Somewhere, Somewhere: Oriana Leckert on Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted




Elegies for the Brokenhearted, Christie Hodgen, WW Norton, 2010

Elegies for the Brokenhearted begins in a rush and never loses momentum. It is crafted with galloping long sentences, clause within clause within clause, that swerve the reader away and then back and then away again. The characters are so sharp, their scenarios so poignant, their interactions so painful and real… This book is a devastating joy.

It’s a novel in stories—or, more accurately, in elegies—direct addresses by Mary Murphy to five central people in her life, which tell the stories of their lives, or at least those periods where their lives intersected with hers. This nested-story structure is a kind of herky-jerky stop-and-start format that can sometimes be jarring, but Hodgen makes it work beautifully, telling us always the story of Mary while making it look like Mary is telling us the stories of those around her.

Mary herself has lived since childhood in an almost impenetrable halo of silence—silence as rebellion, silence as a defensive coping mechanism, silence as a sarcastic attack. She always lets others speak for her, or no one at all. And yet the whole book, written in second-person direct address to each person being elegied, seems to be Mary’s attempt to reconcile the silence she’s spent her life ensconced in, to make others see how important they were to her—once it’s too late for it to matter.

Every character herein is consistently striving, reaching out in wrong-headed ways for more, yet secure in the conviction that he is meant for something better, easier, more rarefied. Each person knows that she is infinitely more special than the mundane and bitter circumstances in which she finds herself, time and again. But most of them do nothing to hasten their transfiguration, adding to the general sense of despair and frustration that permeates the novel.

Another marked similarity between the novel’s disparate personalities is how each is obsessed with death. Uncle Mike only gossips about friends who have died. Carson, Mary’s college roommate, decorates the wall above her bed with a constellation of Polaroids of her deceased relatives. One of Mary’s mother’s dependable morning rituals is reading—and mocking—the obituaries in the local paper. The entire book, of course, stars a cast of characters who have passed away.

One more overarching similarity between everyone is a desperate, suffocating loneliness, coupled with a near-hysterical inability to love. And yet the whole book is a vindication, in a way, of all this sorrow, all this despair. That Mary, who has spent her life silent and resentful, can recollect and reify these small, sad, bitter lives winds up speaking to an inherent beauty in all of us. Her ability to penetrate the layers of meanness, of abuse and anger and petty fury, and to render people real, is a parting gift, a gift to those parted, an indication that, despite everything, for a time they were truly understood.

At one point in the narration, Mary states, “Even the evocation of loneliness was something undertaken with the purpose of communicating it to someone, who would hear it and perhaps understand it.” This is a beautiful summation of the crux of this sad novel—no matter how alone we are, no matter how we despair, in our private moments, that we will die without ever having made a true connection with another living soul, someone has been watching, someone has been affected. Someone, somewhere, if only for a little while, has understood.

*

Oriana is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn with her longtime boyfriend and their two dogs. She edits for a slew of publishers, including McSweeney’s, Random House, NYRB, Melville House, and many more. She writes a blog about Brooklyn art and culture at www.brooklyn-spaces.com, and she reads like a maniac.

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The Verge of Catharsis: Carrie Schindele-Cupples on Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option




Death is Not an Option: Stories, Suzanne Rivecca, WW Norton, 2010

In Suzanne Rivecca’s story collection, Death Is Not an Option, characters make their way through murky situations and scenes that are heavy and humorous all at once. Every moment has the awkward potential for disaster and the characters are terribly concerned about the moral impact of their choices. The result is that all these young women are on the verge of a catharsis and about to find a new version of the truth.

“Death Is Not an Option” follows high school senior Emma. She feels disengaged from her classmates on a year-end group retreat, a regular response for her around her peers. From freshman year on, she dreams of leaving the Midwest and her religiously-confining surroundings. She wants to go to college far away from Catholics, but finds herself in fits of inexplicable tears every time she thinks about the move.

