CUTBANK REVIEWS: Luminous, But Not Widely Seen, Lights

Orpheus, Turning by Faith Shearin and Meditations Before the Windows Fail by George Looney

Review by Mark Brazaitis

It may be odd to say this about the poets Faith Shearin and George Looney, the former a Garrison Keillor “Writer’s Almanac” favorite, the latter the winner of several book-length poetry prizes, but here goes: they deeply deserve to be better known and more widely read.

This is true both because they are outstanding poets and because their poetry is the kind non-poets can read without feeling confused and frustrated.

Shearin is the author of four previous collections of poetry. Her latest, Orpheus, Turning, is the winner of the 2015 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, which is sponsored by Dogfish Head, a Delaware-based brewery.

Shearin and her publisher would, at first blush (or first draught of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA), seem incompatible. Surely Shearin’s poems, with their subtle finishes, have more in common with, say, a fine cabernet sauvignon. There is an enviable smoothness to her language as she evokes everyday situations (a mother’s declining health, winter’s arrival, the perilous pleasures and sorrows of the past) and mines them for extraordinary insights into what it means to be human.

In “My Brother, Trying to Go Home,” the title character, unlike the rest of his family, refuses to embrace the “furniture of the future” of his new home. Instead, like several figures in Shearin’s book, he tries to hold on to the past, in his case by returning to his old house, empty as it awaits sale:

…He moved through the high grass,

past the sign that meant it would soon belong
to someone else, and entered the darkness

of our abandoned life.

In another exploration of the theme of past versus present, “The Past Wants You Back,” Shearin acknowledges how, no matter one’s present pleasures and struggles, the past compels us to return:

…It wants you to like
the boy who cheated on you,

to wear the unflattering dress;
it requires you to take piano lessons
and catch strep throat,

then Chicken Pox.

The light elegance of Shearin’s language functions as an effective counterpoint to some of the dark material she handles. (A heavy touch would make some of her verse macabre.)  

If most of Shearin’s poems are a fine wine, some suggest less grape and more grain—an earthier but equally intoxicating beverage. In several poems, Shearin invokes the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He’s an excellent device for Shearin’s concerns about children and parenting and loss. One might call her Hamelin poems “Fairy Tale Ale”: smooth, rich, filling…and with a paradoxical aftertaste of sobriety.

The final poem, “Meet Me in Hamelin,” is emblematic of Shearin’s work. Some words she employs here she also uses elsewhere in the collection: “children,” “music,” “beyond.” Even as the poem acknowledges the hard realities of life (“the mayor refuses to pay”—a subtle indictment, one might think, of our politicians’ priorities, especially as related to children), it longs for a different, better world, a time “before the Piper”:

….Meet me in Hamelin

before all that, hold my hand,
walk with me through the unswept streets
where the children are unharmed.

Turn to the last page of George Looney’s ninth book of poetry, Meditations Before the Windows Fail (Lost Horse Press, 2015), gaze at the author photo, and (mentally) remove his glasses. Do you see what I see? Does George Looney, via the magic of the mind and the words you’ve absorbed in the previous fifty-five pages, look a little like Marcus Aurelius? (Come on, they both have beards....)

Like the Roman emperor in his Meditations, Looney is both gazing out at the world (and especially at a subtly changing sky) and within himself. He creates a compelling tension between the two perspectives. Readers sense he would like the sky to hold his complete attention, to dominate his eye and his imagination, but his mind, and particularly his memory, is too enticing a landscape. The poet notes the sky, but, although he remains in body to behold it, he is quick to journey into reveries about language, about time, about love and loss.

A reader can imagine Looney’s inspiration: each day, for fifty-one straight days, he sits in front of a window, gazing at the sky. Each day, soon thereafter or even in the moment, he records his experience in a poem: what he sees, what he thinks, what he remembers.

In lesser hands, the concept might prove dull, akin to a third-rate landscape painter painting the same garden day after day (look—there’s a bumblebee on the rose bush this morning!). But Looney’s are capable hands, and even as his (or his speaker’s) literal perception is limited to what’s outside the window, his philosophical and creative perception roams far, as in “The Glare Off These Panes”:

…Ghosts of

gulls strafe this window,
playful, intoxicated
by the pleasure of swooping

& careening. The way, in memory,
a lover’s lips move,
without sound, furtive, calming.

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations. Looney isn’t quite so content to follow the emperor’s precursor to the Stephen Stills’ song “Love the One You’re With.” A number of the poems in Looney’s Meditations return to a pair of lovers in a hotel room, possibly the poet and his beloved. Is it a memory? A fantasy? Are the lovers in a hotel room because their love is extramarital? Or is the hotel simply a convenient midpoint between the lives they must lead separately?

We don’t know, and we don’t need to. The lovers in Looney’s poems function in several ways, one of which is as a counterpoint to philosophical flights of fancy. Even if we would like to fly off forever into Platonic contemplation, our bodies, and their needs and muscle memory, bring us back to earth. Our minds can be part of the sky; our bodies are burdened by gravity. Paradoxically, though, our bodies may be more adept vessels of communication than our words, as in “Whatever Light Needs to Be Forgiven Of”:

…Confession has
nothing on two bodies

naked & holding each other
on a bed where the sheets haven’t had
time enough to dry.

The mind’s hunger is no less fierce than the body’s. But the mind is meandering whereas the body is direct. Meditation is wonderful, but so, as in “Meditation at Night on a Lover in Another State,” is an embrace:

…The clouds

would be gray with any light at all,
& remind us that being held,

if you’re held in the right arms,
is the best any of us can hope for.

Toward the end of his collection, in “First Victim of Not Enough Light,” Looney is even more definitive about what we need most: “No sky can take the place of a lover.”

About the Authors:
Faith Shearin's books include The Owl Question (May Swenson Award), The Empty House (Word Press), Moving the Piano (SFA University Press), Telling the Bees (SFA University Press), and Orpheus, Turning (The Broadkill River Press). She is the recipient of awards from the Fine Arts Work Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She lives with her husband and daughter in a cabin on top of a mountain in West Virginia.

George Looney is the author of many books including Structures the Wind Sings ThroughMonks Beginning to Waltz, and A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness. He founded the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, and he serves as editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, Lake Effect. He is translation editor of Mid-American Review and a cofounder of the Chautauqua Writers' Festival.

About the Reviewer:
Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film, How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference?

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Deep South" by Paul Theroux

Deep South by Paul Theroux
Review by Nate Duke

Home is hard to see sometimes, and its problems easy to overlook and forget. Fortunately, Paul Theroux’s latest book lends new eyes to this native Southerner, and to readers who’ve never been south of the Potomac River. In a narrative that is richly woven with details and anecdotes from history, literature, and local memory, Theroux examines the South less like a renowned travel writer, and more like an informed sociologist. He shares the culture and scenery of our rivers, fields, and mountains, but this book is really an examination how different people respond to or ignore the South’s pervasive issues.

After driving down from his native Massachusetts, Theroux begins Deep South in South Carolina, and moves gradually west to Arkansas over the course of multiple journeys. He does not seek the “Old Magnolia South” of mansions and immense wealth, but the South of extreme poverty and corporeally present history. He says of the project, “I was travelling for my usual reasons, out of restless [sic] and curiosity, and to see places that were new to me.” Having never been to the Deep South, he says, “I want to see these states, not flying in but traveling slowly on the ground, keeping to back roads.” He avoids the cities in general, because they “did not relate to each other and did not in the least resemble anything in the surrounding countryside.” This leads him to the parts of Dixie that many of us have comfortably forgotten.

The general formula for his exploration is a planned meeting with a community leader or civil servant who then introduces him to the poorest or most maligned people in the most neglected areas. This process leads him to Orangeburg and Allendale, South Carolina. These are examples of towns that had their once-busy main street traffic diverted away by the interstate system, their businesses outcompeted by supermarket chains with low prices due to efficient national distribution. These two phenomena, along with the Confederacy’s shadow of racism, are the recipe for most Southern ills that Theroux examines. Yet these communities remain, somehow, and their residents are forthcoming with Theroux about their lives. In Allendale he meets with Wilbur Cave, a man involved in county revitalization, who says of the decrepitude, “Nowadays, this is as country as it gets.” Theroux remarks, "'Country' was one way of putting it. Another might have been 'This is what the world will look like when it ends.'"

Theroux juxtaposes alarming descriptions of poverty, regressive opinions, and social decline with stories about the people fighting against socioeconomic problems and the legacy of the South’s violent history. He meets with a group in Jackson, Mississippi, part of whose work involves combating the Delta’s “bank deserts.” These are areas where people are trapped in poverty due to lack of financial institutions to grant loans for a house, a car, or a business. This is an example of one of the strengths of Deep South— it informs on problems that the uninitiated might be oblivious to. In Greensboro, Alabama, Theroux meets with volunteers he describes as “the sort one might find working in Third World countries,” fixing houses and helping to start small businesses. They meet with varying degrees of success, as one of their lead organizers catalogues local resistance to change with the words, “Now and then someone walks past and spits on me.”

