CUTBANK REVIEWS: THE WORLD IS MY RIVAL by Charlotte Seley

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

by Rachel Mindell

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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.


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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.


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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.


"The Freelancer's Plight: On Book Reviewing" by Adam Tavel

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The Freelancer's Plight: On Book Reviewing

by Adam Tavel

I once spent an entire summer honing a book review for an editor who, inexplicably, stopped responding to my emails after a season of correspondence. Another publication once requested three re-writes for a piece they felt was too “exuberant” even though I disclosed that, as a matter of principle, I only write positive reviews. Several months and a dozen emails passed before they formally accepted my piece, and by the end it became clear their chief objection was that I didn’t write in short, declarative sentences. Roughly half of the emails I’ve sent in my career regarding book reviews—including those requesting review copies from presses as well as those querying editors about their potential interest in a finished project—met with silence.

While it is altogether reasonable to blame these experiences on the maddening pace of life, or the black hole that gobbles up emails, or my own meager talent as a writer, I have come to believe they are an accurate reflection of the freelance reviewer’s plight. Overtasked and rarely compensated, the freelancer is usually a poet herself who has volunteered time away from her own creative work—not to mention her career and family—to ponder the merits and aesthetic implications of another’s poems. If she is savvy, our reviewer is a close reader who examines the writing of others—as well as her own evaluations—with patience and care so her resultant review is accurate, fair, and thorough. Her charge is a delicate one. She cannot maintain her credibility if she dashes off a rote summary, or a catalog of sniping critiques, or a press-release-by-proxy endorsement. This serious work takes serious time, which can take weeks and often months to negotiate. For her sake and mine, I would like to offer several suggestions in the ecumenical spirit of poetry to help us improve the culture of freelance reviewing and thereby more evenly distribute its myriad burdens, since an honest look at current industry practices exposes their inadequacy.

Obtaining a diverse array of fresh titles is the first challenge all reviewers face, since no poetry press can afford to give books away willy-nilly. Similarly, no freelancer can be expected to purchase the entire “new releases” rack or to slog through a book that doesn’t resonate with her simply because it was the only complimentary copy at her disposal. (Of course, a staff reviewer or reviewer working on assignment must, alas, follow orders.) A brief survey of several prominent publishers’ websites exposes the root of this quandary, because potential reviewers are not making “media inquiries,” nor are they seeking to “contact us” with a complaint or compliment. If publishers showed greater receptivity—and perhaps even encouraged—queries from freelancers by providing an explicit statement of policy and a clear point of contact, this would eliminate confusion and streamline communication substantially. Certainly poetry presses are leery of a gift economy and most operate on shoestring budgets, which is why they don’t provide links that say CLICK HERE FOR FREE VERSE (see what I did there?), but there are simple ways to ensure that the right books find the right people: asking a freelancer to provide a CV, to share some recent writing samples, or to limit her selections to 2-3 recent titles are all easy ways to eliminate bogus requests and hold folks accountable. For presses that aren’t already tracking their review inquiries long-term, it’s a modest task ideally suited for an Excel spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end when the right books finds the right people, since many literary journals and magazines regard unsolicited book reviews as their last priority. I recently encountered a prominent literary journal that offers no guidelines whatsoever for reviews, but lo and behold, their submission software had “book reviews” as an option. The description for this category was, of course, utterly blank. What message does this send? Even for journals that announce their review policy and desired word counts, questions linger. Should I format my piece in MLA Style or You Don’t Care? Do I need to disclose that I met Poet N. Question at a conference three years ago and we sat at the same crowded breakfast table? In the reviewing world, these aren’t minor concerns. What would also be a profound service and relief to reviewers would be a stronger commitment to professional response times. It’s not uncommon for a short story or a batch of poems to wait six months for an editorial decision. Good literature is evergreen. This same wait time for a review, however, significantly limits the number of venues that will now consider it, and in some cases, might as well be a death sentence. Simultaneous submission policies are lovely, but only alleviate this anxiety when publications state them outright.

So what can be done? For starters, literary journals that charge submission fees could waive them for reviewers. (Poet Les Kay recently penned a compelling critique of submission fees over at the Sundress Publications blog.) Additionally, journals could publicly affirm their response times—such as, say, a 1-2 week response to review queries and a 4-6 week response to submitted pieces—so freelancers aren’t held hostage by the slower, but mostly unrelated, processes of producing a quality magazine.

Of course, reviewers share the blame. While some trade publications such as Rain Taxi remain committed to the traditional 500-600 word review, these are now less common for poetry collections than for books of any other genre. Instead, the essay-review has become the default mode. Usually written by a mid-career poet and clocking in at 1,500-2,000 words, the essay-review has its merits, but its length is a liability. A tendency to ramble, excessive self-reflection (let me regale you with this long anecdote! look at my reading habits!), and theoretical discussions of craft invariably distract from the task at hand. Moreover, it’s a sad irony that some reviewers feel the need to catalog every last wonder and flaw of a book as a means to encourage others to read it. A tedious exploration makes for a poor invitation. Omnibus reviews have fewer pitfalls, but they present a daunting challenge. An omnibus reviewer must weigh several books simultaneously and avoid the urge to reduce her various insights to summary statements or flashes of opulent praise. Perhaps the literary community would be more receptive to pithy reviews if more freelancers wrote them, and wrote them with a keen eye for omission as well as for inclusion.

In a perfect world, poetry presses would have the resources to distribute more review copies, literary journals would have the funds to compensate reviewers, and reviewers would have more time to do their noble work. In the absence of such idyllic circumstances, though, there are many gentle reforms we can embrace to improve freelance reviewing. By thinking of reviewers as compatriots rather than peripheral figures crowding in on creative content, presses and periodicals alike might expedite correspondence and show a heightened willingness to collaborate. Similarly, by broadening their definition of “new” to include books from the previous calendar year, literary journals will demonstrate a commitment to good writing, even if the book in question is no longer at the front of its publisher’s catalog. Such changes might encourage more emerging poets and graduate students to assume the pleasure and responsibility of reviewing—and prevent seasoned reviewers from burning out—since they will know that their efforts will be met with gratitude and professionalism.

