Archive for November, 2010


Sunday, November 21st, 2010

decomP is glad to have been mentioned in Flavorwire’s “10 Online Lit Mags You Should Be Reading,” alongside great journals like Moon Milk Review, PANK, > kill author, and others. Check out our write-up here. Thanks to Chelsea Bauch for including us.

Also, our E-i-C was recently asked to participate in The Huffington Post‘s “Online Literary Journals Come of Age: 15 Top Online Journal Editors Speak.” You’ll find our editor’s words here. Thanks to Anis Shivani for the invitation.

Straight to Chartres: On Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Spencer Dew

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Samuel Johnson said that reading is the primary task of any writer. In the process of writing, one works through “half a library to make one book.” With Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres I worked through one book to make one book, offering the story of a woman who, returning to Toronto on the occasion of her mother’s death, seeks refuge in the Henry Adams book of the same name. Her reading is an escape, a retreat, as she says about her decision to stay in some tourist hotel instead of her mother’s flat or with her friends. She’s turning to Adams’ experiment with feeling the 13th century—its aesthetic, its values, its worldview—as a coping mechanism, a kind of elaborate denial, even as, simultaneously—inevitably—she’s revisiting her childhood, coming to terms with her mother’s death and, to an extent, her own mortality. My method was a template from Kathy Acker, though Acker would likely say it was a template from Cervantes and be right. Her Don Quixote was on some line of plot “about” a woman who took refuge in Cervantes’ Don Quixote while waiting for an abortion. I wanted to take that framework—which I also assume, as with Doctor Johnson’s truism, to be commonplace, a standard human action and experience—and push it, see how it might feel in a prose and a vision of human reality that is a bit different from Acker’s.

Gorgeously produced—with illustrations on transparent overlays and a tiny blue build-your-own model of the cathedral—by the design team of the indie publishing house, record label, and microzine maker Another New Calligraphy, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres engages the Adams text with the same kind of sympathy he brought to his tour of French cathedrals. Adams writes, “We have set out to go from Mont Saint Michel to Chartres in three centuries, the eleventh, the twelfth, thirteenth, trying to get, on the way, not technical knowledge; not accurate information; not correct views either on history, art, or religion; not anything that can be useful or instructive; but only a sense of what those centuries had to say, and a sympathy with their way of saying it.”

Meg, the narrator, knows some basic background on Henry Adams. She knows about The Education, for instance, and that it neglects to mention his wife’s suicide. In earlier drafts I had her make explicit mention of his vitriolic Jew-hatred, but this I later cut because, while Meg still shows frustration at Adams—his hunger for an over-arching theory, for instance, or the various half-baked claims that he fires off, from the hip, as a result—I was more invested in getting across that his Chartres, despite its warts, a beautiful and haunting book, a useful book in its own right, a portable slice of the grand tour for all us “nieces” here in the States who might not have the time or finances or frame of mind to go and see as Adams saw, to think—however lunatic and sometimes offensive, but always, nonetheless, enthusiastic, infused with wild energy—as he did.

Adams saw his audience as “of English blood and American training,” possessed of a “scientific mind” that has “atrophied, and suffers under inherited cerebral weakness, when it comes in contact with the eternal woman—Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite, and the last and greatest deity of all, the Virgin.” It is notable, then, that Chartres was imagined as a letter to “nieces” back in the States, young women early in their formal education and, perhaps, already, by nature, in touch with what he saw as a central concern of his study. “The study of Our Lady, as shown by the art of Chartres, leads directly back to Eve, and lays bare the whole subject of sex.” For Adams, this “subject of sex” concerns the symbolic role of Mary—a church designed to honor the Queen of Heaven is necessarily constructed so as to affirm political concepts, the majesty and authority of the divine mirrored in human monarchy, for instance—and while his examination of religious discourse reveals the inherent human politics thereof, he doesn’t push too far, or think too critically, about what he’s reporting back to his “nieces.” Obviously, readers today will take observations a step or two further, and it intrigued me to imagine a contemporary “niece” trying to cut through the bluster and misogynist arrogance of this book and delve into the meat of what Adams was saying.

