Natalie Peeterse’s chapbook selected for an Artist’s Innovation Award

Natalie Peeterse’s chapbook Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy (Goldline Press, 2012), was selected for an Artist’s Innovation Award from the Montana Arts Council.
Our Associate Editor, Tristan Beach, reviewed Natalie’s chapbook in 2012. We also published Natalie’s poem, “Sonora” in our latest issue, and the poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last December.
We’re proud to have published Natalie’s work, and congratulate her on this recent award from the Montana Arts Council.
Artist's Innovation Award

Chapbook Review: The Egg Mistress

The Egg Mistress
Written by Jessica Poli
Gold Line Press, 2013
ISBN 9781938900037

 
 
Jessica Poli’s The Egg Mistress (Gold Line Press, 2013) brims with delight, sensuality, and devastation, muted and estranged in poems and prose poems grappling with the various stages and eventual end of a romantic relationship. The chapbook cycles through a tight economy of symbols, including a barn, eggs, corn, a kitchen, salt, and cotton. These images, through their reappearance and repetition, work to create a pervading, unified rural-domestic sense of place. Much of the emotion of the chapbook—held at arms’ length (at times buckling, allowing it to take over even in the coolest of lines)—passes through this conspicuous frame. Rather than confining, these poems derive a wonderful, quick energy from Poli’s enigmatic, matter-of-fact wit. For example, the prose poem “The Naming of Things Kept Us Busy” notes with dry, bitter, disenchanted wit an exchange of vows:

landlocked deadbolt dust bowl house in the middle. We read the entire list at the ceremony. After all, we were so careful about getting everything right, stuck on the word love for a day—love, like the failure of the word lung, like mineral. A grassy kiss against teeth. Grinning badly by a cactus. The blood dog’s bite against your thigh. Finally we settled: a hand in a room full of hands.

The speaker relates the content of the vows in barren, claustrophobic terms in the first sentence. The poem then proceeds to convey a gentle yet disengaged (grassy) kiss and the obsession with the word “love,” which fails to adequately name what actually passes between the speaker and her addressee, just as “lung” and “mineral” fail. The nature of these words’ shortcomings is unclear; perhaps this is true for the speaker, attempting to articulate and define the intangible. The final sentence simultaneously evokes mundaneness and eroticism.

Another poem, particular in its dryness and absurd humor, is the eponymous “The Egg Mistress,” in which the speaker declares herself as existing as two selves:

In the morning, I fill the counter with crab legs.
Large white pots boil on the stovetop
ready for an afternoon feast.

I keep my hands full.

Pass your name with salt over burners.

In the kitchen, there are two of myself–
one cooking, stirring, sautéing,
one lying dead on the slick tile,
crabs crawling and tangling in her hair.

I step over her and fry an egg.

The image of crabs “crawling and tangling” in the hair of the dead self while the living self moves about, keeping her hands full, expresses a paradox: to balance the numb, assertive, and pragmatic self, there must necessarily be something dead and plain in sight. One cannot have it a single or solitary way. In order to work through grief (to do what must be done in the everyday), there must be a sort of active separation or detachment. In fact, this separation, resonating throughout the chapbook, lays bare pain and regret in a stark clarity. The matter of fact line, “I step over her and fry an egg,” shows the speaker both ignoring and accepting the lying form as part of her environment. There’s triumph in these lines, as well as dejection.

The Egg MistressAside from Poli’s effective use of a consistent system of symbols and place, The Egg Mistress contains multiple examples of deep, vivid imagery. The poem “I Hide the Core Heap Under the Bed” begins by describing traces of apple-flesh and peel: “Balsa hands and / red sugar on hot fingers: / you used to have a hold on me.” The third line reads like a line from a love song, transplanted and equated to the vestiges of the apple. The traces of the hold are still apparent. The speaker recalls making love “under black lights” with a sense of violence and shame; she recalls the tenderness in her lover’s brushing lint away from her mouth—no more. Finally, the poem ends with the speaker recalling an intimate line, “Let me melt, I always said. / You fed me apples in the morning. / You told me not to cry and fed me apples.” The inclusion of these lines, reminiscent of cliché, ring sincere in the face of the speaker’s bereaved state and Poli’s thorough depiction of gestures and images contained within the poem.