Emma is constantly resistant to give in to these moments of raw feeling. The truth, as Emma comes to see, is that she is on a different page, farther back in the story from the rest of her class. Even her friends have moved ahead of her: “They have all simultaneously crossed over to the land of those with outward feelings, soft and malleable and unashamed, pure and cushiony as marshmallow fluff.” (38) When during a sharing circle, she finally starts to cry, and her classmates and faculty think “At last, at last,” (39) their misunderstanding of her grief is another wound, another moment sharply articulating her desperation. All along she has told herself that escape will save her; the new truth reveals that there is no such escape.

Certain stories in Rivecca’s collection hold more emotional depth and clarity; in fact, as a reader, it is easy to see the writing improve in confidence and complexity after this initial piece. This title story starts weakly because of many pop-culture nods littered throughout the text. One example of this is the “Lush sounds of Free Willy” (37) mentioned half a dozen times. These references cheapen the tale of a young girl’s startling revelation that she should “go back to Muskegon with the Jesus freaks and die a thousand deaths every day because that is the only cure for [her] incessant, debilitating, and constant sense of futility.” (40) The story ends with a transformation, although highly dramatic, and relays her humbling and bitter acceptance of a new future.

As the collection moves forward, the stories become fully developed, intimate disclosures of guilt and fear. Rivecca’s voice becomes mature and reflective while retaining its droll tone. “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing” explores the duality of a childhood lie and a true account written about that lie. Isabel, the title character, has written her memoir and considers it a truthful framework in which to access her past. “She wanted people to squirm under the weight of it, knowing they couldn’t bring up her past in any but a literary context, knowing that, eternally she had the last word. A last word with a large print run.” (157)

Isabel needs to box in the truth, trap it in words on a page. Although as we learn more about her, we find that this tome of truth contains moments of what might have been, rather then what actually happened. With a fictionalized ending, her memoir, about a lie, is partially imagined itself. Does this make it any less true? Her moment of clarity, after nights trying to pin down a subject for a new book, is shared: “[She] knew that nothing would ever come out of her more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm.” (173) This final insight acknowledges that she is the person in the pages of her writing, though she felt different and separate before.

And sometimes, the truth is there from the beginning and we watch the character shove it out of the way several times before the final confrontation. “None of the Above” begins with a young teacher, Alma: smart, thoughtful, and committed to her students’ growth and well-being. When a young boy, Peter, in her class exhibits signs of abuse, she starts to investigate. While Alma struggles to identify the source of his injuries, throughout the text the reader can see several clues leading up to the boy’s revelation that he shares a bed with a tiger:

For a while she [Alma] organized arts-and-crafts activities in the half-conscious hope that he would unwittingly betray himself through a nonverbal medium…. But he [Peter] drew sunny skies and houses with smoking chimneys and large striped animals frolicking on the lawn. Alma knew the signs. Abused and neglected children were (a) withdrawn; (b) developmentally delayed; or (c) ‘acting out,’ a term she despised for its jargony inexactitude, but she knew it when she saw it. And Peter was none of the above. (194)

Alma ignores the fact that Peter is not exhibiting any behavior of an abused child aside from the markings on his body. Eventually, she confronts Peter and asks him to share the truth with her. “Peter… all you have to do is tell me the truth. You’re not going to get in trouble just for telling the truth.” (205) Prophetic lines as we find at the story’s end. When Peter divulges that he has a pet tiger cub, Alma hears something completely different. “She sat there and trained her practiced, tempered gaze on Peter as he looked her in the eye and informed her, without preamble or disclaimer, that he’d been attacked by a tiger. Actually, he never used the work attack.” (205)

Where does this moment leave Alma, in her search for answers? Angry and disbelieving. “What it came down to was reliability of perspective; she trusted no eyes but her own.” (209) But her own eyes keep missing the facts. In the events that follow, tension escalates because Alma is about to find the truth manifest from what she understood to be a tall tale. The most prescient moment is when Alma reveals her true feelings and faces the tiger:

She felt terror…dutifully and more or less truthfully. Terror for the boy’s safety and for her own. But in those first few seconds, she had not been afraid. She had felt a dark drumbeat of uneasy commiseration. Not between her and Peter, but between her and the tiger…. She had looked into the tiger’s face in broad daylight and thought, aghast, What are you doing here? (222)

Alma’s discovery, not an elephant in the room, but a tiger, sickens her more than her grisly imaginings of wrongdoing by Peter’s parents. “None of the Above” is my favorite story in the collection for its subtle insinuations and heavy metaphor. When Alma sees the tiger, the glaring truth, she reacts: “And she felt that the least she could do was touch the animal, that she owed Peter that, and when she was close enough she extended her hand.” (221) She confronts her new understanding, as frightening as it is, that she should have seen the truth all along. This is the strongest story, perfect for wrapping up the collection.

