Zero Chill: A review of Charlotte Seley’s The World is My Rival

by Rachel Mindell


Charlotte Seley’s first poetry collection, The World is My Rival, is bold and bodacious. It is ninety-four pages of mind-bending, angst-ridden, love-lost, witchy epic melancholy flecked with pleasure and flambéed by wit. Playful, surreal, dangerous, dramatic. It is, to borrow a phrase, the whole shebang.

Seley’s book takes much inspiration, and its title, from A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes. Part of the following quote is the epigraph for The World is My Rival, taken from Barthes’ fragment “The Orange,” on jealousy:

“The world is full of indiscreet neighbors with whom I must share the other. The world is in fact just that: an obligation to share. The world (the worldly) is my rival. I am continually disturbed by intruders… Everyone is irksome.”

The World is My Rival revolves greatly around the lover’s relationship, in all its variations of ripeness and decay. Rivals abound—fruit, geography, other women. From the title poem:

“I’ve lived many lives   you said

a palimpsest I keep trying to claw off every layer

You belong to me as well     the world says

I am jealous of the states

you live in      the orange slices you share

the worlds we don’t have     the multitudinous parts (23)”

In addition to the intimate relationships throughout the book, I found myself intrigued by the speaker’s own rivalry with self. Well, not at first. It was only after discovering that Barthes uses Gerthe characters for his stand-ins throughout A Lover’s Discourse: the lover/himself (Werthe) and the beloved/the other (Charlotte). What if the world is a rival not only for the poet’s lover but also Charlotte’s rival for Charlotte Seley?

This is a collection marked by divisions—poems are fragmented in form and full of references to breakage and holes. The speaker is divided between the declarative, fiery intelligence (endless) and bravado (delicious) that sparks off her language and the anxiety that holds her reflective, reflexive.

                                                              “…I built this persona

a curated dilemma person to toe the tides but inside I hide

ten thousand tiny tridents ready to pierce         upward” (24)

Whereas so much schooling taught poems to fear the “I,” Seeley willfully refuses to forgo it. Thank goodness. Her speaker is unafraid to prod at their own complexity.

        “What am I ever doing

other than rewriting the story          of myself?

Rewriting and rejecting

        the multitudes” (38).

I blame the world for keeping Charlotte from Charlotte. From “No Chill Is My Given Name,”

     “...if I don’t keep moving       my anxiety will literally

swallow me. If I stop I won’t stop at all   I’m not chill

I feel shame about everything       fear of the Ouija board

and oversharing needing more napkins at lunch

period chatter & bloated…

                                                                         I will

beat myself up and blog about it        searchable sadness

simmering in a machine” (70).

The world of The World is My Rival is tech-dominated, kind of absurd, and doomed, ie. pretty accurately depicted. It’s mundane but also enchanting, especially the ocean where the book begins. In the opening poem, Seeley writes “The second I scream underwater, / I care less about the wreck. / Constellations of bubbles erupt water and the alphabet / breaks into cameos (7).” And in “All the Flotsam and Jetsam of a Hairdo:” “If you study the pattern, my oceanographer, / then I’ll manage the wreckage” (14).

Onward from water, we encounter the grit of city (“the city is in a coma” (33)), shifting landscapes, and the deeper domestic space, with insistent windows and curtains. The poems shape-shift, as does their speaker. She is made of matadors, swords, sequins, slamming stones. There is a spider inside her, she is kept in a whale for too long. She is a scab-picker, a clumsy puppy, a crockpot, a creaking door. Her body is the temple of No Thanks. In a dream, she is every supermarket. The speaker’s identity is fluid like the water and as peopled as many urban areas.

And while this collection is wildly funny (see “Beard Island, Population: 1”), marked by coy surprise, questions, interjections, and hypotheses, The World is My Rival is also deeply sad.

Earth is aching: “What if / our planet is actually nothing / but a hollow? A global wound. / Natural and devious. A mass dislodged, / forlorn in space” (51). People are shams: “Our bodies are beautiful / webs. An elaborate doily with oblong and futile holes” (37).  

And love can be so dismantling, so betraying: “The hole grief / leaves and the impulse to push the edges back, cover / the loss. At first I joke that I grieve in reverse, that I am so / accepting, and my acceptance is denial. I am a collage / of the grieving process” (88).

How to exist beside and inside it all? The only solution I see is to straddle the gaps, as multiple as we can possibly be.

      “I am a woman who cannot be saved

or rather I dream of regeneration constantly—the mirror,

magnification and the magic.” (56)

I’ll admit, I don’t know the Magnetic Fields well. But I listened to the 1999 three-disc album 69 Loves Songs, the other guiding light for Seley’s collection, while writing this. It’s fantastic. In a Paste article ranking all 69 songs, Beverly Bryan calls the album “a staggering achievement, a cultural landmark, a monument to romantic, yet urbane misery… At once theatrical and literary, it’s a dazzling kaleidoscope of pop and Americana… songs that worship, mock and interrogate love by turns.”

Bryan could easily be describing The World is My Rival. Just as with each of Seeley’s poems—wherein where we enter is remarkably distinct from where we exit, spell-like—the experience of reading this book and returning to this book, is kaleidoscopic, is a long strange lovely psychedelic catastrophic excursion. It may well fuck you up.


About Charlotte Seley

Charlotte Seley is a writer and poet from the Hudson Valley region of New York, currently residing in Kansas City. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and her BA with a concentration in Creative Writing from Eugene Lang College of the New School for Liberal Arts. Her first collection of poetry, The World is My Rival, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Press.

She served as the Editor-in-Chief and Poetry Editor of Redivider, and read poetry for Ploughshares, including their Emerging Writers Contest. She also used to manage the digital media and communications for the monthly reading series Mr. Hip Presents, located in Jamaica Plain, MA.

Rachel Photo (2) (1) (1).jpg

About Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is the author of two chapbooks: Like a Teardrop and a Bullet (Dancing Girl Press) and rib and instep: honey (above/ground). Individual poems have appeared (or will) in Denver Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Foglifter, BOAAT, Forklift, Ohio, The Journal, and elsewhere. She works for Submittable and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.


Weather Inventions versus Charnel Surveys

by Jonathan Pierce

In many ways, Emily Rosko’s Weather Inventions (Akron Series in Poetry) is a superficially inviting text, operating on and across lines of “pristine silk”, threading and “floating in the utopic blue.”  


Rosko seems to want to both concretize and lyricize “weather” (qua the ambiental surround) with a discrete engaugement with it, as when she describes a world—at least human, if not also more-than—as consisting in “Everything measured, orbital, bracing itself / around the one fool truth the sun unmakes / in its solar flare-ups.”  We, at least, know the world—if there is a world—through these devices, gauges, inventions; and perhaps, Rosko suggests, the therion might as well: “The ferns, though, journaled it / all.” 

Certainly, if the non-anthropic does not know the world in this fashion, it can—given such agency—regard the world; but a central question that emerges within Weather Inventions is for whom this regard exists.  We see other examples of ambiental or biological gauging, indeed, but their products often become centered on the human voyeur: “All chances / numbered, and such unreal / possibility the leaves / uncount, sewn tree / to tree.  Each line / of pristine silk the marvel of / we wake to see.”  In this anthropic instrumentalizing, however accidental it might seem—a product of gaze eliding with gauge, perhaps; though lines such as “A tulip: singular instrument / of color” argue otherwise—are the spaces where Rosko’s lyric seems regressive, lacking neither the theoretical weight to locate itself in a discourse of the real-qua-discursive, nor the ecological accord to release her poems from the weight of anthropo-scenarizing.

