Essays & Criticism on Contemporary Poetry & Literary Fiction
THIS MONTH’S FEATURED ARTIST: Alyce Hardee
Originally from North Carolina, Alyce began taking pictures as a teenager. This led her to move to the Deep South to study Visual Art at Belhaven University in Jackson Mississippi. After completing her degree in 2010, she moved to Montréal, Québec where she currently lives, makes art and works with Jeunesse En Mission Montréal. Her photography has been exhibited in Charlotte, NC, Jackson, MS and Montréal. Much of her work focuses on that which makes up her immediate environment, people, places, architecture, and becomes a dialogue with, and response to these influences. She views photography as a way to not only tell a story, but also to uncover layers, textures and patterns often hidden below the surface of daily life. http://be.net/alycehardee
The Poetry of Nonviolence: Marilyn Krysl on Ingrid Wendt
Life’s Events as They Are: Joe Sullivan on Phillip Sterling
The Poetry of the North: Zinta Aistars on Melinda Moustakis
Reverence, Irreverence: Cindy Hochman on Ann Cefola
Transgressing Genre: When Prose Poetry is Flash Fiction
Nonsense is Not Gibberish: David Atkinson on D. Harlan Wilson
Location, Location, Location: Simeon Berry on Philip Jenks and Simone Muench
Dazed Birds: Glenda Burgess on Brad Watson
Patricia Carragon reviews Cindy Hochman’s The Carcinogenic Bride
The Woman Who Wouldn’t Shake Hands Patricia Carragon on Chocolate Waters
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Loud & Quick: Mitch Levenberg on Diane Simmons December Contributors About Us/Review Copies Available
Truman State University Press, 2011
The Poetry of Nonviolence: Marilyn Krysl on Ingrid Wendt
Ingrid Wendt’s sixth collection, Evensong, published in 2011 as part of Truman State University Press’ New Odyssey Series, runs to 77 rewarding pages. Wendt, who received her B.A. from Cornell College, Iowa, and an MFA from the University of Oregon, publishes in such diverse venues as POETRY and MS, and her honors include the Oregon Book Award, the 2004 Editions Prize from Word Tech Editions, the 2003 Yellowglen Award from Word Press, the Carolyn Kizer Award, an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, and the D.H. Lawrence Award. As a Senior Fulbright Professor at the University of Frankfurt/Main, Germany (1994-95), she taught American poetry and writing. Her book, Starting With Little Things: A Guide to teaching Poetry in the Classroom is now in its sixth printing. Her first poetry collection, Moving the House, was chosen for BOA Editions by William Stafford with whom Wendt subsequently enjoyed a life long friendship, and in 2011 she delivered the keynote address at George Fox University’s celebration of Stafford. During World War II he’d declared himself a conscientious objector and spent three years in work camps. About war, Stafford once said, I can decide there’s one person who won’t be in it. Wendt admired his dedication to nonviolence, and after his death in 1993, she spearheaded organizing a celebration of Stafford’s work which continues annually. And she’s honored him again in an extended essay, “The Unknown Good in Our Enemies: The Poetry of William Stafford and Poetry of the Middle East.” It’s not surprising then that Evensong exhibits her ongoing concern with politics, the human connection and the natural world. And I imagine she would agree with Polish Nobel Prize poet Wislawa Szymborska, who, in “Children of Our Age” reminds us that politics is ubiquitous. …Whatever you say reverberates,
Whatever you don’t say speaks for itself. Either way you’re talking politics. Even when you take to the woods you’re taking political steps on political grounds…. The poems in Eventide’s first section which treat relations with family, spouse and friends, are also political poems, and like Stafford before her, Wendt takes responsibility, as did he, for the live, green world, in this case spider webs. …each morning I find them beautiful, go out of my way to lift, lightly, at least one nearly invisible polar thread to another, safer anchor: each shimmer, flat, before-Columbus plate of the world adrift: wheels within wheels and the motionless sun at the center…. This poem enacts what Stafford said about poetic revision: “You create a good poem by revising your life,…living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about.” Wendt revisions for us her spontaneous perception that the webs are beautiful, so that she cannot but choose to go “out of my way….” “Valse Triste” centers on Wendt’s concern for her husband’s health. The words bless, blessing and blessed act as lyric refrain, while the husband refuses the rules Wendt would enforce to keep him alive. She, God bless her, wants him alive And he won’t wear his jacket. Connives To watch the sunset without it. Won’t take his pills…. In “Mother’s Day, Ellensburg, Washington” Wendt continues to examine our web of connections, which “keep this inescapable human circle in repair….” …why am I suddenly grateful… in the store when a clerk I’d never met, exclaimed 5
What a beautiful jacket! and I saw she was talking to me. And why, less than an hour ago, asking directions of the olderthan middle-aged filling station attendant, didn’t I follow my impulse to ask where she got that peach-colored orchid on her lapel, so she could maybe have told me one of her children gave it to her…. As Stafford suggested, this kind of perception comes from a poet who has revised, not a poem, but her life. The theme of unexpected connections continues in Evensong’s second section, but it’s the poems in the collection’s final section that most powerfully lift and expand our perception, nudging us toward transformation. In “Requiem for a Soprano” Wendt invokes music as a path to spiritual transcendence, as from heights she looks down at millions of icebergs glittering on blue water .…as though God has taken a giant finger over the water’s surface, whirled it white, a whole new galaxy, too vast to be named. Song could get lost in a space like this. Or fill it…. Wendt tells us that a poem entitled “Numbers” will end with a line borrowed from Stafford. She enumerates the death count of war’s casualties: airline disasters, mass graves, earthquake, tsunami, the Twin Towers. But citing the numbers of the dead won’t a poem make. Citing the numbers of those who rallied against “Shock and Awe” won’t a poem make either. Nor will citing the subsequent numbers killed, maimed. But Wendt perseveres, as though she would force mere numbers to speak. You can’t evoke suffering by tossing large numbers into the air, I wanted to say. Find a way to sing it. What I didn’t know was that Wendt was writing her way toward a crucial quote by Pete Seeger (you’ll like it), followed by the last line of the poem, which is Stafford’s. Here’s how to count the people who are ready to do right: “One.” “One.” “One.” It’s a defiant line. And it’s Stafford’s line, placed at the end of the poem and the end of my patience, that transforms the numbers from mere statistics to human anguish. But the genius of the poem is Wendt’s. She’s borrowed brilliantly, and deliv6
ered a resounding homage to Stafford. The final four poems return to lyric, and it’s as though we are present at the death of Wendt’s mother while hearing Mozart’s Requiem. The penultimate poem, “Benediction”, published in Prairie Schooner, describes Wendt washing her mother’s body. It’s a poem that ought to have won Prairie Schooner’s prize, and I longed to administer the prize ex cathedra. Buy Wendt’s book and let it lift you as flocks of birds from the depths of the field rise in unison, arc and wheel and dip with no bird in the lead….
