LOVE COMES IN ALL SIZES: A REVIEW OF THE SECRET LOVES OF GEEK GIRLS

DARK HORSE BOOKS, 2016. 279 PGS. ISBN: 978-1-80670-099-1

by Brittany Long

 

Love is universal. We’ve all heard this one way or another in our lives. The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, a nonfiction anthology edited by Hope Nicholson, expresses this sentiment fully through various geek girls’ tales of love, heartbreak, and obsessions with fictional characters. The niche that is the modern geek girl isn’t one that is usually explained or explored in such a positive light. However, in this multi-medium anthology, there’s a buffet of perspectives for consumption. Much like in popular roleplaying games, these women sought out caverns and side quests in life that opened up a part of themselves to share with readers. 

A geek girl is defined by her love and passion of pop culture within the realms of science fiction, technology, and comics. She attends conventions, dresses up in cosplay, collects action figures, and/or plays video games. For those unfamiliar to the ways of the geek girl community, we’re known to be open-minded and open-armed; unless you’re an evil wizard who took the whole “got your nose” game too seriously. Yea, I’m talking about you, Voldemort. Much like they are in real life, geek girls have a habit of unconsciously treating everyone they meet as a friend. We’ll offer some tea and rant to you about the latest heartbreak on our favorite television show. 

However, there’s a deeper side to it all. One that is centered–you guessed it–on love. Throughout this anthology, various women share moments of heartbreak, realization, empowerment, and pure silliness.

But I think the most important step is to be vulnerable. To put ourselves out there. To have a little more trust in others that they will like us, warts (metaphorical or not) and all. To be, ultimately, accepting of ourselves.
— Adrienne Kress

Gita Jackson, a video game blogger and journalist, writes about being mixed race, growing up in a mostly white suburbia, and getting tired of explaining her nerdy interests. Many geek girls, such as herself, are forced to constantly justify their interests and prove that they’re a “true geek girl.” Jackson enforces her preference to meet people online. Online, people don’t interrogate her about her past like they would on a first date, instead they accept her for her. In person, Jackson feels pressured to explain how she became who she is today; she writes, “When I inevitably deliver my lecture, it’s like being asked to learn to love myself all over again.”

Gaming culture tends to be youth-driven, and so this anthology also includes work by teenage writers. In her comic “Kids These Days”, Natalie Smith discusses being a high schooler with no real inclination to date. She says, “I thought there was something wrong with me. But there isn’t.” The three page comic ends on a high note by telling the reader not to rush for love. As many wise women have said, let love come to you.

Within this anthology, the empowerment of these women is palpable, you can feel it in every page that you turn and each stroke of pen that created the art within. Whether it's in Margaret Atwood’s short comics on growing up differing than societal norms or finally finding someone who appreciates your demisexual nerdy self in Megan Kearney’s graphic story, the emotions and comfort seeps from the spine of the book like the giant squid of Hogwarts.

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls revolves around the struggles and pleasures of dating in the modern world. Regardless if the story tells of a time before cell phones and social media, or in the present time when online dating is more widely accepted, readers can relate to the emotions that are presented within this book. Much like reality, not all stories end with a happy ending–but they don’t leave the reader without hope. Adrienne Kress writes: 

 

But I think the most important step is to be vulnerable. To put ourselves out there. To have a little more trust in others that they will like us, warts (metaphorical or not) and all. To be, ultimately, accepting of ourselves.

 

This anthology as a whole covers many topics that not only geek girls can relate to. Whether you’ve recently divorced, contemplated breaking up with someone who makes you happy, or contemplating sex for the first time, each contributor handles each with tact and care. Though if you have been living under a rock for the past ten years or so without any cable or internet, maybe do some research before diving into this book. 

Through it all, there’s a firm love for the reader. The reader is given just what they need to follow along and spend time in the moment of each writer's life that’s being shared. Whether it’s a “Yas queen slay!” or an “I feel you, girl” vibe, the reader is given a peek into a geek girl’s experience of the word love. Not just romantic love, either. The women address platonic love, doomed-to-fail love, unrequited love, and most importantly self-love and love for other women. As written by Sam Maggs, “In the most unexpected way, I had found love through video games–the love of these awesome gals...women with whom I’m proud to have such close relationships.”

In the most unexpected way, I had found love through video games–the love of these awesome gals...women with whom I’m proud to have such close relationships.
— Sam Maggs

So has this book accomplished its goal to evoke an authentic feeling from the reader? You bet your sweet bippy it has! All the women who contributed to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls are unapologetically in love with everything that they are stereotyped for. They take pride in what they do and what they love, reminding the reader that they are deserving and capable of the same love and pride as well. These women are some of the strongest warriors out there. Wonder Woman would be proud.

