The Jammin’ Wild Life Rocket Fire of Paul Siegell’s Poetry by Martha Engber

Paul Siegell, jambandbootleg, A-Head, 2009

Paul Siegell, wild life rifle fire, Otoliths, 2010

Paul Siegell’s poetry is the sticky, glass-shattered asphalt outside tacky rock concert venues. It’s the crowded Jersey boardwalks on humid summer nights. It’s hip-swaying in a rocking place, music-pulsing bodies packing the house, the place a jammin’ riff. In specific, Mr. Siegell’s jambandbootleg and wild life rifle fire offer three-dimensional poetry that’s one-third shape, one-third symbols (sometimes words, sometimes not) and one-third the memories of all lowbrow cheap thrills ever had. Playful. Unapologetically gimmicky. Humorously self-deprecating. A carnival ride of joy. In other words, poetry as playground.

Don’t get me wrong. Not every poem in the 117-page jambandbootleg — as in bootleg concert tapes made by people like Mr. Siegell on the college-era road trip he purportedly started on the Long Island Expressway at Exit 35, according to the book’s notes — is a masterpiece. But every one of the 50+ pieces jumps with energy and spinning thought, not only due to word choice, but shape, as in the double helix of *THE AFTERNOON SET OF 12.31.00* or the guitar of *11.19.05 – Bright Eyes – Academy of Music, PA* or the American flag of *FORT SKATEBOARD*, the words packed tightly where the stars should be, the sentences lengthening where the stripes stretch out.

Mr. Siegell’s use of whatever is necessary to get the job done — flipping text sideways, using triple parentheses, lining up the double L’s in each word of *Parallelograms* — is reminiscent of Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental novel House of Leaves.
Most of the poems in Mr. Siegell’s books are made more so — more funny, more ironic, more surprising — by the use of abbreviation, such as b/w the killer, as in be with and by the inclusion of amusing symbols:


—amusing references to pop culture:

alas, “I could use a little more cowbell.”

—and simply amusing musings:

*RE: Cover Letter*

To Whom.

It may concern you that I came
This (=) close to tattooing

my resume

upon the thigh of a stolen old mannequin’s leg,
with something of a, “Now that I’ve got my

paw in the door,”

but please accept this email ink of, hope-
fully, a diff’rent ilk instead. (It’s much less

horrifying.) Resume attached. Thank you.

Very Respectfully Yours,

Mr. Just Kidding

wild life rifle fire manages an even more intense vibrancy that’s almost visual. Each page of the small book is filled with one or two words printed in thick, inch-high black letters on a white background, the effect that of strobing exclamation marks.
Rather than contemplate each page singly, however, the reader is urged to move quickly from one page to another in order to absorb the overall effect, which is that of a flip book, each page an illustration of the same object, though slightly changed, so that flipping through the pages appears to make the object move. Words are pictures and pictures are words, like on the first page where there’s an eye-patch-wearing, gun-toting bad boy made of nothing more than various punctuation marks. Or on the first page featuring letters:


—and across two pages:
xpl           in
ode           iti

The book can be read in two minutes, the result jarring as rapid gunfire. Both books leave one with the impression of an art form redefined. An art form meant to be free and freeing, but much of which seems to have grown shackled by rules and expectations. Fortunately, the rocking body of work created by Mr. Siegell appears to have jumped the fence for an irreverent romp on the wild side.

The Red Heart: Martha Engber on Kathryn White’s novel Emily Green and Me

Emily Green and Me, Kathryn White, Struik Publishers, 2009

Books at their best take readers by the throat, or in the case of Kathryn White’s Emily Green and Me (Umuzi, 2007), by the heart, literally, figuratively, and most thankfully, without sentimentality. The last is remarkable, given this is the story of an 11-year-old white girl in Cape Town, South Africa, who after a youth of illness receives the heart of a motorbike accident victim, 17-year-old black boy from Joburg, slang for Johannesburg. Such a premise has enormous capacity for cliché, especially when the dead boy watches over his heart’s recipient from his elevated place in limbo. Yet the story is a smackdown of the hokey notion of angels doing good deeds. Instead, the plot focuses on a girl tiptoeing her way back from the living dead with the help of a dead guy who’s trying to maneuver her into winding up his unfinished business on earth.

The story’s grip stems from Ms. White’s youth and irreverence, most notably demonstrated through the thrilling language that’s a form of rolling explosion. Readers are not given a chance to ponder if certain images are logical or possible, but instead are forced to roll, too, within a rhythm of playfulness that makes sense if not in the short-term, in the long-term, an overall effect that proves startling in a wonderful way:

The girl’s heart does a flip-flop. It trammels up against her bony ribs. The heightened swing of the nervous trapeze artist, the fly back to its original standing point, the tightrope of fear taught beneath the big circus top of her ribs. She listens.

