Paperbark: Sonja Livingston on Goldie Goldbloom’s Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders


Goldie Goldbloom, Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders, New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2010

 

Ghost gum, snow gum, paperbark, white
Little Gin Boyle is an ugly sight.

 

And so it goes for poor Gin. In addition to the singsong taunt of her childhood, the young albino suffers other things: A rare but unrewarded musical talent. The loss of a mother. Confinement. It’s no wonder then, that Gin allows herself to hope when the stooped and “sawn-off stranger” Mr. Toad claims her hand and carts her off to the wilds of Western Australia, to a landscape where the only water comes from rooftop run-off, is smashed from eucalyptus roots, or sucked from gum leaves. Years have passed when the novel opens and Gin, who is resigned to a hardscrabble existence, has long since learned the foolishness of hope:

 

The sky over Wyalkatchem is hotter and bluer than any other place, and the winds are stronger, the thermals rising tens of thousands of feet straight up, lifting the litter of the desert in its embrace: shards of quartz and shale and flakes of limestone, spinifex, the lost tails of geckoes, scraps of paperbark, the hot smell of the red dirt, the taste of the sky like salt from the sea, cracked pieces of pottery, parrot eyes, wedge-tailed eagles looking for prey, the broken hearts of men and women, the souls of the children who died in that great isolation, sadness, unwillingness, anger, strands of horse hair, nuts and bolts, chicken feathers, sand.

 

With its backdrop of WWII, “Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders” is, I suppose, an historical novel. And while it tells the story of Italian POWs sent to Wyalkatchem and describes what the war means to all of them, Italians and Australians alike, one of the joys of this novel is the way it refuses to be pinned down.

Goldbloom’s language and setting are almost too raw to think of as lyrical, and yet, Goldbloom pulls readers into a world that thumps and sings. A dark world, yes. But even in the dark, Goldblooms manages to play with language, stringing words together in ways that are always alive. At times, the telling is elliptical, coming in swatches of narrative in Gin’s voice: You’ll have to forgive me for my language. Gin Toad is no longer a lady. Other times the story is told from other points of view, as with Gin’s forbidden (and perhaps imagined) dance with one of the Italian prisoners. Occasionally Goldbloom stitches the narrative together in more surprising ways, such as associative inventories and lists. The result is that while we travel most of the novel at Gin’s side, crouched in the orchard with her or seated at the piano, there are times when we come at Goldbloom’s world from different angles; a dangling pair of eyes thrust into the room from above, running along the walls, the ceiling, coming up from under the dirt floor:

 

These are the things I learned to do after coming to Wyalkatchem: I learned how to make yeast, to bake bread, to make a bread pan out of an old kerosene tin, how to clean a kerosene tin and flatten it and smooth the edges with a rasp, how to trim the wick on a kerosene lamp, to clean the chimney of a kerosene lamp with a piece of newspaper crumpled in a ball, how to move creosote from my skin with yellow soap, how to make yellow soap from ash and lye and fat, how to make lye, how to render fat, how to cook on a wood stove, how to split wood with an axe, how to treat burns from a woodstove, how to treat burns from hot ashes, how to treat burns from lye, how to treat a man who has been burnt, how to treat a man, how a man likes to be treated, how to make a maternity dress, how to make a layette, how to push out a baby, how to cut an umbilical cord with the knife used for castrating the lambs, how to feed an infant, how to hang a blanket in the boughs of a gum tree and rock a baby to sleep, how to sit quietly at night with a child in my lap, how to feel for a fever, how to boil willow for its cooling sap, how to paint a throat with gentian violet and listen for the smallest breath, how to make a coffin, how to line it with pieces of cotton, how to dress a dead child, how to lower a coffin into the ground, how to put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.

 

No matter how she gets us to the material, we are touched, our guts are sometimes wrenched. But Goldbloom knows her task, and does not keep us any place longer than we can bear, so that in the very next line, we are deposited back into the kitchen with Toad, the children, and the POWs come to stay at Wyalkatchem.

Clearly I’m smitten. It’s tough not to be. Goldie Goldbloom creates characters as richly hued as her language, as magnetic as her voice. No one is what they seem. Not Gin, not Toad, nor their Italian prisoners. Each of them, in turn, shock and disgust and delight. Gin must hide her glory box from the corset-collecting Toad to keep him from stealing her mother’s wedding dress and other finery. Toad, for his part, barely looks at Gin, and then only to dish cruelty or to demand. But at one point, Gin says of her husband:

He liked to approach from behind, in the dark, on a moonless night when no stray gleam of light could illuminate my hair. He liked the sheets to be cool, he liked my shoulders to smell of grass, he liked to taste the skin at the back of my neck. He was embarrassed by the sound of springs, by kisses, by talk of any kind. He liked, afterwards, to take hold of my smallest finger and to fall asleep with it in his grip.

