Posts Tagged ‘Spencer Dew’

A Review of “Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy” by Bradley Sands

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Spencer Dew

“I secretly love Adolf Hitler,” writes Bradley Sands. “I secretly love Adolf Hitler and I don’t care what you think. If I had to choose one person to pump Zyklon B gas through my elegant dual shower head, it would be Adolf Hitler. I would clutch my throat knowing that Adolf Hitler loved me, knowing that he cared.” An animatronic Chuck Woolery, an alligator astronaut, an assortment of AK-47s, Eggs Benedict at a diner with a dinosaur, idolization of Hitler—these are a few of the things this book freewheels its way through, rattling off a shout-out to William S. Burroughs along the way, and introducing, in one story, a Tao Lin-like character called, in a Tao Lin-like style, “Tao Lin.” Something of Lin’s flat tone comes through, too, only without the perky notes, the humor. The humor of Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy is like that in the Hitler quote above, or in the following suicide scene:

The suicidal amputee’s right leg pushes the Z button to make him think about the cheapness of Baron Rothschild Vodka. The suicidal amputee’s left leg presses right on the control pad to roll him through the screen door. The suicidal amputee’s right leg pushes the B button to make him think about the time he shot a gook in the face. The suicidal amputee’s left leg presses left and then down on the control pad to roll him into traffic.

While the prose captures something of the frustration or obsession or lunacy or idiocy of the narrative voices (parodying the phenomenon of bestsellers, game shows, or searching for lost remote controls, journeying up noses, etc.) there is a gaping absence throughout, a lack of anything more than the sort of froth and gimmickry contained in a line like “If I had to choose one person to pump Zyklon B gas through my elegant dual shower head, it would be Adolf Hitler.” If you think such a line is funny, or clever, perhaps this book will amuse. If you find it perhaps cheap, silly in a strained strategically shocking way, morally vacuous, devoid of the pleasures of sound or rhythm or idea or imagery, or, maybe worst of all, if it sounds to you merely like a belated attempt to mimic other, more successful and innovative voices from a few years back, then Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy will disappoint. “The giraffe does not even know Tudor England exists,” Sands writes, in another representative sample of this book:

How should he know? He has never seen Showtime’s original series, The Tudors. He does not know what Tudor England looks like. When the giraffe looks at Tudor England, all he sees is a junkyard. Having never seen The Tudors, the small, ceramic giraffe walks to the shop as loneliness and insignificance drips down his small neck.

If this evokes some pang of loneliness and resonates as some larger statement on our world and the human condition, then, dear reader, good on you. If it drips like so much insignificance and tatty assemblage writing, then, dear reader, move on.

Official Bradley Sands Web Site
Official Lazy Fascist Press Web Site

A Review of “Monkeybicycle 7” by Steven Seighman, Editor

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Niels Bohr, we learn from one of the stories in this journal, hypothesized that “conscious observation could shift potentiality into actuality. If no one is looking, there is no event, only a swirl of probabilities.” This story, Reed Hearne’s “It Takes Two Entangled,” plays up the unwatched, the hidden, the discovered—be it a shrine behind the water heater or a shopping bag full of lingerie and blue plastic razors. Other stories here obsess over the act of perception itself, whether via a cat that takes drugs and stares at reproductions of Salvador Dali works or a visitor on a Kafkaesque journey through a foreign land or a call girl studying the specimens on show in a faculty gallery exhibit. Then there is Ken Saji’s chain of haiku, “Haiku on Haiku”:

These verses distill,
Enthrall, beguile, enrich. Kind
Of like a meth lab.

All the way down to

Those Japanese. So,
So smart. So, so, so, so, so,
So, so, so, so smart.

There are some funny moments in this magazine, but nothing breathtaking, haunting. Instead, the dominant tone is one of MFA earnestness in story constructions, frequent gimmickry in pinning a piece to some line of thought or the historical moment. “Despite all the attempts that were made to save it,” read one poem about protest, “the entire country of Iraq has been destroyed, / brought down to rubble, / turned into a dark and scary place.” In the story about the call girl, as she waits to be faux-raped, she rereads Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and shudders with “the resonance between material and immaterial objects, a grating fusion and dissonance at once necessary and accidental.  It was past and present colliding on the page, in the word.” There is a persistent sense, in this volume, of trying too hard, of aiming to hit the steps without actually feeling the dance one’s attempting to do.