Adams, throughout his book, contrasts artists with everyday folk, though this dichotomy seems to me to be set up only to be viscerally broken down. “The rest of us cannot feel; we can only study,” Adams writes, but, of course, in his “study” there is deep and overwhelming feeling. He speaks of artists experiencing “the revival of archaic instincts,” but he is clearly reviving some of these instincts himself, and—more interestingly, to me—he seems to intend his text to do the same on and for his readers. Wandering through this book, I take Adams to be saying, will make you something of an artist, will rekindle sparks of spirit that the modern world, via various systems, has more or less erased. Thus, the book invites readers to consider its own function and afterlife—reading Chartres, one imagines how other people have or will read it, how it will affect them. Which is what I did, in this book.

Official Spencer Dew Web Site
Official Another New Calligraphy Web Site

A Review of “Carvings” by G. Emil Reutter

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

G. Emil Reutter

“I am here/ in the terrible now,” G. Emil Reutter writes, penning lines like those carvings for which his book is named. “We are very much like the old oak trees found in a public park. People stop and leave their marks on the trees, carving with a knife, initials, hearts with initials, a piece of someone left behind,” reads an introductory note. “These poems represent some carvings in my life, some minor others lasting.” This is a fair enough assessment. There are plenty of pages here that read like so much garbled graffiti, but, on occasion, there is a voice of urgency. “I am alive,” says a poem, and there are sirens outside, puddles on the pavement, cold water in the taps.

Much of Carvings is given over to reflections on nature, which is perhaps a mistake. “I cannot write of the great Greek goddesses/ or the numerous flowering plants and trees/ for I do not know their names,” Reutter writes. It wouldn’t hurt to learn such things, honestly. By which I mean, poetry gathers visceral strength from the infusion of particularities, the texture of language. Instead, we are given “yellow leaves tumble away/ naked maples stand guard/ a lone blue jay/ perches upon the branch/ hungry cats prowl/ about tree trunk,” which is both vague and staccato, bluntly dull. Too much of this book features lines like “feelings flow from me as of roots of a tree/ spidering through the hard earth in search of/ water, only my roots set firmly and always/ lead to you.”

Reutter is more at home away from all the trees, like, say, at the pharmacy, where “Pork roll,/ spam, hot dogs are in demand.” Or at the bar, amidst the “stench of stale beer/ cigarettes/ of bourbon and scotch/ sickening sweet aroma of/ syrup and burnt burgers” where the narrator realizes he’s “wasted my beer and can’t/ order another…another beer, another shot/ empty glass/ another wasted night.” The bars here all seem a bit better-noticed than the trees; Reutter has a sense for the exterior and interior details of such places, “Smoke-filled room/ blues plays on the box/ smell of beer and bourbon/ mixes with stale smoke/ cheap perfume and Old Spice./ A place of whatcould-/have-beens/ avoiding what is,/ as each glass of liquid gold/ changes reality and time.” Not that there isn’t real beauty to be glimpsed, whether passing quickly in an airport concourse or sitting outside a café smoking menthols, or writhing to the rhythm of summer in the city:

Asphalt bakes in the street
as roof tar bubbles.
Sweat beads drip along her arching spine,
chest heaving forward—
moaning and alone.

Such evocative moments stand out, and deserve, frankly, their own, much narrower and better edited book, free of such half-formed musings as “if Rockwell/were alive today/ what magazine would/ his painting grace/ what would he paint?” The real poetic moments tend to get buried in the bad writing, the clichés, but, if one persists, there are those moments, like the knife-gouged marks in the tree declaring “I am here,” “I am alive.” Consider this small piece, in full—nothing about Rockwell here, nothing about not knowing the names of trees. No, here is something raw, vulnerable, and real:

In the middle of the night, I wake thinking I hear you
call my name. Stumbling down the hallway I see the
living room; I am not there, you are not here. You always
thought you were a burden; I told you not so and on these
nights when I wake, I look for you still and I miss you. It is
two in the morning and I am thankful for those last few years
we spent together in the solitude of night; sharing your
life with me as the light in your eyes slowly dimmed. Helpless,
I listened, hoping I had not burdened you.