Wayne State University Press, 2011
Life’s Events as They Are: Joe Sullivan on Phillip Sterling
There is no fluff, no filler, no tricks, in this story collection by Phillip Sterling. He gives us a concise, collected, beautiful series of stories, all set in Michigan, all seemingly with a running theme—resignation to life’s events as they are. What Sterling does in this collection is masterful. He doesn’t overstate any of his characters’ thoughts or actions, and he doesn’t present anything in language overly flowery or unfitting of the circumstances. He covers a wide variety of characters: yuppies attending a dinner party, a used car salesman, a dying girl, a farmer nearing retirement, a gas station attendant, a solitary writer on an island in the middle of a lake, to name a few. None of the stories are longer than 18 pages, and the shortest are just two. His economy with length and with language creates a selfcontained quality and a closeness to the characters. There seems to be a Zen-like silence at the center of many of them. Maybe the best example of this is Amy, the gas station attendant in “What We Don’t Know.” Amy is working late, and a man stops his car at one of her pumps and doesn’t get out for gas. He just sits there. She doesn’t know whether to check on him—protocol says she must stay inside after hours to avoid dangerous characters. Throughout the story, she seems hardened in a way, not scared of the situation she’s faced with, but eager to move forward through it in the best way possible. Eventually, she does check out the car, and the man at the wheel is crying uncontrollably and won’t say why. A police officer she knows well, Doug, comes to assist her, and we learn her back story. She and Doug had been at the police academy together, and we know she was later disfigured in an accident. And then she tells us: It’s true. I’d never told Doug about the pregnancy. I suppose I felt it was my problem, not his. I knew from the start that the discovery of our relationship would cause embarrassment for both of us, a possible ethics hearing, maybe
even sideline Doug’s career. Still, at first, I didn’t do anything to prevent it. I thought I was in love, and, at the time, that was all that mattered, especially as our love was so easily concealed. We were trained to be professionals; at work we acted professionally… Then she says: But a pregnancy is not something you can hide for long. A professional decision had to be made. And I made it… It’s so straightforward, the way she states it. And it juxtaposes with the man in the car, him falling apart, her keeping it together with her “professional decision.” It adds a whole other layer to her encounter with the man and with the officer, Doug. But she doesn’t embellish, and she doesn’t cry for herself. She just moves on. Another good example of this type of resigned character is the writer, Karen and Susan’s Dad (his name isn’t given, and the story is told through Karen, mostly), in “The Last Swim of the Season.” The two sisters haven’t heard from him, and Karen has been sent to visit him in his isolated cabin. We learn: He had a history of isolation and silence, at least with respect to his daughters. While he never actually voiced disapproval of what they did or didn’t do, he often seemed to harbor disappointment in them, like a gray fringe of clouds at the edge of a blue sky… Their mother had simply excused his behavior as “writer’s blues.” During her time there waiting, Karen actually finds time to reflect on her own life, and she finds peace for a little while. And it continues when her father does finally return to the cabin. He’s had a minor operation on his neck to remove a cyst and has temporary laryngitis. Karen’s upset at first that he didn’t tell them, and on a note, he writes to her, simply: “Had something gone wrong, you would have heard.” She realizes quickly that there was nothing she or her sister could have done either way. She becomes resigned to the sequence of events unfolding outside her control, and she returns to the calm she felt at the cabin alone, reflecting, waiting for him. It was really her worried sister, she concludes, who got her to go there. And it seems to have worked out, in the end, in Karen’s favor, because she’s gotten to spend time with her father and found some peace for herself.
As a final example, there’s Ginny, the farmer Hank’s wife, in “The Good Life.” She watches her husband carefully, as he attempts to finally retire from farm-
ing and buy a boat to sail away as a retiree. It doesn’t come easily to him, but he finally does get his boat, which he names the “LeeSure Lady.” Ginny says: The boat was beautiful, I guess, though it did appear to be weathered. The sails were a creamy yellow color and had a few tattered edges. The wood was faded gray, like driftwood, and the varnish flaked off at the touch. But the fiberglass seemed intact; there didn’t appear to be cracks anywhere in the hull… Her optimism is measured, and her description just as measured. She’s resigned to waiting with slight pessimism, to see if her husband really will get his plan off the ground and to see if the boat truly becomes beautiful. Hank spends the whole winter working on the boat, until finally, in April, it’s ready. But the weather won’t permit them to sail until one day in June, when he and Ginny can motor around the harbor. And it’s then that Hank suffers a devastating heart attack while they’re on the water. In the ambulance, Ginny reflects: He had seldom removed his gold-braided captain’s cap, which Drew had given him when he first bought the boat. Traded for his farm hat. But bareheaded and drained of color, the Hank in the ambulance was more like a poor wax model of himself. A death mask. Her description here, again, is fairly resigned—she could have been surprised or shocked, but instead she just observes. And then she returns to waiting, by the end of the story, for Hank to wake from his coma. …I wait. Like a sailor’s wife. I keep busy as a volunteer at the hospital, so I can look in on him, and I imagine in my faithful heart that someday he will return. I imagine he’s just off the coast of somewhere—living the good life—and on a healthy tack toward home. Simply stated, but powerful—this is the strength of Sterling’s entire collection.
Zinta Aistars on Melinda Moustakis
It’s been many years, too many, since I set foot in Alaska, but opening the pages of Melinda Moustakis’ debut collection of character-linked Alaskan stories brought me back instantly into that stunningly wild and beautiful landscape. Bear Down, Bear North is a series of vignettes about life in Alaska, some as short as a few sentences, written in resonant and poetic language. Poetic, yet not flowery. This is the poetry of northern wilderness, sparse, even cruel in its precision, yet breathtaking. Consider the opening lines of the vignette titled “Trigger”: “You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say. “Which means: We had no other place. “The homestead is full of my mother’s siblings. On the stove, a pot of potato chow big enough to feed twenty. See my mother, back roughed against the wooden platform in the trees. See my father, finger on the trigger—in case. “You have to gut a moose right away, they say, or the meat rots in its skin. “Which means: We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.” And so, before you’ve even properly stepped over the threshold to enter this world Moustakis has word-painted, you are already catching your breath, spanning the horizon, perhaps looking for an exit in case of sudden danger, but more likely, a shadowy corner so you can stay as long as possible, surveying the scene of these hardened and colorful characters. Your eye lands on one wonder after another, and from these, you draw your story.
Moustakis writes in second person. She addresses you, wrapping you inside her main character so that lines blur, so that the effect of the surroundings is that much more immediate. Not many can pull that off. Second person is a literary least favorite stance, left for the highly skilled, and Moustakis is that. With each vignette, both place and person is brought to harsh life. You begin as a little girl, but already
University of Georgia Press, 2011
The Poetry of the North:
schooled in survival. We’re not talking pigtails. This is a family, three generations, of Alaskan homesteaders, of fishermen and fisherwomen, trappers and hunters. Your mother smokes a Big-Z cigar to keep the mosquitoes away while fishing. Your brother shoots himself in the chest after too many swigs on the vodka bottle. Your daughter has perfect aim. Even the fish in these vignettes speak to you, so alive, so red, so struggling against the elements: The days are long and thin. The salmon keep to the shallows near rotting trees. With reaching fingers, the Kenai tugs at their tails, drawing them to the channel. The salmon wrestle the water, tap their last beats of blood and when the river wins, they drift and fodder downstream. Their bodies are carried, broken, and red to the currents. Which, above, is an entire vignette, titled “Run.” The beauty of these short pieces is beyond argument; the danger, which may indeed add to the beauty, is that Moustakis has dared to write by using words and lines and language in almost equal leverage to the space between. The space between leaves room for the reader to consider the story, and there are times that this technique can leave one feeling a bit stranded, disconnected, carried away by the current. At times, I lost my thread, wondering even if I was reading about animal or human—who was this? In what role? Yet that same current would pull me irresistibly forward, and I very nearly didn’t care if I knew or not. Just wanted more. It is such literary artistry that will put Moustakis quickly on the literary map, outline her name in stars, bullet it as a name to be watched closely. It may also keep her from bestselling tables for the mainstream reader who seeks a more traditional storyline. I would hope that particular seduction will fall flat for the author. She is a trailblazer, a unique voice, a literary leader. I suspect she writes as she writes because all else, anything less daring, would be impossible to her.