Between Flesh and Shadow: A Review of Rayfish, by Mary Hickman

Omnidawn Publishing, 2017. 80 pgs. ISBN: 978-1-63243-031-1

by Anita Olivia Koester

 

Each poem in Mary Hickman’s James Laughlin Award winning collection, Rayfish, is like a portrait where the subject’s gaze is snared by some shadow just beyond the canvas that is most likely––death, the subject’s eyes blaze with light both internal and external. These are poems soaked in blood, poems that not only contemplate flesh and its weaknesses, but poems that have directly witnessed the cutting open of skin and muscle. Hickman slices, prods, pulls and distorts her lens––the flesh––in order to reveal the alterable interior. Mary Hickman previously assisted in open heart surgeries; the heart for her is not only a concept, a metaphor to hold in the mind, but a thing that has pulsed directly in her hand. The unique intensity of this experience reverberates throughout these poems which pulse loudly and relentlessly in their pursuit of portraiture. Here is a poet who looks to the external world to assist in the mapping of the interior. Throughout these poems, Hickman turns to visual artists as well as sculptors, choreographers, philosophers, and filmmakers, ranging from Andy Warhol to Sally Mann, to aid in her quest for capturing likeness.

The collection opens with one of the most autobiographical of her poems. The poem describes what feels like the original event–– her first realization that flesh was more vulnerable than she had imagined. As children, Hickman and her brother were playing alone, “carving our names into trunks in the lychee grove. He cuts his hand. The knife slips, slicing his thumb and forefinger,” but in this moment there is not only fear but fascination, as the body reveals more of its internal workings. It seems probable that this was the incident that led Hickman to study medicine, and ultimately to write this book that is steeped in the concerns of the flesh.  

The title of the collection is taken from her poem, “Still Life with Rayfish,” which discusses the early 20th century French painter Chaïm Soutine, and his series of paintings of dead rayfish after Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s painting most often referred to as “The Ray.” The poem, like most of the poems in this collection, verge on essay, and are rooted in art history. They weave in and out of references from various centuries in an effort to suture together a collage-like portraiture. In “Still Life with Rayfish,” the subject is Soutine. Just as Hickman’s poem is commenting on other artists, so does Soutine’s painting of rayfish comment on Chardin himself, “In Still Life with Rayfish Soutine attempts a portrait of Chardin. The ray rises howling from the table its membranous belly shuddering.” Hickman here suggests a kind of resurrection of Chardin within Soutine’s paintings of this same rayfish.

Soutine’s eddies in oil capture the ray’s flesh. He structures my seeing; he imparts vision.

Hickman is concerned ultimately with the liminal, with the space between life and death, between prose and poetry, between biography and autobiography, and with the destruction and possible resurrection of the flesh. With the finesse of a film director, Hickman opens the poem with a gruesome and unforgettable scene; Soutine drenching a carcass in blood:

 

Soutine attempts to keep the color of his first carcasses fresh with buckets of blood. The neighbors hate the stench and the flies but he continues to pour blood over the bodies until he is ordered by the police to stop. Only then does he use formaldehyde. He isn’t preserving the flesh, just refreshing it, maintaining the life-color of the carcass and painting that blood as lush.

 

Here Hickman paints the artist at work, in his desperation to capture the colors of the exposed flesh, of skin bruising and bones protruding, Soutine put himself at odds with the outside world as he looks into the flesh attempting to reanimate it. Hickman’s fascination with the rayfish originates with Soutine’s ability to animate and give expression to the dead rayfish. In comparing Chardin’s rayfish with Soutine’s, one sees how Chardin painted the skin of the rayfish–– so luminescent it looks as if it has become angelic–– while the flesh of Soutine’s rayfish is still ruddy, the expression on the face almost comical in its exaggerated agony. The carcass seems to be moving, unfolding perhaps, Hickman points out how wing-like a rayfish’s fins truly are, how poised for flight.

This liminal space reminds Hickman of the movie Jacob’s Ladder, the protagonist of which is stuck in a place between life and death; his world either an hallucination or an experience of dying. Here is where the abilities of the essayist and the poet are in resemblance, as the poet must wield metaphors in order to bring two unlike images in relationship to one another, so does the essayist pull from a wide variety of sources and yet find common ground. Equating the director of Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne’s “body horror technique,” with Soutine’s often ghastly manipulations of the flesh, seems oddly fitting. The faces of the ghouls in Jacob’s Ladder in fact resemble the strangely human distortion of Soutine’s rayfish’s face. But Hickman doesn’t stop here, she interjects, as a great classic painter might, a moment of mystery. Using the text, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, Hickman creates a layer of mysticism. Quotes from this book are imbedded into the poem in italics without being commented on:

 

The face moves with alien speed, a filmatic sensation of seizure, fit, possession, mutation. He who has known the world has fallen into the body, and he that has fallen into the body, the world is not worthy of him. The ray’s blank eye and the attending angel’s carved sockets equally terrify. Soutine’s eddies in oil capture the ray’s flesh. He structures my seeing; he imparts vision.

 

Hickman is preparing us for her kind of seeing, a multifaceted, many-layered approach to discussing the body, and our experience trapped within it. Here she layers the ray’s eye over the angel’s, Soutine’s eye over her own, she is willing to give up a portion of her own seeing in order to see through all the artist’s eyes she brings into this collection.

