William Wall’s Ghost Estate is a sustained and scathing threnody for the poet’s native Ireland, as poem after poem ululates the death of culture by pr...moreWilliam Wall’s Ghost Estate is a sustained and scathing threnody for the poet’s native Ireland, as poem after poem ululates the death of culture by probing the myriad economic and democratic failures that have befallen the Emerald Isle in the wake of our global recession. There are several selections that offer welcome counterpoint to this bleak subject, such as reflections on the poet’s mother and travels to Italy, but Ghost Estate maintains a visceral mournfulness that speaks to the depth of Wall’s grief and endures as a wrenching testament to his harrowing civic vision...
As recipient of the 2009 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, the only major American award for a second book of poetry...more(full review)
As recipient of the 2009 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, the only major American award for a second book of poetry, it would be easy to passively dismiss Jennifer K. Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music as another collection in the long line of contest winners that swell our local bookstores’ shelves. Though it is exquisitely designed by the good folks at Perugia Press with stunning cover art furnished by the poet’s father, an accomplished painter, the book’s didactic title does it no favors; for those of us inclined to grumpiness, it is reminiscent of the imperative platitudes often found in the least inspired work of Mary Oliver. All of this snarky skepticism fades, however, as soon as one creases the cover open, as How to Live on Bread and Music is not only a volume of great range and depth, but is full of sonorous, deeply felt poems that evoke Marianne Moore’s famous adage that our best verse strive to create “a place for the genuine.”
“Nocturne,” a brief, apocalyptic lyric serves as the collection’s opener, and it makes for an appropriate tone-setter, with its allegorical dreamscape of “a blue city in mind” where a purgatorial pall is marked only by the presence of “a musician/who plays a harp without strings.” Sweeney’s “rippling canal” and “zeppelin sky,” much like her other atmospherics, are intentionally ambiguous—this is surely a place of latent violence, but also a place where “a lone streetlamp tends/its blue arc of light,” so it is not completely absent of hope. It all makes for a pleasant imagistic catalog, the sort of Surrealism-Lite that reminds one of Mark Strand or Jorie Graham, when the wallop comes in the poem’s abrupt final couplet: “Maybe you hear a song or maybe you don’t./That is the choice we are always making.” This swift exeunt from the poem’s hallucinatory realm, in addition to the blunt directness of the second person address, combine to make “Nocturne” a sucker-punch ars poetica that not only questions the reader’s expectations, but which fittingly introduces the candid, gripping, and widely varied poems that follow.
Though it is broken into five sections, How to Live on Bread and Music avoids goose-stepping to a predictable thematic march. True, many of the poems early in the collection address themes of childhood and innocence, such as “The Three Sisters” and “The Silence of Girls,” whereas motifs of gardening, domesticity, and locomotion develop later, but overall these poems echo and reverberate like voices in a canyon, so the sense of play and surprise are never lost. Another remarkable aspect of Sweeney’s book is her ability to express the full range of her voice. It is easy to see that the terse lyric is her default mode, especially in poems such as “Requiem for America” and “Death Valley”—the latter of which begins with the startling line “the desert is a woman with no ideas”—but narratives such as “Adolescence,” “How to Uproot a Tree,” and “White Shadow” benefit from the same local brilliances and musical compression of language.
Among the many impressive aspects of this volume, Sweeney’s ear is perhaps most noteworthy. Regardless of length or form, she writes a supple, resonant line that displays an acute attention to sound, which is a gift rarely seen or cherished among her contemporaries. (This reviewer should know, since he too is a product of Generation Irony.) In light of these many riches, then, it is easy to overlook Sweeney’s rare miss, such as the overwrought sequence “The Listeners,” that for all its ambition and muscle never quite unifies its loose collage of turntable allusions. Such missteps are few indeed, as How to Live on Bread and Music is an exquisite book that transcends our literary moment, and one hopes readers will hear its lush grace singing for many years to come.(less)
The essays in Michael Hemery’s debut collection No Permanent Scars—published earlier this spring by Silenced Press—are a potent reminder...more(Full review)
The essays in Michael Hemery’s debut collection No Permanent Scars—published earlier this spring by Silenced Press—are a potent reminder of the young heart’s elasticity, for Hemery renders his working-class upbringing in suburban Ohio with equal parts wit, frankness, and rumination. Whether he’s writing about being propositioned by a prostitute outside an office supply store, a neighbor savaging a dog within a few gasps of its life, or the smell of printing press ink infused in his father’s hair, Hemery renders experience with cinematic acuity.