Far from home, a refugee family
Cindy Hochman on Ann Cefola
One of the great joys of being a chapbook reviewer is that rare moment when you stumble upon a poet who knows how to excite the senses. Ann Cefola is a contemporary poet who speaks of contemporary things, not so much a lone cry in the wilderness as a song of our times, not always certain and not always pretty, but celebratory nonetheless. In a heady marriage between edgy street smarts and everyday realism, Cefola serves up pearls and passion with equal parts sass and sensibility, while her subject matter runs the gamut from desolation to diamonds. It is apropos that the opening poem, “Landfall,” begins with a dramatic gasp for life: The bruised body falls back into its water weight. Into the green-cold your husband jumps, pushing the abandoned man onto his boat’s lower grill. Lips against a swollen mouth, your husband blows then yells, Cmon, goddammit. Come back. You know where the man is. Fingering grit and rusted can, slapping starfish and seaweed aside, you call your own blue body, sinking from slices and stitches as unfamiliar as fin and scale. Can you coax yourself back from a diagnosis’s murky deep? In the context of this book, the drowning man could very well represent the collective US, and like the hero/husband, the poet throws us a lifeline in the nick of time. Whether you have just lost your job, a loved one, or your faith in this country, Cefola implores you to soldier on—and she does so herself—sometimes wearing dowdy, sensible shoes, and sometimes cutting loose in spiky high heels.
Cefola took particular care in titling her book, capturing the poems’ central themes on multiple levels. Here, “St. Agnes” refers to the renaming and downsizing of St.
Kattywompus Press, 2011
Agnes Hospital, with its connotations of job loss and resultant hardship. The phrase “pink slip” is unfortunately self-explanatory, but in a sly bit of wordplay, Cefola extends the metaphor of a “pink slip” to infer womanhood, in symbols both feminine and tough. So, too, by mortalizing St. Agnes herself, a religious undercurrent wends its way through this carefully mapped macrocosm of American life, with the not-so-subtle implication that even saints are hitting rock bottom these days. The title poem, while wryly humorous on the surface, is, in reality, a disturbing commentary on economic desperation:
Did you see her hitching along North Street? Melted halo liquid light around her neck, once golden raiment a yellow raincoat, hovering toes now firmly bound in sneakers.
She asks for work – home health aide, local apparition or might she replace a negligent guardian angel? Anything not to lose the perfume of seasons . . .
Cefola’s poems are written for a thoroughly modern age, but contain an oldfashioned dose of decency. Using sensory language, a dollop of common sense, and with her pen firmly on the pulse of our frantic cities, she provides a primer for finding jubilation in the mundane.
Heavenly bodies arching above, warm coffee, cinnamon and yeast below. Stretching doughy muscles and sweet cells, we, like small loaves, expand, turn golden, rise.
Yes, we rise—and find joy in the small things because we have to. With a ‘weare-all-in-this-together stance,’ petting the dog becomes a monumental act of kindness; being a good friend, a blessing. Playful flirt ends up in the “wet contact” of love. And suddenly, our humdrum, workaday existence takes on new meaning—Cefola teaches us that sometimes mercy comes in the form of a cold nose or a warm cinnamon bun. There is a quality of “nesting” in these poems, but while invoking all the comforts of home, the poet also takes us on a road trip, conjuring a few angels along the way. Cefola treads a cautious but hopeful path over the freeways of our great land, providing glimmers and glimpses of Americana in all its stratified glory. And what better way to punctuate this journey than with a pit stop at Price Club, that colorful, have-a-nice-day icon of our Big Box consumerism culture: They all lead here: Expressways, interstates and parkways 16
to the warehouse, members only, where yellow, orange and red shopping carts wheel possible purchase. A young girl’s eyes roll up in sleep as she dreams of magic markers . . . What voice commands, Come on down? My wallet, Go ahead. I look up to barbecues and vacuum cleaners on raised altars, huge cereal boxes like Warhol designs, paper plates stacked like southern columns. Did you notice that the barbecues and vacuums are on “raised altars?” In a nod to our great American landscape, this poem homes right in on the holy hymn of “buy, buy, buy.” Cefola stays the course in hot pursuit of the great American dream, but like Dorothy in Oz, all roads lead to the poet’s own backyard, merging and converging into a more personal map: muscle, bone, and skin. In the aptly-titled “Girl’s Night Out,” the female body is as multi-directional as the highway we have just exited. In this late summer garden, I consider my uterus untraveled as a new triple-digit Interstate, a wide boulevard Haussmann might have built, tree-lined and unpopulated: a passage I walk every day, sometimes fast, blindly; other times singing, My avenue, my very own. But this particular throughway is not always smooth. In “Breast Imaging,” sinister forces are lurking, as the rugged terrain morphs into biological landmarks, trampled and revered, exposing an underbelly of both exaltation and, for lack of a better term, urban blight: In the bluest of rooms, I am awash in X-ray white. My body’s on lease to strangers: Wrapped in paper, I mourn my lost topography, My front yard with its swings and sandbox. roots delicate and lacey in red earth, my certain garden, my creamy whole. These poems will strike a familiar chord with the majority of us who possess champagne taste but live on a Wal-Mart budget. For this poet, though, the lines 17
between need and want are blurred—somehow, she gives us permission to drink in the “euphoria of wine and free time,” and grab for the gold, especially when it is in the shape of an eyeliner pencil. In white slip like lace, close to mirror, my mother fills eyebrows with a Charles of the Ritz gold pen . . . This fluid-ounce foundation with one hand, invoke Coco to smooth canvas pores to linen, help me get closer to my true snakeskin. to swim toward grace, she knew what must be applied. Beyond all this blush and gloss is the inference that it is possible to enhance our lives with a bit of luxury while retaining our humble essence; in fact, it may very well be an act of redemption. In the poem “Kerning,” reflective meditation is tied in with sensuous pampering: But I want to say, spaces tell me to stop. Breathe. They are waiters bringing tropical drinks With paper umbrellas. Ann Cefola has gifted us with a rich, wise volume of poetry, full of reverence, irreverence, and revelry. In the big picture, her message may very well be that life is really simple despite its complexities. Mostly, though, these poems are about connections, the small glories we share with ourselves and others when we attempt to lift the ordinary into the extraordinary. I think there is room For me too, a constellation, a myth, a woman of 43 Constantly looking up and wondering, Who realizes at last the dipper is full, The hunter will never catch the bear and Andromeda must unloose her own chains, rub her nasty wrists, Stretch, then sit down and cast her future in stars. On the long and winding byway of being, Cefola is here to tell us that the scenery is beautiful despite the occasional falling boulders. “St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped” reminds us that if we stay on the straight and narrow, the odds are good that we will survive. But even more miraculously, we might even find that the bumpy interstate leads to the stars, to heaven. 18
When Prose Poetry is Flash Fiction Chella Courington
Unlike prose poetry that began to appear in nineteenth-century France and America, flash fiction is a fairly recent term though ancestors have existed since Aesop’s Fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What characteristics do these two genres share? The essential trait of a prose poem is that it is written in sentences, not lines, but with the linguistic density and imagery of poetry. An essential trait of flash fiction is its highly shortened fiction, 1000 words or less, with a central character moving through time. When do prose poetry and flash fiction inhabit the same space? One possibility occurs when prose poetry with its attention to layered language also contains a central character and plot. For example, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” functions as both prose poetry and flash fiction, while Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose poem, “Inserting the Mirror #4,” does not, although it has a central character and action in time. In The Discovery of Poetry, a textbook often used in introductory poetry classes, editor Frances Mayes includes Kincaid’s “Girl” as a prose poem. The imagery, density and freshness of language associated with poetry distinguish the piece, written in one sentence, margin to margin, 670 words. With fifty-five independent clauses and fifty semicolons, it does not conform to the usual aesthetic of conventional poetry. The occasion: a mother speaks to her daughter, giving her a list of dictums from labor to etiquette. While the mother’s tone seems repressive as the daughter speaks only twice, the mother’s intent rises out of concern: she wants to enable the daughter to protect herself from colonial exploitation, if not abuse. “Girl”’s most apparent poetic strategy is repetition, particularly anaphora, with the phrase, “this is how,” used thirty-one times: “this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how.” Along with the continual restatement of this expression, 20
