On the line between appropriation and allyship: A review of Rebecca Makkai's THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Becca Rose Hall

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"...we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own."
 

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It starts with a party. A funeral party. It is Chicago, 1985, and a young man named Nico has just died of AIDS. His homophobic parents exclude his partner and friends from the formal funeral, so they throw their own. Despite the Cuba Libres and cute boys, no one exactly feels like partying, least of all Nico’s sister Fiona and friend Yale. But still, it starts out so fun, despite the occasion. And then.

This is the world Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers drops us into as quickly and completely as if we also had stepped from a dark street into a hopping funeral party. The book alternates perspectives between Yale and Fiona: Yale in 1985 as AIDS sweeps through his circle and he works to secure an incredible art acquisition from 1920’s Paris, Fiona in 2015 as she heads to Paris to look for her estranged daughter, the wounds of her thirty-year-old losses still with her. This simultaneity of tragedy and survival lets the crisis and its aftermath unfold in tension, the crisis always in the present the way traumas are. Makkai manages information deftly so that the whole tragedy is a slow-moving train wreck you can see coming, know how to dodge, but that still hits you sideways. And it hits you hard. There is dread and grief, anger and disbelief, fatalism and magical thinking, and a fierce resiliency and love of life in this novel. The characters get in your mind and become imaginary friends. Reading their stories, I felt the magnitude of loss the arrival of AIDS brought in a way I, a straight white lady who was just learning to read when these men were dying, never had before.

As far as I know from Makkai’s author bio and from our slight acquaintance (she was the fellow in my workshop at Sewanee in 2011, and we’ve stayed in occasional touch through social media), Makkai is a straight woman, married with kids. If she has a personal connection to the AIDS crisis, or to the subculture she writes about, she doesn’t disclose it. Despite the vividness of the world Makkai creates, her outsiderness shows. For instance, the mid-eighties gay scene as Makkai describes it is just as I would have imagined it. I don’t know if that is because her portrayal is extremely accurate, or if it is because she is writing outside her own experience (as I am reading outside mine), and so the novel leans on generally shared stereotypes of what that life was like. In any case, I wasn’t surprised by anything in Makkai’s world, real as it felt. Nothing was weird. It was as if she worked so hard to get the characters right that they became predictable. They felt like real people, but just the real people I’d expect to show up to that particular party.

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Reading The Great Believers also made me think about what it means to write stories outside our own experience, stories that we may care about but are not our own. It is extremely important for writers to write across lines of difference, to write characters of different races and genders and sexualities and classes and worldviews. For one thing, we’d have too many books about MFA students. Too many books set in New York. We would also have too many books that don’t have people of color in them, or don’t pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test, or don’t get inside the minds of Republicans. In other words, that don’t reflect the fullness of the world. If one of the superpowers of fiction is the creation of empathy, then writing about people other than ourselves is critical.

Writing is an act of imagination, and imagination doesn’t follow social codes. However, we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own. It’s easy for that to become appropriation for the sake of plot drama, which is icky. It’s easy to become an authority without knowing how something felt to live. This is especially complicated when you write a story that belongs to a group of people who have struggled to be heard on their own terms, like the men in Makkai’s novel.

To be fair, Makkai is aware of this, and writes in her afterward about the subjective line between appropriation and allyship. And Fiona’s story, which is the story of the witness, the survivor, the ally, makes the book also about those things. Fiona carries the weight of surviving even more than the surviving HIV-positive men. Her grief has directed her entire life: her work, her own recklessness, her relationship with her daughter. One of the most interesting scenes in Fiona’s story is when she is reunited with a man she thought had died of AIDS, but who had managed to hang on until the “good drugs” came on and had made it through. How strange, says Makkai, that this man could have “a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She’d been tending the graveyard alone….” It’s a conversation that helps the book reach its end, and one that seems like instructions for healthy allyship as well. Yes, witness and imagine and empathize and grieve and offer a hand. But also live your own life. Don’t let others’ pain be your plot.

Making art out of pain is wise and human; making art out of other peoples’ pain is vampiristic. Makkai’s novel raises enough questions and makes me feel deeply enough that I believe she has honored her material. Others likely feel differently. There are great novels about American gay life during the peak of the AIDS epidemic that are written from the inside. (In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer comes to mind.) They should not be left out of the conversation.

