“Meddlesome Ghosts”: Kirk Curnutt reviews The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser


The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser, Little Brown & Co. 

Readers may be forgiven if the title of de Kretser’s third novel fails to captivate. Not only does The Lost Dog continue her preference for curiously static object names (following The Rose Grower and The Hamilton Case) that do an injustice to the complexity of her themes, but it seems to evoke a little too readily a growing genre of literature whose popularity would seem close to the saturation point. Ever since John Grogan’s Marley & Me proved a surprise bestseller in 2005, stories of man’s best friend, whether fiction or memoir, have been wet-nosing their way onto bookshelves like insistent Shih Tzus. Most recently, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain has taken the trend to its logical extreme by employing a pooch protagonist as narrator. While that is one way to stand out from the litter, the preponderance of literary terriers and retrievers is beginning to bring to mind the unfortunate image of a publishing puppy mill.

 

Curiously, though, de Kretser’s book can’t really be lumped in with these other works, for the search for the titular stray isn’t the overarching narrative concern. Instead, the real lost dog here is the owner, an Indian-Australian Henry James scholar named Tom Loxley, whose week long search for his pet prompts an inquiry into the nature of modernity, reality, and identity. One might go so far as to say that James is more central to the novel than the dog, which is never even named (unlike Tom’s book: Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny). What de Kretser hopes to produce here is a psychological study of perception on the order of “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Jolly Corner,” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” Whether she succeeds depends on the individual reader’s tolerance for stylistic abstraction and the relatively disassembled state in which she presents her plot pieces.

 

The lack of assembly becomes pronounced a third of the way into the narrative when de Kretser introduces what should be the novel’s unifying focus——we learn the mysterious background of the artist Nelly Zhang, whose house Tom rents in order to complete his scholarly study of the Master (and it is while on a walk near the bordering bush that Loxley’s dog runs away). A decade and a half earlier, Nelly’s husband, Felix Atwood, vanished without a trace while being investigated for shady finances. Nelly subsequently became a tabloid suspect in his disappearance, especially after she seemed to stoke the mystery with a series of paintings ridiculed in the press as “Nelly’s Nasties.” De Kretser even excerpts one disapproving review from an “eminent critic”: “Zhang (re)presents the symbolic violence of authoritarian modes in images as ambiguous as they are oppressive. Nowhere in these paintings is the phallocentric will-to-power explicitly critiqued. The refusal to engage in direct visual discourse is ultimately elitist and unsatisfying.”

 

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to build suspense when one is throwing around words like “phallocentric”—even when parodying them. But, Nelly isn’t Loxley’s only concern. The declining health of his aged mother, Iris, also preoccupies him. One of the most dramatically satisfying interludes occurs when Tom must clean the bathroom after his mother loses control of her bowels; the humiliating episode confirms for the protagonist the indignity of corporeality. De Kretser also goes into the Loxley family background, giving the storyline a colonialist spin by exploring how his father, Arthur, met Iris in India after WWII and how her desire for bourgeois prosperity landed them in Australia. Just how issues of immigration and identity relate to both Nelly’s mystery and Tom’s lost dog remain frustratingly unclear, however. At times, it feels as if there are three novels in one unspooling as the transitions between them are abrupt and often stagy. “But it might have begun long, long before that evening in Carson Posner’s gallery,” begins the introduction to the Arthur Loxley flashback, “It might have been historical.” One wishes a brave editor to have written, “Or it might just be a digression.”

 

In addition to structural problems, there are moments when the stylistic compression required to stitch these disparate plotlines together results in some downright dubious sentences. Describing the reaction to “Nelly’s Nasties,” de Kretser writes, “A rock star who collected art was quoted as saying he was struggling with aesthetic and ethical objections to Nelly’s work.” Perhaps Australian rock stars are that articulate—Colin Hay, maybe?—but the line strikes me instead as an instance of the authorial voice intruding into the narration out of sheer haste. De Kretser’s occasional reversion to such academic prose is curious given a late set piece in which Tom attends a hiring-committee meeting at his university—a scene that is needlessly populated with pompous tweed-and-political correctness types. At this point in literary history, there would seem little real value in parodying the professoriate; not only has it been done to death by David Lodge et al, but also it adds nothing to the story. Additionally, if one wants to mock the hallowed groves of academe, one shouldn’t sound like a denizen.

 

Despite these flaws, The Lost Dog still has much to recommend. For starters, the characters are intriguing and sustain interest through the plot’s patchwork discontinuities. Tom Loxley is the most rewarding of de Kretser’s overt Jamesian analogues; emotionally detached before the dog’s disappearance, he struggles in the classic mould of John Marcher and Spencer Brydon to come to grips with lost opportunities and disappointments and to balance his attraction to Nelly against the mystery of her missing husband. Nelly, too, is a thoroughly enjoyable creation, at once firmly committed to her aesthetics and yet winkingly aware of the pretension that seems inseparable from art. The putative antagonist, Carson Posner, is every bit as arch and manipulative as a Gilbert Osmond type should be, and several minor characters add local Aussie color. De Kretser’s eye for setting is likewise exquisite; aside from atmospheric evocations of paddocks and eucalyptus, she invests a great deal of effort in wringing poetry out of landscape, which pays off handsomely in conveying Tom’s ephemeral disconnection. Indeed, the chimerical is far more affecting here than in the constant references to James’s meddlesome ghosts.

 

Again, the overall success of The Lost Dog depends on the reader’s tolerance for its loose, baggy form. The Anglo literary establishment certainly hasn’t held its unshapely development against de Kretser. Despite the general consensus that the novel represents a bit of a retreat in ambition after The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog recently made the longlist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize (it was also named Book of the Year in Australia). While it is unlikely to win top honors, the recognition is certainly deserved for de Kretser, if not necessarily for this particular work.

 

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Kirk Curnutt is the author the novel Breathing Out the Ghost. His next work, Dixie Noir, will be published in November 2009.

“63 Years Later”: Nii Ayikwei Parkes on Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz


Cairo Modern, Naguib Mahfouz (translated by William M. Hutchins), American University in Cairo Press 

 

Cairo Modern, the fifth novel of a thirty-plus novel and Nobel-prizing winning career, was written in 1945 after the end of the Second World War, which is important to keep in mind when reading the English translation now released sixty-three years later. Over the years, the novel (particularly in English) has greatly changed embracing influences from Russia, South Asia, and Africa as well as evolving to subsume the constantly mutating lexicon of technological advancement. This is not to say that Naguib Mahfouz’s novel is in any way diminished, neither is his well-known bent for exploring existentialism compromised, but it does reflect the more subdued language of its times.

 

As the title suggests, the novel is set in Cairo exploring the trials, opportunities, and trends of the city in the 1930s. Specifically, the novel  focuses upon the lives of four friends in King Fuad University (what is now Cairo University) who come from different backgrounds and have varying philosophies in life. Ahmad Badir is a journalist who never truly reveals his position on issues, Ma’mun Radwan is a young man who believes in “God in the heavens and Islam on the earth,” Ali Taha is an idealist interested in a society that functions perfectly and remains relevant through constant renewal, while Mahgub Abd al-Da’im eschews principles altogether with the constant refrain of “Tuzz.”

