Deceptive Yet Ultimately Fitting: James Reiss on Simone Muench’s Orange Crush


Orange Crush, Simone Muench, Sarabande Books, 2010

On first looking into Simone Muench’s “Orange Crush,” I can’t say that I felt like stout Cortez staring out at the Pacific. Reading Muench’s first poem’s opening lines, “Trouble came and trouble / brought greasy, ungenerous things,” I flashed on lyrics from the venerable Broadway show, “The Music Man”: “Ya got trouble / With a capital T / And that rhymes with P / And that stands for pool”!

Down-home America also plays its bit part throughout this book in Muench’s many variations on the word “sweet,” as in “Cedar / sweetness of skin instructs,” “like violet pastilles / so sweet,” “the faint sweet scent of bakery shelves” and so forth, including ironic uses of the word, plus the homonym “suite.” Based on her references to her stomping grounds in Arkansas and Louisiana, and her being a fan of horror films, along with her casual mention of things like “a dress / designated for dance, thin, / as cocktail napkins,” I jumped to conclusions: Muench was a Southern Gothic post-bellum belle of the ball, half–Scarlett O’Hara, half–Anne Rice.

The truth is far more complex—and simpler. In her third full-length collection Muench is as musically inclined as Meredith Willson’s music man, “Professor” Harold Hill—a con artist in “River City,” Iowa—and as hyperkinetic as Margaret Mitchell’s heroine. Thank goodness Muench doesn’t pine for Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler. If she doesn’t always succeed in carpe-ing the diem, at least she doesn’t hang around whining, “Tomorrow is another day.”

In terms of where she stands vis-à-vis The American Poetry Crowd, Muench is quite au courant. At just a smidgen over 40, she’s a non-card-carrying member of what Stephen Burt, in his seminal essay back in 1998, called the Elliptical Poets. Closer to the Arkansan C. D. Wright than to the Canadian Anne Carson or that quintessential Steel City-cum-New Yorker, Lucie Brock-Broido, Muench approaches her material sideways, as in the 2004 wine-aficionado movie of the same title. She sees things out of the corner of her eye. Which is to say her poems lack the straightforward focus of a poet like Elizabeth Bishop or Carol Muske-Dukes, though Muske-Dukes has often grown restless with the frontal nudity of events.

Like dozens—hundreds—of her poet peers who became adolescents during The Reagan Years, in her work Muench doesn’t much care about telling stories. Whether she heard too many tall tales told by the Gipper or reacted negatively to some of her predecessors in verse like Louise Glück and Diane Wakoski—both to a certain extent practitioners of the narrative—or, as may be the likeliest case, whether Muench abandoned full-blown narration because she believed that any one story was an reductio ad absurdum of The Big Story of the Universe, Muench and her fellow Ellipticals have said bye-bye to “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after,” as well as to the frequently tedious details between these signposts. Anecdotes, fables, parables: all are passé to poets able to leap from here to there, from now to then—and think more in terms of Picasso’s collages than of Edward Hopper’s mise en scènes.

On the other hand, Muench touches on bondage narratives. Without constructing sequential plots, she deals with women’s lack of liberation and some of its awful particulars. Condensing what could be the early slave years of Sojourner Truth, in a poem about a young girl’s suicide titled “You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined,” Muench initially lashes the reader: “master wear a mask when you break out the leather.” No need to explain the link between whipping and being “tiger-lined”; Muench’s work suggests a woodshed of lost connections in a single image.

A few years ago in an important mixed review of her second book, “Lampblack & Ash,” critic Joel Brouwer took Muench to task for her lushness, her “extravagant language.” There’s nothing in “Orange Crush” to indicate that she’s followed Brouwer’s advice to “rein in” the wild horses loping through these poems. Indeed, to call her a painterly imagist or an abstract expressionist with Fauvist tendencies—plus an Elliptical—begins to sound accurate. But the imagist Pound constructed a detailed chronological account of a river-merchant’s wife, based on a poem by Li Po, and perhaps the homiest of Pound’s successors, the Deep Imagist James Wright, fashioned a documentary about blue-collar desolation that featured high-school football players in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In contrast, one of Muench’s best poems, “I never was an orange girl; but I have the gutter in my blood all right,” conveys the nitty-gritty of being a twenty-first-century woman in a poignant pinup catalogue/collage of tercets. Notice, by the way, that despite her inclusive list, Muench never refers to “good girl” or, more crucially, to “bad girl.”

sweater girl, elevator girl,
factory girl unsnarling her pin curls,
gibson girl, varga girl

au pair girl, bunny girl, flower girl,
career girl, chorus girl, college girl,
cover girl, geisha girl, party girl

wayward girl, servant girl, bachelor girl,
campfire girl, working girl, give-it-a-whirl girl,
bar girl, call girl, check girl, farm girl

shop girl, street girl
sausage curl girl,
poor girl, you speak like a green girl

between two girls, which hath the merriest eye?
flint and pearl alike
my cold cold girls!

The italicized antepenultimate line here, with its shaky word usage—“which” instead of “who,” “merriest” instead of “merrier”—understandably underscores working-class substandard English. Elsewhere, too, the book could be a grammarian’s funeral, or at least his comeuppance. Muench mentions “Babies born / with clubfoots”; “We lay down [in the present tense] // fixed as wax”; and she plays switcheroo with an verbal that is ordinarily intransitive, “lilting the room into a red vivarium.” Her poems showcase complete sentences side by side with fragments, making the rhythm tilt almost like a pinball machine. For all her proletarian sympathies, her book bristles with such inkhorn terms as “cascarilla,” “portacath,” “tumulus,” “Kittlerian,” “alizarin,” “Marabou,” “bachata,” “brachial” “foehn,” “matryoshka,” “naphthalene,” “lenticular” and “versal.”