While these issues might seem minimally at stake in other sorts of work, a cycle of poems published in 2018 about weather cannot escape a single, related fact—glaring in its omission—as Rosko tries to think through “the beauty of being / and the difficult spaces in between”, spaces she casts as the foregrounds and backgrounds of a nature “between the winds lived in.”  It is a fact nakedly yet uncannily obvious: the anthropogenic warming of the planet.  And it is not merely a political or ideological omission, but a theoretical lack. As Timothy Morton argues in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground.  It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on backgrounds and foregrounds.  World is a fragile aesthetic effect around whose corners we are beginning to see.  True planetary awareness is the creeping realization not that ‘We Are the World,’ but that we aren’t.

On the one hand, Rosko’s poems certainly seem to operate in a world, with attendant foreground and background: “the flurry we reside in” and “an internal climate of the body.”  On the other, she does seem to blur them—not only through her constant gauzy textures, her “doily work”, but also through her conception of first principles or universal motives, which at least troubles notions of human telos or some proper natural ordering about a human logos: “An invisible / form of intention willed / by chance conditions.”  And she even seems to reach some accord with Morton, as Weather Inventions progresses, “beginning to see” around the corners of some secure sense of world, bordering on the “creeping realization” of its absence or uncertainty: “I do not / know the air, but I do.  I’m ever / so unsure it was all / here.”  

Nonetheless, she is not able to escape her reflex to reground such insights within the fabrics of a world imaginary, where her “gauze turn[s] guise”, and she remarks: “This air / in me is not me but I inhabit / it.  Every breath a threshold.”  She will not dispel the charm of this world of weather which is decidedly not climate.  As Morton directs:

When the charm of world is dispelled, we find ourselves in the emergency room of ecological coexistence. In the charnel ground, worlds can never take root.  Charnel grounds are too vivid for that.  Any soft focusing begins to look like violence.  Haunting a charnel ground is a much better analogy for ecological coexistence than inhabiting a world.

While I would hardly accuse Emily Rosko of violence, I do think Morton’s is a useful lens for thinking about why her lyric seems regressive, in Weather Inventions, and its semantic sum total likewise underwhelming.  If nothing else, such a retreat to a gauzy guise—to such a hope that “[w]e could rise by hemp and silk, / wicker and wire, by gas heat pulsing aflame / a chambered organ,” such that we might “go anywhere / the wind favored”—seems irresponsible for a contemporary poet tackling the subject of an embodied climate and the anthropogenic technological impositions thereof.  And while Rosko lands once more in accord with Morton vis-à-vis the reversal of the conventional, Aristotelian dichotomy—weather as substance, rather than accident—from here she turns pointedly pastoral, treating this new substantiality as a saving grace, romantically lyric in its intensity, to color out new connectivities and cohesion and un- or differently-bounded maps, as opposed to seeing the forest for the forest: this hyperobject of loomingly imbricated peril that is inextricable, now (as it perhaps always has been), from any imaginary weather or any reality of climate.

About Emily Rosko


Emily Rosko earned her BA from Purdue University, her MFA from Cornell University, and her PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her collections of poetry include Raw Goods Inventory (2006), which won an Iowa Poetry Prize and a Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and Prop Rockery (2012), winner of an Akron Poetry Prize. She edited the volume A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (2011).  Rosko was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and her honors and awards include Ruth Lilly and Jacob K. Javits fellowships. The poetry editor of Crazyhorse, Rosko is an assistant professor of English at the College of Charleston.


About Jonathan Pierce

Jonathan Pierce is a second-year MFA candidate in the poetry cohort, as well as an MA candidate in the literature department.  His recent writings have concerned, at instances, the comorbidities of water and the petro-fueled plastocene anti-politics of Lana Del Rey.  He was birthed and bridled amongst fetid bayous and pristine quartz beaches in northwest Florida; later educated in a vaulting gothic enclave on Chicago's southside; later still roamed the Arizona high-country; and lately arrives in Montana in order to explore Idaho's many hot springs. Additional interests include good beer, bad pulp, and any excuse for a road-trip.

Chris La Tray's “attention in these small moments, paired with his simple, honest, and heartfelt words, helps to remind us that the smallest moment is important.”

Mitigating the In Between
A review of Chris La Tray's One-Sentence Journal  

by Bryn Agnew


“A quiet cup or two of coffee in the morning
and an ice cold beer or two in the evening
go a long way toward mitigating
whatever may have happened in between.”

– Chris La Tray, One-Sentence Journal


            Reading Chris La Tray’s first book One-Sentence Journal (Riverfeet Press 2018), I’m struck by the interlinking of a million tiny magics. Each poem and essay in La Tray’s book focus on what would appear to be microscopic and ordinary moments. Innocuous some would say. But not La Tray. His attention in these small moments, paired with his simple, honest, and heartfelt words, helps to remind us that the smallest moment is important. That chain-wrapped tires can sound like sleigh bells, that a glorious afternoon doesn’t require sunshine, or that living paycheck to paycheck makes every other Friday feel like Christmas.

            The majority of One-Sentence Journal is made up of short poems (yes, often just one sentence) grouped by season. These sections’ structure is very intuitive, each moment being captured and honored within its own space while also maintaining the context of that particular season. Whether it is the needling cold of windblown ice or Missoula covered in golden, autumn leaves, La Tray shies away from nothing, finding beauty, wisdom, and worth in everything.

            Between the sections of short poems, La Tray drops in essays and longer poems, giving the reader a deeper look into value of small things (or perhaps they aren’t small at all). The topics range from propane deliveries (“My Life in Propane”), drunken encounters (“Higgins and 3rd”), Lincoln, MT after the capture of Ted Kaczynski (“Lincoln After Ted”), to the struggle between a fish and snake (“Creekside Drama”). But perhaps the crown jewel of these longer bits is the final essay, “Notes on the Sacred Art of Dog Walking.” In this penultimate essay, La Tray writes about loss and how a dog gave him something he didn’t know he needed, about how doing something that many would consider ordinary or a chore can resuscitate the soul of a person.

            I think that it would be incredibly reductive to talk about One-Sentence Journal as if it was a book about just one thing. No book is just about a singular topic. La Tray knows this and writes about the not-so-little things that many of us choose to ignore. He writes about them with the utmost gratitude. He is grateful for the gifts the world gives us, gifts that help us to be better people and pay attention to all that is happening around us. It’s all important. His writing, this book, is something we should be grateful for, because like all the best books, it is a gift.

“Every time I get outdoors,
            (up in the hills
            along the river
I feel like the world just gives and gives
and I’m not doing a damn thing
to give anything back.”

– Chris La Tray, One-Sentence Journal

Chris La Tray, an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a writer and photographer who lives just outside Missoula, Montana. His work has appeared in various magazines, collections and anthologies. It has been suggested that, because of the nature of his work, Chris La Tray must smell like Yukon gold dust, spruce tips, and cedar waxwings. He hopes it's true.

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

A Driver Runs Through It? A review of Melissa Stephenson’s DRIVEN by Jacqueline Brennan.


My father and I talked about this moment several times later, and whatever our other feelings, we always felt it fitting that, when we saw him catch his last fish, we never saw the fish but only the artistry of the fisherman.

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean


I think he liked my stories because they humanized him. I do this now, for myself, replaying that final day so that I might understand how he felt, how death opened him up, blowing a vent in his head to let all those shark dreams out.

