsella inhabited a small sliver of Australia during the creation of Divine Comedy, and about the impact he says this had on his book. I could tell you that Kinsella includes more than one dedication to his wife, who he mentions in several poems as well, and that he seems to contemplate her relationship to Dante’s Beatrice. I could tell you what I think about the fact that while the last word in each of the sections of Dante’s Divine Comedy is “stars,” Kinsella ends his Purgatorio with “stars,” his Paradiso with “future,” and his Inferno with “inseparable.”

 

Instead, having given you a selection of a poem from Kinsella’s Purgatorio, I will leave you now with two selections from two other poems, one from his Paradiso, one from his Inferno, selections that are among my favorite moments in each. From Canto of the Consensus (22: Ascent from Saturn to the Fixed Stars), in Paradiso, beginning in the first stanza:

Recall: light of day, our limelight,

no peace or armistice, just difference.

Branch and hessian fortress,

 

clods of clay thrown

without mercy. No prisoners.

War comics, tales of the Apache

 

in landscape bare as the eye

can make, fearless. Victors. Unread,

they fell at our feet.

And, from of Echoing Canto of the Gleaners (Sixth Circle), in Inferno, beginning in the penultimate stanza:

. . . . Fanning

out, gleaning elsewhere in the stubble, galahs

and corellas protract windrows: they

 

don’t walk paths laid out for harvest, picking

wherever chaos has showered grain, gleaning

against the system, which would pick every ear

clean if it were perfected.

 

*

 

Sumita Chakraborty is the assistant poetry editor of AGNI Magazine and a graduate of Wellesley College. She writes poems and critical essays, and has worked with Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Bidart, and Dan Chiasson. Her poems have recently been published in or are forthcoming from BOXCAR Poetry Review, White Whale Review, and Muddy River Poetry Review.

A Sad-Sack Story: Jason Pettus reviews Jack O’Connell’s novel The Resurrectionist


resurrectionist1

The Resurrectionist, Jack O’Connell, Algonquin Books

 

I have been a twenty-year fan and student of the related 20th-century art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, since first getting exposed to them as an undergraduate in the ’80s. In fact, these art movements are the closest I arguably come to being legitimately “scholarly” on any topic in terms of the amount of knowledge I have about the movements. One of the things I’ve learned through such study is that these days what the general culture thinks of as ‘surrealist’ is a far cry from how the original Surrealists defined it and themselves. When these original cutting-edge artists of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s (the ones being equally defined by the new fields of Modernism and Freudian psychoanalysis) declared that they were trying to “capture the essence of a dream” in their artistic work, they actually meant that they were trying to capture the elusive pattern and rhythm of a dream itself—that simultaneous logic/illogic within dream we so easily accept, but is so hard to accept when conscious. As the decades have progressed with early-Modernism turning into late-Modernism, Pop Art, and, finally, Postmodernism, the entire concept of Surrealism has been co-opted by the advertising industry and Hollywood to now mostly mean, “Hey, look! Weird shit!”

 

What this means, then, is that there’s actually two kinds of Surrealism out now with discerning fans being able to tell the difference immediately. There is the pure, old-school Surrealism of the original movement, embodied by contemporary authors like Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell who construct elaborate experiments in actually reproducing the logic and emotions of a dream-like state. Then there is the cartoonish, Hollywoodized version of Surrealism, where an author simply writes about strange crap hoping that the distraction of the crap itself will hide the fact that there’s nothing really compelling behind it. Which of these, I hear you asking, best describes the book under review today, the 2008 cult hit and so-called contemporary Surrealist tale The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense anymore—it’s the second. The second, oh Lord it’s the second, an infinitely frustrating collection of random, unexplained, weird horseshit whipped at the reader’s face at breakneck speed with none of it making any sense and none of it connecting to the other weird, random parts. O’Connell’s novel is basically the equivalent of handing a person a box full of Christmas ornaments and yelling, “Shake it! It’s pretty! Shake it! It’s pretty!” And so it may be, but such a fact certainly doesn’t make it good literature nor does it make it an accurate reflection of what a dream is actually like. And that’s the difference between someone like O’Connell and an actual Surrealist, O’Connell ultimately hopes that you’ll be distracted by the shiny ornaments being shaken about and not notice that there’s no actual tree.