There has been much ado about the mercurial role of poetry reviews in the internet age. Digital publishing invariably hastens the media push behind Every New Thing. The old complaint that “the reviews these days” are full of bluster endures, grumpier and louder in some circles, but isn’t it marvelous that small, indie, and micro publishers can now spotlight their new releases, no longer doomed to obscurity? The advent of Goodreads and other social media platforms allow books to find audiences far beyond a poet’s own family and friends, and this fact alone seems to defeat the pervasive myth that poetry is inaccessible, irrelevant, and nearly extinct. I have long believed as a matter of personal conviction that bad books deserve silence and that good books deserve a megaphone. It’s about time we helped the freelancer reviewer project her voice above the crowd.

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Adam Tavel won the Permafrost Book Prize for Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming) and the chapbook Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013). His recent reviews appear in The Georgia Review, CutBank Online, Rain Taxi, Pleiades, 32 Poems Online, and The Rumpus, among others.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "The Garden of the Fugitives" by Ashley Mace Havird

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The Garden of the Fugitives by Ashley Mace Havird

Reviewed by Scott Brennan

 

The Garden of the Fugitives, Ashley Mace Havird's poetic examination of women in a male chauvinist society, doesn't shove "the boot in face" like Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” does; instead, Ms. Havird shows us the jagged edges of the princess's broken glass slippers.

In "The Lost Boys," the collection's opener, Eve, the first in a series of archetypal women, is portrayed as God’s gift to Adam. The irreverent poem (the speaker, presumably Satan, refers to the Lord God as "LG") serves as a sympathetic justification of Eve's actions. Though God and Adam "thought they held her spellbound," Eve bucks her unequal status by resorting to sabotage--tempting Adam to eat the apple, an action that initiates the Fall.

The portraits of men in the collection are generally unflattering and sometimes unsavory. Uncle Harry, the pedophile who fondles a girl in “Cleaning the Garage,” is ultra creepy when, as the adult female speaker recalls, he asked if she enjoyed the tickling sensation of being felt up. (Definitely no tickle, Uncle Harry.) We are morally verified when he gets what he deserves--a deadly heart attack--though chilled because the violation has hardened the speaker, causing her to “feel nothing at all.”

The imagery of rape (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) evolves into a troubling motif. In “Persephone’s Crown,” the girl in the Jaycee's pageant wears a crown that evokes Christ's crown of thorns. (The girl's crown, like Christ's and Persephone's, mocks the regality of its wearer.) The little girl, like Persephone, is forced to fulfill a public role she neither wants nor understands. Poems like these emphasize martyrdom, the way girls are taught to sacrifice individuality to satisfy societal expectations. Ms. Havird points out the cruel irony of women who are ostensibly made princesses and queens (implying respect and authority), but who in reality begin to fester when they awaken to realize they are being patronized.

Three of the most interesting poems in the collection are "Queen for a Day," “The Harvest,” and “Daughter, 14, with Scissors.” Each captures Ms. Havird's preoccupations: women crippled by a patriarchal society, the modern woman's kinship with women of the past (both actual and mythological), and the ways in which guilt erodes women's ability to empower themselves.

"Queen for a Day," as with "The Lost Boys" and "Persephone's Crown," depicts a powerless woman. Addressing her dead grandmother in a photograph, the speaker says, "You could be my father in drag," and later describes the grandmother's patent leather handbag, an object normally associated with the accoutrements of femininity, as a bludgeon. The grandmother possesses masculine qualities, but she has repressed them, and the speaker detects the unhappiness that has resulted. She wants to imagine her grandmother as having been a strong, creative woman who "painted frescoes / on sunlit walls of Tuscan villas" or sang "hoarse blues between Dubonnets / in a dark Parisian cellar." The truth is the grandmother lived a mundane life, one spent in "a tolerable marriage." Havird emphasizes the ordinariness of the grandmother, especially when we learn she held a minor position, "a spot in the secretarial pool," a job that typifies the stifled, demeaning quality of her life. The speaker feels guilty because she never celebrated the grandmother's birthday, and she fantasizes about a party held in a retirement home in which she and the relatives might have made the grandmother a special "queen for a day." (The imagined celebration's rosy inflation of the grandmother's dull life amplifies the desolation of the fact the party never even took place.) The speaker continues to examine the photo (which serves as a mirror, for, as the speaker says, the grandmother's eyes "look like mine") and notes how forced the grandmother's smile is while she poses before an unidentified man (perhaps the grandfather) "whose shadow hulks / as he mounts the scoured / searing steps." "Mounts," with its blunt sexual connotations, seems a particularly telling word.

In "The Harvest," we see the speaker in an adventurous, empowering situation. The poem is set at a female friend's vacation home on a Caribbean island. The speaker, fascinated by the local flora, reads a field guide and while doing so identifies the exotic trees around her--a task that parallels Adam and Eve's naming of the plants and the animals. There is no Adam in this tropical Eden, through. Instead, there's the speaker's divorced friend who, as part of the settlement, lives in "the house she'd gotten to keep." The two women engage in catching conch (probably, given the geographic region, queen conch--subtly continuing the collection's motif). The speaker can't believe she is going to kill one for its shell, but the friend ("divorce has toughened her") shows her how: "one jab, a second, and the barb twisted through." The speaker says, "I can't believe I'm doing this," and the friend responds by saying, "You wanted it." The violent killing of the conch seems ritualistic, the sacrifice required of a rite of passage. The visceral experience and the sexually charged language reveal an emotionally invigorated speaker. In the end, the soft flesh of the marine snail is discarded to the scavengers who are "merciful and quick," and the beautiful, durable shell is retained. The divorced woman, represented by the shell, seems to offer an alternative to the less satisfactory, vulnerable life the speaker by implication appears to be living.

One of the most uneasy and best poems in the collection is "Daughter, 14, with Scissors." Here we see the speaker as the mother of an emotionally fragile child. The scissors, front and center, fill the poem with destructive potential energy. The speaker laments ironically that her "daughter still can't use scissors" after discovering the child's intentional, self-injurious cut around the wrist, which looks grotesquely like a bungled, homemade bracelet. The sense of failure in the poem intensifies when the child delivers the terrifying whisper, "I wish I was dead." Because the daughter's self-esteem has crumbled, the speaker yearns to "curl over her / as though to reclaim her with my body, reconnect / our pulses." Unable to facilitate the reconnection, the speaker concedes, "She's part of that world of Grimm / whose spindle will have its way; / the princess seduced to a sleeping wheel." This poem, like many in the collection, suggests women, because they are indoctrinated from childhood into a culture that cultivates female weakness, are ill-equipped to deal with adversity. The chronic frustration can lead to a deadened sense of self or even self-destruction.