A tiny and all-too-temporary point of connection for the Toads.

Indeed, what ties them together, this collection of oddballs in the Outback is their mutual isolation, despite the various ways their lives entwine. They move in and out of each other’s company; seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing the other. Gin with her transparent skin and hair “like fishing line” is haunted by the memory of a child who might have quelled her longing. Toad, the brute who brags of eating his father’s pet cat, harbors his own collection of tender desires. The POWs, Antonio and John, think of home, but are far-removed and helpless as the Germans storm through Italy, destroying villages and murdering civilians.

But that is not all. The novel shows us longing in ways that make the heart sag, but that is not its power. Its power is in how it blooms, despite those things. What matters most is the necessity and revelation of beauty in the hardest of places and among those that society believes shouldn’t care about such things. In the dust and despair of Wyalkatchem, even as the POWs arrive and are marched toward the cesspool into which they’ll be dipped for delousing, orange blossoms fall fast and heavy onto Gin’s lap. The same white skin that robs her of the concert halls of Europe also glows and even once, is said to smell of apricots. The POWs sing opera, one wears wingtips and makes miniature shoes of feather and paperbark. Even the cranky Toad has his gallery of corsets and uses blue medicine meant for the marking of sheep to fashion lush paintings on the outhouse walls.

Goldbloom’s place and people are harsh and heartbreaking, broken, but not altogether lost. Indeed, for all the grit of a landscape rotting under the sun, each of these characters has access to a flutter of something light and unexpected; a salve, a much needed balm. Toads’ Museum of Freak and Wonders reminds me why I read. Goldie Goldbloom reminds me what to aim for when I write.

**

Sonja Livingston’s writing has been honored with a New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship, grants from the Deming Fund and Vermont Studio center, as well as an Iowa Review Award, AWP Book Award, and Pushcart Prize nominations. Her writing appears in many literary journals and textbooks on writing. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won the AWP Award and was a Foreword Magazine Book of the Year. She is teaches Creative Writing at the University of Memphis.

Risks and Expanse: Caroline Klocksiem on Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling


theories-of-falling

Theories of Falling, Sandra Beasley, New Issues Poetry and Prose 2008

I first read Theories of Falling in a waiting room while getting my car serviced. I didn’t know I’d end up reviewing it at the time; I only knew that I kept wanting to read each next poem and eventually didn’t care how long my oil change would take.

I’ve never met Sandra Beasley, but I sense that, on some level, she was thinking of me in her crafting of Theories of Falling. Here is a poet who wants to create an experience for the reader. Here is a poet who takes risks with language and form. These poems sprout from the seemingly mundane into dynamic, communicative and ultimately surprising lyrics.

Of course, Theories of Falling contains some poems that might be called “personal,” like “Story of my Family,” “Allergy Girl,” and “The General,” but Beasley finds a way to orient them outwards, so that we are in the poems rather than beholden to them. It seems to me that the writing is so compelling that the question of “how autobiographical is this” is the least of what’s interesting about them. (Really that question only occurred to me after reading Theories of Falling, when I came across an article for Hayden’s Ferry Review in which Beasley discusses being asked, essentially, how true the poem “The General” is.)

Beasley does not grasp her poems too tightly. They are not owned, but shared moments of language. What is true is the experience of the language, the breathtaking effect of a sharp-focused lens. Like the opening to “Story of my Family”: “You’re a tooth I tongue and tongue, / Tasting blood as you loosen, / Testing the sweet root of the hole.” She opens with this perfectly magnified sharp image, but quickly moves on to another note. Here, a family is restless, and the poem itself is restless. No longer a tooth, it quickly grows into some surreal necklace “no lover wants to wear” until it’s a field, a sprout, a “used body.” The family transforms from being the one “tested” to the tester— pluralized, animated “fingers scratching toward any light.” Each knockout image or phrase is quickly abandoned in favor of another, and we are swept along with them.

For the sense of restlessness and quick movements that typify a good deal of Theories of Falling, the book itself is organized with great care and insight. “Story of my Family” accompanies others in the previous section “The Experiment,” which hovers around issues of familial ties and coming of age discomforts. The middle section, “Theories of Falling,” tends toward a more expansive and sensual tone. Bridging the disparate voices, images and tensions throughout the book, it may be the strongest section. The last part, “This Silver Body,” is at times introspective (but never exclusive), restless, tender and complicated.