In an interview with her publisher, Hickman explains how the impetus for writing the book was the death of one of her literary heroes, Leslie Scalapino, but also how she was dealing with family tragedy at the time. However she discusses how autobiography doesn’t interest her as much as biography, she states:

 

I wouldn’t say autobiography has all that much authority. There will always be counter versions and alternative narratives that are just as valid. And then there’s the propensity to protect oneself and stretch the truth. But there’s a way that, through the artwork, biography can be universalized—it’s a moment when intimacy and the singular cross the threshold into the collective and universal, a space in which the particular can be read across multiple horizons and times.

 

And yet these poems are not only biography, we feel the poet’s breath across these pages, her finger prints molded into the clay of each poem that she sculpts, carefully, as if building a house out of flesh. In a reworking of the Lucian Freud quote, Hickman titles a poem about the 17th century Italian painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, “Everything is autobiography and everything is a portrait.” Hickman recognizes that any portrait, any biography, any autobiography is flawed and incomplete as any conversation. And that the artist must respond to their materials, in this poem about Artemisia, Hickman finds herself struggling with the subject, “Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects they find intrusive. I have worked to make her appear three-dimensional, rounded. But in this one, done by night under artificial light, the figure looks greenish, bony.” Later in the poem, Artemisia’s “teeming” skin becomes the historical figures she painted, just as Mary Hickman’s skin is glimpsed in the body of Artemisia.

Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects they find intrusive.

I sought out Rayfish because I was writing a chapbook of prose poems that dealt with art history and self-portraiture, but I never imagined I would become so engrossed in Hickman’s web of references. And it must be said that to truly understand the depths of thought inherent in Hickman’s references, the reader must be willing to do a little research, and yet these poems are well worth that effort. Instead of pushing the reader away, the poems in Rayfish draw the reader into the conversation. Because of the way Mary Hickman seamlessly incorporates her sources, often leaving out italics and quotations entirely, the fluidity of these poems left me feeling as if the book had no end. Instead, Rayfish is one part of a larger conversation, and anyone who reads it is invited to participate. In that sense, these poems can be approached the way one might enter an interactive exhibit at a museum. Be ready to play, to engage, to follow the references wherever they might lead. For this is a book about making, it shows us we can build poems out of all kinds of speech, that our own voice can work in conjunction with others, that our own gaze is only one layered upon others, that our flesh itself, our mold, is shared.

More Powerful than Seven Felonies: A Review of Hook, by Randall Horton

AUGURY BOOKS, 2015. 194 PAGES. ISBN-13:978-0-9887355-6-9

by Katherine Michalak

 

Sitting in the breakroom at work, reading. The eye-catching cover of Randall Horton’s memoir, Hook, (velvet black with an insinuatingly-white fishhook front and center) draws attention from my coworker. “Schoolwork or pleasure reading?” she asks.        

“Both,” I answer, and I’m relieved when she turns back to her Tupperware lunch, not asking whether I like the book. Liking: it’s such a simple reaction, one that should be reserved for straightforward narratives—not churning texts like this one. I’m still chewing its angular, tongue-startling plateful words, waiting for a describable aftertaste.        

Chapter One and the first section of Chapter Two consist of correspondence between Horton, once incarcerated but now ostensibly free, and Lxxxx, a currently imprisoned friend. No casually-jotted note, Horton’s letter expects Lxxxx and his readers to cognize rigorous philosophical concepts and to delve into realities of race and social structures with the bottomless eye of a poet. “I have inhabited the cell door clang,” he writes, “and I can’t escape the image of the pinstripe inmate constructed.” Continuing, he writes, “There it is, that word: construct, or construction, which is another word for confinement on someone else’s terms—a sort of deliberate scaffolding."

I have inhabited the cell door clang, and I can’t escape the image of the pinstripe inmate constructed . . . There it is, that word: construct, or construction, which is another word for confinement on someone else’s terms—a sort of deliberate scaffolding.

More than merely poetic, Horton is a published poet with many awards to his name, including status as a Cave Canem Fellow. He continues chapter two with a prose poem titled, “Journal Note to [Self]: Open Door—”, in which cryptically-delivered language pries into the emotional undertones rippling down a city street in autumn. As the book continues, letters, narrative sections, and prose poetry tag team the task of conveying Horton’s life story. Literarily brazen, he creates bedfellows of poetic alliteration, street speak and academic diction.         

From pot-dealing, to international cocaine smuggling, to living on the streets, to stealing designer suits to support his drug habit, Horton’s twenties keep his readers flipping pages. Yet he resists the temptation to use dramatic high points (such as jumping off a second-story ledge when running from police officers) as the meat of his work. While some authors dwell in drama for drama’s sake, because they know it will sell, Horton conveys gun-point moments like a man spitting out words because he has to, not because he wants to romance his audience with shoot-em-up.           

Near the end of the book, as he approaches his thirties, Horton faces a five-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, he discovers writing. With all the tenacity that once sent him chasing a high, he now pursues poetry into a new life, determined to leave the construct of addicted criminal behind him.          

Transcendence, then, is the crux of Hook. With a straight-shooting eye, Horton demonstrates that for him, the gold nugget of life, if you will, is breaking the bonds that shackle us—whether they be placed by other people or by our own conceptions of self. At the outset, he warns us that “we are all on life’s preverbal hook, being reeled in by society’s constructions." Reflecting on his first night in prison, he says, “I would close and open my eyes to razor and brick and come to understand that I had to free my mind of the way I narrated my life, or I would forever be caught within concrete and iron." Ultimately, he does achieve this about-face in personal narration, with inspiring external results: at the time of this review, he has earned a PhD in English/Creative Writing and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; has published two memoirs and three poetry books; and is Assistant Professor of English at University of New Haven. All this despite a record of seven felonies.