Curiously, almost all the poems in the collection are written in the present tense. Viewed as an artistic statement, the present tense can mean the injustice is happening now, all the time. As a rhetorical strategy, I find the choice sometimes problematic, as in these lines from "At Stonewall": "I'm wading through a clearing, / knee-deep in khaki weeds and / coreopsis so yellow my eyes burn." The instant objectification of one's own experiences generally doesn't happen in real life. The poem becomes awkward because, to use a metaphor, it is asked to be not only the video camera, but also the video and the live commentary on the video, itself, as it is being made.

Though Ms. Havird quite often writes gorgeously (she possesses an extraordinary eye for detail and ear for language, not to mention sophistication of sensibility), she sometimes mixes levels of diction with uneven results. I don't respond well to her occasional use of the Southern colloquial, as in "Lunar Eclipse": "Hard drinking at the camp house. // Come dusk, we nudge each other / to the pond's edge." "Come dusk" seems like everyday speech teetering upon stilts. Later in the poem, though, Havird retunes when she writes: "The moon, diminished, / pale as a communion wafer, / rises."

The Garden of the Fugitives is a book rich with allusions, motifs and layered themes. Despite my quibbles with a few stylistic choices, the collection is cohesive and possesses an irresistible undercurrent. It strikes me as being an exceptional first full-length collection. The portraits of girls, women, wives, and mothers are powerful in their smoldering epiphanies.

 

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About the author:

Ashley Mace Havird has published three books of poems: The Garden of the Fugitives (Texas Review Press, 2014), which won the 2013 X. J. Kennedy Prize, Sleeping with Animals (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and Dirt Eaters (Stepping Stones Press,2009),which won the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Initiative Prize. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and The Texas Review. Her short stories have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review and elsewhere. She has also completed a historical novel for advanced middle-grade readers and older, An Old Horse Named Troy, which placed first in the children's literature category of the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest.  A recipient of a Louisiana Division of the Arts Fellowship in Literature, she lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, with her husband, the poet David Havird, and their own best dog in the world.

About the reviewer:

Scott Brennan's poetry and reviews have appeared in a number of magazines, including Smithsonian, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Sewanee Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. He was selected by Billy Collins to receive the Scotti Merrill Award, and he was the 2014 runner-up for Rosebud's William Stafford Award, judged by Diane Wakowski.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Contraband of Hoopoe" by Ewa Chrusciel

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Lessons in Smuggling: Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe

Review by Christina Cook

Ewa Chrusciel’s second collection of poems in English (she has also written two in Polish) is a beckoning into borderlands populated by smugglers, saviors, saints, apparitions, and a playful array of avian life. By the end of the book, the accretion of crossings into foreign lands is revealed to be not just the milieu of a dispossessed and fringe few, but the very engine of cultural and social advancement.

Despite this, the status of immigrants is traditionally a nebulous one, rife with less-than- warm welcomes upon reaching national borders. The poem “Ellis IX” establishes this with a chronological list of slur-ridden limitations on U.S. immigrants almost back to the birth of the country, when, ironically, being an American was still somewhat synonymous with being an immigrant:

1794 – Massachusetts law called for the return of paupers to their original towns or “to any other       place beyond the sea where he belongs”

       1875 – immigration legislation bars convicts, prostitutes and coolies

       1882 – Chinese immigration is curtailed. Lunatics and idiots sent back

       1885 – paupers, polygamists, the insane – excluded

Where “Ellis IX” begins its chronically of immigrant mistrust and mistreatment in the years after the Revolutionary War, “Ellis XI,” presents instances of it in post-9/11 America:

2011 Alabama immigration law requires that a foreigner carries a passport and a work permit. Mercedes-Benz executive from Germany arrested in Tuscaloosa, Alabama under the new immigration law for having only his German ID on him.

Juxtaposed with the unadorned language which Chrusciel uses to catalogue facts and events is the highly imaginative language she uses to convey the immigrant experience of these events, as in the untitled poem on page 19:

We are hordes of tartar cheeks, the ruthless blood of ancestors. . . . We gather into our bosom your wives and daughters. We store oranges and plums in our cheeks. We are contagious. We carry yellow secrets. We smell of vast steppes. We plant the courtyards of Kublai Khan.

Fear of “the other” and of the real or imagined spread of contagion on the part of that “other” is of course ongoing, its latest manifestation being alarm raised by Ebola’s reaching American shores and headlines such as “Undocumented immigrants bringing diseases across borders” in recent Texas newspapers.

But if intercontinental migration of people leads to the potential transmission of disease, so too does it lead to the transmission of important medical knowledge and the enlightenment of high culture. In “Ellis II,” we learn that:

Alfred Sabin, a pauper from Bialystok carries a live virus, the vaccine that eliminated polio from the United States. Khalil Gibran, an Arab, carries the viruses of poetry within him and The Prophet. Isaac Asimov carries measles with him, as well as Pebbles in the Sky and The Naked Sun.

The poem goes on to list other foreign-born illuminati, including Igor Sikorsky, Pola Negri, and Frank Capra, among others, each of whom deeply enriched the cultural heritage of U.S..

Chrusciel, an immigrant herself, challenges stereotypes throughout the book, revealing immigration to be at the core of social and cultural advancement. And at the core of that, like the smallest Russian nesting doll, are the things that are transmitted, or “smuggled,” ranging from weighty intangibles such as “the most fantastical truths [that] can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavities” (“Ellis II”) to tangible objects treated lightly, such as the untitled poem on page 14, about smuggling Polish sausage past a U.S. customs agent: “Foreign gods hover over us. If God lets my sausage in, I will eat it like a saint wreathed in incense, circle a table with Gregorian chants.” When caught, her defense is nothing short of extravagantly fast-paced, playful rhetoric:

“Sealed Sausage is not a meat!” “Sealed sausage is a sealed sausage!” I say, as the guardian angels of my sealed sausage swarm under the investigation light. . . . My hypnotic alliteration throws him back into the waters of his childhood where eels jiggle Scottish dances. Oh, sweet detained sausage. Saint of arrests, pray for us. May my new species have mercy on us. Escape at the borders. Oh, oven bird, whose migratory song is a sausage a sausage a sausage. Dear sausage of martyrs. Sealed patriarch. Let the Virgin Liberty swallow it.

