Archive for May, 2011

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
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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