Driven, Melissa Stephenson



Melissa Stephenson’s DRIVEN: A Driver Runs Through It?

by Jacqueline Brennan

“Grief is the cost of love. And loving someone is never a failure.” Author Melissa Stephenson said this and a number of things that resounded with the force of great elegiac storytelling in a Montana Public Radio interview about her then-forthcoming memoir. In the space of less than 30 minutes, Stephenson’s ruminations on grief, being an ambitious kid with “big feelings,” and calculated examination of a loved one’s suicide keyed me in that this was a person we can trust to take us on a ride through weighty material.

Though originally from Indiana, Stephenson’s adopted home of many years is Montana. I expected her debut book, a memoir called Driven, to be powerful, and very much in the vein of the profound, reflective writing the state consistently begets. I did not, however, expect it to be a reading experience on the magnitude of one of the most affecting tragic stories to come out of Montana, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.

Stephenson’s memoir hit bookstore shelves July 23, and I made the mistake of preordering it so I was able to read it at the earliest available opportunity. That resulted in me reading the bulk of the memoir on a plane to Montana during the first days of August, and weeping most of the way through. It was effectively a repeat of the experience I had reading Maclean’s seminal Montana story on a plane to my hometown when I was 19. I was then an undergraduate student in Virginia, and one of my writing instructors was indignant that I had never read the story despite being from Montana. He sent me off to my holiday break with his personal copy of what Annie Proulx, in a 2001 foreword, calls Maclean’s “little book.” The last sentence of Maclean’s story, “I am haunted by waters,” might be the closest anybody’s come to distilling the wistful sense that pervades the imagination of Montanans. I like to think that it’s an effect of the commanding landscape, and Maclean’s choice of fly fishing—an activity that requires mimicking the patterns of natural order—as his grounding story metaphor is in line with the idea.

Stephenson uses a decidedly different but equally compelling metaphor as a way into, then through, the story of her own brother’s death. Once over the raw emotion of her gorgeous story, I found myself touting the parallels between Stephenson’s memoir and Maclean’s novella to anybody who’d listen. In subsequent days, I came up with a more concise way to state the comparison: Driven is like A River Runs Through It, except it’s a sister’s POV on her brother’s death, and instead of fly fishing, the unifying metaphor is cars.

If you love the older of the two books, the newest is up your alley. And although the similitude rests in the broad strokes of the two stories, Stephenson’s voice and background are distinct. It makes the rare reading experience of a truly vulnerable story accessible through a narrator who is unflinching and compassionate, without ever feigning to be a hero on her “white-knuckled ride to heartbreak and back.” Nonetheless, some of the broad strokes I noticed are worth underscoring. The strength of how these shared touchstones—thematic and tactical—manifest in one story only flatters the other because they’re both stories of the highest quality.

Live wire, wayward brothers

I want to be exceedingly clear that to compare Stephenson and Maclean’s respective brothers is not to conflate them as a type, nor to collapse and relegate them to merely a single dimension of “troubled.” And if you read both, you’ll agree with me that at least the fallacy of uni-dimensionality is easy to avoid because, despite their many struggles, both Paul Maclean and Matthew Stephenson were, by their siblings’ accounts, preternaturally charismatic, complex, bright, and multi-talented.

Maclean’s story teems with eloquent wisdom on subjects mundane to grand, and one of the best morsels from the mundane end of the spectrum comes from his younger brother when he articulates a principle Montanans—whether they admit it or not—still live by today. Namely, a wanton distrust of Californians in our state. Norman tries to do his sweetheart a solid by taking her wayward brother fishing when he’s in from California to visit. But the younger Maclean objects to the proposition, saying, “I won’t fish with him. He comes from the West Coast and he fishes with worms.”

Paul Maclean was, in his brother’s fictional construction, an eternal charmer who always had more people in his corner than not, even at the remarkable pace he acquired nemeses from his penchant for gambling and heavy drinking. It comes as little surprise that Brad Pitt was tapped for the role of Paul Maclean while he was in his whippersnapper pretty-boy prime for Redford’s 1992 film adaptation (and again as Tristan Ludlow for Edward Zwick’s adaptation of Legends of the Fall shortly thereafter). And Stephenson’s brother Matthew calls to the mind’s eye a similar physiognomy and attitude with descriptions like:

Some gifts we are born with. Matthew took the mother lode in magnetism.

He loved convicts and sanitation workers the way I loved Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks.

The trick rested in making the true story of my brother believable.

That the trick for Stephenson rested in making her brother’s story believable is one of the great testaments to an achievement of her book that is at once reminiscent of Maclean’s story, while wholly remarkable and done on her own terms. Maclean struggled over many years to capture his family’s story, and ultimately found a way to do it with fiction. Stephenson white-knuckles it without the exemption from fact-checking. And her early acknowledgment of the challenge in making Matthew believable will strike anybody who’s ever tried to write vulnerable nonfiction. Writing such material only to get feedback that the motivations or events that transpire are unbelievable is a perennial frustration. Finding work-arounds to surmount that common challenge takes tremendous skill, and also a lot of drafts that miss wide before the story finally passes plausibility muster.

The paradox of elusiveness and intimacy

That Maclean found a different channel for his river (if you will) is not a dig on his story’s integrity (nor its sanctity, for that matter). In fact, the contrast in execution between Maclean’s story and Stephenson’s is related to a question that both authors wrestle with—that of creating, through words, a lucid and artful facsimile of our own lives and the people in them.

Stephenson has admitted in both the aforementioned public radio interview as well as in an August 2018 “Writing on the Air” interview in Austin, Texas, that she began telling stories about her brother long before he ultimately took his life in August 2000. Of the time Matthew was alive, she writes in Driven, “I think he liked my stories because they humanized him.” Her memoir, then, becomes a way of her taking emotional stock of why we tell these stories if they are no longer for the subject’s benefit. The notion has moving echoes with an exchange near the end of A River Runs Through It. It begins with Norman Maclean’s father speaking:

“After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.

“It is those we live with and love and we know who elude us.”

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

This intimate moment between two generations of Scots-Presbyterians is one of many that I’m tempted to read as sourced verbatim from a real conversation that Maclean had with his father. And I think what Stephenson and Maclean share most astutely is a willingness to observe and document as life becomes a story, even if it’s one they know they won’t be able to tell faithfully until many years down the road, or the river.

Subtext in the metaphor

Asked to explain her decision to use cars as a unifying metaphor Stephenson noted that though she grew up in what she’d consider a loving family, they didn’t “talk about the big things very well, like feelings, or a family history of suicide, or alcoholism, or mood disorders.” But, she said, “We could talk about cars.”

The lingo of cars even suffuses the pedestrian mantras Stephenson recalls her family using when her brother was plainly not doing well:

He’d returned to Indiana alive, and all we knew how to offer, without words, was that same old message, flat as a worn-out tire: It’ll all buff out.

Although we can never know if they were used as abundantly in actuality as they are in the story, I suspect the Maclean family leaned on the fishing metaphors as much as Stephenson’s family relied on their car metaphors. For his part, Maclean may have had to distend the metaphor as a measure of catharsis, or at least to fill in cracks to make his brother’s story tactile and believable. In both stories though, the mystique of the respective metaphors is that they’re ripe with subtext, as in Maclean’s last time fishing with his brother and father:

My father said, “There has to be a big one out there.”

I said, “A little one couldn’t live out there.”

My father said, “The big one wouldn’t let it.”

My father could tell by the width of Paul’s chest that he was going to let the next loop sail. It couldn’t get any wider. “I wanted to fish out there,” he said, “but I couldn’t cast that far.”

Maclean and Stephenson’s expert use of a metaphorical throughline shows how load-bearing the technique can be in tragedy. While in comic contexts, the technique takes the form of puns, the tragic function allows for controlled but abundant subtext.