If I were William Logan, I might now make a snide remark about how these poems put Robert Desnos and Pablo Neruda through a blender and come out tasting like a smoothie—or, better yet, a Ward’s Orange Crush—from Victoria’s Secret! I could go on and rant about how Muench’s book is a spinoff of Karyna McGlynn’s 2009 Sarabande Books noir poetry collection recently reviewed in this journal, “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl.” Luckily, I am not William Logan nor was meant to be.

In fact, I find a lot to like about Muench. First off, I find her versatility impressive. There’s plenty of musical atonality and dissonance in these poems, but once in a while they revert to old-fashioned, kick-ass trochees and iambs, as in “Hex,” which I quoted in the first paragraph of this essay. Willy-nilly, Muench’s final metrical quatrain reminds me of parts of e. e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:

Trouble is and trouble was
and trouble came and sang
shush-shush or tell-tell
in a small small town

Then, too, although many of Muench’s poems use free verse, her third section/chapter entitled “Orange Girl Cast” starring personal women poet-friends whose names have been reduced in epigraphs to “kristy b,” “sophia k” and so on—this “recast” of the ambitious title poem “Orange Girl Suite” is a sequence of 13 prose poems that cannily use the second- and third-person points of view to describe their dramatis personae. Here’s the first prose-poem paragraph of “the bestiary (starring jackie w)”:

In a tongue-snap sky, waxwings unspool over the plains. He was a whisper, she was Nebraska. Her hands pepperweed, pebble, pearl to pearl, so tone-smooth. Her mouth speaks, a red canary to a dime cigar. Spittle sheen. There are worse things than being a pretty Catholic girl without any guilt.

One could do worse than admire the writing here. Muench’s “tongue-snap sky,” her waxwings that “unspool over the plains,” her male character who “was a whisper”—all this, and so much more, have the sweetness of unheard music, fresh sound and sense galore. Moreover—and perhaps most important for me—Muench’s evocations of women crushed by Taliban-like hordes of men yet somehow rising to converge empowered throughout history is something readers need to pore over.

On her book’s last page Richard Every’s photo of the author shows an attractive woman with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and a terrific smile. What a deceptive yet ultimately fitting portrait of Simone Muench, the Windy City vegetarian, the devotee of scary films, who, in her poems, carves bits and snippets for blood-and-guts scripts of unending, uplifting horror shows!

**

James Reiss, whose most recent book is “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems,” is Emeritus Professor of English and Founding Editor of Miami University Press at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. www.jamesreiss.com

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Comfortingly Mundane, Surprisingly Bizarre: Lauren Shapiro on Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border


Kiki Petrosino, Fort Red Border, Sarabande Books, 2009

Kiki Petrosino’s debut poetry collection Fort Red Border is exuberant, humorous, and complex in both form and content. Two of three sections are unabashedly concerned with intimate relationships (the first section follows an amorous liaison between the narrator and a fictitious Robert Redford, and the third section is entirely comprised of poems titled “Valentine”). One might expect such a set-up to be at best overly sincere and at worst trite; Petrosino’s book is neither. The narrators of these poems are constantly searching—for love, affection, a choice cut of meat—yet these poems inhabit a realm that is both comfortingly mundane and surprisingly bizarre.

In the first section, the elevated register and odd assortment of events and details create a space that is intimate and refined. There is “smoked salt from Wales,” “pommes frittes,” “tiger prawns,” and “chevre,” and Redford makes comments such as “Darling—/ I could marry you in this goddamned airliner,” or when asked if it snows in Malta, “Terribly”; “How fine,” he says of a hat. The film star touches down on earth long enough to sweep both the narrator and the reader into an adventure similar to what one might imagine of Aspen, Cannes, or any of those fabulous places where the rich and lucky luxuriate. These two travel first class, yet there is no pretension; the narrator seems as surprised as the reader by the turn of events, yet accepts them without question. I would argue that it is this very spontaneity, this blind acceptance of seemingly out-of-the-ordinary events, that makes the characters such enjoyable traveling companions. The series amplifies short moments of touch: a kiss on the forehead or earlobe, a reach around the waist while doing dishes become moments of utmost tenderness.

In this section, and indeed throughout the collection, Petrosino makes incredible use of dialogue; whether between the narrator and Robert Redford, an unknown “Valentine,” a bartender, uncle, certified chef, or even Jack White, it is dialogue that keeps much of these poems moving in their paces. Most often, the dialogue reflects the “real” way people speak, correcting themselves as they go. At the butcher in “Valentine”(p.67):

What can I get for you today?
Well
—I said. I wanted the 85% lean beef.

How about the 85 beef I said.
I mean, lean I said.

There is tension between thought and spoken word; the reader makes the leap alongside the narrator. And as should be obvious at this point, these poems are wonderfully humorous. Who but Petrosino could imagine eating “Cinnamon Frenchrolls” with Robert Redford after a visit to the City Museum of Industry, or the difficulties of making green beans amandine with Benito, a certified chef, while a book of Shakespeare takes up the entire kitchen sink? In “Valentine” (p.59), Jack Black and Jack White physically vie for the narrator’s affections:

Intense I say. Jack White opens his shirt. He takes out
some kind of raptor. This is totally poisonous he tells me.
Cool I tell him.

Whether there is a winner in this strange confrontation is left ambiguous, and one might hazard that the underlying meaning of this struggle has more to do with the ambiguities of race than these two engaging fighters. Elsewhere in the book, Petrosino drops small nuggets that suggest the author is very much aware of these complexities. The image of the author’s afro is a constant symbol throughout, and the juxtaposition of the colors white and black make many appearances, as in the “The Human Tongue Slows Down to Speak,”

White root in the vascular dark.
White trumpet in the dark’s

low tent.

Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps. But one needn’t look farther than the narrative to find racially charged moments, as in the last poem of the collection, “Valentine,” when the would-be lover puts off the narrator: “My whole family’s Anglo he joked. I can’t be the only one/ whose kids have too much hair.”

To her credit, Petrosino handles such heavy subjects with aplomb. These poems do not cast judgment nor make value-laden pronouncements, but are rather constantly seeking, constantly circling the issue. This examination moves from content to form almost seamlessly. In all three sections of the book, Petrosino uses repetition and syntax in interesting ways; her diction and choice of line breaks create both energy and surprise. In the poem “Gristle,” she writes,

lookathem says Uncle lookahow birds

eat up that chicken.
I lookahow birds eat up that

chicken good
God chickens’ll eat up

that chicken girl.
Chickens’ll eat chicken

girl best
cover up those dirty

legs—

This shocking ending to the poem is just one of the many surprises Petrosino has in store for the reader, and demonstrates how quickly she can change tones within a poem. Repetition begins as a game or a joke but ultimately becomes a source of emotional intensity. The title of the poem “Bitchfoxly” brings on a smile, but by the end the poem feels more like an interrogation: “where you keep it is this where you keep it is this/ where you keep it is this when you open this open it.” Similarly, in “Sonnet K,” the last line reads “Kneel down the dead face go down kneel down dead I kneel down–”. Words start to become a mantra, and the actions follow, trance-like.

If there is any negative aspect of this book, it might be that at times the specificities and allusions to pop culture start to feel a little overwhelming. In “Valentine” (p. 57), there is reference to Tunisia, Milli Vanilli, a Trapper Keeper, Moby-Dick, convertibles, zucchini flowers, BBC news, the casings on salami, Walgreens, contact lens solution, Sicily, and the Normans. While it may seem ingenious to be able to fit all of these items into a single poem, in places (particularly with the Trapper Keeper) it starts to seem kitsch. Does it truly matter whether M&M’s are “treats” or “snacks,” or that the pencils are No. 2? That said, these details, when they succeed, are exactly what create the wonderful sense of intimacy in these poems, so if here and there the author pushes them a little too far, that’s a small price to pay. Ultimately, Fort Red Border is a complex, funny, and engaging debut collection, and this reviewer, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.

Panty Flowers Rising: Juliet Cook on Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl


I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, Karyna McGlynn, Sarabande Books, 2009

[Editor’s Note: The lineation of the poetry below differs from the original, a link with the quoted verse in its proper format is forthcoming]

Deep into my reading of this poetry collection, one of the images conjured up in my mind’s eye was Ronette Pulaski from Twin Peaks.  I visualized the scene in which Ronette is slowly walking, ghost-like, across a deserted bridge in the midst of an abandoned landscape, having emerged from who knows what desolate wilderness or harsh reality.  The audience’s clues are that she appears traumatized to the point of numbness; her face is blank, but she is wearing only a torn and stained negligee and bracelets of tattered rope around her wrists.  Following this scene, the next time the audience sees Ronette Pulaski, she is hospitalized, in a coma-like state, unable to reveal the details of whatever sordid story debilitated her in such a way.

Ronette’s back story is revealed later, in bloody bits & pieces and dream sequences with tortured screams and strobe-like flashes of brutalization.  Her back story is one of illicit sex gone grotesquely awry, culminating in the horrific rape and murder of another girl.  Much of Twin Peaks focuses upon the story of that other girl, dead high school beauty queen Laura Palmer and her salacious secret life. Ronette Pulaski is never more than a peripheral character, yet it is through her vision that some of the more grim and grisly details of Laura Palmer’s final moments of existence are filtered.

Part of the reason Ronette Pulaski entered my mind while I was reading Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is related to this poetry collection’s imagery, settings, and hints of an underlying secret danger that seems to grow increasingly ominous as more clues are uncovered.  Another part of the reason is related to repeated links drawn between young female sexuality and some sort of unspoken menace or threat.  Yet another part of the reason is because the speaker in many of the poems seems akin to Ronette Pulaski in her peripheral character status.

…There is so much

I want to prevent–                                        What sort of entity must I inhabit

to keep bad words from coming into           the terrible acumen of

his possession? How to excise with a volt    these toxic suggestions

from his tremendous frame                           of reference?…

This speaker, from a poem called, “I Want to Introduce Myself, Not Quite Human”, seems to be considering what form or approach to take in order to best articulate something that happened in the past, or perhaps even to somehow prevent it from happening, by looking back and trying to make adjustments to the scene. In these and other texts, it is difficult to determine if the speaker is a main character in the scenarios she describes, because there is often a sense that she is outside looking in—or in the future looking back.

It seems like she is watching from the sidelines or from another point in time.  Sometimes it seems as if she is an observer, sometimes an investigator, sometimes a voyeur.  But what or who is the exhibit? Is she gazing upon another girl’s life or is she a voyeur of her own past?  Maybe the sense of being on the periphery or being disconnected from the main scene derives from a kind of repression or even dissociation.  Throughout the book, there is a mood of shifty, unstable identity, leading me to think that perhaps this speaker is revisiting scenes from her own past that she was not equipped to come to terms with at the time.  Perhaps she is creeping around this seamy periphery in an attempt to untangle some knots and then stitch some gaping holes closed.  Perhaps she is seeking such closure (or at least release) so that she may move forward and forge a more solid identity for herself.