References to smuggling abound in the book, and many are similar to the above reference in sounding light but being laden with meaning. The opening poem is just such a one, relating how the speaker feels when entering the new country: “Can you feel the apparition? The hoopoe’s wings beat under my blouse. The sound udud udud udud is tearing from my nipples: Pagan pole dancing, my breasts have Tourette’s syndrome.” The risks Chrusciel takes here with language and imagery mimics the risks immigrants take when they embark on their life-changing, sometimes life-threatening, journeys, with their hopes for the future and their reasons for leaving laid bare.

Other references to smuggling depart from playful rhetoric altogether and dovetail with the other linguistically unadorned poems, out of respect for the somber stories they tell. The most powerful of these comes in the untitled poem on page 56:

Irena Sendler gets permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto as a plumber. She smuggles babies in her toolbox and carries larger children in her sack out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her dog knows when to bark to muffle the sounds of crying children when Nazi soldiers are near. . . . Sendler eventually gets caught & tortured. I use here an ampersand to remember her wrenched body. In a sealed mouth. In an hourglass. She is a holy icon.

Life that is smuggled out of death is without question, the most sacrosanct contraband of all, but other seemingly impossible smuggling operations take place across numerous types of boundaries in these poems. National and religious boundaries are crossed, boundaries between species, between the sacred and profane, joy and unrelenting grief. The complex question of how these impossible crossings become possible is answered in a simple parable.

“Do you see a mulberry tree in a mustard seed?” is a question asked numerous times throughout the book, particularly in poems where impossible boundaries are crossed. This biblical reference to Jesus telling his disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” becomes something of a mantra or prayer by the end of the book, asserting that one must have faith to do the impossible, whether smuggling sausage into the U.S. or children out of Nazi work camps.

But faith in what, in this unpredictable, unjust world? Not faith in one’s country, in words, in life, or even one’s god. Rather, faith in the very act of smuggling, and its promise of human connection that knows no bounds.

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About the author:

Ewa Chrusciel has two books in Polish: Furkot and Sopitki and two in English, Contraband of Hoopoe and Strata, which won the 2009 International Book Contest and was published by Emergency Press in 2011. Her poems have been featured in Jubilat, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Lana Turner, Spoon River Review, and Aufgabe, among others. She has translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and I.B. Singer, as well as a number of contemporary American poets, into Polish. She is an associate professor at Colby-Sawyer College.

About the reviewer:

Christina Cook is the author of Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012), which won the New England Poetry Club's Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Dos Passos Review, and was anthologized in Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place. Also an essayist, book critic, and translator, Christina works as a writer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Communications.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Wunderkammer" by Cynthia Cruz

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Cruz, Cynthia. Wunderkammer. New York: Four Way Books, 2014.

 

Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz

Reviewed by Kelly Corinda

Cynthia Cruz’s new collection, Wunderkammer, is full of glittering and distorted self-portraits, dream-like landscapes, other worlds, and underworlds. The collection wanders between and beneath our world and nebenwelts (next-worlds or side-worlds) while remaining “quarantined inside a wonderland of endless/Dream” that moves seamlessly through the atmosphere of “gloom and glam” that the poems create.

The title, Wunderkammer, refers to a place where curiosities or rarities are exhibited, and originated from a German word meaning “wonder chamber.” The poems in the collection range from mystical, musical, and Old-World infused to electrical, medical, and American. Cruz’s language is consistently dark and dazzling as she moves between these realms, as well as between concrete locations such as Berlin and Greenpoint, and imagined landscapes full of snow, oceans, bloodhounds, and horses. The haunting, gorgeous language explores memories of trauma through the dialectical relationships of covering and uncovering, burying and unburying, excess and deprivation, this world and the next.

Many of the poems are self-portraits or offer instances of performance such as in “Self Portrait in Fox Furs, with Magic,” “Self Portrait in Emeralds, with Music,” “Autobiography,” and “Final Performance.” The difference between what is shown in the portrait or performance and what lies beneath the surface is iterated again and again through lines such as:

They’ll hook the gloomed world

Back into me, its menageries

And zoos of wounds, its museums

Of memory, and trauma.

from “Self Portrait in Fox Furs, with Magic”

The interior world of zoos, museums, menageries, and oceans, and their associated depths of established memory, turbulent emotion, and raw and repressed trauma are juxtaposed with the beautiful but grim descriptions of makeup and clothing present throughout the collection. Cruz describes outward appearances that are glamorous yet sinister, such as a “sequin/Thread of dead things” and “glam makeup to ward off the invisible.” The poems revel in descriptions of ballet leotards, Fogal stockings, Balenciaga heels, amethyst jewelry, glitter, grease paint and makeup kits that appear in the form of protection, first aid, and ways to divert or confuse an expression of identity. An illustration of the distortion of self-portrait and self-expression is rendered strikingly in “Self Portrait in a Desert Motel Room” where Cruz writes of:

Glint and warp, accumulation

In the warm blink

Of a locked motel room,

This broken music

Box, of history,

In a gown of glittering

Movement,

Self portrait,

Disguised as human.

In “Out of the Desert Hospital” she writes “A mansion/of German, rooms of strudel and quadruple-/layered raspberry cream cakes./Starve the shame down to androgyny and numbness.” Here the collection again plays with the dichotomy between excess and deprivation, a world where layers of cakes and cream cover a murky territory that hides underneath.

The poems also make reference to attempts at healing through various nurses, hospitals, drugs, and “golden pills.” None of these seem to do the work of healing past traumas, however there are some glints of hope. One instance of this is the desert animals in “Todesarten” who are memory-free and expect no explanations and whose “warm wet tongues” lick the speaker’s palms in a “blue heaven.” The final poem in the collection, “Some Velvet Morning,” also offers a glimpse at the possibility of healing or redemption in the “warm medicinals” the speaker drinks: “Royal/Princess, Everlasting Chiffon/Gown, and Imperial Childhood Tea” as she vanishes into the “brilliant white/Hives of memory.” The poems speak to the value of descending through memory and pain as a way to define and grow from experience. Hospitals and “golden pills” cannot heal as much as clarity and movement can.

