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

Kirby Wright’s latest poetry collection now available from Moon Pie Press

WidowLakeBledKirby Wright has been a regular contributor to The Conium Review, with work appearing in our Spring 2012, Fall 2012, and Spring 2013 issues. His latest poetry collection, The Widow from Lake Bled, has just been published by Moon Pie Press.

He has published several other books, including Punahou Blues, Moloka’i Nui Ahina, and Before the City on Lemon Shark Press.

Our Associate Editor, Tristan Beach, had this to say about The Widow from Lake Bled:

Whether it be a Hawaiian beach or an attic in eastern Europe, each locale is rendered in precise and empathic verse. Wright’s poems are wrought with such care and intelligence — testaments to his mastery of craft.

Congratulations on the new book, Kirby!

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: 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

Book Review: Eyes, Stones

Eyes, Stones
Written by Elana Bell
Louisiana State University Press, 2012
ISBN 9780807144640

Eyes StonesElana Bell’s debut book of poems, Eyes, Stoneswalks a hairline-tightrope between one side and another in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bell mines the depths of twentieth-century history, presenting persona poems in the voices of Jewish Holocaust survivors, Zionists, Palestinian refugees, and folk heroes from either side of the violent ongoing conflict. Reading Eyes, Stones is like rediscovering the poets Carolyn Forché and Ai; there’s a sense of joy and terror bleeding through the page. However, Eyes, Stones is wholly Bell’s achievement—a deeply personal collection of poems of witness, illuminated by compassion.

Bell, who descended from Holocaust survivors and has taught in both Israel and Palestine, has a deeply personal stake in this book; she depicts her ancestors’ struggles to reclaim their homeland in early to mid-twentieth century, while also depicting the struggles of “the enemy,” exiled in their own land, afflicted with poverty and extremism. Bell’s compassion leads into a painful conflict for the poet and these poems—rather than maintaining objectivity, Bell opts for subjective first-person speakers, placed side-by-side, at times difficult to differentiate. Perhaps the best example of this is her poem, “Naming Our Dead,” which is composed entirely of extinguished and displaced Palestinian and Israeli towns, villages, and settlements. The poem, which is difficult to reproduce here, is rendered as a long block of prose with names in alphabetical order, punctuated by periods and indents. In three different places, a gaping hole yawns across several lines as if missing chunks of prose; the holes resemble the crisp silhouettes of petals.

Another poem presenting the immediate conflict (of conscience and compassion) is “Language in the Mouth of the Enemy”: “I am afraid that this poem / will contribute to the destruction of Israel” (1-2). Motive is not what’s in question here, but consequence. Bell’s speaker, a teacher, fears that if she educates Palestinian women, she will arm them with yet another weapon:

if I teach the women of Nahalin poetry,
if I give voice to their rage,
what great-aunt of mine shot in the back
before an unmarked grave will have died then,
again for nothing? (7-11)

And if she expresses sympathy toward the plight of Palestinian refugees, she will automatically betray the Israeli state; she will betray decades of sacrifice and struggle:

If I love the suffering of the Palestinians—it is so bright–
more than the suffering of my own,
[. . .]
then what have I done? What have I
done? What have
I done? (12-23)

The question, “What have I done?” is repeated over the last three lines; here, Bell carefully breaks the lines to impose short pauses, adding to the sense of gravity. Their syllabic lengths whittle down suggesting that the bulk of the poem balances uncertainly on two syllables, as if one single well-intended act will cause the whole destruction of Israel. The anaphoric, iambic “If I” directs us toward the speaker’s personality, motives, and empathy; the last line, “I done,” places the stress on her action, ignoring original intentions and focusing on the consequence.

Another standout (trio) of poems, each spoken in the voice of Yasser Arafat, are “How I Got My Name (Arafat),” “The Chairman,” and “Military Tactics.” Each poem occurs in each of the three sections composing Eyes, Stones, and each may serve as the closest reminder—along with the poems “How I Got My Name (Jabotinsky),” “Wolf,” and “Kishinev,” which are spoken in the voice of Zionist leader Jabotinsky—of the poet Ai. Bell’s abilities as a persona-poet (a bad label since arguably all poets are persona-poets) are impressive, given that much of the language she employs is consistently richly violent, stark, and rhythmic from poem to poem, with slight differentiation between speakers beyond context and tone:

We are inside the dream of a God who’s forgotten us. There is no other way to say it. Through the stippled glass I watch the neighbors hammer nails into the Jewish babies’ eyes. Mama pulls me to her breasts that smell of bread and smoke. I want to look. There are no windows from which I do not see the city burning. (“Kishinev”)

