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.


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
            wherever)
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.

Humor

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.

 

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

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

* * *

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 https://valentina-86.deviantart.com/art/crazy-255658657

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

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

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

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

 

5. Charlie

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

“Sun Dance”

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

 

4. Elton John

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

“In Hindsight”

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

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

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

 

3. Brothel ghost cats

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

“Upside Down”

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”

animal-dalmatian-dog-36436.jpg

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

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

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

Review by Jenny Montgomery
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

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

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Lauren Levin’s THE BRAID

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

Acts of Abandonment: Lauren Levin’s The Braid

by Poppy Samuels

Lauren Levin the Braid.jpg

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

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

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

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


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

CUTBANK REVIEWS: LENA, by Cassie Pruyn

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

by Molly Gray

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

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

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


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

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


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: 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: "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.

"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: "Any Anxious Body" by Chrissy Kolaya

Any Anxious Body Chrissy Kolaya  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any Anxious Body by Chrissy Kolaya $18.00 | 83 pages | Broadstone Books, 2014

Review by Joshua Preston

A mother, daughter, and teacher, Chrissy Kolaya is an alumna of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony and her poems have been compared to those of the New York School. Her first book of poems, Any Anxious Body, joins together a passionate love of Frank O’Hara with a natural affinity for archival poetics. This is not a book of Lunch Poems; instead, it is a book of particular moments, captured words, the weaving of a narrative that is more than a day in the life. This collection has the remarkable ability of presenting whole lives through single days. It illustrates that sometimes the things one remembers says more about the recorder than the record.

Everyone who walks through these poems are learning the same lesson:

Her father tells her one night – I got news for you, kid.

You’re not getting off this planet alive.

Words

with which any anxious body

might find solace. (76)

This single revelation is what connects the sometimes-disparate scenes of Any Anxious body. These are the stories of household economics and children growing up too quickly. There is anxiety in the words of an old man recalling his first memory. There is solace in the stories of young lovers navigating Chicago’s streets. Kolaya is an historian, and the charm of her writing comes from her talent of pulling manuscripts from the memories of the men and women who came before her.

The long poem “Reckoning” is worth the price of the book alone. In it she draws upon two texts: the notepad her great-grandmother used to communicate to her family while in hospice and her grandmother’s twenty-page letter to her children. The first is filled with little calls for assistance, the second is a confession. It is the story of two generations of women, the narrative of one’s resistant exit interwoven with another’s grasping. They are two different experiences, but they encapsulate the same struggle for survival. Kolaya writes of her grandmother:

She’d made it far enough -- seventh grade -- to know how to handle guys like Owens who’d get you up against the counter and grow a thousand hands.

And then her husband when she gets home 2 a.m. Didn’t he know she’d spent her night like this swatting paw after paw?

Didn’t he know she just wanted to sit out on the porch put her feet up and light up a Viceroy like a lady? (47)

In only a few pages, “Reckoning” records two journeys of life, marriage and the debts we leave behind -- financial as well as familial. The poem ends with a photo of an expenses/assets list in her grandmother’s notepad, written “in someone else’s hand” (25). In words one intuits are as much Kolaya’s as her great-grandmother’s, they read, “We/ will never/ pay for this” (53). And how could we? These are the debts, the relationships that shape our time here. All of these things we continue to pass on if not unpaid, then forgotten. That is until we find them. And write.

The book ends with lines inspired by Ephesians. As we anxious bodies find solace in the lesson that our time is short and there is nowhere to go but down, we do so while quoting from “You Were Dead.” As you contemplate these debts, someday you will

remember that at one time

you lived among the natives and in you

the whole world was joined together. (83)

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Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her short fiction has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton) and Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions). Her poems and fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals.

She has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris.

Joshua P. Preston is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Morris and currently a research fellow at Baylor College of Medicine's Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is the curator of Giraffes Drawn By People Who Should Not Be Drawing Giraffes and his writings have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Humanist, and MAYDAY Magazine. Find him online at www.JPPreston.com.