Official G. Emil Reutter Web Site
Official Publishing Web Site

A Review of “The hairpin tax” by David Appelbaum

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Spencer Dew

milkweed steam
blows across the fuchsia
fly caught in courtship

container later
an amber wand
electrics hair

fear another
white Turk brain
bring an amulet

This is “Coming revolution,”  in full, from David Appelbaum’s The hairpin tax. Beginning with a piece entitled “Origin of the work in art”—where we go from caves to “old masters” to “this lidded tomb”—Appelbaum’s little chapbook piles the language on thick, “black syrup/ Winnebago” (14) and “razor-back sleuth/ ever-dying twin” (9) and “fake brown vinyl makeup/ leans along against a stud/ scored with cigarette burns.”

These “haunted trash words” can be, sometimes, rich, with seemingly intentional puns—“as on the goad ahead”—and crafted couplings of words—“edifying skirr of a fan,” “jagged edge along/ thistle spines a comb.” “Swagger craft at/ the new dame,” Appelbaum says, nicely, “Tucson rust-pocked/ arch roost/ but neither local nor/ germane.” As poems, however, such fragments don’t always click into place, leaving some pages of The hairpin tax reading too much like they’ve been produced by the tumble of the bingo hopper. Fair enough, especially as the text ends on a note at once self-reflexive and inconclusive, a longing left gaping into white space on the page. But then Appelbaum has to go and ruin it all, affixing a self-aggrandizing “Afterword,” which affects the reader like a chugged half bottle of cough syrup immediately after a meal, bludgeoning away all the earlier subtleties of flavor.

“The fragmentary poems are of flight, written in the full fury of movement from a known habitat to one full of strangeness,” Appelbaum insists. “The uncanny is their constant envoy. They enter into things at an obtuse angle and forget their origin, beyond good sense, beyond good taste and use of time.” It is such observations that go beyond good sense, that test the patience of readers, who should not have to listen to an author, whose poems we still hold in our hands and are capable of judging on their own visceral merits, go on about his own “excessively complex meanings.” More attention to the poems, and less to praising his own accomplishments, would have been a wiser path for Appelbaum to pursue.

Official Codhill Press Web Site

A Review of “You” by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Jessica Maybury

I find that I cannot lose myself in many novels. The world never seems to be entirely credible; the characters are never completely solid; the plot is predictable. I make myself sound like a book version of a snooty wine taster but it’s true. I come to books with expectations, and sadly I can never throw them away entirely. As an Irish novel, I thought You would be all misery-guts and poor-mouthing. It’s not. Suffice to say, I finished this novel in almost one sitting, finding myself immersed in it as one is in luxurious, foamy bathwater.

The novel is told in the (seemingly forbidden) second person, and while I was waiting for there to be a point to this device, it never emerged. I didn’t find myself disappointed, however, as the novel had much more to offer than narrative ploys. You centres on a house by the Liffey river in Dublin, and a mouthy but sensitive ten-year-old girl who has a lot on her plate. Tragedy ensues. It is handled with gentle care and compassion, with humour and grace. This is what makes You such a welcome surprise to read.

The novel has many facets; elements of a children’s tale, of memoir, of a coming-of-age story. It is sharply drawn with the eye of a woman with a keen taste of timing and scene-setting, and with the secret inner ear of a poet, each sentence constructed with care and fitting in with the others in perfect balance.

An established Irish poet—see Portrait of the Artist with a Red CarTattoo/Tatu and Molly’s Daughter—this is not Ní Chonchúir’s first foray into fiction. She has story collections, Nude, To the World of Men, Welcome and The Wind Across the Grass. It is, however, her debut novel and a well-realised, believable one.

As an Irish novel, it is never entirely free from the shadow of the Irish literary tradition. In short, the tradition involves rural life, sombre themes and a lot of rain. How does You both conform and refute to this tradition? It ticks some of the right boxes in the pro camp: the themes and events are solemn, with a casual violence and matter-of-fact presentation that is both shocking and true to life, reminding the reader, to some extent, of the plays of Martin McDonagh…and that about sums it up. You breaks through the traditionalist stained-glass ceiling with a refreshingly modern and urban splintering and scattering of shards. It emerges in the 21st century, intact and with a new way of writing, of seeing, which at once heralds the novel as a focal piece of contemporary literature.

Official Nuala Ní Chonchúir Web Site
Official New Island Books Web Site

A Review of “Snowing Fireflies” by Eric Beeny

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Jessica Maybury

First, hands down I would have to say that this is the most attractive collection that I have seen for review so far. The writing on the cover is hand-done, the paper is thick and good to touch, and the double lining makes the collection strangely resilient (having carried it in and out to work for about two weeks now, I should know).