 

In fact, O’Connell starts throwing out the random crap early and quick in The Resurrectionist; it is the story of sad-sack pharmacist Sweeney, caretaker of a son named Danny who is in a persistent coma, through an accident he still silently blames on his ex-wife. His life a shambles, dealing unsuccessfully with anger issues, Sweeney has been lured to a little town called Quinsigamond in order to work for the mysterious private Peck Clinic, mostly as a way of getting his son accepted into their secretive yet widely admired coma-care program. But see, right here is where O’Connell already starts going wrong with this story by making even the details of the clinic itself inconsistent. Although our story is set in the modern world, for some reason the nurses all have old-fashioned ’50s uniforms out there at the forbidding Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere that serves as the clinic’s campus. Plus, for this being a bizarre, private, family-funded organization that doesn’t share its results or even have a clear mission, the entire rest of the contemporary medical community seems to be big fans. This is what took Sweeney out there in the first place, after all, having his boring ol’ “real-world” doctors in Ohio recommend the clinic to him, despite the clinic itself literally being like something ripped out of an old Frankenstein movie.

 

Now, fans will say that this is exactly how it should be, that The Resurrectionist is supposed to be filled with weird crap that makes no sense because that’s what Surrealism is; but that’s not what Surrealism is. Actual Surrealism is supposed to make sense, just the kind of twisted, illogical sense that we can only accept while in a dream state. The details of the environment are supposed to actually relate to each other within a Surrealist tale, not just exist in their own hermetically weird states alongside all the other bizarre details. O’Connell’s book feels, especially the further you get into it, like he has simply written down a bunch of random stuff that popped into his head and sounded “weird” to him, without bothering to relate any of it to each other or even adhere to the most basic precepts of those concepts.

 

One of the running ideas in The Ressurectionist is that Danny had been a big fan of this giant children’s media empire called “Limbo,” consisting of a hit TV show, action figures, merchandise and a long-running comic book. O’Connell even includes a number of issues of the comic in the actual manuscript of the book; but why call it a comic, I wonder, when they’re actually fully narrative short stories? What hit children’s TV show in the 2000s is possibly going to be about a group of eastern European circus freaks in the 1920s wandering aimlessly through a fictional foreign land named after the Yiddish word for Hell, living a bleak and torture-filled life and spouting existentialist dialogue more appropriate for a Beckett play than any Japanimation children’s show in existence?

 

Sure, it’s weird and random, I’ll give you that; but if all I want is weird and random, I can sit at home flipping through television channels watching two seconds at a time of each for two or three hours in a row. Like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is weird and random; and like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is not nearly what I’d call an entertaining artistic experience. What I want from a Surrealist project is a world that almost makes complete sense, but with just a whiff of strangeness around its corners, a fleeting glimpse of something moving just on the edge of my vision. What I want from a Surrealist project is something that makes me feel the way I do when I’m actually dreaming, a moment for example where a friend flaps his arms in the middle of a conversation and flies away, and I don’t even think twice about it; what I don’t want is a collection of random details that all draw undue attention to themselves, each of them standing in the corner of the room and waving their arms and screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! I’M WEIRD!” And unfortunately, that’s mostly what The Resurrectionist consists of, with certainly there not being a compelling story holding it all together, nor compelling characters, nor even a consistent personal style.

 

In fact, here’s the simple insulting truth of the matter—by the time I had reached the end, I cared about the story and was invested in the characters so little that I didn’t even bother reading the last ten pages. I could no longer even follow whatever the hell was going on with the castle and the devil and the chicken-boy or whatever the fuck it all was. This is that’s a terrible, terrible thing to say about a novel—that after reading 300 pages of it, you didn’t care enough to bother with what’s supposed to be the most important ten pages of all. And this says more about this book than probably anything else I might be tempted to write.

 

*

This review first appeared at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com).

Kinetic Poetry: Erin Mullikin on Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon


whim-cover

 

Whim Man Mammon, Abraham Smith, Action Books

 

 

Whether you do this before, after, or while reading Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon, I ask you to do one thing: listen. Listen to Smith read his words for the sound is musical (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20366). It simultaneously calls to mind Gillian Welch’s Hell Among the Yearlings (“Carol, remember when,”) and the disjointed lyricism of Tom McRae’s self-titled album (“Every little meth”). Smith’s debut book of poetry is a hymn not to be soon forgotten reverberating with voice, words, rhythms, and feeling. Mostly importantly, the Whim Man Mammon poems are stories, histories, and legends, whose malleability allows them to become so much more. 