In the spirit of ending on a high note, it bears to remark on the incredibly wry wit that makes for some of the most memorable passages in both these stories. It’s not heavy-handed. It’s not gratuitous. It imbues each of these heart-rending narratives with just the right levity at the right moments. And nailing that balance may take as much skill as it takes to capture the dimensionality and plausibility that I’ve already highlighted.

Maclean’s most satisfying dose of levity comes just past the halfway point, recalling an episode with a pair of folks asleep naked on a sandbar after some of your average afternoon outdoor love-making:

You have never really seen an ass until you have seen two sunburned asses on a sandbar in the middle of a river. Nearly all the rest of the body seems to have evaporated. The body is a large red ass about to blister, with hair on one end of it for a head and feet attached to the other end for legs.

Stephenson is as good at interpreting the comedy in the base as Maclean. Maybe even better. Her theater background serves her well when she sprinkles in some particularly well-timed comic relief after recounting all the cringe-worthy particulars of her cruise wedding. She and her new husband Josh suffer a moment of panic when they wake up the morning after to discover a “brown smear” on Josh’s side of the bed. I’m not skittish about spoilers in any context, but I want to leave that one alone to encourage readers to independently discover the source of the smear, and all the other well-placed and often unexpected comic moments before and after.

Drivers and rivers

I should say that Stephenson does make explicit mention of Maclean’s story in her memoir, and even cites it as one she read in a sequence that inspired her to attend undergrad in Missoula, the town that she has since returned to with her two children after stints elsewhere. She hasn’t remarked on the degree to which Maclean was or wasn’t on her mind while she was piecing together the writings that eventually coalesced to form her memoir. But an attuned reader could be forgiven for suspecting that Stephenson’s conscience does take some cues from the earlier narratives that attracted her to the town she now calls home.

I’ve been advised that ending an original piece of writing with an unoriginal thought is, for mysterious reasons, an abominable faux pas, a disgraceful way to sign off. But I’m not sure who’s enforcing this originality protocol, and I assume literate audiences grant exception to any such rule when the words come from Norman Maclean. Because Stephenson clearly felt called back to Missoula after some time away, I’d wager she’s discovered the validity of the ageless wisdom, many times over, that the world is “full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.” As of August 2018, she’s still on the road making the reading and press rounds with her fabulous debut, and it’s only a matter of time before she discovers this fact anew. Let it be soon, so she can get back home and finish her next book. We need it like Stephenson needs her VW vans and Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks.

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



Photo by  Chris La Tray

Photo by Chris La Tray

Melissa Stephenson earned her B.A. in English from The University of Montana and her M.F.A. in Fiction from Texas State University. Her writing has appeared in publications such asThe RumpusThe Washington PostBarrelhouseMuthaBlackbird, and Fourth Genre. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids.



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


"...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 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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

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

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”

ghost cat 1-vignette.jpg

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”


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


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.

* * *

[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, and tweeting @jennymtgomery.

Shelley Marlow can be followed at Twitter: @marlow_shelley, on Facebook: TwoAugustsInaRowInaRow, and on Instagram:


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.


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 

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. 

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.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker

Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker (2016)

Review by Karin Schalm

I first met Ellen Welcker a few years back when she read in Missoula from her vivacious collection, The Botanical Garden. I remember the stunning feeling of exhilaration that overcame me while listening to her work, the sense of certainty this author had passed the Emily Dickinson smell test—“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Ram Hands, Welcker’s second full-length collection of poetry, combines newer poems with her previous chapbook, Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline. Printed by Scablands Books in late 2016, Ram Hands calls attention to both the beauty and discomfort of poetic language. Welcker invites us to laugh with her at the seriousness of the poet who frames herself in the act of writing and even the reader—ourselves—when we assume we are safely outside the text, looking in from a removed space. Poems titled “ellenwelcker, you have no events scheduled today,” “poem that wonders if it feels safer with a blanket over its head,” and “Still Life with Viewer as Object” are interspersed with poems inflated with their own sense of importance, titles like “This Day in History,” “Rhetorical Analysis,” and “Deep.”

My favorite title is the complicated “’Who has not broken our heart,’ said the friend. ‘Carl Linnaeus has not broken our heart.’” In this prose poem, there’s a process of doubling that demonstrates how complexity springs from the simplest of building blocks: “May I call you Carl? Carl… I am—we are—four things, sixteen—what are we—wonder, whale, mouse, monster, matter?” Welcker approaches the reader best with her oddly insightful questions. In “When my son says I’m a girl and I’m a boy,” the speaker asks, “Do you feel frustrated, reader, / by my lack of attendance to my son’s early awareness / of the spectrum of gender, the body’s ability to be both?”

Welcker pays attention to the confusion generated by the limitless questions, often posed as mindless commands, in this modern world. In “Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline” she writes:

It’s weird when people use Facebook to communicate
with the dead but I get it:

the way humans evolve to carry useless organs around

I’m a machine with my own colossal network
the small print: it’s a beak in my hearts
it’s weird

when you’re asked

to check yes or no

I know

the world prefers me


These poems serve as a survival manual for the strangeness of this world: “this is a workbook / you can write in it,” she says, or “stay away from the shellfish…don’t lock your knees / always take the stairs.” There’s a sexuality and playfulness to Welcker’s work that can quickly go awry: “our safe word was / platypus.”

Welcker evokes environmental degradation, paternalistic violence and capitalistic greed with banal objects of domesticity. The combination of nature—in various forms of torture—with the everyday stuff of human life makes for a complicated mish-mash: “slugs drape themselves grossly like used tea bags” or “I heave a beached orca into a plastic bag. It quietly doubles over on itself. I twist the top of the bag and look for a bread tie.”  

Here’s one of my favorites, “Nature Poem.” Enjoy it in its entirety. Then visit Scablands Books to learn more about Ram Hands.

              Nature Poem

Let’s say you’re a female animal
and a parasite has infected your brain,
made you do crazy things. Let’s say
it’s not living inside you, exactly,
but near you, near enough to come
inside you, dripping poison,
though let’s say it’s not poison,
but a magic elixir that mixes
with yours, begins to grow. See
how out of control things
can be? Let’s say you’re not
a woman, exactly, but female,
a female animal, and someone,
another animal, wants to nest
inside you. She looks around
for someplace to get in and
when she does, she leaves her body
behind: now she has yours.
Her nest might look like a tumor
hip-checking for wiggle room, hungry
for your food. The animal renders
your sex organs useless and you care
for the children of this shadow-you. Now
she bores a hole in you: makes a new
cunt, where they can come
to mate with her through you,
an animal too.

Karin Schalm, a former CutBank Poetry Editor, lives, works and writes in Missoula where she serves as University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program Coordinator. She has been published in Camas, ep;phany, The Sun and other journals.

Watch a Poetry Film of Raven Jackson's "jar"

The winner of our 2016 chapbook competition, Raven Jackson, stars in a poetry film shot on location in Piermont, NY, by Felipe Vara de Rey. The short film is gauzy and dream-like, and features stunning visuals of Jackson sitting by a tree-lined lake and walking through a golden field. Jackson also provides the voice-over of her poem "jar," which is featured in her winning chapbook little violences (available for purchase through the CutBank store).  

CUTBANK REVIEWS: The Underworld by Kevin Canty

The Underworld by Kevin Canty  (2017)

Review by Bryn Agnew

Kevin Canty’s latest novel The Underworld tells the story of a disastrous fire in the mines beneath an isolated town in Idaho in the 1970s. Inspired by true events, the novel depicts the rippling effects of tragedy, leaving no one unscathed.