The meanings of entire worlds and lives are broken down into exquisite musical lines and repeated mentions of white horses, pulses, snow, sequins, cakes, creams, diamonds, emeralds, and palanquins. Existence and the memories of existence are told in the “embellishing, collecting, then/deconstructing” of lives and objects. Cruz takes our world and all possible worlds and collects, embellishes, and displays them as in a Wunderkammer, to be explored by the living and animated by the “sweet bloody hum of the impossible animal,” until we reach a nebenwelt, an afterlife, or just some velvet morning.

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About the author:

Cynthia Cruz was born in Germany and grew up in northern California. She is the author of three books of poetry, Ruin, The Glimmering Room, and Wunderkammer. Her most recent book, Wunderkammer, was published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2014. Cruz’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI, The Paris Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.

About the reviewer:

Kelly Corinda is a poet from New York. In 2012 she won the Julia Carley and Edna J. Herzberg prizes for poetry. Recent work can be found in The Sugar House Review, Smoking Glue Gun, and Dum Dum Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "In the Absence of Predators" by Vinnie Wilhelm

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In the Absence of Predators by Vinnie Wilhelm

-reviewed by Claire Venery

 

“In the Absence of Predators” is a collection of five short stories by Vinnie Wilhelm. The stories are poignantly written with interesting characters that lead the reader through a unique story with an unforeseen ending.

Wilhelm succinctly creates a haunting tone, especially in his story “White Dog,” where the narrator has premonitions through his dreams. One of these premonitions is the shooting of a horse and another is of whores singing to the characters of “love torn apart by violence.” It ends with someone else’s dream wandering away from them and the narrator’s admission that “to know the future is at once a great and terrible thing.”

Death is a theme that seems to permeate from one story to the next, but is processed in very different ways by the people in the experience. In the “Crying of the Gulls,” the myth of the Talking People gives the story an eerie twist, especially because Ogilvie is able to see Virginia’s dead mother, Corrine. Virginia whispers to Ogilvie that not everyone can hear the Talking People, but her mother could, and they told Corrine to go outside during a cold February night and that is how her mother died. When Ogilvie confesses to Virginia that he can hear the Talking People to she tells him that there is no such thing as talking people and that he needs help.

His stories also have an air of mystery, especially in “Fauntleroy’s Ghost.” The characters are flawed and like in the “Crying of the Gulls,” the readers find themselves questioning if what the character is seeing and relaying is actually the truth. Is Stucky’s friend Raskin truly caught up in a scandal that causes him to portray a man named Fauntleroy? Or is Stucky a sad, washed up writer who is creating delusions of grandeur?

The psychological workings of the mind are explored in “Cruelty to Animals,” where the main character, Mr. Kerwood, finds himself slowly sinking into madness. At first the reader has sympathy for this kind father figure who works hard and is there for his brother who is dealing with the stress of having a crazy wife named Rebecca. However, after Rebecca kills her pet Chinchillas by putting them in the dryer, Mr. Kerwood’s own sanity begins to fail, taking the story in an unexpected direction.

“In the Absence of Predators,” the last short story and inspiration of the title of the works, the story begins with the narrator hitting a deer and causing its death. This sparks a journey through the snow that leads him and the reader to the Twin Pines Diner where a group of unlikely people are brought together by chance and share incidents with death in their lives that was brought by the innocence of a deer. At the end of the story “there are hundreds of them: bucks, does, little knock-kneed fawns. There may be thousands, coming forward, their outlines gradually gaining faces, their dark eyes becoming visible, but still in perfect silence” and each represent a memory or regret that the characters have revealed through their tales.

Wilhelm’s unique style is complete with unorthodox characters and often ambiguous endings which take some getting used to, but once invested, his stories will take the reader on an unforgettable journey.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Vinnie Wilhelm was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the recipient of literary fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the National Endowment for the Arts. Wilhelm’s fiction has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Philadelphia.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:

Claire Venery is an undergraduate student majoring in English at the University of Montana. Claire was born and raised in Whitefish, Montana. Her interests lie in fiction but she is looking forward to expanding her literary knowledge while interning for CutBank Magazine

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Lions, Remonstrance" by Shelly Taylor

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A review of Lions, Remonstrance by Shelly Taylor (Coconut Books, 2014)

--by Henrietta Goodman

Shelly Taylor is a poet from the South, as I am. This was all I knew about her when one of CutBank’s editors gave me a copy of Lions, Remonstrance and said “I think you’ll like it.” I wondered whether a presumption of Southern kinship might have led to this belief, never mind the fact that unlike Taylor, who clearly cherishes her Georgia roots, I got the hell out of North Carolina twenty-five years ago and almost never go back. As I began reading, I felt a sort of poetic culture-shock, or rather, form-shock: the book is nearly a hundred pages long and the poems are untitled, their language full of leaps, swerves, and gaps, as in the opening lines of the third poem:

I realized the sea the day I got here was to some people the way

it came right toward me     nurse-handed, at the door

with a bushel,     white picket teeth     the lines, the dunes     a watercolor

mother     for the upstairs bedroom,     someone to hold my hand

not full of disaster as in sharp teeth that hunt of night     lions. I leaned in

the skyline ramparts seize     charlie horse up     made myself get

outside daylight like     man is a common ruin, mark my word…

Whose voice was this? The primary speaker of Lions, Remonstrance is the lover of a soldier home from war, Penelope to an Odysseus returned but damaged—alcoholic, violent, possibly suicidal. But the soldier’s voice and experience enter as well, blurring the boundaries between self and other, between the conventionally feminine and masculine realms, so even in the seemingly innocuous act of sewing, the speaker notes: “…A dress made on / a Singer     the bullet tempo…”

The confidence in self and reader the book’s language contains made me feel, initially, insecure and a bit envious. Taylor’s stylistic choices are not ones I feel comfortable making in my own work, and I couldn’t help but start tallying up the similarities and differences between her book and my current project, also a book-length memoir-based sequence, but written in linked Italian sonnets: the formal opposite of her work. (I worry about the clarity of my pronouns. I worry about being “understood.”) But when I reached the point when the speaker of Lions, Remonstrance leaves her lover, an act of self-preservation which haunts the second and third of the book’s three sections, I stopped looking for differences. I have made—am making—a similar departure, so I know well the anger and loss in the lines that end the book’s penultimate poem:

in my dream, my very dream I was of course a child but not really;

I threw my food on the floor & hit repeatedly the man at the table

still composed; he said how often does this happen, I said

my whole life, it happens my whole life through.