These are no mean feats for an emerging essayist. Perhaps what is more remarkable, however, is how vigilantly Hemery circumnavigates the common tropes and predictable pitfalls of the creative nonfiction genre, as his punning title suggests. When he turns his interrogative gaze to the Indian summers of childhood, the anxious anticipation of a being a first-generation college student, or the litany of burdens that befall a new father, Hemery’s pathos is always framed by a beguiling, if at times grim, sense of humor, and tempered by a worldliness that ultimately reaches beyond the self in order to anchor the self in our wider human narrative.
Hemery’s prose is clean without sterilization, articulate without pedantry, boyish without naivety, and above all else, candid without bathos. It is a style rooted in the elemental charm of the well-hewn English sentence, and apart from the occasional overabundance of fragments for dramatic effect, Hemery’s prose remains supple and understated throughout. No Permanent Scars is not merely a testament to the fortitude of small independent publishers, but it is also a testament to Hemery’s rare gift to capture the wild rollicks of this life, bruises and all.
Though Mary Ruefle’s poems bear little influence of Frost, perhaps no contemporary American poet better embodies the great bard’s famous adage that a...moreThough Mary Ruefle’s poems bear little influence of Frost, perhaps no contemporary American poet better embodies the great bard’s famous adage that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The recent recipient of the 2011 William Carlos Williams Award, Ruefle’s Selected Poems is a long, engrossing study in astonishment. Indeed, it is impossible not to read many, if not all, of her poems as testaments to the imagination, as when the speaker in “Nice Hands” reflects on being five years old...
In Season Six of Doctor Who, one of the most highly anticipated episodes was written by Neil Gaiman, the author known for his Sandman series along wit...moreIn Season Six of Doctor Who, one of the most highly anticipated episodes was written by Neil Gaiman, the author known for his Sandman series along with his novels like American Gods and Coraline. In this episode, the Doctor and his companions Amy and Rory crash land on an asteroid in an alternate universe. During this episode, we learn that the asteroid is a sentient planet that has trapped the soul of the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space, or the blue police box that is a time machine) in a woman.
This is a perfect example of what Gaiman does so well: personify an abstract concept, such as Death, Desire, and Dream in Sandman and media and celebrity in American Gods. Of course, this only works if an author can figure out what makes an abstract concept human. In the case of the TARDIS, we see her child-like acquisition of language and her relationship with the doctor, one that quickly resembles an old married couple who bicker about which way the TARDIS’s door opens and who stole whom. We can also see how a time machine has trouble inhabiting a body that experiences time in a linear fashion, as she constantly references things that will happen in the future. (Her first words are goodbye and her last are hello.)
It was with a dour scowl that I first eyed a slim, musty, and altogether grim copy of James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies. I was juggling the rigors o...moreIt was with a dour scowl that I first eyed a slim, musty, and altogether grim copy of James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies. I was juggling the rigors of professorship while completing my MFA, and White’swas one of a dozen inter-library loans (most of which were rare and/or out of print) I needed to inhale upon arrival as part of my required coursework. According to the card sleeved in its back cover, the book hadn’t felt a reader’s hands in years, and I bristled at being assigned a collection of poems seemingly forgotten by the universe. What I quickly found within those yellowed pages, however, were the most candid, authentic, and compelling poems about American eros that I had ever read...Read the rest at the site(less)
Several years ago a poet-friend recounted a humorous anecdote about a creative writing professor he took as an undergraduate. A respected short-story...moreSeveral years ago a poet-friend recounted a humorous anecdote about a creative writing professor he took as an undergraduate. A respected short-story writer, the prof was teaching an introductory course where English majors would write in all four modes—fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry—as a means of honing their skills and gauging which was their “true calling,” if such a thing exists. The semester was a boon for all until the final unit on poetry rolled around, when the professor’s sage advice all but evaporated. The only wisdom she could conjure during lectures was “poetry needs to be as vivid as possible,” and her marginal comments on assignments were of two varieties: “hmm, I can’t see this,” or “yes, I see it!”