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is divided into three sections: ‘Planchette’, ‘Visitant’ and ‘Revenant’.  However, one poem takes place before these sections begin, or it might be more accurate to state that this piece takes place after the other sections, chronologically speaking, but is positioned before them in the book, a sort of prologue.  This piece is entitled, “Ok, but you haven’t seen the last of me”.  In this piece, the speaker states that she is thirty years old.  She makes reference to erased memory and a covered bridge.  She says, “I remember her eyes, but not her name” and “Her names touches my lungs like the edge of a plate.  Hypothermia.”  This makes me think of suppression, submersion, and drowning as a kind of defense mechanism.  It also strikes me as an extreme way of saying that her name is at the tip of my tongue.  It is very possible that this collection’s title alludes to the speaker’s journey back to the past in order to kill off a past version of herself by releasing this past self’s story.  If this is the case, then perhaps she must first trawl this former self out of its murky depths, dredge up dark debris and strange artifacts, and attempt to work to the surface something that has been suppressed.

A planchette is the word for the pointer accompanying a Ouija board; that piece which one places her hand upon so that her subconscious mind can guide the spelling out of words from more hidden realms.  This concept can be associated with the idea of dredging up inklings and remnants that only the subconscious mind is privy to. After the speaker in the prologue poem revealed her age as thirty, the speaker in ‘Planchette’ seems to revert back to a more girlish state or perspective, able to make strange associations and draw tenuous connections, but not equipped to offer solutions or provide concrete facts.  Sometimes, she is a seemingly unreliable narrator, as in the poem, “A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool”.

At the beginning of this piece:

a girl rode her red tricycle around the bottom of the pool

the pool had no water; it hadn’t rained

the girl kept smelling her hand

it smelled like honeywheat, or the inside of a girl’s panties

By the end of this same piece:

her throat burned and she couldn’t move her legs

it wasn’t a tricycle

it was something she couldn’t get her foot out from under

she hated to stop or lose her shoe and, I’m sorry

the pool was full of water

As the girl pedals forward, the details of the scene change.  I wonder what that little “I’m sorry” is for.  It may be related to some conflict involved with revealing heretofore unarticulated details or sacrificing a past self.  Despite any conflict, though, I receive the impression that this narration must either remain mired in murk or move towards the truth.  The pool is full of water and it’s time to sink or swim.  Even when the girl was riding her bike on solid ground, her terrain was rough.  Now she’s underwater.

As evidenced in the poem excerpt above and the poem snippet used to title this review (“panty flowers rising”) female panties are a recurring motif in this collection.  They are presented as intimate artifacts and as strangely ominous debris.  A pair of bloody panties might be mere garbage or some kind of more sinister clue.  A description of the smell of a young girl’s panties hints at an innocent female sexuality that slowly mounts into something more primal and violent (or potentially provoking of violence).  The titillation of high school romance and sexual suggestiveness grows more crude and lewd and intertwined with an unspoken menace.  Young lust is juxtaposed with young death.  Birds nest bangs give way to horror movie settings, as in the poem “Amanda Hopper’s House”, which begins:

It was a farmhouse for killing,

the kind I saw in the paper above a row of senior portraits:

girls found in the basement.

Frosted eye-shadow, bangs like birds’ nests.

Girls I saw and said to myself:

good. they deserve it.


“The stupid sluts” sit on my tongue.

I swallow, but the stupid sluts stick there like chicken bones.

This piece goes on to describe the speaker watching out the window from the breakfast table as Amanda’s older sister, Gloria performs her “splayed” role in an awkward sex scene with her boyfriend, followed by another murderous newspaper headline, followed by a directive from Amanda’s mother for the younger girls to stop “gaping”.  This poem’s juxtaposition of sex and violence and its insidious intertwining of female sexual desirability with culpability for such violence provokes some disturbing suggestions and questions.  Perhaps most disturbing is the assessment that sluts deserve it and the implication that this assessment has already been implanted into the consciousness of the young female speaker.  Still, she can’t quite swallow it, which could signify a kind of queasiness, but which could also mean that those undigested bones will become more debris for the trail of clues.

Poems in the same vicinity include the speaker’s roped off crime scene bedroom, references to fishhooks and “rapist bait”, and an unknown naked man suddenly inside her bedroom at night.  Several poems involve female masturbation, in which it would seem that the speaker is trying to take control of her own sexual pleasure, but even these pieces include an uncomfortable tone of furtiveness and voyeurism. There is a sense of a world that cannot be easily grasped by girls, because someone or something is trying to trick them or hide something from them.

Later, damaged seductresses crawl inside, oozing some sort of unspoken but seemingly dysfunctional sex drive.  At times, I think the slinky narrative is moving towards some inevitable revelation about an awful sex crime–gross imposition or molestation or incest or rape.  At other times, I think part of all the sex/death innuendo is due to such content being filtered through a young mind that overdramatizes and generates its own sexual horror out of the new, the unknown, a landscape of taboo in which “death & sex tickle the same damn spot”.  The disturbing innuendo piques and twists and warps and continues to heighten.

Although the mounting menace is not explicitly exposed, it is repeatedly associated with femaleness.  One third of the way through the second section of this collection, in the poem “Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?” a sense of unease and maybe even evil seems to be connected to just having big breasts and pointy shoes.  Pointy shoes make me think witch-like and again cause me to wonder will this shifty speaker sink or float.