The more I read, the more I began to view the book’s shifting pronouns and verb tense, its surprising and often fragmented syntax, as less a barrier to understanding and more an opening: a gift of intimacy and a kind of permission.

One of the most powerful poems, from the approximate mid-point of section two, intertwines scenes from Afghanistan with the world “back home,” where “the town sits down on his chest making breathing trifling.” Early in the poem we are told: “A dog carries a human hand across the sand, you cannot have it, she     is a bitch / feeds it to her litter tucked under the edge of a house side…” The poem’s closing lines return to this scene, juxtaposing violence and tenderness, destrudo and libido:

…You blew the dog & her puppies with a hand grenade—they cannot

eat flesh     your dog I called Bee, threw the ball for him nightly. It natures

toward the noose.     Uncle Jim knows     as does Yesenin     David Foster Wallace.

I would’ve done anything: Waffle House at 8am     6-hour drive to Vegas I have

white dresses, be a good shotgun     my head on his lap, his fingers on my temple.

In an interview with Kristen Nelson for Trickhouse, Taylor says, “Just because you might’ve made sense of a thing by writing on it for four years doesn’t mean the thing will stop its screaming. I guess nothing changes but is finally understood.” This is the remonstrance—the protest—the book makes: not just against the destructive impact of war on soldiers and those who love them, but against the inability of poetry, of language, to rectify the past. In the same interview, Taylor cites the words of Günter Grass: “Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call the lost thing until it returns.” As writers, we can use the sources of our pain as material, and thus gain a sense of control over the creation of art, but the art we create can never fully compensate for the loss of which it is built. Lions, Remonstrance enacts this awareness. In these poems, you will encounter a pain not different from your own, and so these poems will hurt you. Let them.

Shelly Taylor is the author of two full-length collections: Lions, Remonstrance (Coconut Books Braddock Book Prize: 2014) & Black-Eyed Heifer (Tarpaulin Sky: 2010), as well as three chapbooks: Peaches the yes-girl (Portable Press at YoYo Labs: 2008), Land Wide to Get a Hold Lost In (Dancing Girl: 2009), Dirt City Lions (Horse Less: 2012). Hick Poetics, an anthology of contemporary American rural poetry co-edited with Abraham Smith, will be released from Lost Roads Press in early 2015. Born in deep south Georgia, Taylor is an instructor at the University of Arizona. She calls Tucson & horseback home.

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About the author:

Shelly Taylor is the author of two full-length collections: Lions, Remonstrance (Coconut Books Braddock Book Prize: 2014) & Black-Eyed Heifer (Tarpaulin Sky: 2010), as well as three chapbooks: Peaches the yes-girl (Portable Press at YoYo Labs: 2008), Land Wide to Get a Hold Lost In (Dancing Girl: 2009), Dirt City Lions (Horse Less: 2012). Hick Poetics, an anthology of contemporary American rural poetry co-edited with Abraham Smith, will be released from Lost Roads Press in early 2015. Born in deep south Georgia, Taylor is an instructor at the University of Arizona. She calls Tucson & horseback home.

About the interviewer:

Henrietta Goodman is the author of two books of poetry, Take What You Want (winner of the 2006 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books) and Hungry Moon (Mountain West Poetry Series, 2013). Her poems have recently appeared in New England Review, Massachusetts Review, Guernica, and other journals. She teaches part-time in UM’s English department, and is co-director of Missoula’s Open Country Reading Series.

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CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Like a Beggar" by Ellen Bass

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Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass

Copper Canyon Press, 2014

ISBN 978-1-55659-464-9

Paperback, 86pp., $16.00

 

Review by Carol Smallwood

 

The epigraph is by Rainer Maria Rilke: “But those dark, deadly, devastating ways, how do you bear them, suffer them? ---I praise.” It applies to the poems.

The new collection that I was waiting for since The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), collection opens with the poem, “Relax” listing bad things that will most likely happen to you but ends with the lines:

Oh, taste how sweet and tart

the red juice is, how the tiny seeds

crunch between your teeth.

The 46 poems are not separated into parts like her last collection; the charcoal and oil cover art is also by Carolyn Watts and Copper Canyon Press again is the publisher.

Her strength as a poet in my view is her fearless look and acceptance as in “Morning” on the topic about her mother’s death:

Here long-exhaled breaths

kept coming against her

resolve. And in the exquisite

pauses in between

I could feel her settle—

the way an infant

grows heavier and heavier

in your arms

as it falls asleep.

Her very readable poems are mostly in a narrative style based on common events and places such as “Women Walking” but this commonality is wide as in “Another Story” that includes the television program NOVA and the size of the universe, Marlon Brando, red fingernails, and baby bats. “Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955” includes an unlikely mix of T-shirts, A&P parking lots, deliverymen, a pack of Camels, Allen’s Shoe Store, tweed skirts, and ends with it all being “…at the center of our tiny solar system flung out on the edge of a minor arm, a spur of one spiraling galaxy, drenched in the light.”

Quite a few poems deal with aging but “Ode to Invisibility” concludes “It’s a grand time of life” and the element of sex is a often mentioned. While the immensity of the rings of Saturn and the Hubble Telescope are topics, so are the smallness of flies and wasps.

Bass describes the praise that a poet has for the onion in “Reading Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”: “When he praises the onion, nothing else exists. like nothing else exists in the center of the onion. Like nothing else exists when you fall in love.”

My favorite is “When You Return” that begins:

Fallen leaves with climb back into trees.

Shards of the shattered vase will rise

and reassemble on the table.

Plastic raincoats will refold

into their flat envelopes.

Bass poems impact one depending on awareness at the time of reading. That is true of course of all poetry and writing but with Bass poems, you will see layers you didn’t catch before with other readings and they have a solid dissection of humanity. What looks effortless, requires much expertise to write, to make it universal. She also has the ability to surprise with such descriptions as high heels on linoleum “distinctive as the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth” and I am already looking forward to her next collection.

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About Ellen Bass:

Ellen Bass’s most recent book of poetry, Like a Beggar, was published in April 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Her previous books include The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press), named a Notable Book by the San Francisco Chronicle and Mules of Love (BOA Editions) which won the Lambda Literary Award. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday).

Her poems have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Sun. She was awarded the Elliston Book Award for Poetry from the University of Cincinnati, Nimrod/Hardman’s Pablo Neruda Prize, The Missouri Review’s Larry Levis Award, the Greensboro Poetry Prize, the New Letters Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and a Fellowship from the California Arts Council.

