To the New York Times Book Review, Domestic Violence is Never Funny: A Response Review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

 

Jill Alexander Essbaum_HausfrauReaders, let me explain first that I am not one to contest reviews, whether overly positive, unconstructively negative, or anything in-between. But when a review makes a claim that is societally problematic, I have to respond—not to the review as a whole, but to its thematic issues. A week ago, a review appeared for the New York Times Book Review that left many writers enraged, which led to an angered discussion of the role of domestic violence in our society and literature, as well as how we view it and how we should talk about it. The review was in response to Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, and within it, there were aggressive and misinterpreting claims regarding victim responses to domestic violence, as well as the definition of an effectively-portrayed central female figure. The NYT reviewer (who I have decided will remain nameless in this response review, though I don’t doubt that it would be easy for you to find their name, if you were to pursue it) marked the novel as “banal,” stated that it contained “all the charm of a sink full of dishwater” and (my favorite) claimed that it contained “rogue humor”… in reference to (get this) victim response in a situation of domestic violence. AKA: the main character’s response to physical victimization (or, if you haven’t read the book: the breaking of her nose) was funny. Readers, this claim upsets me. As I stated before, I understand the purpose and placement of constructive reviews, and even at times negative reviews, but I cannot account for one that is as problematic as this. Written in a snarky, jabbing and entirely-unconstructive fashion, the NYT reviewer offered us little by way of actual insightful discussion and instead led us down a very problematic path of not only misinterpretation but also a misrepresentation of the widely-spread societal problem that is domestic violence (and the widely-varied responses to it). My response review will be very different from my usual reviews, as it intends to be in conversation with the previous NYT reviewer’s review, mostly as a means to interpret and constructively engage with the previously-made claims.

Hausfrau is, in reduced terms, the story of one woman’s descent away from a seemingly-perfect, happy life to one of destruction in the form of disloyalty and self-exploitation. The main character, Anna, finds herself unsatisfied with her life with her husband and children and begins to explore other means of gaining happiness: at first classes and therapy, and eventually sexual relationships. The novel largely functions as a piece of self-reflection for the main character and, in my opinion, explores the effects of severe depression. Though this story does fixate on the sexual, as the NYT reviewer so grotesquely pointed out—they referred to the scenes of sexual exploration as graphic and compared Essbaum’s writing to the “erotic stylings of E.L. James”—its sexuality is in keeping with the process of Anna’s introspection and decline, a more physiological form of something like The Bell Jar than Fifty Shades of Gray, if you ask me.

The NYT reviewer also argued that any engagement with the novel was rooted in the opening line, “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and that readers were spurred on by the proposition of reading about Anna’s flurry of sexual excursions, and discovering less than such was a disappointment of dramatic proportions. Not so. While I will admit that there is a great appeal to the mostly of the first line, I highly disagree that this is all a reader may sign on for, unless they are specifically looking for a run-of-the-mill weekday afternoon drama. Because the truth of the matter is, as terrible as some of our behaviors may be, with or without marriage, and with or without depression, those behaviors are often less than sensational, and even promiscuity does not always (or even often) equate with many lovers, but perhaps the inclusion of one or two. The sensational is in the reaction of the harmed—the wronged husband, in this case. I will agree that one of the grander moments of the text is in Bruno’s discovery about his relationship with Anna and one of their children, though not at all for the reasons the NYT reviewer suggested. To summarize, they claimed that in the moment when Bruno discovers one of his children is not his own, he breaks Anna’s nose, to which she “simply” realizes that he must have found out about one of her relationships and then thinks “only,” “Huh,” which the NYT reviewer found humorous and simple-minded. Readers, this may be a brief moment, but it is hardly simple. This is a moment of confession and regret, violence and self-deprecation, and contains grave surprise and shock. This moment is not humorous and does not mark Anna as simple-minded or as an equivalent to the other Ana of Fifty Shades. Rather, this is a mark of domestic violence and the quiet, subdued behavior that often ensues.

And this—this—is certainly the most important point I need to make—the reason I wanted to write this response review in the first place: domestic violence, of any kind, for any reason, is never funny. Ever. Not even a little; not even a chuckle’s worth. Because it involves pain and victimization and harm and is a form of physical and emotional robbery. For anyone who has been in this position of receipt knows that there is no humor to be found here, but also that, depending on the situation in which it happens (or even depending on how long it’s been going on), the response to the situation will widely vary—and let me tell you, a simple “Huh” is anything but dumbfounded. This is not plain or simple-minded behavior; it is a symptom of abuse. It is an expression of suppressed shock. Let me remind the previous reviewer that this simple response occurred immediately after Anna’s nose was broken; I highly doubt she was thinking about formulating a long and thorough response to the events that had just occurred. Such a reaction would be better suited for a later time and is largely demonstrated in the final pages, when Anna performs a thorough recounting of her life while waiting for a train that is finally late.

Which brings me to my final thought—I have my doubts about whether the NYT reviewer finished reading the book, because this piece deserves so much more credit, discussion and interpretative work than the reviewer offered. To invite a legitimate moment of humor of my own, this book is not just a pretty face—not just a lovely cover, not just the story of a housewife (nor is a book plain for having been about a housewife and domestic concerns; nor is being a housewife and performing as a housewife plain), not an over-sexed drama, and certainly not a comedy. It’s a deep exploration of a life that has become untethered, and of a woman truly seeking answers for her condition and struggling to move past a series of mistakes and finding a way to start over—for herself. For the NYT reviewer: if you became bored along the way, if you didn’t bother to finish reading it, if all you really took from it was sex and misappropriated responses to domestic violence… then you seriously did it wrong. Read it again.

 

JILL ALEXANDER ESSBAUM is the author of several collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present. She is a winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize and recipient of two NEA literature fellowships. A member of the core faculty of the Low Residency MFA at the University of California, Riverside, she lives and writes in Austin, Texas.

 

 

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The Waking, Danger & Consent of the Body & Love: Reading Lisa Mangini’s Bird Watching at the End of the World

 

Lisa Mangini_Bird Watching at the End of the WorldWhen we spend a lot of time reading poetry, I know we can become critical of the pursuit of love and the defining of boundaries in poetry—but sometimes, a poet chooses to address these exact topics, and they get everything right: they create something new, something meaningful, something entirely worth reading, whether it is within the context of poetry or not. Lisa Mangini makes this exact achievement in her premiere full-length collection, Bird Watching at the End of the World, as she addresses danger as it relates to the body, various forms of physical awakening, and hope, and the complications that come along with it. These poems are incredible, and unique, and lovely, and they invite us with such great ease to consider questions of our reality, of our awareness, and our consent.