Theroux makes a few separate journeys to the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Arkansas, meeting people on one trip and revisiting them on the next. He divides these travel narratives with three engaging and thorough essays titled “The Taboo Word,” “The Paradoxes of Faulkner,” and “The Fantastications of Southern Fiction.” Deep South is worth picking up for these interludes alone. “The Taboo Word” is especially strong. The South’s complex relationship to the N-word is couched in an etymological study of the word itself. Theroux approaches it rightly with respect: “I can’t think of another word in English that has such singular force: to speak it is to breathe fire.” He then blends his global experience with Southern cultural literacy:

As a taboo, it is not a forbidden word to all but only to some, as in the Polynesian instances where the sanction applies to commoners but not to nobles… If the word were simply a racial slur, it would be forbidden to everyone who spoke it. As rap music shows, it is often used joyously. Because of this social complexity, the word has more power now than it has ever had.

This is a sample of Theroux at his best. Between descriptions of down-to-earth interactions with various denizens of Southern streets, he makes keen observations born of a long and thoughtful life.

Overall, Deep South is insightful and informative, though Theroux does little to push back against Southern stereotypes. He remarks on the phenomena of Southern motels and gas stations being operated by Gujarati Indians named Patel, the football fanaticism of Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, and the blatantly segregated nature of southern churches and gun shows. Theroux writes, “What made a Sunday in the south complete was a church service, a gun show, or a football game.” Theroux could have presented a more holistic picture of the Deep South had he spent some time in its cities, which are just as critical to understanding the region as the small communities that Theroux compares to the “third world.” His privileging of the rural over the urban South might lead a non-native reader to the problematic assumption that they do not interact with and inform one another.

Still, Deep South, while not encyclopedic, is entertaining and highly informative. Theroux invites the reader to join him as he travels “for pleasure, for a door-slamming sense of 'I’m outta here,' for a change of air…for the voyeuristic romance of gawping at the exotic.” With his car, his books, and his wit, the author shares an intriguing, at times disconcerting, picture of a region that is often forgotten or ignored.

About the Author: 
Paul Theroux is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod.

About the Reviewer:
Nate Duke is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana where he is on the editorial staff for CutBank. He is an alumnus of the Oxford American's editorial internship. You can find his work in Red Cedar Review, Driftwood Press, and elsewhere.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Pattern Exhaustion by Nate Pritts

Pattern Exhaustion by Nate Pritts
Reviewed by Davy Knittle

Nate Pritts’ chapbook-length poem, Pattern Exhaustion, opens, “I forget myself/ but I remember the morning / radio news.” The poem is the ghost of one workday, commencing with the remembered “morning / radio news” and closing with “fifteen minutes at the drycleaners.” Minutes are the poem’s prime scale. Pritts’ speaker notes, “I spend forty minutes / imagining what it would be like / to stand in the rain” or “Think for five minutes / about whether repetition suggests emphasis / or mania” or “I lay on the couch for fifteen minutes / & feel guilty about it.”

Outside of these tightly temporal frames, the present in Pattern Exhaustion shifts on itself. The poem’s short, declarative sentences that make up its present may belong to one moment or to a general condition. Pritts’ speaker says: “I try to name every cloud / in a crowded sky.” Does he do it once? Many times? Other versions of the present take more time. Pritts writes, “I forget everything / I ever knew about / summer.” Others are quite clearly single moments, distinguished by an outside actor. For instance, “I watch the light from three planes / blink past my window.” The present shifts between these forms.

In moments where the poem is rigorous about recording the duration-in-minutes of its speaker’s activities, it feels like a kind of therapy tool, recording how time is used as a way of mapping its slippage. While Pritts’ poem is a fall poem, it’s fall in Upstate New York. It snows in the poem. It’s cold. It echoes A. R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), another cold weather long poem that situates its speaker largely in his house, anxiously waiting for the letter that confirms his employment at Cornell. Ammons’ speaker, like Pritts’, looks out his window and around his house, chronicling the torsion of his anxiety, and trying to use the poem to adhere him to what he sees, to add up his object world to a presence great enough to make him feel able to be still and to be in the room all the way. Like Ammons’ poem, which is separated into sections by date, earlier versions of Pattern Exhaustion appeared as individual poems with date-titles.  

Like Pritts, Ammons often returns to clouds as a referential frame, an element of outside that’s available in the house, from which he can double back on his own life:

the cloud patterns
must have been fine,
dark roils
hidden by rain:

I wonder what all did

Other people, in Tape, are specters on the edges of Ammons’ attempts to hold his own attention steady. They serve a similar purpose for Pritts, for whom minutes correspond to an interest in the miniature, to a condensed frame that’s clearest when focused on others. The strongest moments in the poem are those where the speaker loses himself in detail:

I watch this one girl              gently
press the back of her hand
to her forehead

& do the same thing

Recording elements of his life in the poem is Pritts’ primary means of subverting the anxiety about whether or not he is remembering, and about what he will remember. Sometimes Pritts scales down to the unit of the minute, and sometimes he scales up, trying to reach at everything and give it a sequence. Gestures like “I will dismantle the center of the world” feel and are meant to feel empty, and speak to the failure of frame that occasions the restless, busy exhaustion that speeds the poem along. The poem is always aware of the fact that years on this planet may not have aggregated. That the skill you think you’re building may be harder to maintain than it was to acquire. There may be no record of our lives. Even the poems we write may be far away from what we lived and what we wanted those poems to hold. 

At his most removed, Pritts’ speaker ventures outside time, to a metaexperience of his life, where he devotes so much time to thinking about what his life is like that it’s hard for him to experience his life directly. Pritts writes, “I never know what to say next / since I spend so much time / narrating my life.” Pritts’ speaker’s unrest feels both quotidian and traumatic. It’s almost fixable. It’s almost okay. The speaker is interested in a solution, but the poem itself shores up the split between seeing the visible world and narrating his movement through it, until that division is inescapable. It’s the way he knows how to be alive.

“Pattern Exhaustion” feels like a shorthand, an inexact or partial name for the feeling of living in moments deprived of defining characteristics. It’s a desire to account for what the days add up to, and to assess what kind of record there might be when all of the days are gone. The state of pattern exhaustion is most trumped by moments that need the involvement of others, however cursorily. The poem reads as an animation of the struggle to stay in any version of the present. As it is for Jennifer Moxley’s speaker in The Open Secret, a book contemporaneous with Pattern Exhaustion, “the present is resistance.”

It’s not that Pritts’ speaker has a quotidian existence that bores him. It’s that he has the expansive days of an academic’s schedule, where he’s at home, often, while the public sphere is abstractly busy and turning away from him on its own plane. It’s not because he teaches at a university, though. It’s because of something he does not and cannot name. While it takes a contemporary form, checking his email, nosing around on Google Earth, it’s an anxiety he shares with Ammons, who in the mid- 1960s does none of those things, but has the same feeling. It’s an inability to offer his own days a shape that has meaning. It’s an inability to pair his thoughts to his object world. It’s the false math of making himself choose between what he thinks and what he sees. It’s knowing what would help and not being able to do any of it. It’s having a need not dire enough to occasion change. It’s the desire for austerity, and the competing desire to subvert it. He needs it, though. He says himself, “I only hear myself in simple time.” 

About the Author:
Nate Pritts is the Director and Founding Editor of H_NGM_N (2001), an independent publishing house that started as a mimeograph ‘zine and which has grown to encompass an annual online journal, an occasional digital chapbook series, a continuing series of single-author books and sporadic limited edition/low-fi projects. He is also the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever (2013) and Post Human (2016). Pritts is Associate Professor at Ashford University where he serves as Curriculum Lead and Administrative head of the Film program.

About the Reviewer:
Davy Knittle's reviews and poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Fence, Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, and Iowa Review. His first chapbook, cyclorama, was released by The Operating System in April. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is a PhD candidate in English at Penn.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Review by Aaron Brown

Chigozie Obioma’s widely successful debut novel, The Fishermen, is a story about brothers, their father, and the flaws within each of them. It is a novel that deceptively lures you into a plot rich in complexity—in part a coming of age story set in 1990s Nigeria, and yet also a story that is mythic, shape-shifting. What is this novel about? Is it about a group of brothers—the narrator Benjamin and his older brothers Ikenna, Boja, and Obembe—who love Mortal Kombat and World Cup soccer and have an insatiable desire to fish in the Omi-Ala River running through their village, transgressing where they have been forbidden? Or are the allegorical connections we can draw between the narrative and the tumultuous political climate in Nigeria during the decade (as is referenced many times in the novel) simply too much to be ignored? The Fishermen is all this and much more, and we must recognize and applaud the complex world Obioma has crafted before we proceed further.

At the novel’s heart, the story tracks the adventures of four adolescent brothers: the eldest, Ikenna, who is a stoic yet volatile “python,” always leading his brothers in a self-important, tragic way; Boja, a “fungus,” constantly in his older brother’s shadow whose love-tinged jealousy is the ember that sparks destructive flame later in the novel; Obembe, the “searchdog” and investigator, who always tries to get down to the truth at all costs, Dostoevskyan in his ideas; and finally, Benjamin, the narrator who remains impassioned if oddly objective as the events in his family’s life unfold. The brothers act as foils to each other, and yet it is often difficult to distinguish between them, so strong is their collective identity.

When their stern father, a middle-class banker, is relocated to another town for work and leaves behind his family, an imbalance of power results, and the boys venture forth into their town, Akure, while their mother, attending two smaller children, is often unaware of their actions. They take up, among other things, fishing in the local river, at a place in the river rumored to have a mysterious, haunting history. They are discovered, forbidden from going back, but still as boys the world over do, they choose to disobey their parents’ wishes and continue to revisit the river.