successive sentences often start with the same word, likewise reinforcing the language’s aural appeal: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday…. don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers—you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds.” Growing up in Antigua, an oral-based culture, Kincaid gives priority to spoken language, turning repetition into a kind of litany that recalls poetry’s oral tradition. Considering the interpretation of “Girl” as a prose poem, how did it originally wind up in the The New Yorker (1978) as a short story? Was it easier to publish short short stories than prose poetry? To what extent does this bias still exist? The most recent edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (5th, 2005) excludes prose poetry. Popular textbooks like X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft include “Girl” as short short fiction, or flash fiction. How does Kincaid’s work reside in two literary worlds at once? One of the ways that “Girl” is flash fiction is that the piece has, in addition to a character moving through time, a plot. In Narrative Magazine Robert Olen Butler argues that the short short story has two basic elements: a central character and a plot, defined as “yearning, challenged and thwarted.” In its brevity, flash fiction may not have a fully developed plot, Butler says, but it must have the essence—yearning. Re-reading “Girl” as flash fiction, I would suggest that the mother may be the central character with a strong desire to protect her daughter from the life the mother has experienced. I would also argue that the “this is how” phrase introduces action in time. What we hear in the series of instructions is the mother’s present and past, a map of where she has been. The future will be determined by the daughter. While Kincaid has stripped the flash fiction of the typical scene in which conflict triggers action and leads to resolution, she has maintained the essence of plot—the mother’s desire for the daughter to live a good life and the daughter’s yearning to be a woman. Kincaid has also pared down description of the setting, referring to it with cultural cues like food (dasheen and doukona) and song (benna) that denote a Caribbean island. Yet Kincaid has retained stability of meaning often linked to narrative. Using a single sentence of dialogue together with the typography’s lack of white space, “Girl” reinforces the “all-atonce” nature of flash fiction, designed to be read at one sitting and today at a computer screen. But what about the prose poem that does not fit flash fiction where time is a measurement of action. “Some poetry may be an attempt to touch on language 21
outside of time,” Eleni Sikelianos says. Butler agrees: “Fiction is a temporal art form. Poetry can choose to ignore the passage of time, for there is a clear sense of a poem being an object, composed densely of words, existing in space.” For example, the irrational language of the Surrealists and the pre-symbolic language of Julia Kristeva find meaning in the cracks of prosody and language, not in the rational, denotation of words. Rosmarie Waldrop’s work seems to exist between time and space, control and accident as in “Inserting the Mirror #4” from The Reproduction of Profiles: Part II. Unlike Kincaid’s piece that reflects a unified subjectivity, Waldrop’s prose poem enacts the fractured subjectivity of the female “I.” Recalling Lacan’s mirror stage, the speaker tells how she stood in front of the mirror, trying to understand her reflection. Her utterance plays with language as she repeats her name over and over. Unlike the male subject of Lacan’s study who turns his objectified self, the other, into the subject through language, Waldrop’s speaker remains the other, spiraling into space. Waldrop’s treatment of language is playful and experimental. Shying away from metaphors, she hints at their possible existence in a kind of montage of identity. Alluding to the difficulty of woman’s entering the linguistic system, be it poetry or politics, the speaker says: “As if one could come into language as into a room. Lost in the blank, my obsessive detachment spiraled out into the unusable space of infinity, indifferent nakedness.” The use of “as if” is a cue that the poet-persona begins from a position of incredulity: she doubts her ability to enter language easily, if at all. Use of the word “room” raises several associations. Italian for “room” is stanza, the conventional container of lines in a verse poem, suggesting that stanzas fit verse like rooms fit a house. Secondly, we are reminded of how women have been defined historically by domestic space and her body symbolized by the house in which she stays. The ironic twist is the room’s overlapping suggestions of language, body and poetry— to none of which the poet-persona feels attached. Also noteworthy is the “blank,” recalling John Locke’s notion of the “tabula rasa” and how identity is formed: man enters the world a blank slate and acquires the skills that define him. Traditionally for women and particularly for the speaker, those skills are inscribed by others. Does Waldrop’s piece fit Butler’s definition of fiction? It has the necessary sense of character, but the speaker’s action occurs largely outside customary time in “indifferent nakedness.” Even though she acknowledges desire for connection, “craving for hinges,” she exists without a hint of closure: “I confused identity with someone else.” Her yearning is not enough perhaps to capture the fundamental quality of plot. Waldrop’s language is too suggestive, her gaps too wide, thus providing a variability of meaning that subverts the reader’s ability to follow the character’s 22
movement along a specific arc of desire. In reading “Girl,” we can form coalitions of shared understanding. The list of desires is shorter. Their paths lit. But in Waldrop, we (readers) are offered different roads of interpretation that are as much of our making as of hers. The distinction between prose poetry and flash fiction seems much more tenuous than Butler would lead us to believe. Character, plot, yearning, and passage of time do not necessarily transform a prose poem into flash fiction or do the lack of these elements necessarily change fiction into poetry. Yet, trying to conceive of how writing evolves into poetry and into fiction gives us a deeper understanding of more experimental forms like prose poetry and flash fiction and their possible intersection. WORKS CITED Butler, Robert Olen. “A Short Short Theory.” Narrative Spring 2009. http://www. narrativemagazine.com/issues/spring-2009/short-short-theory. Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The New Yorker June 26, 1978: 29. ---. “Girl.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Eds. X.J. Kennedy & Dana Gioia. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2007. 365. ---. “Girl.” Writing Fiction. Janet Burroway. New York: Longman-Pearson, 2000. 213-14. ---. “Girl.” The Discovery of Poetry. Frances Mayes. Boston: Thomson-Heinle, 1994. 396. Sikelianos, Eleni. “Response and Bio.” Double Room. Issue 4 (Spring/Summer 2004). http://www.webdelsol.com/Double_Room/issue_four/Eleni_Sikelianos. html. Waldrop, Rosmarie. Curve to the Apples. New York: New Directions, 2006. 30.
David Atkinson on
D. Harlan Wilson
Four grapefruit, two quarts of milk, cereal, one pound of hamburger, sixteen typewriters, pickles, batteries, five tubes of toothpaste, large size rubbing alcohol, three dozen eggs, twenty-five pairs of tennis shoes, and a small diet soda. As someone might guess, this is my imaginary shopping list. I could think of no better way to start out a review of They Had Goat Heads by D. Harlan Wilson. After all, if people me to explain this collection then I do not think they are the sort of people who deserve these to read these stories. These stories are not average. They are not normal, or simple. They are not easily skimmed before being cast aside and forgotten, quickly consumed and digested. This is not Horatio Alger. I mean, consider a story (“Infancy”) that begins with the words “[a] man screwed an antenna into the soft spot of an infant’s skull and tried to get a signal.” When I read that line my brain locked up. I read it again, as if it might be different the second time. It still read as above. I read it once again, puzzling over the image, and knew I was in for something unusual. Regardless of anything else, I was engaged. When the man then called “the front desk of [his] hotel” to complain that “[t]he baby doesn’t work” and informed them that he’s “getting rid of it,” I was enthralled.
