Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

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

A Review of “birdsong 14: Anew” by Tommy Pico, Editor in Chief

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

Birdsong Collective is a workshop community devoted to fostering and promoting art-in-process by various means, including this “flagship” publication, “a collaborative, bi-monthly lit/art/interview zine based in Brooklyn.” Within are nice quality color reproductions of art, including eerily nostalgic photographic pieces from Patrick Dyer, washed in color and light, as well as stories, poems, and a mash-up micro-interview of five questions dished out to five artists, including the poet Melissa Broder and the street artist FARO (neither of whose work, unfortunately, is included in this volume). Instead, moving at the speed of this nearly Twitterable interview piece, we have coverage of sex and relationships and comparisons of both, implicit and explicit, to art. But what else is there? In two pieces of visual art that exert an unexpectedly powerful pull, Julia Norton gives us soft-toned mountains, tinted in pinks and robin’s egg blue, fantastic otherwise abstract shapes laid out on wood panel, the grain visible, and marked, each one, with tiny traces of human presence, a “sanctuary,” a series of utility lines. The relation between these miniscule impositions and their real world corollaries, and the relation between these outposts within the image and the wider scale of raw rock and wild green foliage, is more than a nod at traditional Japanese screens. In fact, there is no white space here, no emptiness, only another layer (that grain of wood again) of wildness, planed down and sanded for domestic use. Not that these images are allegories, or anything so simple, but they are also far more than mere whimsical landscapes.

These pieces demand time, require some pondering, silent engagement. While this isn’t true about everything here, it holds for the best. The poignancy of LaJohnJoseph’s description of a baby brother’s “Buzz Lightyear all-in-one / ripped at the knee,” for instance, or Khalid El Khatib’s haunting story “When I Watched You Die” seize comprehensive attention from the reader. This latter piece shifts from italicized theorizing—grasping at making sense of the event—to the inescapably concrete details, such as how

The nurse collected your thousands of medication and dumped them all into a large Ziploc bag. She poured out vials of blue Percoset with vials of yellow Ativan and squeezed a tube of vasoline into the mix, kneading it together so that the colors bled and half melted pills clung to the side of the bag. She asked me to sign a legal document as official witness of the destruction…. I remember everything but your death.

Official birdsong Web Site

A Review of “Grim Tales” by Norman Lock

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Spencer Dew

…in small ways, too, the end of the world came…

One of the texts I often teach, as a professor of religious studies, is the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a central narrative in Judaism and a terrifying story, told, in the Hebrew Bible, with slow-building suspense, even a flash of humor: “And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac, and he himself took the firestone and the knife, and the two walked off together. And then Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father,’ and he answered, ‘Yes, my son,’ and he said, ‘Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’” This is a moment not unlike that of Red Riding Hood at her grandmother’s bedside, pondering the size of her teeth. There is rope and wood and a sharp blade; the only thing missing is the end of the world.

The Akedah was likely in Norman Lock’s mind a few times as he composed this startling, seductive, book—a book of endings, of tiny narratives of catastrophe, suicide, murder, metamorphosis, nightmare, and writing. There is a whiff of Kafka, also, maybe even a taste of that unparalleled reader of Kafka, Maurice Blanchot. Most centrally there is an attempt to reenter and reinvent the work of the Grimm brothers, to show us something about the logic of fairy tales and why they haunt us so. Here is a mirror that steals a man’s reflection. Here is a field of knives, a thick fog full of ladders. Here is a “hedgehog, dead by the side of the road, [that] was once a man who refused to believe in fairy tales.” And here, too, are pieces of writing that predict death, that stand as literal sentences of death; pieces of writing into which the writers and/or readers literally disappear.

He happened to look down, idly, at a book lying open on the table and read in it his own death, which instantly came to pass.

He read in the morning paper of his own death in a boating accident. That same day he bought a boat and took it out on the river. It capsized and he drowned.

He was turned into a book so that he might disappear inside it.

