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

The Great 2014 Indie Press Preview | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature


A utterly brilliant list of new and upcoming books by some of the smartest writers and critics working right now, so check it out: The Great 2014 Indie Press Preview | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature.

GRL will accept reviews of any and all of the books on this list

Gently Read Literature, Winter 2014


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

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

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

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

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

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey at

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St.

Lawrence, KS 66044

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

Contents

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

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

10—Amy Pence on reading On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson

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

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

18—Parth Vasa reviews Kirby Gann’s novel Ghosting

21—David Appelbaum on Bill Yarrow’s Pointed Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43—David Berridge reviews the anthology Homage to Etal Adnan

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

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

59—Sally Deskins on Kristina Marie Darling’s VOW

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

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

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

68—Jonterri Gadson reviews allegiance by francine j. harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013


GENTLY READ LITERATURE, Fall 2013

GENTLY READ LITERATURE, Fall 2013

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

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

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

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St.

Lawrence, KS 66044

Contents

(Critic, Author, Work)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

78—Cory Johnston: Forms of Detachment in Holocaust Literature

Gently Read Literature, 2013 Spring Issue


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

Take a look at the contents–

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Special Feature Essay on the AWP Conference Boston

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

Reviews & Essays

Taste and See: Michelle Ovalle Reviews Tropicalia by Emma Trelles

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sestina and Ardor: An Essay by Marilyn Krysl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

If this sounds like a good line up to you, you should probably subscribe. A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF.

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

or mail a check payable to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Gently Read Literature, 2013 Winter Issue


Well, it’s here in time for the new year–the first subscription-based issue of Gently Read Literature. GRL’s 2013 Winter Issue is packed with quality, in-depth reviews and essays.

 Subscribe & get your copy today! A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF. Via PayPal ( https://www.paypal.com/webapps/mpp/make-online-payments ) to the email address gentlyreadlit@ymail.com rr mail a check payble to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Table of Contents

Sigh Eternally: CL Bledsoe on Adam Clay’s poetry collection “A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World”

A Beginning For an Author Who Obviously Isn’t a Beginner: David Atkinson on Molly Ringwald’s novel “When It Happens To You”

Cycles of Time, Notes to a Tune: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s poetry collection “Prelude to Air from Water”

The Horse Doesn’t Always Flow: Nicole Contreras on Leslie Scalapino’s hybrid work “Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows”

Muddled & Luscious Residue: Todd McCarty on Ryan Teitman’s poetry collection “Litany for the City”

Ne’er-Do-Wells Who Plunder: CL Bledsoe on Dan Boehl’s poetry collection “Kings of the Fucking Sea”

Wild Prospecting: CL Bledsoe on Daniel Pyne’s novel “A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar”

More Language, More Linkages, More Minds, More Memes: Paula Koneazny on Laura Solomon’s poetry collection “The Hermit”

Kurt Brown’s The Pictorial Impulse: The Poem as Camera and Brush

Tom Bradley’s Foreword to the New Edition of My Hands Were Clean

The Friendly Highbrow: Heather Lang on Matthew Zapruder’s poetry collection “Come On All You Ghosts”

The Lyric Mode: Christopher Schaeffer on Dorothy Lasky’s poetry collection “Thunderbird”

Don’t Doubt Language: Jennifer Jean on Elain Equi’s poetry collection “Click & Clone”

The Transvaluated Body: Gary Sloboda on Christian Hawkey poetry collection “Citizen Of”

The Perfect and The Imperfect: Glenda Burgess on Gretchen Henderson’s novel “The House Enters the Street”

Smashing the Masks: Michelle Ovalle on Amal al-Jabouri’s “Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation”

Fluid Ease: Ann E. Michael on Elaine Terranova’s poetry collection “Dames Rocket”

What is Polish Poetry Like Today?: Mike Walker on Jacek Gutorow’s poetry collection “The Folding Star”

Deep Family in the High North: Kirsten Sworts on Melinda Moustakis’s short story collection “Bear Down Bear North”

Longing: Sara Habein on Kirsten Scott’s novel “Motherlunge”

Rural Gothic Literature: Casey Pycior on Jon Boilard’s novel “A River Closely Watched”

Flouting the Rules: Garry Craig Powell on Tom Williams’s novella “The Mimic’s Own Voice”

A Reckoning on the River:  Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Water and Abandon”

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


Greetings from Gently Read Literature,

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Or

Mail a check to

Daniel Casey

20698 Drake Ct

Rogers, MN 55374

 

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

 

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

Thank You for Your Support

Daniel Casey, Founding Editor

 

 

 

Take a look at our past issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tales from Dayrut by Mohamed Mustagab001

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

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

  1. The Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Desert and the Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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


light boxes

Light Boxes, Shane Jones, Publishing Genius Press

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Fiction: Gary Charles Wilkens on the anthology American Hybrid


american hybrid

American Hybrid, ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John, WW Norton

Poets have always been fiction writers. I don’t mean those of us who are also novelists. I mean the stories that poets have told themselves about their art itself, at least since Plato, to allow them to get a handle on its slipperiness and make it their own. With entries from Philip Sidney and William Wordsworth, the process of course kicked into high gear in the early twentieth century with Modernism’s open attempt to redefine what “poetry” meant, and all the counter-redefinitions in the hundred years since. Like music, poetry saw a flourishing of styles in the just-finished century, such that it made sense to ask someone what “type” they liked. Formal or free? Raw or cooked? New Formal or Language? A thousand forks were introduced to the pie, a process that Cole Swensen and David St.John try to stuff into a new poetic self-fiction in the latest anthology from Norton, American Hybrid.