Granted, not all of the stories in They Had Goat Heads are as weird as “Infancy.” Some are actually much, much weirder. In the title story, the narrator informs the reader that he “could see down the hallway from the bed. It stretched two miles into the forest.” His mother “served [him] a bowl of vegetable soup.” Then, “[t] he TV turned on” and a “goat walked back and forth across the screen. A tall, thin man entered the picture and slaughtered the goat with an axe.” Shortly thereafter, a “brick crashed through the window” with a note attached reading “They have goat heads.” Later still, an “astronaut in a bubble helmet and an orange spacesuit” took off in a space shuttle outside the window and crashed. The astronaut “looked off the wreckage” before looking at the narrator and took “off his bubble helmet.
Atlatl Press, 2010
Nonsense is Not Gibberish:
He had a goat head.” If all that makes any kind of linear sense I certainly do not see it. However, even when the stories in this book are on the more surreal side of bizarre, instead of being just a bit absurd, I find my brain arguing with me that something is making sense that I should be paying attention to. Nonsense is not gibberish, after all. Despite repeated demands, my brain could not explain itself. Still, it continued to insist. My brain twisted itself into knots trying to make sense of what was going on and eventually I just let go and enjoyed the stories. I never felt like I really understood what was going on, if I was even supposed to (which I doubt), but that did not seem to matter very much. Whether these stories make sense or not, there is some great writing going on in this book. If you don’t laugh when you read: I forgot to lock the door again. Eventually a chimpanzee swaggered into the house. I called the police. The 911 operator said ‘You have to shoot it.’ then you are dead inside and there is no hope for you. Filled with hilarious moments, touching incidents, and mind-bending images throughout, They Had Goat Heads is fascinating from start to finish. I found myself not caring whether sense would be making an appearance at all; I just wanted to keep reading. Unless a person is so absolutely locked into what a story has to be that like musty old Mark Twain they rigidly insist that “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere” (see “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”), then I would heartily recommend him or her this book. Sure, readers might find themselves baffled from time to time. I am almost certain of such. However, that ends up being part of the fun. Along the way readers will find Wilson’s oddball humor, wild imagination, and unique way of telling a story. One thing readers will not be is bored.
Simeon Berry on Philip Jenks and Simone Muench
Given the overreliance on aphorism and rhetorical questions, it should surprise no one that collaborative poems encounter a uniquely suspicious audience. In addition to the summary judgment of whether or not each poem succeeds or fails (I am ironically omitting the air quotes here), the temptation to try to discern the genealogy of each line and who donated which chromosome is hard to resist. In the face of poetry’s radical omissions, trying to analyze collaborative poems is often less effective than trying to feel your way around a room lit by lightning. Anyone who has ever read the mysteries of Robert Parker and Raymond Chandler knows the former owes a great deal (perhaps even in the form of royalty checks) to the latter. When one reads Parker’s attempt to complete Chandler’s unfinished Poodle Springs, the content becomes, in part, an excuse to dissect the book in an attempt to find a seam, the cicatrix where Chandler’s attention and intention was broken off, and Parker’s was grafted on. (For the record, I was unable to discern the cleavage point, but I knew when it was gone). In Disappearing Address, the new collaboration between Philip Jenks and Simone Muench, they wisely hijack this suspicion to build their argument. The book is structured into five “Rooms”: Dissection, Cross-Examination, Recollection, Veneration, and Valediction, and the deeper one gets into the book, the more dizzying the implications of this conceit become. The title of each of the Rooms is a speech object in itself—a complete rhetorical piece—and all deal with the posthumous, or at least the past tense. These methods examine something to find out what it is (or, by the time the analysis is complete, what it was). Hence, the vitality, the thingness of a piece is what is disappearing—as in the title—and all that you are left with is the place where the analysis occurred (the address). Thus, in this conceit, the address refers not only to site of the speech, but also the mode of speech. 29
BlazeVOX [books], 2010
Location, Location, Location:
Jenks and Muench carry this internal and external quarrel throughout the argument of the book, adroitly switching the polarity as it pleases them. Their solution to the problem of a shared single author is to have the whole book addressed outward to others, resulting in an inverted confessional. They get around being a multitude by addressing a multitude. Hence, the reader is never sure if the barbs and japes are intended for them, the objects of the correspondence, or to the other writing partner, one of “two isolate shadows” (“Dear Doppelganger—”). In the same poem where these twinned absences show up, he/she/we/they are warned against the promiscuous impulse to “copy yourself inside of me.” The frisson of this indeterminate threat gives these poems a bite usually lacking in many collaborative works, which have a tendency to devolve into the authors “correcting each other like androids” (“Dear Ghost—”). Where other such books default to triage in the margins of two half-poems, Disappearing Address constructs a different, “precautionary industry,” a shared “haphazard affair / with Guernica” (“Dear Danger—”). This allusion serves to remind the reader of the possibilities of such a form: at its best, a hybrid work is a stark and uncanny confusion of figures, a disordered agenda that somehow resolves. At their worst, black velvet paintings have more seriousness. However, even without the nesting within the book, the reward for setting aside the blurry Venn diagram of authorial execution is exposure to a lot of dazzling language. There is such a high concentration of musical pyrotechnics that the needle on the stylistic Richter scale pretty much stays jammed against the far margin. Although the inaugural poem, “Dear Dear—” links verbal symmetry with entropy (“where there’s language / damage”), and “Dear Body—” posits a similar dissolution between opposite partners (“Collateral marital / damage martials us into softening dolls”), the book itself is a volley of interior couplets. Jenks and Muench keep “little / as vitriol” (“Dear Bitterness—”), and dress up “high-kickin’ rhetoric vetted” that’s been “dissed / & rechristened” (“Dear Philip & Simone—”) in a “Strychnine chemistry chemise” (“Dear Danger—”). The book’s musicality is industrial strength, and the authors clearly do not suffer from any melodic poverty. Whether the scope of the imagery is expansive, encompassing the whole “livid glitter” of sequined “resurrection” (“Dear Disco Dancer—”), or narrowly focused on the miniature totem of the “peer-afflicted sunspot or sunburnt / bloodspot on your pants” (“Dear Ed Gein—”), the linguistic intelligence deployed is restless and relentless. Of course, this contrapuntal intensity can also run amok, and inject an element of the pratfall into the composition. Fur becomes “fevered / farther damage” (“Dear Deer—”), flesh is cut into “wide wild skeins” (“Dear Body—”), and the “emperor of empirical” (“Dear Nothing”) presides. When this headlong alliteration is stretched 30