Consider Yassen Vassilev’s “Amnesia During Meditation,” where the text becomes a rabbit hole, down into which we, the readers, go wading “in clouds under a rainfall of question marks” where “wax faces of hallucinogenic people drip / abducted in nirvana through opium and absinthe.” Shamans drums and such, “rods hit the glands of the gnosis / and the pulse of the universe echoes hypnotically,” though the poem, as a sort of blended free-association and surface reading of textbook Vedanta, disappoints, feeling uncomfortably like, as the poet says, a “text … without end and indefinite.”

Not that there aren’t highlights here: Elizabeth Alexander’s intricate “On Anzio Beach,” Edwin Wilson Rivera’s rollicking assemblage of vernacular—“Urbanology”—Steven Coatsworth on a kind of L.A. (“Tack one side of this memoria to the wall and run, stretched over sangre highways and desert cities, bake-and-broil skies, over dream fields and gravestones”) or Aaron Gilbreath on “Tijuana,” where a strip club stage is described as “Barely larger than a table at KFC,” lit by “a hot white light not unlike those featured in alien movie abduction scenes.” This is gringo perception, spun like carnival sugar: “I didn’t even want what was dancing naked on the stage: a sad, mascara-abusing woman, her flabby bronze backside lashed like Virginia ham by a single string.” But such moments are small rewards, hidden within the whole, a whole not worth the twelve dollar cover price.

Official Monkeybicycle Web Site
Official Dzanc Books Web Site

A Review of “Anatolia and Other Stories” by Anis Shivani

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Spencer Dew

The stories here share an attention to issues of insider and outsider, whether, in its horrific extremes, this dynamic leads to minorities on a death ship, awaiting forced repatriation or extermination, or whether, in a too-familiar milieu for a certain type of short story, this dynamic plays out in a writer’s conference, the ubiquitous chatter laced with references to therapy and the praise of low-residency MFA programs. In one story, prisoners of an internment camp produce an overly earnest “newspaper” thick with editorials absurdly insisting that “we must be ready to resume normal life when conditions permit it.” In another—the one about the writer’s conference, patterned off of Bread Loaf in Vermont, we hear that “Sadie wrote exclusively about Central American refugees. Dylan kept volubly hitting on Sadie, still praising Max the gender-smashing silent poet.”

The problem with this collection is how much a product of such strange locations it seems—the writer’s conference, not the internment camp. While tackling international locales and the issues and internal worlds of immigrant workers and assorted nomads, all the while poking questions at monolithic claims about “the American way of life,” Anatolia and Other Stories skirts just above the level of the didactic, speaking too often in a voice of a wilted intellectual, someone taking refuge in libraries as true horror explodes beyond the walls, captured beautifully in the use of the Indian euphemism for ethnic riots, lynching, and mass rape, “these communal prejudices, these needless hassles.”

The characters here, while not at home in the writer’s conference, nonetheless seem to speak as part of a diaspora long-wandering from some promised land of workshops and, in one case, protests. Indeed, the U.W. Madison professor who has just adopted a Vietnamese boy embodies an essential inertia of this book, a kind of surrender, draped in nostalgia. “Protest,” he claims, “had none of the life-and-death value it used to have during Vietnam. It was now entirely a vicarious operation. None of these nice kids was going to suffer or die because of our policies. It meant nothing.” While the trajectory of this story, “Profession,” crests toward some true education for this professor, the tone of meaninglessness still predominates, and more attention is given to the margins of the English department than to the realities lurking behind, for instance, the adopted boy’s declaration

that he wanted to forget his past, his homeland, his whole previous life, and start with a fresh slate. It had been an astounding statement. Where had he learned such a complex and mature thought? Had his master at the Hanoi orphanage, where Nam Loc had managed to thrive for two years after his parents died, trained him to say this to his new guardians? Lauren would know what to make of this near-Gothic eruption. Although nominally a professor in the English department, where in the affluent sixties she had held forth on the silences of the female-authored Victorian novel, Lauren was all over the place now: pulp fiction, Hollywood, sitcoms, billboards, and internet chat rooms. In the age of cultural studies and theory, it was what one did to maintain currency.