It was with this quaint allegory in mind that I read Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word, recently published by Graywolf Press. While I have always admired Doty’s poems—particularly his collections Sweet Machine and My Alexandria—I must confess that I half-expected to encounter some expressive-but-stale workshop chestnuts peppered with a healthy dollop of Poundian imagism. (“Throw the object on to the visual imagination,” Pound laconically wrote in 1934’s ABC of Reading.) While The Art of Description is ultimately geared for a beginning or emerging writer, Doty’s jovial and illustrative prose, surprisingly eclectic range of sample poems, and constant acknowledgement that the registering of experience (and thus language) is fraught with subjectivity all make this brief study worthy of any poet’s bookshelf...Read the rest at the site(less)
Any review of Terrance Hayes’s stunning new collection Lighthead—which recently won the National Book Award in poetry—must inevitably address the traj...moreAny review of Terrance Hayes’s stunning new collection Lighthead—which recently won the National Book Award in poetry—must inevitably address the trajectory of American poetry, for his is one of the most dynamic and versatile voices among us. In a literary landscape where regional identities dot the vast prairie between New Formalism and Irony-As-Religious-Dogma, Hayes (who is not yet forty) is that rare breed of poet whose imagination, virtuosity, and measured style make his work accessible to, and even relished by, our scattered populous. (After all, what other poet could have titles like “A Plate of Bones” and “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals?” in the same book?) Like Hayes’s earlier work, Lighthead is a collection rich in lyricism, wit, and formal variety, but at its heart is a sensual, muscular music that sings of the self, family, and race. The result is Hayes’s most mature book yet.
At 95 pages, Lighthead is as expansive and commanding as the selected works of many lesser poets, and one wonders after multiple readings if a few charmless poems (“Support the Troops!,” “Ghazal-Head”) could have been omitted. This aside, however, Hayes’s seemingly effortless lines and imaginative leaps further unite a collection that’s thematic and mythical force give it the glint of alchemy. “The Last Train to Africa,” the first of the book’s four sections, is primarily an exploration of race and racial identity, as we see in poems such as “The Golden Shovel” (where the last word in each line recreates Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”), the sonorous hip-hop elegy “Shakur,” and the hazy “For Brothers of the Dragon,” which recounts the plight of Malcolm X’s brothers in the wake of his assassination...Read the rest at site(less)
Try to categorize Joseph Riippi’s second book— is it a novel? Is it a story? Is it one of those MFA copout novel-in-stories novels?— and you’re asking...moreTry to categorize Joseph Riippi’s second book— is it a novel? Is it a story? Is it one of those MFA copout novel-in-stories novels?— and you’re asking in the wrong direction. This is a question for marketers and sales people. The question for readers is, should I read it? And the answer is yes, as long as you aren’t looking for a big old epic novel with lengthy descriptions of kitchens, rising action, and a single climax bursting in a grand example of cause and effect. The answer is yes, as long as you’re willing to read the book the way a person remembers: in bright increments.
Divided into several short sections— which depending on who you ask could be possibly stories, possibly vignettes, possibly prose poems—the book is a series of “somethings.” There are "Something About Borges and the Blind in Chelsea,” “Something About Ipek (On Valentine’s Day),” and “Something About Someone Else’s Poem,” to name just a few of the thirty-six. Some of these somethings are brief scenes, others dreams. The timeline remains muddy, presumably because these spare gems are meant to be understood as memories, though a temporal or physical location is not established in the beginning to explicitly ground them as such. Those who appreciate The Orange Suitcase will realize that these distilled memories are definitively “somethings,” not “anythings” however. As nonlinear as their chronology might be, they are not helter-skelter collected between covers; these are selected illuminations of love, family, art, and loss that loop back on each other through motifs...Read the rest at the site(less)
All apologies to Fresno, but driving the 350 miles between L.A. and San Francisco, the scenery unspools in little more than a piss and a half of endle...moreAll apologies to Fresno, but driving the 350 miles between L.A. and San Francisco, the scenery unspools in little more than a piss and a half of endless, bleached nothing. Leaving the Bay Area and heading toward Southern Oregon, the Interstate rises out of the Central Valley and winds left of center. During these next 350 miles, pretty much the same piss and a half, the trees, the elevation, the entire character changes. In this corridor, Red Bluff to Yreka to Talent, the weeds and speed give way to off-ramp drags of greasy spoons and grizzled beards, canned greens and un-ironic curios, potholes and slush. Here, where most pull over just long enough to fill up and flush out, Mike Young takes up residence.