out, as in the case of “Dear Rachel Corrie—” (“Neither before or after, / knotted net from not knowing but beneath rubble”), the overall effect is comical. This may be deliberate, but seems clumsy when contrasted with the verbal quadrilles on display elsewhere in the poems. Jenks and Muench do not need to resort to the rimshot of a “superspeed diesel drama” (“Dear Philip & Simone—”) in order for their chords to resolve. Conversely, the lineation sometimes suffers from a sonic pile-up, which, despite occasional conceptual heavy lifting (such as in the “larynx sung / sorry shovel” of “Dear Chanteuse of the Abattoir for Young Girls—”) becomes almost crippled by seemingly arbitrary caesuras in the middle of the line: “apoplectic regret maneuvers exhort you” (“Dear Big Pharma—”). Still, Jenks and Muench are capable of lovely understatement, whether exoticizing an image “bright as a lemon / pinwheeling in a pitcher of blood (“Dear Rachel Corrie—”), smuggling strangeness into the ordinary sadness of a “double-knit catastrophe” (“Dear Danger—”), or rewriting cartoon physics to make someone’s face break “into nickels / & stars” (“Dear Suicide—”). Throughout, there were flashes of off-kilter milieus that made me want to linger over these queries, directives, and descriptors: How long have you been standing in the doorway holding a fretsaw and dreaming of indentations? (“Dear Suicide—”) Eat the wicked & leave the mild-mannered to rest in Mother’s Tupperware garden. (“Dear Ed Gein—”) Daddy’s Sick Again who once politely sliced all your red toys in two. (“Dear Leatherface—”)
Similarly, I was transfixed by the stark divorce diorama of “[s]mashed lilies / on frosted lawn” as the garage sale is going on (“Dear Bitterness—”), and I wanted to know the exact mechanism of the Rube Goldberg machine that grants high school the ability to have “disease / leased for the next five years” so that the speaker is tied to the “snow globes and lobotomies lost / inside me (“Dear High
School—”). Far from the usual capricious leaps of collaborative works, these shifts suggest a mutual sensibility that is incisive and alert to all possibilities. The strongest and most sustained conceptual work comes from the narrative’s engagement with film-noir, the arc of a “fedora jauntily launched” while the camera tracks over “the vice of your pearl-handled voice” (“Dear Obtuse—”). These motifs reach their apotheosis in not-unsurprisingly-named “Dear Film Noir—”, where the DNA of the genre itself is tidily displayed like the fingerbone of a saint: Zoom to an arachnid-savvy femme fatale undressing in a Packard, all campfire hot with her detective, inventing the opposite of ambiance. Jenks and Muench even manage to slip in an Easter egg in the form of the gold anklet from Double Idemnity: in your celluloid rain
is not gunfire but the glint of a gold anklet, shot of the possible held behind its purchase & gift. The allusion is all the more brilliant because the movie is about a partnership gone bad, a coupling where one participant spends the whole narrative being unwittingly dead, and the other just thinking he is dead. The true shell game, Jenks and Muench are saying, rests in the plot, which is just a delayed form of intention, “an insistence on a link that doesn’t exist.” A common criticism of collaboration is, of course, the imputed aesthetic transference between the authors, which often results in the destination of the piece being retroactively designated as the whole design. There are other addresses in the bestiary, and chief among the stand-outs are the swipe at the spectators of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, who “call the crawling sexy” (“Dear Victorian Beauty—”), and Baudelaire, who is boiled down to “an analogy with a busted jaw (“Must I jingle my bells & kiss your bestial brow?—”). When I read the syncopation of his portrait “introspective & absinthe- / minded with hyacinths and hell retinally-etched,” I had to wince in admiration. I do wish there that were more experiments with form in the book. “Dear Rachel Corrie—” builds up to half an accentual alliterative, and “Haptics, not Optics” is a
riotous sestina that grows delightfully malignant until it virtually consumes the whole width of the page. Still, there is such an abundance of muscular prosody and transverse structural currents that the poems don’t feel poured into the most convenient container. While Jenks and Muench may tentatively posit that that “perhaps anatomy // is its own reward” (“Dear Body—“), I have no such hesitation. At the end of this sprung travelogue, we arrive at “the nothing that is not there / drizzled with luminous language talking over itself” (“Dear Player—”), a doubled and lovely locale.
Dazed Birds: Glenda Burgess on Brad Watson
W.W. Norton, 2011
Brad Watson is no stranger to serious literary accolade. His debut story collection, Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Watson’s first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His characters were described by Jacob Silverman in the New York Times Book Review as possessed of “a rootless…barren quality…but their anguish cannot be called ennui. It’s something less desperate, less urgent, and thereby more tragic, because it is so recognizably common.” Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is Brad Watson’s newest collection of surprising, poignant, oddly resonant stories. These are characters in search of connection, scurrying across inner landscapes of almost last-gasp surrender. Watson’s characters possess, much like the narrator from the third story in the collection “Are You Mr. Lonelee?,” a swaggering, often wryly misappropriated confidence - to the degree his characters just never see their inevitable next missteps. Watson’s suspicious, watchful narrator opens this story with these lines: I thought I heard a woman sneaking up on me. In the grass. This is the predatory season for women, when men lie pale and naked in their yards like dazed birds. I let my head drop casually over the side of the lawn chair, open one eye, look. No woman. It could have been the birds. Watson’s touch is masterful: within two paragraphs we know our confident narrator is no competition for the stranger that a few days later plunks herself down beside him, helping herself to his beer, “Are you Conroy? ”I nodded and glanced at her navel. “Who are you?”
“I’m working on that,” she said with a little laugh from her throat. She drained the rest of my beer. “All right,” I said, for I’d been trying to loosen up a little the last few months. “I got your name off the mailbox,” she said. The pugnacious, boastful, self-blind qualities of many of Watson’s characters are balanced by an exposed and yearning confusion - the painful agony of life experienced in the face of uncertain success or failure. The reader willingly empathizes, sensing the inner confessions of our own relatives, the weird neighbor, the anxieties and bravado of a single Dad making his way with his young son through a drive-thru at the end of an alley of prostitutes and drug dealers. Watson stories suggest that what is common about us as humans lies in the uniquely strange repetition of our struggles; that the more odd and different we feel we are, the more we are the same. These are stories easy on the eye. Brad Watson’s writing is crisp and spare, full of acerbic flare. Stories that twist on the cusp of the unexpected, engineered with an unfolding tilt toward tension. Stories often without resolution, but that linger, filling in silhouettes of people we might recognize as our own “aliens in the prime of their lives.”
Patricia Carragon reviews:
Cindy Hochman’s The Carcinogenic Bride
Clear the aisles! Here comes The Carcinogenic Bride by Cindy Hochman from Poetry Thin Air Press (2011). No fanfare or organ music to accompany Hochman’s 22 poems. Band-aids and surgical gloves need not apply. Hochman’s poems are not bouquets of shrinking violets. They stand alone, cultivated by her brand of Brooklyn sensibility and wit. Unlike my signature piece, The Bride Wore Black, which is my vow to singlehood, Hochman walked down a different aisle and emerged a survivor. She survived the trenches of marriage, divorce, and cancer. Her book is her license to life. Yet she doesn’t walk alone. Many women have walked down that same aisle. They are the warrior women who have battled with spouses or danced with the “Big C.” They are the women who could relate most to Ms. Hochman’s stories and learn to laugh at life. Before the Table of Contents is Hochman’s first poem Self-Portrait in a Concave Knife. Here, Hochman the bride introduces herself with snippets of bittersweet humor and quirky political stabs. Her playful use of puns and unconventional rhymes could wrestle with Ogden Nash’s. Like slices from a wedding cake that fell off the table, Hochman royally offers herself to her guests who read her poetry. She must have taken advice from Ella Wheeler Wilcox: Laugh, and the world laughs with you: Weep, and you weep alone. For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, But has trouble enough of its own. And Hochman writes: Here comes the carcinogenic bride! Here comes the survivor-in-chief . . . There goes my stale mate We once lived in an altared state . . . Here is love in fission body in remission, missionary position Here is my inner elf,
my quirky self, my non-existent wealth, in sickness and in health . . . Here is the lion’s share, my blonde hair, my thin air, my health care Ass-kisser, go-getter, phone dodger, night-blogger, flip-flopper, vow-breaker . . . Here is my oil can Here is my Yes, We Can! . . . Here is my picket sign, my witty line, my glass of wine (or two . . .) Here is what I’ve held in escrow: my pens, my posse, my potbelly my strokes and daggers Here is my handle Here is my spout my gamin face, my apocalyptal pout cranky bitch with perfect pitch . . . Here’s to my every OY, my utter JOY There’s my life through a poetic prism (or maybe just my narcissism) In Part I, appropriately labeled Love is a Many-Splintered Thing, a take-off on the 1955 movie and theme-song Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Hochman dissects the subjects of love, marriage, and divorce. Hochman, a sister member of Brevitas, a bi-monthly Internet group devoted to writing poems 14 lines or less, has mastered the art of the short poem. I couldn’t stop laughing while reading about “oracle sex” in Mythological Porno Poem, pressing “DELETE” to get rid of a bad date in Love in the Computer Age, and getting a taste of Dorothy Parker in Why Chemistry 101 is Bad for my Love Life (ode to Dorothy Parker). Hochman’s wit is non-stop and gathers speed as you turn the pages. In A Partial View of a Six-Month Marriage, she tells her story in 13 lines, casting a triskaidekaphobia-like spell as you read about her failed marriage: Tongues & thresholds. The lovesick groom carries the homesick bride to the smell of Cajun spice, the sound of Caribbean drums . . . . There’s a lizard in my kitchen and dust in my coffee. The fireplace forecasts our future: paper, ash, disaster . . . . Next morning we talk over strangled eggs & bacon. El Niño wets the bed, predicts more storm. She ends Part I with her hilarious divorce poem Love and Medicine. Ironically, this 37
poem is the perfect marriage between a medical dictionary and bad love. Imagine going around in “cervicals” after quarreling at the “Isle of the Langerhans.” Hochman, a nice Jewish Girl, asks: Is there a doctor in this house? (Turn your head and kiss me) Is there a lawyer in this house? (Turn your head and divorce me) Her puns and jabs are facetious, but her poem was meant to be “humerus”. She can’t “fibula” when she is. In Part II, Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair Fuzzy Wuzzy must have been on chemo . . ., Hochman bravely relives the trauma of breast cancer, injecting drams of wit. She takes you through the triple-shock of biopsy, surgery, and chemo. In Scars From a Biopsy of the Breast, Hochman bites back at the chesty technician checking her out for cancer with her dry comment, Want one for Christmas? Hochman refuses to give in to tragedy and laughs at herself in Snippets, I had to banish all the “C” words from my thesaurus – no more Coughing, Catastrophes or Coffins – here, take my C-name. From Magna Cum Laude to San Marco to Chemo this sure has been an oblong year or maybe we should just call it a slightly pregnant pause. And suddenly all the vials of my youth have come home to roost in mega-doses. Life is obviously not a bowl of Viagra and we don’t accept simultaneous emissions. And she jokingly reminds us about journals who quibble over simultaneous submissions. (Or “emissions,” as she puts it.) Hochman’s most poignant piece, Under Anesthesia, was written after her surgery, during which she had to undergo numerous “surgeries” to reach perfection. And yes, indeed, God mends all His drunken children, And then the rich & handsome Prince and his merry band in scrubs kissed Sleeping Beauty and she woke up and went to work that very afternoon . . . , with a plastic nipple from K-Mart, some Lenox (Hill) china, and a lifetime warranty. You don’t have 38
to be Jesus these days to be raised from the dead (as long as you have GHI, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Medicaid or, in my case, Oxford). The Carcinogenic Bride is Cindy Hochman. She has lived to tell the tale. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with degrees in marriage, divorce, and cancer. She is a latter-day Lazarus from Brooklyn who wears mini-skirts, leggings, and a “KMart nipple.” Like Ogden Nash, she plays slapstick with her puns and rhymes. Ella Wheeler Wilcox would have been proud of her. Although Cindy might throw wedding cake in your face, I promise she won’t “fibula.” **
Poets Wear Prada, 2011
The Woman Who Wouldn’t Shake Hands: Patricia Carragon on Chocolate Waters
After a thirty-year hiatus, Chocolate Waters emerges with her spicy new chapbook, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Shake Hands, published by Poets Wear Prada (2011) and Eggplant Press (2011). Waters’s writing is rich, creamy, and dark with a shot of vodka: the flavors that make her thirty-two poems taste yummy like her name and leave you craving more. Waters, the Poet Laureate of Hell’s Kitchen and a lesbian activist, shares her passion, pathos, and humor on that most confusing and complex word in any language—love. Her short pieces are honest and simple, spiced with grit, and easy to relate to. You cry one moment and laugh the next. Chocolate doesn’t want to shake your hand. She wants you to get to know her instead. Waters is never boring. In Acting Like Chocolate Waters, she tells you upfront who she is: without chocolate waters acting like she likes chocolate which she does actually tho she likes women better than she likes chocolate but don‘t tell anyone don‘t tell that woman that she‘s the one chocolate likes more than chocolate that’s how chocolate waters acts
Nor does she want to be a straight girl’s experiment in Plunge: don’t want to be no straight girl’s experiment do i? done that before haven’t i? But Waters wants to go beyond the handshake and hopes that love might perhaps sparkle during the experiment. The experiment fails and Waters swings back with her blunt-edged humor: did you get it then? are you getting it now? are you getting hot now? you aren’t you? Waters moves on and toasts the intimacy of women and friendship seasoned with love, honesty, humor, and vodka: like phone sex w/out the sex like vodka w/ice over the phone two women two souls conversation sacred profane w/olives or w/out and in between: worlds But the most striking piece in this collection is Waters’s self-reflection in Here I Am At 60: my arms are sagging just like mom’s 41
like grand mom’s like the hanging gardens of babylon sadness underneath my eyes stayed there turned into these squashy pillows unappealing my tummy needs a lot of tucks Waters has reached a milestone and is sad about her physical changes. Her beautiful metaphors, the hanging gardens of babylon and these squashy pillows, are perfect and do not require surgery. I’ve expected this to be a serious piece, but bravo, Waters is just being Waters, and fools us again with her wit: there are days I want to put my head inside a paper bag and what the hell is that beneath my chin a chicken neck heck I got the whole damn chicken And a similar witticism happens here in those bags: these bags under my eyes are either from all the tears i haven’t cried or vodka Again, you read into Waters’s psyche, yet is she really blaming vodka for the bags under her eyes? I think both “yes” and “no.” The Woman Who Wouldn’t Shake Hands is Chocolate Waters personal journey for love. She has the bitchiness and chutzpah to pour her feelings onto paper. Love knows no gender and Waters speaks from the heart, not from the handshake 42
seeking what all of us seekâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;to know and experience that specific feeling, we label as love, the love for others and oneself. Her words and wit are premium vodka. This book is worth toasting to. Cheers, Chocolate!