 

I finished Smith’s book in one night, pausing only to re-up on cold beer or to smoke a menthol cigarette; I needed cold fuel for the reading.  Whim Man Mammon is a journey where you feel (un)safe in a blanket of sound. I had to listen for Smith’s poems incorporate sound as power:

for rights

to the sweet talker’s scent

me and this hawk knock around

time runs out when I think of

basketball I think of sweat

bong times run

out

 

hawk does not (Honey Hawks Knocks Gin Drinks Against Me)

While Smith does not employ traditional form, he does make use of assonance and alliteration, time-honored sound devices that assist the pace of his work. It is pace that is one of the most crucial aspects of Whim Man Mammon for it is a collection that talks, talks loudly and talks back. Smith creates his own language as Whim Man Mammon overflows with bizarre lines and images, such as, though not limited to, “spanish your vein” (18), “to the hill monster” (21), and “I shall shell-weave you” (47). Within the strange boundaries of these pages, the reader begins to speak in this tongue. It grows and it grows on you. While Smith isn’t breaking any new ground form wise, he is exacerbating those fields already tilled by previous poets. Smith’s absence of conventional form, lack of punctuation, and erratic capitalization echo the strains of e. e. cummings (Xiape), who also bucked the school of formalism. Writers with startling ethos most often employ this rite of passage; however, Smith breaks boundaries well in his debut. 

 

Significance rises up throughout Smith’s collection, but the title of the book holds an essential key in understanding the harmonious reflections as a whole. Having Whim Man Mammon as the title of the collection is quite suggestive. Perhaps the strategic word in the title, ‘mammon,’ will conjure two references, one Biblical and one literary though based on the Biblical. “Mammon” in the New Testament simply means “money” and leads to the more significant allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Milton’s epic, Mammon is the fallen angel who advocates hard work to make Hell more Heaven-like refusing to serve God ever again. Out of all the demons mentioned in Paradise Lost, Mammon seems to be the one most closely related to the common man. It is this connection that speaks most volubly of Smith’s work. Smith’s poems resound with the life of the common man, and they do so without the effort of hesitation.  To read Smith’s work is to transform yourself temporarily into many men: a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s, a farmer, a meth addict. This, too, highlights the malleability of Smith’s poetry. These polarities of the everyday bring life out of the Wisconsin dust in Whim Man Mammon. Milton’s demonology only fuels that resurrection, and while the uprising is beautifully mastered, it is a revival that dodders on the precipice of noise.

 

If Smith’s book lacks anything, it is clarity.  Whim Man Mammon is text art, a combine of postmodern fragments with the symmetry of sound bytes. There are moments where one feels unsure of what is happening within a poem or what is happening to yourself as you read. There is some incoherency in, “Yes the / bless the / train eyeballs designed from / glass might be on them and the socket / is rude if exposed so hurry them man / if you will to / japan by way the second fat fish hollow roll” (Smith 36). While this is only an excerpt of the poem, when read in its entirety, I still feel lost and unable to get my bearings. I can deconstruct the said excerpt, say that I believe Smith is referring to the bright headlights of a train, but that is where understanding and coherency ceases for me. Even without a proper understanding of the meaning behind it all, there is always the sound, and the sound is what propels Smith’s collection. So, with sound that moves as Whim Man Mammon does, who needs clarity anyway? You do not have to comprehend fully each line, each fragment to enjoy the work. Truly to dive into Smith’s symphony, you must hear him read or you must read his works aloud. The sounds that drive this collection are, indeed, raw, surprising, and ultimately unforgettable.

 

It’s appropriate that Action Books published Whim Man Mammon for Smith’s poems are movement. The poems housed in his debut are kinetic:  they are created from energy, and in turn expel energy. To see Abraham Smith read his poetry is to watch a man on fire for the word. His tiny frame shakes and his boots stomp out the rhythm of his past and man’s collective past. When the honey hawks knock him, he’ll knock you by setting words to the natural pulse of beating wings. What Smith provides is a balance, a give and take, and this equilibrium mirrors life on its most fundamental plane: the accuracy of time, the beat of the heart, and the power of breath.