 

All four live in a modern Cairo that is awash with ambiguity: patrons of society can barely speak Arabic, government jobs have a system of progression rarely honoured, and family ties are compromised by the company they need to keep. As the novel progresses three of the friends, whose lives are fairly stable due to their respectable finances and family connections, fade into the background leaving Maghub, poor and barely supported by his clerk father. Intensely ambitious and dissatisfied by his inability to keep up with his friends in leisure or love, Maghub’s life becomes even more difficult when his father becomes paralysed and is laid off leaving the entire family to survive on his meagre compensation. With a few months left before Maghub’s graduation, two choices emerge—to quit and support his family or to bargain with his family to sacrifice on his behalf with the promise of becoming the main breadwinner as soon as he graduates.

 

Within this maze of choices and consequences, all that Maghub has to guide him are his patchwork of principles or non-principles (depending on your point of view). This is where Naguib Mafouz’s semi-detached, third-person narrative shows its merits as it unravels the story without judgement allowing the reader to tumble into the story outraged or sympathetic in equal measure. After abortive attempts to get help from a rich relative Maghub turns to a former neighbour to help him enter the world of Cairo’s rich and powerful. Mahfouz hints early at the party that Maghub has to borrow money to attend so he can be introduced to a ‘patron’ just how deceptive this world can be:

He saw chests that almost touched breasts and arms that encircled waists. He was amazed that these people could control their impulses. He wished he were dancing. Scrutinizing faces with anxious bulging eyes, he whispered to himself, ‘Wealth. Wealth equals sovereignty and power. It’s everything in the world.’ His eyes happened upon a swelling bosom that almost made him dream it would poke through the diaphanous white gown. His lust aroused, he raised his eyes to discover his sweetheart’s face. What he found was an ugly crone, even if she was a coquette.

 

Therein ultimately are Maghub’s challenges in Cairo Modern: Can he tell the difference between what is real and imagined progress? Can he control his impulses? And will he be able to live with the consequences of the actions he takes, even if he has convinced himself that morals and judgement mean nothing to him? This juxtaposition of real problems and one man’s abstractions of philosophical positions lays the foundation of an entertaining drama, which is shot through with Naguib Mahfouz’s dry humour. Cairo Modern may be a tad didactic for modern tastes, but for its time it is actually a very liberal book and remains over sixty years after it was written a compelling read.

 

*

 

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer of poetry, prose and articles, and author of the poetry chapbooks: eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999) and M is for Madrigal (2004), a selection of seven jazz poems. He is also the Senior Editor at flipped eye publishing where he has overseen the production of four award-winning titles and a contributing editor to The Liberal. Nii is the current International Writing Fellow at the University of Southampton and his debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, will be released in June 2009 by Jonathan Cape .

“Intertwining Place, Meaning, & Permanence”: J. Michael Wahlgren looks at Matter No Matter by Joel Chace


Matter No Matter, Joel Chace, Paper Kite Press

What’s at stake here in Joel Chace’s Matter No Matter is the preservation or death of the “self.” Seeming wish-washy at times, which may be quite necessary, is this actual death or moving away from the self that figuratively stabs the reader. The writing seems quite aware of itself: the imminent occurrences are foreseen by events foretold or hinted at within the writing. As the text references a means of transportation, the train, the writing seems to predict this form being sampled in shifty letters & explanations which vary themselves, leading the reader to wonder where is the actual caboose. There is a certain mystery to the wordplay in this text with some being appropriately enough for the death of a self stream of consciousness.

 

An example of this foreseeing is Chace’s use of the word “crazy” in a poem entitled Upstate which sends the whole text into an organized type chaos: “don’t kid yourself/ purple white gray-white blue/ yellow black don’t a basketball/that grimes hands and/ bounces crazy off every/ goddamn gray little black/ knob of ice to walk over/ the bridge home through purple air…” The organized chaos appears as rainfall on the pages following spaced out wording such as: tier/ tier/ tiers/ destitu/ its ettrs/ used side/ trusd/ sire turd/ destitu…”

 

We return to the self in the text with the poem Given: “That self rides two/ Entirely different trains passing/ Each other icebergs in/ the night.” Given seems to reference this train of self, striving for meaning and to be read. It is a self that perhaps like the icebergs is chilled as the last poem touches upon the meaning of superficiality: “surface and water that/ are not do not matter but/ do mean the matter then/ cannot mean the meaning is/ nothing…” There is a sense of permanence in making sense out of the sentences, just as with the self, take the poem The Story: “about a line/ all about and around/ it two distances and/ the longest point/ he/ is one who/ keeps reading and keeps/ each time saying a/ sentence must lend itself/ to vigorous analysis.” In this poem there is a sense of “standing out” as if analysis is necessary to do so.

 

It seems as though Chace’s poems are tough enough to not get hurt, having some violent references which make the reader want to kidnap the author’s word choice. There is also a quest for a sense of place as in the poem Godhead where the character seeks a place to settle referencing it as “seeing a face” in something. The analysis of the ‘I,’ the sentence, and its death and meaning are lasting images when the text is over. The form of these poems sometimes makes it a complicated read. However, what’s at stake (the search for place, meaning, and most importantly, permanence) intertwines to pay off with an interesting read.

 

*

 

J. Michael Wahlgren edits for Gold Wake Press (goldwakepress.org). He is author of Silent Actor (BeWrite, 2008).

Lucas Klein on Bin Ramke’s Tendril


Bin Ramke, Tendril, Omnidawn Publishing

 

Bin Ramke’s is a poïesis for linguists. In “An Esthetic (Ars Poetica),” the first poem of Tendril, his newest collection, words and their sound components dismantle against meaning: “wish” flushes into “wash,” a “retina” “retained,” and as for “Beautiful,”

 

someone said: aye, but buy, eat. Beauty

is as beauty used. Does its duty. Did. Used to:

be a duty.

(15)

 

While further down the page,

 

the history of future is a version, aversion is a kind

of aesthetic. As if. The beautiful is a form of that

(15)

 

the spelling of “aesthetic”—in contradistinction against the “esthetic” of the title, reminds us of the relationship of art’s dissolution of meaning with both feeling—in Greek, aisthētikos, “of sense perception”—and unfeeling, the anesthetic.

 

Tendril, whose meaning is the curlicue connective between a vine and what it grasps, often focuses on the sinews of language, connecting word to word. Appropriately, etymology is central to Tendril’s poetics, as witness “A History of Mortality”:

 

They know the code

but do not know they know

 

[a. L. codex, later spelling of caudex trunk

of a tree, wooden tablet, book, code of laws.]

 

And the light shineth in the darkness;

and the darkness comprehended it not

 

the word in Greek, comprehend, [katalaben],

second aorist tense, emphasis on punctilier action,

no regard for past, present, or future

(73)

 

And, hinting at the work’s title and the work of the poet (as Ramke says, “Poet, Greek for Maker, bricks, too” [“Never Odd or Even,” 103]), undoing the metaphor—since Ovid—of poet as seamster:

 

Mitosis is an opening, a ripping, from the Greek for thread,

mitos. Threads part, seam ripping, opening into.

(“Protein Folding and Enzyme Catalysis,” 51)

 

Yet even here the poetic act is a creative action, as mitosis is not only cell division but cellular reproduction, and the history of writing takes us from pencil to its derivatives:

 

(from Old French pincel, from a diminutive of Latin peniculus

‘brush,’ diminutive of penis)

(“Gregg Shorthand Dictionary,” 30)

 

But etymology does not occupy all of Bin Ramke’s poetic product any more than it is all of linguistic science. Slippage between words, particularly of homographs, occupies as much of Tendril’s project. Consider the proximity of “Can you touch?” to “You can’t, ouch!” introduced by the following two stanzas:

 

“Pear” and “pare” and other doublings

play in the fearful boy’s mind in the night

the light beneath the door a comfort

against lightning. The wind winds

its way down a hall

 

all waking in the night adds up

to a wound he is wound in the sheets

that tear, his tears he is a boy after all,

small. Sleep well, a deep source of darkness.