Mitch Levenberg on Diane Simmons
Diane Simmons’ Little America is about little dreams, little American dreams. It’s about journeys too, eccentric journeys—journeys that begin with hope, end in despair—and vice versa. What is often left behind these dreams are other dreams—it is the back fence of hope—behind which is the landscape of the indefinable. Specific journeys of the road often give way to the open-ended, eternal journeys of the heart. In the title story, Hank is the prototypical, irresistible American conman, the salesman who like Willy Loman—though much more successful-sells himself as much as some ill -defined product, a product of the imagination. We do know, through the main character Billie, that he is “selling something he shouldn’t” was the object of an investigation” and most importantly was in the newspaper for it. “It was exciting,” says Billie, “to see his name in print though.” After all “. . . it’s only fraud,” she explains. “And fraud isn’t violent.” Willy Loman never got his name in print. No doubt he would have been ecstatic. Success is success, good or bad and what better measure of it than getting your name in print. That’s the American dream for you. Ironies and contradictions abound here, the very title of the story and of course the book is ironic; everything else is a contradiction. Ultimately, the American dream for Hank and Billie, who sees it through his eyes, is America itself—the vast and beautiful landscape that redeems its often arbitrary cruelties and false hopes, its enduring, iconic smell of sweat, stale cigarettes and aftershave: As the dawn began to creep over the vast, unbroken fields of ripe wheat, Hank was so overwhelmed he stopped the car. . . Hank and Billie stood by the side of the road for fifteen minutes watching the purple, then pink-soaked wheat turn the purest gold, as far as the eye could see. Hank only has “scorn . . . for the men who worked in the stores, men who seemed 44
Ohio State University Press, 2011
Loud & Quick:
to think they were something because they stood behind a cash register in a white shirt and clip-on tie.” Hank had a little more respect for the farmers and ranchers; at least they were out in the scenery. This beautiful and iconic landscape is wonderfully contrasted by Stella ( a description that made me want to take a shower) who runs a hideous trailer court--the American dream gone wrong (American nightmare) Stella, “obese and filthy…who couldn’t stop flirting with Hank…How Billie wondered, did some little kid end up being Stella?” In “Suitcase,” Marie follows her boyfriend Chick into Mexico and then Guatemala. Hope leads to disappointment. Chick wants to escape the faux and toxic American dream, the American lie. Here’s where Simmons’ wonderful sense of irony abounds: Chick was teary-eyed with joy when…they found their way off the road onto the dead-fish-stinking beach at Topolobampo. He wept because they had escaped the criminally materialism, the mind-fucking lies, and the unnatural stink of America, a stink that was…a lot worse than the natural and wholesome smell of decomposing flesh. What brilliant irony that for the misguided idealist the smell of a rotten abstraction trumps the smell of something real and rotten. This also sets up the inevitable disillusionment at the end of the story as Simmons describes with stunning matter-of-factness what can only be called a metaphoric descent into hell: One late afternoon they pulled into a clearing outside the ruins of a Mayan temple…The clearing was filled with hippie rigs. Everybody was stoned. Everybody was filthy. Everybody was sick with the runs, and the jungle behind the campsite was slick with shit. If we’re looking for something big out there, Simmons seems to tell us, we might be very disappointed. Sometimes it’s not in the vast highways and landscapes of America in the new and shiny asphalt and fast slick cars but in the smallest details. Scooping up glass shards in our gardens, about returning a ticket not returned , a letter hidden in a metal box—mostly it’s about being ourselves and not someone else’s idea of us—we don’t need to put on a dead girl’s glasses like Marie in “Suitcase” and look out into a distance that does not belong to us. Life can go in a lot of different directions, especially if you have a car, what ultimately drives us towards hope, towards redemption, is endurance and will and the human heart and the hearts in this collection beat loud and quick.
December Contributors Marilyn Krysl’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories 2000, O. Henry Prize Stories. Dinner with Osama won Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Bronze Medal 2008, and Swear the Burning Vow: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. A former Director of Creative Writing at University of Colorado Boulder, she’s taught ESL in the Peoples’ Republic of China, was commissioned to write poetry about nurses by The Center For Human Caring, worked for Peace Brigade International in Sri Lanka and volunteered at Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta.
A dance magazine editor by day, Joe Sullivan is author of a novel, Three Thirds, and recent fiction and poetry in Monkeybicycle,Poets/ Artists, Red Dragonfly and Overflow. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his family
Zinta Aistars is founder and editor-in-chief of the literary online magazine, The Smoking Poet.
Cindy Hochman is a legal proofreader and poet from Brooklyn, NY. She is the co-host of the Green Pavilion Poetry Event, the editor-inchief of the online journal, First Literary Review, the associate editor of Mobius Poetry Magazine, and a contributing book reviewer for Pedestal Magazine and Coldfront Magazine. Her newest chapbook is The Carcinogenic Bride.
With a Ph.D. in Literature and an MFA in Poetry, Chella Courington teaches literature and writing at Santa Barbara City College. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, lo-ball, Gargoyle Magazine, Opium Magazine, The Collagist, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Her second chapbook, Girls & Women, was released by Burning River in March; her third, Paper Covers Rock, came out with Indigo Ink September 30. And her flash enovella, Talking Did Not Come Easily to Diana, will be issued by Musa Publishing in November.
David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver. He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska. His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.” His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.” The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/. He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.
Simeon Berry lives in Boston. He has won a Career Chapter Award from the National Society of Arts and Letters, the Dana Award for Poetry, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist Grant. Recent work appears in Sentence, Hotel Amerika, Salt Hill, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, The Laurel Review, Blackbird, and is forthcoming in Artful Dodge and The Journal.
Glenda Burgess is a winner of The Rupert Hughes Fiction Award, and a short story finalist for the New Century Writer Award. She has published two novels, an academic reference work, and most recently a memoir, The Geography of Love, Broadway Books, August 2008, named a Top Ten Books of 2008 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award. She lives in Spokane, Washington.
Patricia Carragon is a New York City writer and poet. Her publications include Best Poem, BigCityLit, CLWN WR, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Clockwise Cat, Danse Macabre, Ditch Poetry, Inertia, Lips, MÖBIUS, The Poetry Magazine, Marymark Press, Maintenant, Mad Hatters’ Review, The Toronto Quarterly, and more. She is the author of Journey to the Center of My Mind (Rogue Scholars Press). She is a member of Brevitas, a group dedicated to short poems. She hosts and curates the Brooklynbased Brownstone Poets and is the editor of the annual anthology. Her latest book is Urban Haiku and More (Fierce Grace Press, 2010). For more information, please check out her Web sites at http://brownstonepoets.blogspot.com and at http://patriciacarragon8.wordpress.com/.
Mitch Levenberg has published essays and short fiction in such journals as The Common Review, Fiction, The New Delta Review, Fine Madness, The Saint Ann’s Review, Confluence, The Assisi Journal, and BigCityLit.com. His collection of stories, Principles of Uncertainty and Other Constants was published in March 2006. His memoir on adopting his daughter from China will be published this winter. He teaches writing and literature at St. Francis College and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter and three dogs; his website is mlevenberg.blogspot.com
About Us Gently Read Literature publishes monthly in-depth reviews of contemporary poetry and literary fiction as well as the occasional original essay pertaining to aesthetics, writing, or culture. Gently Read Literature is always looking for reviews, criticism, and essays on contemporary poetry and literary fiction. Although we are open to examining all styles of poetry and fiction (and, therefore, all poets and novelists) we prefer those authors/presses that do not typically get the attention they deserve. Our guidelines are simple: 500 words minimum with no maximum, with as much direct textual analysis as possible. Contributions should be emailed to Daniel Casey, editor, (email@example.com). “GRL submission” should be in the title of email, and must be in the body of the email or attached as a MS Word document. All contributions should be plainly formatted—12 point font, Times New Roman or the equivalent, single spaced. Because GRL publishes monthly, contributions are consid-ered on a rolling basis. Gently Read Literature is edited and maintained by Daniel Casey, all comments or questions can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Daniel Casey, 223 Eastern Ave, Oberlin, OH 44074.
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