And so we travel to a lecture, witness discourse getting discoursed about, and the old professor falls asleep in the pillowy moment. Shivani doubtless has a razorblade of critique wedged inside that pillow, but it takes some sitting to find it. The following story, “Go Sell It On the Mountain,” about the writer’s conference, voices a critique clearly, but this critique itself is distanced, padded, delivered by a New York wunderkind, a Cameroonian novelist identified by the narrator as wearing, every day “a miraculously ballsy outfit, never with a bra.” This narrator, as obvious from that description, might not be much of a writer, but he simultaneously believes that “real artists…were naturally forged from the flux and flow of normal stressful life” and has paid “three thousand dollars, all told, for the right to be at the Conference.” So he can be there as participants faint from the strain of so many readings and workshops, as participants line up for autographs, and as that New Yorker from Cameroon stands to declare that each year’s event is the same as the last, an instantiation of absurd insulation, a gathering where

Everyone will think the short story is the art form par excellence. Experimentalism will be in vogue. There will be declamations of the unfortunate current tendency to introduce politics into art…. Agents will try to convince us that publication is not the important thing, perfecting our craft is. The merits of low-residency writing programs will be articulated by recent graduates. There’ll be humorous Homeland Security and Sexual Transgression readings…. Veteran faculty will hang out only with their kind, as will younger faculty. Fellows will try to exclude waiters from their parties, waiters will try to exclude scholars, and scholars will try to exclude paying contributors. Someone will be caught fucking in the laundry room after a week. Two minority girls will faint in the Frost Theater during the first days, only to be rescued by white male doctors in the audience. A middle-aged housewife will break down at a reading by a poet of color. The bookstore will run out of books to be signed by novelists. Most people will get drunk, but almost no one will really make a fool of themselves.

Like the protest in Madison that the professor bumps into, this voicing of truths leads to no change. The status quo—while diverse, shifting from Tehran to America, Dubai to that boat full of refugees—resists assaults and replicates itself. Each year the conference is the same, a continuation of tradition, a zealous commitment to the rituals of a specific minority group awash in the wider world. Shivani’s collection ties various examples of such communities, such experiences, together, but this book reads, too, like a string of voices testifying to their own trapped conditions, whether on a death ship, in a prison camp, a writer’s retreat, an academic career, or, as one library-bound exile writes, “Indianapolis…the reviled, bland Midwestern city that outré writers like Kurt Vonnegut have targeted for satire over these recurrently sad late twentieth-century decades.” This, ultimately, is the voice of Anatolia, a voice erudite just to the point of uselessness, not so much naïve in opinion as blinded by one opinionated state; a voice expressing desperation in a variety of its quieter tones.

Official Anis Shivani Web Site
Official Black Lawrence Press Web Site

A Review of “Watching the Windows Sleep” by Tantra Bensko

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Tantra Bensko is identified in her bio as someone who “teaches Experimental Fiction Writing through colleges, online,” and on this chapbook’s title page she is identified as “Tantra Bensko, MFA.” These credentialing gestures may be absurd, the bow tie on the decorative column, the tattered top hat on the performing corpse, but I fear there is no wink, no knowing Dadaist smile, behind either line. The “Experimental,” with the capital E, and the MFA, a capital accomplishment, are meant in dread earnest, and meant to impress. As, unfortunately, is the content of the chapbook, stories about fragments of dreams and/or the physics and phenomenology thereof. “In the future, you will forget it, in the past you have forgotten it, so I know the secret will be safe if I keep it in the present. The present will enfold it and keep it mine, and yet I can revel in the telling of it.” This about says it all, as Watching the Windows Sleep is characterized by an earnest reveling on the part of its self-identified Experimental author, but likely will not linger long in the reader’s mind.