The poem “You” is thoughtfully chosen as an usher into the second section. “You” is more complicated but also compounded by the poem “The Experiment” from the first section. It is in itself an experiment. “You” (and subsequently the rest of the book) moves away from an experiment of “I” to an experiment of “you.” Look at the expanse and transformative play in “You.” Always looking forward, the poem divines that you are, could be, or will be all these things:

You are the whole building on fire.
You are the voice of sirens. You are
the dumb crowd milling, the capture

…a mother at the cliff of her window ledge.
You are the choice to drop her baby.
You’re the chance of a beckoning crowd,
Six hands gripping a sooty raincoat. You
are the only option. You’re a simple drop.

You are like a cloud. Gray
And you don’t hold anything. You are
That moment before a falling, the falling

…And by the end of the poem you are more and more outside the building, until ultimately, “the whole building burns with you.”(!) The poem “You” seems to set the tone for the entire middle section—infectious, uncontainable, unpredictable.

As Theories of Falling goes on, there’s an escalating sense of directness and desperation, a growing immediacy with each poem. In “Fireproof,” for instance, the speaker demands to be reprimanded—“now make the bitch of me my love”… “even the tame dogs dream of biting clear to the bone.” In the title poem, “Theories of Falling,” a cat swivels and bounces, but the isolated, unsweetened bottom line that drives the poem is that “we do not bounce.” You think back to “You,” to the “the moment before the falling,” but in this poem you’re now “in a cage, bracing your knees…” and the only thing to do is “Jump, for God’s sake. Jump like your life depends on it.” The following poem, “The Parade,” echoes this urgency: “love, you are wasting these elephants and this ticker tape.” (You can hear Horace whispering “carpe diem” offstage.)

The final section of Theories of Falling, Silver Body, reminds me of a Janus mask. Some poems glance back at earlier issues within the book (like “The Puritans” pulling back to the school yard that shows up in the first section). But they also look forward, and upward, perhaps more than the other two sections. For example, the poems now think about planets and constellations (a breaking away from the tether of gravity which infects a good deal of the book). In this sense, the section heading suggests a broader scope for the term “body.” The body these poems conjure is more than just human container, but an oeuvre, a constellation of work.

If this section operates as a Janus mask, the lines in the poem “Theories of Nonviolence” unfold in the same way—each line building off each other, but shooting off into new territory, to look something like this:  <- ->

“Theories of Nonviolence” is complicated in its construction and concern, a rich experience for a poem of only sixteen lines. The first line, “A frightened rabbit kicks its hind legs so hard that it can break its own back” leads into “Someone said shelve this [the video of the rabbit].” And from that moment on, the poem tangles line by line with concerns of “the repeat loop” of violence and subsequent ordering of that violence (Reminding me a little of Szymborska’s sobering opening to “The End and the Beginning”: “After every war/ Someone has to tidy up.”) Violence wells up. What can we do with it? The poem, like the rabbit, wants to escape the loop of violence—the father thinks of war of “in terms of the sword and the scalpel” but the poem’s impulse is to transcend that. It does not want to linger on this image, or look (loop) back on the scalpel, but forward, to the way an old lover might “save that man.” The father equates “scalpel” with war, while the life-saving lover equates “a sharper knife” with survival. Of the two, Beasley chooses to close with “knife,” the tool the poem associates with rehabilitation. Indeed, the forward-facing side of the Janus mask seems to rule with the stronger gaze.

The closing poem, “August,” is in three movements, a gentle reminder of the experiences the three sections of Theories of Falling have created. “Sooner or later, the thing you value most will beg to be burned,” will be out of your control, will never be truly graspable. This is as true of the sunsets in the opening poem, “Cherry Tomatoes,” as it is for Poetry.

Theories of Falling is a sweeping collection with an impressive scope of style, voice and concern. Haven’t we all read a collection of poems and thought at some point, “OK, you can clearly write an amazing ‘this type’ of poem… but can you show me something else?” Those are the books you flip through randomly, read about half the poems and then never return to. When you start reading Theories of Falling, you’ll want to keep reading straight through, like I did waiting for my oil change. The risks and expanse of Beasley’s writing makes for a respectable and sustainable collection. Based on this first book, I have no idea what to expect from her in the future… and I think that’s one of the highest compliments any artist can receive.

*

Caroline Klocksiem grew up in South Carolina and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. She is a poet, teacher, and co-poetry editor for 42opus. This is her first published review.