I would close and open my eyes to razor and brick and come to understand that I had to free my mind of the way I narrated my life, or I would forever be caught within concrete and iron.

Liking: it’s a simple feel-good emotion, comfort food for one’s consciousness. The response bestsellers seek to elicit. Often, liking is how we respond to stories that bring us to inspiring vistas—especially those which first make us experience a harrowing uphill journey. Yet although Hook follows this classic redemptive arc, it is not always a likeable memoir: it is too intellectual, too dense with philosophy and athletic syntax, to be thoughtlessly assimilated like a glossy Hollywood flick.          

But what about the aftertaste? What emotions does Hook elicit after thoughtful analysis? For me, it brings tears. Tears of gratitude for Horton’s honesty as a memoirist. Tears for the power of love. In the final section of Chapter Seven, titled, “Father, Forgive Me,” his dad stands before a judge in Montgomery County Courthouse, having travelled for a full day to appear as his son’s character witness in a request for shortened prison time. Describing Horton’s positive upbringing, this sixty-seven year-old man conjures before the court—and before Horton himself—the image of a man worth rehabilitating. “My father placed his dignity before the court,” Horton says, “and with teary rivulets coming steady now and his voice trying to stay proud, he begged the judge to give me another chance. Please, please give me my boy back. His is a life worth saving."          

This scene dissolves my conflicted responses to Hook’s intellectualism and challengingly poetic lens. Sophisticated, crafted reflection is the rescue rope by which Horton reclaims his own and his family’s dignity, I realize, and its prominent place within the narrative gives us an experience of Horton’s character—an experience that bestseller modulation would rob us of.         

Continuing to describe the courtroom scene, Horton says, “In front of a room full of strangers, my father cried. I looked around the room, and the people in the gallery were wiping their eyes." Reading this, I realize I don’t like this book; rather, I am trusting it. Trusting it to be my own rescue rope on down days; to be a text capable of generating hope. A text always nagging at my mind, saying, Narrate your own life so as to bend the bars.

Book One of the Recovery Series: Embassy, by S. Alex Martin

Create space independent publishing Platform, 2013. 354 pages.

ISBN-13: 978-1494264369

by Odin Halvorson

 

In his debut young-adult novel Embassy, S. Alex Martin creates a detailed and impressive sci-fi landscape, through which a tale of mental wellbeing and personal growth is told with clarity and strength, set against the sprawling science fiction landscape of advanced technology and global catastrophe.

The novel follows Arman Lance, a young man who suffers from guilt over his father’s death, believing he was the cause. He doggedly forces himself to live, his every step weighted with feelings of inadequacy and remorse. While the larger plot deals intimately with the aspect of ecological disaster and society’s response to it, the true pillar of the story is given to us in the very first chapter, when we are introduced to Arman as he listens to a speaker at his father’s memorial service, “We Narvidians have a saying,” Ambassador Gantz says. He speaks slowly, and with a harsh accent, one native to his home planet. 'Darall ravams.’ In Standard, it means, ‘We are revealed at death.’"

‘Darall ravams.’ In Standard, it means, ‘We are revealed at death.’

This statement, “we are revealed at death,” hints at the true exploration taking place in this series. Not the outer world of spaceships, planets, and environmental catastrophe, but the inner world; the troubled psyche of a young man who must face the death of his egoic self in order to be revealed as more than a broken child standing in his father’s shadow. The themes Embassy deals with, therefore, are especially impactful for its target young-adult audience, who are undergoing this very same aspect of the heroic journey from childhood to adulthood.  What Martin manages to pull off in this case is an exploration of what it feels like to truly face the prospect of leaving childhood behind, and he captures it from Arman Lance’s own internal perspective perfectly.

As Arman Lance takes his first steps into the larger galaxy as part of the Embassy Program (the illustrious interplanetary directive designed to foster diplomacy between the colony worlds of mankind), his inner world is in turmoil. Directionless anger drives him forward, fueled by feelings of inadequacy and a belief in his complicity in his own father’s death. Far from accepting the burden of adulthood, he remains fixated on a childhood romance from years before, trapped by fantasies of a love he believes will heal him. He sees enemies in everyone, especially his friends from school, and he teeters upon the edge of a dark psychological abyss that threatens to swallow him whole. Until Glacia Haverns arrives on the scene.

In the tried and true format of classic young adult novels, it is the romance arc which provides one of the principle movement points for the story. Glacia is a talented and energetic young woman who embodies the motto “Carpe Diem.” She greets the world head-on, and when it refuses to budge she socks it in the jaw. Just as Arman explores the depressive qualities of the young adult experience, Glacia expresses the opposite­­­­–– a formidable passion and drive towards excellence that sweeps Arman out of his unconscious state. The process is slow, as Arman resists all contact with the world around him, but when Glacia finally breaks through to him we begin to see his potential to become a fully realized individual. Midway through the book, after taking Arman into the desert far from the bustle of the urban landscape, Glacia points toward the horizon:

“Look at it.”

And I do. The Embassy sits alone in the dark. The Crown rises from the center and the other towers peak around it. Lights shine between the gaps of buildings and in the rows of windows. I can reach out and hold the city in my palm.

I shiver again, suddenly terrified. My whole life I’ve been contained to one city on one planet […] For the first time I truly realize what I truly am: a piece of it [the world].

And the story expands from there into the larger world, literally, as Arman, Glacia, and his peers all set off on an interplanetary mission of aid. The world of Belvun is suffering from a total ecological collapse as the human-made climate changes caused by terraforming threaten to extinguish all life on one of the few habitable planets known to man. Mirroring the threat of our real-world ecological disaster, Embassy takes a proactive approach as the characters work together to discover a solution for the environmental degradation, giving the book a far more progressive and, in some sense, uplifting quality than many other popular young adult novels.

The Embassy sits alone in the dark. The Crown rises from the center and the other towers peak around it. Lights shine between the gaps of buildings and in the rows of windows. I can reach out and hold the city in my palm.

Martin is still early in his writing career, and his work shows signs of growth in-progress, but the intelligence and passion evident in his work is both moving and invigorating. For a self-published writer, especially, this is a work of quality and originality, and will provide any reader with a stirring journey through the depths of consciousness and the frontiers of time.

Cover to Cover, “Limb from Limb”: My Body is a Book of Rules, by Elissa Washuta

Red Hen Press, 2014. 189 Pages. ISBN: 9781597099691

by Christina Gerard

 

My Body is a Book of Rules, by Elissa Washuta, illustrates the inner workings of Washuta's mind by using a non-linear approach that not only mirrors her thought process on the page, but provides a vehicle in which the reader can move with her through each experience. Defying social norms, Washuta writes intimately about her diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, rape and trauma, as well as her eating disorder. She details the eight-years she spent in catholic school and her departure from Catholic religion, juxtaposing an education that valued purity with a patriarchal society that is sex-centric. The essays in My Body is a Book of Rules are experimental and unique, refreshing and eye-opening, heart wrenching and bold.

In “Please Him” Washuta writes, “My body was a book of rules, my heart the spine, my skin plastered with pages. Written on each one was the text that held the world together. Do not steal. Do not lie, swear, disobey. Do not get angry. Don’t even let your thoughts go bad or the poison will fill your veins. Above all, do not fuck.” She navigates the Cosmo Quizzes that, as a girl, taught her that she must “please him” both referring the men she will sleep with and God in comparison to the commandments she was taught in Catholic school. Her essays pull from an impressive array of materials including— her match.com profile, a letter from her psychiatrist, a diary, a list of her prescriptions, and actual text messages and emails.

My body was a book of rules, my heart the spine, my skin plastered with pages. Written on each one was the text that held the world together. Do not steal. Do not lie, swear, disobey. Do not get angry. Don’t even let your thoughts go bad or the poison will fill your veins. Above all, do not fuck.

 “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat,” in which Washuta lists her sexual partners counting backward from twenty-four to one, she writes “Counting backwards is a must.” With each number Washuta gets closer to the beginning, to the experience that changed her, an experience that is a constant dark echo in the back of her mind as well as the pages of her book. As the truth unfolds, it leads to the story of the rape that started it all, Washuta writes, “Still, every time, I say no, you say yes, and to you, it is nothing but a difference in opinion.” In a Law & Order SUV episode she melds the reality of her own rape and the fictional world of storytelling, in which she brings to life what may have happened had she reported her rapist. With each question asked throughout the fictitious trial, Elissa Washuta unveils not only the unique circumstances behind her rape, but the commonalities her story has with so many others in a relevant and social context.

Still, every time, I say no, you say yes, and to you, it is nothing but a difference in opinion.

The Cascade Autobiography, which refers not only to the Cascade Indians of her heritage but also literally cascades throughout My Body is a Book of Rules, is the thread that pulls the book together. Whatever journey the reader is on— be it reading Washuta’s old diary entries, a bibliography of books she read, or a sex study she did in college, the Cascade Autobiography pulls the reader back to what is the most important element of the book: her identity. While it focuses mainly on her Native identity as a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, Washuta carefully ties in other major themes, and subthemes, of the memoir into the Cascade Autobiography.

In Part 8 of the cascade, she describes how she struggled to answer prying questions about her ancestry from her peers, “I thought I was a full half-Native and a full half-Ukrainian until I was about ten. The simple question of ‘How much?,’ the wish to split someone’s ancestry into neat compartments, can actually tear a person limb from limb.” Each essay showcases one of the individual elements which essentially make up Washuta, the woman. While the Cascade Autobiography brings to light all the complex elements that make her who she is: her diagnosis, trauma, female form and sexuality, eating disorder, what society tells her to be, all as it applies to her native and non-native heritage.

I thought I was a full half-Native and a full half-Ukrainian until I was about ten. The simple question of ‘How much?,’ the wish to split someone’s ancestry into neat compartments, can actually tear a person limb from limb.

Within the confines of 189 pages, Washuta transitions from Catholic school girl to freshman in college, manic to depressed, undermedicated to overmedicated, overweight to underweight, and struggles to walk the path of moderation due to her Bipolar Disorder. She details her experience on one medication after another in her search for the one that will stabilize her mental health, and, in doing so, speaks out for many young girls and women who are struggling with mental health, trauma, and similar personal journeys in a way that is rarely done: unapologetically.

This is an account that provides insight and education on topics that are widely underrepresented in society, topics that need to be talked about out-loud and without pause. Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules compels the reader to question the rules they live their life by and the expectations they place on others. Washuta’s words stuck with me, reminded me that we are all, in some capacity, being torn “limb from limb” by societal expectations, afraid to say what think, afraid to write what we want to write, afraid to be who we want to be. My Body is a Book of Rules inspired me to be more fearless as a woman and a writer, and to let go of the societal expectations I’ve let rule me.

The Everyman’s Crow: Grief is The Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

Graywolf Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-55597-741-2

by Lacey Pruitt-Thomas

 

It is a tiny book, no more than 114 pages, that proclaims itself a novel on its title page. Flipping through the textured pages, it appears more of a hybrid work—part poetry, part prose, a bit of script thrown in for flavor. The back cover extolls the story’s virtues with excerpts of reviews from The Atlantic, The Guardian, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal. The novel has won several “Best Book of 2015” awards.

But, the story—how is the story?

Porter’s work lives up to the hype. He leads his readers through a labyrinth, searching for escape from grief caused by the loss of someone close. Inspired by mythology and the oral traditions of storytelling, Porter weaves the stages of grief—sadness, despair, anger—into a narrative that surprises with humor along with expected sorrow. Porter declines to name his characters, rather labelling them simply “Dad,” “Boys,” and “Crow.” By doing this he extends the feel of an ancient fable to his story. The characters become images of the everyman; by offering them neither names nor faces, Porter allows them to take on the aspects of the readers’ imaginations. Although it could be a quick read, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is engrossing and thoughtful enough to induce meditation on the difficulties of learning how to continue to live with a hole in one’s heart, and continue to grapple with everyday life.

The story is told through three perspectives. After the sudden death of his wife, Dad—an academic scholar in the middle of writing a biography about Ted Hughes aptly titled, Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis—understandably is set adrift; not knowing how he will deal with the loss of wife, and raise two sons alone while earning a living. He mourns, “We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.”

We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.

The boys, who are very young when their mother dies, cope by teeter-tottering between reality and fantasy in their play and school, struggling to grasp what has happened to their world. This story follows them into adulthood, and they are still haunted by the mystic figure of the Crow that had appeared at their door, when they needed him the most:

“…Now my tiny son shouts ‘cra’ when he sees a

crow, because when I see a crow I shout

‘KRAAAA.

I tell tales of our family friend the crow.

My wife shakes her head. She thinks it’s

weird that I fondly remember family

holidays with an imaginary crow…”

Enter the Crow on a dark night by banging on the door and waking the father. Answering the door, he is met with “a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.” Confronted with a crow the size of a human, the father is justifiably frightened when he is picked up and held close. The crow then says, “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.” The crow becomes the conscience and confidant of the father, and the playmate and caregiver of the boys. Porter’s Crow evokes reminisces of Mary Poppins in the magic and guidance he gives to the grieving family.

a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.

Porter divides the story into three sections that signal the journey’s progression. From loss and lamentation in Part One, “A Lick of Night,” to finding that life does continue after a spouse and parent dies in Part Two, “Defence of the Nest,” and finally, the acceptance that the ache will remain, but one can move on in Part Three, “Permission to Leave.”

The truly fascinating thing about this piece is the connection that Porter has tied to Ted Hughes; both his life and his work. Similar to Dad’s project, is Hughes’ collection of poems, Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow, is an effort to deal with the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, which triggered a drought in his creativity for several years. According to Neil Roberts’ article, “Poetry by Ted Hughes,” Hughes believed that Crow was his masterpiece, but never completed it because the subsequent suicide of his mistress, Assia Wevill, withered his motivation for the project completely. Dad suffers from a similar desiccation; the Crow and the death of his wife intertwine with Hughes’ story of dead wife and mistress, and the Dad cannot escape it. The lines between reality and fantasy are blurring for Dad, as they did for Hughes as he created his Crow. Dad struggles to finish his book, saying, “Today I got back to work./ I managed half an hour then doodled.” When the father begins to date again, he sneaks a woman into his London flat and describes her as, “a Plath scholar I met at a symposium.” For Dad, his life, the story of Hughes, and the crow are all intertwined in a weirdly cosmic manner that nevertheless provides a safe haven for him and the boys to heal.

Porter sympathizes with the great sense of loss both Dad and Hughes suffer over the sudden, tragic deaths of their wives. The reader connects to this heartache through Porter’s use of lyrical and poignant language. Yet, the tone of the work is saved from becoming maudlin by infusions of sharp, spikey humor as well as descriptions of the mundane demands of the everyday living. Dad says, “Many people said ‘You need time’, when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.” Here the struggle to meet physical daily demands has nearly overwhelms Dad; he needs so many other things that “time” has been pushed to the back burner.

Many people said ‘You need time’, when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.

Rather than being a collection of poems and flash fiction based on a theme, the voices of Dad, Boys, and Crow weave each vignette into the fabric of a novel that through magic and lyrical language explore a difficult and complex issue with a grace borne on satin wings.

The Lady-Warrior of Geek Culture: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost), by Felicia Day

Touchstone, 2015. ISBN: 9781476785653

by Brittany Long

 

The gaming culture was once the sanctuary outcasts needed. But now, the “Age of the Geek” has brought about mainstream fascination and with that problems, such as sexism and public judgement. Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost), invites the readers to dive into the experience of being a female geek in the modern time. Using her witty charm and an endearing narrative, Day tells the story of how she broke down barriers in the long standing patriarchy of the geek culture. Not only does she reveal her own struggles to make her place in the world, but she motivates the reader to fight through whatever life quest they want to venture on. An actress, writer, gamer, and comedian, Felicia Day is a positive role model to women who want to become, or already are part of, the geek culture. As she says in her memoir: “If you enrich one other person’s life, it will be worth it.”

If you enrich one other person’s life, it will be worth it.

The memoir begins by Felicia Day introducing herself to the reader. For those who don’t know, Day is a modern day warrior maiden to those of us in the geek culture. After her initial success as an actress and producer, she went on to create a multimedia production company and YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry. Even myself, a longtime fan of Felicia Day, enjoyed reading the introduction. It was personable and entertaining, and it made you feel as if she were sitting right across from you. Day expertly retains this tone throughout the book thus deviating from the traditional mold of memoir by creating a more conversational narrative.

The memoir unfolds in a linear timeline, beginning with Day’s unusual childhood. From a young age, she was homeschooled in an unstructured way by her mother. In what she called a “free-for-all education,” Felicia learned all the subjects her peers were learning in school, but at her own pace. The one given rule was that she had to read every day, which she loved doing. It was through this required reading that she started to escape into imaginative worlds that she, later in life, would create.

Even with such an eccentric schooling, Felicia was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin at the age of sixteen where she double majored in mathematics and music performance. It was there that she started on her path to success. Though, as she points out, it was never just given; she had to earn it. This is a common theme throughout her memoir as she talks about her time after university as she worked hard to make it as an actress, and later a screenwriter.

Breaking barriers is what Felicia Day is all about; her determination to succeed in spite of odds is inspiring. She writes about the exhausting and stress-inducing nights she spent agonizing over storylines and dialogue for just one episode of her eventually popular web series The Guild. After completing the script, she attempted multiple times to get the series produced by an established production company, with no success. She was pitching a subculture which, at the time, did not capture mainstream media’s interest. Instead of backing down, Felicia decided to produce The Guild for the internet. This was an untapped treasure trove of an audience, one that would understand the quirky and nerdy characters and plot of the show essentially about gaming.

Felicia Day wrote and produced a web series at a time when YouTube had only just been created, but unlike a heroine in a fiction novel she didn’t complete her quest alone, instead she insists you have to be willing to accept help, and with that help, you can accomplish anything. And if her tale wasn’t motivation enough, Day offers up a small list of advice for anyone wishing to create something from nothing. The first piece of advice on her list, “Find a group to support you, to encourage you, to guilt you into DOING,” reflects the type of support system she had during The Guild’s creation process.

Find a group to support you, to encourage you, to guilt you into DOING

Perhaps the most inspiring chapter of her memoir come near the end. #Gamergate, aka “That Time When Men Got Emotional”, was a controversy in the geek subculture that started with a bad break up and turned into a hateful mess. During this time, women within the gaming industry and culture were under immense scrutiny and were being threatened. Day, an avid gamer and member of the geek culture, had remained surprisingly quiet on the matter for some time. Within her memoir, though, she openly admits, “I was afraid.” When she did speak up, calling out the ethical wrongdoing of online trolling and the proliferation of sexist comments, her personal information was leaked on the internet. This chapter was perhaps the most influential to me, a self-proclaimed lady-bro gamer, because of Day’s affirmations to be proud of whatever it is you love to do. Felicia leaves the reader, especially women, with a strong sense of empowerment. She states, “The very reason I felt guilty about NOT speaking up is WHY I should have spoken up in the first place.”

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) is a modern memoir that leaves you with positive, geek energy. Day celebrates her own weirdness, and even includes quirky visual embellishments that she created in Photoshop which brings an element of playfulness to the memoir. Because the context of her life’s story involves many geek-centered topics, she uses various nerdy idioms, but this doesn’t take away from the joy of reading as she always explains the meaning. Felicia Day has an enthusiasm that makes you feel proud to have strong interests and passions, regardless if they’re considered nerdy or not. She concludes her book by saying, “I hope all my copious oversharing encourages someone to stop, drop, and do something that’s always scared them. Create something they’ve always dreamt of.”

I hope all my copious oversharing encourages someone to stop, drop, and do something that’s always scared them. Create something they’ve always dreamt of.

Whether you consider yourself part of the geek culture or not, this is an uplifting and enjoyable read.