Canty’s characters are of the blue-collar variety, and the novel’s multiple points of view invite us to view their world through many pairs of eyes. There is a college student trying to make a new life for himself in Montana, a young widow with twins, and a lifelong hard-rock miner struggling against the thick, black smoke. The multiple points of view offer the reader an all-inclusive look at a catastrophe where everyone has lost someone—a friend, a lover, a brother, a father.

Canty’s prose is sharp and honest, never obscuring an image or character. The reader is immersed in the world of Silverton, Idaho as if they themselves were a resident of the silver mining town. The world is rendered vividly from the music playing on the radio to lines like “Their wives burst out of the crowd and through the gate and into their embrace, the filthy work clothes and the pretty pastels of their dresses.” But the marvel of The Underworld is the novel’s humanity. Canty’s characters drive the novel and crackle with life. They struggle with what is lost or could be lost and cling desperately to hope and love.

The Underworld features an overarching metaphor of light and darkness. Canty writes of the “thick, opaque, greasy-looking” smoke and the dead silence of the dark mine shafts, invoking a sense of dread in both the characters and the reader. It is a dread that permeates all of Silverton, and no one is tough enough to escape it. Yet, there is light. Even trapped in the depths of the smoky mine, a character thinks of his ex-wife. He wants “to see her, to say hello, see how she is getting along. It doesn’t seem like much. It isn’t much to hope for. But it might be enough.” The earliest manifestation of this metaphor is when David—the college student—is in the botany lab: “They’re quantifying phototropism, the rate at which a plant will grow toward the light. The light has come and gone and come again, dazzling sun punctuated by blizzards. The other day, a snowstorm full of lightning. Spring is the good news and the bad news both.” As the reader reads, Canty’s characters are in the act of their own phototropism. They grieve what is lost—and even though some will not make it—they grow toward the light.

Kevin Canty is the author of numerous works of fiction including A Stranger in This World, Into the Great Wide Open, Nine Below Zero, Honeymoon, Winslow in Love, Where the Money Went, Everything, and The Underworld. He has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and the New York Times Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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 or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, The Nottingham Review, and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas.

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. 

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "How to Unfeel the Dead" by Lance Olsen

Review by Claire Venery

How to Unfeel the Dead by Lance Olsen is an assemblage of new and selected fictions that are expressive, emotional, and entertaining. The volume is split into five different sections from different books Olsen has written.

My Dates with Franz (1993) opens with “Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale,” a lyrical tale filled with meticulous color and detail. With post-apocalyptic undertones, multiple points of view, and vivid descriptions, Olsen couldn’t have picked a better story to introduce the reader to his haunting and memorable style.

The same details reappear throughout Olsen’s stories, like little breadcrumbs the reader can pick up along the way. There is something satisfying in recognizing a character from one story to the next. In “Watch and Ward,” the narrator is an English professor who meddles with his neighbors’ lawns, gutters, and houses with the best of intentions, but his actions have severe consequences. Later, in “Moving,” Murphy is also an English teacher who, after losing his job, clears gutters for money. “Small But Significant Invasions” mirrors “Moving” in tone. Both contain a couple that care deeply about each other, and each ends with the couple leaving their home hand and hand. The reader cannot help but feel like they know these couples. They feel like old friends.

As seen in the third section from Sewing Shut My Eyes (2000), Olsen’s tales often contain fantastical elements inserted into modern-day moments. “Cybermorphic Beat-Up Get-Down Subterranean Homesick Reality-Sandwich Blues” and “Strategies in the Over-Exposure of Well-Lit Space” do not disappoint. These stories are both a little bizarre in content, and the lines between reality and fantasy blur, where a poet is actually a robot and the infamous Zodiac Killer makes an appearance. It is a whirlwind of activity, and by the end, the reader no longer knows what is real and what is not.

No event or person in history is out of reach for Olsen. He mentions Wittgenstein, Donald Barthelme, Hegel, Bataille, Czeslaw, John Cage, and Alexander Pope, among many more prominent figures. However, perhaps the most notable historical character appears in “16 Jackies” from Olsen's Hideous Beauties (2003). The protagonist of “16 Jackies” is none other than Jackie Kennedy, and the story follows how she deals with the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie recalls “coming awake in [her] nightgown in the middle of the night in [her] room at the Whitehouse, and how [she] just stood there watching [herself] cleaving, coming apart like amoebae do under the microscope.” This tale once again calls upon the reader to accept the impossible. Perhaps, in this piece, Olsen is commenting on how grief can split a person into different versions of themselves.

Olsen’s description remains excellent throughout, especially in “The Doll,” where the narrator describes the day as a “frisky blue Sunday afternoon.” The word “frisky” implies the characters’ sexual activities before Olsen reveals what has just occurred in their apartment. This story describes two characters in an unhealthy relationship who begin removing their toes and eating them for dinner. Gradually, this activity morphs into cutting off all their body parts until only their heads are left. Olsen could be using shock value in these gruesome actions to represent what happens when a person gives too much of themselves away in a relationship.

In “Where Does the Kissing End?” Olsen finally has reality fall upon his characters, where fantasy can no longer be sustained. The main character is a young girl who has just heard the tale of a princess kissing a frog and how the act turns him into her prince. The girl is enamored by the story and takes it upon herself to kiss every frog she can find. As each kiss fails, she realizes her mistake. Upon kissing her last frog, she reflects, “you retract your tongue and wait and stoop and fan your fingers open and set the frog among the weeds and watch him watch with his dead gold eyes watching and wait till you realize only gradually that the world has not changes one mite because the frog is still the frog and you are still yourself and the sky is still blue and your heart is still your heart.”

The fifth and final section of How to Unfeel the Dead showcases eight new fiction pieces from the years 2004–13. At this point the writing becomes experimental, both in structure and content. The first three pieces are the most obscure. “Art Lecture” is less of a story and more of a snapshot of historical moments. The second story is called “Status Updates” and is composed of a steady stream of sentences with a different character in each one. The story begins and ends with ellipses, suggesting the never-ending flow of information being posted day in and day out.  Here Olsen comments on the mindless and endless drone of social media outlets of today.

Although Olsen’s writing grows and changes throughout the years, he is consistent in his unique descriptions, stark character voices, and distinct word choices. “Maybe” and “über” are uttered by many characters and he never misses an opportunity to describe the “blue sky” in his multitudes of stories. Lance Olsen is clever, articulate, funny, and thought provoking, and his short stories are nuggets of wisdom that should not go unread.

About the Author:
Lance Olsen’s more than twenty books of and about experimental fiction include the novels Theories of Forgetting (2014), Calendar of Regrets (2010), Head in Flames (2009), Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006), and Girl Imagined by Chance (2002), as well as the anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing (2012) and critifictional meditation [[there.]] (2014). His short story, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, Berlin prize, N.E.A., and Pushcart recipient and Fulbright Scholar, he teaches innovative narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

About the Reviewer:
Claire Venery is an undergraduate majoring in English at the University of Montana.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "A Bestiary" by Lily Hoang

A Bestiary by Lily Hoang  (2016)

Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor

From its opening line, A Bestiary interrogates and subverts myth. “Once upon a time—,” author Lily Hoang writes, “shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” From there readers are thrust into Hoang’s world, a world both deeply personal and achingly universal.

The acclaimed collection, which won Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2015 Essay Collection Competition, reads like pastiche, collage, glimpse memory. Its form follows in the tradition of works by Jenny Offill, Mary Robison, and David Markson, works which play with fragmentation and white space while eschewing a traditional narrative arc. Hoang’s contribution to the form comes via the power of nonfiction, the resounding, undeniable ring of truth—of Hoang’s truth.

