Book Review: Money Money Money Water Water Water

Money Money Money Water Water Water

Written by Jane Mead

Alice James Books, 2014

ISBN 9781938584046

Money Money Money Water Water Water Jane Mead’s assured hand has snipped exquisite holes in her poems, allowing the unsaid to rise, waver and haunt every line. In her fourth collection, the poet has removed every non-essential word, a mastery of distillation, to create a work of pure potency.

In tercets, mostly (three line stanzas), roaming through lean sections of natural shocks, Mead contemplates environmental and existential immensities in a liminal subtext and never puts a foot wrong. On the left, single tercets with monostich gesture to the right hand poems in language as urgent, wistful and primary as   How much how much where going     and you know exactly what she means.

What can’t be said speaks wholly through absence; connections are deepened through asyndeton (no connectors). Gone, most of a sentence; the word going is allowed to remain, to reappear like the repetitions of the title, or ghosts. Going, going, gone.

Questions don’t need question marks, nether states like “the can-be / and the want” “primitive stalks of might-be / and aftermath” tell all. Known by the spirits of deer, and the dead. Ag reports, pesticides. The effect is transfiguring in a transfigured terroir. Something changes into something else in the space between the going and the aftermath, and in us, as Mead asks her last question.

How much can you subtract now 

How much and still get by

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Home Burial

Home Burial

Written by Michael McGriff

Copper Canyon Press, 2012

ISBN 9781556593840

Home Burial coverHome Burial (Copper Canyon Press,  2012) exposes the Pacific Northwest poet Michael McGriff knows inside out with a stunning forensic lyricism. His knowledge of the backwoods, the quarries, the bay “shaped like a rabbit / hanging limp / from the jaws of the landscape” is downright chthonic, haunted by spirits of place, the departed, and the old junkers they left behind. His poems track movement shapeshifting through his rural routes/roots, personifying Midwinter as a woman who “lets the darkness / sit down beside her” here, pointing to glimpses of reeds–or is it human hair– waving from the bottom of the pond in another abandoned wreck there. His unflinching reports are detailed with a poetic grace that does not betray the bleak realities of life, as, say, a four-legged predator, an obese dead man removed by a crane through a shattered chimney,  his grandfather’s will found on the back of an invoice in the shed, a woman about to die on the job at the mill.

McGriff presents the hardscrabble vignettes in forms as natural as weather, in language at once harsh and beautiful, shitkicking and prayerful, but never off pitch. This, his second full-length collection, is a Lannan Literary Selection. In its thirty-one poems, the poet’s response to the natural world and the ultimate fragility of all its inhabitants hardened by necessity ties these cautionary tales, remembrances and elegies together like #50 Heavy Cougar Genuine Leather Logger Laces. Imagining McGriff creating his poetry in the tough guy settings of his titles: the break room, the Oyster Bar, or sitting – like Midwinter – at the kitchen table, is grainy, cinematic. Anyone who knows this heartbreaking country knows Home Burial  nails it; anyone unfamiliar is shown its beating heart, the lay of the land, and what lies beneath.

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: On the Spectrum of Possible Death

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
Written by Lucia Perillo
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
ISBN 9781556593970

Lucia Perillo follows up her 2009 Copper Canyon Press collection, Inseminating the Elephant, a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Bobbitt Prize Winner, with another skein of tightly braided magical acts of mesmerizing creative force, beautifully bound. Critics never fail to mention this kaleidoscopic ability Perillo has to raddle the sacred and profane, the deeply personal and mythic universal, the Kotex and the ayahuasca. Raddling, in case you don’t know the word, is the art of weaving. The raddleman was the guy who went ‘round the English villages making those charming wicker fences as seen in Room With a View, although the word also references the quaint practice of tupping, having to do with marking the back end of a ewe after the ram’s done his duty. Perillo doesn’t neglect any reference. She raddles ‘riding the wacky noodles’ (those foam floats ‘old ladies’ use in swim class) with stark renderings of how many of them are shy about their mastectomies in the changing room. And then titles it Proximity of Meaningful Spectacle. She ruminates on her love-hate relationship with death while describing dahlias hit by a killing frost by way of a man looking up from his electric chair mid-execution to announce ‘This isn’t working.’ Raddling.

On the Spectrum of Possible DeathsIn forms exact, iambic here, indented there, slant rhymed, eye rhymed, she interrupts classical proportions with a perfectly placed ‘huh, you know’ and a ‘doesn’t that feel a little ostentatious?’ Only Perillo could have written “Freak-Out” – a three-pager in sectioned couplets, and trump the hefty line ‘what passes through the distillery of anguish…’ with ‘not the monster potion but the H Two…oh, forget it…’ She can wax lyrical with the best of the best, then suddenly grab you by the lapels and get in your face. Or in her own face.