Describing Look! Look! Feathers, Young has said the stories are about people “trying to try,” but make no mistake, this isn’t participation-ribbon or up-by-your-bootstraps trying; in these dozen stories, Young exposes character after character who are trying to trust. Trusting themselves, trusting adulthood, trusting the internet, trusting the people they just might love, all while suspecting the very suckiest, that with both sides predisposed to fuck things up, maybe the best they can do is try. These are the same twitching, fragile moments Jim Shepard engulfs in avalanche and flood and Young dares them au natural, in high school gyms and tribal casinos and Pollard Flats. And if you’ve never stopped for the restroom in Pollard Flats, let me be the first to tell you, that mannequin in the tub will haunt you way longer than any old rockslide...Read the rest at the site(less)
When I first received Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party in the mail, I knew nothing about it other than it had won the 2010 Caketrain chapbook compet...moreWhen I first received Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party in the mail, I knew nothing about it other than it had won the 2010 Caketrain chapbook competition. In hindsight, I’m extremely glad I knew nothing about this collection, because watching each beautiful, terrifying, utterly bizarre story unfold is part of what makes reading this cohesive collection so enjoyable.
Reading each story is a delightful trip down the rabbit hole. Many of the female protagonists live in worlds ruled by the dizzying logic of nightmares, struggling against situations beyond their control. In the title story, the protagonist must attend the tongue party, because, well, she must. While later we learn more about the relationship between the narrator and her father (one of several characters who abuses a position of authority and trust), the narrator never stands up and says, “No, I will not attend the tongue party.” The tongue party is as central to her reality as going to the DMV is in ours, and through it, we are able to experience the rawness of her fear and her desire for love. In fact, at no point does any character question the reality they find themselves in; like dreams, we don’t realize something is amiss while the dream is happening. And because Etter builds each world with such detailed, logical precision, we as readers don’t question what is happening either...Read the rest at the site(less)
I began reading Ethel Rohan’s Hard to Say (PANK 2011), a slim volume of very short fiction, with very little exposure to her previous work. I’m not su...moreI began reading Ethel Rohan’s Hard to Say (PANK 2011), a slim volume of very short fiction, with very little exposure to her previous work. I’m not sure what I was expecting from those fifteen little stories, but it’s fair to say that I was unprepared for just how deeply I would be affected by them. Spread over fifty-three pages, they document a tale of life in an Irish Catholic family, and although each story is an individual, they have been deliberately ordered so as to run in chronological order, taking you from the narrator’s birth to her new life in the US and her struggles dealing with the emotional turmoil of a dying mother.
The book opens with "Crust," a story that appears to set the tone for the rest of the book, and hints, with its talk of bloodletting as a form of medical treatment, at the emotional bloodletting that is to follow: Read rest at the site...(less)
To ask an American poet about international verse is often a waiting game, wherein one counts how many ticks of the second hand it takes for the respo...moreTo ask an American poet about international verse is often a waiting game, wherein one counts how many ticks of the second hand it takes for the responder to sing Neruda's praises, quizzically gaze out the window, and deftly change the subject after a dramatic pause like a Wes Anderson protagonist. With the proliferation of, and plurality within, our many aesthetic cliques, it is lamentable that so few of us (this reviewer included) break out and explore the many emerging voices in the grand chorus of English language poetry. Such were my sentiments as I recently devoured Adam Wyeth's mature and emotionally nuanced debut, Silent Music, as its central themes of divorce, transgression, and identity (in this case, Anglo-Irish) are vital to our Yankee discourse, but more importantly, his is an impressive and rangy collection that sidesteps the plangent gestures that so often mar first books...Check out the rest of the review on the site(less)
In stories that hit the ground running, using sentences of pure declarative efficiency, Loory seizes his unnamed protagonists and thrusts them into co...moreIn stories that hit the ground running, using sentences of pure declarative efficiency, Loory seizes his unnamed protagonists and thrusts them into confrontation with the fantastic: flying saucers and domesticated martians, creatures from the deep dark sea and the deeper, darker subconscious, a heaven-sent pig, a talking moose, Bigfoot, practically everything but the proverbial wish-granting genie and that tiny piano player. And like those well-oiled jokesmiths, steeped in the badda-bing of Preparation/ Anticipation/ Payoff, Loory begins with form and allows each curious wonder to reveal itself...Check out the rest of the review on the site(less)