(“Social Conscience, Well Meant,” 24)

 

While linguistics may seem dry to some, and eggheaded to others, it typifies a literary paranoia (“the word fear is related to fare and it fits” [“Birds Fly Through Us,” 85]) penetrated before by Thomas Pynchon’s hyperconnectivity. Or, as Ramke defines, in “Eclogue,”

 

Paranoia, para plus nous, mind … a parallel mind,

a second mind, being of two minds, being overly

mindful, mind your manners, minded matter.

(63)

 

And, to demonstrate the pathology of recurrence, Ramke gives a rhymed—and rhyming—translation, in “The Consolations of Defeat”:

 

Might I quote myself? “a minor note, etymology—

Paranoia is para plus nous, mind … a parallel mind?

a second mind, being of two minds, being overly

mindful, minding manners: a matter of kind-

 

ness, and a manner of speaking.”

(76)

 

Tendril’s paranoia and wordplay are rooted in the individual’s personal propensity to confuse, as expressed in the section, “From the Chapter ‘Jesus Speaks to Judas Privately,’” in the closing sequence, “Tendril”:

 

I would write “sacred” for “scared” or sometimes

“scarred,” and needed no analyst

since it was only an error. Eros.

(95)

 

Confusion—fusing together—reveals profundity; further down the page, the speaker laments, after quoting a translation, “I should know the French”

 

and not rely on this carrying across, this.

But in that shadow, that shaped space

which is the wrongness of the best

translation, is asylum. The original

was wrong too. Eros.

(95)

 

In a poem about Jesus, the “carrying across” of translation has never been closer to “carrying a cross.”

 

The linguistics of etymology and homographic inquiry reach their apex in “Tendril,” the swan (or vulning pelican [“Tendril,” 105]) song of this volume. Bookish knowledge unites with personal pain in sections like,

 

“Replicate” can be pronounced several different ways—one of these, as an adjective, can refer to an insect wing folded back on itself. From the Latin plicare, to fold, also replicare, to unfold or to reply. An answer as an unfolding. To speak, for instance, to a figure with wings, and then to see the wings begin to unfold, as your answer. As in, “I love you,” and she unfolds her wings to leave you.

(“Tendril (B),” 101)

 

Following this paragraph, the line

 

Replicatory can mean, “of the nature of a reply.”

(“Tendril (B),” 101)

 

Means something it did not when appearing verbatim on the previous page: then, it was true, but here, Replicatory does not indicate response, but rather replication, and the changes that occur in seeing the same thing twice.

 

“Tendril” is an echo chamber in which not only the words of Anne Bradstreet—“Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,” from “The Author to Her Book”—can appear and reappear (“Infant,” 94; “Of the Past, the Unspeakable,” 110), but elements from earlier in the book, as well. 

 

The dew is vulnerable, the boy sleeping the girl sleeping are

vulnerable, to wound and be wounded, wound

in sleep which has elements, requirements and rewards

(“Tendril,” 107)

 

And even

 

They know the code,

but do not know they know

[codex, later spelling caudex

trunk of a tree, wooden

tablet, book, code of laws.]

(“Hard to the Touch,” 108 )

 

These echoes are tendrils, just as the etymologies and phonemes contrasted and contracted. What they reflect, what they obscure as much as they reveal, is the grasp our language has on us, and on our cling to each other inside language, the static born between “alone” and “all one.” Or, as Ramke writes:

 

alone. All one. The greatest betrayal happens

alone, always from the others and when

the very light itself delights in it, it heals. Itself.

(“From the Chapter ‘Jesus Speaks to Judas Privately,’” 96)

“Excursions: Five Short Story Collections (Recent & Vintage) that Take You Places” by Steven Wingate


Since the glossy magazines have recently come out with their summer “beach reading” list, this first installment of mine covers analogous territory: books that, while by no means escapist in their intent, offer readers an escape from their own worlds and an immersion into others. Writers are always discovering their characters (and themselves) in the combustible seams between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and readers are no different. You’ll notice in the capsule reviews below my proclivity for escaping into the combustible seams of Africa. I’ve included a bit about how each of these books ended up on my shelves—there’s always a story about how books end up on our radar and in our hands, isn’t there?

 

            Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain

            (Harper/Ecco, 2006

 

Sometimes you just meet people. At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York last year, as I searched for a place to devour my bagel and coffee between panels, I ran into a pleasant, unassuming gentleman from Texas named Ben Fountain. We talked about our books and he told me to come by the booth where he would be signing his—which his publisher, amazingly, was giving away for free! I swung by, picked up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and got so hooked on the first story that I had to be nudged forward twice in the signing line. Fountain’s collection has been racking up awards (PEN/Hemingway, B&N Discover Great New Writers Series, Whiting Award) and the work is so good that I’m not even jealous. It sparkles on a sentence level, and Fountain never lets his characters off the hook easily. He makes them fight their way through every trap they set for themselves, and in doing so brings us to varied international locations ranging from Haiti to Cambodia. Even the lone American-based story—which tells of a military wife who must share her husband with the Haitian voodoo goddess he has ceremonially married—resonates with the swirling world beyond.

 

            Whites, by Norman Rush

            (Knopf, 1984)

 

“You’ve got to read Norman Rush’s Mating,” a friend told me, though he refused to loan me his copy of the book. He showed it to me, though—a big, intimidating 500-ish pages that was far too thick for my mood at the time. Awhile later, I saw Rush’s Whites on sale for a dollar at a used bookstore and pounced on my opportunity to “date” Rush as an author before “Mating” him. Whites turned out to be a sock in the jaw of a book, 150 pages of humanity in its rawest state.  Rush spent time as an ex-patriot in Africa, and published these stories in the 1980s to strong, well-deserved critical acclaim. The way colonialism’s legacy has played out in the intervening quarter-century has done nothing to dim the power of his stories, since he writes less about Africa and more of human beings in extremis: the tourists of “Near Pala” coming to grips with the true value of water in the desert or the desperate wife of a bureaucrat in “Instruments of Seduction.” After finishing it, I quickly dispensed with my prohibition against huge, door-stopper novels and picked up Mating—also set in Africa—which did not disappoint.

 

            Apologies Forthcoming, by Xujun Eberlein

            (Livingston Press, 2008 )

 

I met Xujun Eberlein by mail; she sent in a wonderful nonfiction piece to divide, the magazine I was running at the time at the University of Colorado, and we knew each other virtually until meeting (where else?) at an AWP Conference in Atlanta. This collection of short stories won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award from Livingston Press, and was published this May. My first sensation upon reading it was of getting completely lost in an alien culture—in this case, China during and after the Cultural Revolution, in which the majority of Eberlein’s stories take place. At first, when I saw its protagonists (primarily educated women “relocated” to rural areas) making decisions based on very un-American things like avoiding government scrutiny, I wanted to grab and shake them back to their senses. But by the end of the book I understood their lines of thinking and behavior, and this alone makes Apologies worth the read. At a time when the world has its eyes on China, Eberlein intimately examines the underbelly of cultural and personal change that—intentionally or not—led to the nation’s surge in world power. I often found myself feeling, as I read her collection, the sense of a national culture in tumult breathing its last before being paved over by a newer, shinier, but no less tumultuous one.