“How many worlds intersect here? How many worlds are dreaming of other worlds?… How do YOU appear in those worlds? As a shadow of a cloud? As a sound of unusually melodic wind?” Fair questions, but what I longed to encounter more of in this chapbook was something like an answer, however enigmatic. Consider the “lucid windows” washed down with frothing cream, flashing significant scenes to a cigar-smoking man in a yellow suit who just happens to be wandering by—here at least there are descriptions that can be grasped. Too often Bensko gives us a vague gloss, caving to that profoundly distancing effect of narrating a dream not shared by the person hearing the narration. “Symbols.  Yet so real and lush and living, with individual emotions,” she writes at one point, “Being symbols doesn’t make them any less poignant and vibrant.” I’d love to believe this, but it just lacks spark. What if houseplants had hair? Well, that would be a situation, and perhaps a story, but a chain of rhetorical questions does not a story make.

Poetry seems to be the best way to create what you will live. Better than lists. Or affirmations. Proclamations. Colors will create your day. Color sequences become a language translated by your skin. By your stride. By your breath. Not translated into English. Into something for which there is no English word.

This is no Rimbaud, no matter how many “colors dancing and shouting and jumping, free from constriction!”  get poured onto the page, mainly because there is no saturation of color in the use of the word color. Rimbaud, when he trips out his new vowels, relies rather heavily on lists, on things, anchoring the balloon of his poetry such that the reader can feel and, maybe, climb inside the basket for a ride. Instead, Bensko’s “Experimental” style gives us this:

We begin. Swirling like a backwards somersault off a swing, landing in a pool of water, sending ripples beyond all knowledge of time. This is the essence, then: heady freedom of motion between worlds of formlessness and form, that which is formed and that to be formed, and other versions of them all that call to you with clear voices from across the river banks.

It’s difficult to feel or know anything here, hard to have an experience or care or continue. “The storyteller sometimes likes to just be,” she tells us, elsewhere, and, again, that is fair enough for the storyteller, but it unfortunately leaves the reader “outside of doing something to try to make something happen. Outside of questions and answers. Just plain outside.”

Official Tantra Bensko Web Site
Official Naissance Chapbooks Web Site

A Review of “Adventures of a Lazy Polyamorist” by Jane Cassady

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

Jane Cassady is Slam Mistress of the Philadelphia Poetry Slam, and the word-swarm tactics of such performance art get used here, as when Cassady recites a wild list of terms to get at what is so particular and loveable about a lover’s face (“smiling painted dolphin hating, sunset/ pausing… paint splotch flower bordering… fake stream landscaping, cala-lily harboring,/ artichoke thistle vilifying, armpit sweating, seashell collecting…”), but this scatter-shot of happenstance things and fragmentary narratives feels less like a reflex of style and more like an honest gesture toward articulating the manifold and baffling charms of the world. It is in this—the attempt to somehow put words to the allure of “a work crush” as well as the “wavy glass of the Continental Congress” and the horrifying yet wonderfully strange “pool of blood/ on the car roof” after a crash with an ambulance, that distinguishes this slim, sweet chapbook. The poem “Dear Philadelphia,” for instance, conveys the confession “I’m embarrassed that it took me/ so long to love you… your openhearted narrow streets, trolley-tracked arterials from one room/ of lightning-crack hearts to the next.” In the lovely “Or Just the Cost of Caring for Cats,” a flea infestation—“a tiny autumn of fleas,/ a sprinkling”—inspires larger reflections:

One crawled through your hair
like a lazy Surrealist
while you smiled at me from your pillow.
One hopped across my Entertainment Weekly.
The vacuum bags are on the porch to freeze them,
but they can lie dormant for years.
Is this the thing that’s been hunting us forever,
our debt taken in small nicks and irritation,
a bouquet of apologies
in a circle of bites?

She might claim, in one title, that “Beyoncé is Better at Having Feelings than I Am,” (8) a cue that she’s about to appropriate lyrics (as she also does from Lady Gaga) to craft her own cut-up poem, but Cassady isn’t writing pop fare, drawing on standard tropes; rather, she’s wrestling through the random flotsam of reality. “Songs about snooze alarms” are more her speed. As she makes clear in the fun final poem of the collection, Scrabble is a useful metaphor for her approach to the world and being a poet in it. She may lament “this spittle of vowels” plucked from the bag, but she strives to go on and “spell ‘is’ and ‘id’ at once.”