The Egg Mistress can be taken as a layered sequence; each poem and prose poem feels a fragment, part of the whole. The speaker’s consistent tone also unifies the chapbook (we assume these poems have a common speaker). Through several rereads, one gains an even clearer sense of Poli’s intent—to tell the complex story of a relationship, or relationships, through several complex poems, able to stand on their own while complementing one another. There’s also a renewing joy of discovery, of surprise, inherent in this collection, despite the despair and strangeness woven into this book. And part of this joy comes from poems that defy easy explanation or expectation—handled with a level of dexterity and intelligence and care, evident of Poli’s poetic maturity.

 
Review by Tristan Beach
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Say You’re a Fiction

Say You’re a Fiction
Written by Kari Larsen
Dancing Girl Press, 2012

Say You're a FictionPoetry is the universe that surrounds the tiny, rocky province of prose; it’s where we learn that our linguistic laws are relative and artificial. This frustrates people – it intimidates and annoys them – and it has given the publishing industry license to ignore poetry (especially the chap-book) more so than literary fiction or even the short story. The impression, perhaps justified, is that people have no time for poetry, ironically, because it so concise. Novels – even big, Franzian leviathans – teach us how to read them, and even the experimental ones count on the reader’s familiarity with the quotidian world – light and shadow, gravity and magnetism – in order to highlight their departures. The physics engine of prose is easily understood; being alive qualifies you to read it. Does anyone even know how to read poetry?

When I was in graduate school, I often asked professors this question. The answers were highly gendered (though, one hopes, not wholly representative). A male professor told me that reading poetry was about mastery – overpowering the ambiguity and fluidity of poetry by bringing the rigidity of theory to bear on it, binding it with context, biography and history. To read a poem was to break it, to domesticate it, to choke the life out of it. A female professor suggested something nearly oppositional – acknowledging the bewildering power of poetry, surrendering to it. To read a poem was to drown in it.

Take, then, Kari Larsen’s excellent chapbook, Say You’re a FictionIf I say it’s beautiful written – darkly and wisely crafted – surely that is diversion, though no less true. I have to say more, but what, or – rather – how? We aren’t dealing with characters or plot, exactly, and so summary seems foolish, yet I’ve got to say something about the piece. We have some measure of constancy: over and over, two men chase the woman who narrates her flight:

“Two men / chase me / through the Louvre / in my nightmare”
But repetition is not understanding. Not yet. So, something has to be done – one needs a strategy, or at least a tactic. Which will it be, then, murder or suicide?

Murder/Suicide

First, there’s Murder: Poems are not parallel universes, like ghosts or neutrinos they do touch our world at certain points, however delicately – that’s where we’ll set the hooks. The epigraph is often the poet’s throat, bared and thrust at us. Larsen’s Godard taunts us: “When you see your own photo, do you say you’re a fiction?” This is the artist’s double-game, the representational uncertainty principle: when we think Godard is making a film, he’s giving us life; when we think he’s documenting, he reminds us – with the frame, the jump-cut, the montage – that he’s not. An irony: in this old slippery spot we set a hook.

It’s just a tether, but the restriction from the infinite to the finite is drastic, a celestial contraction. Now we can start to wrench other references away from the morass of ambiguity – Godard gives us Anna Karina and Jean Seberg, Breathless and To Live One’s Life – and at each point, we set a hook. Larsen’s “Anna” and “Jean” are each the muse, the object of desire, the subject of the gaze – real and unreal in equal measure. And into these films – and into their tangled webs of identification and reference – Larsen inserts her voice. In her first poem, we’re inside the chase; immediately following, we’re outside, watching the chase as a film and recognizing ourselves onscreen. We’re brought to the scene of a shoot (or a shooting) – and then another, and another – and each time the emotion is further bracketed by the cool distance of film; even the soundtrack, the classic emotional ploy, is alienated:

“I tell / the plot in which I am embroiled / to the tune / while I plummet / beyond sound”
Likewise, human actions are straight-jacketed by the script-as-existential-law:
“I do not think we have stopped acting yet / and we can only extort intelligence from each other that will get us / to the next scene slate”

This is one way to read Larsen – to be one more predator, chasing her down the corridors of the Louvre with a camera and a gun, to say with cold detachment that you’ve won. But Larsen’s poems aren’t disarmed or domesticated (as even the stateliest sonnet has a little feral blood in its veins). You cannot kill what’s wild about them (although I’m sure you can exorcise it from your own reading and keep your own house clear).

But if it’s communion you want – be it with demons or spirits – then murder won’t suffice.

So, then, there’s Suicide: poems touch our world, yes, but they bend away to someplace else – and it’s not always the joyous, the erotic, or the pastoral. Sometimes poems are the translation of the ineffably horrifying. In Larsen’s chapbook, the poems start to build up fragments of this nightmare, the sense of being stuck in a soulless loop of someone else’s desire, in a prison of scopophilia, a puppet of cinematic convention. As Larsen writes, in a chilling sing-song:

“The song is the same / and it’s in the café / everything would be different / if another song would play”

In Larsen’s hands (so to speak), Godard’s mise-en-scènes become a labyrinth by Borges, signs trembling between a strangle symbolism and a frightening emptiness. It reminds me of Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho” as it manifests in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega – a film requisitioned, manipulated and transposed into words,  so that we can see it, deeper and clearer. But where DeLillo’s language is cold and dead, Larsen’s crackles with dark wit. She knows and loves the game. She has a perfect sense of how to haunt a collection with phrases that return, slightly more twisted each time.

Repetition is not the same as understanding. Sometimes things never connect – some of Larsen’s work will escape you if you try to hunt it down and kill it like prose. Some of her references will elude you. Let them. But, at the same time, don’t take my attitude for Larsen’s. I’m willing – happy, even – to surrender to her dreamscape; Larsen’s heroines aren’t going quiet into that good nightmare. Despite the creeping existential dread, they are ready to fight, both against the ‘two men’ who stalk her and the larger forces which those men stand in for. A métaphore noir: we already know the plot, but sometimes the characters manage to subvert the script. As Larsen writes at the end of “Say You Love Me – oh, Say it with Paving Stones,” perhaps my favorite of the collection:

“As long as I am chased down by two men / I won’t ever be without a gun”
Review by Benjamin Schachtman
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: States of Independence

States of Independence
Written by Michael Klein
Bloom Books, 2012
ISBN 9780983761150

Immediately preceding Michael Klein’s much-anticipated The Talking Day, Bloom Books released a chapbook of essays by Klein, States of Independence, selected by Rigoberto González as part of Bloom’s 2011 chapbook series. Check out Bloom Magazine, which publishes biannual issues featuring both established and emerging queer writers.

States of Independence is a thin, square-shaped, pocket-sized little book sporting wide clean white borders around its central image: a man walking his small dog on a sun-lit beach. The image reminds one of a miniature movie poster. Snow, sunlight, and rain all resonate with States, figuring in Klein’s personal semantics of loss, isolation, and love. The snowy borders around the cover of States do more than just provide padding; they accentuate the image’s isolating effects, while fortifying the sense of companionship and sobriety characteristic of much of States.

Klein’s prose often feels cinematic, as in the first essay of this sequence, “Movie Rain and Movie Snow”:

It was snowing in New York—and everywhere else, apparently—but especially in New York because that’s where I live and Fifth and Madison and Lexington Avenues all run down in the same direction of snow falling on awnings and doormen and cars and buses pulling people into jobs and schools all white morning.

This sweeping, kaleidoscopic sentence beginning the essay’s second section manages to stylistically integrate Van Gogh’s animated drops from “Rain,” the oppressive downpour at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the haunting snow-motif in Citizen Kane. (Klein comments on each of these in the essay.) Snow, rain, and sunlight can obscure or clarify, symbolize or punctuate depending on how they’re framed within a work of art.

One particularly impressive essay is “Airports and Funerals in Sobriety,” in which Klein likens sunlight falling in an airport corridor to new sobriety; later, he manages to link this sobriety to vulnerability when depicting a funeral scene:

I was holding a white chrysanthemum in the cold and Andrew was holding a yellow rose and when there were no flowers left among the living we walked away and my brother-in-law stood there alone in the cold sunlight and Andrew and I walked to the car and joined a line of more cars driving to the reception which was lovely with strangers on their way—as it always ceremonies—to the memory that gets fastened to everybody’s living.

Much like the long sentence from “Movie Rain and Movie Snow,” this sentence depicts a sequence—more linear and sequential in this instance. A logical flow of events holds this together without punctuation. The cold sunlight is painful and isolating—causing Klein’s brother-in-law to appear starkly as a solitary figure, naked and alone in his grief.

States of Independence touches upon many subjects characteristic of Klein’s poetry and prose. Some essays are short and feel more like prose poems than vignettes; the chapbook itself is hard to define as strictly memoir or creative nonfiction, given its diversity. But that’s the virtue of presenting these pieces as a chapbook, which has fewer restrictions and fewer, divisive expectations than a full collection. Hopefully, States will appear in a larger collection someday so as to gain a wider audience. As it is, States is a great introduction to Klein’s body of work, exemplifying his dexterity and diversity as a poet as well as the honest emotion (whether bitter, sweet, or humorous) inherent in his prose.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Pre-Orders on Sale Now!

In mid-September, our Managing Editor announced our small press’ latest project on Burdock Radio.  And now we’re ready start the pre-order for High Art & Love Poems, a chapbook by Keith Gaustad, scheduled for release in early December!

The pre-order period starts today and lasts until November 15th.  To encourage early pre-orders, we’re offering signed copies and a discounted rate when you bundle High Art & Love Poems with the first issue of The Conium Review.  To pre-order the chapbook, or browse our other publications, visit our Online Store.

Jim Chapson, author of Scholia (Syracuse University Press) says “In these amulets against despair, the poet Keith Gaustad inoculates the reader against the follies of our age . . . ”

And Paul Vogel, author of The Empty Quarter (Teppichfresser Press) raves “Gaustad serves up a fin de siècle salad with a side of weltschmerz . . . creating lyric paroxysms that fall like fiery plops of spittle . . . “

The special bundled rate and will only be offered as long as supplies last, so claim your copy of this chapbook and The Conium Review today!

Chapbook Review: The Snipe

The Snipe
Written by Matthew Derby
JR Vansant, 2010

The SnipeMatthew Derby’s The Snipe is a relatively short publication (28 pages—although that’s not-too-short considering it’s a chapbook), so here’s a relatively short review.  The chapbook tackles issues of infidelity, jealously, and the sprinkles of self-delusion that often accompany these themes.  The chapbook is a funny piece of work—light at first, gradually becoming dark humor later on.  And even as the principal character begins to enact revenge fantasies against a woman in her friend-circle, Derby keeps you laughing with musings on gender constructs—recalling a shopkeeper’s crack about her buying “the pink rifle as well as the pink magazine loaded with punk bullets that looked like glossy lipstick,” it’s noted that “at that moment she wanted nothing more than to fall into step with the legions of ladies who had come to the armory in search of pink rifles.  She imagined herself at a shooting range with the ladies, all of them standing in a perfect row, taking aim at the paper targets in unison” (22).I won’t spoil the climax of The Snipe, nor will I uncover the tangled mess of emotions that run through Derby’s characters, suffice to say that the “mess” comes into focus by the end.  It’s a chapbook with a sense of purpose that sharpens as its narrative arc progresses—providing social commentary alongside the lighter notes.  If the chapbook has a failing, I’d suggest that the reliance upon gender stereotypes to make its points doesn’t seem to work in a couple of situations—even as Derby obliterates others instances of stereotyping throughout the chapbook.  The juxtaposition of generalization and authenticity stops short of heightening the chapbook’s subtle ironies.  Regardless, potential sticking points are nominal, and Matthew Derby’s The Snipe is a fun romp that deserves a read.  The signed and numbered copies of this chapbook are sold out, but you can still order a copy of the second printing through JR Vansant’s website.
Review by James R. Gapinski
© 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

Chapbook Review: Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy

Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy
Written by Natalie Peeterse
Gold Line Press, 2012
ISBN 9781105543609

Black Birds Blue HorseNatalie Peeterse’s first chapbook, Black Birds : Blue Horseis a poetic sequence, an elegy, dedicated to Nicole Dial, who was gunned down, with three others, in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Taliban fighters. Dial had dedicated her life to helping children, opening schools in Afghanistan as a member of the International Rescue Committee. It is thus proper to commemorate this chapbook to Dial, and to invoke, in two epigraphs, the spirit of Lorca (shamelessly and brutally stolen from us in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War) and of Czeslaw Milosz, that recently late, great poet of witness. Peeterse’s Black Birds : Blue Horse, features the dense surrealist imagery of Lorca and the urgent, intimate sense of purpose of Milosz—however, she also channels the emotional and poetic dexterity of Muriel Rukeyser and June Jordan. The ample spacings mid-line and sudden line-breaks are in keeping with these latter two poets’ similar verse styles. (They, too, are poets of witness). Peeterse’s chapbook is thus historical, raw, context-heavy, and incisive. Her subject is multifold: not just Dial, not just the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, but also the conflicts at home, in Washington, D.C., which partly comprises this sequence in several brief, but intimate (and world-weary) fragments of the speaker’s journey through that city.

The poem opens with Peeterse’s speaker being informed of a young woman’s sudden death. We can assume that the speaker is the poet, her addressee—the dead girl—is Dial. The poet-speaker wakes to gunfire:

One two : three four:  then two more :
gunshots.         I wake to some kind of tactical
counter-terrorism exercise, or some kind
of national emergency or
the dead body of a girl on the glittering road.
Either way, wind outside.       In waves.
The heat blasts on       and
off. I roll over and answer the phone : hello?

Dial initiates us into a steady beat of gunshots—which are not unusual for the setting—“tactical / counter-terrorism exercise . . . national emergency”. The familiarity of the sounds, eventually linked to the hot winds outside, indicating summertime, deflates any sense of danger or fear begotten from these “gunshots”. The confusion of the source of sounds—the “gunshots” are not really gunshots—emphasizes the speaker’s disorientation, having just woken from sleep to gunfire-wind-the phone ringing . . . “hello?”

Peeterse, through these opening lines and throughout the rest of the sequence, achieves the feat of incorporating sensory experience into commentary—the dead girl on “the glittering road,” for example, alludes to the nature of the phone call, and the nature of this elegy. This command of sensory presence and commentary (as woven together intimately) extends and culminates at certain points, such as the poem midway through this sequence:

At the equinox of a stranger and the self
day and night are everywhere of equal length, it seems–
and so things are possible
and so              precarious the ghetto doors
blown open in the running wind.
Plywood thumps and booms all day here
and all these baby girls–
their voices like swallows. The tiny hinges
of a thousand shoes and precious ankles
move forward :           to the windows of our fear.
Press your face to the glass like a girl does
when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings.

The first line, “At the equinox . . .”, sounds so much like a line out of Lorca. Things are possible. And is not that the entire statement of this elegy? That things are happening, and can happen, at any moment. In keeping with Rukeyser’s influence (assuming, and hoping, Peeterse has read her), the elegy resembles somewhat one of Rukeyser’s masterworks, Waterlily Fire, about the fiery destruction of one of Monet’s waterlily panels: “Who will not believe a waterlily fire. / Whatever can happen in a city of stone, / What can come to a wall can come to this wall.” As if answering this earlier work, Peeterse’s command, “move forward :  to the windows of our fear. . . . when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings,” brims with fright and possibility—the voices of swallows, the children (Dial’s purpose in life), the refusal to look away at the window of fear, all call us to look with eyes leveled at the impossible, at our fears, those palpable “thumps and booms.”

Black Birds : Blue Horse is an intimate sequence, that takes great leaps and firmly centers the reader in the immediate experience—Dial’s presence in Afghanistan, the speaker-poet’s mundane walks through D.C. (“Tonight, though, the streets are shiny and unencumbered by your eyes— / slicked over with doubt : that cruel biology of the spirit.”) Peeterse calls us to (peaceful) arms against alienation, against our fears, against turning away, and against silence. “At the equinox of a stranger and the self,” any thing is possible.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Visiting Writers

Visiting Writers
Written by Ravi Mangla
Uncanny Valley Press, 2011

Ravi Mangla’s chapbook, Visiting Writers (Uncanny Valley Press, 2011), consists of 23 pieces of flash fiction.  These pieces each describe a chance encounter with a famous writer—removed from the trappings of academia or pop-culture consumption, these slices of life peer into the characters of Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and other notables.  Mangla’s chapbook wants to provide fun little glimpses into humanizing moments—in the candid space, the writers behave in ways that give sly glances into the idiosyncratic quirks that may or may not have shaped their own writings.  It attempts to link art and artist.  Unfortunately, in many of the pieces, it comes off as too obvious.  I appreciate that each piece is resolute in its brevity, but ultimately these short visits into the lives of famous authors don’t use their few phrases to any advantage.  The journey comes off as somewhat contrived, as each reference to a new author reads more like a library manifest than a story.

That said, I also appreciate the way Mangla tries to keep things low-key despite the misplaced high-brow platitudes.  Bits of humor keep things light, such as the following two-sentence piece: “At the DMV I waited in line behind Gordon Lish.  He wanted a custom license plate but couldn’t settle on the right combination of letters.”  It’s a neat little nod to Lish’s reputation as a meticulous wordsmith.  The collection is full of these inside jokes for well-read audiences, but the end result of these little gems doesn’t have staying power—it just reads like a laundry list of winks from Mangla that become almost expected and anticipated by the end of the chapbook.

This first chapbook from Ravi Mangla has an ambitious premise, but it doesn’t meet expectations.  However, Visiting Writers represents a step toward a more cohesive authorial voice for Mangla.  There is evidence of Mangla’s attention to detail throughout the chapbook, and even if the chapbook fell flat for me, I imagine that some of Mangla’s stylistic choices will evolve and serve him better in his next collection.  All writers grow and learn as they revise their work, listen to critics (or ignore them as necessary), and reflect on past projects.  I sometimes wretch when looking back at my work from five years or even five minutes ago; Ravi Mangla’s piece is fine-tuned enough that it doesn’t force this gag reflect, but it still misses the mark.  So this brutal review aside, Mangla may be an author to watch.  Visiting Writers was contrived, and it almost used its premise as a crutch—hiding behind its literary references while failing to impress on its own merits—but when Mangla steps into his next project, the undercurrents of craft in Visiting Writers could come to the surface in an amazing way.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Yellow Fringe Dress

Yellow Fringe Dress
Written by Neila Mezynski
Radioactive Moat Press, 2012

Neila Mezynski’s chapbook, Yellow Fringe Dress, was released January 9th, 2012. It’s the latest electronic chapbook from Radioactive Moat Press.

Aesthetically, Radioactive Moat Press’ electronic treatment of Yellow Fringe Dress is fitting.  The chapbook is well-designed with interesting typography and a gorgeous cover.  It fits the fractured fantasy-esque dreamscape vibe of Mezynski’s poetry, and it showcases the potential of electronic publishing.  While I love print media, electronic publication has its own unique place too, and it can be an art form unto itself (when done properly—and Radioactive Moat Press consistently does it properly).  Though Mezynski’s syntax is experimental, the chapbook’s inviting aesthetic makes it easy to read.  The layout compliments the flow rather than hindering it; I wish more e-books featured this attention to presentational quality.

But enough about the design notes for this digital chap; what about Mezynski’s work?  The text is arranged in a hybrid prose poem state.  There is attention to structure, but many of the passages opt for less overt poetic structure in favor of a hybrid prose poem appearance—her work is one of the few examples of a true prose poem: lyricism embedded into prose.  There seems to be an overabundance of books/chapbooks that call anything short prose piece a “poem”–Yellow Fringe Dress is not one of these.  The collection is well-crafted, and it’s subtle arrangement ads minute layers of meaning to poetry that derives most of its purpose from syntactical variance and interesting word choice.

The chapbook’s plot is a postmodern type of anti-bildungsroman, with several instances of twisting plotlines that test the reader’s perception of what a coming of age story really can be and do.  The chapbook only stumbles moderately in its slow beginning.  If you can push through the first few pages, the latter half of Mezynski’s chapbook will surprise you.  Early on, there feels like a lack of movement, where the same themes are repeated.  Mezynski does this for thematic emphasis, yet it bogs down the reader slightly.  Once Yellow Fringe Dress picks up the pace, it hurtles at breakneck speed with vivid imagery and carefully planted sensory details.

Yellow Fringe DressThe experimental style may be hard for some readers to swallow, but the general storyline of Yellow Fringe Dress is beautifully summed up in the ending section.  The breadth of Mezynski’s piece is distilled in a minimalistic recap that can be transposed over all the preceding sections.  If you get bored or annoyed with the chapbook’s other experiments, just flip to part VIII as a cheat sheet.  You’ll miss all the detailed bridges between these fragmented, wispy little descriptors, but it’ll help you understand the central theme easier.  It’s a nice device that provides framing and closure to Mezynski’s well-told story.

At times, the text is wordy and could use some paring down to the bare poetic essentials.  But overall the piece is well-written, and Mezynski’s Yellow Fringe Dress provides a manageable foray into experimentalist syntax and imagery for audiences who might be new to this type of writing.  It is an accessible piece that gets you ready for more work by Neila Mezynski or similar writers—and after you read Yellow Fringe Dress, you’ll definitely want more.

You can find Yellow Fringe Dress at the following URL for free:
http://issuu.com/radioactivemoat/docs/yellow_fringe_dress

Review by James R. Gapinski
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