In another way, this story does belong to our whole culture, because we are all survivors and witnesses, though most of us are crappy, inattentive ones. AIDS has brushed us all, at least in our fears; half my 1990’s sex-ed class was about AIDS: which bodily fluids and not toilet seats and through lambskin but not dental dams and even Magic Johnson and safer not safe because no guarantees and anyone anywhere maybe even me. No one I knew ever died of it. We need to hear and feel this story.

The extent to which people outside the gay community ignored the AIDS crisis then and forget about it now is wrong. Wrong like ignoring the trauma of war is wrong. Even my AIDS-obsessed sex-ed class didn’t spend time humanizing the devastation in the gay community as much as convincing us heterosexual kids we should be worried about ourselves. These are the things I thought about, some for the first time, when I read this book. Clearly, we need the empathetic entry points that fiction gives us. We need stories to come to life so we can feel them. The Great Believers does this and does it powerfully. But the question remains: does Makkai’s book add to an important conversation or hog the mic? Or both?

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Becca Rose Hall lives, reads, and writes near Seattle with her husband and daughter. She is the director of Frog Hollow School, a children's writing program. Her novel, Salt for Salt, is currently out on submission and she is working on another novel. She studied writing at Stanford University and the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Contrary Magazine, High Country News, Elsewhere Lit, Smokebox, The Bellingham Review, and elsewhere. Check it all out here, and follow her on twitter at @beccarosehall.


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Jackie Brennan & The Dogs of Callan Wink

The Top 5 Dogs of Callan Wink’s Stories

by Jacqueline Brennan

     “I’ve always liked dogs. That’s why I asked. I remember watching that one walk across the field in the snow. A beautiful animal.”
     “The day you get a dog is the day you sign up to bury it. It’s a package deal. No sense in getting too attached.”
     “You could say that about anything. Everything in your life—either you bury it or it buries you. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get attached.

                                         “In Hindsight”

Behold the Dalmatian in all its magnificent idiocy.
Photo from https://valentina-86.deviantart.com/art/crazy-255658657

Poet Chris Dombrowski described Callan Wink’s debut short story collection as “mongrel stories of the new West.” Asked to react to the description in a late 2017 interview, Wink said, “I think the stories are, you know, set in the new West, as it is. And I’m not sure I know what it is to be a mongrel as it applies to a fiction piece…but I like it.”

That’s the most that has been made of Dombrowski’s use of mongrel in reviewing Wink’s work. And I find that weird. Poets are notoriously choosy with their words, so when Dombrowski says mongrel, he means mongrel, dammit. Denotatively, a mongrel is “a dog of no definable type or breed.” Dombrowski uses the tag as a nod to Wink’s versatility, and as an implicit appeal to prospective readers to resist the urge to shelve his prose reductively. That is, it’s tempting to cast Wink as the newest white male writer of stories about other white males, set predominantly in the West. But, in addition to Dombrowski’s nod, he’s throwing us a wink—and it’s specifically directed at the many memorable dogs of the Michigander-gone-Montanan’s imagination.

I remember dogs in stories—much as I do in life—with inordinate clarity, and a lot of fine dogs have graced stories set in my home state of Montana. Two come to mind immediately. First, Bill Bell’s dog from Maclean’s USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, and Steinbeck’s tall poodle, whose manners and quirks figure prominently into the texture of Travels With Charly. Though Steinbeck’s travelogue is not about Montana specifically, he devotes an entire chapter to describing his passage through the state in elevated, affectionate terms.

Wink’s collection takes its name from the first story, “Dog Run Moon.” By virtue of the title alone, I came in banking on some strong dog performances, and wasn’t disappointed. I am surprised, however, that no previous concerted discussion of Wink’s fiction has explicitly remarked on the dogs. That changes now, with this list of the five most memorable canines from Callan Wink’s fiction, ranked primarily on the basis of memorability, but also employing some personal taste and references for those that were too close to call without a second criterion. I’ll also emphasize that Callan Wink’s fictional animal kingdom is vast, and well worth a discerning reader’s independent exploration. But I’m just appraising the dogs. So here they are.

 

5. Charlie

He didn’t think his life lacked for much of anything, At least there were no holes that couldn’t be filled by getting a dog. Last spring, his old lab Charlie had gone to chase the big tennis ball in the sky. He thought enough time had passed now and maybe he’d go look at the shelter sometime soon.