Now, Death had only to address an envelope and send it to its victim in order to claim him.

This is how the book progresses, an accumulation of endings. For the most part, the characters are anonymous persons, though there is a sense, in this accumulation, of echo, that the “he” who finds his “that his papers had been worked on during the night” might also be the “he” who “was writing a book of tales,” and who “In the middle of his book … left a note in which he confessed to all things—no matter how wicked or shameless—that were set down in the book, like fiction,” even the “he,” who, “when he had shut himself up in his room to write,” is overheard by others to be weeping.

Meanwhile, children turn into furniture or are strangled by furniture, smothered by coats, mauled by kitchen appliances. Horrors are followed by alternative horrors. We are given “another version of the story” followed by yet another. There is a relentlessness to the variety here; consider these pieces, isolated by white space, rendered autonomous and whole:

I loved one man and married another, she confessed to her husband as she watched him close his eyes for the last time—the cord knotted at his neck.

The pit is full, he said. Wiping blood from his hands, the other man answered: Dig another one.

The first of these tiny stories is just that, a narrative, complete, in minimalist fashion; yet the second is so much more, opening to something archetypal. The horror of the pit and the blood is not limited to the literal, not merely a pit and some blood; rather, we have here the structure of nightmare, and, in the context of Grim Tales, it is like standing between two mirrors and experiencing the startling illusion of infinity. This is a book that strikes at the reader’s sense of scale; we are dwarfed, in these pages, by apocalypse. As the Akedah stands as a reminder of the utter incomprehensibility of the divine—a warning against the easy idolatry of assuming we can even speak about that which is God—so Lock’s book exemplifies the very possibilities of tale-telling. We are offered story after story, and we are shown, again and again, how stories work and why they matter.

Freud, for instance, that examiner of the uncanny and the ramifications of narratives on the everyday, gets a hat-tip from Lock. In one fragment—“another story,” as it says—copies of The Interpretation of Dreams are burnt, and, once every word was erased from the world, “the streets ran with beasts and madmen,” sons slaughter their fathers and fuck their mothers. The sentence is carried out, like the obsessive-compulsive hand washing that acts as a harbinger of plague, or the man who dreams that the world ends, finds this to be so, then wills himself to dream again, to make the world whole once more. It works, in its way, “But all those he did not know were no more.” Not that the world ends, but that the world in which we live has limits, and they are our own limits—this is the harsh truth here conveyed. Again, there are echoes of the Akedah: to bind, to prepare to kill, this is more horrific, perhaps, than carrying such killing out; the idea of a “test”—the incomprehensibility or cruelty of such logic, depending on how one reads it—is itself the horror. It’s nice, in short, that Isaac doesn’t die, but the story’s ending doesn’t do anything to salve the discomfort it creates. The discomfort lingers, unfolds throughout history, through Isaac’s life, and Jacob’s, and that of the people Israel. Lock gets this, the dynamic of an unsettling inscription lingering—a sentence than cannot be erased. The end of the world already exists in the mere idea of the end of the world. And this is enough to drive us mad. Lock puts it perfectly, hauntingly:

The end of the world came; and to save his family from the horror which would befall those who must await their own end from storm or famine, fire or pestilence, he poisoned them all. As he was about to hang himself, an angel appeared and said to him that he had dreamed it—dreamt that the end of the world was come. He stared in horror at his wife and children lying dead in the room with him as the angel, with an inscrutable look, withdrew—its wings stiff with insolence.

Official Norman Lock Web Site
Official Mud Luscious Press Web Site

A Review of “Feet First” by Dion N. Farquhar

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Spencer Dew

An elaborate engagement with nostalgia, Farquhar’s book is structured via her relation to times lost and times recollected. “Inheritance,” “Counter Culture,” and “Legacy” she calls the three sections of this book, and in poems that spill across pages we see memories, in fragments, and encounter the imperative to carry on such memories. “Remember,” she writes, “Free Abortion on Demand Socialist Feminism.” Elsewhere, in the poem “Meta-Local I: 1964,” we’re given a montage of sorts: “college students back from Mississippi / registering voters / Freedom Democratic Party / priests thrown out of Latin America / for teaching peasants / how to count” is offered as so much back-beat, background noise to the memory of “while my parents / read Ellery Queen / Readers Digest / in their twin beds.”