Official Turtle Ink Press Web Site

A Review of “Round Trip” by Kevin McLellan

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

The strangest thing about this limited-edition chapbook is the name on the cover, singular, Kevin McLellan. Never mind that the cover design is such that “and…” is wedged between his two names, what’s missing is any other name, like, for instance, the names of any of the fifteen women with whom he collaborated in the writing of these poems. Round Trip—its title tickling epistolary associations—is a collection of co-written pieces, presumably sent back and forth, two poets’ efforts polished, ultimately, into one poem. At the end of the text, McLellan says, in a note,

What I find most exciting about the art of collaboration is the heightened level of individual and shared accountability (while creating the collaboration and afterward) for a creation born out of more than one imagination, and that this knowledge of accountability, a memory, exists somewhere in the mind when one also creates alone.

It’s a strange note, in lieu of any explanation of process, but we must assume it holds some importance for the writer whose name is on the cover. The other poets are identified in connection with the poems they co-wrote in the table of contents, and there are biographical notes for each, but the poems themselves are present, in the text, with only their own titles, the organizing principle here being that all of these are equal parts of a single, unified whole, and that what unites them is the process and one party to said process, Mr. McLellan.

The first poems each feature a “you” and an “I,” male and female notions—the recruit whose beard gets shaved the “”jam-/maker he-wife,”  but soon these conceits fall away and, moreover, the poems exhibit a wide stylistic and tonal range. What, precisely, holds them together, as a unit, a collection? Only the collaboration, and that with a motley crew of poets, who, judging solely from the work on these pages, have their own distinct voices and strengths, somehow aped or harnessed by McLellan, who must be a chameleon to collaborate at this pace.

The Jessica Bozek co-written “[for a postmaster],” for instance, with its “erase of curlicues/ & girdles. this bit-o-honey,/ this battered syringe” contrasts with the pulsing narrative weave of Sue Nacey’s co-written title poem. There are poems rooted in place—from the shore of “After Phosphorescence” to the back yards of “Nocturne,” and poems rooted in personality and personal narrative, like “From an Adirondack Chair” with its chronicle of “This mid-July dusk, our anniversary,” which ‘thickens with mosquitoes” as the “sun tea with floating mold/ mimics scum/ on the lake.” Connie Donivan co-wrote that one, and the intimacy and force of the phrases insist that it matters.

What’s happening here is not appropriation or cut-up (though there is some of that, from one of Eisenhower’s papers, in one piece), but collaboration, two skilled poets combining to create each piece, here assembled under one, main, over-arching, male name. So the reader is left with an uneasy feeling. There’s something fishy here, in this arrangement, the male poet coupling with and claiming the offspring of this clutch of other writers. Maybe McLellan would argue that such collaborative process calls into existence a new identity, but, if so, this new, communal authorial presence deserves its own name—signifier of group effort as well as guarantor of anonymity. McLellan, for whatever reason, insists on hanging his own name over this assortment of collaborative work. If nothing else Round Trip should lead any reader to thoughts on the nature of collaboration, possession, relation and ownership—an always useful journey.

Official Seven Kitchens Press Web Site

A Review of “Crossing the Trestle” by Jim Meirose

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Spencer Dew

“Starting down the loose dirt slope from the head of the railroad trestle steadying yourself on the rusted steel trusses,” Jim Meirose’s pocket-size collection of three short stories begins, the second person narrator dwelling on the details of the place where the ashes are scattered, the place where the memories are set: “There’s a spot down there you need to get to and you slide or half-fall down the slope to a gravel platform under the trestle by the water,” he writes, not so much, perhaps, painting a picture of a location as making clear, in the telling, how well-worn this location, and the travel down there, are to the narrator. This smoothed style—like a wood tool that, with enough years, has come to naturally fit its users hand—distinguishes this little book. In the introduction, Meirose makes clear the ways these stories are metaphors for the act of writing, but he does so, again, in such a personal tone, intimate, that it is not excessive information but, rather, a tiny and perfectly flavored amuse bouche to awaken the reader’s palate for the meal to follow. Its taste is at once pastoral and post-industrial, a celebration of life and a meditation on death: “At the head of the trestle the steel’s bolded into the concrete, the bolts each enter a star of rust; under the trestle you stand by the black water, the strong-smelling mud, the rubble and briars.”