What seems like harmless transgression sets off the true narrative undercurrent of the novel: while they are fishing, Abulu—a local madman whose prophesies are revered throughout the community—is discovered sleeping by the shoreline, and in their presence, he wakes, laughs at them, dances, and tells Ikenna that “a fisherman will kill you.”

The simple prophecy causes Ikenna and his brothers to undergo a metamorphosis: suddenly mistrust seeps into the cracks between the brothers, and their actions turn from harmless to violent, rending the family apart. “Hatred is a leech,” writes Obioma through Benjamin’s voice, later in the novel, “The thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit.” Here, we encounter perhaps the core truth of the novel.

A madman’s prophecy transitions the narrative from a realistic bildungsroman to something entirely mythological, tragic. Just when we think the innocence of middle-class-boys-turned-fishermen is forgotten, the theme returns; although this time, we see “fishermen” has taken on a whole new meaning. Fish are no longer their prey. Rather, their only recourse is to catch themselves, to drag themselves out of the space where “hope was a tadpole: the thing you caught and brought home with you in a can.”  It is no wonder, then, that we see the brothers decide to fashion their fishing rods into something else entirely:

He dragged the long staffs from under the bed. They were long barbed sticks with sickle-like hooks attached to their ends. The lines had been shortened so much that it seemed the hooks were pinned directly to the long sticks, making them unrecognizable. I knew it was my brother who had transformed this fishing equipment into a weapon. This thought froze me.

Only Obioma’s prose, as sweeping as it is scientific, can craft so skillful a narrative in which brothers turn against each other and families disintegrate, but a faint glimmer of hope remains, one for piecing together the fragments of familial love before the day is done. Perhaps only the ending is unsatisfying in this novel, leaving you wanting more after having experienced an incredible cast of characters and the ways, both subtle and loud, they destroy each other.

At the level of the writing, Obioma creates a sense of deceptive realism through his no-nonsense prose. Benjamin, the narrator, unfolds the story as would any pre-adolescent boy—the narrative shifting backwards and forwards, dwelling in flashbacks just as soon as it continues forward in an engrossing, associative way. We see so many similarities between Obioma and other Nigerian writers—Achebe, Okri, Adichie—in how they deal with time: time as merely another instrument of the narrative. Chronology takes a backseat to memory and its twisting, recursive strength. Rather than a logical progression, what centers the novel, what propels the reader to take in more and more of the novel, are the words of the madman Abulu, echoing in the collective mind of the brothers, gnawing at them.

At some point for the reader—and I’m sure it happens at different points for others as it did for me—there is a brilliant moment when you realize the narrative is no more episodic than it is linear. But at that moment you realize time has only a small part to play in this novel. You know what’s coming long before you see it: you experience past, present, and future brilliantly through the way Benjamin weaves his tales. And as a result, you come to the final page feeling as if you have been a part of the circle of brothers yourself, and you take a deep breath. It’s this type of weight Obioma leaves us with as we contemplate the human condition, and we know we can’t quite escape the beautiful shock of it all. Picking up another book is difficult, but moving on is the truth of all human life. At least we know this book—with its intricately universal characters—will always remain with us, long after we have sealed it shut.

About the Author:
Chigozie Obioma was born in Nigeria. He has lived in Cyprus, Turkey and now the United States where he is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A recipient of Hopwood Awards in fiction and poetry, his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review and Transition. His debut novel, The Fishermen, is a winner of the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2015.

About the Reviewer:
Aaron Brown's prose and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, The Portland Review, and Ruminate, among others. He is the author of Winnower, a poetry chapbook published by Wipf & Stock, in addition to being a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron lives with his wife Melinda in Hutchinson, Kansas, and is an assistant professor in writing and editing at Sterling College. 

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "The Ruined Elegance" by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

The Ruined Elegance by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Reviewed by John W. W. Zeiser

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s new collection of poems, The Ruined Elegance, is a lyricist’s journey through history, travel, art, and music. One in which Sze-Lorrain proposes to speak for those who cannot. In an early poem in the collection, “I Wait for the Ruined Elegance,” she writes, “I want to honor / the invisible.” Perhaps she means this literally for there are dozens of historical characters who inhabit the poems: Anna Akhmatova, Gu Cheng, Pushkin, and a zither player in a Chinese labor camp to name just a few. But beyond these touchstones of modernist high art, there lies a more basic invisibility, the ghostly lag between a world of words and one of experience.

Often, Sze-Lorrain acknowledges earnestly the poet’s limited control, such as in “Towering,” where she writes, “I can’t speak for accidents elsewhere, / only forms, lines—”. Yet at other times she is playful, letting the reader in on the joke of poetry. In closing the short poem “Transparent,” which consists of two independent clauses connected by several phrases, she remarks, “To turn this ruined thought / into a poem, / I took out four words.” How facile, and also fun, it is when ordinary speech breaks into the poetic?

Nevertheless, she always grapples with these issues in an assured voice. At times it is spare but never insubstantial; the poems flit just beyond easy comprehension. Her play with syntax and punctuation creates a clever, enjoyable confusion, that demands we read and reread the poems to see exactly where it is she is going.  In “Mausoleum,” for example, she does away with punctuation completely and sends us dashing across lines and through the lives of some of her “invisible” characters:

Father unearthed terracotta warriors
before his eyes turned half-blind on the same
day Red Guards scalped his sister’s arms

These lines contain a great deal of information, but the absence of punctuation provides little chance to process it all. She attempts to reign us back in with more expected line endings, but even these give way under a lack of directions to the score; we rush on through even more information:

bundled up with trash bags in a closet
no one found her until the edge of light
children were scavenging for walking sticks and rice
they found a broken vase and a stubborn
plant they said her eyes stuck out
like orange buns that bite they said his hair
turned white overnight

What ends up anchoring us is her repetition of “they said,” which allows us to begin parsing out the stops. We must work backward, our ears forcing convention back onto something incomplete. It is then when we are allowed to linger over her poetic specificity “until the edge of light” or “her eyes stuck out / like orange buns that bite”.

Much of the first three-quarters of the collection is built like this. Syntax or grammar bent or twisted just enough, the characters and scenes vital, the poet’s preoccupations addressed in interesting ways. However, the final part, titled “Caught in Defiance,” threatens to bog down the reader in pieces overly full of reference.

Sze-Lorrain makes references throughout the collection, but in this part, which consists mainly of ekphrasis, the references pile up too high; they feel detached from the intimacy that preceded it. The poems feel, as she writes earlier about seeing ruins collected in a museum, “Disrobed of their worth.” They bring the idea of “curation” into a collection that up until this point seemed resisted.

This is not to say that reference should be stripped from poetry. Far from it, there is often something valuable in being exposed to what has set someone else off, but in the case of the fourth section, it ends up coming off as extraneous or as if you’ve been sent gliding over a surface of hyperlinks.

Ekphrasis in the twenty-first century walks a tightrope that is perhaps too unstable now that the world wide web is everyone’s personal annotator. It sits there as a distraction, calls to you when something appears in a poem that isn’t immediately clear. In “Bonnard’s Naked Wife Leaving the Bathtub” or “Three Moves Clockwise,” a poem on André Kertész’s seminal photograph La Fourchette for example, only after seeing images of the pieces in question did I feel able to appreciate the totality of the poems. Yet many of them could work just as well if we remained ignorant of their subjects.

Perhaps this is a failure of mine, or of the distracted time in which we live. However, again and again I returned to the other sections of the collection and immediately felt warmly disconnected from the need for every bit of information present, even when Sze-Lorrain directly references the act of information gathering as she does in “A Few Days Before Christmas”:

Kim-Jong Il was dead when I woke up and surfed
the net before my husband repeated
his curse that pigeons defecating on the balcony

should be cooked to no one’s sorrow

The Ruined Elegance is one of the more maddeningly interesting collections of poetry I have come across recently and there is much more at play than I could hope to address in such a limited space. Its extremely polished surface, the poet’s well-readness, sometimes threatens to undo the mystery of what she calls “the sheer / glow of life.” But sustained reading rewards us with the experience of grappling with something both simple and broken alongside the poet. At her best, Sze-Lorrain rewards the reader with language born of curiosity and raises further questions in the most satisfying ways. With no easy resolutions, she instead offers to plunge us into contradictions, where “Healing comes / slow, the wreckage perennial,” reminding us playfully, but with a knowing wink, that artifice is a poor conductor of feeling.


About the Author:
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, editor, literary translator, and zheng harpist. Her new book of poetry, The Ruined Elegance, is published by Princeton University Press in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. She is also the author of two previous poetry collections, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, as well as several translations of Chinese contemporary poets and two books from English to French (most recently the work of Mark Strand). A co-founding editor of Cerise Press, she has written for venues related to fashion journalism, music and art criticism, and dramaturgy. Her CD, In One Take, was released in 2010. She lives in France, grows orchids, and works as an editor.

About the Reviewer:
John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and coffee roaster’s apprentice. He lives in Los Angeles. You may follow him @jwwz.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella" by Christian Anton Gerard

Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella by Christian Anton Gerard
Review by Caitlin Mackenzie

Before delving into Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella—the smart and stunning debut from Christian Anton Gerard—I had to do some homework. Let this preface not deter you; such preemptive study is a sure sign of tradition-honoring verse.

So, here are a few important items of note.

Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella translates from the Greek as “star-lover” and “star.” And Wilmot was the 2nd Earl of Rochester, whose poetry was heavily censored during the Restoration Era, that underrated time in history when intellect and pleasure collided in response to Puritanism. Really, the beats have nothing on the court of Charles II.

In Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella Gerard applies both the tradition and the ethos of this time, these poets, to the twenty-first-century constructs of love, sex, desire. And, much in line with our predecessors, Gerard finds his verse—and the narrative therein—at the mercy of an implacable paradox: mystery stokes desire, but intimacy pursues knowledge, extinguishes mystery. Two lovers, husband and wife, Wilmot and Stella, give themselves full force to the efforts of love; they are sometimes hopeful, sometimes dejected, but mostly their struggle takes place in the liminal, ambiguous space of both.

“I spend each breath / introducing myself as if / I remember who I am,” we hear from Wilmot. And from Stella, “You look like you need.” Here we see how evasive human desires and needs can be. Despite the overwhelming evidence that life’s only constant is the visceral lack of constants, we dismiss the fluxing, chaotic nature of our romantic relationships, believers in stability: “But I guess marriage is about death, till death do us part, but Death, then, makes an awkward threesome.”

Gerard employs a breadth of forms, utilizing couplets, quatrains, prose, and enough enjambment to evoke the needed amounts of chaos. Often his line and form mirrors the emotional interiority of the subject, making each poem an athletic display of intentionality and introspection.

We were dressed in something bigger

than everything, except the sound
           of a bow’s opening down-

stroke like fingers in a river. Waiting held me:
           Downstroke. Upstroke. That simple

waver. A cocoon in the wind. Double-brass vibrato,
            and I was born.

This theme of vastness, being “dressed in something bigger,” shows up again and again in the pages of Wilmot, much like the meta haunting our moments of dailyness: drunken shadowboxing in winter on a back porch when your wife leaves on an Amtrak train, headed North, further into winter, because “Maybe exorcism, // more or less. Something all guts no skull.” The intellect and heart coil and uncoil throughout Wilmot Here, to which Wilmot responds in dutiful, empathetic frustration. We sense his primeval awareness that body, heart, and head do not always (or frequently) work cohesively. It is for this reason, that this balking, angry, longing, exasperated Wilmot is so fiercely relatable.

Gerard’s persona poems are so much more than personas. Wilmot and Stella are complex, multi-dimensional paragons of the sloppy human experience, so much of which is marked by our longing to know the self better. “I have burnt up shadows staring into myself. / Still I cannot see” says Wilmot. And in the same poem, “I looked at a vessel filled with Aurora Borealis / becoming more and more and words would do nothing.”

It’s not surprising these lines appear in the same poem. Naturally, when a poet feels estranged from his words, that they’ve become nihilistic, he is concomitantly estranged from himself.

And the reader can’t blame Wilmot for his despair, or even for his mistakes, of which there are quiet a few. Because, again, we relate to his relentless efforts to love and to love well. “I’m your Astrophil” says Wilmot, “I lodged thee in my heart, and, being blind / by Nature born, I gave thee mine eyes.” And, Stella: “You’re my bullshitter . . . but let’s make our bodies a game. / When you can’t take it, touch me like you own me.”

Later Wilmot admits, “Isn’t it scarier that we don’t / know what else to do.” Gerard’s writing is simultaneously searching, honest, stark, and cadent. If anyone believes persona poetry is a step removed, I encourage them to immerse themselves in the dire, pathos-infused story of Wilmot and Stella.

Stella says, “I changed my name for you. / I don’t want to be / your crime- // scene, pistol barrel gleam / that quick flash, then / nothing.” Even in the face of a relationship’s end, despite all the hardship and pain that may have comprised that relationship, we hope against nothingness, that our struggle wasn’t for naught. It’s easy to feel like an end signifies a failure, but that would be both erasure of the past and negligence of the new beginning. Gerard gives us good reason to hope in the work inherent in the efforts of love and words.

About the Author:
Christian Anton Gerard is a poet and Early Modern scholar. He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award. Gerard’s creative and critical work appears widely in national literary and critical journals. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he is an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith.

About the Reviewer:
Caitlin Mackenzie is a book critic and essayist living in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared on The Rumpus, The Toast, Lambda Literary, Fugue, and more.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Love's Labors" by Brent Newsom

Love's Labors by Brent Newsom

Review by Aaron Brown

To labor at what we love—whether that is tinkering away at the car in our garage or carrying our first child to life—is a process of concentrated intensity just as it is a painful, lengthy, and arduous journey. To labor, then, implies paradox: the flash-flickering moments of strenuous human effort and the dull understanding that relief is a long road ahead. Brent Newsom’s debut poetry collection Love’s Labors captures such a paradox. In Newsom’s poems, we encounter an intricate growing narrative of the poet’s becoming a father just as others around him lose their own loved ones. Life and death, grief and shame, flare up with equal intensity, just as a complicated consolation slowly cools the senses.

More than any other collection I’ve encountered before, Newsom’s poems speak with one another. At the collection’s outset, we encounter poems of desire, where the speaker and his lover join together despite their fragility: “Welcome to where we dwell / in the wounds that we inflict... we join / grafted... your skin on / my burn” (“Epithalamion”). Alongside these poems between the speaker and his lover, we encounter the surrounding characters that Newsom brings so skillfully to life. Here in the opening sections of the book, we meet Floyd Fontenot, a hard-working drunk, down on his luck, who propositions his bartender Patti and loses her as quickly as they met. Elsewhere, we encounter the prim, church-going Esther Green, who buries her unchurched husband taken through cancer. These poems embody contradiction through the complexity of their characters, erasing stereotypes and revealing beneath the surface characters we find all too human. As the poet and his wife struggle through and revel in their love for each other, the surrounding characters of the fictional “Smyrna” come together and ultimately fall apart.

Out of these fluctuating desires, however, approaches the possibility of rebirth. Poems such as “First Ultrasound” and “January 2009: For Anthony” embody perhaps the strongest narrative undercurrent in this collection: the impending birth of the poet’s firstborn child. These poems and others are preceded by short epigraphs, indicating the length of time within the child’s gestation period (sixteen weeks, thirteen weeks, etc.). While not always progressing chronologically, these poems act as place-markers throughout the collection. We wait, just as the speaker does, for the birth of his child, and we suffer through the anxieties and sickness the expectant parents feel:

For weeks to come, stories...
will flock in on the wind, an unkindness
of black-winged birds drawn to feed
on every seed of hope
(“At the Clinic”)

These specific poems anchor the narrative yet increase its velocity. We relive the seemingly superficial anxieties of new parents in poems like “Strawberries,” where the very thing that would help the new child makes the mother sick and winds up in the toilet, a “deep red swirl of bile and berries” that looks “like some awful afterbirth.” Characteristic of Newsom’s poetry, the poems shift from superficial to serious quicker than we expect—we are lured into a false sense of security before the poet upsets our expectations, and we are left to pause deep in thought, wondering and worrying with the speaker.

As the child grows, other poems of life happening around the speaker become juxtaposed with this narrative strand. Again we encounter the character Mason Buxton, whose return from overseas duty in Iraq has left him traumatized and his young family longing for some kind of return to their peaceful past. Elsewhere, the character Floyd reappears, abandoned by his love interest and now aimless without his recently deceased father. He longs to “breathe in deep that dust cloud of exhaust,” and in another poem, he “kicks across the current... swims hard / till his chest burns and head throbs and breaks / the surface and sucks in great gulps of air.” Each character searches for a return to the status quo or else longs for some new high plain of peace that is elusive. Many voices lure the characters in with promises of peace—through suicide, distraction, sex, religion—but each character finds his or her path to a deep feeling of sincerity and catharsis or else rejects it all together.

To say that Newsom doesn’t pay attention to poetic form is furthest from the truth—in the sonnet sequence “Claudio Blackwood Has Her Doubts,” we encounter a character reminiscent of the woman in Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” whose lack of faith conflicts with a desire to keep up appearances in the community at large. Here, the poet alternates between English and Petrarchan sonnets, interweaving these sonnets by ending them with one line that is carried over and repeated at the beginning of the next poem. Something we’d sooner see in John Donne’s “La Corona” than in an American poet writing about life in small-town Louisiana. There is a deep formal underpinning to the collection: from his skillful sestina “Inheritance” to the slant rhymes in the sonnet, “First Ultrasound.” Discovering the forms behind many of these poems only reassures us of the authority and dexterity this poet has.

As the son approaches birth, the poet himself wrestles with his own upbringing, afraid of the repetition of the sins of the past. In the final, masterful long poem “Cut,” Newsom explores the struggles he had with his own father, whose means of instruction came through demonstration rather than direct communication: “He cuts a clean edge, / careful to follow through, guiding / the fresh-cut boards clear of the blade.” The poem cycles through memories of a maturing boy increasingly becoming resistant to his father’s wishes. As a way of processing the past, Newsom shifts in other sections of the poem to liturgical prayers and images of his own son emerging into the world. “I have only just made peace / with having a father,” writes Newsom as the poem approaches its conclusion, “and here you are to make me one.” Despite all the surrounding turbulent human struggle, the collection’s greatest triumph lies in its depiction of the poet’s own vacillations: from hesitant father to tender dad, doubtful Christian to self-consoled believer. Love’s Labors certainly carries its full weight.