Because this is a complex collection, I found myself beginning to categorize the poems, in a sense. While the collection is much deeper than this, I began to see the collection as exploring two story lines: the medical ups and downs of Mabel, who is primarily addressed as a “you” in her poems, and the otherwise growing-up of the central narrator, focusing on childhood, sexual awakening and the maturation of a romantic relationship. What is so fascinating about these two story lines is not only how they explore varied themes, but how these two story lines complicate the themes of the other.

For instance, there is the role of danger that appears in these poems, in the form of the medical, the mechanical and the everyday. As an example, I would like to share one of Mangini’s “Mabel” poems, a poem titled, “This is Your Body Speaking (ii),” which appears in a series of poems by the same name, inserted throughout the first section of the collection:

 

THIS IS YOUR BODY SPEAKING (ii)

It is impossible, you think, to identify
anything in this nearly all-black
celluloid of your guts. You think back
to tenth-grade biology, but can recall
only the stench of formaldehyde,
the serene look upon the piglet’s face.
You think you recognize the white tines
of ribcage, the twin kidneys, the long
crinkled streamer of small intestine.
But on a large slab of gray, you see
the white mass—which you do not
recognize from any diagram—
round and obvious as the moon,
and somehow, whatever it is,
know it can shift the tide inside of you,
send everything swaying in its pull.

 

Though this poem doesn’t overtly represent every form of danger addressed in this collection, it touches on the medical and, in some ways, the mechanical. Like many of the medically-focused poems in this collection, there is a thorough examination of the body and isolates its parts: “the white tines / of ribcage, the twin kidneys.” And there is also a hint of the mechanical in the “formaldehyde” and the “large slab of gray,” even the reference to “any diagram,” which not only points us to man-made products and scientific exploration but the acquaintanceship of the body with these objects. Some other poems more thoroughly explore the mechanical, though, as well as the everyday, in the form of a car or an MRI machine, even a shopping cart or childhood heirloom. These forms of danger lead us to a place not only of fear, but of isolation and intrusion. These poems are wrought with feelings of fear, pain and sadness, yes, but due to the isolation of a person that occurs during an MRI, or while riding in a car, and due to the isolation of body images, there is also a sense of hopelessness and loneliness. These poems are incredibly focused and lovely in their authenticity and thoroughness, and these explorations of areas and reckonings with the body are among the most memorable aspects of these poems.

And these explorations are deeply, deeply connected to the various forms of awakening that occur in these poems—the sexual, of course, and the medical, too. Several of these poems—again, not the one I have included in the review—address sexual awakening, the strangeness of it, the things that surprise us, that we fail to expect, but even more poems explore the strangeness of medical procedures, which in a way interact with our bodies in the same ways as sexual intercourse: disturbing, disrupting, surprising, intruding… But little is said about our agency and our ability at consent, because so much about medicinal procedure is implied as agreeable after signing paperwork, despite all of the intrusions that may occur, depending on a body’s needs. Understandably, it’s strange to think of these procedures in this way, but I feel Mangini’s poems do explore the medicinal from this strange angle, largely because it is a viable concern—besides the fact that it is interesting to think about. So much about these poems is rooted in truth and the strangeness of truth, which can be so deeply explored through our physical connections to the world and where truth resides.

Despite all of these remarks of intrusion and danger and negativity, there is also a sharp glimmer of hope—even if it is complicated. Beginning in the second section, poems about a successful, healthy, long-distance relationship begin to appear, and they are both lovely and extremely hopeful. However, staying true to the other poems in the collection, there are slighted reminders of isolation contained in these poems, as you will see below, and there are also poems that seem to operate in another dimension, describing a similar long-term couple in the third person, but who are also struggling with a terminally-ill partner: the reappearing Mabel from the first section. So while hope is invited into the collection, there are still reminders that hope can be compromised with other goings-on in our lives, and that hope isn’t as “simple” as a successful relationship (though, obviously, successful relationships are anything but simple—but let’s leave that for another conversation). Here is one of my favorite “relationship poems” from the collection, “Every Time We Go to IKEA”:

 

EVERY TIME WE GO TO IKEA

it’s raining. It starts as a light spray
across the windshield, so slight the wipers squeal
against the glass. But there’s no fighting

against the allure of clean lines, the illusion
of better organization, despite that no
number of cubed shelves can tidy up a life.

And every time, there is a young woman
assessing the sturdiness of a crib, sometimes alone,
sometimes with a man or her mother beside her,

and I do my best not to meet your eyes. Every time
we weave through the model kitchens, I make a bee line
to the sink—farm apron, stainless steel, undermount—

and press my palms against its cool basin; if it’s not
crowded, you’ll lean your hips along my back, rest
your chin on my shoulder, trying to see what it is

I’m seeing. We’ll look for a chest of drawers
for your apartment, debating Malm versus Hopen,
birch finish or espresso, and I’ll scribble

their dimensions in inches with a tiny golf pencil.
We’ll emerge with a cardboard box on a dolly
to a downpour, and against your wishes, I’ll insist

on moving the car to the loading area myself. Every time,
I will lose a sandal while running in the slick lot
and have to turn back to retrieve it. We’ll maneuver

the box in some impossible diagonal in the back seat
of the sedan, wipe the rain from our faces, prepare
ourselves to go home and build something.

 

In this particular poem, there is a much greater focus on hope and the beauty in the mundane (that promise of going home to “build something” is just gorgeous to me), but there are subtle moves of concern in the poem, too: the concern for sturdiness early in the poem, which also makes us think of the possibility of something falling through, as well as that lost sandal at the end, which makes us think of someone isolated, or lost. Though they are small moments, and though they are routine, they still remind us of the foreboding that can lurk in the background. In the same way, there is the foreboding of the medicinal that appears in the alternate version of these poems with Mabel and her partner.

To me, these poems are just tremendous explorations of what it means to be alive, the beauty and hope of being alive, and often the isolation and danger that comes along with it. These poems are so fixated on reality, and our various forms of waking and awareness, and invites our questions of consent and invasion of different forms of our bodies. There is foreboding, and warning, intertwined with how we live and breathe, how we love and live, and there is the reminder of beauty, too, no matter how complicated it might be. At its most basic, these poems remind us that there is very little to come to us that can remain simple, that in no way becomes complicated, but these poems both consider how dangerous that that can be, but also how okay those complications can be. Take the time to read this collection. It’ll have you on your toes, wanting more of some things, and cringing at others, while all the while enjoying the ride. You won’t be disappointed.

 

LISA MANGINI holds an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of three chapbooks: Slouching Towards Entropy (Finishing Line Press), Perfect Objects in Motion (Red Bird Chapbooks), and Immanuel Kant vs. God (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches English composition and creative writing part-time at Southern Connecticut State University and Asnuntuck Community College; she is also the Founding Editor of Paper Nautilus. She was raised in Enfield, Connecticut, where she lives still, traveling frequently to Central Pennsylvania. This is her first full-length collection.