The sentence, “There is no other way to say it,” recalls a sentence from Forché’s “The Colonel”: “There is no other way to say this.” Perhaps Bell unconsciously intones the voice of Forché, whose definition of “poetry of witness” has pretty much shaped all consequential discourse on the genre. However, comparisons are easily drawn in any book; this is not to detract from Bell’s originality or discourage reading the volume through an autobiographical lens. Rather, calling forth these two poets help us locate Bell’s prescient, carefully and urgently crafted verse as among some of the most jarring and provocative poems of witness available. Unfortunately, aside from having the distinction of the Walt Whitman Award, Bell’s Eyes, Stones won’t place high on poetry bestsellers lists (yes, they exist!). But rest assured, the book will circulate among patrons of The Academy of American Poets, backdoor reading circles, and a few classrooms in years to come.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Fables

Fables
Written by Sarah Goldstein
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011
ISBN 9780982541661

Sarah Goldstein’s first book, Fables (Tarpaulin Sky Press) defies easy categorization. Marketed as “fiction,” Fables is formatted into five sections, each featuring short, numbered blocks of prose that depict a scene or relate a story in the fashion of Aesop. However, like Aesop, Golstein’s “fables” can just as easily be taken as (prose-) poems, each one containing a pronounced, concentrated rhythm and featuring familiar and strange images, while lacking proper nouns and specificity. Another thing lacking from these fables is a moral or encapsulating final phrase—something that comments on the preceding action. In the case of Fables, the minimal commentary renders these dark fables vague and cryptic. If there is a lesson to be learned amid the catastrophic misfortunes befalling the characters in these fables, human and animal alike, that lesson is found solely within the reader’s analysis.

FablesFor instance, in the very first piece in the section entitled “Fables,” Goldstein seems to bring in the very question of narrative, which is to explicate a series of events beyond simply ordering them into a digestible sequence. When a group of adults bring with them grief-stricken orphans on their next hunt (they heed an old myth: “take an orphan child hunting, you will return with threefold the bounty” [author’s italics]), the orphans vanish mysteriously from their party and the hunters return empty-handed. According to the fable, the children depart from the party, sensing the adults’ frustration, and wind up falling asleep in the underbrush of the forest, only to awake as birds: “When they cry, it is the sounds of the whippoorwills. The nightingales become their mothers, and pheasants usher them to winter quarters” (7). When the adults return to face the other villagers, “[everyone] grimaces, hearing only what they decide to understand” (7). There’s no clear alternative interpretation of the events that Goldstein presents to us. The children disappear and turn into birds. Birds and transformations figure greatly throughout this collection as recurring motifs, enabling these fables to feel interconnected, despite each one being both microcosmic and singular, without repeated characters or settings, yet still managing to recall Greek and Western European storytelling tradition. In the instance of this fable, Goldstein affords her readers the freedom to “decide to understand” what they read or how they read into Fables.

Rimbaud, in his famous prose poem, “Conte” (“Story”), utilizes then brutalizes the familiar fable form, depicting a restless prince who savagely slaughters his subjects, who in turn mysteriously emerge unharmed and compliant. “Conte” ends with a cryptic encapsulating sentence that has nothing to do with the preceding text. This is to illustrate that what Goldstein does with the fable, by reinvigorating or reinventing (or even calling attention to the form and structure of the fable) isn’t entirely new or untried—think: Donald Barthelme and many of his numerous narrative experiments here. However, Goldstein writes with the air of someone who simultaneously knows what she’s doing while not obsessing with encrypting or disclosing meaning. Fables is no flagrant assault on any literary movement, but a very poised, playful, and unpretentious collection of proses that challenges readers’ notions of what is a fable and to whom is the fable directed.

In her section entitled “Ghosts,” Goldstein shifts attention to the familiar, universal ghost story—haunted folklore that has seeped through the centuries. The third fable of this section unexpectedly brings the reader into another cryptic, ominous scene:

She shudders along the roadside with her limbs deciphered. You are close enough to hear them clattering. A windshield held her indent but the driver has already taken a sledgehammer to it: her backbone a plaintiff pounded into dust. Her sightlines narrow to a dreary hallway of open doors with see-saw voices sobbing into amputated handkerchiefs. (43)

The “you” may be taken in the figurative sense; however, would it not be more delightful and insidious to assume we bear witness to this violent aftermath which despite its vividness (deciphered, clattering limbs and a road compared to a hallway of sawing, creaking doors) is still quite puzzling? Goldstein infers the driver has hit a tree, whose shape has left an indent in his windshield. Another way we could interpret this—this, with its free associations!—is that gendered tree is in fact a woman, shuddering along the roadside as the man who hit her with his car is obliterating the evidence. Again, no comment illuminates or firmly directs our thinking, which is refreshing to say the least.

Perhaps one of Goldstein’s greatest achievements in this slim, provocative (and beautifully designed) collection of proses is her consistent, dark and at times terrifying tone (terror as suggestive; horror as explicit—according to Anne Radcliffe’s “On the Supernatural in Poetry”), sustained through a consistent pattern of narration—no exposition, a sequence of action with or without a climax, and overshadowed by dodgy yet curiously vivid, heavily auditory-based depictions. Goldstein’s tone, along with these violent, intelligent, and suggestive yet playful and inventive little stories make Fables an outstanding candidate for any poetry/prose lover’s bookshelf.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 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: Chinoiserie

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

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
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