Rivecca has written thoughtful fiction here, with fully developed characters seeking candor and revelation. In all these stories, Emma, Isabel, Alma, and the others, realize that the truth is floating around the edges of our moments, a ghostly presence about to show itself.

*

Carrie Schindele-Cupples is a librarian in Oregon and runs the Springfield Library Foundation Author and Music Series, a venue for promoting authors and connecting them with the community.  Her favorite thing to do is read aloud to her husband and dogs, pretending she is on Selected Shorts.

A Voice to Be Reckoned With: Philip Belcher on Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox


I Was the Jukebox, Sandra Beasley, WW Norton, 2010

If Sandra Beasley’s first collection, Theories of Falling, showed something of this poet’s promise, her second collection and winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, I Was the Jukebox, makes clear that we are in the hands of a talented writer with a strong voice, a vivid imagination, and a bright future. This new collection is all about voice, and Beasley’s is unmistakable and clear.

Beasley’s organization of the forty-five poems in I Was the Jukebox hints at the formal strands weaving through the collection. The volume is divided into three untitled sections of fifteen poems each. Formal and thematic elements tie the sections together. Each section, for example, contains one sestina. One of this poet’s great talents is the dramatic monologue, and each section contains its share. Each section also contains one poem claiming to be “another failed poem,” although none of them is. Finally, Beasley includes in each section one or more “love poems”—for college, oxidation, Wednesday, and Los Angeles. In these poems and others, Beasley is fully in charge of her lines, her syntax, and their interplay.

Although Beasley’s fondness for formal elements is not limited to poems written in inherited forms—in this collection, the sestina—the sestinas do offer the clearest example of the poet’s formal dexterity. Unlike many contemporary poems written in traditional forms, Beasley’s sestinas have no need to sit and yell from the corner, “Look at me, look at me.” Even a reader unfamiliar with the sestina’s formal requirements will enjoy these poems for their music and their narrative force. Beasley writes sestinas with apparent ease; she forces nothing to meet the form’s demands. The first few lines of “The Platypus Speaks,” one of the three sestinas, display the poet’s humor, imagination, and commanding voice:

As far as the duck-billed platypus goes,
I’d like to point out there’s no other kind
of platypus. You don’t say horse-hooved deer
or moth-winged butterfly. A beast should be
her own best description. I deserve that,
having survived a hundred thousand years

of You would make a fine-looking hat. . . .

Another poem displaying Beasley’s facility with form is “Fugue.” As suggested by the title, this poem incorporates repetition of multiple themes—here, hands and mouth–and plays them against each other in contrapuntal dialogue. The musical atmosphere in the poem is heightened by the repetition of only four letters at the beginning of the poem’s eighteen lines: T, I, A, and H. Every line is end-stopped, and each line but one includes a complete sentence. Yet, nothing is forced.

In “Vocation,” Beasley reveals with a flourish her confidence with formal technique and her commanding voice. The poem’s eighteen lines employ significant repetition, but two other features reaffirm that Beasley is a poet intent on cultivating language with subtlety and care. First, “Vocation” highlights the poet’s fine ear. Beasley ends lines with “mall” (line 2), “Decimal” (line 7), and “calling” (line 14). “People” closes the poem with a chime. The poet expands this music by echoing sibling sounds throughout the poem: “Brahms,” “small,” “all,” ‘falls,” “want,” “long,” and “on.” Second, this poem reinforces Beasley’s finely tuned and quirky sense of humor:

. . . Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.