“Sun Dance”

I admire few things more from a craft standpoint than when a writer incites emotion with something that’s absent from the space and time of a story. For dog people, the notion of an old lab going on to chase the big tennis ball in the sky rings true. It’s a small, sympathetic detail that readers can transpose onto their own experience as dog owners. The move is emotionally load-bearing. As evidence, although this dog only gets a passing mention, he stayed with me well past finishing Wink’s book.

 

4. Elton John

Her dogs sat and watched her work, two small brown mutts of indeterminate breed. They’d shown up together a few years back and decided they would stay. They were two neutered males and they seemed to be good friends, old traveling companions. She’d named them as a unit, not separately, because they were never apart. Elton John. That was their name.

“In Hindsight”

If Wink’s readers were asked to make their own version of this list, I’d bet most would give Elton John top honors. They were in contention for mine. Yes, they. Because Elton John are two dogs, indivisible, named in aggregate by Lauren, the main character of “In Hindsight.” To their credit, the unassuming Elton John do a lot. And by “a lot,” I mean that they make us laugh, as many of Wink’s animals do. To boot, shortly after finishing Wink’s book, part of the reason I couldn’t shut up about it is because I spent a few days with a real-life Elton John—two German Shorthaired Pointers who also move through the world as a unit. Only difference is that they in fact have unique names, Odin and Freya—which I assume are taken from Norse deities. As of Memorial Day weekend 2018, I’m technically extended kin to those dogs owing to my cousin’s marriage to their owner, a well-tattooed Bay Area construction worker originally from Southern Utah.

Part of the joy of reading about Elton John was that they immediately reminded me of the dogs David Foster Wallace had in real life, Jeeves and Drone. The ease with which Elton John enter Lauren’s life recalled the way Wallace described Drone entering his: “He just showed up once while [Jeeves and I] were jogging.”

That I don’t give Elton John the top spot can be chalked up to taste and timing, but it’s also worth mentioning that “In Hindsight” was many readers’ intro to Wink’s work. A few years before Wink’s debut book was published, The New Yorker launched their online novella series with the long story. My first exposure to Wink was actually not the novella, and that’s why I’m going to break form for the third slot.

 

3. Brothel ghost cats

“There was a cat,” she said. “Right in the living room. It jumped up on the couch. It looked at me and I went to go pet it but it jumped down and ran into the kitchen. I thought the front door must have blown open so I went to go close it but it wasn’t open at all. Then I went back into the kitchen to find the cat, but it wasn’t there. I’ve torn the damn place apart and there isn’t a cat anywhere.”

“Upside Down”

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Speaking in this passage is Julie, the romantic interest of the main character in “Upside Down,” which appeared in the 2016-17 issue of The Idaho Review. We eventually learn that, far from hallucinating, Julie (who is a little bananas, otherwise) is indeed seeing ghost cats. They haunt a structure that was a brothel in its salad days, which is about as Montana as it gets for story material.

I’m breaking at least two of my own rules to include these cats in the lineup. Besides being the only animals on this list not in Dog Run Moon, I’m decidedly not a cat person. I often choose to ignore cats for the same reasons a lot of folks refuse to refer to our sitting president by name, as if I might successfully ignore a popular domesticated animal out of reality. It hasn’t worked. But Wink’s cats are ghosts, so maybe all this time, I’ve only had an aversion to living cats and haven’t known it. In any case, “Upside Down” was my intro to Wink, and I was so signed on with the sheer imaginative merit of brothel ghost cats that I sought out more of his stuff. And now, as if in a Miltonic twist of felix culpa, the dead cats started a chain of events creating an occasion to remark on many great dogs. So perhaps there’s a benign purpose for cats after all.

 

2. Montana Bob’s dog

Sid unhooked the chain from the dog’s collar, and when he turned to leave, the dog followed him to his truck, jumped in, and sat on the bench seat, leaning forward with his nose smudging the windshield.

“Dog Run Moon”

The dog in the title story of Wink’s debut collection, like the whole story itself, is a solid opener. And as somebody who has a deviant affection for silent era cinema, there’s a particular delight and humor to this story that comes from one character in particular. The human characters and this dog have a way reinforcing the tone and conventions of silent cinema that give this story, and its chase scenes in particular, a register somewhere in between slapstick and earnest desperation. Though Montana Bob’s dog has less personality than some of the animals recognized deeper in this list, I made a deliberate choice to rank these creatures in terms of memorability. Montana Bob’s dog has that going as a consequence of being, in a sense, a title character. But he’s also the rare dog in Wink’s collection that actually has a bearing on the central conflict between human characters in the story.