As the girlish speaker circles towards a more womanish entity, the development of a heightened libido seems to be accompanied by an even more pervasive aroma of potential sexual violence.  The unspoken threat begins to assert itself more insidiously with repeated references to stray and bloody panties, spread legs, and strange insinuations of a danger that cannot be clearly explained.  The poems at the end of the second section are rife with especially disturbing imagery, including a pointy-toothed woman playing with a little girl’s bones, a big scorpion on a floral print bedspread, flashbacks to strangely sexual slumber party dares, and repeated references to rape, as in “The Nursery with Half a Window Up Near the Ceiling”, which reads like some kind of hysterical cautionary tale with lines like:

The ritalin girls who watched

the babies said rape then they

all started to cry, their fat flesh quivering in jeans: Jesus

A man leaned down to look in

the half-window but we could only see his boots pointing in

“He might like big girls or little

girls & even the iron bars won’t

block his penis if he wants in bad enough” they said

Following this disturbing piece, the last four poems in the section are even more disturbing in an amorphously creepy kind of way.  They seem to ooze with dark omens and primordial portents and maybe even some virulent variation on vaginal discharge.  The female forms populating these poems seem as if they have no control (sometimes it’s not even clear if they’re alive or dead) as things enter or exit between their legs.

From “They Shared Her on a Chicken White Sheet”:

…they ratcheted her up

to their level and one boy said                                 you see this?

and the other said

can it dance?  what with her whorl

of black…

From “The Amber Thawed, This Black Thing Scuttled Out”:

I saw wheels on his hooves

she wouldn’t get off

they looped a rope around his neck

it came from between her legs

they pulled them both away

he had a squeaky wheel

she had a missing eye

there was something sticky

it was running down the horse

it wasn’t blood

the men led on and on

there was no stable

the Indian blanket rubbed a hole in her thigh

the meat was grey inside

one of the men said he smelled burning tire

the other said he smelled karo syrup

she fastened her feet firm in the stirrups

she said oh sorry, oh sorry

From “Post Nuptials: the Wedding Party Floated Away on an Iceberg”:

I wanted a picture of the bride

before he hung the ice sheet

with her poppy of hymnal blood

right in the center of the floe

when I opened my eyes’

I was locked in a black meat box

with a Kodiak bear who salted

my balled body with fake snow

someone had stolen my camera

the train lurched before or after

As evidenced by these excerpts, the sordid intersections of female sex and violence have continued, and seem to be growing increasingly intense and distressing, with imagery evoking bestiality and butchery and dark underbellies.  Female bodies are subjected to the ministrations of unidentified males.  Female bodies are presented as malleable meat to be played with, a mysterious burden to be carelessly dragged away, and bloody cargo to be conquered and displayed.  Female bodies have weird things between their legs; they are prodded and poked and observed. The speaker in these poems seems especially peripheral, observing these scenes from a detached perspective.  There is a strange and disturbing fusion of clinical and visceral in the tone of these pieces.  Part of me can’t help but think of a woman splayed out upon some sinister gynecological table with artifacts and debris being dredged forth from between spread legs.

Are females doomed to be exhibitionistic objects, whether under the hands of strange males or under the peculiarly fetishistic scrutiny of themselves?  If they can’t even pleasure themselves without the eyes of inanimate objects watching (“I’m flat on my belly, hand in my jeans– / and how to say every penny has become the eye / of a dead relative watching me?”)—if furtive, unidentified male-creatures repeatedly invade the scene– if odd almost feral female-creatures creep through, too, like little signs that animalistic sexuality may position one as prey, then how can females surrender to their own sexual desires without the guilt of being complicit in their own possible entrapment or consumption or demise?  Part of me can’t help but think of the blame the victim mentality taken to an even more problematic extreme in which the victim blames herself whilst simultaneously fetishizing herself until the filter is clogged with sodden hair; oversaturated with obsession about her own nefarious fate, tinged with a lurid sense of titillation.

One also thinks of camera filters while reading this collection.  One thinks of scripts and how it might be possible to diverge from them.  One thinks of stage sets and still shots and props and costume changes.  The references to a stolen camera and “lurched before and after” in that last poem excerpt above are one of many allusions to different vantage points—from different points in time, from different angles.  There are shifting frames and frames within frames and identity issues.  I’ve already mentioned the seeming intersection of present and past, and there are also several pieces in which even within one time frame, one of the speaker’s own relatives fails to recognize her or seems to deny her very existence. Perhaps the pivotal question here is whether it is possible for someone to step out of the murky shadows and into a main acting role (or vice versa).  Does someone have the power to change her own direction, despite whatever befell her in the past? Can one direct herself to close the chapter on a past scene and find her voice as a more stable entity?

As this book enters into its final section, the first piece of that section, “The Fox Had No Face the Loggermen Said”, seems to maintain the same dark, menacing, feral tone as the poems from the end of section two.  As alluded to in the title, the men are again in control of assessing the scene; although we still have our shifty female consciousness lurking on the periphery and positing her own observations, she still seems secondary.  Not only does the female presence have no primary voice; she doesn’t even have a face.  Again, there is a creepy focus on something strange between the legs; in the lines “a woman moved so fast I couldn’t see / what white thing she tucked between her legs”, I am made to think of a woman furtively moving to hide some dirty secret, like the curse and misplaced shame associated with menstrual blood and having to staunch one’s flow.

In the first part of this poem, “they rolled a barrelful of something muffled / down the back of a mountain”, so the poem starts off with a stifled weight and seems like a kind of continuation of “The Amber Thawed…” piece, in which an immobile woman is being dragged along by men.  At least in “The Fox…”, the woman is moving fast, but is it of her own volition?  Spiders are hatching inside her mattress (another female bed invaded by another dark presence), her mouth is opening but words aren’t coming out, “she was wearing a nightdress the color of pistachios”.  This is the piece that conjured up the image of Ronette Pulaski in my mind, largely due to its heavy momentum and dreamy/nightmarish imagery that struck me as almost Lynch-esque.  Then the female speaker suddenly asserts herself a little more and says:

I wanted to throw her over my shoulder

She was too heavy and my arms were marmalade

she pointed to the boulder under the creek

right where the rope swing dropped off

it looked like the skull bone of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox

a sudden sickness of red algae bloomed to the surface

the current licked itself clean in a second

The nightmarish imagery continues throughout the piece and I’m not sure whether to interpret this poem’s ending as ominous or hopeful.  On the hopeful side, perhaps the current licking itself clean could be analogous to a fever dream breaking.  On the ominous side, perhaps the imagery of a red swirl being swiftly swallowed by a larger force could be indicative of the harsh indifference of larger forces towards one girl’s blood and bones.  Still, she has left her clues and is pointing them out.  She has not been entirely consumed.  Part of me would like to read something positive in the cyclical rhythm of ebb & flow within this poem, despite its continued motif of dark dream imagery.  Part of me would like to view this as a turning point.

