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.

 

 

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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.

 

 


Tomorrow!! At the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts!!

 

Art Hop Second Sight Insight IIEveryone! Wonderful news: I have plans for you for your Friday night!

As a part of the Greater Kalamazoo Art Hop, the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts will be hosting a reading for their art exhibit, Second Sight/Insight II, which is in its second year of ekphrastic pairings.

Back in October, poets were encouraged to submit their work for consideration to be a part of this exhibit; and upon selection, they were paired with a local artist’s piece, which they then needed to create a poem from by the beginning of November. The Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts now houses the fruits of their labors (myself included), pairing on the walls the original artists’ works with the poets’ literary renderings (like the one shown above with artist Jay Seeley and poet Marion Boyer!).

Friday evening, from 6:00pm-7:00pm, some of these poets will read their poems from the exhibit and offer a few thoughts about their ekphrastic process. I will hopefully be there to read my poem, “For My Doppelgänger,” and to talk about its pairing with Flo Hatcher’s A Box with a Sky Window. Needless to say, I am extremely excited!

Hope to see you all there! It’s a really wonderful and beautiful exhibit!

 

 


The Two (or More?) Sides of Friendship: Reading Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar

 

Rufi Thorpe_The Girls from Corona del Mar We all have to grow up someday. And some of us are dealt a better hand than others—some during our childhood, others later in life, and even others not at all. But we find a way to persist, to perceive the world and how to function within its barriers. We learn how to love, to grow—and sometimes, more interestingly, we learn how to watch. Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar is so completely about childhood friends growing up and growing apart, but it’s also about what some would perceive as luck (or luck running out) and the strange, voyeuristic qualities of our friendships tend to take on—particularly in those moments of attempting to “catch up,” that thrill—when friendships become distant, or even estranged.

And as if these concepts weren’t complicated enough, Thorpe offers such beautiful, raw and emotional renderings that we (or at least I) lost touch with that boundary between narrative and reality. I cared for, and felt for, screamed at, rooted for and cried for, these characters more deeply than I often do for a story’s personalities. Because it’s more than that—a story; it’s more of a piece of historical fiction, really, telling truths about each of us with different names and slightly different situations. And yet it’s a story we’ve never heard before; we hurt for these characters, and we are surprised when they fall, and it feels perfectly natural and reasonable to want to catch them. This is a novel that envelops us and continues to hold on long after the last page.

Perhaps what makes all of this so arresting is the disjunctive nature of their relationship; while Mia and Lorrie Ann grew up together in the small, seemingly-disadvantaged place of Corona del Mar, their memories are still tinged with nostalgic sunlight, their tanned skin and sun-kissed hair; there’s beauty, and a certain perfection, in those memories. And yet when these two young women have grown up, and come into situations where they truly need each other emotionally, they are often physically separated by great distances—and, at times, even greater apathy towards one another. While these two women were friends through and through, and always sought one another one for help (and to check in), there is a certain amount of perceived dislike, almost an obligatory forcing-together of their lives, contained in their relationship, as well. Unfortunately, though, this is fitting and regrettably true for many of us: we often maintain some of those relationships that are the most toxic for us because they’ve been established the longest, or we simply lose interest (again, because of the time that’s passed) and yet try (and fail) to maintain in touch, often out of obligation. Weirdly, though, there’s a certain amount of purity to this obligation—after all, that feeling of responsibility isn’t often forced by the other party, but rather the desire to maintain that which was once treasured. It’s interesting to think about how these emotions often played into not only Mia and Lorrie Ann’s decisions to see one another, but often how they treated or viewed one another (and their troubles or successes).

But Rufi Thorpe doesn’t stop here—not even close. Much of this relationship, and its complications, are explored through consequences (both positive and negative) of our choices, and how those consequences can bring us to a new mental and physical state: becoming a mother, moving from the United States to Istanbul… these are two central occurrences in the book, but they are hardly exhaustive. And Mia and Lorrie Ann’s reactions to one another’s life events, often dark and judgmental, dismissive or cold, put a mirror to the core of their relationship, and often how broken it can be after their departure from Corona del Mar. What makes this even more stark is the initial glorification applied to Lorrie Ann, her life and her family, by the ever-watching Mia, who continues to watch with concern, and even a certain amount of fascination, as her friend’s life continues to change.