In short, Perillo knows just where to go when and how to get back, like Odysseus, or Homer writing the Odyssey. In fact, he’s in here, or rather, his dog, as is Achilles, Carlos Casteneda and Perillo’s father. His shirt label, which she ‘sees is a haiku […]Traditionalist / one hundred percent cotton / made in Mauritius,’ inspires a raddle of Bashō, scungilli and her father’s ‘death poem,’ Soon I must cross / the icy sidewalk. / Help. There goes my shoe

This is a book to own, to touch, to treasure, to marvel at, to peek under the dust cover and appreciate how the juxtaposition of the cover art (Giotto’sThe Last Judgement), the  plain brown woven hard cover and the red end papers accurately mirrors the virtuosic braiding of Lucia Perillo. A poet who knows her raddle

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Happy Life

Happy Life
Written by David Budbill
Copper Canyon Press, 2011
ISBN 9781556593741

Happy LifeLike a knock on the noggin from a Zen master’s cane, David Budbill’s “Happy Life” hits home with a clarity that made me laugh out loud – ah, truth! He captures the essence of the seasons, chopping wood, carrying water, before and after enlightenment. In this, his ninth poetry collection, the poet, playwright, novelist, short story and children’s book writer reflects on forty years of a ‘happy life’ with one eye on the Tao and an honesty that admits to being, like the beautiful women he sees on trips to the city, ‘preoccupied with sex and ambition.’ But not so much so as to disturb his concentration on a candle flame in the dark, a tiny flower in the woods, or the feel of wet leaves on the path. Shortest of many masterfully spare poems is the four word (six counting title) “Cynical Capitalists” : ‘Privatize profit. / Socialize loss.’ which pretty much sums it up, leaving very little else to be said about all that. In one of his wry reflections on ageing, he looks at his wrinkled skin, sitting down, wearing shorts and wonders “What Happened to Me?” as we all do, or will. Like the classical Zen poet Hanshan, writing of his Cold Mountain life in 8th century Tang dynasty China, Budbill’s contemplations of this human life from his Vermont mountain are timeless.
Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: “A Tale of Two Chapbooks”

The Pulpit vs. The Hole
Written by Jay Shearer
Gold Line Press, 2012
ISBN 9781105543647

Memory Future
Written by Heather Aimee O’Neill
Gold Line Press, 2011
ISBN 9781932800869

A Tale of Two Chapbooks

Back when Dickens created Madame Defarge knitting up a revolution in a quiet cafe corner, publishers sewed together ephemera and called it a chapbook, after the chapmen or street dealers who peddled them for cheap.  Before magazine ads or tweets, it was a quick way to get the latest in print out on the street.  At Oxford a few years back, I sat in the rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera researching a chapbook from 17something, stitched by hand, that included both the poet I’d found and some derogatory essays about the Duchess of Devonshire.  Since then, chapbooks have become a way for emerging authors to show their work before having a full-length collection or novel to print, or for authors to preview upcoming work; it is a stepping stone on the publishing path.  There are many chapbook contests, helping both authors and small presses grow.  This is a tale of two winners, in fiction (2011) and poetry (2010), of the Gold Line Press Chapbook Contest.  The press is associated with USC’s Ph.D in Literature and Creative Writing Department.  I was interested in what, in my view, made these two selections winners.

The Pulit vs The Hole
The fiction winner, selected by Percival Everett, is Jay Shearer’s The Pulpit vs. The Hole.  This long short story, of events at a Christian summer camp, is a tight little ball of yarn that unwinds from beginning to end with the pacing of a practiced storyteller.  Shearer knows exactly what story he’s telling and how to best go about it.   Well, there’s this pulpit and there’s this hole . . . immediately engaging nouns and yet their meaning is obscure, hooking with the easy-reading charm of a young dude telling you his summer camp story.   The insinuations of religion and sex are intentional, as befits a co-ed Bible study camp for waywardish youths, but you don’t really get it until the end.  Shearer’s characters are authentically teenaged–funny and challenging and angsty, with definite stuff to work out–from page one.  Teen stuff on the surface with a laconic subtext that hints of something about to go horribly wrong.  Suitably hooked by both premise and tone, the tale unfolds exactly as it needs to and does not falter.  No spoiler alerts here, but the “quiet kids” of Cabin 6 don’t spend all their time on Bible study.  And even when they do, it’s interesting.  Such a smooth ride on such a bumpy road in only 43 pages that you can see as if you’re watching a movie is why Percival Everett picked this one out of the pile.