The odd almost feral female-creatures creep through the next few poems like damaged starlets from the past or maybe like underdeveloped incarnations of the speaker who don’t want to become dispossessed so keep showing themselves—needily, beseechingly, imploringly—or maybe just like the wounded children that they are—somehow both detestable and endearing at the same time; both victimized and manipulative in their own right.  Here is part of the description of one of these creatures from “Brown Study: A Girl Paces Beneath My Window”:

this is not my will-be lover’s

voice but that of a wry lynx

the enormity of her pockets, little shiv

that makes the epithet slattern so apt

who follows me home hirsute

puts the croup of desire back

The connotations I receive from this passage are many, ranging from wild cat to lurid sideshow attraction to sickness to sexuality to curse to a deep capacity to contain many pieces.  The word “shiv” makes me think of both a pitiable little shiver and a potentially lethal weapon, most often used by prisoners.  McGlynn is an excellent wielder of language, in terms of evoking multiple connotations, eliciting tones, and offering startlingly provocative imagery.  This is only one of various pieces in the final section in which the girlish past self slinks in to haunt, plague, or cling to the speaker like some sort of stunted doppelganger.  Whereas earlier in the collection, I was thinking that the speaker had an important reason for bringing clues to the surface, by the end of the collection, what with this frequent resurfacing of the past at unexpected and inopportune times, I am starting to think that maybe the speaker had a good reason for trying to drown or suppress this entity.  Of course, repression can easily fester into something insidious, so the trick seems to be finding a way to synchronize or hybridize one’s multiple identities into something one can live with (and that the significant others in her life can live with); allowing the past self a certain existence and mode of expression, but a mode that does not perpetually hover on the brink of consuming or being consumed.

I don’t think that I ultimately gained any concrete resolution or epiphany or special knowledge from reading I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, but I could certainly relate to the content, much of which resonated for me on an almost subconscious level.  This book offers an interesting and disquieting exploration of the young female psyche, under duress of persistent exposure to violence and sex and things one is not supposed to speak about when she is of a certain age.  I am interested in male readers’ responses to and interpretations of this collection, in lieu of their different social conditioning and different set of mixed messages surrounding violence and sex.  As a female, I felt personally familiar with much of this terrain: from the frosted eye shadow and birds nest bangs that I myself was outfitted with as a young teen—to the hushed slumber party conversations about the sexually active girls and furtive glimpses of awkward sex scenes—to the strange titillation of reading a newspaper article about rape, back in the days when the sexual nature of the crime seemed to take precedence over the violence, because sex still seemed so taboo and violence still seemed so unreal in our young lives.  Of course, there comes a point at which those fascinated imaginings meet the real world and twist into something darker, because it’s no longer only make believe.  Much of the content of this book seems to be situated in that sort of confusing transitional realm in which what used to be taboo and unreal is coming to life.

Many of us are familiar with the inundation of media images of sex and violence (especially as it relates to females) and how difficult it can be to extricate the real from the fictive, but we don’t so often experience this story through a poetic text.  I found it very engaging to accompany this text’s shifty speaker on her personal journey of trying to extricate the real from the fictive, within this more intimately idiosyncratic context. There may be a cathartic release to be gained from revealing (or reading) these troubled inner landscapes and their darkly convoluted passageways of female sex, slumber party secrets, and those sinister lurkers who would crash the party and invade the inner sanctum of girls’ bedrooms and their illusions of safe harbor.  There may be a kind of power to be gleaned from trying to pick up the pieces of shattered illusions and form them into a different kind of puzzle or a new pathway.

Purchase I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl

***

Juliet Cook’s poetry has recently been published or is forthcoming in Abjective, Action Yes, Diagram, Diode, Everyday Genius, Oranges & Sardines and many other online and print sources. She is the editor/publisher of Blood Pudding Press. She is author of numerous chapbooks, most recently PINK LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR (Spooky Girlfriend Press), Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), and FONDANT PIG ANGST (Slash Pine Press).  Her first full-length poetry collection, ‘Horrific Confection’ was published by BlazeVOX in 2008.  For more information, feel free to visit her website at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.

MACHINATIONS OF A BLACK SABBATICAL: Mark Danowsky on Brett Eugene Ralph’s Black Sabbatical


Black Sabbatical, Brett Eugene Ralph, Sarabande Books

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”.
-Dr. Johnson

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
-Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Brett Eugene Ralph’s poetry collection “Black Sabbatical”, addresses a cross-section of subcultures in American’s Derby Country, and is as readable for the doomed as it is for the intellectual aristocracy. In these works, Ralph juxtaposes the flowery language typical of canonical works with the crassness of the everyday. In so doing the author expands his readership to a wider audience.