 

1. Rocks

Since retiring, she’d volunteered at the animal shelter three days a week. She’d adopted dogs, of course, one or two a year, and she currently had nine, mostly mutts except one purebred Dalmatian that showcased all of the magnificent idiocy inherent in its pedigree.

“In Hindsight”

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The she in this passage is our old friend Lauren, also the owner of the previously mentioned doggie duo Elton John. I can tell Rocks is a misunderstood star. However, it’s unclear whether the burden of misunderstanding resides with the character, the author, or both. Rocks might be the only technically non-mongrel dog in a story collection otherwise teeming with them. In addition to the emphasis on his “magnificent idiocy,” we’re later told that the dog was named “after the contents of its head.”

Rocks, I have to admit, was not my initial favorite for the top spot, but he did stick with me. He has the advantage of being the last named animal in order of appearance in Dog Run Moon. But if I’m being completely honest, Rocks really appeals to my fatal and time-honored attraction to idiots and antiheroes (in essence, people like me). The writing on the wall that sealed Rocks’ supremacy was something I saw while still appraising Wink’s dogs: A shop in Lone Pine, California that made much fanfare of the fact that they sold ROCKS with a neon light.  Lone Pine is a small town in the Owens Valley known best for its proximity to the Eastern Sierra Range and Mt. Whitney in particular. Having grown up in a Yellowstone gateway community myself, I sympathized with Lone Pine’s need to assert itself against a society that tends to relegate the town to means-to-an-end status: A mere base camp for folks climbing to the highest point in the contiguous United States the next day. I understood why Lone Pine would force an issue like ROCKS. In contrast, Wink’s Rocks has no insecurities about his magnificent idiocy. He’s an idiot with integrity, and I realized how much I admired that when I saw such desperation from a separate iteration of his name.

Critics have received Wink’s prose warmly, and judging by the folks who blurbed his first edition hardcover of Dog Run Moon, the guy is here to stay (maybe even heel). Wink suggested in this October 2017 interview that his forthcoming novel will reprise the character August from “Breatharians,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2012 and is the fourth story in Dog Run Moon. The short story basis for the novel has no shortage of dogs and barn cats, so it’s likely we’ll have yet more animals from Wink’s mind palace to meet in short order. In the interim, I’ll miss meeting his dogs on the page. But perhaps it's enough for now that I can’t see a Dalmatian without thinking of Rocks, my cousin’s Pointers without thinking of Elton John, or even any useless cats now without knowing they may have a redeeming quality yet when they die.


 

About Jacqueline Brennan

Jackie is a Southwest Montana native. She's currently based in Washington, DC, where she runs the digital media traps for a national nonprofit and is an MFA Creative Writing candidate at American University. She's an avid shooter of the proverbial breeze, and has suffered chronic peak withdrawals for as long as she's lived in the Mid-Atlantic.

Follow Jackie's tweets at @j_quellin_b


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Shelley Marlow's TWO AUGUSTS IN A ROW IN A ROW

A Moth Can't Be Held Onto:
Vulnerability and Witchcraft in Shelley Marlow's Two Augusts In a Row In a Row

Review by Jenny Montgomery
 

I gingerly climb through the largest hole in the side of the shipwreck. An artist with a Belgian accent, wearing a kimono, graciously greets me with a deep bow and leads me to squat on a floating square for a cup of tea. I notice Shelley First, the avant-garde shaman songbird, perching nearby. Her hair, black with white streaks, snakes around her head, larger than her thin body, which vibrates when she speaks. I wave to her and say, ‘I’m ready for my singing lesson.’
 Shelley Marlow, Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, art edition (Troy, NY: Publication Studio, 2015) Cover image as tweeted by @marlow_shelley

Shelley Marlow, Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, art edition
(Troy, NY: Publication Studio, 2015)
Cover image as tweeted by @marlow_shelley

Philip/Philomena, the OCD drag king Jewish magician narrator of Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, is an unforgettable character who must summon many skills to survive a difficult year. Sporadically employed as a freelance transcriber of letters by Swann (a 1930s-movie star with whom an ancestral link is discovered), Phil careens vulnerably between love affairs, drag performances, plane, train and automobile journeys, art parties, synchronistic events, and run-ins with helpful, aggressive, or mystical figures. The plot simmers toward Phil’s grand romance with a Boston witch named Magi and the devastating catastrophes of 9/11 and his father’s death. Questions of love, grief, sanity, and how to sustain one’s power in a threatening world are thoroughly engaged in this mesmerizing story with several suspenseful threads.

