Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A Review of “Poena Damni, Z213: EXIT” by Dimitris Lyacos, Translated by Shorsha Sullivan

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Spencer Dew

We begin in what may be an internment camp, some complex, “four wards separate not far from the sea … and ashes spread out on the floor black stains and ashes … and next day in the morning they would come and take them from there and you could hear at that time they were going in and calling their names…” The vagueness of the prose style establishes the limits of this world and the concerns of the text. We have a camp, a train, soldiers, a Bible with notes inside, and we have encroaching darkness, the struggle to remember, the struggle of hiding, physical pain. A war, just ended or ongoing, shapes the experience as well. “Remnants of the very last attack” mark both the landscape and the prose, which yearns for “Human traces” in a wasteland of loss, lost memory. “Remember to write as much as I can,” we are told—a first person phrasing for the voice of the text, a shifting protagonist—“As much as I remember. So that I can remember,” and yet, this person forgets and, chronicles, in pieces, in poetic fragments and impressionistic prose, this very forgetting, the gap that opens between self and memory, self and world, self and other. “I think of you but not like before.” The man leaves the place of wards, pushes on, boards a train, travelling from one zone to another—“Cruel the evening again in the station and the train and another station, silent, and the train…”—but the main drama of this text is interior to this person fleeing, attempting to flee, forgetting, attempting to remember:

One by one all those that fled all those you left, pieces, pieces like ice breaking and falling in front of your feet. And it melts before you can move…. Cramp in the stomach, the usual. You cover your feet with the pullover, fall face down. Chilly berth that sticks to your face. You wear the pullover, under the jacket you put the Bible for a pillow. Her breast, her half-opened mouth. Some life. You unbutton your trousers put your hand in.

Thus, while travelling onward, there is a sense, of moving in a circle, a spiral even. Passing the same tree again and again, remembering the same woman, moving yet not making an exit, only sinking deeper, descending. “I try to stay awake. I wet my face with some water.” This retreat is not orderly, nor is the only violence here that of battle, of beatings and whatever bombs leave castles in ruins along the route of travel. “I have no painkiller,” our narrator says, in response to a pain in his foot but also to the larger problem, the journey, the attempt at exit.

And when you can no longer remember, just meaningless things here and there, and you can’t. But still try even then, as the twilight sets in, stand and look at the past, walk again along the corridors where your eyes used to wander, attentive ghosts, open the boxes, think of the other side of the wall. Sit at the side of the road and see yourself pass.

Z213: EXIT gives us not a conventional story but, rather, “a tale you remember unfinished.” Which is not to say that there is no drama, no danger, no desire.  There is even sex, or a memory of sex, maybe a dream of a memory in the process of its own erasure. At times in this hypnotic little book it feels as if everything exits except for our protagonist, whom, while in many ways mysterious, is also something we feel and thus know. The stream of his thoughts define our experience of the text:

they change, all things, memory changes, you change yourself, some woman you search for, you don’t know if you were seeking another, if you had some other hope, other aim. Tomorrow perhaps something else might erase those things as well, the new veil of the world, but you will never know it, you won’t be able to know it.

Of note, too, is the role this book plays in a larger trilogy (which I have not read). Last written but first in the series, simultaneously final installment and a prelude to the other parts, the role this book plays likely finds echo in its own obsessions with memory, loss, with exit and, indeed, beginning. One plot device, such as it is, present in this text is that of being pursued. There is an element of chase in all the travel, and, thus, a touch of paranoia, perhaps well justified, in some of the concern with memory. “Nobody is coming after me,” we’re told at one point.

Surely they have forgotten about me. Nobody will ever come here to find me. He will never be able to find me. Nobody ever. And when I fled they didn’t even realise. They took no notice of me no one cared no one remembers. Now they will remember neither when nor how. Not even I. Tracks only, a hazy memory and those images when I look at what I have written, tracks of footprints in the mud before it starts raining again. Uncertain images of the road and thoughts mumbled words, and if you read them without the names you won’t understand, it could have been anywhere, and then I spoke with no one and those who saw me no chance that they remember me.

Who is this “he” so central to the hunt? Herein lies, I think, a key to the text, to the real drama playing out in this slim volume, a drama of the phenomenon of writing itself, the drama that is textuality, the process of words, preserved, of voices, living on the page once long forgotten in the world of flesh. Considered in this light, the end of the book is already the beginning of something more, another loop back into memory, an urging for us to turn back to the beginning, those cold wards by the sea, and rechart the travels of this man, his notes, his memories, his forgettings. But in the context of a larger trilogy, this ending is, in another sense, the start of something more, an exit, perhaps, into deeper considerations of the phenomenology of the self as something written, that “I” as it slips into the alien third person on the page, becoming a “he” of a drama no longer the writer’s own. By tapping into—and engaging with such visceral detail, as the scraps and scrims of scenes here provide—this issue of how writing works on the most basic, universal level, Lyacos has created a book of real interest and reward. One such visceral tool is the second person—the “you” written by some “I,” some “he”—who becomes the protagonist, allowing us, as readers, to embody the place ourselves in the volume’s inconclusive end:

… you look behind and expect him, you get away again, you are drowsy, you close your eyes, you see him before you, you get away you are tired, mostly you stand, you close your eyes open them again, you don’t want to go any further, you shall sink to your knees, the tiredness hurts even more, you are less afraid, you are feeling the blow, you open your mouth, you look at his mouth, you don’t want to stand up any more.

Official Dimitris Lyacos Web Site
Official Shoestring Press Web Site

A Review of “badbadbad” by Jesus Angel Garcia

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Spencer Dew

“We are who we pretend to be at any given moment, no more, no less, no one, no thing. We are nothing, less than, duped into believing we’re something we’re not,” writes Jesús Ángel García, relaying the thoughts of a narrator and protagonist also named Jesús Ángel García, or JAG for short, who has a tendency to philosophize in light of his experiences in two alternative arenas, each rich with symbolism and writhing, inchoate need. JAG straddles, so to speak, two communities, working as a Web designer for a local pastor intent on extending the gospel message into political action (banning sex toys, for instance) while also (thanks to said pastor’s prodigal son) spending time on another Web site, one built around the Internet’s paradoxical offering of anonymity alongside the opportunity for over-exposure, a site where people can post their most private desires, their secret lusts, along with pictures of themselves or of someone they want to be, are pretending to be, etc.

Christianity, from its inception, has also always been about trying to be something you are, at present, not. The imitation of Christ might seem a far cry from posting shadowy and sharp-angled cell phone pics of cleavage, but García wants to toy with the similarities, crafting a narrative wherein the desires of disparate communities are revealed to be not so different after all—wherein addiction, manipulation, and insincerity exist alongside transcendence, radical freedom, and utter authenticity, all of these manifest, at times, by hypocritical zealots, pious believers, abusive pervs, and vulnerably open creatures aware that whatever they are, this identity is constituted, foremost, by their physical needs and wants.

So some people await a messiah who will come bearing a sword, and some folks have a fetish for reliving a formative rape. Some throw stones at any trace of difference and some rock out in a perpetual masquerade. Some cultivate snuff fantasies and some just want to see their son, sleeping in a nest of blankets at their ex’s house. And, as is the case for JAG, some are willing to tote guns and go covert in order to catch such a glimpse, all earthly laws and norms outranked by some irrational call.

JAG’s got plenty of issues, apart from the son—to whom this book is dedicated, raising another level of doubt about avatars and authors, characters’ names and continual fictions. He’s got a little thing with the pastor’s wife, a brother he’s speaking to throughout the text—in the traditional Christian autobiographical form of confession—and assorted associations with women whose desires are elaborately specific, including the one who feels the need “to reconstruct this atrocity” that happened to her years previous. “I need to be hurt to be healed,” she says. JAG gets his own dose of hurt one night at a bar, and while he’s initially reluctant about putting that Chekovian gun in the rifle rack of his new truck, he’s as driven by missionary zeal as any fundamentalist reformer. Taking a virtual hatchet to Web site servers, JAG wipes away those profiles while he takes to be products of “fakes, flakes, freaks, fantasies and fraidy cats” as opposed to the work of “those seeking true fulfillment,” while simultaneously contemplating how all identity might be nothing more than temporary play-acting and how God might be a collective. John Coltrane, jpegs, and alcohol can lead a man to think all sorts of things.

But badbadbad, while populated with straw man preachers who rant against teen sodomy and the evils of relativism, makes clear the asymmetry of otherwise neatly parallel stances. In a major scene, JAG shows up for a showdown protest/counterprotest of white supremacists and gay pride contingents. “The Klan processional was led by a pointy-headed knight on a white horse, trailed by a contingent of foot soldiers. Spearheading Gay Pride was a team of pony boys, saddled and harnessed, silver bits in their mouths. At the reins a king and queen in swapped gender roles steered an outsized red wagon straight down the thoroughfare.” There’s a neat visual parallel, two campy camps in outlandish outfits, theatrical, each with their own flags. But the parallels stop there, for while surely “advocates for broadmindedness and equality” can fall prey to plenty of flaws—self-righteousness and solipsism among them—“gay pride” and “white power” are ideological platforms that just don’t line up. There may always be a whiff of queer supremacism at such rallies, but it’s far from the defining line, are not coupled with canned hatred, weapons or the implication of weapons, or eschatological dreams of a “purified” world. In short—and this is an obvious point but worth belaboring in order to dig deeper into García’s text—a rainbow clown wig differs in some basic, practical ways from a face mask designed to allow anonymity while participating in terrorist action.

For JAG, however, the goose-steppers and the glitter queens are all acting out fantasies of self, all edging around issues of anonymity intertwined with loudly out self-expression. At one point a Klansman yanks up his mask, so angry he is with the motley mocking crowd. And for JAG, the street is already an old time venue. While the novel begins on the asphalt of a Piggly Wiggly parking lot, soon most interaction is happening online. “I realize the digital domain is a place where some folks play identity games,” JAG says, and though he means a more blatant adoption of new identities, he, too, is pushing into a kind of game of self, scrolling through profiles, “reading between the lines, holding close the heartache, the longing in all the profiles I’d come to see as naked portraits of need built up over a lifetime. There were so many girls I could care for. It was my moral responsibility to do so.”

So in a world where people are constantly pretending—what JAG calls, elsewhere “endless storytelling”  wherein “life comes to you in fragments”—our narrator develops some kind of odd messiah complex, seeing himself in a unique position to salve the wounds of various damaged girls. But while he at once argues that we’re all always pretending, posing, he also obsessed, especially in connection to the online spaces where he’s doing all his foreplay, with “what’s for real and what’s made-up, who’s authentic, who’s a poser, what matters, what means nothing.” There’s a desperation for meaning even in a world where meaning seems to be nothing more than a wig worn for a particular parade. All of which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, to me at least, is why this need for meaning gets channeled into sex, into picking up girls from an online site and helping them fulfill their pregnancy or snuff kick. Why is some need, some desire, recognized as marrow-deep and therefore commendable, even when it’s explicitly nutty and destructive (of self and others) when other needs (like, say, those white folks with their Nazi badges and dimwit chants) are quickly dismissed. The preacher who wants to rid his town of dildos seems as deeply motivated as his wife in wanting to fill up her vagina, but the sexual need is linked here with something admirably true, transcendent, positively communal—everything “good,” in short, in a system that rejects relativism on gut reflex—whereas the prudish anti-dildo stance is seen as a kind of repression, an inauthenticity, as if the preacher, in his opposition to such devices, is just lying to himself, refusing to acknowledge his actual and inescapable nature.

This is less Rousseau than de Sade—the path to be followed here is through the lusts of the body, however twisted by society. Exit through the sewer, as it were, or the bowels. The denial of desire is a deadlier perversion than the aforementioned snuff fetish, and JAG seems to mean this literally—he’s even, via all the bits of Christian symbolism that have been tossed his way, able to view an individual death as redemptive, holding up the hope of salvation for a wider society that needs to get in touch with its true urges before it morphs into monsters. The human, JAG insists, is right there above the tendrils of those Daisy Dukes. “For the record,” he tells us, “I’m not a sex addict. I’m not a pervert or a freak. I’m not less moral than anyone else who lives his life according to his beliefs, who tries to do right on the path laid out before him.” The addiction, the perversion, here is precisely one of beliefs, of moral claims. badbadbad is the story of a man who feels there is a “path laid out before him,” a straight path in a crooked world. It’s an odd religion, one that passes judgment on the jukebox and the sex site with far more fury—albeit it also with more nuance, more investment—than it does on the Klansman or the raving preacher. It is a path that leads to extreme acts, and, in turn, to this extreme confession, a weird gospel, one man’s account of his journey through the wilderness.

Official Jesús Ángel García Web Site
Official New Pulp Press Web Site

A Review of “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” by P. Edward Cunningham

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Jessica Maybury

On first introduction, the page featuring Cunningham’s collection seems confusing. I had been expecting a collection of poetry, rather than a series—but from the very start each poem links to the others like songs on that political Green Day album or an early Raveonettes LP.

The first poem of the series is the longest. It brought Ted Hughes’s “Panther” to mind. It sets the scene. You’re a child in a dream of zoos, of lions.

With Kool-Aid stained teeth
and a paper mask,
you roared like a man-eater.

The poetry that follows doesn’t resemble poetry in the way that the first does. There are no familiar left-aligned lines, stanzas or any of that malarkey. What we have are paragraphs. Is this poetry? What makes poetry poetry anyway? I once heard the argument that the two words that elevated William Carlos Williams’s note about eating the plums in the ice box were, “forgive me.” What about here? Here we have stark colours and images set before us in crisp lines. “These lights and red organs stretched for miles and you realized earth’s seams were coming undone.” If this is poetry, then the novels of Michael Ondaatje should surely also be poetry. Or have we crossed the boundary between poetry and prose poetry? In these post-modern times, does such a blurring matter, or is it expected?

The sequence continues in a blur of metaphors and similes. It probably sounds like this is turning into a roll-call of names and allusions, but I am reminded of Glamorama:

Inside the space where its heart should have been, you retrieved a fistful of red confetti. You held your fist outside the cage and hummed as you released a paper roar.

Wrenching my head out of the other books I recognise, I realise that we are turning a corner here. The lion of the first poem has transformed, and so has the child.

The collection masses itself in the mind as a primeval collage-cloud, coiling in suspension, in myriad colours. Hopefully it won’t leave any time soon.

Official P. Edward Cunningham Web Site
Official Pangur Ban Party Web Site

A Review of “Happy Fat Children and Protein Enhancers” by Tom Duckworth

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Jessica Maybury

It’s never a good sign when a writer prefaces a collection with an apology. It’s best to skip it and come to the poems with no preconceptions.

This collection from Philistine Press is a delight in the way that some professional photos of babies are a delight. Most professional photographs concerning infants are disturbing travesties, but every now and then you get one or two that work. Happy Fat Children and Protein Enhancers smiles up at you from the Internet with an uncomplicated glee that I can only compare to Neil de la Flor’s excellent Almost Dorothy.

One thing that caught my eye on the first scan of these poems is Duckworth’s use of sound effects. I was going to use the word ‘onomatopoeia’  as a descriptor here, but it doesn’t exactly fit. Not as complex as Joyce’s thunderwords in Finnegan’s Wake, the words nevertheless splat off the page as sound rather than language. The title of one poem is “The plane went Bang! pvff cLK”. The text of another is:

End tune

A fly gaped, size of me bewildering,
He smiled too,
insecticide immune


Um … gutted

Other things that charmed me? The line and sentence lengths vary, creating a rolling rhythm that carries the reader to the last poem on its own momentum. The language is fresh, serving up a view of the world perceived with new eyes. I’m not going to talk about the contents of the poems, the themes, the tropes—I am neither a Structuralist nor a believer in the idea that the poetry of this post-modern age has to be ‘about’ anything. Each image materialises on the page utterly detached from its fellows; it stands alone to be turned every which way, and admired. Some examples include, “Walkers pack logo bag before them, / the sun rains a dry flavour,” “Sixteen hooves fight, / clash, rider spirit fiery,” “Survived the blur of watching shoals, / Constantly surfacing to pinch at all the fleshy parts,  of gruesome, dishevelled bodies.”

There are many things I could continue to pick apart and display from this collection. If I did, this review would run on longer than I intended. Text on the Internet should be short. So we come to my final point. The collection is bookended with a strange collection of text taken from signs. There are photographs of each sign, apparently taken on the way to and from Duckworth’s walk to university. I read the texts through quickly, thinking it was a cool idea to present texts like these as poetry. After a few days, however [I’m not the brightest bulb in the box], I noticed that the title of each text corresponded with the title of a poem in the collection. A ping! moment  reverberated in my brain. On studying the similarities and differences between the poems themselves and their corresponding texts, I was reminded of Pale Fire. Anything that makes me think of Nabokov gets my vote.

So, how would I sum up this collection? With a glimmering smile and steely teeth:


Official Philistine Press Web Site

A Review of “The Republic of Naught” by Jay McLeod

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Jessica Maybury

What can I say? Because this is a polite publication, there will be no expletives in this review. All I can really tell you is to never read this. For the sake of brevity—because this really is a wearisome subject—I will list all the reasons why for you below, dear reader.

This collection should never have been published. Why should McLeod’s travesty never have been published? Well, dear reader, it’s clearly not finished. So why is it on the Internet? I am an understanding person, I would hope to think. An open-minded reader, as it were. I appreciate half-light, sketches, details. This could have been any of them. It’s not: presented as a completed work, there is really no excuse I can make for it.

This is the first collection published by Philistine Press that I have ever read, and on that first introduction alone I decided to boycott them forever. Luckily I read a charming collection by Tom Duckworth next. It restored my faith in humanity.

Form. I’m sure at least someone out there appreciates a good structuring device. There isn’t one here. He doesn’t change from blank verse for the entire collection. A stanza here and there would have been nice, some tongue-in-cheek rhyming, perhaps, some experimentation—some depth, layering, allusion, anything. Call me old fashioned. I’m not talking villanelles, here. I appreciate modern poetry, I do. But surely to break the rules, one must know them first—and judging by this collection, McLeod appears to have never read a poem by someone else in his life. What we have here instead is meandering drivel that mumbles itself out of existence well before the last line of the piece.

Linguistic tension. There is no muscularity to the sentences: they are flabby, uninspired and no effort appears to have been made to ‘craft’ anything. Isn’t poetry supposed to be about an aspiration to something higher, or a new perspective, at the very least? Case in point:

The supermarket
Is the heart of commerce
Many folk write letters and e-mails
Of support and diligently
Follow the sitcoms
And reality shows

Some punctuation would have been nice.

For the sake of balanced, unbiased criticism, I shall end this review with two things I liked. Two short quotations, included so that I can minimise the mean e-mails I might find in my inbox.

I only liked these two sections because they reminded me of somebody else.

From “At the End of a Line”:

I will borrow your manner
Murmuring something
About the weather here

From “Planes, Trains, and Dishpits”:

I’ve been taking planes
every year or so since then
and I still don’t know how to drive
a fucking car

Out of context they make no sense, which surely isn’t a promising sign regarding the immortalisation of this collection.

Official Philistine Press Web Site

A Review of “Mere Tragedies” by Heather Palmer

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Spencer Dew

The riddle of Mere Tragedies hinges upon the impossibility of discerning where the line might lie between stylistic choice and the fumbling of haste. In promotional materials, we are told that “every aspect of the work, from content to formatting, is aware of the isolation of contemporary existence,” which may, itself, be one of those statements warped to signify something, viscerally, about said isolation. I’m simply not sure.

These tiny vignettes, some only around sixty-five words, lack titles, injecting us, instead, immediately into a scene: a couple eating dinner, a girl walking to the store, “Strangers waiting to piss at the diner they frequent for its 24-hour, bottomless, buck-fifty coffee and smoking section.” There is a strategy here, for sure, of the jump-cut, the jagged fracture. A man is introduced who “finds hope in the consistent uncertainty of weather forecasts,” and then he is gone again, forever. And phrasing matters, certainly, either stitching together associations via a surreal turn of words (“…his father is already asleep on the couch, the snoring mouth an open wound on his mother’s face”) or reiterating the swift intrusion of character, of fact (“the homeless man falls into view”).

But at other times, what may be an attempt to infuse syntax with a sense of “isolation”  seems more like mere garbling of language. Consider this strange passage about the behavior of children to worms after a rainstorm: “Some kindly kick them to the dirt, but more likely, step on their exhausted bodies in bewildered disgust.” Amidst the glut of adverbs and adjectives, there is also an absence of noun, or a confused phrasing. Does the same “some” do both of these things, at once? What I can’t figure out is whether this is a literary tactic or a mistake. Women, we’re told elsewhere, “feel more sensitivity than men,” the phrasing of which is perhaps a wry joke, and at another point we’re told “Decisions entrap the maker inside the moment of decision until paralyzed by choice” which has, itself, a paralytic effect. Is Palmer intentionally structuring these sentences in order to inflict, on her readers, something akin to vertigo?

There are other oblique passages Palmer seems surely to have designed for sound (“The boy accuses her bladder. She defends it. He accepts insistence,” one story ends, for instance.), passages where punctuation is forgone in favor of some kind of desperate pace (“When I speak to the face of her fears, I speak about death. I quote the great writers, tell her we will die and we are born and all that matters to me is I have fallen in love with you forever”), passages in which verb tense is twisted in order to emphasize a lapsed conditional (“Her husband, before they had married, told her he would marry her for her inherent sense of self”), but Mere Tragedies is also marred by what must certainly be editorial errors—a word is split by hyphen and space mid line, a sentence ends without a period, a proper noun goes uncapitalized, one character is given “a propensity for ease-dropping,” the color violent “compliments” black, etc.—casting doubt on the idea that a line like “A man late for work speeds past a man who jauntily strides in his direction” is an attempt at assaultive literary innovation. One is left with the sinking feeling that much of this book might just be sloppy writing, preserved in vacant sans-serif font (that formatting, aware of isolation).

Mere Tragedies, in the end, is a riddle. As its awkwardness dovetails with its subject matter, the baffling or broken or bludgeoned phrase may well be the point of the text. “In mirrors, the body is almost certainly not the real body, so that the physical body remains lost between the reflection of the soul and the soul,” for instance. But experimentalism that passes as something other than experimentalism, experimentalism that can also just read as sloppiness—this is a weird situation, at best. I’ve read it and read it, and I just can’t be sure.

The best this review can do is chart out what I’ve seen and allow the text to speak for itself. Here, then, is the final line of the book, leaving us, as readers, with jangled nerves: “While no theory has yet studied the mental health of abundantly touched patients, scientists have observed that newborns without human contact do not gain weight and slowly die.” Savor that phrasing. Then tell me, is this a technique designed to reveal to us, as readers, something essential about the contemporary condition, a procedure for calling linguistic expression into question even as it stumbles ahead, conveying pieces of narratives, scenes of tension and terror, claustrophobia and the tourniquet of routine?

Official Heather Palmer Web Site
Official Girls with Insurance Web Site

A Review of “The Paris Poems” by Suzanne Burns

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Burns gives us the Paris of pilgrimage, the Paris of cliché, the Paris of déjà vu, even. The first page begins a list of instructions as to how to arrive, spelling out, in jagged rhythm, the ideal encounter of the Paris in all its concrete and flesh, though noting that this original reality has already been mapped by “Vista Vision Technicolor trompe-l’oeil,” by Hepburn and Astaire, the Nazis, Marie Antoinette, the Mona Lisa. Paris, Burns says, looks “like scenery in a play about PARIS,” and this iconic familiarity is a key concern of her poems.

Paris is an idea, the city of Jean Valjeans and those heirs to Napoleon, emperors of fashion like Louis Vuitton and Karl Lagerfeld, the city itself thus inspring “all my blonde nieces / praying at the altar of Diet Coke / and iceberg lettuce.” This is the city, too, where Michael Jackson “dangles his baby / from a Parisian balcony,” the city of “1,000 Notre Dame snapshots / Sacré Coeur pencil tops / an idolized Montmartre where Amélie / tape the top of her crème brulee.” This is a city known, in some way, since childhood, a passion as much of a place, the focus of a lifelong romance. Here even “being pick-pocketed” is “almost okay / as long as we call it an epiphany on Facebook.”

Writing is Paris, these poems often say, as is art; Paris is as much “the grey bowel / the grey underbelly / the isolation” of Brassaï as it is the literary work of Miller and Nin, Hugo, or Rimbaud. This is the town where Sylvia Beach sold books and Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation as resurrected by his words being read.

The central artistic presence in these pages, however, is Jim Morrison, “the closest thing we have to a saint.” Morrison’s tomb, that international pilgrimage point, is described as an altar to something all poems aim to achieve. The admiration of Morrison is linked, on a personal level here, with adolescence, with growing up, and yet this childhood idol has become, now, something more. At the graveyard, “Someone lit a red candle on Jim’s grave / to collect the wax tears: / souvenirs,” Burns tells us, and, later, a “dark man dressed like he stepped / from an avant-garde film / springs his switchblade / to slash the heart line of his palm / bleeding himself onto Jim’s final home.” Such devotion speaks to the meaning of Morrison, however inchoate. And, moreover, this figure who so palpably matters to so many people is am American, a foreigner merging his own legend with that of Paris, becoming as Parisian—at least in Burns’s reading—as Hemingway.

The best moments here reflect frankly on the juxtaposition of the American and Paris, particularly the poet’s own Oregon. If Oregon is a place of dreaming, Paris is the dream, as magical for its own incongruous “Big Macs / within walking distance / of the palace where a queen / once debated bread vs. cake” as for the more characteristic “denouement of a baguette.” Paris, in these poems, is presented as a holy place, a sacred precinct in which, for “2 Euros per wick” one can light candles to the vibrant afterlife of artistic creation. “Is it sacrilege to pray to books?” Burns asks at one point, rhetorically. The answer, in these pages, is that we do it all the time, and that there is perhaps no chapel more frequented, for that purpose, than Paris.

Official BlazeVOX [books] Web Site

A Review of “Sylvow” by Douglas Thompson

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Nobody rules the earth,” we’re told at one point in Douglas Thompson’s long-feeling novel Sylvow. At other points, more specific theories are floated: that, for instance, “If one species threatens the planet’s survival, then the elimination of that species by any means, to Nature is good.” Or that the earth itself is something like a sentient entity, Gaia, and “Gaia is blind, patient, amoral, selfish, all-powerful, savage, beautiful, resourceful, resilient. If this is a God, it is no human God, not one that it is safe for human beings to worship.” What happens in Sylvow, spread among multiple plotlines like the root-tendrils of a banyan tree, is that nature strikes back; Gaia closes ranks, adapts, and attacks. “These roots and veins seemed to be pulsing with water and fire when I drew close to them, translucent: were they carrying blood or chlorophyll or both? It was as if all of Nature had re-booted and re-evaluated itself, as if human and natural inventions had been merged and subsumed into some new order.” Birds learn to imitate car alarms, bee behavior changes, insects appear that are larger than usual. Then the hybrid fruits, the rain of black seeds, the catkins of trees developing into bombs full of sulphuric acid. Plants turn carnivorous. The animals take human children, give them suckle. Or the animals rebel, dogs mangle their so-called masters.

Explicitly seeking to echo, in part, the work of the brothers Grimm—the book begins with a sinister excerpt from the story of the pied piper of Hamelin, leading the children away, having already eliminated the rats—Sylvow is interested, as well, in the legend of Romulus and Remus, and the fictional city at the center of the action is described as the farthest spot penetrated by the Roman Legion. Primal wildness is here, under the paving stones and suburban cement. Thus, Thompson’s work reads something like a moral tact, winking at the horror of fairy tales and rolling up its own sleeves to pen some pretty gruesome passages, while also speaking, through the mouths of various characters, about Carl Jung and collective dreaming, Gaia and the haughty human sense of sovereignty, and taking some pleasure in relaying a revenge fantasy wherein it is the natural environment that takes revenge, sending floods and murderous trees, setting free the zoos and welcoming some children into its own fold, out in the dark of the deep woods.

Official Douglas Thompson Web Site
Official Eibonvale Press Web Site

A Review of “Currency” by Zoe Zolbrod

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Spencer Dew

“If my credit cards have taught me anything,” American backpacker Robin tells Piv, her Thai lover and, as a result of that romance, business partner, midway through Zoe Zolbrod’s Currency, “it’s that you might as well face things.” One can only accrue so much debt, she means, until one hits the limit. Transaction denied. Robin is speaking, of course, about the specifics of the moment, a scene involving a batch of live turtles she and Piv some far more professional criminals to smuggle. The turtles are crawling all over each other in their cramped container. They are poking out each other’s eyes. This, too, is an allegory, for turtles are far from the only live flesh reduced to commodity in the course of this narrative.

Pit vipers, coral snakes, women, all exchanges for “Something silver, something gold.” Indeed, Piv and his farang lover are likewise mere objects to those in more privileged positions, pieces of disposable property, tools. Their original plan—inspired by a woman who turned out, like so many others in this story, not to be what she presented herself as—was to book passage to Bali, buy jewelry there cheap, sell it for a profit on the streets of Bangkok. A clever plan, derailed by those credit cards, by the reality of that limit, the point where the bill comes due on all that pleasure that’s been, until then, seemingly free.

Fittingly, Robin and Piv meet over a puzzling English phrase, a kind of impromptu language lesson on the words “incipient conspiracy.” Soon they are couriers, cogs in the wheels that deal “Dead things: tiger bone, parts of elephant, rhino,” alongside “Alive things: kinds of snake, kinds of lizard, tortoise, frog, kinds of bug.”

Zolbrod, who has put in her own time on the ground in Southeast Asia, alternates chapters, first through the first person voice of Piv, then through third person coverage of Robin. This is a gutsy move, not least because of dialect. Here’s Piv: “I don’t want to meet bar girl, prostitute, nothing like that, but maybe I can meet one girl that knows about the rock and roll club, the good restaurant, something special, sure. She speaks English and I speak English, too, and she lies with me on this bed, and she wants to make something. She wants to be with me. She’ll feel very sad when I have to leave.” This choice of form, too, means that Zolbrod must enter fully into two personalities, similar yet also worlds apart, and channel their confusion at this swirling world of capital as well as the more bone-basic emotions of love and pride and humiliation. Feeling “manipulated; of use but not beloved,” for instance, Robin accuses herself of being “an orgasm-addled naïf who’d fall for anybody who’d do her, anyone with a tight belly and pidgin phrasing. She was the kind of stupid, easy Western girl who gave others a bad name.”

Robin’s real naïveté, however, is about capitalism itself, about currency as a category and its omnivorous nature. As one nefarious character explains, “a rich man is willing to pay much for a relatively small thing, if his neighbor does not have it,” a bloody and naked thumbnail of the situation. Piv gives us a business meeting that is a simultaneously a naked lunch: “We go to restaurant where the food is as ugly as that Russian. Big meat in one piece. They give you knife, and you have to cut. This is one farang thing I don’t like. Vol points his fork to the ceiling. Big piece of meat on that. He eats from his fork.” If everything is a commodity, then is anything for free? We learn early on in Currency to not trust anyone who loans you anything, but is there really nothing beyond betrayal and blackmail, exploitation and use? Piv, speaking to us, the readers, in the first person, as if we’re just tourists he meets on the street, promises at the start of the book to tell us something about his life, “Something about danger. Something about love.” If danger is the economy of sex clubs and numbered girls, rhinoceros horns and lies, opium and Johnnie Walker Red, then love is, potentially at least, that with which this system can be shattered. But this is easier said than done, as Robin and Piv find out, in this clever and exciting novel.

Official Zoe Zolbrod Web Site
Official OV Books Web Site

A Review of “RE: Telling. An Anthology of Borrowed Premises, Stolen Settings, Purloined Plots, and Appropriated Characters” by William Walsh, Editor

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

The subtitle summarizes the gimmick here, as does Matt Bell’s opener, a story wherein the plumber Mario (the one who is plagued by turtles, who “kills with his ass”) ponders the nature and motivations of God, this deity being, explicitly, one with a pocketful of quarters and the ability either to press Continue or to walk away. On the one hand, the project of this book is familiar ground. Revisions of fairy tales are the stuff of undergrad writing assignments decades back, source for countless poetry collections and critical polemics. And, yes, here we have a mournful Paul Bunyan, revenge as plotted by Humpty Dumpty’s brother, a radically truncated “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But this is an anthology, too, of a certain subset of young writers, and the retellings here have that flavor, too, the taste of performance. We are given a revised history of ABBA, and we can almost hear the audience laughing in whatever bar such a story might have been first read.

The same holds true of a retake of “I Love Lucy” full of fornication, gonorrheal infections of the throat, female friends bonding over food. Another story reexamines one of the classical texts of female friendship as, instead, a threshing floor of sexual jealousy. Of Ruth’s famous declaration to Naomi (“wherever you go, I will go … Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God,” etc.), we are told “She would come to regret this decision almost immediately.”

What saves this volume from succumbing to smugness of forgetability is the strength of its writing. There are revisions that stab through the heart of the original, like Shya Scanlon’s hilarious “Tropic of Candor,” which imagines Henry Miller as a virgin, raiding his mother’s liquor cabinet and instant messaging into the night. “I know I said I’d ream out every wrinkle of your cunt, and I wanted to, for realz.” Yet there are also stories that stand as stories, regardless of the framework. Molly Gaudry gives us a brief, painful picture of childhood—of, specifically, two siblings dumping a dead pet frog into a river. Joseph Riippi gives us a high school student fantasizing about his blind English teacher. “Does she read enough to build calluses?” he wonders, contemplating his own calluses, which come from fantasies like this: “She reaches with antennae arms; her calluses feel wet face, open eyes. She reads to him from his acne.” Crispin Best (in the process of reimagining the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters) gives us a lonely creature who used to date a girl who “did all the recordings that play on the number 11 tram, the ones that say the name of the next stop.”

Most days Krang buys a ticket and just rides around on the number 11 tram.

Krang listens to her voice saying the names of the stops and sits there and tries to be calm.

He listens to her voice and scrolls through old text messages on his phone.

Then there are those pieces that explicitly reflect on the process of retelling, on the role familiar stories and characters play in our lives, how we embody them. Tim Jones-Yelvington presents yet another Law & Order spin-off, this one geared to theories about the “millenials”—that “self-referential generation”—as a potential market. “In the criminal justice system, there are the police who investigate crimes,” the show begins, “and the viewers who watch television shows about their investigations. These are the stories of viewers like us.” The chronicle that follows, episode by episode, parodies fandom’s obsession with pull quotes and trivia as well as that brand of intellectual inquiry inspired by fandom (think Stanley Fish on The Fugitive, only think of some slacker checking the chiming windows on a social networking site during the commercial breaks in the show). “In this episode,” reads one summary,

Jools engages Simon in a critical conversation about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in which she attempts to deconstruct their mutual fascination with the series. Jools says that by producing the same anxieties it allays, the series is complicit in the so-called ‘culture of fear.’ According to Jools, this ‘culture of fear,’ which exploits middle America’s terror of urban crime, has enabled the United States to incarcerate more citizens than other ‘First World’ nations do, while establishing the construction and operation of prisons as profit-generating enterprises.

Soon these characters, their “viewers like us,” are embroiled in their own drama, mixing incest and incarceration and a brutal dose of sexual violence. A different twist on the conventions of fandom frame the contribution from Henry Jenkins, who presents commentary—as a scholar of such phenomenon—on his own attempt at slash fan fiction, in this case a brilliant re-engagement with the text of A Christmas Carol.Every line in this scene comes directly from the novel,” Jenkins writes,

What I was doing here was recontextualizing Dicken’s (sic) original language to offer up an alternative interpretation of what the characters might have been thinking—this integration of original dialogue and internal monologue is a common literary device in fan fiction. I was rewriting it for the purpose of critical commentary and in the process, I was trying to include as many elements from the original novel as possible while offering explanations for the character issues which have long concerned literary critics writing about the book.

Scrooge, for instance, “always found excuses to prolong” that time he spent at the office, making money but also spending time with Marley.

The variety of engagement with retelling as act and idea makes this an exciting and intriguing volume. While Jenkins works within the pre-existing text to explain its logic, the emotional motivations of the characters, another of the best stories here takes as its pretext such a skeletal outline of a narrative—the story of “Jack and Jill”—that its author, Jim Ruland, has remarkable freedom to invent. Given a boy, a girl, an eventual fall, a tumbling after, all the other aspects—in this case, Amsterdam, drugs, the sex trade—are so much delicious detail, spun out like cotton candy, what the Dutch call, more menacingly, sugar-spider. This is the treat of retelling—and of RE: Telling—the startling juxtaposition, the blandly familiar suddenly made dangerously new.

Official William Walsh Web Site
Official Ampersand Books Web Site