Memory FutureMemory Future, selected by Carol Muske-Dukes, begins with an epigraph from Jeanette Winterson’sGut Symmetries (an extremely quotable and quoted author, as shown by a quick Google, and a book I must read immediately) and uses phrases from it as section titles.  As the chapbook title suggests, O’Neill’s poems are memory banks in time shifts, written in short two, three and four line forms mainly, until the middle section, “the spin of the earth that allows us to observe time” (Winterson’s line).  This section is one poem, “Winter in Spain,” consisting of seven numbered sonnets, and it was here I entered the chapbook more fully.  Particularly in II. with its opening line of “The flecks of red fade, not the hope.  There’s more  .” After reading this sonnet and appreciating its heightened nuances, feeling it to be the best in the book, I noticed a small pink dot had been affixed to that very page.  Apparently someone else felt the same way.  I was frankly relieved to see the last poem, the narrative “Second Grade Teachers Don’t Have Names Without Mr., Mrs., or Ms.  Attached” deviate from the controlled, even-tempered collection, and spin out a little.

What binds these two together is a consistency of tone in each author, an assured spareness in thoughtful, personal, circular narratives where, like a ball of yarn, or an orbit, the end takes you back to the beginning.  O’Neill studied with Marie Ponsot, among others she acknowledges, and it shows.  Less is more doesn’t quite nail it.  Another opening sonnet line of O’Neill’s–she writes killer first lines–better sums it up.  “Nostaliga is uneasy.  For so long” . . . it’s an enjambment, so no period.  The story goes on, like a circle.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec

When My Brother Was an Aztec
Written by Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
ISBN 9781556593833

            This 3am war bell, duende vision prison

Natalie DiazGot it? As seen in this randomly-chosen line from Natalie Diaz’s first collection of poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press  2012), there is a poetics-infused prosodic wonder at work here, wrangling her family mythos like a Homeric pro as they deal, home on the res in Needles, with her tweaked, Quetzacoatl’d, Geronimo bro, who shows up at restaurants, ‘a lamp cord knotted at his neck’, and steals all the lightbulbs.  That’s just the tame stuff.  There is much, much worse afoot.  And Diaz has a life too.

Diaz fills us in on all of it.  I defy anyone (else) to turn such circumstances into such enthralling poetry.  The title’s provocative (with accompanying cover photo), then you see she really means it.  Laying out long form after long form in original syntax that neither regrets nor defends, Diaz chronicles her brother’s meth-fueled ravages from an unsafe distance with tragicomic aplomb, direct lyricism and glistening irony.  “Downhill Triolets” renders a(nother) late night altercation on the lawn with tribal cops, Sappho, Jimi Hendrix, Geronimo, the tweaked brother, Sisyphus, Lionel Ritchie, and God, into three neat poetic sequences.  What?  Problem?  “Remember how long it took the Minotaur / to escape the labyrinth.

When My Brother was an AztecAnd then, read the prose poem about “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie.”  This first book from Natalie Diaz, an MFA-holding award-winner who works with tribal elders preserving the Mojave language, is a Lannan Literary Selection.  And yes, it’s all going to be on the quiz.  Every word.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Journal Review: The Kenyon Review 33.2

The Kenyon Review
Vol. 33, No. 2

Last Spring’s excellent edition of The Kenyon Review is prefaced by Editor David H.  Lynn’s notes on their online readership survey.  Fact: over two-thirds of respondents read the print version, while obviously also tuned into their website offerings.  This bit of data says something about print journals in the digital age, specifically this venerable international volume.  Everything about this publication carries a tangible steadiness of quality, like 400-thread-count sheets in a fine hotel.  You can pull back the covers and slide in, knowing you’re going to have a lush five-star experience.  The feel of the paper stock, the size of the journal, its layout and design is assured, elegant, as are the authors whose fiction, poetry, non-fiction and reviews are featured within.  For a cover price of ten dollars, readers of this issue are swathed in the luxurious work of seventeen highly accomplished writers from around the world.

What adds to the satisfaction of the issue is the editors’ masterful blend of unified quality with impressive diversity of subject and style.  Marilyn Hacker, a poet (and former KR editor) who needs no introduction, collaborates with Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi (three-time Pushcart Prize nominee) in “From ‘Diasporenga’”, an ‘alternating renga.’”