About Carol Smallwood:

Carol Smallwood’s over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is a 2014 collection from Lamar University Press; Divining the Prime Meridian, is forthcoming from WordTech Editions.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "If I Go Missing" by Octavio Quintanilla

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If I Go Missing

by Octavio Quintanilla

Reviewed by Luis Martinez

There is a darkness driving the current in Octavio Quintanilla’s debut collection, If I Go Missing, and I’m standing by the edge wondering what would happen if I dove in. I want to. Perhaps, I’d too admit myself a fond admirer of the butcher as the speaker in the first poem of the collection, The Left Hand, “Last night, it (my hand) got chopped clean/by a butcher’s knife, weird/ because as a boy I admired butchers/ and liked their knives.” In the same poem, Quintanilla explores what our hands are called to do, as they constantly force us out of our selves:

the dream in which I lose my left hand

doing a job I wasn’t born to do.

Sometimes I’m picking trash

on the side of the highway.

Other times, I’m saving a drowning man.

Darkness drives the current. “Revise toward strangeness,” is probably some of the best advice I’ve received as a poet. Poems that do so, often have beautiful endings: “And the night returns, and so does the river,/ and the hand that rides the current/ to the ocean/ and refuses to drown.”

In Tough Guy, the speaker notes, “When drunk, he pours milk/ between the legs of a beautiful girl,/ and licks.” Nourishment through artificiality. Something I fell in love with because how many times do we labor to find substitutes for things that already serve us pleasure. Quintanilla delivers a new strangeness. Images are released, “like frightened birds/ out of their cages.” This is book you’ll take orally, touch your lips, stare at your fingertips, bring them to your nose and get a taste of the beautiful unfamiliar.

One of the many things I like from this collection is that this isn’t a book about one thing. Not a project book. You won’t read the same poem over and over in different forms. It displays enviable range, from poems about fatherhood, immigration, love, death, and class. He’ll tell us about love, in Tell Them Love is Found, “Tell your mother about us…Tell them that I’ll keep returning to this house/ And gently take what is no longer theirs,” then he’ll spell poverty, “Now we are going somewhere./ Let us rejoice, then, and remember the days/ when our tongue was the only meat/ we could bite into.” Read this and learn the beauty tucked under the everyday.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Particle and Wave" by Benjamin Landry

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Particle and Wave Benjamin Landry

University of Chicago Press, April 2014

Reviewed by Elizabeth O'Brien

 

Is a book of poetry's structural conceit descriptive or prescriptive? And how does a conceit inform the experience of reading the individual poems within a collection? I find myself thinking about these questions lately because so many books of contemporary poetry are organized around definable structural conceits. Benjamin Landry's new collection, "Particle and Wave," for example, is built around the periodic table of elements.

Landry chooses 40 of the 118 known elements and devotes a poem to each, in a range of  forms varying from orderly stanzas to columns to erasures. Although written in free verse, there are several nods to rhyme and alliteration, as in "Au," which opens, "'Slate,' he said. And it was late." The voice is airy without being evasive; authoritative without being arrogant.

The poems mix technical diction with a more poetic one: "H," for instance, which represents hydrogen, begins with a line that could come straight from an elementary science text, but then is quickly juxtaposed with the more mythic:

Imagine the heat generated

by Daphne transformed into laurel

and you can begin to feel

what the electron feels

in renouncing its steady orbit.

 

The way Landry's works with both the scientific and the literary in the first pages honors the book's framework, setting up a tone that alternates between these modes. And, although the book begins quietly, the poems gather momentum as the experiments with form become more deliberate, and themes and images initiated in early poems are revisited. As the book progresses, the sense develops that something meaningful is at stake, as when the idea that "Some of us determine/whether an atom stays/together or falls apart" in "Cr" is complicated by Landry's later piece, "U":

We split the atom because we could

and are now outfitting cockroaches with microphones;

our drones have a bird's eye imagination.

 

Atomic bombs are a natural preoccupation for a book like this to have, and the assertion made hereabout the relationship between power and intention--"We split the atom because we could"--is chilling in its simplicity.

But on the whole, these poems are less preoccupied with scientific subjects than one might expect, opting more often for personal narrative, and using the titular elements as phonemic rather than material symbols, as in "Br," which connects its title with the sound of a ringing phone, rather than with Bromine, a chemical in the halogen group. Likewise, "Ba," features final lines referring in French to lambs. As far as Earth's building blocks and science are concerned, we are given several references to the splitting of atoms, an epigraph from Marie Curie, and a series of moments that describe the natural world, or touch lightly on intersections between science and philosophy or morality.

But to return to the earlier question of how a book's conceit informs the reading of poems--I did find myself judging this book based on my expectations for how its use of the periodic table could play out. I was expecting there to somehow be more science, although now it's hard to say how.

Books with strong organizing frameworks are appealing because an identifiable overarching structure--like adapting the periodic table for poetry's sake--offers an automatic entry point for readers. It's satisfying to sense what a new book from a new poet is likely to be "about." But then, of course, the poet must move beyond the initial impulse that generated the poems: the whole must be greater than its individual poetic parts. And I suspect that books that use a formal conceit, or otherwise signal that they are about a specific subject are at a disadvantage, then, because although they draw readers in with the promise of a hook, they also invite readers to approach with preconceived expectations.

The best part of any new book of poetry, Landry's certainly included, is that you never know exactly what to expect--even if you think you know what to expect. "Particle and Wave" has a strong organizing conceit that is sure to attract attention. But the poems are also individually innovative, offering interesting moments when the scientific and the poetic meet.

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Benjamin Landry is a Meijer Post-MFA Fellow at the University of Michigan and the author of An Ocean Away.

Elizabeth O’Brien writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared inThe New England ReviewDiagramdecomP, Sixth FinchPANKSwinkNew Pages, The Pinch, VersalJuked, The Leveler, The Liner, Euphony, A capella Zoo,SliceThe Emerson ReviewFlashquake, and elsewhere. She is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and can be found online at elizabethobrien.net.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "All You Do Is Perceive" by Joy Katz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All You Do Is Perceive

by Joy Katz

Four Way Books, 2013

Reviewed by Kay Cosgrove

 

Some thirteen years ago in a gale of wind,

            On a foil packet of shampoo,

                        After a prayer with no words,

                                      When a spoon leaves a firm imprint,

During the last known hours,

            As the meltdown hit groundwater,

                        When we signed off on everything,

                                     And then, a face: the woundable face of a boy.