 

 


Clark Kent is a Super Hipster: The Art of Finding Beauty in the Absurd & the Mundane: Reading Shawnte Orion’s The Existentialist Cookbook

 

Shawnte Orion_The Existentialist CookbookHere I am, attempting to think of what to say, but my coffee spilled, and it made such a lovely and dark display across my table. This is the sort of mindset in which Shawnte Orion places me: an area of in-the-moment appreciation, the odd humor of something spilled and its preoccupation with gaining our attention, and the beauty found in the small, the subtle and the sometimes-frustrating. In Orion’s debut collection, The Existentialist Cookbook, I am floored by these poems’ honesty, their humor and their seeming, underlying want for this Cookbook to be a recipe for a new kind of living. In this collection, living is truly in the details. Orion’s frequent use of fragment, as well as surprise and humor, reminds the reader of the potential for discovery in a chicken salad sandwich, a pause, an antiquated phone booth—and while his poems may not suggest our stopping to smell the flowers, they provide more world-specific examples of the absurdities of life, and the appreciating of a teacup over the din of traffic, or the sporadic nature of a midnight cat. “Despite” their pop culture references, these poems are timeless in their sentiment and challenge of ways of living, and their humor keeps them memorable, beyond-relatable and always-surprising.

According to NYQ Books, “Orion shifts through the absurdity of modern living for scraps of philosophy, religion and math to blend into recipes for elegies and celebrations,” which proved to me to be an incredibly accurate summation—these poems are fixated on the everyday and the small absurdities that occur, but, as I found, they also present the opportunities for thankfulness that accompany. While I read a collection, I write down page numbers for the poems I enjoyed the most, but in this case, I wrote so many page numbers down, I had to rank them—for this exact reason, the relationship between thankfulness and the absurd. Below, I have included three of my more-favorite poems that I would like to share before continuing my review:

 

DREAMS pl. n.

Mysterious river
connecting
lake and sea

you lie on the embankment
eyes closed
plunging hand into stream
grasping at powerful currents
water flowing between your fingers
rushing toward the sea

you stand
empty handed
but notice your hand still wet
water dripping from each finger
as the Sun dries your arm

 

THINGS THAT MAKE ME CRY

You
slicing onions
in our new kitchen

In our old kitchen
slicing onions
by myself

 

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRONICALLY-DEPOSITED UNEMPLOYMENT CHECKS?

Job security
isn’t manufactured
on this assembly line.

It might sound technical
but I basically press
buttons on a machine

while they invent a machine
to press the buttons
on my machine and I can only

hope this new machine
will have its own buttons
that also need to be pressed.

 

These poems are brief, but they are also lovely, imagistic and raw. What is particularly interesting to me is how these poems are so deeply rooted in the mundane and still manage to find value and beauty in that moment and to teach us something about the self. For instance, there is the water dripping from the narrator’s hands in “Dreams,” which represents beauty and simplistic, the cutting of onions in an empty kitchen in “Things that Make Me Cry,” which represents solitude, and what about the ever-shifting role of the factory worker in “Do Androids Dream…,” which can represent stability, hope and regret, and even a certain element of humor. These poems accomplish in tight spaces, through singular instances and images, truths that are often overlooked in our everyday lives but which are otherwise deeply telling of ourselves and our needs.

And if such sentiments were not compelling enough on their own, I also truly admire Orion’s writerly decisions—particularly his use of fragment and transformation from fragment to full sentence for emphasis. These traits are not portrayed in the poems I included, but what becomes so important about these techniques in Orion’s poetry is that they accelerate the poems forward and create an emphasis, in image and concept; the use of fragment isolates these images, and finalizing a poem with a full sentence emphasizes and finalizes the importance of that image. In the poems I included above, Orion focuses on double-meaning through the removal of (most) punctuation and the power of successful enjambment. For instance, in “Dreams,” I particularly enjoy the isolation of images that occurs, based on the enjambment of the lines and lack of punctuation—take “water flowing through your fingers,” for instance, which takes on a feeling of not only importance but a small, eternal continuity. Take, also, the images of the onions being cut in the second poem; not only are two instances of onions being described, but they are separated into a form of ongoing, isolated and deprecating silence. How this works is very lovely and surprising, as well as memorable and sharp-handed.

These poems, from the beginning, entranced me first in their earnest, humorous appeals but then kept me with their surprise and subtle movements at the level of the line. Shawnte Orion provides a unique snapshot of our world and its little absurdities, its humor, and even its beauty, often found through simplicity. The Existentialist Cookbook confronts some of our greatest inconsistences, our sins, and reminds of what we can and should focus on, how we should operate, how we should live. It’s deeply honest, and in that honesty, humorous, and it is greatly memorable. This is one of those collections where you should take it to a quiet place, sit back and drink a cup of coffee like I did. And maybe spill it a little, close enough to the book for you to need to pull it away and watch spill spread; it’s so worth it.

 

SHAWNTE ORION attended Paradise Valley Community College for one day, but his poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Barrelhouse, Gargoyle Magazine, Georgetown Review, New York Quarterly and many other journals. His chapbook The Infernal Gaze was published by Red Booth Review and he has been invited to read at bookstores, bars, universities, hair salons, museums, and laundromats. He hosts monthly poetry readings in Arizona.

 

*

 

The line “Clark Kent is a super hipster” appears at the end of the first stanza of Orion’s poem, “Mallville.”

 

 


Journeying Through the Fear Tactic That Is the Subtle & the Severe: Reading Sarah Rose Nordgren’s Best Bones

 

Sarah Rose Nordgren_Best BonesBefore I get started, I have a (positive!) confession to make: I wrote this review four times. I read a lot of poetry, but it’s rare to discover a collection that is unique in its severity, one that equally makes you cringe and keeps you reading with mutual ease. And this, by far, was one of those collections, so much so that I found it difficult to put my admiration into words. Sarah Rose Nordgren creates in her collection, Best Bones, the most beautiful disparate meaning through her pairing of the subtle and the severe; and much of this is achieved through her complicating of subject matter, as well as her imagistic language, choices in enjambment and linguistic choices that create double-meanings in and of themselves, all of which manage to carry their own weight but also generate a hurt-engine that becomes all their own. Admittedly, this is a longer review than I at times write, but I wanted to showcase several of my favorite poems, which also demonstrate my three favorite aspects of Nordgren’s poetry: her choices in line breaks, her generating of double-meaning at the level of the line, and her powerful pairing of the subtle and the severe.