 

            Disturbance-Loving Species, by Peter Chilson

            (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

 

I found out about Peter Chilson because I’ve been stalking him, sort of—in a literary sense. He won the fiction prize from Gulf Coast magazine, then I won it shortly thereafter; he won the Bakeless Prize for Disturbance-Loving Species, then I won it the next year. What’s up with that? Given the circumstances I had no choice but to read Species, predominantly about Americans in Africa but balanced out by stories of Africans transplanted to America. This book reads like a direct descendant of Whites in its closely-observed depiction of two complimentary cultures rubbing up against each other, and it updates the earlier book’s themes by virtue of coming out nearly two decades later. It’s amazing, reading the two collections side by side, how much the surface of the Africa/America relationship has changed without the core changing at all. The sentences throughout Species reflect the tension of its subject matter, and Chilson’s own experience in Africa (as a Peace Corps volunteer and a journalist) shines through. But my favorite pieces were those that took place in the US—especially “Toumani Ogun,” the closing story about a former West African warlord who ends up running a gas station in Portland, Oregon. 

 

            Looking for a Rain God, ed. Nadeźda Obradović

            (Simon & Schuster, 1990)

 

Back in the days before children overtook our lives completely, my wife and I liked to take turns reading aloud in bed. The last book we read in that fashion—and perhaps the first one we’ll read when we pick up the habit again—is this tremendously varied collection of tales from sub-Saharan Africa. The collection includes some authors from the continent who have made names for themselves in America, including Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart) and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o (author of The River Between), but it also offers a taste of African authors whose names will be unfamiliar to readers here. My favorite was “Heart of a Judge” by Sierra Leone’s R. Sarif Easmon, which features a colonial judge and an ingenious talking rat. Although this title is out of print (and no longer fully contemporary), it is an excellent time capsule of African literature before the turn of the century—and before Wole Sonyika’s 1986 Nobel Prize started to bring African literature to a broader audience. If you can’t find this title in your library, Obradović also edited a similar anthology for Anchor books in 2002.

 

______________________

 

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

“Is Stuffed, De World: On Connie Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream” by Sumita Chakraborty


 

Connie Voisine, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream, University of Chicago Press 

 

            At its best, Connie Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is a probing second volume from a gripping poet. Two of the book’s strongest poems are also among its shortest: “The Invisible Man Remained” (which charges into visibility with the word “invisible”) and “Love Poem” (which features careful tercets, ending with a proclamation about animals, who, according to Voisine, “believed this pour / was absorbed by the grasses and trees, geraniums, / air, and see how much and why I lose myself to you”).

            Too, I find myself enjoying Voisine’s typographical experiments: instead of feeling contrived, as formatting idiosyncrasies sometimes feel, Voisine’s demonstrate a useful relationship between form and content that well serves each poem that they are employed in. Take, for example, the following selection from a stanza in “The Bird is Her Reason”:

 

                                    You must know

                        how, in adulterous love,

                                    one begins to feel fatal, beautiful. The edges of your body

            become a tense meniscus and

                        in a kind of pain you fear this love

            can only lead to death—

 

            In this selection, not only do the carefully strung lines well embody the sense of “a tense meniscus,” but the word “death,” too, is effectively enacted by the dash that follows it. This language is meticulously selected: for instance, the word “pain” is usefully modified by the phrase “a kind of,” resulting in a tone that is capable of sustaining loaded words like “love,” “fatal,” “beautiful,” “body,” “death,” and even “pain” itself. This tone is significantly bolstered by Voisine’s formatting decisions. The narrative and the lyric merge here: we are always conscious that a story is being told, but the white space nestled within that story draws our attention to the silences that breed it and the well-developed lines it contains.

            At its weakest, though, Voisine’s otherwise captivating volume slips into belabored meandering. While the weaker poems in the volume do manage to display Voisine’s able grasp of the narrative poem, their shortcoming lies in the way that their reader can feel their muscles strain: the conjunction between the narrative and the lyric, in other words, is not always fully realized. Lines like, “The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath / and the plane could become a vehicle you’d use / the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional / fluidity and the world might feel to you / the way water must feel to a dolphin” (from “The Early Days of Aviation”) puff up, filling with the audible effort to portray a sense of the vast and crucial.

            The reason these few bloated lines strike such a discordant note is that many of Voisine’s poems do effectively convey this sense: the feeling that to read them is to teeter dangerously close to an important revelation. When Voisine successfully accomplishes this—as, in fact, she does often—it is when she does not seem to be trying, as is the case through much of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” which begins unassumingly:

 

On the ten o’clock news, the weatherman replays the florid day on a loop

filed from the top of the News Center Building, plays and super speeds

 

that whole day. Suppose he played the real one—the man at the Rainbow Mart

singing country with K-BUL . . .

 

            We know that we are reading something quite important: yet, we are not overtly told what it is. After this opening, Voisine embarks on a lengthy catalogue, which falters in a quasi-Whitmanian landscape—although, unlike Whitman’s, Voisine’s catalogues seem unnecessary. In the stage setting of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” there are “wet rotten leaves pulled from beds of irises in the alleyway” and there is “chaos blooming,” nestled amidst “the marrying of ketchups” and “the polishing of shoes,” drumming home—with perhaps a few more strokes of the hammer than necessary—the greater sense of an “undoing.” After a certain point that is fittingly punctuated by the word “undoing,” this poem loses itself in its megaphone, completing its overwrought terrain with a “newscaster who weeps while she announces: there are babies / just unburied, alive, you can claim them at the corner of . . .”

            The subsequent stanza slides by, and after it, Voisine deftly recaptures the reader’s attention with a sharp dash, which is followed by a new stanza that begins with the word “no”:

 

no, he shows us the day from the point of view of the WeatherCam,

pointed at the horizon: a narrow cloud or two whizzes by,

 

the blue shifts in place like a woman who cannot bear her

body, and we are overcome by how even these sterling, western

 

heavens change, how at dusk the traffic below stills to a bright sluice

as the sun abandons its chase—the skyscrapers, the highways,

 

the glowing dome of the State House.

 

            Here is Voisine’s vision and capacity for poetic storytelling crystallized into crucial details: details that fall comfortably into a category best characterized by James McMichael, who calls Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream a book that “generates and sustains a momentum all its own,” a book that is “as down to earth as what we all walk on.” In these couplets, Voisine accomplishes something rare: the feat of generating a world that is both uniquely her own and is populated with details that a broad readership could easily picture. The word “no” is a pivot: we return not only to the narrative of the weatherman, but also to the larger narrative of “shifts in place.” We leave behind the world of the overdramatized sobbing newscaster and the catalogue in which she is housed, a catalogue that seems to try too hard to become part of a Modernist–Post Modernist tradition in which there must, it seems, be at least one set of rotting leaves in every text. In leaving the earlier tone, we enter forcefully into the universal sense of a body that is “overcome,” a body which—like the WeatherCam that drives the narrative—scrolls along a horizon filled with the recognizable (“the glowing dome of the State House”) tinged with a sense of the brand new (“these sterling, western heavens,” “the traffic below stills to a bright sluice”).

            Voisine sustains this tone successfully through the rest of “WeatherCam—the Horizon.” Although she occasionally provides a few details that bog down the pace of the text instead of promoting its central actions and concerns (an “artist’s sketch of a young, / thin, Caucasian man seen leaving a truck” is one strangely politically-correct example), she deftly builds the poem toward its conclusion:

 

[ . . . ] the smaller things that we will

never mention now, take us through to the other edge of the day

 

where we will see what the weatherman knew all along: the locust

and magnolia flowers, still tender, more bud than bloom, crisp

 

and dying on a branch’s sheath of snow, the skies, again, that forgetful blue.