A Dark Time in the Delta: Jayne Pupek reviews Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound


mudbound

 

Mudbound, Hillary Jordan, Algonquin Books

 

Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning debut novel, Mudbound, is a compelling and disturbing portrayal of life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and the bitter racial divide that marked this period of our history. Jordan’s story is convincingly told from the alternating viewpoints of her characters: the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family.

 

Memphis-born Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm–a place she nicknames Mudbound because of the constant muck that covers everything. With no running water, inside bathroom, or electricity, this is not the life Laura knew or expected. She tries to makes the best of her situation, a task that becomes more difficult when her calloused and bigoted father-in law comes to live with them.

 

The Jacksons, the black sharecropping family who live and work on the McAllan’s land, struggle to make ends meet. Hap farms the land while his wife Florence works as Laura’s maid. When Hap ends up bedridden, the family’s struggle intensifies.

 

While the McAllans and Jacksons face hardships, they maintain a precarious but peaceful coexistence until Henry McAllan’s younger brother Jamie, and Ronsel, the Jackson’s oldest son, return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, possesses qualities her husband lacks. He is handsome, daring, and charming. He is also haunted by memories of combat and drinks excessively to chase away his demons. Ronsel Jackson returns a war hero, but his brave defense of his country does nothing to change how he is viewed in the Jim Crow South. When he dares to exit a store though the front door reserved for whites, the anger of the locals remind him little has changed in the Mississippi Delta. Ronsel reflects:

I never thought I’d miss it so much. I don’t mean Nazi Germany, you’d have to be crazy to miss a place like that. I mean who I was when I was over there. There I was a liberator, a hero. In Mississippi I was just another nigger pushing a plow. And the longer I stayed, the longer that’s all I was.

Ronsel and Jamie embark on an unlikely friendship that continues despite warnings and objections not only from their families, but also from other townsfolk who disapprove of their bond. The novel accelerates in a breathtaking pace toward a conclusion that is both horrifying and unforgettable.

 

One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the skill with which Jordan reveals her characters through six alternating voices. This technique allows the reader to see characters as not only they appear to themselves, but also as they appear to the other characters who narrate the story. The result is a more dimensional view of each individual. Laura, for example, sees Pappy’s overt racism, but she would not describe herself in those same terms. It is only when we witness Laura through Florence’s eyes that we see Laura’s more subtle acts of racism.

 

If I have any complaint at all, it is that the characters tend to be too clearly divided between heroes and villains. Pappy, for instance, is a bigoted and hateful man who shows kindness to no one. While his complete lack of any goodness makes it easy for the reader to cheer his ultimate demise, I think it is perhaps too easy. I find characters at their most compelling and authentic when they possess some balance of good and bad traits.

 

It is little surprise that Mudbound was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. Jordan has employed the finest storytelling skills to illuminate a dark and shameful part of our history. Mudbound is a stellar accomplishment by a gifted new novelist.

 

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Jayne Pupek is the author of the recently released novel, Tomato Girl (Algonquin Books), and a book of poems titled Forms of Intercession (Mayapple Press). She resides near Richmond, Virginia.

 

Compelling Clarity of Insight: John Domini on DeWitt Henry’s Safe Suicide


Safe Suicide, DeWitt Henry, Red Hen Press

safe-suicide 

 

It’s called creative non-fiction, and these days there’s just no stopping it. More and more commercial publishing depends on the memoir, ostensibly non-fiction and most, at least, remain reasonably true to the facts. Meanwhile, at universities all over the country a fledgling writer can earn multiple degrees in the genre, though it seems just recently hatched. Truman Capote could claim to have invented the approach in 1965 when he published his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood.  Another originator could be Tom Wolfe with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 or when Norman Mailer bulled onto the scene with The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both also ’68). All fine work, no denying, and all apply the intimacy, subtlety, and significant shape of a made-up story to a real one. They take the moil of experience and recompose it with a beginning, middle, and end; they excavate character, establish metaphors, and identify watersheds.  