For an example of this poet’s imaginative reach, one need go no farther than “Immortality.” The speaker describes her existential predicament as being one yellow marble indistinguishable from many others. She is “waiting for someone to chalk lines of play, waiting // for the thumb of God.”

Notwithstanding Beasley’s musical prowess, ease with both traditional forms and free verse, and imaginative humor, it would be a mistake to focus only on her verbal skills. She has infused I Was the Jukebox with a political voice, as well. In “Antietam,” Beasley describes a school trip to the Civil War battlefield. “Our guide said that sometimes, the land still let go / of fragments from the war—a gold button, a bullet, / a tooth migrating to the surface.” In an understated description of the magnitude of suffering recalled on that historic site, the speaker notes, “We tried to picture 23,000 of anything.” Other poems, including “The World War Speaks” and “Making History,” address similar political themes. It is in “Antietam” and “The World War Speaks,” however, that Beasley misses a note. Each poem ends with lines announcing closure too neat for the subject. In particular, “Antietam”’s final sentence—“Sometimes, at night, I feel / the battlefield moving inside of me”—just misses its intent to suggest that the battle has affected the speaker permanently. Readers will not accept easily the leap from one of the bloodiest battles in history to a child’s embodiment of battlefield horrors as a result of pieces of “gravel lodging / in the skin of my palms”—gravel eventually absorbed into the speaker’s body. Still, this is only a nit in an outstanding volume of poetry.

I Was the Jukebox deserves praise for two reasons. First, the poems themselves are a delight. Beasley’s eclectic imagination and love of language are on full display in these poems. The poet has an insatiable curiosity and draws on an impressive range of source materials, from mythology and history to observations of contemporary culture and language. Second, this collection promises that poetry readers have much to look forward to in Beasley’s career. She is already a significant talent, and one cannot help but anticipate her future work with excitement.

*

Philip Belcher has published poems in a variety of poetry journals, including, most recently, Shenandoah.  In 2005, he won the Porter Fleming Writing Competition Prize in Poetry.  In 2007, his chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, was published by Stepping Stones Press.  He attended the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008 and is a third semester student in the low residency MFA program at Converse College.  In that program, he is working with Nick Carbó, Denise Duhamel, Sarah Kennedy, and R. T. Smith. Since March 2000, Philip has served as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina.  Formerly the Associate Director of the Health Care Division of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, N.C., he is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Duke University School of Law.

Speaking Erasure: Mark Danowsky on Marilyn Hacker’s Names


Names, Marilyn Hacker, W. W. Norton, 2009

Marilyn Hacker went on a trip to the Middle East and recorded her experiences in “Names.” In this collection, Hacker works to find a female voice within traditional literary forms to show that not only can this voice be found, but that it can prevail. In an interview with Karla Hammond, Hacker explains that any literary form is problematic for the female artist/writer as it has been created under a patriarchal system, society. In Hacker’s own words “a woman in patriarchy is always on enemy territory, or at least territory not her own.”

One of Hacker’s goals is to find the female voice that has been neglected throughout history. She speaks of the “erasure of women” and explains that women writers “are reclaiming the idea that a poet is speaking to and for other people.” Hacker is troubled by the way that poets, especially male poets, have a tendency to focus on their personal lives in a self-fulfilling manner. She discusses how the feminist writers of today cannot allow themselves to be distracted by self-reflection and other egocentric interests because there is a higher cause, once again, to speak to others and for others who do not have a voice.

In the collection, Hacker works with several traditional forms. Glose or glosa is a style which dates back to the late 14th century. Glosa traditionally begins with a short passage of up to four lines called a cabeza or texte that is borrowed from a well-known poet or poem. In this case, Hacker has done her own translation of lines from international poets and uses them as carbeza. As is traditional with the form, these lines make repeated appearances within the body of the poem. Another style Hacker works with is called ghazal, which was traditionally used in countries such as Persia and throughout South Asia.

Hacker has said that she “like[s] the tension in a poem that comes from the diction of ordinary speech playing against a form.” She goes on to explain how these “traditional forms or, for that matter, invented forms aren’t in any way inimical to women’s poetry, feminist poetry, or contemporary poetry.”