Perhaps there is such a thing as doing too much of this, but I am one of those readers who spends a great deal of time familiarizing myself with how to read an individual poet and their poems—and much of that work occurred via the following poem, actually the opening open in Nordgren’s collection, “Fable”:

 

FABLE

I pull myself from the water by my hair

Shake the leaves out of sleep

When garage-entombed at night

I perch on a child’s bicycle

Wearing mother’s nightgown

Frayed with lace through winter

Growing back to perfection

I am the oldest daughter in the story

The one whose shoes floated downstream

Who baked bread in an underground oven

The dark jealous girl walking

Barefoot before the king

So far north now and west of Helsinki

I make my nest and lie in it

Run furrows with my fingers in cold so close

It doesn’t feel like weather

 

I found myself spending time hanging in this poem’s line breaks and appreciating how the meaning transforms across the enjambments, and I learned that this is something that Nordgren readily uses, and uses well. Looking at this poem specifically, I am in awe of the power of isolating an image and what that can do for the meaning of a poem; for instance, the first three lines: “I pull myself from the water by my hair / Shake the leaves out of sleep / When garage-entombed at night,” which forms this strange suggestion of ridding oneself of water, or a dream?, while confined in a tight, rugged location. And yet, when we reach the fourth line, the narrator is moved from pulling herself from the water to “perch[ing] on a child’s bicycle”—an instant transformation of the moment. What’s interesting to me, perhaps a minor thing, is the capitalization of the first word of each line, which suggests to me that these lines can be read independently, as their own images, as their own ideas, that are instantly transformed by the coming and going of the surrounding lines. Such a reading generates for the reader a dreamscape that is ever-changing, which can be all the more frightening, and welcoming of the terror and rawness we often find in Nordgren’s poems, in its impermanence.

Now moving from the line break to the line itself, I also really love how Nordgren employs double-meaning as another form of transformation and subjectivity. In her poem, “Our Furry Friends,” I found myself asking questions of ownership and identity, as well as the thin line between the acts of caring and revoking rights:

 

OUR FURRY FRIENDS

Slaves we coddle in the kitchen.
Collar and stroke into loving
our way, the clang of a silver
knife across the plate. We love your secret
colors displayed through plastic,
separation of bone from flesh,
familiar shade of blood rising up
from the fat. It’s all so easy:
the best parts fall right off into our laps.
Since you are harmless,
you must not suffer like we do
when our skirts are raised to our waists.
O to peel back your skin and wear
your innocence out on a Saturday night!
Our fluffy rumps and wobbling
heels almost suffice. So happily
we digest each thrust and slice to be
nearer to you, whose blank eyes
flutter like checkbook pages.

 

This poem emotionally hurts me, because it an extremely powerful tool by way of double-meaning and equating. At the opening, and also implied by the title, we are confronted with questions about domesticity and the “nobility” of pet ownership, which then transfers, startling-quickly, to packaged produce and the wearing of skins, and, “finally,” the “blank eyes / [that] flutter like checkbook pages” of the animals we have harmed and killed, which creates a jarring and painful link between domesticating animals, harming them and consuming them. These transitions alone make for a powerful and memorable poem, but there is also Nordgren’s technique—this poem taught me that Nordgren not only uses her techniques of choice well, but she also repurposes them: moving from the double-meaning implied in her enjambment, we arrive at the double-meaning of the line. In the passages I referred to above, we are led to question the placement of victim and consumer, or loved one (a pet) and prey. For those of us with our own furry loved ones at home, this can be terrifying for us and drag us into questions of fairness and domestication—

—which brings me to my final, and favorite, point: Nordgren’s combining of the subtle and the severe. What my little internal references, my previous observations and these poems have been leading up to is this: the terrifying tell-all of these poems is located in the combining of the subtle and the severe, or as I’ve come to see as the heart of this whole aching, honest and raw machine. Take “Still Birth,” for example:

 

STILL BIRTH

The wall should be strong enough to break
the force upon it. Wind tunnels
right up the street from the sea, battering
the glass, forcing itself through wooden
slats, and the pages of the book
flutter crazily. Content usually roots
story to ground, but I sense it
shivering around you when you turn
half-asleep in bed, disturbed. You wake
from the story I was telling like
the second half of the book fell
into the water when the binding
gave, replaced with the sound of rushing.
The introduction was too long, but
the invisible boy had already traveled
for a year and a day, had tamed
the wolf in the lightless forest, fought
the man with the giant red face, but
he had not yet bought the globe that
(he would discover) could take him anywhere,
Not yet come upon the broken eggs
with pennies inside. Though you know
the story, I mean to remind you
he will, eventually, return. Not in body,
no, but every time I tell it he becomes
more real. This is one of the stories
we live in against nature—I was trying
to tell you over the wind. If you learn anything
from living in this house, it will be how
to survive a variety of interruptions.

 

This poem combats my emotions in a way that so few poems can, starting with its subject matter. Though the poem is technically perhaps about the narrator telling a story to the addressee, who fell asleep because “the introduction was too long,” there is also a strange implication here, through the boy’s character, of a lost child—perhaps a stillbirth or an abortion—who had gone through all of these troubles (having “already traveled,” having “tamed / the wolf in the lightless forest,” or “fought / the man with the giant red face”) and yet had not survived, but who was “becom[ing] / more real” through the sharing of his story. Though this is only my interpretation of the poem, and perhaps too much of a reading-into because of being a new mother, this poem still suggests to me the unpredictable pairing of not finishing a story (the subtle) with having lost a child (the severe). Whether or not this one in particular is an accurate interpretation, there are other such dramatic pairings—even simply going back to “Our Furry Friends” in the pairing of domestication with consumerism. All-in-all, this collection largely centers itself around conviction and purity, with unusual and well-earned judgments of those who fall short.

Sarah Rose Nordgren has created in her collection, Best Bones, a stark and beautiful rendering of the many preying and sinful aspects of our society and poses a figurative finger that challenges us for better, more pure behavior. I can hardly tell you how beautiful this book is or how much I loved it or how many more times I want to read it, but I can tell you that you need to take the time to emotionally invest yourself in these pages. It’s demanding and raw and lovely and is so desperately worth your time. You won’t regret it for a second.

 

SARAH ROSE NORDGREN’s poems have appeared in Agni, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, the Harvard Review, the Literary Review, the Best New Poets anthology, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

 

 


Commitment & The Portrayal of a Wife: Reading Rebecca St. James & Nancy Rue’s One Last Thing

 

Rebecca St. James and Nancy Rue_One Last ThingI will not lie to you, from one reader to another, this was a difficult book and topic to trudge through. It follows the last few weeks of one couple’s engagement, in which the main character, Tara, discovers her fiancé, Seth, is addicted to pornography and has to decide whether to further pursue the marriage and support her husband through his healing process or to pursue other opportunities. And while current societal expectations may suggest that pornography can be acceptable in an open-minded, communicable relationship with established boundaries, pornography can also be a severe obstacle that can destroy a relationship or marriage, based on the needs and beliefs of the couple. In One Last Thing, Rebecca St. James and Nancy Rue thoroughly explore the intricacies of a secret uncovered late in an engagement, how a relationship changes, and the decisions made about marriage and commitment.