Second, on the first read through, the writing is innocuous, beaming up at the reader in perceived innocence. The sentences are short and snappy, often simplistic in their construction, child-like. It’s the images that hit hard out of this undemanding groundwork. They punctuate the text like stark trees in snow:

Each morning, he went outside and carefully raised the umbrellas in her garden. They bloomed like flowers, big dark gray flowers, their hooked handles like roots dug in the soil.

On the second read through, I began to snatch at deeper meanings and plays on rhythm and connotations. The third reading confirmed that the collection is eminently quotable: “Her absence had grown fond of him”, “We ran outside in our pajamas and lay down in the glowing field, more of them falling, covering us”, “By sundown his needs were poisonous flowers the troop couldn’t identify without a survival manual”.

I liked this collection because of how easily it was assimilated into my own life experience. There are some things, however. Housekeeping notes. Well. Basically only one comment: the word ‘big’ is way overused. ‘Smiling big’, ‘giggled big’, ‘hugged him big.” It’s the only grating note in the piece.

I read somewhere about how reflections catch the world in microcosm. Beeny’s worlds are small and carefully formed, easy to ride along in your mind as you continue your way through life, dipping back into the stories again and again whenever the need should arise. A surprising, precious collection.

Official Eric Beeny Web Site
Official Folded Word Web Site

A Review of “Lambs of Men” by Charles Dodd White

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Spencer Dew

“The night was cool, the wrack of the marsh heavy. A chevron of geese cut noisily overhead as they passed across a gibbous moon.” Such is the prose of Charles Dodd White’s tale of a man returned to Appalachia from the war, haunted by visions that “came back in grotesque shapes that were but masks of the waking world” and manning a military recruitment office next to a coffin shop. As with that symbolism, sometimes White lays on the language a little too thick in trying to conjure a lost time, a lost place:

By midday, he had come onto a wind-scoured road trafficked with every sort of commotion bound in or out of the Carolina Lowcountry. Even the occasional Model T truck gave a cheeky honk as it flew by, raising smell whirlwinds of dust. The daily mania of commerce in the vicinity of Beauford was a stark contrast to the regimented order of a training day on the island. Here, men and woman in sundry raced along the road, their colorful clothing whipped by the breeze. The variety was something of a poke in the eyeballs for Hiram, having been for so long accustomed to a shallowly deviating hue of green.

Such a paragraph, from the novel’s first chapter, exemplifies the problem that exists throughout; there is never a sense of an ease of phrasing—nothing here seems to have naturally formed itself into words, nor are any of these words particularly perfect. The poke in the eyeballs is the overwrought quality, the too-crafted description, the too-packed paragraph. And such language—rather than immersing readers in a the world of violence and death that White lays out for his protagonists, a father and son—distances the reader, discourages deeper wanderings into these mountains. “Hiram breathed out and let the preacher wince in the dusty sulk of the office made claustrophobic by the cigarette smoke,” for instance; such lines, rather than conveying an unshakable image, sound like tongue-twisters, a catalog of words, each too lovingly clung to for the wrong reasons. And the language occluded, leaving the hooch runner describes as having a “smile as wide as greed itself” invisible behind the cliché. White has his moments, sometimes, and some readers will surely be drawn into this tale, echoing as it does, albeit a bit too intentionally, certain tropes from Cormac McCarthy or Charles Frazer. There is a murder, a posse, a corpse that needs to be dug up. And there is an attempt at deep reflection on the mortality itself, though many readers will find the writing, along the way, to be like so many rusty bear traps scattered across their path.

Old ghosts kept to these mountains. In running from them, Hiram had thought he put them away, dispelled them somehow. But he now saw himself for the fool he was. Coming back into the hill country, he realized he was the one who haunted the land. Those ghosts, they belonged here more than he ever would.

Quite a lot of haunting, of several sorts, is happening here, but that most needful haunting of the reader by the word, of the story as something that lingers on, visceral, for the person who has read it—that is something White doesn’t manage to pack inside this book.

Official Charles Dodd White Web Site
Official Casperian Books Web Site