This back and forth between the borderline highfalutin and the commonplace is exemplified in works like “Real Numbers” where Ralph seems to poke fun at the poet’s tendency toward Romantic tones as he writes: “I squatted, a hunter wondering / just what my buddy’d bagged / in that Bardo of deep freeze / and cinder block, of pipes / resurrected by duct tape, an ancient / latticework of webs … In order words, / we snorted crystal meth / right off the concrete steps. / God knows the slivers, / how much grit, / which inscrutable organism / I invited in” and so forth. In his “Acknowledgements”, Ralph notes that the passage introducing “Real Numbers” is from a book of sayings about the Buddha adding yet another point of contrast, in this case, the religious angle.

Keeping in mind the beastliness of humanity I wonder what Ralph is getting at when in “Great Horned Visitation” he writes, “But what are we / that such magnificent creatures have to die / before they’ll let us touch them.” Sounds to me like a poignant truth, but not at all surprising when one takes under considerations some of the actions by humans in Ralph’s other poems within the collection. Take for instance the beginning of the very next poem, chronologically, in the collection, “Tell City”, which begins: “Somebody stripped / the bark from the trees. It’s worse / than being burned. For reasons / we needn’t go into / I’m assuming it was a man.” Another example comes from “Mudra”, in which Ralph writes, “I saw myself speckled with blood and Pepsi, saw the gashes this machine would make as I dismantled it with my hands.” Sometimes the beastliness is fully realized as when a boy named Junior is said to be “obliterating mailboxes with a bat” in another piece titled “Reindeer Games”

Some of the lines in these poems are almost casual, off-hand comments. At times they are explanatory, but almost as if the author is pleading with the reader to understand his position. Other comments give the impression that he may be muttering or trailing off—a sort of afterthought that he could not bear to part with. There are obvious similarities between Ralph’s poetic voice appear in the lyrical style of his country rock ensemble “Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Revue” (BERKCR), which likewise allows Ralph to regale us with stories. Whether on paper or voiced, Ralph appears just as comfortable tossing about off-hand comments—but somehow these asides seem much more natural in latter format. Another reader noted the way these comments often begin as clichés and then catch you off guard. This twist comes in the form of reality to ground the false certitude that lies in the cliché.

In Black Sabbatical, the reader follows the poet thru a maze of imagery as he pieces together recollected memories, mulls his life choices, his struggles, and begins to reconcile past experiences with his ideal self. Although plainly he’s found himself in precarious scenarios, he is also a teacher, a musician, and a poet—a balance not many of us are fortunate enough to maintain.

Cloaked in Quiet Joy: Nick Courtright on CE Perry’s Night Work


night work

Night Work, C.E. Perry, Sarabande Books

A study in avoiding volta, C. E. Perry’s Night Work is a thin yet complex collection of fleeting events captured without the crutch of commentary. This stylistic approach—one in which her poems’ propositions rarely turn before heading down the home stretch—makes Night Work appear polished but not pristine, much like an astounding painting with ¼ blank canvas, with why exactly that ¼ is blank being open to debate: either the painter gave up on it, was trying to make a statement, or died before it was finished. In the case of Night Work, we know it’s not the latter, but which of the first two is correct isn’t quite clear.

But regardless of any debate on specifics, it remains true that the collection abounds with abrupt endings, and Perry’s poems are nearly dogmatic in their jarring abbreviation. While it’s possible that the sometimes-frustrating lack of closure isn’t always wholly purposeful, the effect is a slew of poems that reward through their ongoing process, their refusal to tuck themselves kindly into bed at the end of the night, and the open-ended wealth of possibilities promoted by the absence of conclusive declarations. Here, the final three stanzas of the six-stanza “Anatomy,” a tightly-bound poem that never breaks structure for the sake of revelation:

My knees are egg cups
buried deep in the dirt.
Your hips are the tips
of chopsticks that hurt.

My hands are the cooks
who simmer and poach.
Your hands are the cooks
who stay late and smoke.

My mouth is a box
where your name used to be.
Your heart is a watch
unfastened by me.

This effect keeps the reader moving forward, desperately seeking with flashlight in hand the switch which will illuminate the collection and provide final peace, a final peace that feels very close, but never quite arrives.

Content-wise, the emotional blatancy of some of the collection’s more palpable moments may be a bit much for some readers, as Perry isn’t shy to lift the uncomfortable to the forefront of her verse’s purpose:

Dora’s building a rocket
and she makes me watch her
do it. She makes me lie

about our plans and methods.
She calls me the Associate.
I know I’m sidekick to a flawed

qnd doomed hero. She twists
a branch like her father bends her
arm.

While the occasional use of imagery of the unfortunate can raise the stakes of a poem, repeatedly utilizing such, for lack of a better term, “shocking” material can feel a little “easy”, and Perry sometimes relies a bit much on these tropes. But despite this sometimes overt morbidity (or at least “fleshiness”), the tenderness of her lines and the care with which she crafts them should be enough to gain appreciation from even the most squeamish/“proper” of readers.

At the end of the day, Perry’s poems are cloaked in a quiet joy that can only come from being at peace with the greatest sorrow, as Night Work is a memorial to the unstated life of her son, Charlie, who passed away at five days of age. While one can only speculate as to the emotional trial of such a situation, this book is remarkable in that it never fails to hold itself to a standard higher than self-pity, and that even its darkest moments are only momentary; sure enough, each instance of suffering and pain brings the reader only that much closer to the next moment of revelation and affirmation. And to maintain that delicate balance, even in the face of continuing poetic development and personal struggle, is a fine accomplishment.

Quiet Wonder, or Suddenly Seeing Something Again for the First Time: E.K. Mortenson on Dick Allen’s Present Vanishing


present-vanishing

Present Vanishing: Poems, Dick Allen, Sarabande Books

You have a duty
to the unchopped liver, the unmade bed, the bookshelves
all out of order—a duty
you must fulfill with grace and courtesy
and great daily attention to the sacredness of things.