Marlow’s style is appealing and beautiful, propelling the reader forward with its mix of sophistication and Zen-like neologism. Syntax lifts off the rails in exhilarating ways, prepositions stand in for one another, and rich, leisurely descriptions succeed in creating a fully realized world saturated with the far-out colors, sounds, and textures of Phil’s urban and inner landscapes. (Marlow received an Acker Award for Excellence in Avant-Garde Writing in 2017.)

Witchcraft, visionary experience, dream intervention, and the need for spells of self-protection appear regularly throughout this book, as if one could not possibly navigate such an unpredictable world without heeding them. Phil summons power to triumph against gender misunderstanding, parental incomprehension, unwanted come-ons, and rude behavior on the subway. Witches populate the wider world: Phil’s two cousins are introduced early and swoop in again at the end: “Betsy is a leader of a whole region of witches in the north, while Susun has a coven of lesbian rabbi witches south of here. They have faith.” A witch named Freesia appears in a dream and is later located on the Internet.

I was left wanting to know more about Magi’s well-paying freelance gig in Italy, serving as a witch consultant to a mysterious group of architects (“I will help clear the energy from old hotels, participate in a think tank in Ravello, and work on top secret investigative work.”)

Marlow’s novel may be a cousin to those modernist works which fold the occult and magic into disenchanted, denatured, urban, industrial settings. Poets such as Yeats, Eliot, HD, Robert Duncan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and James Merrill challenged the disbelief of the secular / psychological age. For some, the world could be re-enchanted wholly—for others, only partly. Skepticism, irony, and defensive joking regarding the occult all thread through Merrill’s Ouija-channeled long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which also questions authorship (Merrill ostensibly takes a side seat to the entities which speak through the Ouija pointer). In "Mirabell: Books of Number,"[1] Helen Vendler excuses such eccentricity as primarily a sly language experiment, but Merrill remained a believer in important ways.[2] Contemporary writers who identify themselves as #bruja on Twitter are also brought to mind by Two Augusts, as well as the Voodoo practitioners of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and the subjects of Darius James’ documentary, The United States of Hoodoo.

Readings from Two Augusts In a Row In a Row’s release party at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division in the West Village

How does humor operate in Marlow’s work? It is not there to subvert the magical, but to bring it down to earth.[3] “I get lost for hours reading my magic books with their diagrams and magic symbols and numbers. I sit in my comfy chair under the standing lamp dropping pale yellow light on my pages and hands, only getting up to use the bathroom or make a spicy taco with beans and cheddar cheese.”  Repartee right out of a Mel Brooks film ensues in the Italy section: “‘Did you say you were looking for Australia?’ Magi calmly says, ‘No. La strega.’ The British woman says, ‘Las Vegas?’ I say, ‘Witches in Naples?’ She thinks we are daft and walks away.”

Marlow deftly and comically reveals the frailer side of Phil’s radically sensitive nature: classic neurosis. You may never encounter so many instances of hand-sanitization or manic house cleaning in a work of fiction. Phil is wary of physical contact with strangers and, at times, intimates: “A moth can’t be held onto, because the wings’ iridescent powder sticks to your skin, and the contact speeds the creature’s end. I am like that too, because I am afraid that any contact will speed up my demise.”  This makes the novel’s erotic passages even more complex and colors the ultimate question: in a time of extreme vulnerability and grief, should Phil open to Magi’s apparently steadfast love, or retreat into sanitized solitude?

Printed by Publication Studio and bound in rich, oyster pink stock, this art edition of Two Augusts is a luminous beauty. The hand-letterpress cover is embossed in the style of the old Olympia Press’ “Traveller’s Companion” series, which it references. (From Paris, Olympia brought out erotica and avant-garde literary fiction, which could not be published without threat of legal action in the English-speaking world, and is remembered for printing scandalous works like Lolita, Naked Lunch, The Story of O, and Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.)

Publication Studio presents work they feel has been effectively “censored” by the market, and has spared no expense or attention to detail in this edition, which contains twenty-four of Marlow’s spontaneous and intimate ink-on-rice-paper drawings, watercolors, and tempera and oil paintings are interspersed throughout. Compact yet hefty, it sits emphatically in the hand.