A boy claims to listen, through a machine, to the voice of his dead mother, in one story, and in another, a woman works the counter of a fuel station on a highway slipped from most folks’ maps by the imposition of an interstate. The woman tries to sell “snack-sized pies in small foil pans on a tray in the hazy glass case at the register” to those few passersby who cross paths with her, but the piece isn’t just a study of contrasts between speed and ease, the new world and the lost, there’s something angrier, even if it is a simple and innocent anger, in the woman’s action—suffice to say, the pies aren’t precisely edible; they’re certainly not made out of fruit. There’s rebellion and humor in these pies and in these pieces of fiction, but there is a gaping sense of loss just under the trestle, just down the highway. As the boy with the machine says, dazed by revelry at the very idea of what it might be like, to talk to the dead, to have the past to experience again: “Thrill, goosebumps, the hot water in the tub, close eyes, Mother what do you have to say, Mother what would you have to say if you could really be here—” But it is just one voice, less young than before, speaking in the dark, one man skittering and sliding down the gravel banks to stand where there’s a better vantage for looking back at the past.

Official Burning River Web Site

A Review of “Meet Me at the Met” by Eric G. Müller

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Spencer Dew

“I walked up St. Marks to Cooper Square through the slush and snow, catching the almost empty subway up to 57th. A man in pin stripes with an attaché case on his lap was reading a newspaper. The heading, Gonzo Journalist Thompson Kills Self, caught my eye. Fear and loathing leads to a bad end, in Las Vegas or anywhere else.” This is the narrative voice of Meet Me at the Met, a character named Clarence, a creative writing instructor with a novel coming out, left by his wife, estranged from his daughter, wishing he “were as skilled in navigating through the zodiacal adventures of my own destiny as Odysseus could through his,” or, at another point, wishing he “could rap like Tupac, or his deceased nemesis, the Notorious B.I.G. I take out my pen and notebook, hoping to slam a few power words onto the page, or at least to glean what’s irking me today.” Clarence is trite, self-important, and, as his constant attempts to drop names navigate the “zodiacal” straits of what he elsewhere calls “refined culture,” more than a little bit dumb. His stupidity finds expression in puffed-up bromides and, more unfortunately, in a vacuity of perception. He goes to the Metropolitan Museum because, he insists, “art rejuvenates. True art is embodied spirit; and the spirit never sleeps, but always burns on and on,” and, while there, he writes, and, in so doing, he manages to convey nothing like rejuvenation or spirit. Rather, what readers must endure is a great deal of writing about writing, on the level of:

I want to find a place to write.

I click my ballpoint pen, ready to reexamine my forgotten resolution.

I just want to write, and see where it leads me. It’s what I always tell my students in the creative writing classes: ‘Write, every chance you get. It’s a means of self discovery. The act of writing will lead you as much as you lead it.’

I will continue to write, because it’s what I must do, even if it is only in short, sporadic spurts, and even if I don’t fully know why.

I’m ready and alert, with not a clue of what to write. Everything about this project is vague; except for the existential notion that I want to uncover the reason behind my present condition and explore a segment of my life.

I cast my pen’s red line into the page-pool, letting my thoughts slowly reel out into the center of possibilities. I’m a fisher waiting for a bite.

No thoughts come. That’s ok. I’m used to it… I’m waiting to find out what’s on my mind.

I take my pen and go over the letters and numbers until the date stares boldly back at me.

Now I know what drove me to the Met with such inexorable force; why I had to write. It was more than an exercise in self-development. It was more than mere journaling (though it could serve as the groundwork for a memoir).