This small snippet from a piece in Dick Allen’s seventh collection of poems, Present Vanishing, might serve as the perfect epigram for the volume. Indeed, it might serve as the perfect epigram for all poetry writing and for life. While the poem’s title and Allen himself in interviews speaks to a deep affection for Buddhism, one need not be spiritually inclined to see the wisdom in Allen’s poems. We must, Allen suggests, view “attention to the sacredness of things” as our “duty.” Allen certainly does, and the poems in Present Vanishing remind the reader why Allen is master craftsman.

The subjects of Allen’s poems remind us to “remember there’s nothing but mystery in the world, / although it hides itself behind the fabric of each day, / shining brightly, and we don’t even know it” (American Buddhism, Section VI, ‘Mid-December’). It is sentiments such as this that elevates the poems in Present Vanishing from the mere classification of “Buddhist Poetry.” Not to say that this classification is pejorative by any means, but there is something fundamentally different between an Allen poem and, say, a Jane Hirschfield poem.

There can be an inherent danger to presenting the “thingness” of things in verse. Simply put, finding the transcendence of things can become a difficult task for there can be a lapse into a touchy-feely, new-age sort of verse in which the poet needs to stretch to “find” transcendence. That is, while the argument could be made that all things are worthy of poetic discussion and by extension the honor of attention, some things when it comes to poetry are “more worthy” than other things. Present Vanishing succeeds, perhaps, because for Allen, “the mystery of the world” is not necessarily always pleasant; there are not always chants, chimes, and orange-robed monks helping turtles across the road. The mysteries of this world can be dark and frightening as well as sobering.

To wit, there is a poem like The Blind. I would venture that this is about as good a poem as one is likely to find in the volume or anywhere else for that matter. Every line is a poem unto itself, and as the poem progresses, there is the initially unexpected but later unavoidable conclusion. “Over days, we carefully made our blind out of old branches / slightly woven together and covered with fallen leaves,” from these initial two lines our frame of reference on the poem is clarified. The Blind is not a poem about a subset of sightless humans, but rather, the description of a hunting blind—a description of an everyday “object.” What happens as Allen allows this poem to progress, however, is marvelous.

After the building of the blind, we get the first inkling of the darkness the world of this poem might contain. Those who man this hunting blind “sat holding thermoses / filled with coffee brewed in dark kitchens, / no cream, no sugar, simply bitterness—”. These “dark kitchens” take on an even darker connotation with the idea that these thermoses are filled with “simply bitterness.” Eventually, a passing bird entices the men to fire their guns and retrieve their prize. But, it is the conclusion of this piece that leaves the reader with his mouth open:

There, we kept our silence, not looking at each other,
or if we did, seeing no more than our young man faces,
tired and grim, so filled with misunderstandings,
doubt and guilt, no one would have believed
we’d come here by choice, and would return
year after year as long as the wretched blind
prevailed and the guns fit into our shoulders.

It is this idea, that the young men, “so filled with misunderstandings” are in some ways forced to return “year after year” to the site of this “wretched blind,” that is so moving. To look back on this short poem, it seems hard to remember how we got here as readers. It is hard to remember this poem began with the simplest attention to the building of this blind, so removed from a feeling about it like “wretched” or that it was built by young men with “tired and grim” faces. It is the sentiment that as long as the blind “prevailed” these men would have to come to it. This sense of fate is what transcends Allen’s verse. The very question life asks of us: how did it come to this?

Similarly, in the sonnet-like piece Hornets’ Nests. The poem is brief enough to present in its entirety, for it must be taken this way:

Hundreds of them, accursed, their papery gray masses
hidden in eaves, in the junctures of two-by-fours,
or hanging in shrubs or behind olive branch foliage,
wait to be opened. Even long-abandoned nests,
those which turn immediately to ash at the poke of a broomstick,
threaten revenge. Inside their hexagram cells,
everything seems quivering, thrumming, as if the workers know
death will come at first frost—each worker’s venom gone to waste
unless he can attack, protecting his basketball-sized empire.
And at the heart of everything, the larger body of sorrow
that will not die unless, from far away in the shadows,
we fill her nest with poison spray, or knock it down,
battering it, torching it when it falls, so that in some holy tomorrow
we may walk, unmolested, over the great green pastures.

This is a short poem filled with violence—natural and contrived. It is the finality of the destroyed hive knocked down, battered, and torched and the ultimate goal of that destruction that “we may walk, unmolested, over great green pastures,” that is so startling. This is, indeed, no typical Buddhist poem. Indeed, one cannot help but think that Allen has more in mind here with this piece. The euphemism of “stirring up a hornet’s nest” to describe, say, a sticky military conflict, seems apropos of American work in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly as we try to “burn out” various terrorist and insurgent “cells.” Aren’t we instructed to see these “workers” and their networks as “accursed”? Is it so hard to imagine a suicide bomber feeling his “venom gone to waste / unless he can attack”? Indeed, it is only after total destruction that we might feel safe enough “in some holy tomorrow” to walk through the “great green pastures” that seem all-too reminiscent of some patriotic song. Of course, it is just a hornets’ nest, though.

Verse like this clears space for what might otherwise seem like easy Buddhist platitudes by a lesser poet. This sort of poem “entitles” Allen to write about “that something going wrong that you can change to right / with acceptance and calm” (Plum), since he presents us with things actually going wrong—fundamentally wrong—with ourselves. Yet for all of that, Allen is also able to offer us hope. This darkness, while a part of life, is not all of life. This, too, Allen tells us, will pass. There is no better close to Present Vanishing than the final lines of the final poem: “And despite insult and spittle and disfiguring and bruising and lingering pain, / all shall be well; / and all manner of things shall be well.” After Allen’s meticulous attention to detail throughout the volume, I certainly believe him.