About the Author:
A native of southwest Louisiana, Brent Newsom has also lived in Oklahoma, Texas, and, for briefer stretches, China. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Hopkins Review, PANK, Cave Wall, and Birmingham Poetry Review, as well as several anthologies. Currently he lives in Oklahoma with his wife and two children.

About the Reviewer:
Aaron Brown's prose and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, The Portland Review, and Ruminate, among others. He is the author of Winnower, a poetry chapbook published by Wipf & Stock, in addition to being a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron lives with his wife Melinda in Hutchinson, Kansas, and is an assistant professor in writing and editing at Sterling College.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Flight Path & Other Stories" by Jan Bowman

Flight Path & Other Stories by Jan Bowman
Review by Sarah Katz

In the ten heartfelt tales in Jan Bowman’s debut short story collection, Flight Path & Other Stories (Evening Street Press, November 2015), there’s a sense of urgency and purpose uncommon to most collections. The stories, which spotlight pivotal moments in the lives of her various characters—who range in age from eight to eighty—feel like “slices of life” (think Alice Munro), but their arrangement into a chronological “developmental” order ultimately helps to illuminate different methods of psychic survival. Moreover, because there is a story here for everyone—making this book a “bible” of sorts—I had the sense as I read Flight Path that Bowman needed to deliver this book, particularly into an increasingly polarized world.

This is an artful book, as well; Bowman’s acrobatic balancing of realistic plot lines and character development propelled me through without drawing attention to her “hand.” Among her strongest is “Mermaids,” the third-person narrative that opens the book. “Mermaids” tells the story of a preteen Emily coming of age during the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Left mostly to her own devices at her parents’ beach house in Delaware, Emily obsesses over learning about—and potentially meeting—mermaids. As readers, we recognize Emily’s entrancement with a mythical creature as a means of survival, even as she comes to realize that mermaids don’t actually exist. The thrill lies in witnessing her trajectory and the evolution of her “voice.”

Bowman’s depiction of the relationships between her characters also feels quite real and exigent. The title story, “Flight Path,” another third-person narrative, examines the tensions between a middle-aged Anna, her disabled war veteran husband, Patrick, and their teenage son, Tommy, as they visit a theme park, King’s Dominion. The story unfolds via cross-cutting between the “past” event of attending the park, and the “present” relationship between Tommy and Anna, revealing the evolution in their relationships to themselves and to each other, and how, furthermore, they become continually shaped by new information. As a result, readers come to learn how Patrick, Tommy, and Anna handle emotional pain—in the face of both the present as well as the past—and how their handling affects themselves and each other.

As another example, Bowman’s last story, “After the Rain,” portrays the complexities of aging in the relationship between the widowed Maureen and her son-in-law, Clyde. As Maureen confronts ageism from her son-in-law, and as she concurrently confronts her own increasing awareness of her potential limits as an elderly person, Bowman leads us through a Grace Paley-like story, in which the ending forces us to consider the prismatic and varied “truths” inherent in Maureen’s experience. Here, there is no one “answer” to the central question of how we come to terms with aging, but Bowman creates several possibilities with her final scene.

Ultimately, Flight Path is a book whose characters matter to us because of their familiarity. They could be our neighbors, friends, and family members. Some aren’t completely likeable—Ted, in “After Life,” for example—but there’s something to enjoy about witnessing all of these characters, even as we wince at their decision-making. These are characters we admire, because, most of all, we have the unlikely opportunity to witness their vulnerabilities as they navigate a world of ordinary violence—a world filled with anxieties, illness, and war—but also a world of small and even mystical intimacies. I believe Bowman hopes to have provided a gift to her readers—that she wanted to invite carefully considered and empathic interpretations of her characters’ perspectives and experiences, as a means of equipping her readers with important tools for writing their own stories. Indeed, this is a must-have, marvelous book full of stories that readers will want to return to again and again.


About the Author:
Jan Bowman is winner of the Roanoke Review Fiction Award. Her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award. Her fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review, Uncertain Promise: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, Roanoke Review, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, and others. Jan’s stories have been finalists or short-listed for the Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, The Phoebe Fiction Contest and So-to-Speak fiction contest. Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention for Short Story Awards for New Writers. She is working on a new story collection, working title, Life Boat Drills for Children. She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory, and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a regular blog on her website on the writing life and interviews writers and publishers. 

About the Reviewer:
Sarah Katz is Publications Assistant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. She has an MFA in poetry from American University, where she received the Myra Sklarew Award for her thesis. Her work appears or is forthcoming in MiPoesias, NANO Fiction, RHINO, The Rumpus, and others.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Gold, Fame, Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Review by Laura I. Miller

Set in an alternate reality in which the American Southwest has dried to dust and bone, Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, takes readers on a haunting, speculative journey that subverts expectations on every page. Combining characters who refuse to slip easily into prescribed roles with prose that experiments with form and points of view, this novel centers on themes of the uncanny, the untamable, the unattainable, and the inevitable—both within our environment and ourselves.

The novel begins after a severe drought has decimated the Southwest. We follow main characters Luz Dunn, an abused model and former child star, and her hopeful savior, Ray, an AWOL soldier, surfer, and drifter. In spite of the desolation and calls for mandatory evacuation, the two decide to settle in an abandoned mansion—Luz parading around in the previous owner’s extravagant wardrobe while Ray builds half-pipes in the yard.

As the novel progresses, the setting begins to take on a persona of its own, and yet Watkins sidesteps overt environmental criticism and blame-placing by establishing a rule up front: Luz and Ray agree never to discuss the drought: “Because they’d vowed to never talk about the gone water, they spoke instead of earth that moved like water. Ray told of boulders clacking together in the ravine, a great slug of rubble sluicing down the canyon.” With politics shuffled off-stage, the reader is free to experience the eeriness of a waterless climate and the bizarre motivations of the characters who inhabit it.

Driven by nostalgia, self-importance, lethargy, and mysticism, Luz and Ray winnow away their cloudless and dust-strewn days until the boredom becomes unbearable. First, they visit a nearby community where they buy a can of $200 blueberries and witness drug-fueled rain dance ceremonies. Later, the pair is asked to watch a toddler, Ig, and suspecting abuse, they kidnap the child and adopt her as their own. This decision sets them on a quest out of the parched desert and into the remaining fertile territories of the US, where the three are separated and nearly die until being rescued by Levi, a diviner who claims to find water by supersensory means. Once reunited, Luz and Ray manage to escape the cult leader’s clutches, but the fairy-tale conclusion Luz has been expecting, in the end, eludes her.  

I read this book as part of an Apocalyptic Fiction class led by Alexander Lumans at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. We read it after post-apocalyptic novels like The Last Man, The Road, The Dog Stars, Elysium, and Gone Away World, and many of our discussions were about the ways in which Gold Fame Citrus subverts the post-apocalyptic genre. For instance, it’s not technically an apocalypse because a) not everyone, or even most people, die; and b) only a region of the United States is affected—the rest of the country, the North, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest, is (thankfully, horrifically) just fine.

Luz, too, defies the typical post-apocalyptic hero. An anti-hero without clear motivation, Luz is nevertheless cognizant and critical of her dependency on men and her penchant for drug-addled mistake making. When separated from Ray, she tells her rescuer, “I was always in need of saving. That was our deal—damsel, woodsman.” The narrator makes references to Luz’s “shallow, selfish way,” even when she chooses motherhood, which is so often portrayed as a saving grace for characters in the post-apocalypse.

In doing so, Watkins allows room here for the menagerie of human responses, including the depression, hopelessness, and lost sense of purpose, that often follows the birth of a child—for men and women. In fact, what most distinguishes Luz as an atypical post-apocalyptic character is that she doesn’t change at all. In the end, Luz still doesn’t want anything except male attention and its superficial validation: “She wanted to be the person he once mistook her for: open and purposeful all at once. But she was meager, shut. That was, after all this supposed transformation, all this movement and light, her rotten way.” The lack of a traditional character arc makes Luz as unexpected as she is intriguing.

During the class, we also discussed the tendency for post-apocalyptic novels to whitewash their survivors. In Gold Fame Citrus, Luz is described as Chicana. Though this aspect of her personality fades and race never becomes a direct focus, Watkins’ inclusion of characters with diverse backgrounds creates a more realistic representation of the world than most mainstream American novels.

Finally, we considered how the screenwriting acronym MMM (Moments Make Movies) manifested in Gold Fame Citrus. I never subscribed to the MMM philosophy because it implies that scene takes precedence over interiority and atmosphere. But you know you’re in the hands of a master when a scene envelops all—rises up off the page, and images burn onto the metaphysical plane. This scene, about halfway through the book, stuck with me:

“Luz plucked a yucca tine from its socket, then another and another, revealing an arid cavity inside the tree. She looked out over the miles and miles of pale lifeless specimen. This was no forest but a cemetery. Ray felled another plant husk and crushed it beneath his boots, its desiccate death rattle vastly satisfying. Ig reprised her hiccup laugh and clapped. She had never clapped for them and so Luz clapped, then toppled and crushed another tree. Ig clapped again, triumphantly.”