Indeed, things happen, and, at the Met, after coffee, he writes about them. Müller, who is identified in his bio as the author of a collection of “old and new poetry written mostly while traveling or drinking coffee,” makes his narrator a bit of a caffeine addict, not that there is any trace of tweak or rush in these pages, just lots of mentions of buying and drinking coffee. Among the things that concern him are traumatic memories (“I’m nailed to the spot by the pounding knowledge of a resurfaced episode—a wound, left to fester for years without the necessary attention. Memories tend to return in altered states, popping up at arcane, though seemingly random moments.”), a school scandal that nearly cost him his career, an acid attack against his girlfriend, his daughter’s eating disorder (about which his heartfelt response is “I felt stupid, ignorant, and helpless, though it was obvious that the popular images of women—as expressed in the media—had something to do with it. Moreover, my observation that girls who suffer from anorexia or bulimia often fail to live up to their potential had me worried.”), and, of course, his wife and why and how she left him. We do learn that she is a pretty perfect match for poor Clarence, however, as she, in a characteristic example of this book’s use of dialogue, explains how, exactly, she first consummated the lesbian affair that would lead to the ruin of her marriage:   “It was terribly hot and we often lay half naked in her loft,” she says. “In our sleepy, steamy state we sometimes satisfied ourselves, a bit like in Otto Dix’s painting in the Neue Gallerie—you know the one—Dix’s Two Girls on the bed, masturbating. Then, one day we did it to one another, and, yeah….” Really? Is this how an ex-wife talks to her ex-husband, about this? And would she really use the artist’s last name twice in such a quick span of time?

It is impossible to have any sympathy for either of them, though the ex-wife is blessedly absent most of the time. Instead, we have to deal with Clarence—are trapped, frankly, in Clarence’s head. Faced with a long queue snaking outside the renovated MoMA, our narrator expresses his frustration, that he needs to see the new arrangement inside, has “a need to know, to give my two-penny bit on the Mecca of modern. Artspeak on the subject is flourishing in all the intellectual circles; and both my higher and nether nature is vying for the MoMAment to add my thoughts to the rest of them.” Or ducking into a room of Degas pieces, here’s our narrator smugly sighing that he needs to “find my medicinal dose of art for the day.” Oh, and there’s that moment when he vows “to do my share in the protection of refined culture throughout the world as expressed through the arts, sciences and religion—the trinity which, in its unity, will guarantee the survival of a civilized world based on loving human interrelationships.” This is what I mean, in part, by dumb: here is a book devoid of contemplation or thought but that bills itself, on every page, as some kind of contribution to, well, the literature of contemplation. And here straw-man narrator Clarence can’t shoulder all the blame. In a preface—seemingly written to warn readers off from the book to which it is attached—the author writes, “Through Clarence’s engaging and interacting with the museum’s treasures, the novel has almost become a companion book of sorts for those seeking to find an intimate and personal relationship to the visual arts.” Again: really? And why the “almost” and “of sorts”?

“I love words,” Clarence insists, “especially when I am distressed. They come flying, or well up like fishes from the depths. I’m obsessed by them. When I’m feeling down, I go for the dictionary instead of the bottle,” which is as close as we get to any example of this. Words, we’re told “need to be fed, taken out, talked to, put to work, enjoyed… Wards in the word infirmary are filled with ailing, wounded words,” but we don’t much sense, from this manuscript, of this supposed investment in the language. Instead, we get more of the narrator’s self-important prattle. Likewise, while the book is stitched around visits to an art museum, we get non-descript descriptions or mere passing mention of works of art. Tiny monochromatic pictures of artworks at the Met are included, but these only highlight the problem of how invisible these works of art are within the text. “Kiki Smiths’ intriguing Lilith,” is mentioned, for instance, at just that speed, on page 63; six pages later Clarence scribbles some notes about how a teacher leading a group of schoolchildren “missed a pedagogical moment” by now telling her class “an imaginative story of what she sees in the painting…. I’m reminded of the precocious little girl who was puzzled by naked Lilith, hanging upside down from the wall. Maybe we can only have a semblance of faith if we turn ourselves upside down and inside out,” he writes, “Modern life does that to us.” A photograph of Lilith, in situ, follows, but—really?—what kind of sense can the reader be expected to make from those lines. Other, of course, than that the narrator has never looked at this piece of art.