 

DeWitt Henry in his new collection of “narratives, essays, and meditations”—the subtitle for his quiet yet stinging Safe Suicide—doesn’t take his subjects from the headlines, as Capote did with his Kansas murders or Wolfe with the Merry Pranksters (Mailer, typically, leapt up on to some of the biggest stages in the nation). Rather, Henry works with the sort of materials that engage your average MFA-candidate namely, the tensions, changes, and illuminations that occur around a largely unremarkable family and home. His opening piece bears the humble title Memoir of My Father, and its subject is an absence, a deed never witnessed:

Also, as far back as I can remember Dad, there was the oddness — long before I had any explanation for it — and tension that he couldn’t drink anything alcoholic, even desserts that had a mint liqueur, but that on special occasions Mom, and then later my brothers, could. Out for dinner or at another grownups’ party, there would be, when he was offered cocktails or whatever, a stiffened refusal, almost angry, and right there, a sense of odd and shameful difference….(1)

As the child grows, he picks up details of his father’s struggle with alcohol, over and done with before little DeWitt was old enough to notice. Still, throughout, the essay emphasizes impressions like that “stiffened refusal” and its effect.  “Memoir” ends with a close description of the father’s sleeping face, in a later photo.

 

In that photo, Henry detects memento mori: “The mouth is darkly gaping, slack.” (6) The essay concludes with the chilling touch of the nullity his father sought in booze, rather than the noisy business of how he acted out his self-destructive impulses. There’s no Million Little Pieces here, no broken crockery or broken bones—which makes a reader trust this writer a lot more than anyone should ever have trusted James Frey. To put the point another way, Safe Suicide offers creative non-fiction in the classic vein, the kind sometimes still called “the personal essay.” Such work tends to be less flashy than the examples I’ve cited. In sensitive hands like Henry’s, however, it allows for compelling intensity and clarifying insight.  

 

With this aim in mind, Henry’s best essays are those with a smaller scope. A few concern his childhood in and around Philadephia, and a number of others grow out of his Boston-based adult life as a writer (he has an award-winning novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts) and editor (he was the founder and longtime director of Ploughshares).  For instance Odd, a reminiscence of pre-teen days, smartly inverts the coming-of-age meditation, since the emphasis is never on the young storyteller but rather on a local celebrity, a retired boxer. Via this swaggering, damaged man, there dawns the awareness of how the years demand their pound after pound of flesh. 

 

Another essay, Bungee, presents a success of a very different sort and provides the title phrase, “We live and trust in our safe suicides.” (73) Henry’s own first bungee jump came when he was an adult, esteemed as an editor, author, and prof, not to mention a husband and father deep into middle age. Thus, his take on this more-than-half-crazy form of recreation allows room for the full range of his learning and experience. The essay’s no ordinary recollection, but rather constructed in a series of blackout-brief thoughts, and these range from a fire-and-brimstone passage of the late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards (the famous warning that God dangles our souls “much as one holds… some loathsome insect over the fire”) to a businesslike self-assurance that, should something happen to him, his wife and children would be taken care of.  The whole comes together wittily and movingly by essay’s end as its final musing pivots around that key oxymoron. 

 

A number of Henry’s best meditations are similarly laid out like prose mosaics in which the final piece has the stuff of poetry. Gravity skillfully juggles memory, scholarship, and dream looping back and forth across the subject of evanescence, and in the end this becomes a potent fragmentary metaphor for literary art: “The yearning of these words, tethered to their vanishing.” (81) So too, Beautiful Flower ascends from thoughts of self-immolation in particular the Buddhist monks who set themselves afire to protest the Vietnam war to a remarkable affirmation of faith. So too, Arias sings a penny-pincher’s ode to love, and Returnables takes dumpster-divers as avatars of the imagination.

 

If the lovely phrase “quiet fire” weren’t forever linked to early-‘60s Miles Davis (I believe Bob Dylan in the poems on the back of The Times They Are A-Changin’, was the first to describe Davis that way), it would serve well for Henry at his finest. With restraint, he reduces his materials to their core heat and illumination.  The weaker essays here emphasize political struggles over lyric association. The re-hash of in-house squabbles at Ploughshares, for instance, seem to me notable mostly for their honesty. I wish all literary magazines were so forthcoming about money (I should mention, too, that I knew DeWitt Henry slightly in the mid-‘70s serving as a low-level editor for at least one issue of the magazine, but he and I lost touch when I left Boston). 