 

            Perhaps the secret to Voisine’s work lies in the first couplet I have printed above: the reason some of Voisine’s details are excessive is because they belong to the category of “things that we will / never mention now,” and by mentioning them, Voisine breaks her own poetic pact. The primary purpose of these “smaller things” is to “take us through to the other edge”; and yet, when Voisine names them, endows them with lengthy catalogues in which to feed and grow fat, they overcrowd her more subtle craft, which reveals itself in stanzas and lines where those such “smaller things” are notably absent.

            If there were fewer bloated details—if those details were pushed to the background, giving the reader a sense of unrest as opposed to painting a vivid, Baroque image that screams, “There is unrest here!”—Voisine would consistently dazzle, as she does in much of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” in “Love Poem,” in “The Invisible Man Remained.” At times, too, the poems seem to work too hard to belong to the Literary Canon, with a capital L and a capital C. In “The Early Days of Aviation,” there are lines of intelligently executed perception, introspection, and revelation, such as “I could tell you this was the year that I too / flew through a darkness, but at the time / I only felt ugly, inarticulate.” However, this reader finds herself disappointed when such moments blur amidst others whose greater purpose appears to be a sort of catcall to canonized literary and philosophical motifs. Take, for example, the following lines:

 

The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath

and the plan could become a vehicle you’d use

the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional

fluidity and the world might feel to you

the way water must feel to a dolphin.

It was too cold in that hotel, wind

snaked through the cracked-framed windows

and faded drapes.

 

            The impulse here to define the “world,” the references to a “gnat” and a “dolphin,” the mention of an edifice in disrepair and a wind that “snaked” amidst “cracked-framed windows” and “faded drapes”: this section envisions itself within a canon where such images and references are historically engaged, and suffers from it. One gets the sense that Voisine has included so many literary references in her volume in order to anchor her world in other worlds that have somehow gained a sought-after legitimacy—in other poems, we meet hawks, snakes, apples, Isabelle Archer, David Copperfield, Marie de France, Coleridge, and Keats, to name a few—rather than including them because they are vital to her poems. In truth, in its finest moments, Voisine’s work is strong enough to stand without these allusions—their invocations, as a result, can easily be interpreted as manifestations of insecurity as opposed to necessary in themselves.

            I mentioned earlier that two of the strongest poems in this book are among the shortest ones. There is one poem that is a glaring exception to this rule: it is the book’s long poem, “First Taste.” I believe that the reason many of Voisine’s short poems are successful is because a short poem mandates excision: there is no room for excess in a piece that is so small. “First Taste” is far from a short poem—it is ten pages long, with six lengthy sections that feature tercets, with the exception of the concluding one-line stanza. It also continues to demonstrate Voisine’s ability to craft a narrative poem in a lyric voice, and is a highly intelligent text with memorable and crucial moments—Voisine’s particular gift for rich endings is especially rewarding here, as the long journey taken through the poem ends with:

           

[. . .] —but you entered it as one enters

 

water in the summer, without fear or guile—and the brief glory of the door

flung open, the whoosh of air through the subway car,

the in and through every suffering you felt fully and well,

 

this is what you try to recall, organize.

 

            In a sense, however, “First Taste” is a short text, at least compared to what it might have been: as Nicholas Christopher notes, the poem is “rich and compressed as a novella.” “First Taste” is a short novel of sorts, compressed first by verse and second by Voisine’s knack for compression. The triumph of “First Taste” is a logical extension of the triumph of other instances of reduction by pressure, a phrase that suits Voisine well, and, tellingly, is a phrase that I have taken directly from the definition of what it means to “compress.”

          In the words of Mr. Bones, the world of Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is—like the title of the volume itself—stuffed. There is much to admire in this second volume from an unquestionably skilled poet, including Voisine’s aptitude for astonishing shifts, for crafting frank confessions for her speakers, and for both the narrative and the lyric sensibilities. This quality of stuffed-ness, however, accounts for both the highs and the lows of this book, which sometimes feels as though it is straining against its belt buckle with too much ingested and too much said. I found myself unable to write about this book without weaving back and forth between pleasure and critique—though I searched for a way to separate the positives from the negatives and discuss each category in turn, it is a credit to Voisine’s capacity for cohesion that such an interpretation was impossible. Voisine demands a reader who processes her poems with a full acknowledgment of the fact that her book is a complete organism: the individual poems in the volume function much like organs within a larger creature. When an organ falters, the entire organism feels it, and when an organ works well, so too does the organism. A reader of Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream must follow the instructions for reading that the book itself prescribes: to be immersed in all aspects of Voisine’s full-to-bursting volume.

 

*

 

Sumita Chakraborty is the Assistant Poetry Editor at AGNI Magazine. A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts and a graduate of Wellesley College, she writes poems and criticism, and plans to pursue graduate studies in English literature in the future. She has a poem forthcoming in BOXCAR Poetry Review.

Catherine Pierce’s “Famous Last Words” reviewed by Patrick Kanouse


Catherine Pierce, Famous Last Words, Saturnalia

I long ago stopped keeping track of the books that received first-book competition awards, for the volume of competitions has steadily increased over the years while the quality of the offerings seemed to decline. I now trust only a few competitions, and even then they do not always meet my expectations . If, however, more of these first books were like Catherine Pierce’s Famous Last Words, I would reconsider. Pierce’s book won the 2007 Saturnalia Prize (selected that year by John Yau), but it possesses none of the signs of a first book. Her ambitions are high, but she often meets those ambitions–variety of topic with a consistency of voice, a willingness to dabble outside of the mainstream of poetry, and a substantial command of language balanced by grace and simplicity.

Famous Last Words is divided into three parts. Part one is a section of “love” poems but not sappy, sentimental verse best left to private endearments. Instead, Pierce provides us with eight poems of love to abstract topics. The titles “Love Poem to Sinister Moments,” “Love Poem to America,” and “Love Poem to a Blank Space” indicate that these are no common subjects at which we address our “love.” These poems are almost journal-like entries, dealing with private, best-left-unsaid thoughts. Yet, as voyeurs, they match our own fears, concerns, and desires. Here are a few lines from “Love Poem to a Blank Space”:

 

            You are pure as soil,

            simple as bone. The taste

 

            of you transparent. I love

            your dumb grace,

 

            your unfelt presence.

 

A concise language (notice that Pierce left out a potential “as” in front of “pure,” which is telling), simple images, and a willingness to dip into synesthesia or other abstractions are a marked distinction throughout this book. Pierce never seems to let a poem get out of her control; at the same time, no poem here seems constricted or forced or limited.

The second and longest section has no specific, overarching theme but retains many strong elements of the first section. Perhaps the strongest poem, “Apostrophe to the First Gray Hair,” of the collection is here. Again, it shows the control and concision that Pierce maintains.

 

O small silver rope by whose noose

I will, if lucky, hang—

 

You are the highway’s white stripe

dividing toward from away.

 

The hairline fracture

on a slowly swaying bridge.

 

Light plummeting earthward

years after the star has turned dark.

 

The title of the poem suggests initially something frivolous, a toss away. Most people gray and many lament, but Pierce links it to the cosmos so elegantly, with such grace that it seems implausible that we ever thought this poem was going to be anything less significant than about the death of stars and the lapse of time.