This disturbing lack of consideration—lack of, to use the author’s own terms, “engaging and interacting”—of individual pieces of art carries over into a lack of distinction between various artworks and various responses to them. As we’ve seen, there is an inchoate hope that religion, art, and science “will guarantee the survival of a civilized world based on loving human interrelationships,” which seems, especially in a novel chock-a-block with references to 9/11 a bit naïve. There are also juxtapositions that simply do not strike our earnest fool of a narrator, as when he realizes, “with a chuckle,” that a group of costumed children have “all succumbed to the charms of J. K. Rowling’s latest: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dressed in the weird and bizarre outfits of their favorite characters, they sit transfixed and at one remove from reality. I’d quite forgotten about the midnight release parties held at thousands of bookstores throughout America and the world in honor of her fifth book, a tome of over eight hundred pages.” There is a small photo of a statue of Gertrude Stein below that, but, rest assured, our narrator has “quite forgotten” whether there is any difference between these two authors and their work. Both, after all, are part of that “trinity” which will save “human interrelationships,” which, surely, are things that involve lots of writing in notebooks in museums.

Not that what might be called politics, or history, doesn’t enter into the picture; it’s just that, as with all other pictures, Clarence can’t focus on the details. At the start of the invasion of Iraq, our narrator improvises what he takes to be an Islamic prayer ritual, prostrating himself before a mihrab in the Asian Art Wing. When confronted by a security guard who points out that removing ones shoes isn’t generally accepted in the museum, Clarence makes the case that “It’s not much different than artists setting up their easels and copying masterpieces.” Really? Really? This, it seems to me, could be the germ of a major claim about the function of art, about the act of museum-going, etc. But Clarence just blabbers it out there. I, for one, was amazed his shoes didn’t get “quite forgotten” as he wandered off to his next cup of coffee and therapeutic scribble session.

This is a very bad book, but it will surely prove most painful to anyone who cares, even in passing, about art, museums, or writing, and will certainly prove crushing to anyone who values subtlety, the sound of language, or takes seriously the idea that art might change us in some deeper sense than merely serving as a prop for solipsistic daydreams. Clarence and his ex become reacquainted, predictably enough, at an art museum:

While examining how the art was arranged in the context of the walls, roofs, slanted ceilings, staircases, and so forth, it felt like I was being reacquainted with the Arietta I once knew, before we’d grown apart. By making each other aware of this or that detail we were simultaneously exploring who we once were and who we’d become. At the same time I was also aware of all the things that we’d never spoken about, and it felt like a widening abyss beneath us, filled with the pain we’d caused each other. Did she feel it too? Had she analyzed our relationship like I had—gone over each and every detail?

Good God, I hope she hasn’t, but then again, this is the woman who explained her lesbianism in terms of Dix, so of course she’s the sort who, if you’re standing beside her staring at Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, will soliloquize:

Take a look, there are six stars in the sky, but the eye of the lion is like a seventh star—the brightest one. For me the lion has always stood for courage; and the number seven, which is recognized as a spiritual number in almost every culture, I see as representative of wholeness or unity of soul. However, the lion can also kill, or be killed, which would prevent the harmonic possibilities of the seven…

I wanted to like this book. I kept reading until the bitter end. I would like to write the most generous review possible, and I am afraid that is what I am doing. You will only be able to avoid hating this book if you find some trace of charm in the dull pomposity of its narrative voice. You will only be able to endure this wretched book if you can endure bludgeoning, bloodless passages like this, in reference to the installation The Gates, in Central Park:

Passing through the inaugural gate was almost a ceremonial act; I was conscious of their symbolic significance—gate and archways have always held an important place in mythologies, legends, folk tales, fables, as well as in social customs and traditions, expressing change from one state into another—inner and outer (expressions of initiation and transformation). They convey a beginning or an end, an entering and an exiting. As it is, we are continuously going through something, yet we’re mostly unconscious of all these little gateways. In between there are the more obvious occasions like the first day of school, the wedding day, respective graduations, transfers, promotions, or the first home run (not to mention unforgettable disasters, accidents, firings, break-ups, and so forth). But even within each day we traverse through wide and narrow, tall and tiny gates, mostly unconsciously. Gateways demarcate one state from another, and the grandest, most mysterious ones we call birth and death.

Official Eric G. Müller Web Site
Official Plain View Press Web Site

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