What I really admired about this novel was carried through the development of the story and its characters. The novel opens with the lines, “What happened to Seth and me changed everything. Everything. And yet it began with a completely innocuous question: Where are we going to put the couch?,” which winds up generating a great deal of opportunity in the book: all at once, the couch becomes a centerpiece of the beginning of a relationship, a practice in negotiation, and a manifestation of unfaithfulness in a relationship. What I imagine is having a large orange couch in the middle of my otherwise-neutral living room and the couch visually screaming with memories every time I walked past it, looked at it, or relaxed on it. This display is similarly demonstrated through the central characters in the book and their behaviors; through Tara’s personal exploration of her feelings toward Seth and his behavior, there are recurring images and sentiments that evolve with Tara and Seth’s characters as they grow further apart in their relationship.

And while I admired how the authors handled the subject by way of story arch and parallels, I found myself intensely bothered by the portrayal of the main character and the writing of her internal thoughts and narrations. Many of her lines carry an air of “Well, I guess I have to do this now,” or “It’s such a burden on me,” which comes across, rather-immediately, as petty and self-absorbed. While I fully understand many of the complexities she is faced with in her oncoming marriage, I find myself unable to understand her or to feel compassionate for her, because of her “It’s all about me,” and “He’s the only one at fault here; there’s nothing I could do to make this better” demeanor. However, this is an issue that resolves itself by the end of the story; as I stated earlier, much of Tara’s character is explored through the evolving of the problem, and by the end, after (no spoiler) a dramatic change in Tara and Seth’s relationship and her apology to Seth for her behavior and attitude. Without this apology, and without this adjustment, I would have been highly bereaved at this story; so though it was difficult to get through part of the story and found Tara’s character difficult to get along with for much of the story, I found my way to acceptance through Tara’s admission.

Rebecca St. James and Nancy Rue’s One Last Thing is a really raw and lovely exploration of obstacles in a serious and long-term relationship and follows the sharp transformation of the characters on this journey. And while it is a really difficult read, it was worth the time, effort and emotional investment. I recommend steeling yourself and giving this a try.

 

REBECCA ST. JAMES has been a defining voice in contemporary Christian music for more than a decade. She is a three-time Dove Award winner, as well as a winner of the prestigious Grammy Award. In January 2007 she was voted Favorite Female Artist by CCM magazine readers for the sixth year in a row. She also recently received her fourth consecutive Best Female Artist Award from ChristianityToday. In addition to her success as a musician, Rebecca St. James is the author of several books, with combined sales of more than 350,000 copies. Her books include SHE: Safe, Healthy, Empowered; SHE Teen; Wait for Me; Sister Freaks; 40 Days with God; and You’re the Voice: 40 More Days with God.

 

NANCY RUE is the author of 122 books, including 11 novels for adults, 17 for teens, and 61 for tween readers, as well as 2 parenting books, 33 non-fiction books for tweens and teens, and the features for the FaithGirlz Bible. Her Lily Series, published by Zondervan, has sold well over one million copies. Her ability to relate to a wide audience has made her a popular radio and television guest and an in-demand speaker and teacher for writer’s conferences across the country. She has been a regular keynoter for The Young Writer’s Institute, Virtuous Reality Ministries, and Zondervan’s Beauty of Believing Tour for FaithGirlz. Nancy is the cofounder of the Writers Workshops held annually at Glen Eyrie, Colorado and also offers a one-one-one Writing Mentorship program and two-day intensives for small groups of writers. Her latest titles include the Christy Award winning Reluctant Prophet trilogy for adult readers (David C. Cook), The Whole Guy Thing (Zondervan) for teens, and the Mean Girl Makeover trilogy for tweens (Tommy Nelson, as well as the first of three novels written with Rebecca St. James for the New Adult audience, The Merciful Scar. A student of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, sponsored by the Upper Room, Nancy continues her own spiritual journey even as she writes and speaks for mothers, daughters, and would-be writers about theirs. For more information, visit her website at www.nancyrue.com. Nancy’s biggest passion is for anti-bullying, and is the co-founder with Thomas Nelson of the movement SO Not Okay.

 

 


Stages of Fear & Domestication: Reading Laura Madeline Wiseman’s Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience

 

Laura Madeline Wiseman_Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and DisobedienceClick here to see my review of American Galactic.

You’ve heard the stories—two children lost out in the woods, little girl in a red-hooded cloak, three little pigs—we all have. And, admittedly, I have “red” many poetry collections (whether or not intentionally) that focus exclusively on the fairy tale, though I have never read a collection that so keenly focuses on one single fairy tale as Laura Madeline Wiseman has here with Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience. Her exploration of Bluebeard through his wives’ eyes is all at once emotionally stunning, original, dark and unsettlingly haunting. By channeling the Bluebeard tale through fairy tale and pop culture, we can’t help but see this as a domesticated, though contemporary, reference to Bluebeard as an abusive, domestic husband, or view his wives in their various stages of abuse, grief, victimization and vindication.

Now, just in case you’re like me, and “Bluebeard” was not included in your nightly fairy tale repertoire, here’s a summary (of one version of the story): Bluebeard was a nobleman with a blue beard, which marked him as murderous. Among three sisters, the youngest, Fatima, agreed to marry him and was given a key for each door in the home, though she was instructed specifically not to open one particular door. Upon the visit of one of her elder sisters, Anne, she agreed to satisfy their curiosity, unlocked the forbidden door, and discovered a room with a floor covered in blood and all of the Beard’s former wives’ bodies hung on the walls. As is customary to the fairy tale, the women were then caught in the act by Bluebeard himself, though their brothers arrived just in time to dispatch Bluebeard and save them.

Typically, when I happen upon a collection of poems that focuses on a fairy tale or series of fairy tales, I become skeptical, because—let’s face it—there are only so many ways to spin an already-well-known tale. In the case of “Bluebeard,” there are only so many ways to spin the keys, the allure of the forbidden room, the blood and the death of Bluebeard. However, Wiseman does a remarkable and intuitive thing: she structures the collection through the eyes of the three sisters, taking us through the reign of Bluebeard upon meeting them. The collection is constructed in three parts, through one sister’s point of view at a time, framed in with a foreboding little-did-she-know poem, and followed by what I’ve decided to refer to as an Epilogue. While this doesn’t sound nearly as great as it actually, structurally is, the collection is beautifully sound and lovely, and it really transforms the Bluebeard story into something contemporary.