Throughout A Bestiary, various motifs are interwoven, both in individual sections and throughout the work as a whole. Loss, friendship, divorce, body image, ambition, the writer’s life, assimilation—it is the culmination of these motifs, and the nuances of meaning they accumulate, that gives the collection its power. The white space separating each section invites readers to consider the connections between them, the invisible thread that completes the web of not just Hoang’s experiences, but those of us all.

Hoang draws on myths from Ovid to Vietnamese folklore to Hans Christian Anderson. At times she refers to herself as the Little Match Girl standing outside her own life, salivating over “all that is not [hers].” Elsewhere, she creates an alternate mythology through a character she calls Other Lily. This alter-ego lives life perfectly, altruistically, and above all in accordance with her parents’ wishes. Hoang writes, “Other Lily doesn’t fail at marriages, and her husband is Vietnamese. He respects her too.” Yet this is one fairy tale Hoang rejects outright, stating, “Face the facts: There is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.”

Toward the end of this stunning collection, Hoang admits, “I have tangled the fairy tales I write with my life.” What is the purpose of myth if not to trace, to explain, to validate? Like the best of literary nonfiction, A Bestiary does not pretend to offer answers. Rather, it invites readers to step back from the chaos of a life, to see it for what it is, and to stand in awe rather than despair. 

Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana. 

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Leave Your Body Behind" by Sandra Doller

Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller

Review by Claire Venery

Sandra Doller’s book of poetry, prose, and nonfiction, Leave Your Body Behind, lures the reader in with a sense of nostalgia. Her scenes are constructed like memories, where what comes before or after seems of little consequence, but in which one specific moment in time becomes vivid and clear. What matters is the emotion behind the events Doller describes, rather than the reality of what may have occurred. Each new section is preceded by excerpts from other authors and artists that set the tone for Dollar’s own writing—everyone from Gertrude Stein to Yoko Ono to Iggy and the Stooges.

The language is fluid and it is often ambiguous who the narrator is addressing. Doller states, “If you haven’t caught the rhyme you must be stupid.” Is “you” the reader? An unnamed character? Does it matter? Doller tells readers, “The only reason to read anything is to find out what to do. Instructions. The command. What’s that called, Imperative. See.” And we do see. As the book progresses, the reader begins to piece together the disjointed scenes to discover an honest depiction of the human experience—whether that experience is Doller’s or our own is unclear. Doller uses axioms like “no one I is more no one than I” and “so many past times so little past,” which hint at her personal journey and need for self-reflection. Doller plays up her coyness, stating, “I know you’d like to know more but this is what I’ve got.”

Doller’s anger comes through in lines such as “the patriarchal pus belts” and in sections about women’s fights for equality, such as when she writes, “My parents hated Amy Carter. Don’t follow Amy Carter they said. She’s a protestor. She marches. She resists. Don’t resist, rest. Don’t march, starch!” One memorable quote is, “If you can protect a girl in the world, good luck.” Her tone changing throughout, Doller also attacks the problem of racism, mocks teenagers by writing in a text-message format, and draws parallels between poetry and politics. She asks, “What is the distance between cynical or sarcastic? Do I have to choose? Can’t I be both? At the same time? Can I be frank. Can I be listful.” The answer is yes she can, and she is.

Some sections are denser than others, leaving the reader breathless and perhaps a little disoriented. Doller enjoys a good play on words, as seen when she says, “This is my most political poem. I think I’ll send it to Politico. Talking about political poetry is the same as being political. Poetical. I’m so poetical I’m political. I’m so of the people I’m for the people. I’m so peopled I’m in you.” The constant reuse and restructuring of the words “political” and “poetry” is as entertaining as it is disorienting. By the end of the thought process, the two terms become interchangeable. Doller reaches the core of her message when she concludes, “I’m so peopled I’m in you,” suggesting we are all one in the same. Another clever use of words is seen when she writes, “as a monetary reward I offer this. A dollar saved is a dollar. Burned. A Doller in the hand is worth two.” In the last line Doller cleverly switches the spelling of “dollar” to that of her own name, possibly a play on her earlier comments about a woman’s worth.

Leave Your Body Behind is part autobiographical, part lyrical critique on American society. Throughout, Doller’s collection masterfully gets to the heart of memory. This is a dynamic piece where the language rises and falls, thoughts divide and merge, and each poignant scene gets filed away in the reader’s brain, ultimately becoming part of our own memories.

Sandra Doller is the author of three books and two chapbooks, including Oriflamme and Chora (both from Ahsahta Press), Man Years (Subito Press), Memory of the Prose Machine (Cut Bank), and Mystérieuse (Anamalous), a translation of Eric Suchère. She frequently collaborates with her partner, Ben, and their book of visual anti-sonnets is published on Editions Eclipse. Doller’s work appears often in literary magazines and anthologies such as Thermos, The &Now Awards, and Fairy Tale Review. With a background in performance, Doller has completed degrees in women’s studies, cinema, and poetry, and is the founder and editrice of a small magazines & press called 1913. She lives in California, at the bottom. 

Claire Venery is an undergraduate majoring in English at the University of Montana.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Tall As You Are Between Them" by Annie Christain

Tall As You Are Between Them by Annie Christain (2016)

Review by Eve Kenneally

Annie Christain’s utterly enjoyable debut poetry collection, Tall As You Are Between Them (Conscious & Responsible Press), buzzes with an immensely fierce and intellectual energy.

The first poem in the book, titled “The Sect Which Pulls the Sinews: I’ve Seen You Handle Cocoons” and prefaced with Leviticus 18:22, allows the reader to wade into the collection at their own pace: “The first time I touched a boy, / I glimpsed pomegranate arils / in the bowl / and felt beetles walk across my chest” (4). Leviticus is familiar, but this visceral blend of piety, violence, and sensuality is a welcome surprise.

Throughout the collection, Christain deftly switches from traditional syntax to the unexpected. In “Thorns to Rescue Their Bodies,” she says, “This is a strange apple. I said he hits it. It changes to his evil and the rainbow cider” (38). She also toys with how her words and lines occupy the space of the page, alternating successfully between dense prose and sparse line.

Each section in the book is prefaced with a quote about Pleiades; the Seven Sisters make several appearances throughout Christain’s poems. Additionally, the second section“White House Tapes”is a series of prose poems modeled after transcriptions of three different dialects. Christain dips in and out of different narratives with jolts of charged diction. In “XXVII – Kipper Want,” she says, “Once I was young, I didn’t know words for me, but now I can speak and I will.” While entirely reflective of Christain’s ability to blend contrasting narrative voices, if section two has a fault, it is the inclusion of too many characters. It’s easy for the reader to become overwhelmedat the same time, being overwhelmed in Christain’s space is still a strange and enjoyable experience.

The third section includes the poem “Puteum Abyssi: Till I get to the Bottom and I See You Again” which states, “Out the window, I saw a woman running / across Russia until her kneecaps / were on the opposite side. / She screamed: Stop stabbing; / I’m already dead” (101) one of many lines that display Christain’s ability to show a uniquely nuanced and highly characterized violence consistently throughout her collection.

“Under John Wayne’s Hat” is a particularly memorable and remarkable piece. This prose poem places Stalin and John Wayne together, eating fish and playing mancala. A frying pan of fish “leads Stalin and John Wayne to lovingly admitthrough direct rock tweakingthat they are not afraid to know exactly how they or the fish began” (34). Christain’s blend of the familiar with the surprising and slightly Biblical creates a host of odd and stunning moments.