My praise for this story, its complexities, and its characters, are endless. The story Rufi Thorpe has offered up provides all the twists and turns to keep you up and night, and then some. It’s taken me a great deal of time to process the book after finishing it, to process what I can even intellectually say about it, and (perhaps most importantly) to be able to move on to my next read without taking these characters with me and projecting them onto the new characters! This book is quite the experience. Slow yourself down a little bit, take a deep breath, and dive in. It isn’t an easy trip, but really, it shouldn’t be; honest and raw stories tend to pull you in several directions, run your emotions dry, and get you thinking about the truth behind the theme most thoroughly explored in the story (in this case, friendship, I’d say). And that is exactly the sort of trip you’ll go on with The Girls from Corona del Mar. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it. I promise.

 

RUFI THORPE received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was published by Knopf July 2014. A native of California, she currently lives in Washington D.C., with her husband and son.

 

 


Counting Down to the New Year: Five of My Favorite Books of 2014

 

happy-new-year Happy New Year, all! I hope you had a wonderful celebration of the upcoming new year and were able to spend some time recounting the good memories of 2014. Along with going to school and becoming a mom, this was definitely a year for reading and reviewing books. I learned a great deal this year—about the art of reviewing and commenting on a text, about my personal tastes and what styles and moves in a text tend to stick with me the longest. Today, I went back through the list of books I read throughout the year and considered which books were the most influential. It was a difficult process. The five books I’ve included below were, both, among my favorites (which were far more than five titles!) and the most striking or memorable: the ending of The Art of Floating, the rhythm I swear I can still feel in my stomach after reading The Bottom, the blue room in The Language of Flowers, the opening poem in Trances of the Blast, and the hilarity of the narrator and the purity of the baby in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day… These were such beautiful books, and whether read at the beginning of the year or more recently, they have stayed with me more than my other titles in 2014.

Because it was so difficult to even narrow down to five titles, I’ve decided not to rank them in an particular order; I’ve simply put them in alphabetical order, by title.

 

Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating THE ART OF FLOATING by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, Penguin/Berkley, 2014
What can I say? This was easily one of the loveliest books I have read in a very, very long time. Termed by some as a fabulous beach read, I walked into the experience expecting a love story and only a love story, but it proved itself to be so much more than that. Teeming with surrealist images and ideas, this book combats what it means to feel something—how we often have to turn to metaphor in order to get our thoughts and feelings across. It’s a project that lives in that literary stance of, “I know the image doesn’t make sense, per se, but it’s right.” Real, honest, raw.

 

Betsy Andrews_The Bottom THE BOTTOM by Betsy Andrews, 42 Miles Press, 2014
Such a beautiful book! As of a few years ago, I became extremely interested in the placement of ecological concern in writing—particularly ecopoetics. What’s interesting to me is how Andrews pushes the bill and makes The Bottom much, much more than an ecopoetic piece; it’s ecopoetic, yes, but it is also political (different, in my mind, from ecopoetic), rooted (in a sense) in pop culture, and pulling from very deep ties in folklore and oral tradition. It also challenges common conceptions of the ocean, who lives in it, and who is impacted by their loss (spoiler: all of us). Deeply rendered, an oceanic rhythm, and shockingly resourceful and smart.

 

Vanessa Diffenbaugh_The Language of Flowers THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2012
There is something especially interesting about the concept of etymology (besides the fact that I love language)—how such a study is like a constant search for origin stories, for new meanings, and (my favorite part) varying and debatable interpretations. This concept is not overly-present in my work, as of yet, though it certainly something I am working on introducing, and something I greatly appreciate in others’ work. The Language of Flowers truly thrives inside etymology, both, as origin stories for the names of and purposes of species of flower but also how wrong an interpretation can be… and what that can mean for the portrayal and giving of a bouquet. Haunting and lovely.

 

Mary Ruefle_Trances of the Blast TRANCES OF THE BLAST by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 2013
I’ve always had a particular soft spot for Mary Ruefle’s poetry, though Cold Pluto has always been my favorite of her collections; there is a certain seamlessness and confidence to the collection of poems, their order and imagery, that I did not find as competitive in her other works (though I loved them, as well; Cold Pluto simply became my favorite). Now, however, Trances of the Blast came into my view, and it is absolutely wonderful. I sat one day with just Cold Pluto and Trances by my side, and it made for a truly wonderful day. An imagistic, confident and wonderful day.

 

Pear Cleage_What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day WHAT LOOKS LIKE CRAZY ON AN ORDINARY DAY by Pearl Cleage, Harper Paperbacks, 1997
Not a new book but one that was gifted to me for Christmas 2013; my friend “warned” me that it was a strange read but easily one of her favorite books, ever. This intrigued me, and from the first page onward, I understood what she meant. What Looks Like Crazy is bold and funny, operating in that strange place where grief and laughter strangely, funnily, and tragically coexist (which reminds me constantly of Cleage’s stance in playwriting, and how that stance influences the poise of her fiction, in the best way possible). It’s beautiful and memorable, dark and hilarious, easily a book I will return to—and gift and gift and gift.

 

I’m pausing for a moment and just thinking of how wonderful of a year it’s been. The past several years have each been difficult or heartbreaking in their own ways, and 2014 was the first year in a while where I reached some sort of reprieve—where my husband and I both reached some sort of reprieve—from hardship. And I think that’s been demonstrated, too, in the books I’ve read; when I first came to terms with my five “favorite” picks of 2014, I nodded to myself and said, “Yes, these titles represent me—in what I need as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, what I need as a reader and individual.” These five titles aren’t just memorable and books that I will read again in the future (and look forward to reading again in the future). They were beautiful, and they were hopeful, and challenging, and they were crutches for me during a year of healing. They were confirmation that, yes, this could be a better year than the past few, and they were a constant reminder that there is beauty to be found amidst all of the chaos. They were books I could set aside for later, to return to when things get rough again, because they always do… and to remind me that things will also get better again.

Because they always do.

And, finally, a belated wish to all of you, from a writer I’ve been reading for a very long time, as we turn to 2015…

 

Happy New Year Book Wish

 

 


The Manger

 

Merry Christmas, Everyone! Whether or not you’re a believer, I hope you enjoy your day with friends and family, build a snowman or stay inside by the fire. Here’s a new poem to read while you drink something warm.

 

THE MANGER

 

For years I lived across the street

from a house, come winter, that was covered

in lights—the reindeer, fat Santa in the chimney

mount, all Christmas save a tilted menorah strapped

to an apple tree. At the center, parked next to

the driveway, was the manger scene,

the three wise men steeped

in plowed snow. David’s staff missing since Year 2

of playing neighbor, probably stolen

by the dog who was struck

right after that year’s first big freeze.

Then, a breeze, the WE’RE MOVING GARAGE SALE

signs, right there in the snow,

many things wrapped

in plastic and garbage bags. Even

the yard was for sale; the reindeer went first, fat Santa

and the menorah, and then pieces

of the manger scene, one wise man after the next, but no one

could seem to put a price on him:

small Jesus winking in the night.

 

 

MERRY BOOKSMAS

 

 


Halcyon

 

Like nothing, you wield these leaves
& branches from miles around

into your fortress, your own floating box.
Wings spread & your partner’s—& the calls

over the water. What power. What control.
The unruly terrain falls. How I wish I were you,

too beautiful & blue to be viewed
from a distance, the blending in. How calm

I would have to be to calm these waters,
how sure. Mystical bird, I envy you.

I look down into her beautiful face & know
I am unworthy. My sadness speaks

for me & with one look she may drink it in.
Small spiral heart, blood in the snow: this

is what I will have done to her. I wish for calm.
Kingfisher & swan, you reign—the sharp

voices & feathers, stark & shine
against flattened seas.

Calm sun, calm moon.

 

*

 

HALCYON has many definitions over the course of its lineage. This is in reference to its representation of a mythological bird, said by ancient writers to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice, charming the wind and waves into calm.