The dust, the dunes, and waterless expanses between them provide a horrifyingly believable backdrop for Luz to showcase her flawed and mistake-addled, but entirely sympathetic and realistic, way of being. The land-ravaging dunes can’t be harnessed by any means, scientific or mystical, and Ig, the child at the center of the quest, can’t be molded into the savior that her caretakers desire her to be. Above all, these characters thirst, literally and figuratively, for intimacy. Tragically, as they eventually discover, love does not conquer all. Instead, like the yucca trees that once populated the novel’s scorched landscape: We are dust


About the Author:
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, which won the Story Prize, the New York Library Young Lions Award, and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and was named a best book of the year by NPR, The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and more. She has been named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" and a Guggenheim Fellow, and has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. Watkins is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and codirector with her husband, the writer Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada.

About the Reviewer:
Laura I. Miller is the program coordinator at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her editorial articles and features have appeared in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Bustle, Sonora Review, Fairy Tale Review, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and is currently at work on a novel.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Think Tank" by Julie Carr

Think Tank by Julie Carr
Reviewed by Davy Knittle

Think Tank, Julie Carr’s sixth book, is as much a repository for policy as it is a receptacle for recreational submerging. It’s interested in the procedures of living in a way that’s so basic it’s hard to see and write about, where the work of a think tank is to step back to think about how best to participate, and what kinds of structure that participation needs. The work of a dunk tank, arrived at by association that the book invites, is to reverse standard power structures in the interest of play, to submit the school principal to goggles, send her falling into a small pool. Play and theory are both ways to defamilarize, work the book does as a way to get closer to its familiars.

The work, which I read as one long poem in segments, is interested in the average day and the emblematic one. It’s a book that’s interested in an ontology synthesized from the offhanded parts of the day, which affords the work a casual intensity. Carr writes: “Do the average citizens understand the longing of rain, / the blood that turns Saturday to Sunday, the body turning a certain corner from disgust to desire and back again” (46). The speaker is separate from the “average citizen” even while she does average things, notes an average longing. Blood is what turns the day over, and the body moves as the day does, where the day is anecdotal and theoretical at once.

The themes of the book are subsets of its collaged ontology. Being a self includes being an observer in the same breath as being a mother. It remembers a childhood while witnessing and hearing about the childhoods of others. When Carr speaks directly to the goals of the project, she writes: “I began thinking this random document onto my computer / The best way I can capture events is by trying to resurrect the concept of / the beautiful” (53)

The book’s moments are fragmentary, unassembled, and this is how Carr takes up the project of capturing events. The poems’ snapshots are resurrections of “the beautiful”:  quick sketches that move from the visible to the speaker’s affective response, and which locate a physical world as well as a figurative one.

Carr writes: “Sun goes down over duck pond / Like the low roar of the mower under storm clouds, with me it’s like / this it’s like perfect it’s like // sleeping in the body of a bird” (67) Turning is, Carr reminds us, the way thoughts move, a cue they take in the book from what poems do, turning in their tenor once or twice, and turning over from line to line. Carr’s fragments often diminish beyond their vanishing points. Carr’s work in Think Tank is wildly dynamic, shifting scale from sky to a bird’s body, from outside the body to deeply within it.

It’s the bodies of children that occasion much of the book’s dynamic range. It often feels, as the book considers children, that the poem moves like a child, alternately frenetic and with prismatic care, surfacing against the whole world or being absorbed into one small fragment: “A child jumps from the calendar, moves into the discontinuous scheme / Fluid-fate / Who notices the mute snow’s stamina or the drama of numbers / in the too bright light by the bed” (56) What’s especially lovely about Think Tank is that it’s committed to time being as tactile as physicality. A child jumps from the calendar, snow has stamina, numbers have drama, all of which are attended to by an absent person (“who notices”) and illuminated in “the too bright light by the bed.” In absorbing the figurative into the book’s firmly quotidian physical world, the poem advocates for the normalcy of conceptual grappling. Ontology is as basic as the weather to Carr. What it means to be alive is inherent in recording what children say and do. The distortions Carr creates to situate the conceptual in the physical allow the book to be gracefully, quietly gorgeous, with a logic so plain and true it’s hard to say how right its gestures are, gestures that go outside what the book can name to what it knows it cannot.

Even so, the poem insists on being a record: “I’m wishing for gardens and salty stars without context -- / but that’s far too extravagant – and then the phone rings with a light of / its own // Fog returns     a catalogue / Eleven-year-olds in fatigues for the first time run / from home, home, dear Denver” (6)

The gestural nature of the poem feels both like a distillation and a shorthand. Fog is a catalogue. The phone has light, where either it lights up or its sound registers as a kind of brightness. The speaker wishes for physical entities “without context,” where it’s unclear whether it’s that wish or the items wished for that makes them “far too extravagant.” “Eleven year-olds” wear fatigues, possibly to hunt and blend in, possibly to emulate a militarism that their clothing connotes, possibly to run away from home, possibly to leave the city alone for the first time. The poem, like the state of observing and having children that is its locus, considers each moment as though its detail, embedded in time, communicated something essential about being human in the abstract.

Children in the poem are not only embedded in the sites of ontological questioning, they’re central to its mechanics: “Loved nothing so much as a spot on his head / as the valve in my wet / snowbound / day” (10). Here, the love of another person, perhaps a baby figured by its fontanel, is the syntactic pair of the weather’s hardware, where a valve in a snowbound day might let the day in and usher it out. Children, in the poem, are not only what the movement of the poem looks to emulate but the model for considering how its modes of thinking and seeing work together.

For all that it considers the responsibilities, practicalities and ethics of being a parent, Think Tank refuses to be a book about motherhood. Carr advocates, in the poem, for a speaker who can scale beyond the range of systems that govern her life, all the better to see them with, and to hold onto that seeing while they explore what else its circumstances afford:  “Penetrate the eco / nomical mire // Or take ‘the real’ and shrink it,” she writes. “But what’s the point of being a mother if that’s all you get to do?” (44)


About the Author:
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta, 2010), RAG (Omnidawn, 2014), and Think Tank (Solid Objects, 2015). She has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including The Sawtooth Poetry Prize, and The National Poetry Series. Her co-translations of Apollinaire and contemporary French poet, Leslie Kaplan have been published in Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere, and a chapbook of selections from Kaplan’s “Excess-The Factory” has recently been released by Commune Editions. Carr was a 2011-12 NEA fellow. Her work has been anthologized widely, including in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. She is the co-founder of Counterpath Press, teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and lives in Denver.

About the Reviewer:
Davy Knittle's reviews and poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Fence, Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, and Iowa Review. His first chapbook, cyclorama, was released by The Operating System in April. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is a PhD candidate in English at Penn.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Diana's Tree" by Alejandra Pizarnik

Diana's Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik
Review by Carole Mertz

Octavio Paz wrote a fascinating introduction to this collection, recently preserved in Ugly Duckling Press’s Lost Literature Series. Paz delights us with his description of the alchemy of the Diana tree, a bioluminescent tree of various properties.

There are thirty-eight poems in this collection, all of them numbered and none titled. In spite of Paz’s glittering introduction, Pizarnik’s poems carry us into shadows, silence, and night. Her lyrical abstractions give us wide berth as we traverse this darkness. And though we may resist the implications her images relay, we nevertheless recognize at once a powerful poetic voice.

On my first reading of the poems in this collection, these thoughts and phrases came to mind: the shadowy element of ethereal beings; the mystical; the mirrored; gauze-like, yet stark; the other; the unconscious or the subconscious at work.

We find here the surrealism of a painting translated into poetry and we are drawn in by Pizarnik’s dedicated, intense voice.

In No. 14 she writes, “Someone asleep in me / eats and drinks from me.” Is this a representation of something maternal? Or does it speak of depletion, and a kind of death wish? Considering how this Russian/Slovak/Argentinian artist’s very creative life (as poet, translator, dramatist, essayist, and painter) played itself out to a suicidal end, it is easy to lean toward the latter interpretation.

Reading No. 14 in its entirety, a bifurcated mind comes to light, one that desires fulfillment in its expression but somehow does not, or cannot, receive full permission to achieve it. Instead, the mirrored other intrudes:

The poem I don’t say,
the one I don’t deserve.
The fear of being two
the way a mirror is:
someone asleep in me
eats and drinks from me.

 The mirrored other appears also in the final poem: “This repentant song, standing guard behind my poems: it belies me, it has silenced me.”

In an interview conducted by Martha Isabel Moia, and printed in Issue No. 6 of Music and Literature, Pizarnik confides that she sees in mirrors “the other that I am. (The truth is that I’ve got a certain fear of mirrors.) Occasionally we come together. Almost always when I write.”*

In another reference to mirrors, in “Night, the Poem” (a work not included in this collection), Pizarnik pens the following intense, disturbed and self-revelatory lines: “What is this job of writing? To steer by mirror-light in darkness. To imagine a place known only to me.” This poem opens with, “If you find your true voice, bring it to the land of the dead. There is kindness in the ashes. And terror in non-identity.”

Translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, Diana’s Tree delivers a treasure of surrealist language, likely all the more beautiful in the original. As a bel-esprit, Pizarnik acknowledged the literary and artistic figures surrounding her in Paris where these poems were created (from 1962 onward). She dedicates the poems variously to Paul Klee, Goya, Wols, Esther Singer (sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer), and Aurora and Julio Cortazar, among others. Her penultimate poem in the collection reads, “Beyond the reach of every forbidden region / lies a mirror for our sorrowful transparency.” Did she know she would court the forbidden region prematurely?

In her interview with Moia, Pizarnik asserted that a poem’s chief work is “to heal the fundamental wound,” and to “rescue the abomination of human misery by embodying it.” Such is the alchemy of her major work.

In No. 31 we read: “…while outside others feed on clocks / and on flowers sown by your wits. But with eyes / closed, and with an excess of suffering, we coax the mirrors until forgotten words ring out like spells.” (One can envision Salvador Dali’s clocks in this imagery.) How we might wish that Pizarnik’s poetry had provided for her own rescue. In the spirit of preservation, I silently begged some unknown agent to render posthumous awards to Pizarnik, as I read her, lest we forget the beauty of her work.

About the Author:
Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972) was a leading voice in twentieth-century Latin American poetry. Born in Avellaneda to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Pizarnik studied literature and painting at the University of Buenos Aires and spent most of her life in Argentina. In 1960, she moved to Paris, where she was influenced by the work of the Surrealists and participated in a vibrant expatriate community of writers that included Julio Cortázar and Octavio Paz. Known primarily for her poetry, Pizarnik also wrote experimental fiction, plays, a literary diary, and works of criticism. She died in Buenos Aires, of an apparent drug overdose, at the age of thirty-six.

About the Reviewer:
Carole Mertz has reviews and essays in Arc Poetry Magazine, Ascent Aspirations, Copperfield Review, The Conium Review, Capper’s, Mom Egg Review, Tiny Lights Journal, Working Writer, and World Literature Today. Her poems and stories appeared in With Painted Word, The Write Place at the Write Time, Toasted Cheese, Every Day Poems, Page & Spine, Rockford Review, WestWard Quarterly, and in various anthologies. In June 2015 she won the Wilda Morris Poetry Challenge. Carole lives with her husband in Parma, Ohio.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "The French Exit" and "The Self Unstable" by Elisa Gabbert

The French Exit and The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert

Review by Sarah Katz

Elisa Gabbert mocks coherence in her books, The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2009) and The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013). She pokes holes into the all-too-certain language of “identity,” the profundity of the aphorism, and the divisions between poetry and essay. Ultimately Gabbert seeks to expose the porousness between all things and genres, fashioning slippages that tease the reader into questioning his or her own comprehension of reality.

The books differ, of course. The French Exit, a three-sectioned collection of mainly couplet poems, reckons with a speaker’s anxiety about time, while The Self Unstable, a book of five sections labeled “Essays/Literature” (which could easily be called prose poems) attempts to explore identity construction through a second person narrator.

First, The French Exit: the book offers poems that reveal Gabbert’s powers of combining essay and poetry. “X,” for example, challenges mind-body dualism in a manner that suggests the possibilities of hybridity:

Mindless, the body is perfect,

an outline—form without
content, absent of tone, lying

in the street. Faint halo of white
where it touches the concrete.


I want to lie on the top level
of an empty garage, to be close

to the sky as I lose my mind—
I’m afraid. I’m afraid

I’ll feel pretty

The immediate strangeness of this poem derives from its unusual, generalizing claim fashioned out of mind-body dualism discourse: that the body is “perfect” when unpolluted by the mind. Yet, at the same time, Gabbert employs the image of her own “transcendent” suicide—“Faint halo of white / where it touches the concrete”—thereby blurring the lines between cultural commentary and intimate aside. With so many caesuras evoked by rhymes (“...lying / in the street. Faint halo of white / where it touches the concrete.”), one moves at the speaker’s confession haltingly until the piece reaches its peak of meaning. The result is a poem-cum-essay that feels confessional and yet essayistic at the same time.

Indeed, “X” somewhat exemplifies the governing title of the “French exit,” which, as a Slate article explains, is a phrase for “ghosting,” or leaving a party without saying goodbye. As a collection about death, French Exit asks for clarity about what it is to live: If one can find beauty in suicide, then does that make a person more capable of suicide? Does one “leave” existence on one’s own accord, or are there elements that prescribe leaving? How much of experience is hierarchical?

Ultimately, The French Exit seeks to use form to draw out complications between not just free will and consciousness but also the dynamics of representation. “Ornithological Blogpoem,” for example, a prose poem in section two (in which all the poems are “blog poems”), personifies birds who seem both threatening and nonthreatening: “Do not be afraid of angering the birds. What angers the birds is fear.” Using understated syntactical acrobatics here—“do not be afraid of” and “What angers the birds is fear”—Gabbert complicates the idea of a “certain” or “static” representation; at the same time, the poem as a “blog poem” also suggests its own instability.

In The Self Unstable, Gabbert more fully realizes the essayistic tendencies and thematic concepts of The French Exit; she moves away from the spelled out cynicism and fear in the first book and toward a kind of tonal objectivity. More specifically, Gabbert reemploys the aphorism as an approach of universal uncertainty rather than certainty: her work sings at the intersection of aphorism and aporia. As a result, The Self Unstable feels like both an intimate conversation with the reader about her childhood and love life, and yet also the suggestion that the speaker is “unstable” or constructed.

The proem defines the terms of the book:

What was the self?

You wanted a life of causes, but it was all effects: you could never get before.

Finding meaning in the meaningless was no kind of meaning, but you were satisfied with meaningness.


The only way past is through.

Here, Gabbert establishes the theme of the self as “unstable”: the “present” and “future” are only decipherable by going “through,” (which is what the book attempts to do). Still, it’s unclear whether the goal is to surpass the self, or to enter the past through the present: an instability of meaning that Gabbert creates, once again, to mock coherence.

 In the first section that follows, “The Self is Unstable: Humans & Other Animals,” the mood of instability creates a distance between the speaker’s self at the same time that the pieces wrestle with what the self wants: to be “loved or misunderstood?” The effect is one of a compelling boredom: the speaker establishes that animals and human beings aren’t very interesting; mussels, crows, dolphins, and kittens all lead blasé existences—“All species evolve toward overspecialization. If you find anything other than food or sex interesting, it’s signaling.”

In the following sections, “Transcending the Body: Memories, Dreams, Fears, & Fantasies,” “A Crude Kind of Progress: Art & Aesthetics,” “First-Person Shooter,” and “Enjoyment of Adversity: Love & Sex,” the implicit claim of the first section remains: “thought is flawed.”

One of my favorite pieces in the book in section two illustrates the evasiveness of language for portraying one’s sense of self as affected by dreams:

I was bitten by a feral cat, who left her fang behind in my hand. My dream life has its own past, memories I only access when asleep. When something hurts in a dream, where do you feel the pain? Is there an analog in the real world? And likewise, for the beauty? If we can’t change the past, regret is a waste of time, but not worry or longing. Still, I prefer regret. If time is a vector, we are passengers facing the rear of the train.

Gabbert predicates this piece on the semantics of experience, using aphorism and the image to question the types of pain one might feel. The result is a kind of outburst, and then, with the final image, a move away from the subject.

Gabbert’s books are unlike any that I’ve read, and they diverge from other diarist prose and poetry collections in their focus on form. This is not a writer content with accepting the conventional definitions of the diary, essay, or poem. Gabbert’s commitment to unhinge us readers from the comfort of certainty and push us deep down the rabbit hole is an incredible gift.

About the Author:
Elisa Gabbert is the author of the chapbooks Thanks for Sending the Engine from Kitchen Press, and, with Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths), a collaborative collection. She is the poetry editor of Absent and currently works at a software startup in downtown Boston. She blogs at The French Exit.

About the Reviewer:
Sarah Katz is Publications Assistant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. She has an MFA in poetry from American University, where she received the Myra Sklarew Award for her thesis. Her work appears or is forthcoming in MiPoesias, NANO Fiction, RHINO, The Rumpus, and others.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Pelvis with Distance" by Jessica Jacobs

Pelvis with Distance by Jessica Jacobs

Review by Eve Kenneally

Jessica Jacobs’ debut poetry collection from White Pine Press, Pelvis with Distance, is a series of persona poems paying homage to the art and correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe. Jacobs literally inhabits O’Keefe’s space by relocating to the farm where she lived the last years of her life (which she reflects on throughout the “In the Canyon” series of poems). The book is divided into four sections and includes an extensive list of notes and corresponding pictures on Jacobs’ website so the reader can get a complete sense of the aesthetic involved. Jacobs writes poems focusing on O’Keeffe (in particular, her marriage) and Jacobs’ own experiences immersing herself in the artist’s work.

Throughout the collection, Jacobs uses some lovely language – lush and sonically strong. For example, in “Red Barn in Wheatfield”, she writes: “until I couldn’t help but turn / pebbles on my tongue. Burr of silt. Their shapes / still bloom behind my tight-shut teeth” (20).

Additionally, my favorite series of poems was “Sent”, which were adapted from letters written to and from O’Keeffe – in “Sent June 6, 1917” she ends with “You see I never quite get enough of a perfect thing – ”. In “Early Abstraction”, Jacobs inhabits the voice of O’Keeffe writing to her husband: “I wish I could tell you / what I’ve wanted to say. Instead, here’s this drawing” (25). In “Alfred Stieglitz at 291 (First Encounter)", Jacobs writes, “No, these are not / a joke; yes, they are art” (21). Jacobs writing as O’Keeffe is lively, energetic, and wry.

However, I found the title to be overstating O’Keeffe’s presence in these poems, and felt similarly about parts of the “In the Canyon” series – for example, the line “You are the only home I’ve ever known” (105) lacked the subtlety and delicacy present in the other work in the collection. The fourth section also has a couple of poems ending with rhyme, which I didn’t think fit in with the scheme of the rest of the collection. Alternatively, I would love to see Jacobs play more with disjointed syntax, like she does in “Lake George, 1922”: “His mother lurks a doorway” (47). It’s lovely and surprising and a particular strength I hope Jacobs will revisit in her next collection.