 

By and large, however, Safe Suicide stands as a example of why creative non-fiction currently takes up such space on our bookshelves. It calls to mind the marvelous anthology The Art of the Personal Essay assembled by Philip Lopate.  Himself a sharp-eyed non-fiction writer, Lopate demonstrates by his choices that such work had a distinguished roster of practitioners long before Capote et al made their noisy, albeit splendid, contributions. Art of the Personal Essay reaches back as far as Seneca including such essential figures as Montaigne, Thoreau, Woolf, and many more. To me it seems like suicide, quite unsafe, to suggest that one or two of Henry’s exercises haven’t earned a place among that number.

 

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John Domini’s current novel is A Tomb on the Periphery.  In 2009 he’ll publish a selection of his essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb. See www.johndomini.com.

Modest Poems that Pack a Punch: Anne Whitehouse on Rochelle Ratner’s Ben Casey Days


Ben Casey Days, Rochelle Ratner, Marsh Hawk Press

ben-casey-days 

 

The presiding genius of Ben Casey Days, Rochelle Ratner’s collection of prose poems published posthumously by Marsh Hawk Press, is the eponymous hero of the 1960s television series, an heroic doctor with leonine good looks, played by Vince Edwards, who saved the lives of desperate people with regularity. In Ratner’s blackly humorous reformulations, Ben Casey is reduced to a fetish-like Ken doll dressed as the television character, whom the author wins at auction on eBay, and who becomes conflated in her mind with her husband and tender caregiver, whose actual name is Ken and to whom the book is dedicated.

She also bids on a Ken doll in a Ben Casey doctor suit (made in Hong Kong and still shrink-wrapped). Four days, seven hours left before she wins. She increases her bid. She needs Ken not Ben tonight. And he’ll stay home with her tomorrow. Ken. Ben. Ken. Ben. Then.

That final “then,” with heartbreaking sadness, speaks to us beyond the grave. There is no hope for this patient.

 

The five sections of Ben Casey Days correspond to the headers of the actual television series, once intoned with portentous gravity at the beginning of each episode: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity. In the individual prose poems of each series, Ratner achieves a surrealistic sensibility, in which objects—physical, sexual, material—take on totemic significance. Patients are allowed no modesty. To doctors, patients become their illnesses. Their bodies are objectified in a very real sense. And yet, through it all—as these poems assert—the flicker of self remains. These poems give voice to the damaged and injured in body, mind, and spirit and at the same time take on our political culture and our contemporary policies of waging war and peace. For example, Incentives,

1. Right out of school, can’t get a job, and now the Army’s offering $20,000 just to ship out quickly. Well, it’s working—nearly 4,000 recruits in just three weeks. Except he and his friends go out drinking. His vision’s too blurry for the fine print. First comes basic training, then comes more training, then comes $10,000. The rest is doled out over time. Get killed and it stops right there. Lose an arm or leg and forfeit twenty percent. Fingers and toes barely matter. If the head is lost, the remaining bonus is forfeited. Here is a soldier no longer fit to serve.

2.No one defines what losing your head means. 

 

These poems have a fearful intensity and embrace a span of humanity. Many of their details will ring true to anyone who has ever been a patient, as in this vision of death experienced by Woman Left in CT Scanner for Hours after Clinic Closes:

Don’t move, they told her, weighing her down with a heavy blanket, strapping her arms in, locking the machine. Or maybe just closing it. She loses track of time in the dark. There doesn’t seem to be anyone out there. Twenty-five minutes, they said. Bone cancer. Pain. Metastatic. And those were the last words she remembers hearing. It seems like hours ago now. She’s starting to fear the dark. Nobody told her she could go home. Ever.

These modest poems pack a big punch. They live up to their large themes.

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Anne Whitehouse’s reviews have appeared in major newspapers throughout the country. Her novel, FALL LOVE, can now be downloaded free of charge from Feedbooks: http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/1900

Her poems have recently appeared in Brink Magazine (www.brinklit.com, Soul Fountain, Amarillo Bay (www.amarillobay.com), Earth’s Daughters, Poems Niederngasse (www.niederngasse.com), and 2 River (www.2river.org).  Please see her website http://www.annewhitehouse.com.