Archive for January, 2011

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