About the Author:
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, published by White Pine Press in April 2015. This debut collection is a current finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards and a nominee for the American Library Association’s Over the Rainbow book list. Jacobs holds an M.F.A. from Purdue University, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Sycamore Review, and a B.A. from Smith College. Her poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared widely in publications including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Missouri Review, Rattle, The Oxford American, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock climbing instructor, bartender, editor, and professor. Jessica is now serving as faculty at Writing Workshops in Greece, Sewanee Young Writers Conference, and as the 2016 Hendrix-Murphy Writer-in-Residence at Hendrix College in Conway, AR. She lives in Little Rock with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown.

About the Reviewer:
Eve Kenneally is a poet from outside Boston by way of DC, where she got a BA in English from George Washington University and minored in creative writing/avoiding drunken conversations about the state of the government. Right now, she writes a lot about mermaids, dead girls, and pop culture. She likes poems that are strange and surprising (a less eloquent way of saying this is, "She likes poems that make her feel like she's been punched in the stomach").

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Mirror Inside Coffin" by Maureen Alsop

Mirror Inside Coffin by Maureen Alsop

Reviewed by Christina Cook

Maureen Alsop’s 2009 chapbook, the dream and the dream you spoke, suggests that our dreams may be more “real” than our lived experiences. Her latest book, Mirror Inside Coffin, takes this assertion one step further by asking if our experiences, lived or dreamed, are “real”— or merely reflections in the mirror of death.  

This line of questioning revisits territory travelled by Eastern and Western philosophers for centuries, but the advantage poetry has over philosophy is its absolute freedom from theory and logic—a freedom Alsop takes full advantage of. The only thing she anchors herself to is language: a medium as pliable in her hands as the quill that pens it or the tongue that lilts its lines. Moreover, Alsop’s poetry makes no universal claims about the comparative realities of human experience, but rather conveys the sentience of a single speaker which her readers can relate to through their own experiences.

 Mirror Inside Coffin opens with a poem titled “Approbation,” signaling the speaker’s acceptance of death from the outset—and if death is indeed as lush, sensuous, and quietly alive as this poem suggests, I for one will certainly dread it less:

I hear the rain’s footsteps lay waste
In the grass crashing over. I am an old knife softening. I am oars of ghost
Ships wherein the sea swells its salt in me. Shores
Splinter with the depth of the no-more-world. Only pages past
Flip past. Owlstripes in the linden leaves; quills
Sanctioned to the places the body abandoned.

These lines are redolent with a slant sort of synthesesia, a blending of sensations which morph into the written word. The coffin, a swelling of splintered wood sunk under the rain and grass, is depicted as a place where the words of the past return—or are generated. Here, quills inscribe the body with the language of death, which is, perhaps, the very language of life.

As those familiar with Alsop’s previous books know, this isn’t her first time playing Virgil to our Dante. Her talents in this role emerged as early as her debut book, Apparition Wren. In Stephany Prodromides’ review of it, she likens the speakers to birds that “trace a semi-conscious lyric territory ‘as if circling / guides like a compass to what matters’” (Poetry International, 13/14). Alsop’s speakers are, from her first book to this her most recent, intensely lyrical, otherworldly, and wise: characteristics maximized by her highly-calibrated prosody.

Her poem “Eminent” employs this pairing of fine-tuned technique and rich speaking voice to develop the theme, suggesting that a mirror placed inside of a coffin will reflect not an image of the corpse, but rather the language of the living body:

I have loved the release heard
within each phrase of the body, immaterial, oracular 

I would not fault you
your fears. 

Even now, unevenly I grope the mirror; what told
the mirror tells spirit.

The mirror’s reflection is audible (an act of telling and being told) rather than visible (an act of seeing and being seen). In a brilliant manipulation of words, Alsop completes this reversal by making the words “Even now, unevenly” mirror each other audibly, with the comma functioning as the mirror. Significantly, this “mirror” is slightly imperfect: as a heard utterance, “even now” and “unevenly” are not exact opposites because of the final “ly.” This slight imperfection—of language, meaning, music—is what gives the poems throughout the book an unfiltered quality, and is what makes Alsop’s speaker so whole and vulnerable, in other words, so human.

The use of white space enhances this vulnerability. The couplet “I would not fault you/your fears” and its silent buffer of white space in fact separates two longer stanzas, effectively slowing the poem down to a thin air her speaker could vanish right into: a liminal space blurring any finite distinction between life and death, language and silence. The inevitability of vanishing into such a space stretches throughout the book, and the speaker’s awareness of it blooms from vague feelings into concrete images. In no other poem is this more evident than in “Taromancy”:

The taste of iron in the throat. Someone else startled me toward
a dry noose along the little draughts of the tightening fields. But when
I looked up there was only a train & a boy standing on the distant tracks
in a burnt valley. Somewhere in me your wisdom began waving its arms.
But there were too many textures, all those years, shuffling back over the ground. 

The concreteness of these images convey a physical reality that much of the book dodges, suggesting that if “reality” does, indeed, exist, it is in this liminal space. Juxtaposed to this concrete sense of a “real” human experience is the speaker’s simultaneous breaking the boundaries of being human: “Taromancy” is, as the poem’s epigraph tells us, “divination through the use of tarot cards.” Many of Alsop’s poems, in this as well as her last book, Mantic, are divination poems, which transform the speaker into a seer. Like the bodies of birds, the minds of seers occupy a space between heaven and earth; between what can be touched, seen, understood, and what can’t; between the limited and limitless.  

Birds interact with uttered language throughout the book, continually reminding the reader of his or her existence in this liminal space—both as a reader of the poems and as a person in the world. “Cephalomancy in Which ‘You’ve Devoured the Source Codes for Thousands of Species in Your Lifetime’” offers a particularly sonorous example: “In the seven bells of my voice, verbs call out a hundred times / giving faint hold upon the bolt of geese. There are strange theories / of speech.”

Among these “strange theories” is an (ironically) unspoken one: speech is the mirror that reflects death to the living and life to the dead. In “Star Diagram,” this unity is actually revealed to be a trinity: because of life’s connection to death, speech is bonded to both.

Once you said

you were held by the gaze
of a lion. Perhaps

it was the body’s naming, a deciduous language,
sycamore’s mane of blanched apostrophes, primary’s
irreparable manners of ochre, gold, vermillion.     

Much like a mirror’s gaze, the lion’s gaze is a visual exchange that the speaker sees as “deciduous language,” in other words, in a constant state of flux between living and dying. Like the sycamore’s autumnal brilliance, this state of being is perhaps its most majestic quality—illustrating that death is no more final than life is infinite—a conundrum resolved even more, for those of the Christian faith, by the Christ symbol of the lion. And what is more, the sycamore’s distinction as one of the oldest species of trees on earth, a paragon of longevity and hardiness, gives added credence to the speaker’s belief. 

This belief is reflected again in the image of an interred man in “A Blurred Photograph of the Sunlight,” which exudes a oneness with earth and sky that clearly exceeds the physical limitations of a coffin:                                                  

Now, sparrows   

flit through his ribs. He looks out
over the cut grass beyond the dirt road. He is nowhere 

near these trees
nor your faint reflection, continuance
or sunlight. You are not
enough. His voice streams in the boundaries
of waking which cannot be dreamed.

The man mirrored in his coffin has an abiding kind of consciousness that engages in an eternal act of looking: a life-death amalgamation that defies being dreamed up and does not enter the discourse of those who are awake. He is “nowhere,” in a no-man’s land that can only be experienced as language—a land we are lucky enough to be led through by Alsop’s capable hand, her lyrics impelling us forward.

The poem is reminiscent of French poet Marie Claire Bancquart’s poem “Icare,” where Icarus, having fallen out of the sky, “opens his eyes over the red earth,” preparing his reappearance “in the English rose” many years later. Like “Icare,” “A Blurred Photograph of the Sunlight,” is strange and mythic, yet firmly grounded in earthen-bound images.

This and the other figures buried throughout the book see life when they look in the coffin mirror—a life reflected back to them through the medium of language. So are our experiences, whether lived or dreamed, “real” or are they merely reflections in the mirror of death?

And can our active living of it be distinguished from our reflective viewing of it? Wise guide that she is, Alsop gives no answers—only a rich reading experience that can help us question our way to an eventual answer.



About the Author:
Maureen Alsop, Ph.D. is the author of several full collections of poetry including Apparition Wren, Mantic (Augury Books, 2013), and Later, Knives and Trees (Negative Capability Press, 2014), as well as four chapbooks. She is the winner of Harpur Palate's Milton Kessler Memorial Prize for Poetry, The Bitter Oleander's Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Award, and other prizes. Her poems have appeared in various journals, including Cortland Review, Blackbird, The Laurel Review, AGNI, Tampa Review, Handsome, Barrow Street, Many Mountains Moving, Arsenic Lobster, Typo, and Kenyon Review.

About the Reviewer:
Christina Cook is the author of Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press) which won the 2012 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize, and A Strange Insomnia, forthcoming from Kelsay Books. Her poems, translations, essays, and book reviews have appeared in numerous journals, including Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Christina works as a writer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Communications.

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










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.


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














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.



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














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.


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













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


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.


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













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.



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.



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