And what ends up being so, so great about these poems is their emotional depth and severe, honest and raw complexity—particularly in part 1, with the first sister, in my opinion. As is portrayed in many versions of the story, Bluebeard selected the youngest sister as his wife, because she loved him (unlike the older sister, who was more beautiful but hated him)… and we see this tremendous unraveling of love and passion, intertwined with rage, pain, violence and danger. Especially for those who know the tale, who know the potential ending means death for the youngest of the sisters, we ache at her emotional complexity, and at her ability to continue admiring such a dark figure. So, too, can we admire the extensive shift from love to loathing, and perhaps we even have it in us, too, to empathize. Add on top of the well-written sentiment beautiful images and powerful decisions in lineation (which often generate unusual, and overly-satisfying, surprises), and we are transported through poetry that is truly powerful and transformative—of our ideas about domesticity and contemporary relationships, let alone of our understanding of this fairy tale.

Laura Madeline Wiseman has a unique gift and power over taking an unusual, typically short-handed topic, and taking it to a new place—giving it time to marinate, open up and complicate. Whether it’s providing new material to an age-old fairy tale or challenging our beliefs and faith-driven prophecies about life from other planets, Wiseman offers up poems that are meant to make room in our psyches and mess with our neurons, challenge our understanding and make us feel something new. Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience is yet another collection of Wiseman’s that I love, and recommend. Whether or not you’re into fairy tales, and whether or not you are interested in the Bluebeard story, this collection will teach you something about relationships and the domestic with its pop culture references and transformations of the inner-workings of relationships. Take the time to read this; it’ll challenge you, and you’ll thank it for that.

 

LAURA MADELINE WISEMAN is the author of the full-length poetry collections Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015), Wake (Aldrich Press, 2015), American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative books The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi and Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). She has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in English and a M.A. from the University of Arizona in women’s studies. Currently, she teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska.

 

 


Costume or Skin, A Reckoning: Reading Laura Madeline Wiseman’s American Galatic

 

Laura Madeline Wiseman_American GalacticClick here to see my review of Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience.

We’ve all been there—wondered about life, the afterlife, and whether there could be life on other planets. These are interesting questions, because, to the common wonderer (someone who isn’t a scientist or theologist, and someone who hasn’t somehow miraculously died and come back to life, or, you know, been snapped up by aliens and sent back a millisecond later), they are relatively unanswerable. Somehow, the proof is always disproven, and, for some, going on faith just isn’t enough. And while I am one who chooses to have faith, about a variety of “unprovable” things, I do find myself asking questions of the extraterrestrial sort and am interested when these are presented in a creative form… but I am especially interested when the artist can portray something new to me on the subject, something beyond, “I don’t believe in aliens” or “There’s nothing truly out there to disprove my beliefs.” Laura Madeline Wiseman does an impeccably wonderful service in providing a wide scope of possibility on the subject of extraterrestrials/aliens/martians/whatever else you would like to call “them,” as well as a broader look into the gray areas of our beliefs.

Typically, I think of the Martian-phenomenon as being three-sided, and these three sides tend to be starkly black and white: 1.) those who do not believe in Martians, 2.) those who do believe in Martians and see them as a threat, and 3.) those who believe in a gentler, coexisting type of Martian… and then I read this collection of poems. I am absolutely in love with how this collection is working and how it pushes against our expectations; in particular, what I find so darn compelling about this project is the strangeness it invites in, as well as the blurring of the three-sided lines. For example, here is a set of horribly-haunting lines (I think I’m going to have to check my closets before I can sleep tonight) from Wiseman’s poem, “Creed: The Mission”:

Believe in versions of the truth.
Breathe. Hold hands. Hug. Recycle.
Hope that if there are Martians,
they wouldn’t be interested in you.

In the final stanza of “Creed,” we see a series of typically-normal behaviors—here is how we play human—which is then followed by a pair of lines that function as a warning; it implies, if the Martians take interest, there will be consequences. Keep out of sight, stay low, act normal, you’ll be fine. And what is so compelling about this move, about this warning, is the mixture of positive, negative and foreboding references throughout this collection. Despite the curiosity of Martians, and the depictions of these creatures as potentially-gentle, there is also this looming possibility of danger, of being noticed, and of things happening as a result of being noticed.

And perhaps what exaggerates this possibility even further, and makes it even more creepy (definitely checking the closets, the more I think about it), is Wiseman’s established isolation: whether we are imagining space as a sharp void, or witness a feminine being under the knife, or imagine our neighbors avoiding the observation of the Newcomers, these settings and beings operate as quiet and empty, nonintegrated floating objects—as if there were nothing to hide behind, and certainly no one to save us.

Not to mention my other favorite part of this collection, which integrates perfectly with this concept of isolation—Wiseman’s blurring of what makes a Martian a Martian, what makes us become the other, which places us ever closer to beings that could notice us. There is such an easy blurring that happens that makes us less like us and more like a predator—I’m thinking right now of a really great moment in Wiseman’s poem, “Getting Out of Here,” where, upon ending, we see government involvement, as a means to relocate us from one world to another:

And now I learn, that down the street,
          NASA plants lettuce in a lunar greenhouse
to practice gardening in outer-space.

Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that so strange? And yet it makes all the sense in the world—whether or not NASA is involved, whether or not there are lunar plantations, there is still the fact that there is an easily-crossed line between prey and predator, between us and other. One of my favorite poems from the collection (actually, perhaps, my favorite) performs such a careful exploration of what it means to observe, to guess and make assumptions, and to take action, all of which can take on a deeply-ominous feel.

 

FIRST CONTACT

                These creatures are living Martians.
                —Octavia E. Butler

When the first Martians knock, I open the door
with a bowl of chocolate, suckers, and quarters.

These Martians are typical Martians: green skin,
long, thin limbs, and maybe three-feet-tall.

The Martian eyes glitter. I ask, Who are you?
The Martians stay mute. Then a Fairy, Superman,

and two Military Specialists crowd the porch
holding plastic gourds. I extend the bowl of candy.

Thank you! says the Fairy whose wings shiver.
She dashes down the steps into the night.

Then Superman, the military, they all leave,
but the Martians remain. I ask, Where’s your mom?

I scan the street and note my neighbors
on their lawn pretending to be stuffed dummies.

As the Fairy climbs their driveway, they growl.
I study the Martians, glance up and down the street.

I do what any normal type person might do.
I take the limp hands and pull the Martians inside.

 

In this poem, which is so swiftly steeped in the other, we are preserved in this extremely isolated moment; it is as if no one is watching, and no one can help lead these children? martians? home. This is largely what I mean when I say isolation: that, while there may be other living things nearby, within sight, within hearing range, actions are not being performed to change the situation or to do anything more than observe.

Laura Madeline Wiseman has truly done something wonderful here; the fact that she’s got me thinking about otherness, isolation and martians on a sleeting day in March, and the fact that her poems are requiring me to check my closets and hallways before I can sleep restfully tonight, are both blessings and compliments—to her writing, and to the fact that I had the opportunity to read her poems. Please sit down and take some times with American Galactic; it really is beautiful.

 

LAURA MADELINE WISEMAN is the author of the full-length poetry collections Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015), Wake (Aldrich Press, 2015), American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative books The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi and Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). She has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in English and a M.A. from the University of Arizona in women’s studies. Currently, she teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska.