One problem with such a style is that the reader is given only flashes, verbal fragments; there are moments of clear and urgent intimacy in this book, but, more often, there is just the implication of such intimacy. Worse, Farquhar has the tendency to fall back on the recitation of names of celebrities and products, substituting a sense of corporate, cultural memory for that of the individual. There is perhaps a social critique here, and subjectivity exerts itself in the arrangement of such floating signifiers, but as a tactic it contradicts the desire, expressed elsewhere throughout this book, for a consciousness opposed to the commercialized speed of our contemporary, capitalist, media-laced world. That so-called smart phones modify our behavior is lamented, yet here is Farquhar, writing poetry following precisely such a swift and abbreviated rhythm: “Now Apollo’s a spaceship, Argo / a strarch. Nike is plural / as running shoes … Emily Post our Proust.” Not only are proper names here standing alone or, in a weak move, linked with limp irony to some more distant, imagined past (Marilyn Monroe is the “American Helen” who “gave us back our lips”), there is also the matter of what a sloppy mess this string of words is, conceptually. Is Post really “our Proust” or is the poet, tempted by the surface of things, indulging in a cheap pun? Likewise, how does space travel equate with commercial laundry products, and why are decades compressed via unexplained comparisons? “We read Baldwin Ginsberg Malcolm Che / Millett Leary Laing and Plath,” Farquhar assures us, but from the poem one must infer that such “reading” was likewise only on a surface level, a scanning or scrolling through, consuming in the sense of being a consumer, not in the sense of digesting, understanding, or using. This is Billy Joel’s approach to history, not Howard Zinn’s.

Yet perhaps it is the fads of certain past moments for which Farquhar is most nostalgic. Her argument against handheld devices, which “chirp of the Hot Synch—data”  and leech “bad faith” into the body is, ultimately, a begrudging acceptance of a lifestyle that the poet would rather not have. Yet this lifestyle is adopted, giving us poems composed along the premise of “If I had a blog” or leading to the rattling out of fractures entries of verse, the poetic persona presented as “a Wiki witch / laptop open on my lap.” Needless to say, other poets have identified and successfully resisted such contamination of consciousness, but the narrative voice of Feet First seems to have always moved at this speed, just at different times and with different company, off-line, in “loft parties on 14th Street, / the first mescaline trip,” etc. The nostalgia here is for a time when everyone was carrying on about “Malcolm Che / Millett Leary” et al., but the sense from Feet First is that the carrying on which is most missed was as empty as current discussions of celebrity fashion or engagement in video games. Indeed, one poem here addresses a “twelve-year old / technie” who doesn’t understand that the “enchanted kingdom” of the Disney corporation is, in fact, “hydraulics, gears / the teeth of a machine.” “How I wish,” the poem says, this child’s Xbox were named for “Malcolm / though that association’s / almost impossible / for a relatively privileged / pre-teen white boy.” That association, importantly, is just another pun, a stitching of surfaces. There is no coherent political ideology in lines like “the body politic fucked by capital: Tampax / no pins, no belts, no pads launched salad bars / Lean Cuisine, Japanese CDs on Bang & Olufsen,” just a barrage of unconsidered names and notions, a few recycled images or cheap—and, indeed, politically dangerous—comparisons. “The same people / are on the board at Philip Morris… / and Sloan-Kettering / boggles the market / like Bach at Buchenwald.” We have a political claim here, via association, that Philip Morris is somehow like the Nazi death camps, but like everything else in this slight and ultimately depressing book, it is just a gesture.  That this gesture is startlingly irresponsible, an act of disrespect to the weight of history and the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, is mere collateral damage; the analogy likewise lets Philip Morris off the hook for very real deceptions and manipulations—deceptions and manipulations which are very real and problematic but which are in certain essential ways unlike “Bach at Buchenwald.”