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[1] Helen Vendler, "'Mirabell: Books of Number," Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 220-221.
[2] Timothy Materer, Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult, Ithaca: Cornell. 1995.
[3] This is evident as well in Marlow’s riveting St. Petersburg Review piece on her encounters with Tuvan shamans, “Notes in Kyzyl,” which can be accessed here


About the Author:
Jenny (Seymore) Montgomery has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She resides in Missoula, Montana where she owns a distillery with her husband. Her poem, “The Privative Alpha,” was a finalist for the 2017 Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry, judged by Myung Mi Kim. Her poem “Proofed” was runner-up for the 2017 Brittany Noakes Award judged by Sandra Beasley. Find Jenny online at jenny-montgomery.com, and tweeting @jennymtgomery.

Shelley Marlow can be followed at Twitter: @marlow_shelley, on Facebook: TwoAugustsInaRowInaRow, and on Instagram: www.instagram.com/shelleymarlow/


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Lauren Levin’s THE BRAID

It’s the really satisfying second of the opening credits
When the neon flashes in
And you know you’re in good hands.

Acts of Abandonment: Lauren Levin’s The Braid

by Poppy Samuels

Lauren Levin the Braid.jpg

In Lauren Levin’s The Braid, I know I’m in good hands. So I feel comfortable asking all the strange questions great poetry brings: Where am I? Where is Susan Sontag? How many bridges into the now escape? Where is the poet’s grandmother, a true shepherdess of grace? And where is the ricocheting voice of Alejandra? In this radiant collection, I count nine epic poetries consumed with relentless travel across bridges of all kinds: imaginative, emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual, intuitive. Bridges that connect and displace, “like a footbridge between myself” the poet writes. A ravenous intellect roams Levin’s constructed landscapes of where her “body stops and the world begins,” computing all the possibilities flashing behind the poet’s thinking gaze. Bridges built from the texturized language close to Thought, pinpricked in sweaty rashes across an innsomatic body, a mapping of cascading orders strung with lights and rattling shells amplifying overheard conversations. A body anxious to receive visitors but sometimes without the proper response in hand. A hand that measures time with her own maternal body, signaling this haunting reflection: “Braiding is a social art / to own a body’s time….” The body as a living repository of failed political landscapes, but the braid never a network of complimentary connections.

The Braid bravely considers how to walk the interconnected spaces that link the poet to motherhood, art, politics, health, love, and language. Its rhythmic lines step long, step short, but always with an honesty articulating rashes of anger, the waves of unharnessed anxiety at what the world brings before her. The double life we live as lute players and punkers (reckless lovers & mothers) walking fields, hunting for echoes, knowing some of us will be stopped on the bridge by a police cruiser for no reason. The question at the heart of this heartbreaking book might read as: Abandon all?

(The mask unceremoniously lifted off the speaker’s face reveals Lauren Levin.) The poet’s daughter, Alejandra, a talking bridge—her speech pulling the poet into confrontation with her own reverie. The poet’s partner, Tony, an accomplice bridge. Their twinned experiences and perceptions pull them into the twilight of an uncanny knowing. Friends and acquaintances litter the book, repositories of an earlier, imagined travel. “The friendship I knew pasted with living bandages” but the decision to move forward. The poet’s parents—foundational, elemental—reconfigure a new order around their poet-daughter, shoring up the physical moments of an impending motherhood.

Levin’s style paradoxically slows down the onrush of sensory details (the endless cataloguing) just enough so that the salty tears and storytelling can be drunk sweetbitterly. And everywhere the pain, the heartache and anguish of being a woman. What’s noticeable is how frequent the body’s interruptions are (the blood, snot, mucus, sweat, breast milk, shit) but how little they affect the rhythm of a breathtakingly fierce emotive cognition. All braided, all intertwined. The writer and critic, James Pate points to this element found in contemporary American poetry, one that exists with its “unapologetic corporeality and grotesque vitalism” which Levin uses to her advantage. The body’s chemicals spiral out, pumped into the outlying, displaced factories of feeling. “What I’m looking for is a way to join with the world,” the poet writes. I wish more people had the conviction to join with this monstrous world. The poet “staring at the hot sun” who visions what if, what if, what if?  