This poem shows another very strong feature of Pierce’s work–she knows how to end a poem. While delivering them out of context can hamper their effect, still the best way to understand the effects she can achieve is to quote a few of them:

 

which card will send

the house tumbling down.

            (“Love Poem to Sinister Moments”)

 

…breaking

the sky into pieces

            (“Love Poem to the Word Lonesome”)

 

…The moon

shimmers, a placebo. As it falls,

I close my mouth around it.

            (“While You Sleep, I Watch Myself Die”)

 

These are forceful, make-you-stop-and-read-again endings. A poet can do much wrong in a poem and regain everything with a strong ending. So much the better when Pierce does not do much wrong. Her weakest moments are the two prose poems: “Project Yourself Here” and “Postcards Nos 1-6.” A prose poem must be singularly lyrical to evade being just prose, while at the same time avoiding a perpetually charged language (imagine if Dylan Thomas wrote only prose poems). While Pierce possesses such skills, her strength is in using them with timing and not overly frequently to maintain their value. In longer poems, Pierce uses more prosaic lines to break a series of intense lines, for example “Domesticity”:

 

            The night slips around me

            and the bedroom is lit

            with a strand of small lights.

            My body admits to calm.

But here the definitive line breaks create the tension that the more prosaic second and third lines might lack in regular prose.

The final section is a set of poems framed around someone’s famous last words: Billy the Kid, George Appel, Marie Antoinette, Doc Holliday, Isadora Duncan, Joseph Henry Green, and Pancho Villa. Each poem’s title consists of the last words of the subject of the poem and all are in third-person view. What is really interesting in these poems is the subtlety and variety Pierce achieves and how she expands and intuits beyond the “meaning” of the last words. Each of the subjects is well visualized, but the third-person view provides Pierce an opportunity to fill in some details or hypothesize. This is a strong group of poems, but perhaps the most interesting one is Pancho Villa’s, which ends the collection overall: “Don’t Let It End Like This. Tell Them I Said Something.” While clearly appropriate for a poet to end with such flair, the poem itself is deliciously inspired. Villa’s direct thoughts or words cut into the narrative of the poem, providing a backdrop often at odds with the narrative.

 

            But he bloodied the countryside. Is rumored

            to have killed to fulfill a thirst, to have shot the priest

            who begged for mercy. Do we serve him thus?

 

                        Fuck the dogs.

                       

                        Kill them for me.

 

Yet Villa and the narrator conclude and desire the same thing:

 

            …You understand

            the need for the right words. How else

            can we live forever? How else

            can we write ourselves in?

 

On that question ends this delightful collection of poems. Pierce begins with love to abstractions and ends with a reliance on language to not only make sense of our lives but to give eternal life to our lives. Given the strength of this collection, I expect we’ve not yet read Pierce’s last words, and I look forward to her next words.

 

*

Patrick Kanouse’s poems have appeared in many journals and websites, including Smartish Pace, The Connecticut Review, The Evansville Review, and Astropoetica among others. He is a managing editor with a technology publisher in Indianapolis. You can read his poems at www.patrickkanouse.com.

Human Dark with Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy, reviewed by Juliet Cook


Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar, Copper Canyon Press

 

I loved Brenda Shaughnessy’s first poetry collection, Interior with Sudden Joy, thus was eager to partake of her second collection, Human Dark with Sugar. However, despite the two collections’ reminiscent-of-each-other titles, I thought they seemed stylistically dissimilar and Human Dark with Sugar did not immediately arouse my adoration or admiration—it was just fine, it didn’t wow or dazzle or thrill or particularly provoke. At least, that was my first impression.

 

It’s not exactly fair to compare two different collections, but why give into restraint. Shaughnessy’s last book was more interestingly opaque and ornate, whereas her current is more transparent and plain. Interior with Sudden Joy is more like a fizzy concoction crossed with suspicious elixir whereas Human Dark with Sugar is only slightly carbonated like a lo-cal seltzer. Begging the question, who wants enhanced water instead of an extra-special potion? Of course, many people do want enhanced water. Later it occurred to me that perhaps one particularly pertinent difference between the two collections is that ‘Interior’ deals more with the interiority of one particular speaker, whereas ‘Human Dark’ has somewhat more of an exterior focus, dealing with the human condition in a manner that might come across as broader and less quirky, but is ultimately no less relevant.

 

When I first started reading Human Dark with Sugar, though, I was struck by how much more plainspoken it seemed compared to what I had been anticipating. I suppose I shouldn’t enter into a new reading experience with expectations already in mind, but what can I say? I was anticipating quirkiness, obtuse eroticism, darts, and pleats. Instead I was greeted with what initially seemed like a disappointingly smooth, straightforward surface. In the first poem of the collection, “I’m Over the Moon”, the speaker clearly states, almost as if in explanation:

But my lovers have never been able to read

my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.

Upon which part of my mind protested, ‘No! Give me your frilly obliquity!’ In the realm of poetry, I do not tend to be drawn in by what seems overly obvious, universal, or predictable. I wish to form my own interpretations from evocative imagery and carefully-chosen yet peculiar details. I am desirous of quirky specificity.

 

Despite not being immediately titillated by the suggestion of oncoming directness, I did want to approach this book’s style and content with an open mind. I must admit that my non-enthralled regard continued throughout the collection’s second poem (“Magic Turns to Math and Back”) which informs, ‘So math, not metaphor, works’ and then goes on to speak of formulas and the third poem (“Why Is the Color of Snow?”) which instructs, “Melt yourself to make yourself more clear”. Even though that phrase is somewhat interesting to me, the references to precision and clarity were not boding well for my stylistic preferences as a reader. In tidy accompaniment to such references, the poems’ lines breaks are clean and consistent, the rhythm has a melodious flow, and there is quite a bit of rhyme. I tend to enjoy internal rhyme and assonance, but most of it falls near the ends of short lines here, imparting an effect that seemed a bit too sing-songy for my liking. Of course, the brief quotes presented so far are phrases plucked out of the context of considerably longer works. The first poem also includes some fairly explicit sexual imagery, but for some reason, even that did not pull me in—perhaps at least in part because I wasn’t sure how to contextualize it within the collection as a whole yet.

 

From the beginning of the book, the poems hint at themes associated with love, loss, the unrelenting passage of time, and some of the difficulties involved with attempting to stake out one’s own personal identity against these backdrops. Such themes continue to manifest themselves and play out as the book proceeds. I found myself wondering why this poet opted to contain such broad themes within the consistent and evenly-paced frameworks which most of the collection’s poems abide by. One theory could be that perhaps certain aspects of love, loss, and time seem so chaotic that the poet chose to exert some control over them by fitting them into neat structures of her own devising. One cannot halt the forward momentum of time, for example, but one can freeze frame certain moments of time into documents, to at least temporarily experience an illusion of control; even then, how long will it last before one realizes the relative absurdity of trying to control something larger than herself?

 

From the beginning of the book, there are references to order (both natural order and more human-imposed orders) and to the masses; there are allusions to the futility of escaping the order of things and the difficulty of setting oneself apart. Simultaneously, there is a certain sense of longing to do just that—to delineate oneself from the masses, to escape into some sort of distinction. Initially, this having-to-fit-in-yet-longing-to-break-away juxtaposition plays out in a rather generalized sense. As the collection proceeds, longing becomes more specified—the desire to set oneself apart as a woman, the desire to set oneself apart as a romantic partner, the desire to set a present version of oneself apart from a past version of oneself or try to somehow reconcile the different versions against the backdrop of lost love and passing time. Connecting many of these poems seems to be an underlying sense of low-grade horror hinting at implication within some sort of semi-numb, undifferentiated, I-am-replaceable haze yet on some level realizing that sometimes the alternatives to that fake womb may be much more acutely painful. So which state of being will one choose: numbed-out, dumbed-down lack of differentiation or painful individuation?

 

This conflict is effectively illustrated within “Parthenogenesis,” the fourth poem in the book and the first piece to intensely pique my interest. This piece explore the theme of self-control and of fitting in versus setting oneself apart within a female-centric context that resonated for me more than the somewhat more generalized context of the poems preceding it. This piece also makes use of more startling imagery and jarring juxtapositions and does so to powerful effect. The poem begins as follows:

It’s easy to make more of myself by eating,

and sometimes easy’s the thing.

 

To be double-me, half the trouble

but not lonely.

The piece then continues to create a tone of numb giving in and fitting in and dull gluttony; then suddenly takes a startling twist in the following jarringly juxtaposed couplet:

the feeling of being a natural woman,

like a sixteen-year-old getting knocked up

From there, the piece offers up some increasingly extreme visions of alternatives to overeating (i.e. mindless consumption i.e. buying into the natural order of things), alternatives like starving oneself, aborting oneself, eating glass, cutting off pieces of oneself.

 

In a way, this poem seems to be provoking a reader to consider the choices of either an easy, lazy mode of existence or else a painfully extreme mode of existence—but both of those modes seem to be rooted in self-immolation (either self-effacement or self-destruction); both of those modes seem to be dysfunctional and yielding of unhealthy results. Isn’t there a third choice, a reader might wonder.  An option that does not revolve around distracting oneself with overindulgence or adhering to extreme versions of punishing self-restraint? A choice more akin to normalcy? Well, the voice of the poem has considered that, too, and has this to say about the matter:

Sometimes I put in just the right amount,

but then I’m the worst kind of patsy, a chump

 

giving myself over to myself like a criminal

to the law, with nothing to show for it.

 

No reward, no news, no truth.

It’s too sad to be so ordinary every day.

 

Like some kind of employee.

Being told what to do…

The confusion of voice(s) in this piece seems to be the dilemma of a person who does not want to concede to ordinary truths; who wants to somehow rebel or set herself apart, but who can only seem to do so through self-destructive means. Maybe the voice in this poem is positing that there is ultimately no satisfying escape from the futility of ordinariness, from the ordinariness of the human condition, from the overall absurdity of existence, ultimately ending in the oblivion of time’s passage no matter how one might choose to assert herself.

 

Some might read “Parthenogenesis” as an eating disorder poem, but I read it as reaching beyond that into the realm of order/disorder and function/dysfunction. Perhaps even serving as a disturbing anti-consumption piece—disturbing especially because there is no satisfying solution even if one tries to manage a healthy balance or negotiate a middle ground.

 

At times while reading this collection and considering the themes it repeatedly explored, I found myself wishing that the language and structure of the poems conveyed more of a sense of urgency or dissonance, rather than being presented in such a straightforward and fairly traditional format. The short line lengths and non-surprising line breaks led me to read these pieces with a slow and careful pace that sometimes did not seem to mesh well with the thematic concerns. Perhaps the structure of these poems is trying to enact its own statement about the futility of attempting to contain oneself within ordinary and expected formats.

 

Despite language usage that sometimes seems overly obvious, many of these poems do include an underlying resistance against the obvious. In ‘Parthenogenesis,’ the speaker would rather starve herself than give in to normal eating habits. In ‘Old Bed,’ the speaker would rather deprive herself of sleep to the point of hallucination than succumb to normal patterns of sleep—and her description of the bed and resistance to sleep in this piece also seems to speak of a culture that has become overly reliant on medication, whether self-medication or societal-sanctioned remedies, as in:

This pink, synthetic honey spoiling

the tea of my life, already steeped into a stupor…

 

It’s like a fad now faded, trendy and cheap.

 

Sleep: if everyone put a spike

through their heads and wore paper pants

 

to work I’d be the one to say ‘No thanks.’

I’m not so insecure that I need

 

to be ridiculous, to dream, to belong

to the smiling group, like anyone.

 

I don’t need a cult of sleep to tell me to die

every night. I don’t trust the world…

Again the resistance to normalcy or to what a misguided society now tries to prescribe as normalcy, to complacency, to giving in. This speaker does not trust the impulse that seems to seek to turn us into zombies, into sheep, into sleepy teams, embracing what everyone else unquestioningly embraces because it’s very ubiquity has come to make it seem like some sort of collective unconscious—but is it really? Or is something more insidious than that? Something more akin to a carefully-constructed, corporate-plotted drug commercial posing as reality? And even if one somehow recognizes this, how does one resist the easy fix?  How does one speak against it and have a chance of being heard when so many people are automatically buying into the ‘sleep drug” that is advertised to us so ubiquitously that it begins to seem acceptable and normal and like the natural order of things.

 

The next piece, “Spring in Space: A Lecture,” states:

The message is: there is never enough,

 

Though we celebrate the hoax of boundlessness.

Yet another indication that in spite of the adherence to straightforward structures and relatively obvious language, the voice of these poems is not willing to blindly accept the status quo. On some level she recognizes it as a hoax, an illusion, a farce, a comedy of manners—and she repeatedly points this out, but of course recognition does not equal escape. She seems to be stuck when it comes to the matter of how to move beyond traditional structures, if such progression is even possible. As evidenced in the very structure of these poems, the boundaries seem so constricting, the acceptable parameters so very narrow (and part of me wants to scream, ‘So forsake acceptability then!’)

 

Seemingly weak lines like “Love is the source, of course” crop up here & there—and I’m not quite sure if they’re meant to be taken seriously or to poke fun at aphorism-istic self-help speak or maybe it’s something in between. After all, many of us persist in believing that ‘love will conquer all’, but this book’s poetry sometimes casts even that commonly held hope into doubt.

 

Appearing in the center of the collection, the long poem “Replaceable until You’re Not” deals with a serious romantic partnership and some of the repercussions of its demise. This includes the strangeness of feeling stuck in time and mentally stilted because one can imagine a certain version of herself residing in a past partner’s memory—and even if she has moved on to an extent, that version of her will remain suspended, unable to progress, as in:

I’ll always be the same woman you loved,

              this woman I no longer am,

 

I’ll be her and re-be her

             because I can’t replace myself.

 

Hers is the body you loved, she was yours,

              this future corpse;

 

no matter how many lovers she, her body, and I have,

              only you know the curvature that stops your heart…

The subject matter traffics in some pretty complex and thought-provoking terrain suggesting even our own preservation in time is beyond our control for it is at least partly based in other’s perceptions of non-comprehensive versions of us that may remain stagnant and pinned in the past no matter how we choose to proceed in the present and future. How do we reconcile these past/present/future incarnations of ourselves? How do we choose which versions to embrace? Is there a productive way for these versions to co-exist or is it inevitable to feel as if one is almost perpetually shedding skins and losing something that can never be regained?