The titles were also one of my favorite elements of Christain’s collection; for example, “Wondering If I’m a Descendant of the Nephilim While Lying on a Merry-Go-Round at Prentis Park,” “God Wants You to Go to Jail,” and “We Must Kill All Rats Before We Can Kill Your Rats” are unusual and wry.

Christain mines through newspaper headlines, quotes, and pop cultural phenomena with a sharp and striking eye. Her poems are prefaced with lyrics by Metallica, the Eagles, and John Lennon; quotes from Cold Case Files; lines from the Bible and the Qur’an; and even a description for a Marilyn Monroe snowglobe.

In the penultimate poem, Christain muses, “The idea for manifest destiny didn’t just happen” (114). Her poems display elegance, humor, and a strong and grounded sense of development and craft. I can’t wait to see who and what else Christain visits and skillfully constructs in her following collections.

Annie Christain is an assistant professor of composition and ESOL at SUNY Cobleskill. Her poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Oxford Poetry, the Chariton Review, and the Lifted Brow, among others. She received the grand prize in the 2013 Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Contest, the 2013 Greg Grummer Poetry Award, the 2015 Oakland School of the Arts Enizagam Poetry Award, and the 2015 Neil Shephard Prize in Poetry. 

Eve Kenneally (from Boston by way of DC) is a recent alumna of the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her chapbook, Something Else Entirely, will be released by Dancing Girl Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Yemassee, Parcel, decomP, Star 82 Review, Blue Monday Review, and elsewhere.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Sea Summit: Not in the Heart, but in the Humming

Sea Summit by Yi Lu

Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Review by Christina Cook

Sea Summit, a collection of poems selected from more than two decades of Yi Lu’s published oeuvre, is the first book-length English translation of this important Chinese poet’s work. Her work is unique among her contemporaries in that it explores the gendered relations between humans and the environment and the complexities of ecosystem that circumscribe them. The new book challenges English-language readers—just as her five previous books challenge Chinese readers—to think about the cultural attitudes and imbalances of power that have brought this ecosystem to the brink of breakdown on both sides of the globe.

Disassociation and unity form the two-sided trope that guides the reader through the intricacies of Yi’s vision. The opening poem, “Early Spring,” wastes no time in establishing the speaker’s sight of disassociated bodies in an otherwise pastoral landscape where cows’

            bowed heads seem unrelated to their tails

            each cow also seems unrelated to itself

            is the grass it eats also unrelated to its stomach

            between their four whisking tails

            a butterfly waltzes over hill and dale

            even the butterfly seems unrelated to itself

The disassociation operates on both the physical level (through disembodiment) and psychological level (through the subjective qualifier “seems”), and the resulting sense of instability is emphasized by the poem’s technical elements: the lack of capitalization and punctuation, combined with a mix of end-stopped and enjambed lines, slow readers down as they endeavor to pick their way through the phrasings. In an absence of grammatically organized sentences, they are left to create unities of meaning where none exist on the page. In this way, the reader’s work enacts that of the speaker, who must unify the seemingly unrelated parts of the cows and of the butterfly to create meaning in her own field of vision.

Creating unities of meaning out of a heady mix of language, prosody, and imagery is part of the pleasure and challenge of reading any poem. However, the particular braid of content and form in Yi’s poems invites her readers to invest even more effort in the unities of meaning they make from the now-disassociated pieces and parts of the polluted ecosystem of human-environment relations.

What complicates this project is the blurring of “human” and “nature” that takes place in female identity. In Western literary, cultural, and religious traditions, women have always been depicted as closer to nature than men, and by virtue of that, inferior to them. In recent years, this ideology has provided a useful lens for Eastern literary and cultural critics such as Yu Jiangxia. Her essay “Biocolonialism: An Ecofeminist Perspective,” addresses a similar need in the East to “[unearth] the common cultural roots of the destruction of nature and the oppression of women.”

Yi’s poems express women’s unique closeness to nature, but use their speaker’s gendered perspective to illustrate the ways in which it empowers women rather than renders them inferior. In her poem “Many Many Mothers,” the blurring between women and nature emanates from the all-powerful maternal bond. The poem opens with the following:

            like millions of motors unleashed undersea

            the sea’s body shakes   its chest heaving

            in a splash of white breast milk

            as if spouting the essence of life to its end

            as if the universe needed to be fed

Likening the sea’s fertile, maternal, nourishing body to “millions of motors unleashed” reveals women as a force of nature that summons more horsepower than the male-dominated domain of culture.

Woman’s intimacy with nature is expressed with particular power and poignance in “A Pregnant Woman Walks in the Fields”:

            her body is too full

            spilling over all the way—

            fat lumps of clouds and flowers


            stream water climbs up her bulky legs

            like replenishing a big lake

The description creates an image of a woman so blended into the natural landscape, it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Both woman and field are perfectly porous, creating a unity that is tied like a knot in the unseen, unborn child. The strength of this knot is expressed in the couplet that comes later in the poem: “her vast gaze   wipes away obstacles / even the mountain shifts solemnly.” A mother, whether incarnated in a field, person, or sea, is capable of no less than moving mountains. Fathers, however, are a different story.

In the poem “Father in a Basket,” the speaker places several degrees of separation between the father and nature:

            on the phone my sister said

            she and elder sister put Father’s urn

            in a basket

            carried up a mountain   placed

            in a cemetery resembling apartments


            work stress at hand

            pressing my chest

            I imagine the basket


            taking stone steps   around a mountain bend

            back and forth   grass and floral scent

            Father inside   becomes

            a nest of eggs   a jar of spring water   a few blueberries

Far from taking part in a porous meshing with nature, the father is several removes from it. He is a pile of ashes that has been sealed inside an urn that was placed in a basket and then interred in “a cemetery resembling apartments”—a final resting place whose description brings to mind a communist-bloc housing estate. The father is also several removes from the emotions of the speaker, who is preoccupied with work when receiving the telephone call from a sister who relays the event to her. Even thus removed from the scene, the speaker can imagine the mountain path and the scent of grass and flowers which her father, thrice-sealed at the scene itself, cannot.

Being sealed away from nature does not stop the female speaker of the poem “In the Open Field” from finding a way to connect with it. The poem opens with a wind “pushing open a small window in my chest,” and then another wind when she says,

            my well-sealed body   can hardly stay shut

            clouds and butterflies are diving in


            the juncture of meridians

            now honey and dew

            in the alleys of blood flow

            sunlight like a hand comes to and fro


            let’s drive some things far away to a stronger wind

            let the brain turn into a happy nest

            the heart a team of humming flowers

The physical boundaries of skin and bone are no match for the elemental connection between women and nature. Here, the speaker’s open heart finds unity in multiplicity, and nature finds a continual source of pollination in return: an activity in which all global ecologies rest. What sustains life on earth is not the human heart but the humming inside it—and what lends this last line its power is as much the language as the content. Translator Sze-Lorrain unites multiple prosodic techniques—alliteration, sound symbolism, and onomatopoeia—to not just convey, but auditorily enact, the cross-pollination between human mothers and Mother Nature.

Just as the mother-speaker’s humming heart enacts this life-sustaining wholeness “In the Open Field,” her heart—and ours—is moved by a bird’s refusal to comply with the sorrowful dictates of pollution in “A Bird”:

            a bird

            lands on a pile of scrap iron

            jumps from one iron plank to another

            then bounces   to the tip of a thin tilting rod

            like a note

            handling a very large musical instrument


            rust falls   and more

            the bird and the scrap iron   seem

            to laugh aloud


            the cheerful bird

            sees my eyes now

            chirps twice   but asks for no reply


            the bird has actually moved my heart

            astonishing the whole gloomy afternoon

The impish bird enables the speaker—and reader—to see laughter and lightness in the sharp and shattered world. The metaphor that transforms the pile of scrap iron into a musical instrument asserts that the bird quite literally plays the junk pile in the sense of not only playing music, but also playing a trick: the bird here has the upper hand.