Some might think it is surprisingly or at least challenging for a writer who is a professed feminist to work within the patriarchal construct of traditional forms, but perhaps Hacker feels it is the very act of finding her voice amidst these constraints that ignites the feminist spirit.

A Taste of “Names”

The title poem “Names” has a more uninhibited feel than the other works in this collection. There is a sincerity in its diction and the manner in which is presented to the reader, not hidden behind a veil of metaphor:

from “Names”

A giant poplar shades the summer square.
Breakfast shift done, Reem smooths her kinky mass
of auburn curls, walks outside, her leaf-print dress
green shadow on post-millennial bright air.
It’s almost noon. I smell of sweat. I smell
despite Bain-moussant and deodorant,
crumpled and aging, while recognizant
of luck, to be, today, perennial
appreciating trees. The sky is clear
as this in Gaza and Guantánamo
about which I know just enough to mourn
yesterday’s dead. The elegies get worn
away, attrition crumbles them into
chasm or quicklime of a turning year.

Some of the excerpts Hacker chooses for her “Glose” poems I found of particular interest in and of themselves. In a section from “Nettles” by Venus Khoury-Ghata, Hacker translates, “the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow / But nothing consoled her / Who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl / but the owl doesn’t think / the owl knows.”

from “Glose”

No dark god was there, and no god of light.
There are women and men, cruel or fallible.
No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right
moment; some Someone was unavailable.
The morning which paled from an uneventful night
would have been ordinary, except that she chose.
Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle
flying overhead, read fate into its flight.
We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,
but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.

from “Ghazal: Across the Street”, which I found to be one of the better of its kind begins:

Three cops-what are they waiting for across the street?
I’d make some quip, but you’re not with me, or across the
street.

Sedentary traveler, facing my window
blinds rise on provinces I still explore across the street.

Who’ll move into the newly renovated four-room
flat (opposite mine) on the fourth floor across the street?

I bought Le Monde late afternoons at the newsstand
replaced by one more pricey menswear store across the
street.

Without That Bottle of Tequila: James Tolan on Kim Addonizio’s Lucifer at the Starlite


Lucifer at the Starlite, Kim Addonizio, WW Norton, 2009

Nearly forty years ago the renowned translator of Zen poetry and under-appreciated poet Lucien Stryk was giving a reading at the University of Pennsylvania. The room was nearly full. As he was about to begin, Barbara Hernstein Smith took the last seat in the front row. She had recently published to much acclaim the critical book Poetic Closure: A Story of How Poems End. Stryk had been introduced to her earlier and was forewarned that she was planning to attend his reading. Afterwards, she came up to him amidst others with whom he was speaking, said, “You end well,” smiled, and left. When the story was recounted to me twenty years later, Stryk was still clearly delighted to have elicited her endorsement of his own poetic endings. Ending poems is tricky business and when the Romantics tossed out the summary couplet a couple hundred years back, things got a whole lot tougher. Many poets go on too long, over explain, appeal to sentiment, stretch toward epiphany, or just fold up shop. Kim Addonizio in her fifth collection is a modern master of endings. To close the title poem:

For every forward step a stumbling.
A shadow over every starlit thing.

To end “Storm Catechism”:

The waters will be rising soon.
Find someone or something to cling to.

“Verities,” included by Billy Collins in Best American Poetry 2006, ends:

A stitch in time saves no one.
The darkest hour comes.

From “The Smallest Town Alive”:

in my pocket a glowing coal

I am trying to crush
into a name.

And finally, “Crossing”:

I light another silence in my head.

These lines constitute what she terms in “Book Burning” “ravishing sentences,” but herein lies the crux of this collection; how can a poet who can write such stellar endings, who has been awarded, as the jacket liner notes, a Guggenheim and two NEA fellowships, who publishes through W.W. Norton be content with a collection of poems which do not live up to the endings previously mentioned. Auden famously noted that poetry makes nothing happen, but in a collection of poems by an accomplished poet things should either happen or the ravishing sentences and lines should come in droves and not be relegated to the role of little beauties set to save the prosaic musings that precede them.