 

No matter how time progresses and shifts and changes us, older versions of us will exist in other people’s minds, in other moments in time, (just as older versions of other people are preserved within us). Sometimes considering these other versions can be quite unsettling and other times, perhaps such versions are worthy of small celebration on their own terms. The poem “This Loved Body’ offers up such a celebration in prose poetry sections of lush, vivid imagery that specifically celebrates the details of a lover’s body. It is not entirely clear whether the speaker is celebrating a present lover or a past lover—and maybe it doesn’t matter that much. In terms of both style and tone, this poem feels like a departure from much of the rest of the collection, but be that as it may, it as an evocative celebration of a passionate interlude in time and the detailed impression another individual has the power to impress upon one. Whether extending from the past or the present, this piece imparts a certain sense of positivism about the power of love and unique human interaction even in the midst of all this numbness and interchangeableness and non-delineation. The language in this piece seems rich enough to suggest that perhaps certain special connections can save us from the ordinary after all. Even if something so powerful is not always able to sustain itself, some of its details will continue to exist within one and isn’t that worth something?

 

Overall, although the styling and the surfaces of most of these poems does not initially thrill, but further consideration of their underlying layers and of their thematic concerns provokes complex thought processes and is worth a read and then maybe a careful reread.

*

Juliet Cook is a poet and the editor of Blood Pudding Press. A few of her recent publication credits include ‘DIAGRAM’, ‘OCTOPUS’, ‘ditch’, ‘blossombones’, ‘Sein Und Werden’ and ‘Prick of the Spindle’.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and currently has a poem representing in Sundress Publications Best of the Net 2007 Anthology.  Her various print chapbooks can be acquired via Blood Pudding Press at www.BloodPuddingPress.etsy.com.  Her first e-chapbook, ‘Projectile Vomit’, will be published soon by Scantily Clad Press.   Another print chapbook, ‘Heart Urchin’ is forthcoming from Trainwreck Press.

 

 

 

Shawna Yang Ryan on Zachary Mason’s novel Lost Books of the Odyssey


Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Starcherone Books

A few years ago in the midst of my Mandarin studies, I began to explore Tang poetry.  I discovered that a mere 20 characters could contain whole stories, elaborate scenes, emotion, action, place, and history: movement embedded in the lack of prepositions, allusions compressed into a word. Tang poetry is in a way ungrammatical, which allows the reader as Chinese literature scholar Wai-Lim Yip says “a unique freedom to consort with the objects and events of the real-life world.” Yip describes the poems of Wang Wei: “The poet does not step in, but, rather, he allows the scenery to speak and act itself out. It is as if the poet has become the objects themselves” (72). Tang poetry also has a sense of timelessness; without a western sense of grammar or perspective, all objects on the page occur simultaneously. The art is both compressed and expansive.

 

In the winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize, Zachary Mason’s gorgeous debut The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I found a similar sense of the compressed and expansive, of timelessness. In 46 chapters, each a story both self-contained and intimately linked to the others, Mason switches between points-of-view and narrators, unpacks and expands moments of the original, and re-imagines stories with a clarity that consumes the reader.

 

The book could be opened at random, a finger dragged along the page and any line chosen would exemplify the beauty of Mason’s writing; it is, appropriately, its own best example as we see from the chapter ‘One Kindness’:

Within, three women sat around a snapping fire. The shadows on the wall behind them were the blurred silhouettes of sweet maiden, stout matron and bent crone, but as the firelight flickered the shadows took other forms—a long armed ogre with grasping hands, a bird of prey with unfurled wings, a net with glass floats (their iridescence gleaming on the rough rock walls), or, sometimes, nothing at all. (35)

Mason evinces freedom with the entirety of language, archaic and modern are at his fingertips. In one line is maiden, matron, and crone—not only does each word telegraph strong and distinct connotations, but the order relays a transformation of sound that reflects the sliding through stages represented by the words’ meanings. Further on we can admire the visceral textures of the line that mentions net, glass, gleaming, and rock.

 

And yet The Lost Books of the Odyssey yields up even more, because what Mason has crafted is not only a gem of the cleanest, most precise lines but also a work that expands into meta-fiction—of riddles, stories within stories, stories that create infinite loops, and stories blossoming out of cracks and silences.  Incidents are revisited, rewritten, the same story told again and again in a way reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. After awhile, one’s memory of the original Odyssey and Mason’s version begin to bleed together, and one loses the sense of what was original knowledge and what is new. This is a book that can be appreciated on many levels: as compelling story, as heartbreaking prose, and as intelligent and playful commentary on the act of storytelling itself.

*

 

Shawna Yang Ryan is the author of Locke 1928, a 2007 Finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Locke 1928 will be republished in 2009 by Penguin Press.

NYC Write-a-thon participant Lissa Edmonds reviews Jeffrey McDaniel’s “The Endarkenment”


Jeffrey McDaniel, Endarkenment, University of Pittsburgh Press

 

In “The Endarkenment,” Jeffrey McDaniel’s fourth poetry collection, the slam poet describes a plethora of topics including politics, sex, religion, and the strengths and flaws of humanity in analogies rich with passion, pain, tenderness, crudeness, and humor. This unique mixture is features both the strengths and weaknesses of McDaniel’s poetry whose voice is strong and creative but occasionally over-reaching which disrupts his soft, clever moments.

 

McDaniel is known for his talent performing his poems, however his voice doesn’t lose its impact in written form. It maybe more powerful because the reader can review the poet’s unique ideas and phrases over and over until their various meanings sink in. McDaniel uses repetition in poems like the vivid “Origins” where the hilarious “don’t touch it!” translates to the written page enhancing the messages of the poems.

 

McDaniel has an incredible knack for generating fresh and intriguing ideas and imagery between topics that initially seem incongruous. For example, in his title poem McDaniel disputes the use of the word “sunset.” The sun does not set or rise, he writes, but if it could turn, it would never come back to a planet like ours. He calls moonlight a “luminescent echo,” and “a politician whose speeches are written by the sun.” Towards the end of the poem he leaps from talking about Bill O’Reilly to wondering and describing what it would be like to mate with a sheep. Depending on your sense of humor and love of the wooly animal, you’ll declare McDaniel brilliant or too clever for his own good.

 

Regardless, his variety of tone creates a book that isn’t neatly tied together to a single, collective theme.He’s humorous in “Boner Etiquette”:

Remember
the boner is always half full. Most

boners sleep upside down in caves,

ready to flutter into the world

at the drop of a bra strap.

He’s tender in “Little Sadness”:

I know the pain is inside me, that the sadness

has not gone away forever, but where is it?

Come here, my little sadness, I whisper

down my esophagus.

He’s angry in “Ethel Rosenberg Addressing Her Brother, David Greenglass”:

For fifty-plus years, you’ve lived off my ashes.

How did it taste to swallow our name?

What do you see when lightning flashes?

And often, he’s more than one of these characteristics. In “Lament for a Shriveling Flesh Plant,” McDaniel talks about the need that humans have to be watered in the same way plants are except that humans need to be watered on the inside and out while still insisting on their independence. The narrator reveals his inability to give a person all that he or she needs in a moment which begins with intimate insight and swiftly changes when the narrator diverts his attention to the subject of the poem:

I sit here by the bed, pressed

against my exterior, wishing I had more to give,

so in the dark, when you tilt me to your lips,

a wave could rinse through your insides,

but alas, I’m just a cheap, unwashed glass

with three measly ounces of tap water

in my grasp and you are the whore

who will one day hurl me against the wall

 

McDaniel’s poetry is incredibly accessible for both poetry lovers and those people who swear up and down that they can’t understand the hidden meanings in poems. He uses everyday images in unconventional ways. He combines humor, horror, sex, pain, and sentiment in the same verse. By shocking, touching, and entertaining readers, he opens them up to new ways to imagine.