 

 


The Pursuit of Truth in Image & Idea: Reading Frederick Pollack’s A Poverty of Words

 
Frederick Pollack_A Poverty of WordsI don’t know about you, but I always find myself looking for new—either ‘new’ or ‘new-to-me’—writers who might teach me something new about how I read and how I approach writing. I also try to make it a regular habit to reach out to writers whose aesthetic differs from my own: those rooted entirely in narrative, for instance. And, of course, a strong recommendation always helps! Robert McDowell declares, “If you’ve never read this poet, prepare for one of the greatest breakthroughs of your reading life” (i), and this is a relatively fair proposal; while narrative poetry may not at first be everyone’s cup of tea, Frederick Pollack writes a poetry that is versatile, imagistic and memorable, enough reason for any reader—poet or other alike—to give his work a try. I found myself interested in how his writing works in the sense of pacing, fixation on the narrative and the importance of image.

Before I begin my analysis, I would like to share one poem that I really loved—which admittedly appears very early in the collection but which also grabbed me upon first reading it and continues to come back to me as I continued my reading—“Hello Again.”

 
HELLO AGAIN

The Buddha, reconstituted
in a distant future, disappoints:
one hopes for detached, ironic, timeless
reason but his mind is full
of augurs, gods, and the several “Baskets”
of his system. Still, he’s flexible—
more so than any number
of later theorists he meets
in the dining hall and rec room or
floating in brain-gel over the grounds.
He learns without interest
the history since his time,
inquires why we revived him, seems
politely annoyed at our response.
One afternoon he asks
for death. Asked why,
he says, “To ascend.” When told
it’s no longer an option, he appears
more amused than anything, somehow
pitying. Eventually released,
though promising to check in, he makes
a “pilgrimage” through formerly
religious former deserts
to an ancient cliff that once contained
huge images of him and now the void.

 
I love this poem because of its thoroughness—in pacing and enjambment, image and the development of a persona. The line break decisions in this poem are interesting from the beginning: “The Buddha / reconstituted,” which is an unusual ism (line 1), or “for death. Asked why,” which might suggests asking an embodiment of Death “why” (16) and “he says, ‘To ascend.’ When told,” which weirdly reads as ascending upon command (17). Of course, some of these readings are dependent upon either hearing the poems aloud and not observing the punctuation, or considering double-meanings—either of which are interesting readings, in addition to the surface. One way in which these meanings can be observed, however, is through the pacing of the poem, which is relatively slow and certainly deliberate; without the patience written into the language of the poem, or the length of the lines and chosen line breaks, some of these clever enjambments would be lost in hyper-acceleration in an otherwise-easygoing poem. Lastly, I found myself interested in how the poem was working in the sense of establishing a character and pursuing the development of an image—in fact, this is one of my favorite observations to make in a Pollack poem, because of his in-depth exploration. Despite being a highly-recognized, stereotyped figure, Pollack generates new material for this character by exploring disinterests and motives, which is compelling in its exploit.

And these are positive attributes that I readily apply to the entire collection. Frederick Pollack has a really wonderful sense of how pacing works in that delicate connection between rhythm and alliterative sound. Pacing is also established at times in description, moving us slowly through a line, or by ending a line in punctuation, increasing the pause already established in the line break. These decisions make for very thoughtful and patient poems.

Secondly, there is Pollack’s use of description, and his fixation of the narrative. There is so much emphasis placed on idea and character development within these poems as individualized units, and often, multiple voices are heard, with a third-person omniscient voice we tend to see in third-person fiction writing. Some readers, particularly poets, might view these poems as too descriptive, too story-driven, but I think, by the end of the collection, that these are part of their charm: delivering full characters delivers a different style of sentiment, more story-istic than that of a lyric poem, which requires a different level of interpretation and leap. These poems function more so as a telling, a demonstration, a sharing of knowledge, rather than a series of images and the implication of emotions often through white space.

As if these observations of Pollack’s writing technique were not enough to interest a reader in the poet’s work, McDowell also points out, “[Pollack] is always pushing the envelope of the image to find the after-image of the thing itself… The poet’s task is to stand fearlessly in the truth of that observation. [This is the great secret of [Pollack’s] verse” (i). In creating poems that function more so as a telling or demonstration, there is, too, an understanding established: after presenting these images and characters, there are interpretations that can be made, and truths that can be portrayed. The fixation on description and narrative creates further opportunities to explore the finer details of the situations and characters presented, which allows for more readers to find agreeable ground on which to place an interpretation. And these poems are severely honest in their portrayals, their decisions, and their judgments; they share something by way of occurrence and observation about the human existence and morality that is at times unfortunately absent from poetry.

Frederick Pollack is doing something wonderful here by way of thorough development—in creating poems that physically move slowly, we are given renewed time to focus on moments, characters, and images that amount to a greater understanding of human exploration and our reactions to even the most basic of occurrences. I enjoyed the sort of removal I felt while reading these poems, a slowing down that should be more necessary in our lives, particularly our reading lives. I hope that if you find the time to sit down with a new book, or new author, that you’ll consider Pollack, because he truly has fearlessly taken up a difficult task—one that can make us stop to see, and to feel.

 
Frederick Pollack was born in Chicago; he lived for many years in California, but it didn’t take. He now lives and teaches in Washington, D.C. Pollack’s voice belongs to neither the navel-gazing mainstream nor the post-structuralist avant-garde. His books, The Adventure and Happiness, are both book-length narrative poems from Story Line Press. More of his work can be found in various journals and publications, including Dressing Room Poetry Journal, B O D Y, Blackbox Manifold 6 and Chicago Literati.
 
 


Grief as Celebration & Grief as Beauty: Reading Michalle Gould’s Resurrection Party

 

Michalle Gould_Resurrection PartyWe all have such differing definitions and expectations of grief. When asked to define grief, love, beauty, we often begin to play a game of word association, or we resort to metaphors and personification. Pain and sorrow. My heart hurts. It’s like a well that never fills up.

But when I think about grief… my mind becomes a conflicted torrent of the difficult and the mundane, the ugly and the beautiful. Why, you may ask? Shouldn’t grief be a non-gray construct?

No, it shouldn’t.

Because grief is achieved through memories; we are overwhelmed with grief when someone dies, because we loved them. We hurt, because we remember mistakes and regrets, happiness and love. In a way, grief, after a time, becomes a celebration. (That’s why grief is given stages.) We aren’t meant to live in sadness forever. We should hurt, but we should also remember, and in that we can often find solace.