Kenyon Review 332Alternating serif and sans serif fonts with white space shape the women’s duet in renga form, sections of three /two /three /two-line stanzas that play off the each other like two soloists trading riffs.  A last couplet of ‘as she stumbles in her long / nightgown: “Sabâh el-fûll yâ âmar.”’ prompts ‘“Morning of roses,” / she wishes the greengrocer.  / “Morning of light,” he // answers.  Early cherries ripen, / and the small sweet strawberries.’ The whole poem is fragrant with the language of women poets, including Emily Dickinson, while it is a modern, unflinching diaspora of women’s family casualties from ongoing cultural clashes in places such as Gaza and Darfur, of names ‘of villages razed / in 1948 stitched with golden thread’ on a Palestinian tent in an exhibit in Houston.

Turn the page and you’re in Robert Yune’s fictional “Solitude City,” being woken up in an Alaskan condo to take a conference call from Korea to deal with a family emergency.  From there the story unravels transcontinentally with an enigmatic confidence comparable to the proverb on ‘the stupid scroll on the wall.  Speak of the tiger and it will come.  And here it is, a silent, fiery messenger of change.  The signal fades, and it’s back to text.’ An intricate alternating current as developed, international and graceful as the renga, Yune’s short story is enlightening: deft storytelling with a savvy of world markets, corporate gamesmanship and Korean culture.  Characters are smart and sharp and tender and funny – polysyndeton intentional – as is the dialogue, internal, external, digital, human.  Speaking of dialogue, there’s an online conversation of Yune at KR’s website here.

Earlier, there’s “Hellen Keller Answers the Iron,” Andrew Hudgins’s kickass non-fiction piece, the only one of the genre.  Read it.  That is all.  Andrew M.  Wells contributes two stark poems of grief.  Jeffrey Meyers reviews Saul Bellow letters; Cynthia Haven covers Milosz and Brodsky.  Katharine Larson begins the poem, “Lake of Little Birds” with “Let me begin with the lepers at Lake Bunyonyi.” And that’s literally not the half of it; I’ve mentioned only six of seventeen contributors.  Albert Goldbarth.  Kevin Young.  Still not the half.

As it says above the masthead, The Kenyon Review is “an international journal of literature, culture and the arts.” And yeah, everybody knows that, but do you know what a delight it is to spend time with, to hold, to look at, to read?  From the cover photograph of a woman in an outdoor cemetery carrying wood for a pyre, the sky around her filled with dragonflies, the Spring 2011 issue remains rock solid as it floats through the bittersweet metaphysics of reality in a digital, still-conflicted international community, with our losses and loved ones, our wounded beauty, our stupid jokes.  It’s always reassuring to see what language, in the right hands, can do.  As if a poem could save the world.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Iceberg

Written by Paul Kavanagh
Honest Publishing, 2012
ISBN 9780957142701

Iceburg Photo 2Paul Kavanagh’s writing is inimitable, and his novel Iceberg resists both summary and analogy, says David Rose in his review blurb on Honest Publishing’s website, which appears directly below the summary.  An enthused commenter suggests ‘hoovering’ is a neologism.  I disagree.  After I write this, I’m going to open red wine.  On page 62, Don removes his rucksack, leans it against the wall and searches for a bottle of wine.  This sentence is repeated as the next line of the next paragraph.  I wasn’t sure by that point if it was intentional.
I wasn’t sure by that point if it was intentional.Such is the hypnotic, laconic and somewhat stultifying style of the surrealistic travel adventure about Don and Phoebe’s escape from grim to grim in a changing world.  What I’m calling stultifying is the relentless sentence structure of subject, verb, {adjective}, object, such as the description of one of the tale’s wonderfully philosophic characters who give Don and Phoebe rides down Africa, on their way to claim the iceberg they won back in their grim Northern town.  “Youssef was small, had large ears, and a massive smile.  He drove a white van and chainsmoked.  Don climbed into the back and made a throne out of heavy wooden boxes.  Phoebe sat in the front.  Youssef was Tunisian and he was going to Rabat.”
Open to any random page, like where they get malaria and meet a doctor: “A Norwegian doctor visited them in their motel.  He was a tall man with lapis lazuli eyes and blond hair.  His soft voice was pleasant after the engines of lorries, cars and motorbikes. […] Phoebe started.  […] Don looked.”  I get the post-postmodernist juxtaposition of simple repetitive sentences against an increasingly dissociative plot, a style that attempts to avoid promoting good feelings and produces a trance-like state.  There’s quite a lot of it in print, my argument against the use of the word inimitable.  In Iceberg it predominates the changing landscape and colorful peripheral characters so as to make me curiously numb to Don and Phoebe’s kaleidoscopic equanimity timeline.  Is that how I’m supposed to feel?
Iceburg Cover 1Happily, Kavanagh peppers his diction with lexical swerves, in the form of funny dialogue, poetic descriptive microparagraphs – “Palm trees sprouted from pools of abandoned seawater” – and sudden vocabulary.  When Don goes to a wave-beaten bar in Elmina for three rounds of drinks, the bartender is first ‘rachitic’, then ‘hypnagogic’ and lastly feared to have narcolepsy, lashings of sesquipedalian loquaciousness I quite enjoyed.  Although, in the case of: “Don watched the virga over the buildings sway and hold the sunlight.  It was a soporific picture.  // Kristian sat down and sipped his coffee.” the device clangs loudly, and if I may say so, somewhat solipsistically.  But that’s just me.
The third section, about life on the iceberg itself, changes form to huge, unbroken paragraphs of dialogue and description – perhaps to mimic the cover illustration of the berg? It’s a perplexing choice.  Don and Phoebe’s denouement is original and charming enough, and certainly different enough from the grim Northern and grim African sections of the novel, to not need this distancing, textural shift.  I couldn’t tell if it was meant to slow the story down or speed it up.  Or what.  A lot happens in Iceberg.  In 116 small pages Don and Phoebe’s world changes, as do they while somehow sort of staying the same.  Maybe I should read it again.
Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Journal Review: Prick of the Spindle 5.3