Rather than a “radical pursuit,” this book exemplifies the worst sort of reactionary cooptation, the seizure of the revolutionary, the turning of radical resistance into just another fashion, just another fad, another product to be name-dropped or collected, bought. While she may lift words from Obama or Palin, reference Wall Street and jihad, these gimmicks, rather than making the work here coherent, thoughtful, or efficacious, reduce the political, dehumanizing and thus defusing ideas by decontextualizing them. In a perhaps unintentionally revealing passage Farquhar, glancing back at a previous decade and the community in which she was then involved, writes:

Our Achilles’ heel was Art
and politics
we used everything we could: the streets, the courts
to oppose our arrogant Superpower nation

How is this image of the Achilles’ heel to be read? Art is not here the sword that can strike at the weak point of an oppressive culture; rather, the presumptions about art read here as the weakness that brought down whatever movement or momentum the collective “our” of the first line might have had. If that failed, then why not, now, string together poems from the trademarked property of multinational corporations? Feet First is thus a doubly depressing collection: crushing as an example of counter-revolutionary literature and further saddening as a reminiscence of failure. And the loss is ours, as readers as well as citizens; if only this were a book from that half-recollected then, a book of authentic poetry, scrambling up from the streets, striving to change the world.

Official Evening Street Press Web Site

A Review of “Venti” by JoAnne McKay

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Jessica Maybury

Like Kat Dixon’s Don’t Go Fish, and Jesse Bradley’s The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You Is a Robot (both reviewed before for decomP), Venti is a book I carry around with me frequently. I dip in and out of it. It’s like dunking your head underwater and listening to the clicking of the sea.

I was worried it wouldn’t arrive in the post. It was a month and a half late. I blame the snow, the Christmas, the Irish postal system. When it arrived and I unwrapped it, I felt relief, and, on further investigation, a small explosion of delight.

Like Eric Beeny’s Snowing Fireflies, Venti is beautifully made. It’s obvious from the get go that it has been much loved. It is punctuated here and there with stark, angular images (by Matt Kish) inspired by Moby Dick.

The poetry borrows titles from the Bible, ‘For Ishmael and Elijah and Those Who See’; science, ‘Levity, Gravity’ and, ‘Hippocampus, Hippocampus’—the genus of seahorse: the poem plays with the Ancient Greek word forms—; and ‘Octopodes,’ a rare plural of ‘octopus’. The title of the collection, Venti either refers to the Roman gods of the winds, or a network storage system that permanently stores data blocks. Both meanings are possible. On producing the book in my Auntie Hilda’s kitchen (think cats and teapots and a picture of the Sacred Heart), she avidly studied it, but complained of the sometimes long and unintelligible titles. This is not a collection for the uneducated. I had to look up many words on the ever-trusty Wikipedia. Brush up on your reading.

The poems. They are tight and controlled and deal with often complicated but elegant images and ideas. From ‘Hippocampus, Hippocampus,’ the first poem in the collection:

the memories of meaning
of things that were and are
lie in your sea-horse structure,
pulling us this way and that,
making the past the present
ripe for reminiscence,
ready for what will be.

Some of the poems remind me of the early work of the British Laureate Ted Hughes, in that they concern themselves with the natural world; octopuses, seahorses, trees, the moon, horses, hares. ‘May Fly,’ in particular has striking similarities to his ‘Examination at the Womb Door,’ from Crow:

When is the dead time, mother?
At midnight.
What time is it now, mother?
One micron past midnight.

And so on.

In summary, there is a 19th century air of education and classical allusion here that is charming if somewhat elitist. Secondly, the poetry itself is beautiful and fragile. It wavers on the edges of things. Lastly, my favourite poem is ‘Northern Lights’. Short and sweet:

Aurora Borealis.
What a mouthful that is.

Official JoAnne McKay Web Site