In the first of two introductions, one by each editor, Swensen presents the rationale for yet another anthology of contemporary poetry thusly: the two-camp model of American poetry, whether the camps are presented as formal vs. free, traditional vs. Modern, Mainstream vs. Radical, New Formal vs. Language, is no longer valid, because “the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of pervious ‘camps’”. American poetry today is a “thriving center of alterity,” and today’s poets “often take aspects from two or more (traditions) to create poetry that is truly post-modern in that it’s unpredictable and unprecedented mix.” This is anthology introduction speak meaning that contemporary poets pick and choose from the smorgasbord of styles history gives them, and by and large do whatever they want, with little allegiance to ideologies or schools. A poet might combine a narrative thread with verbal experimentation. Or she could mix fragmentation with the rules of a villanelle. Or insert rhyme into open form. Hybrid poems blend the expressive potential of language-as-language with the potential of language to express recognizable human emotion. According to St. John’s introduction, we “are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the ‘poetic school’ is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by.” Thus, with a boom and a crash worthy of any Modernist manifesto, the editors announce the birth of a healthy, squalling Third Way in American poetry.

The irony of this is two-fold: immediately after labeling the new poetry uncategorizable, they proceed to categorize it, to define features that, like the features of countless revolutions before it, are sure to set into concrete. You can see it now: pick-and-choose-and-combine as a formal expectation, as critical rubric, as a bludgeon to beat down the new. By recognizing the style, they begin its slow strangulation: think of what had happened to Modernist fragmentation by the 30s. Secondly, and perhaps in keeping with the book’s emphasis on creativity coming from contradiction, this new way is nothing but a seemingly random and idiosyncratic mixing of old ways. To blend schools and ideologies is to recognize those schools and ideologies in the first place. In other words, hybridization is too slip-shod to call a way, or a movement or a style, it is simply the numerical collection of isolated writers plugging away at doing what they want. There is, paradoxically, no style to set. It’s very Zen: the School of No School. It’s very PC: “ It seems therefore antithetical to both the project and spirit of this anthology to suggest that one poet’s way or understanding of hybridization can be judged as ‘better” or ‘more important’ than any other.” If that is the case, have the editors done anything more than collect those poets writing now that they happen to like? Is there any evidence in the poetry here collected that “hybridization” actually mixes styles? Is the result any good?

The answers are sort of, kinda, and it’s hit and miss. Arranged alphabetically and given short and informative bios, the 70-plus poets here collected are indeed a diverse bunch. Perhaps surprisingly, the first poet to stand out as fresh and interesting is Rae Armantrout, usually counted as firmly Langpo in orientation. If you are surprised to learn that a well-established poet like Armantrout is in an anthology about a new wave in verse, you should know that the editors have decided to include only poets with at least three books under their belts. One might think any new way would be the product of the young and fed-up rather than the old and well-fed, but St. John explains that they made this rule in order to “show the historical depth and vitality of the concept of hybridization,” in spite of the fact that earlier Swensen had presented hybridization as a product of the 1990s. And by this line of thinking, in what also seems a commercial move, we get John Ashbery. Historical confusion and big name motives aside, poets like Armantrout are represented by gems like “Generation” (in its entirety):

We know the story.

She turns
her back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years; the
undergrowth

Looking for hybridization, we note both the strong central image of the birds, and the highly fragmentary nature of the scene. We don’t know precisely what this is about, but neither are we mystified by Langpo gymnastics. A quiet, subtle think piece. Her poem “Scumble” experiments with the meaning and sound of its titular word, without ever puzzling us: “What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?” Armantrout has found a happy medium in these poems between the need for recognizable meaning, sense-making, and the equal need for new meaning, making new senses. Ashbery’s offerings, by contrast, do not seem to drink very deeply from the sense-making well: in his poem “Of Linnets and Dull Time” no more than two lines in a row seem to have anything to so with each other. We go from “I feel sorry for anyone that has to die” to, a few short lines later, “The beautiful shape of the toilet interposed/ a viability as the air-raid drill ended.” I have never understood Ashberry’s poetry or why it is so popular, and trying to trace lines of hybridization within it only gives me a headache.

There is, therefore, hybridization in American poetry, but looking at the verses in this anthology shows that it is not as wide-spread or as radical as the editors fervently wish. There are poets who legitimately mix styles, such as Molly Bendall, who in her poem “Conversation With Eva Hesse” employs limerick-like rhyme and repeated lines, only to break into the plane of the poem with “Is this piece finished?” “It’s too bright and beautiful” is the response, making the poem nicely self-referential and post-modern. Michael Burkhard’s “The Rearranger” combines a narrative about AIDS with several twists on language and form. These poems and several others by other poets identifiably use a mixture of techniques not usually mixed, and are in fact hybrid. Many of the selections in the anthology, however, read as your standard mainstream free-verse or quasi-Langpo. The editors, in attempting to explain the hybridity of these texts, frequently use the word “unravel” to describe what happens to traditional narrative or structure. Some poems never seem raveled to begin with, such as Norma Cole’s head-scratcher “Floating By,” but other times the unraveling is very literal: expect to be turning the book in your hands to be able to read Gillian Conoley’s “from The Plot Genie.” You will notice that so far all of my examples are in alphabetical order. That’s because American Hybrid, like any anthology, contains a lot of varied material and the D’s are about a far as you will get on your first reading. Enjoy Stacy Doris’s football diagrams.

Should there be a second reading? Yes. Ultimately, despite the conceptual and evidential difficulties noted above, American Hybrid is a solid and intelligent effort at doing what for poetry or an individual is the hardest task: looking in the mirror. Swensen and St. John deserve your money for making a smart and honest effort. Swensen’s Introduction should be required reading for all contemporary poets, and this book, warts and all, should be on your shelf. Enough examples exist to demonstrate that American poetry is, slowly, painfully, changing, and American Hybrid is the best self-fiction about it we have so far.