Michalle Gould combats this disjunction of celebration through poems that have been a long time coming. In over ten years’ worth of work, Gould establishes what it can mean to grieve, and even why we grieve, while similarly associating with love, death and relationships. These seem, on the surface, to be such broad, winding concepts—and they certainly can be—but they are so interconnected with grief in these poems that they become entirely necessary to grief’s existence: without something to cherish, there would be nothing to miss. And this concept is so unthinkable and perfectly complicated through Gould’s use of imagistic language and metaphor, traditionalist qualities and hints of religion. There is so much to love about these poems and their truthful nature… these are just a few points I’d love to discuss.

These poems are largely unparalleled in their beauty and ability to transform an image. Not only does Gould do wonderful work in selecting words well, but the images that are generated through them, and the abstractions, are astounding. This is fitting, too, because of the complexity of the over-arching concepts: a complicated concept is due a complicated writerly method to mirror it and to lend insight to the page. Constantly, I continue to return to Gould’s poem, “When I Was Naked,” which I feel performs such a thorough transformation of ideas through image:

 

WHEN I WAS NAKED

I was the sturdy bowl of plums half-buried in snow
outside the artist’s studio. He paints the shades of purple
reflected in condensed water on my skin.

I was the snowy hill topped by a nun’s black habit,
a fall of dark hair descending to wintry shoulders,
an infinite stretch of icy skin.

My body was a mystery. The anatomist
touched his scalpel to the edge of my jaw,
opened his sketchpad and drew back my skin.

The courtesan in Osaka tried something new, trimmed away leaves,
stem, floated me—denuded lily—in a stone bowl full of milk.
A day later, the bowl was scattered petals on a blue-white skin.

A vine is a humble creeping thing, but clustered in boastful fruit.
We called to the artist, “I am emerald! I am amethyst!”
until some wild animal left us naked, eating only our skin.

In a cemetery, a mole tunneled back and forth between the graves,
extended blind fingers, knew before any scientist,
the last to go is hair. The first is skin.

 

This poem has continued to be one of my favorites of Gould’s, first for the first, third and fourth stanzas, but also for the transformation of the narrator’s physicality, as well as the transformation of skin, as separate entities. While we see the narrator transform through abstractions, which might suggest physical maturation, and the length, vulnerability and mortality of our skin, which reminds me not only of the entirety of our mortality, but the constantly looming possibility of a life ending and grief repeating.

As if this transformation of images and ideas were not enough—throughout many poems in the collection, mind you—there is also the integration of elements of the tradition, as well as religion or the sublime. While we may view the poems that are imitating traditional forms, or traditional language, as ghost-forms or “influence poems,” these elements invite traditionalist language in a way that invites thoughts of immortality on the page—and a continued conversation between published writers. By employing a particular form—even only a ghost-form, or certain sentiments of a form—it calls back to those writers who regularly employed these forms, and often employed them well. This speaks, too, to the presence of religion or the sublime in a poem, the constant reaching out to the supernatural or immortal, which may take us back to those poets who performed this same search, such as Keats. So as a sort of meta-commentary, then, in a series of poems that are already focusing on grief as a process, we may not only reach the point of celebrating those we’ve lost, but we may also celebrate previous writers by employing their forms or engaging with similar topics.

Michalle Gould has done something wonderful here by way of grief: she has reminded us of the stages involved in the grieving process, and how that can eventually lead to a time of celebration—both, with our loved ones, and with our best-loved writers. In exploring and employing the transformation of language, image and idea, we are constantly on our tiptoes, considering how one image can become the next—such as a sturdy bowl of plums to a snowy hill—as well as the use and adaptation of forms, these poems are lovely explorations of change. This is a collection that I can easily read multiple times, always be surprised, and find something new that I loved… and I highly recommend that you try out the same journey.

 

MICHALLE GOULD recently moved to Hollywood to work as a librarian, after living in Central Texas for several years. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Resurrection Party, was published in August 2014 by Silver Birch Press, a small independent press located in Los Angeles. Poems from the collection have been published in Poetry, Slate, New England Review, American Literary Review and other journals. Another poem is in the process of being developed into a short film. In addition, her writing has been published in The Texas Observer, online in McSweeney’s, and in many other journals. She also writes fiction and is currently researching and writing a novel set in the north of English in the 1930’s.

 

 


Remembering Herbert Scott

 

SLEEPING WOMAN

                    —after the painting by Richard Diebenkorn

 

I’m walking east down Lovell in Kalamazoo
in the middle of the afternoon, and it’s hot, July
something, and there’s a man sleeping on the sidewalk—
the way you would in your bed—his body a kind of Z
in a fancy serif font, the curlicue of hands
beneath his head at the top, and the toes of each foot
curved to comfort the other, at the bottom. At first
I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, his skin
the color of burnt iron, a darkness alcohol finally brings.
I remember him from months before, a couple of blocks
west of here. He leaned against my car and wanted
to borrow money, a loan. He wanted a ride to South Haven
where he could get the money to pay me back.
His voice had that desperate familiarity that says:
You know me. You must want to care for me.
I think I gave him something, not much, and drove away.
I couldn’t forget his face, murky with solitude,
like the hard red clay in Oklahoma where I grew up
that won’t grow anything—everything lost to erosion
that brings such desolation you can’t survive.
I thought he wouldn’t survive more than a week or so,
but here he is, and when the cops arrive they know him,
call him Billy, and he’s still alive, maybe
for the last time, and they pick him up.
I head east again, turn left into the cool museum
where I lose myself, sometimes, where I find you
sleeping where I’ve seen you before, paint streaming
around you like water, gathering in the shallows
of your dress. I am always surprised to see you.
I don’t know. Are you flesh, or water? if I move
you will disappear in a startle of color.
The gallery is almost dark—those new-fangled spots
that keep the viewer anonymous—but your face turns
toward me from the crook of your doubled arms,
all about you an unemcumbered sway, an intelligence
of light explicit as a summer evening. Deer quietly chewing.
I balance, in the shadows, between.

 

Herb Scott_The Other Life Selected Poems of Herbert Scott_David Dodd LeeThat is easily my favorite Herb Scott poem; it is the one, when asked, or when I think of him, that I turn to. My first exposure to him was through The Other Life: Selected Poems of Herbert Scott, edited by David Dodd Lee. I devoured this book upon its purchase, and read it again and again, before entering the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Since attending WMU, and volunteering and working at New Issues Poetry and Prose, I have realized the impact one poet can have on a literary community: the friendships, the press, the poetry, sharing the word; he was one of the hinges on which everything ran. I never met him, but my praise for New Issues is never-ending, and his poetry continues to startle me. He challenges me as a poet, and as a member in this community; it’s a gift I wish for all other poets, all other writers, as long as there are literary communities.

Herb, today would have been your 84th birthday. It’ll never be enough, but I like to think turning to your work, raising a glass of white wine, and thinking about what I can do in the literary communities I touch to make them better, I’ll be able to do a fraction of what you’ve done, and continue to do.

Happy Birthday, and happy memories. Cheers.