About the Author:
Poppy Samuels is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: LENA, by Cassie Pruyn

From Body to Body:
Mapping Grief in Cassie Pruyn’s Lena

by Molly Gray

What happened?
If I knew I’d tell you.
Lena died.
What happened?
Lena Cover.jpg

Cassie Pruyn’s poetic debut, Lena, is a probing elegy for a former lover. It pays tribute to the eponymous Lena, to her salt, her air, her New England damp; it explores the absence that binds and thrives, even in the wake of Lena’s death. Lena leaves us to wonder what lasts in loss. Pruyn’s poems are tender and tangible; they go the distance from then to now, from one body of water to another body to another body of water.

Pruyn’s attention to Lena is exquisite and stark—in one moment, she uncurls for us “like a pinkish fist”—in another, her cancer: “black— / —bloom.” And in another, her liver: “a fattening gnarl.” Pruyn invites us to “take comfort in this over-growth,” this explosion of cells, fungi, and grief. She examines the spaces she leaves and the places she goes, all of which inevitably echo Lena: in “New Orleans,” for example, “In a whorl of revving dampish breath / I catch wind of her impending death.” Without closure or reconciliation, this ode—to young love, to mistakes, to sex and danger and patience—is also an interrogation. How do we forgive the mother “with a mermaid’s name,” who makes an enemy out of queer love? How do we grieve without an opportunity for closure? Intimate, mournful, a little witchy, but never trite—Pruyn’s poems linger long after you’ve finished this collection.


About Cassie Pruyn:
A former contributor to CutBank (three of her poems are featured in our 2016 “All Accounts and Mixture: A Celebration of LGBTQ Writers and Artists”), Cassie Pruyn is Advanced Seminar Professor and Head of the Creative Writing Center at Bard Early College in New Orleans and author of Bayou St. John: A Brief History, which will be released on November 27th, 2017. Lena is the winner of the 2017 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry from Texas Tech University Press. It’s available for purchase here and here. You can learn more about Pruyn and her work at cassiepruyn.com. 

About Molly Gray:
Molly is a first-year candidate for an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana, where she is also an instructor of writing. She reads and reviews recently published collections of poetry and prose as the Reviews Editor of CutBank literary magazine. She lives in Missoula, Montana, and is acclimating to the cold. 



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CUTBANK REVIEWS: Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems by John Reed

Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems by John Reed (2016)

Review by Eve Kenneally
 

John Reed’s striking, funny, and devastating collection from C+R Press, Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems, crackles from the first page. The book is framed by a series of emails from the speaker to his agent, starting with, “Dearest [redacted], I was born a lizard” (3). He goes on to note that this self-described “pathological memoir” is “A book of poems, by me, which I’m fairly sure I’ve written” (3).

The speaker is unafraid to instruct the reader on how to best consume the book, stating, “I do hope you understand that it’s vitally necessary that these sonnets be read ON PAPER, and IN A SINGLE SETTING, sans distraction, first to last” (9). (This is, of course, exactly what I ended up doing.) He also provides information on the rhyme scheme used throughout the book (Shakespearean, with various modifications) and his drafting process.

Both Free Boat’s poetry and prose introduce readers to several characters, including the speaker’s ex-wife, his current fiancée, an acquaintance named Shawn Eleman, and his lover Carnivale. (It’s important to note that Eleman and Carnivale were involved in a murder/suicide, and that the speaker wavers regarding how much credit Eleman should be given for providing inspiration for the pieces: “This would be a conflict, then: is this a book of sonnets I wrote, or is it, rather, a book of sonnets I stole?”)

These electric, elusive figures appear and reappear throughout the collection, both within the sonnets themselves and in the exposition the speaker provides in between. There are mentions of webcam girls, MTV VJs, and occultism. There is a page dedicated entirely to mugshots of men also named John Reed, and an anecdote about mafia sports camp. The speaker’s mind is crammed and chattering—it’s impossible for the reader to not be entranced.

Needless to say, the speaker is erratic and endlessly entertaining, whether he’s noting his difficulty in trying to tell his ex-wife and fiancée apart from a distance or providing the grisly facts of the murder-suicide. He interrupts himself and addresses himself within his own narratives, revisiting prior stories while threading in new ones. He also hates his name, “Not John-o-ton. John John, not John-o-ton. / John John, not John-o-ton. John John, not John,” and declares John to be his least favorite apostle. He effortlessly switches from blithe confidence and humor to paralyzing self-doubt.