(“WHICH FROM THAT TIME INFUS’D SWEETNESS INTO MY HEART”)

 

So concludes the first poem in Joy Katz’s latest collection, All You Do Is Perceive. This first poem, set off from the rest of the book, reads as an invocation to the muse, who, in this case, happens to be the adopted son of the speaker. Written as one long, breathless sentence, “WHICH FROM THAT TIME INFUS’D SWEETNESS INTO MY HEART” establishes the arc of the book as akin to “a basket tossed weightlessly” (line 13). The poems float from page to page, linked by their shared perception of the world through the eyes of a speaker, who, in turn, sees like a child again. One can feel the joy bursting forth from the pages of this collection, and as readers, we get to share in it through the language of the poems, like children in awe.

Take, for example, the poem “[NOON, F TRAIN].” In it, Katz creates a simple, beautiful portrait of a daily life. Nothing much happens in the poem: there is a woman, arguably the speaker, and she rides the F train home, reading a book. Written in a block of prose, “[NOON, F TRAIN]” unfolds like a movie clip before the reader’s eyes, as if we are there with her on the train. Though the echo of Eliot (“there is time enough…”) might be a bit heavy-handed as an allusion, this repeated phrase evokes a mood that allows the reader to see this ordinary scene through new eyes, to “pass up into the world and leave nothing behind…” (“[NOON, F TRAIN]”).

Much of the book reflects on being a woman in the world, specifically, a woman in relation to a man and/or a child. The speaker both identifies with and makes a distinction between herself and the other ‘characters’ in the collection, the man and the child, who are perhaps representative of the family unit. There is the relationship to a beloved: “his song is the door back to the room/I am composed of the notes” (“DEATH IS SOMETHING ENTIRELY ELSE”), the relationship to the son: “we are sugared in a medium, he and I/He is smiling/Happiness is on me like a scratch in a car door” (“MOTHER’S LOVE”), and the relationship to both of them: “how she must hold to everyone and swim them to the same shore” (“HE LAUGHS TOO HARD ABOUT THE WINE”). In each poem, the speaker, at times in a playful tone and at times rather gravely, highlights these relationships in order to underscore her femininity - the defining difference between both the beloved and the son. This accounts for a different perception of the world, as in the poem “THE LETTUCE BAG” (“If labias were in/season, their tender interiors, their roundness, would be touched by/the grocer’s mist”), or the fourth stanza of “THE IMAGINATION, DRUNK WITH PROHIBITIONS”:

Womanhood is more embarrassing than manhood.

If the woman is old, breakfast is hopeless.

If breakfast is brioche, it becomes less frightening.

Insouciant is more French than nuance,

disappointment more French than matinee,

London more suave than Paris.

(“THE IMAGINATION, DRUNK WITH PROHIBITIONS”)

 

There is even something childlike in the more serious meditations on womanhood and motherhood, something that insists on finding delight in the most unlikely places. Katz establishes this child-like wonder largely through her playful use of anaphora and repeated images. Katz succeeds in using the phrase “Department of” twenty-one times in “DEATH IS SOMETHING ENTIRELY ELSE”, and in “MOTHER’S LOVE,” she similarly repeats the opening few words again and again so that the poem begins to sound like a song. Less original, but just as striking, is the ending of “JUST A SECOND AGO”, which relies on anaphora to establish an eerie tone of possibility: “just a second ago/while you were crossing the street/while you were finishing your lunch/while you were handing me your terrible secret—“ (lines 25-28). Finally, there is the sky, the air, the natural world we inhabit, and the language we use to understand nature, as in the poem “WE ARE WALKING INTO THE SUNSET”:

Look, the sky has become stained glass made of meat!

You keep talking, as if in utter faith that life will go on forever.

Yet that in itself is lovely. Keep talking. What is more of a pleasure to

See, a moon as big as a bison head or the face of a friend, talking?

("WE ARE WALKING INTO THE SUNSET”)

 

Another level of perception present in the collection is the perception of the world through the eyes of a writer, specifically, a woman writer. Again and again, Katz acknowledges that she is at work in All You Do Is Perceive, that she has “a few minutes left to write” (“THE COMPOSER”), that “mornings [she] wrote and workmen/raised up their nets” (“ALL YOU DO IS PERCEIVE”). The speaker seems to be trying to reconcile the world with her place in it, a task that might be impossible through poetry:

I get a great, blank feeling, driving. I am a girl, driving.

Poems aren’t labor, progress, robber barons—not poems. Four men sit

in recliners on a grand side lot. Lush weeds, what grows without regard.

Girls’ names no one thinks to pick: Lorraine. Here is the street where

I lived. Where I can be—nothing. Four p.m., light rain, no one asks

what I am writing. A room livingly painted sends its notion into me.

(“TO A SMALL POSTINDUSTRIAL CITY”)

All You Do Is Perceive explores a way of being in the world that relies on consciousness alone, on paying attention to even the most mundane aspects of life, such as carting the empties to the dump (“BIG BABY”) or admitting that being “alone with the baby is boring” (“MOTHER’S LOVE”).  In this collection, there is joy even in sorrow, and Katz teaches her readers to notice, to be alert, “to prefer autumn's bigger name, fall, and/its battering change” (“BIG BABY”). All of the poems, as with all of the aspects of life, accumulate one on top of another. Some are happy, some less so, but, through the eyes of a new baby, a son, they can be beautiful, like a basket as it comes crashing back down to earth:

That becomes a basket tossed weightlessly,

As a baby is handed through the air to us,

In the final seconds of the fourth quarter,

Halfway through the preface,

 

After they set us on fire…

(“WHICH FROM THAT TIME INFUS’D SWEETNESS INTO MY HEART”)

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Joy Katz is the author of All You Do Is Perceive (2013, Four Way Books) as well as  two previous poetry collections. A former Wallace Stegner and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she teaches in the graduate writing program at Chatham University. More information can be found at www.joykatz.com.
Kay Cosgrove was the winner of the 2013 Writers Under 30 Contest from The Westchester Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrow Street, Conduit, and EPOCH Magazine, among other journals. She is currently a doctoral student in the University of Houston's Creative Writing & Literature program, where she serves as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast.