The Conium Review is on WordPress (again)

The Conium Review has had a WordPress blog for a while, but it’s main function was for hosting the podcast.  Moving forward, we’re making WordPress a more integral part of our online presence.

We’ve moved some of the most important posts from The Conium Review website (i.e. book reviews) over to WordPress.  A few other posts will migrate soon, and we’ll be more active on WordPress moving forward.

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Book Review: Goldfish Tears

Goldfish Tears
Written by Curtis Ackie
Pouting Bear, 2012
ISBN 9781471086861

Curtis AckieCurtis Ackie
’s short story collection, Goldfish Tears, transports readers into surrealist landscapes painted with mostly stunning detail.  While there are some nominal flubs that take the reader back to reality, most of the collection keeps the reader believing in Ackie’s world—a world where the sun forgets to rise one day, a husband builds a machine to “correct” his wife’s appearance, and a woman wakes to find that her stoop has dissolved into absolute nothingness.  The premises of Ackie’s stories are wrought with potential.  The climaxes aren’t always grand—which is a good choice that keeps the stories grounded, despite their bizarre beginnings.  The endings are not always as succinctly approached as I’d prefer, but they are satisfying nonetheless.  The book also contains a series of illustrations from Lorena Matić, complimenting the book’s tone with snapshots of individual scenes.

Most of the stories are written in present tense, hurtling the reader directly into the inciting incident.  From a linguistic standpoint, you can tell that Ackie is fresh off a poetry collection as he writes these stories, inserting a number of poetic devices into his prose—alliteration pops up everywhere and some pieces have a distinct lyrical quality.  His environments are clear and he finds precise ways to describe otherworldly occurrences.  For example, in handling the surrealist elements in “The Colour of Nothingness,” Ackie writes these vivid lines:Goldfish Tears“She runs her hand along the doorframe and then sticks the left one out.  Gobbled up by the colourless nothing, the digital pentad ghosts out of sight, but the sensation in her wrist suggests the invisible appendage still exists.  Unnerved, she pulls her hand back in and waggles her fingers about in front of her face to make sure all is in order; four and a thumb, normality.”

This simple scene helps depict that which is literally undepictable—Ackie describes the look of “nothing” through a character’s curiosity about the blank void on her porch.  Her sensation is captured by the description of a phantom limb, but it isn’t overdone.  And rather than bluntly describing her worry with some overused platitudes, Ackie shows the character’s somewhat vexed thoughts through her actions.  The character counts her fingers to make sure they are all there, and this simple action clues the reader into her state of mind.  Ackie does this all with active text and a keen awareness of how his character is behaving.  He lets his characters make choices within their worlds rather than simply having the worlds exist around them.

However, there are a few moments when this breaks down.  In some instances of character action, Ackie loses his bead on the character’s motives and they come off as detached character sketches.  The characters are occasionally said to “see” the environment or “hear” a sound in a generic, explanatory way.  This takes the reader back to a place of observance rather than engagement with the world.  These simple phrases tend to damage the beautiful language highlighted in “The Colour of Nothingness.”  In some settings, these descriptors are useful in conveying a character, but in Ackie’s surrealist realm, I think it pulls the reader too far out.  In these instances, the reader is aware that this is just a story on a page—it shatters Ackie’s otherwise adept world-building.  But that is a picky thing to gripe about, since a lot of the stories retain the active presence that Ackie’s tales demand.  The immediacy of his present tense POV and the penchant for lyricism across the book keeps Ackie’s stories connected to the reader.  Goldfish Tears is a solid collection of short stories from this poet and novelist.

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

Literary Journal Review: The Kenyon Review 33.1

The Kenyon Review
Vol. 33, No. 1

Kenyon 331A teal band spans the upper reaches of a black-and-white snapshot of New York City at night: electric lights smolder like embers dotting the buildings and intersecting streets. There’s a sense of weightlessness—the dark rooftops standing on matrices of light; the ground obscured by the camera’s perspective. The photo, “Night View” (1936), was taken by legendary photographer Berenice Abbott as part of a series of photographs, Changing New York, published in 1939. The historic cover of this winter issue of The Kenyon Review resonates with the magazine’s contents (and publication history) in several indirect ways.Kenyon’s reputation for publishing new, emerging writers, originates in the magazine’s early days when it was founded by editor John Crowe Ransom. Incidentally, Changing New York and The Kenyon Review share the same year of first publication: 1939. Abbott’s famous subjects, aside from NYC, include artists of the 1920s French literary scene, such as James Joyce and John Cocteau. She, like Kenyon, introduced audiences to artists now widely studied in high schools and colleges across the country. Kenyon’s current editor, David H. Lynn, remarks on the magazine’s history of introducing the early work of writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, Rita Dove, and Ha Jin. In his editor’s notes, Lynn draws a connection between Ian McKellan’s performance as King Lear and the traditions set by Kenyon, defined by the talent within its covers. McKellan’s performance is “magical,” enduring throughout time—of all the interpretations of that tragic, complex, cruel, comic character, McKellan’s stands out the most for Lynn. And, Kenyon’s young writers conjure a similar magic through their diversity, the complexity of their work, and the immortality of print.

Connections, unlikely or not, abound in Kenyon. All three stories (the winner and two runners-up), selected by Louise Erdrich for Kenyon’s Short Fiction Prize, deal in some way with familial disconnection. The winner, “Death Threat,” by Megan Malone, observes the impact of a death threat juxtaposed with the narrator’s father’s stoic exterior. However, upon hearing of the sudden death of his beloved, cruel cat, the father breaks down in tears—expanding the story’s tension into an uncomfortable epiphany. “Salt,” by Christopher Arnold, portrays a father whose addiction to salt has both envigorated his mundane life—through taste—while slowly killing him. His children are unable to grasp his love of that mineral. His son’s decision to leave the family farm further emphasizes the potential harm salt has dealt the family—with salt to spice your surroundings, complacency sets in. Finally, “Listened,” by Diana Kole, portrays a married couple on the brink of collapse. At a dinner party, the husband is rapt in a song sung by their hosts’ young daughter. Later, while in their own home, his wife accuses him of eyeing the hostess. These stories, which are really the tip of the iceberg of this dense issue, each examine relationships that are powerful and yet ordinary.Following these initial three stories, the fiction of Kenyon becomes more eclectic. Scott Russell Sanders’s “The Woman at the Grave,” is a long story of a man earnestly searching for a woman from his youth, who inspired a famous song when a snapshot of her, mourning before a grave, wound up in the hands of a folk-singer. Missed connections and second chances ensue. In “Field Guide to Monsters of the Inland Northwest,” Sharma Shield’s protagonists, a “Projectionist” and his Sasquatch wife, are embroiled in a struggle to define themselves, without relying on exteriors. Another story, “Pastoral,” by C.F. Ramuz (trans. from French by Michelle Bailat-Jones), portrays two children playing among windy hillocks. What makes this short, nostalgic (more bitter than sweet) story outstanding is that the narrator and the reader (“we”) are literally drawn into the setting, observing the children as subtle entities.

Lastly, the poetry. There doesn’t seem to be enough nonfiction in this issue, but there’s plenty of poetry. Aside from some well-known writers (Franz Wright, Jane Hirschfield, and Campbell McGrath), Kenyon’s bristling with unfamiliar names. Khaled Mattawa’s translation of Syrian poet Adonis’s “Desert” is a nomadic, dynamic long poem. The desert is ravaged by war and injustice—the speaker declares “don’t write about these things” and “there is no country there”—delivered from the mouth of fear. Mark Irwin’s “Elegy” (and there are so many elegies out there!) cycles through canny objects, “A glove, a ball, a house collapsed,” instilled with regret and hope over the loss of child in uncanny lines, “The colossi / of two pop stars flash on a giant screen,” “I like green best when it courses / like fire. [. . .] A carcass of vowels wept.” Christina Pugh’s “Techno-blue Lobelia,” is an erotic object-poem, in which the speaker observes “each flower / face needles white lightning / in its center, then torches / that wattage over ground.” Other impressive poems include Gabriel Fried’s meditative, lyrical “Vespers” and Victoria Chang’s stark “Elegy as a Box of Staples.”

Where the poetry leaves an impression, the fiction evokes subtlety. Perhaps this is because of the briefness of a poem—the necessity of keeping language present, of rendering meaning and delivery nearly simultaneous—while fiction, and this is true for short stories, allows writers to unfurl a plot and develop characters. The juxtaposition of these two literary genres (the essay feels underrepresented here) is most apparent within the pages of a magazine. What’s also apparent is that the continuation of Kenyon’s tradition—the practice of publishing high-quality work by new and established writers—conjures yet another, magical connection vivid from start to finish.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Heart of Scorpio

Heart of Scorpio
Written by Joseph Avski
Translated by Mark McGraw
Tiny TOE Press, 2012

ISBN 9780985822804

Joseph Avski’s Heart of Scorpio, translated from the Spanish by Mark McGraw, offers a bittersweet meditation on the trappings of fame and its discontents. Using the rise and fall of real-life fighter Antonio Cervantes Reyes as a template, the novella follows the meteoric ascent and tragically delusional crash of a fictional Columbian boxer named Milton Olivella.Haunted by the promise of his early career, Olivella has, by the start of the narrative, long since become a ghost of his former self, yet can’t stop imagining the glorious comeback that awaits him. He just needs to clean up his act, just needs to get back into training, just needs one more chance, and the world will once again be his.

“Tell [your mother] that soon I’ll be home to stay,” Olivella tells his estranged son, Julian, at one point. “I just need to wrap up a few impending issues, you know how it is. If I can get this thing ready, we can make a little money to start fresh, to get the life back that we used to have before. Tell her that we’re going to start a new life.”

Heart of ScorpioNeedless to say, Julian, who’s been a first-hand witness to his father’s complete emotional, physical, and financial collapse, isn’t buying what the former champion is selling. Yet Julian is deluded in his own way. Born at the height of Olivella’s popularity, he lacks the motivation to make a life for himself outside the boxer’s shadow. Instead, he wallows in self-pity, wishing he had the money, the clothing, and the social standing to make women want to “hit the sheets” with him—a phrase the character utters almost incessantly throughout the novella.That Olivella and his son eventually come to blows comes as no surprise. Theirs is a world where nearly all disputes are settled through violence. More often than not, however, it’s a tragic, desperate, impotent brand of violence that ultimately and without fail ends in self-destruction. There’s no winning, Heart of Scorpio seems to argue on every pageThe best we can do is to wrap comforting narratives around the myriad failures that life inevitably delivers.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Release Reading on July 23rd in Portland, Oregon

On July 23rd, there will be a release reading for Vol. 1, No. 2 of The Conium Review in Portland, Oregon.  Find out details and invite your friends on the Facebook page:

For this reading, visiting writers Jasmine Cronin and Maya West share their work.  Local readers include Douglas Allen, Thor Benson, and Nancy MacLaren.  James R. Gapinski and Susan Lynch also read selections from The Conium Review‘s second issue.  Come get a taste of the new issue, hear some travelogues, enjoy some poetry, and share in the celebration as we launch Volume 1, Number 2 of The Conium Review.

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: Chinoiserie

Written by Karen Rigby
Ahsahta Press, 2012
ISBN 9781934103258

Karen RigbyKaren Rigby‘s first book of poems, Chinoiserie, which won the prestigious 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, reveals a poet perpetually contextualizing memory, feeling, and perception, despite their evident abstractions.  One location begets another—begets a feeling previously un- or underexamined.  Rigby achieves a balancing act between the abstract and the vividly real, rendering poems whose lack of transparent structure and emphasis on intuitive order cultivates an emotive response in her readers.

When examining Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cebolla Church, Rigby’s speaker (in a poem that takes its name from O’Keeffe’s famous painting) is awed by the deceptive simplicity of the painting and the mysterious figure at the window of the church, which the speaker interrogates: “It could be any thumb-shaped blur / agains the window pane: // sexton.  Thief.  // [. . .] someone has to sweep.  / Someone lights the long, pitched room” (4-10).  The speaker’s curiosity, which has been shared with countless witnesses to O’Keeffe’s painting (not to mention any one of her beautifully odd and mysterious works), further unites the speaker with a collective impression, continuing to ask questions that bring no definitive answer, but nonetheless yield simultaneously personal and communal emotional responses.  With this context, of a shared response to a difficult-to-fathom work/moment, Rigby’s speaker suddenly segues into a publicized tragedy: One month, news kept looping / the same reel of the last wreck.  // [. . .] I pictured walls radiating gold— / the church with its slant door.  // Someone listening / for a distant thundering” (18-25).  By itself the poem works fine, but within this collection, the tragedy alluded in this poem leads us to assume Rigby’s speaker is reflecting on 9/11: “Men roamed like beekeepers / in their white suits” over the wreck (20-21).  Throughout the book, 9/11 (more specifically the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania) creeps into the frame, as if refusing to be delegated to some obscure subtext.

The act of questioning (Rigby’s fresh, constant curiosity), necessitated by the act of witnessing, compels response.  The thing to understand about Rigby’s Chinoiserie is that nothing can be confined to privacy; however personal a reader’s response is, he/she nonetheless shares it, shares in it, by engaging with the dialogue Rigby propels forward through these poems.  Rigby achieves this by introducing her reader to art and to certain moments, such as 9/11.  Another poem that particularly strike us is “Photo of an Autoerotic”:

After the first shock, you have to

admire the body’s hardwood cursive.


His face

concealing his member,

his thumb

and forefinger

hooking his head


to his own lip like a snake charmer,

something fabled but true: (1-9)

Here, there’s little question as to what the speaker is observing: a photo of a young man bowing his head (in a feat of flexibility) to kiss the tip of his member.  The opening, “After the first shock, you have to / admire the body’s hardwood cursive [. . .] something fabled but true,” reveals an acute, sensitive reaction—sensitive to experience, to wonder.  The speaker projects more than just curiosity: admiration for the subject’s flexibility, grace, and embodied dexterity—“a snake charmer,” a rather precise simile/image both mimicking the pose of the subject while asserting feelings of exoticism (eroticism) and danger: “something fabled but true.” The speaker’s reaction (and you’ll notice that the perspective is second-person, enabling us to make the speaker’s experience our own) evolves into probing the life of the subject (by imposing the memory of another young man’s life in place of the subject’s):

the boy whose mother told him

not to bear


someone else’s       wishes home.

[. . .]

there are rooms behind

the ones you know.

Already the boy is learning

to let go: a matchbook


missing half its lashes,

the queen wasp dormant in the window frame.  (21-31)

Chinoiserie CoverThe use of memory familiarizes us with the photo’s subject, no longer as exotic, yet no less erotic: “The scent [of the camera flash] reminds you of pennies / greening underwater” (19-20).  The sense of loss (“a matchbook // missing half its lashes”), disillusionment and death (“the queen wasp dormant in the window frame”), and mystery (“rooms behind / the ones you know”), is poignant to say the least.

Part of what makes Rigby’s book so compelling is its engima, always pushed to the surface yet never fully disclosed or explicated.  There are so many good poems in this collection (for instance, “Bathing in the Burned House,” “New York Song,” “Lovers in Anime,” and “Black Roses”) that this review cannot do the whole book justice.  I strongly urge anyone reading this review to give the book a chance.  However, when reading these poems, one must not take them lightly or skim them over.  The book is short, short enough for a deserved reread; let these poems seep into your brain, infiltrate your senses.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved Reviews “The Conium Review”

We’ve had positive reviews in Small Press Reviews and Stone Highway Review, and now weighs in.  In the review, Kenneth Nichols says “the pieces draw you in with character work that is compelling” and the issue “devote[s] attention to the small moments that reflect our true identities.”  Read the full review here.

“The Conium Review” is Looking for a Guest Editor

Vol. 1, No. 2 is almost completely wrapped up, and it’ll ship to bookstores and subscribers in July!  This means that Ian Chung has completed his stint as Guest Editor.  We’re conducting our search for the next Guest Editor now; if you’d like to work on an issue on The Conium Review, please visit this link for more details.