The German critic Georg Groddeck in his essay “Charakter and Typus” claims that Western literature after the 16th century became increasingly attentive to human reactions. And this is what Addonizio gives us repeatedly in this collection, be they to a poet she and a friend label “a poser” “after drinking too much Sancerre” (“Book Burning”) tothe deaths of November 11, 2004 which she chronicles along with the rain:

O everyone’s dead and the rain today is marvelous!
I drive to the gym, the streets are slick,
everyone’s using their wipers, people are walking
with their shoulders hunched, wearing hoods
or holding up umbrellas…

or in “The Little Dog Upstairs That Never Never Quits Barking”

has suddenly quit. And in the quiet
I wait for him to resume, imagining him
(for I have seen him—his tight white curls,
his anxious, mashed-in face)

staring into space, too sorrowful now
even to cry out, settling
with a sigh in the leopard armchair,
facing the wooden indifference of the door.
Poetry after all is a form of barking.
Yap, yap, yap…

“Yap, yap, yap” indeed. Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote a gem of a short essay entitled “Modern Poetry is Prose (but it is Saying Plenty).” Addonizio’s collection is consistently prosaic but comes up well short of saying plenty. Besides ending well, Addonizio can also succeed at playing well with received language as she does in “Verities”:

Into every life a little ax must fall.
*
Sticks and stones will break you,
and then the names of things will be changed.
but she can also fail in this regard as in “The First Line Is the Deepest”:
Into the valley of Halliburton rides the infantry—

Why does one month have to be the cruelest,
can’t they all be equally cruel? I have seen the best

gamers of my generation, joysticking their M1 tanks through
the sewage-filled streets. Whose

world this is I think I know.

That Addonizio can weave together her own versions of Longfellow, Eliot, Ginsberg and Frost in six lines is a sort of victory, but this sort of play is more adolescent than telling, more giggle than gravitas. When she writes in “Veritas” though that “into every life a little ax must fall,” the giggle and the gravitas arrive in tandem. The line is more than merely clever; after the initial imagistic and linguistic delights the weight of the image adheres. Such double edged images and lines are few in comparison to the ones that miss.

Addonizio in her earlier collections drew much deserved praise for being edgy and provocative, but this collection reads like that of a poet whose edgy aesthetic has been compromised by a newly comfortable bourgeois lifestyle spent driving to the gym, listening to neighbor’s dogs, sipping Sancerre, playing with inherited language, and recalling a bawdy past. Groddeck wrote of those poets and writers who focused almost exclusively on human reactions:

They write of what is out of the ordinary, they make their art from extreme mental states. This is of course understandable. Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible.

This is precisely the hazard of a poet whose aesthetic is chiefly confessional. If her life is not in some way extreme, be that extremity circumstantial, as in the case of poets who find themselves in the midst of a compelling historic moment, or psychological, as in the case of a poet such as Addonizio whose book jacket blurb describes her poems as “house parties with the doors thrown open, people holding bottles of tequila in their hands, saying “Come on in.’” As someone who read Addonizio’s earlier work with interest, such a description of that work seems apt, but now that she seems well-medicated, mentions of Xanax among other anti-depressives abound, comfortably ensconced in her success, and sipping white wine, the house party and tequila are no longer apparent, and what humane reader would wish the return of extreme states of mind for a poet they have previously admired? The problem is without that bottle of tequila, these poems are lacking in necessity, fire, passion, and song. While Addonizio earned her reputation and success through the quality of her earlier work, Lucifer at the Starlite throws into question whether she can succeed still without that former provocative edginess. The answer so far is clearly not, that is unless one is a reader with sluggish blood or a poet at ease with Xanax, a glass of Sancerre, and a cozy fire.

Purchase Lucifer at the Starlite

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James Tolan is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-City University of New York, where he co-chairs the Writing and Literature program.  His poetry has appeared in American Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Fulcrum, Indiana Review, Margie and other journals as well as a number of anthologies, including The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

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.