 This image of nature taking the toxic detritus of humans so lightly is puzzling. Taking it to mean that nature will prevail against human harms to it or one can still see beauty in polluted world would be overly simplistic: Yi does not package her poems in tidy, pretty messages. Satisfyingly, she resists the urge to resolve the complexities of her vision. It is an urge that a lesser poet would fall prey to, but Yi’s resolve allows her readers to puzzle these complexities out for themselves. This is the solar plexus of her body of work, the power center out of which radiates the reader’s own resolution to think about and, moreover, take action against the degradation of women and the environment: the two most powerful and yet most vulnerable parts of our ecosystem.

About the Author: 

Yi Lu is a theater scenographer who leads a parallel life as a poet. Known for her elegant and distilled lyrical voice, as well as her ecological awareness, her honors include the Hundred Flowers Award for Literature and other distinguished literary prizes from Fujian province. 

About the Translator:

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In addition to translating Chinese and French texts, Sze-Lorrain is the author of three books of poetry in English, The Ruined Elegance (Princeton University Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize in Poetry and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of poetry, My Funeral Gondola (El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), and Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2009). She lives in Paris.

About the Reviewer:

Christina Cook is the author of A Strange Insomnia (Kelsey Books, 2016), Ricochet (Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press, 2016), and Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012). 

Elise Cowen: A Recovery

Elise Cowen: Poems And Fragments edited by Tony Trigilio
Ahsanta Press
170 pages, $28

Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

Because of the success of male poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s is a prominent project in post-war American literature. Beat poets challenged social, cultural, political, psychic, and literary conformity, advancing oppositional world views. Many of these writers were tragic figures, and, in his controversial poem, “Howl,” Ginsberg stated, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by/madness, starving hysterical naked.” In a 2014 interview with Jonah Raskin of San Francisco Gate, Diane di Prima, often called “Queen of the Beats,” defined “Beat as a state of mind not bound by any particular time or by a single generation. Beat belongs to the great American counterculture.”


Elise Cowen (1933-1962, suicide) was peripheral to the Beat community in New York City, a woman burdened by severe mental illness necessitating periodic hospitalizations and by episodes of depression as well as psychosis. She struggled to support herself and to sustain her fragile social life. Though Cowen had a fling with Ginsberg in 1953 and served as his typist in 1960, their relationship seems to have been superficial—exploitative on Ginsberg's part, idealized on Cowen's. Her poem, “Love” (68), exemplifies this ideation:


Not the neon sign
             of heaven & earths
But done with nots

Not the neon Lover
            reflected off my dreams
Or not that only
But you
With chest hair growing cross


None of the Beats, including, Ginsberg, seems to have taken Cowen seriously, and she does not receive even passing mention in di Prima's 2001 memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman. Di Prima's book should be read concurrently with Tony Trigilio's edited volume of Cowen's writing for documentation of the women active in the Manhattan and San Francisco Beat communities and for a first-hand, cogent record of the place of women in those projects. In her memoir, Di Prima characterizes a woman's role among the Beats as, “To be available [to men], a woman's art I saw as a discipline, a spiritual path. To be available, but stay on course somehow.” Though her friend, Leo Skir, remained intensely committed to Cowen's memory and to her writing, her depression must have been magnified by her exclusion from the affairs, writing conferences, parties, book readings, and coffee shops that Di Prima so vividly recalls.


As documented by Trigilio and by Cowan's body of work, she was incapable of “discipline” or focus, though, aspiring to mimic Beats, she exhibited an interest in Eastern religions. Her own Judaism is featured in several of her pieces, suggesting that she was attempting to define a “spiritual path,” arguably, worth comparing with other female Jewish poets who have employed their religion as a theme. Alicia Ostriker comes first to mind. 


Cowen was a “poor soul” who Trigilio attempts to resurrect as a serious poet in his generous and scholarly Introduction. In her 2014 review of Trigilio's edited volume in Sink Review, Becca Klaver notes that numerous female writers have received attention in “recovery projects” and that the collection of Cowen's, mostly fragmentary, writings is representative of this genre. Trigilio highlights Emily Dickinson's influence on Cowen, evident in many titles (e.g., “Sometimes in my dungeon there comes a crawling thing;” “If I never saw the snowfall”) as well as her preoccupation with death. Dickinson's poetics is, also, reflected in Cowen's use of horizontal and vertical lines, soft and hard rhyming, and unconventional punctuation, as well as, perhaps, her habit of preparing handwritten “fascicles” in notebooks. Trigilio, also, points out that Cowen's writings show her respect for Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas, and, indeed, her writing is, often, imagistic and musical (“A cockroach/Crept into/My shoe/He liked that fragrant dark”). It can, also, be noted that, like Gertrude Stein, Cowen's pieces employ copious white spaces and, less frequently, repetition.


Trigilio erects an organizational framework based upon four “recurring motifs” in Cowen's writing: “a revisionary response to matters of the sacred;” a “simultaneous continuity and revision of literary tradition;” “affinities with the form and content of Beat generation literature;” and, “frank portrayals of the psyche.” Examples of each of these “motifs” can clearly be identified in Cowen's pieces; yet, it seems exaggerated for Trigilio to suggest that the architecture and meaning of her work rises to the level of poetics. On the other hand, some of the pieces are convincing poems, though, for the most part, not noteworthy ones. Exceptions would, in my opinion, be, “The Time Clock” (70), a haunting poem that Klaver, also, highlights; and, the precious and heartbreaking, “No Love” (116). As Trigilio sensitively suggests, Cowen needed more time to develop her craft and to revise her work.


As a woman with bipolar disorder who has struggled to accommodate serious work with a serious medical diagnosis, I identified with the symptoms and effects of illness in Cowen's writing, a “motif” worthy of systematic investigation and comparison with other female poets who committed suicide, in particular, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and, from an earlier generation, Sara Teasdale. In her poem, “Phenomenology Of Anger,” Adrienne Rich wrote, “Madness. Suicide. Murder./Is there no way out but these?” Rich and di Prima found ways “out” in radically different ways, and it might be productive to analyze their poems and biographies with Cowen's. Di Prima's memoir explores in depth the ways that she and other women managed the stresses associated with demands upon female artists. Extending the idea of mental illness as a “motif,” Rich, in the same poem, points to “the freedom of the wholly mad,” suggesting that scholars should study licentiousness and humor in Cowen's writing, particularly, as they may relate to compromised impulse-control.


Trigilio reports that, in 1960, upon submitting a typed manuscript to Ginsberg, Cowen said, “You still haven't finished with your mother.” It seems of import to observe that Cowen might have been speaking of herself since a number of her fragments address, directly or indirectly, unresolved feelings for and continuing conflict with her own mother. The degree to which Cowen's writing is that of a self-absorbed patient whose work expresses unconscious motivations could be addressed by a psychoanalytically-inclined scholar as another “motif.” Finally, in di Prima's view, the pervasiveness of drug use ended the Beat generation, and this theme, also, might serve as another “motif” to explore in Cowen's biography and preserved body of work. It is impossible to know what her destroyed notebooks might have revealed or what we might have discovered if more details of her life were available. It is, however, a credit to Trigilio that he has collected and commented upon the work of a sympathetic figure worthy of recovery from a complex period of American literary history.    


About the Reviewer: 

Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues, and her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin' Kitsch Chapbook Competition. Clara studied with Adrienne Rich in the 1970s and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.