Far down in the other wing of the house she can hear her mom’s furtive grabbing of the telephone receiver. She can hear her mother’s heart beating as she trembles into the phone, her mother’s dry scaly hands peeling stress and trauma. The phone slipping as she sweats out stress.
— Oh dear god, she says under her breath.
Her voice trembles in the moonlit air. The dad wakes.
— Who is it? he asks.

Told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint, the details are what convince the reader that the narrator, if often sarcastic, is smitten with the imperfect humans struggling so mightily to overcome their various blindnesses. Of Emily, who must find her way in a world where she’s never really lived. Of her grandmother, who clings to the old guard culture of them vs. us until forced into the open by the brutal rape of an elderly friend. Of Emily’s parents, adrift from a decade-long stagnation of passion and purpose. These details flow the reader’s attention to the microscopic and keep it there:

The car doors suck shut, closing them in silence. Her mother draws hard on her cigarette. Wafts of grey-blue smoke fill the interior. The engine purrs into mobility, the gravel churns as they pull out and the tar answers with a snarl.

From that whimsical, magnified view of the world rises a story that is blessedly not pretty, cute, too dark or too light. Nor is the story weighted down by an attempt to be an important literary work, but instead achieves the significant by staying true to a sense of invigoration and delight that enlighten on at least three levels. Besides Emily’s emergence from the cocoon of a youth spent on the doorstep of death is the un-apologetically obvious symbolic merging of two hearts, two races, two colors, two different worlds via advances in medical technology and the construct of human spirit as indomitable and eternal.

The story begins with Emily and her family self-imprisoned within an affluent, yet decaying, home in a protected white community. They’re isolated from one another and from the other half — the black half — of their country’s heart. Yet through brief and infrequent, yet wild dialogue, the back boy looking down from above tells us of his attempts to nudge Emily and her family toward a jailbreak. He’s motivated by a personal reason for freeing Emily, which is why the story doesn’t feel like a literary hammer to the head. He wants something specific. He works toward that goal. In doing so, he pulls Emily and her family into Jo-burg, the gritty, scary heart of South Africa where reality dominates and blacks and whites, even if they’re not yet integrated, are on their way toward meshing into one African landscape. Even if that outcome is far in the future, there’s a vibrancy to the involuntary nature of the change, much as Emily’s need for a heart and the boy’s loss of his arose from the involuntary nature of nature itself.

That hopefulness is what makes Ms. White’s book stand out from some of the master writers her country has produced. I do not mean to suggest the works of such stars as Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee present a picture of hopelessness, but rather that this story, written by then 27-year-old Ms. White, reflects a regeneration of soul and a belief in eventual unification, however inexact, inconvenient and overdue, from a writer who is of this younger generation. Hence the reason, I assume, she made the again un-apologetically obvious choice of the surname Green for her main character. Ms. White conveys that sense of renewal, which varies from ironic to pathetic to charming, without ever slipping into the categories of naive, judgmental, or preachy.

The Good Old Days That Never Were: Martha Engber on Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy

Alice Fulton, The Nightingales of Troy, WW Norton

One can almost taste dust when reading Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy. The book of interrelated short stories is not about the Dust Bowl, a dusty planet in a sci-fi tale, or a dessert. Rather, the dust is of the type kids find in their grandmother’s attic. Not just any attic, either, but the attic of peeling two-story clapboard houses like those found in old upstate New York towns along the Hudson River.

The stories carry readers through a century of women in a family settled in the Troy area where Fulton grew up. The book begins with Mamie Flynn Garrahan, who in 1908 milks the cows even though she’s in heavy labor preceding a birth she may have to endure by herself.

The book then follows the lives of Annie’s daughters to a granddaughter grieved by her the distortions of her dreams and her mother’s impending death. All the stories have about them the feel of old, brittle wallpaper and banisters polished to a sheen through years of hands sliding along the wood. The theme throughout reflects a sense of nostalgia, not for the good old days, but rather the real old days. The heartaches of loves lost, the killing silence of propriety, the ignorance of mental illness.

One by one, the characters experience joy that’s within their grasp, only to see happiness slip away into a life of making due. There’s Charlotte Garrahan, who gladly treats her fiancé to sweet suppers from the Sweet Shoppe where she works, only to discover the splintering distance between her family of modest farm roots and his moneyed Connecticut clan. Then there’s Annie Garrahan, who’s lifted to Florence Nightingale status largely based on an innocent, yet potent optimism, only to fall, forever crippled, when she fails to rescue a small boy.

The book is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s View From Castle Rock, a collection of interrelated short stories about an extended family that travels from Scotland to settle in Canada where, through the decades, the family continues to evolve according to the changing culture and landscape.

Unlike Munro’s effort, however, Fulton’s book, through the depiction of times past, begs an odd comparison between the standard literary treatment she uses and new emerging forms of literature. Highly-detailed, subtle and focused in the minute inner workings of characters, Fulton’s style in this endeavor gives the impression this type of storytelling has surpassed its time; that though still the bedrock of highly-respected literary journals, riskier and more innovative writing beckons elsewhere.