Jason Mashak on Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch


Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, trans. Chana Bloch & Chana Kronfeld, W.W. Norton

Dahlia Ravikovitch’s more than a half dozen books, released between 1959 and 2006, together in one volume, are not only rich with imagery, but serve also to liberate her audience from complacency in regard to social injustice. Her poems enlighten readers about major ongoing social issues (e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poor attempts at parenting, or depression), but in a way that is far more journalistic than didactic.

Intentional or not, the title Hovering at a Low Altitude evokes the English idiom “flying under the radar,” a metaphor for living one’s life against the grain. Ravikovitch (1936–2005) clearly witnessed the aftershock of the Holocaust, and so her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone is enough to understand how, for a Jewish poet living in Israel, she might be among the minority for her almost prophet-like admonition of atrocities committed by her own countrymen in the years that followed. Ravikovitch’s first two books, which read like poetic rabbinical responses, would not seem out of place in the Old Testament, somewhere between Psalms and Ezekiel, two books that provided her early inspiration.

In one of Ravikovitch’s more complex highlights, “A Jewish Portrait” (from her 1987 book True Love), the raw delicacy with which she uses to describe another person seems also to be a self-portrait, and the translators’ footnotes explain that the original Hebrew contains ambiguity that allows the image to be interpreted as that of either a Diaspora Jew or a Palestinian refugee. In “Adloyada in Manhattan,” she writes, “and the Arabs wanted to throw us into the sea / as usual / and we took away their land / as usual,” maintaining an objective view of a conflict that has ravished her homeland for far too long.

In her work, a sort of biblical-style repetition combines with lyrical sensibility, prophesy, and erotically charged images that can at times remind one of Leonard Cohen’s work. Consider the implications of the final stanza of “And Sympathy is All We Need, My Friend” (1987):

Everyone’s thirsty for love
and whoever won’t pour a glass of water for the thirsty
is doomed to gag on his own spit
to the end of his days.

God is love, after all, and Ravikovitch’s is a verdant world, where “There’s a god hiding behind the rain,” and love and desire are often represented in relation to water. Yet, the freedom that comes from sailing into such an ocean of potentiality comes with a price, as these few lines from the title poem in her posthumous (2006) book Many Waters suggest:

The bread grows stale.
A plague erupts inside her.
The sail is torn.
Fresh water’s gone.
Maybe a native canoe will come
bearing maize
or something to chew on[…]
She’s gone astray.
This ship
is the Dahlia Maria.

The title of the poem (and book) references lines in both Psalms and Song of Songs, the latter suggesting the poem’s allusion to love. Though adept in her biblical imagery and character studies, Ravikovitch’s poetic strength tends to manifest in her own experiences and observations. She returns often to a landscape of ships/sea/fields/birds/fire/wind, and her own experiences are more evident when she starts to describe more than her own homeland. When she portrays Hong Kong, Australia, Chad, Cameroon, etc., and mentions topics well known to Czechs (marionettes and a character from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which debuted in Prague), she seems attuned to more complex patterns in the world.

Ravikovitch’s battles with depression are evident in such poems as “The Beginning of Silence,” where she uses verbs from one of Ezekiel’s visions to describe ‘silence’ moving across objects in the room, finally to envelop both land and sea. Eventually, she notes “the silence shrieks inside me / and I shriek inside it,” and the reader may wonder if her bouts of depression could have been caused in part by obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as lines from “Poem in the Arab Style, Perhaps” seem to indicate:

Even the smallest thread on the floor can rob me of rest.
No way to maintain a sense of order.
[…] the defects are right there before you,
and that’s what disturbs the eye,
dispels any rest.

Translators Bloch and Kronfeld, both Hebrew scholars, extensively footnote, providing a rare and interesting glimpse into the complexities of translation in general, as well as a tangential study of both ancient and modern Hebrew culture and linguistic transformation that often grants countless layers of depth to Ravikovitch’s work. As well, they inform readers of Ravikovitch’s (sometimes subtle) references to other poets she admired, such as Leah Goldberg, Yona Wallach, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Remarkably, Dahlia Ravikovitch seems to have envisaged a greater overall literary window for her work – timeless (without ephemeralities) – than many other poets of her century, and this is precisely why her work will continue to resonate long after any particulars that she wrote about are gone.