The tone of Reed’s poems vary throughout the collection. Sometimes the pieces are earnest and somber, like when the speaker discusses the etymology of the name “Reed”: “All of which is to say that the name is not an upperclass name, but a name that lives in the friction between classes; it is a name of radicals, whether or not of one blood” (76). There are also lines that will skewer the reader (especially if the reader is also a poet): “I have the sensation, totally false but also intensely real, that none of this is mine, that it’s all stolen, that I am without anything, without even you to share in my longings” and—from Sonnet 30—“I am tidal need, and break-water spray.”

The speaker is darkly, strangely funny at times, with lines like, “Having endured that sad narrative, Elemen returned to the middle of nowhere to earn a PhD about nothing, which qualified him to teach Comp. 101 (in other words to teach zero) to an unimpressive assortment of young nobodies” (83) and “All I really want to do is stab people” (Sonnet 41). The breadth of topics that Reed offers is so wide and so strange that when he slips into French or Russian, with only the words “chewing gum” as an anchor, the reader is surprised but not unsettled.

When the speaker decides to end his book, he immediately changes his mind, adding more musings and pictures after he includes specific printing instructions (“so that the words fall off the pages when you shake the book”). This indecision is further reflected when the speaker notes of a room he had entered: “It expands and contracts like an accordion, this room. It can’t decide about me.” He is unsure of everything, later declaring, “A liar, a liar, is a good man,” and the movement from one to the other is fascinating and unpredictable as it unfolds.

As a general note, Reed’s sound and diction are consistently rich and unpredictable throughout his collection. For example, from Sonnet 37: “Aisle upon aisle of hot ashes / on robin-speckled linoleum tile” and “down and back, manic, lover to mothering” (58). The other mediums he includes, including emails and photographs, work well in providing additional depth and pacing for the reader.

An email at the end of the book notes that “this m.s. is strange indeed.” There’s also an earnestness, an openness, and a warm and constant energy powering this collection that reminds me of Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness. At one point the speaker says to his fellow writers, “And you may make progress, you may make whatever language bigger, but that thing you want to say, you realize you’ll never say it perfectly.” This may be true, but Free Boat—in its surprises, its generosity, and its understanding—brings us a little closer.


Eve Kenneally is a New York–based freelance writer and recent alumna of the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her chapbook "Something Else Entirely" was released in January 2017 by Dancing Girl Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Whiskey Island, Yemassee, Bop Dead City, decomP, Stirring, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere.


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CUTBANK REVIEWS: How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball  (2016)

Review by Bryn Agnew

Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why is a novel of loss and destructive redemption. Told with his narrator’s searing wit, How to Set a Fire and Why is both a work of fiction and a timely treatise on injustice and resistance.

Ball’s teenage narrator, Lucia Stanton, deservingly takes her place among fiction’s most captivating and radical characters. Reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, Lucia is introduced to readers as she is being kicked out of her most recent high school for an incident involving a pencil and the neck of the town’s young basketball darling. Her father dead, her mother in a mental institution, and her impoverished guardian aunt barely scraping by, Lucia has seemingly lost everything. Yet driven by a will to tell the important truths, she becomes involved with a secret arson club and sets out to burn down representations of hypocrisy and injustice.

Fragmented into short chapters, the novel’s prose is accessible, inviting, heartfelt, and honest. The language proves that simplicity, clarity, and subtlety carry great power when each paragraph, sentence, and word build to the totality of the author’s intent. Lucia and Ball present us with clear and painful truths, but also talismans to cling to. In a pamphlet on arson, Lucia writes, “The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well, then we shall have to try to make some sense of it. That is part of the reason why I have made this pamphlet. It is a kind of grip that you can have on the world.  You can hold on to this, and find your way forward. That’s what I’m promising you.”

In many ways, How to Set a Fire and Why seeks to prepare all of us for the fires we must set—the work we must do. The novel begs our minds and hearts to see the truth and burn away the cruelty and greed of our world. Lucia tells us, “Do not be in a hurry. Remember—there is all of your life prior to the great fire you will set, and all of your life thereafter. That transition will require grace, thoroughness, and a deep compassion that stiffens into an unbreakable resolve. If it takes you some years to become the person who can burn a building, so be it. Carry your matches in your pocket, look at the faces of those who surround you in the crowd. Are we not all the same? Do we not all strive to simply have enough?”


Jesse Ball (1978–) was born in New York and is the author of fourteen books, including The Curfew, The Way Through Doors, Samedi the Deafness, Silence Once Begun, A Cure for Suicide, and How to Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula's Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. 


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