Prick of the Spindle
Vol. 5, No. 3

Prick of the Spindle, now in its fifth year of online publishing, with both Kindle and print editions (No. 1 in October, 2011) also available, is what it set out to be: well-rounded. Editor-in-Chief and Founder Cynthia Reeser and her editors must burn the midnight oil to produce so much quarterly content. The first literary journal to come out as a Kindle magazine, quietly goes about its business of publishing original writers and artists in a plethora of genres.

In this edition, the journal’s (what’s its “barn” name, I wonder? the prick? the spin? ps? sprindle?) slightly shamanized—no, wait, that’s just a white eagle with jackalope antlers—nostalgic screen presence presents, in sheer volume, 14 fiction writers, nine articles, 17 poets, some with quartets and quintets of their work, two plays, five non-fiction pieces, multiple reviews and interviews, and a 1:19 minute Vimeo film of a poet’s eye while she recites “sucks her” to the accompaniment of a violin. And art. Twenty-eight artists are featured in a wide spectrum collection of digital art, collage, paintings, “fauxtography,” charcoal and graphite, mixed media, and photography. And if that’s not enough content for you, the links page sends you to a herd of other online journals and literary organizations helpful to submitting writers and artists. Although one, to Insolent Rudder, links to a null blog page, others link to The Adirondack ReviewDuotrope, etc.The journal encourages submission of interesting, diverse, unique statements.Mark Reep’s miniature charcoal and graphite dreamscapes, such as the 3.5” x 2” “Chapel Bell”, are mesmerizing B&W miniworlds of mysterious stone, misty chasms and lone trees hanging off cliffs. Featured Visual Artist George McKim’s “Dictionary Drawings” are single page erasure fictionesque creations that I would have appreciated being able to click to enlarge. Brian Anderson’s non-fiction piece “Sprinkler Hose: Something Something Something Phallus Joke” is about *spoiler alert* masturbation. Cynthia Tracy Larsen’s flash fiction, “After the Tire Blew” has olfactory notes of piss, “rotten farm garbage” and “baked-bean-and-hotdog-dinner smell.” J. Camp Brown is showcased with four poems in a most persuasive Arkansas diction, including the fabulously-titled, “Diddleybow” with its wonderworded “thrang,” “turnbuckle,” and “her skimpy unmissables.” Managing Fiction EditorCynthia Hawkins discusses process with a group of writers in a featured group interview, “Writer’s Round-Up.” An interview with writer/musician/recording artist Allan Ross attests to Reeser’s continual search, as stated in the bio on her personal website, “to unite literature, art and music.”Prick of the Spindle is Cynthia Reeser’s creation. As an artist, photographer, writer, website designer, editor, and publisher, Reeser’s passion and hard work is evident throughout. Her design strives to achieve a non-digital feel, as if created with movable type on a composing stick; while it’s an intriguing concept, I honestly found it a bit difficult to read at times. Some webpages have inconsistent design elements (the artists pages in the gallery section, for example) that feel like they’re from earlier editions. So many hats, so little time. And there is a lot going on. If indeed there’s magic at work in the wee hours as each edition is published, there are certainly no sleep-inducing spindles in her Florida workroom. Maybe a mythic antlered eagle or something.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2011, All Rights Reserved