Impressions of a Life: The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

Back Bay Books, 1999. ISBN: 0316085251

by Katherine Michalak

 

In The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard presents a collection of linked essays: snapshots from her childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Raised in the Midwest in the 1950s and 1960s, she brings readers into a world where her mother and aunt fish together “in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake,” where Grandma bakes greasy peanut butter cookies and provides a bottomless sugar cube bowl, where multiple generations of women smoke as though nicotine is a prerequisite for leisure, and where four year-old boys’ entertainment is to “throw dirt and beat each other with sticks all day long.”

Out of this cultural soil, Beard matures into a woman who edits a physics journal for the University of Iowa, as well as who gains recognition for her own writing. She marries, further altering the textures of her life: in the fifth essay, “Coyotes”, she reveals this romantic union to be as empty as an Arizona night sky. Out of this void, she nonetheless finds a means for loving, and tends to an ailing collie with wholehearted dedication. Ultimately, she navigates loss, death, and divorce without losing sight of the lasting friendships which prove to be nourishing constants in her life.

The memoir is told more thematically than chronologically. An image of a “snake-thin” cheerleading coach—one of the “monsters” in Beard’s noisy, people-filled high school world—is juxtaposed with a lonely and retrospective 100-mile journey, when Beard is an adult, to visit her mother’s tombstone. In the essay, “Cousins,” she tells a story of her and her cousin almost hitting a deer one night while driving to a bar through rural Midwestern cornfields. “He could have wrecked my whole front end,” her cousin says, with the stoicism of a young woman whose father provides venison for dinner. Later in the essay, Beard jumps back in time to a childhood scene in which she and this same cousin are riding bicycles in a community parade full of cowboy hat-sporting children. Thus, we learn of the child Beard’s “good underpants without holes,” which she wears for the parade, within two pages of witnessing the young adult Beard blowing cigarette smoke in the face of a bar-goer who makes unwanted advances. This pair of chronologically separate but thematically unified anecdotes effectively conjures the cultural norms, strong family ties, and enduring friendships which influence Beard’s coming-of-age.

The primary theme, indicated by the title, is that of Beard’s relationships with men, which prove vacant. However, she engages this subject obliquely enough that one sometimes doubts its presence. After opening with a self-conscious childhood moment, in which she wishes she were more attractive in the presence of a group of boys, Beard splits off into memories of grandparents, cousins, and allergies; stories in which romance plays no part. Following these anecdotes, the essay, “Coyotes,” does address the theme, depicting her vacuous marital relationship; and the subsequent two essays underline her struggles with this man.

Next, in “Bulldozing the Baby,” she describes her dominance, as a three year-old, over an ugly doll named Hal, perhaps using this humorous story as a means of commenting on romantic attachment. “I [carry] Hal by the feet,” she says. “His shoes are warm from the sun and he smiles as I drag his face along through the grass and then—bump, bump—up the two steps and into the house.” What parallels we draw between this anecdote and romantic relationships in general, Beard leaves up to us.

His shoes are warm from the sun and he smiles as I drag his face along through the grass and then—bump, bump—up the two steps and into the house.

In the final essay, “The Boys of My Youth,” she weaves memories of early crushes into the telling of her divorce. Yet throughout the memoir, Beard emphasizes the sensory experience of her reality, rather than her attendant thought processes about men, which means we are spared the romance-obsession one might expect, judging from the book’s title. Thanks to this tasteful approach, the theme builds silently, without seeming heavy-handed.

Beard writes about herself without naval-gazing or spilling her soul: introverted and reserved are words which come to mind for this author’s voice. The Boys of My Youth is at variance from the confessional tales which once defined the genre of memoir, and although it offers a visceral impression of the author’s life, the collection is undeniably fragmented—enigmatic, even. It is as though Beard places her reader behind a cracked door: the view is intimate, but incomplete.

And yet, perhaps it is Beard’s cryptic doling out of memories which gives the book its tension: one feels as though each essay provides a clue in a scavenger hunt, enticing one forward in anticipation of some final prize, some “ah-hah” about her life—or even about life in general. In part, the brilliance of The Boys of My Youth lies in Beard’s ability to sustain this tension even while writing primarily about everyday events. One might argue that the most well-known essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which was originally published in the New Yorker and features a violent shooting, couldn’t be further from mundane. However, the tragedy’s placement in the second third of the collection—along with the fact that we don’t expect it, due to the prior essays’ lack of lead-ins—demands that Beard’s writing hook readers irrespective of this climactic event. In a literary environment saturated with accounts of trauma and violence, Beard proves that the simple details of one person’s life—even during times which lack sensational intrigue—can be rendered compelling and memorable.

While some readers might find The Boys of My Youth lacking in explicit emotion—Beard describes her history in a non-reflective, deadpan tone—this collection portrays greater depth than one might initially realize. By her very reserve, Beard proves that memoir is an art form capable of capturing unique human essence, even when that essence doesn’t gush or speak candidly for itself.

Like art photography, Beard’s intentionally framed, offset imagery leaves one with thought-provoking impressions which refuse to dissipate.

 

Breaking and Blossoming: A Review of Dan Beachy-Quick’s "Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs"

$11.95, 48 pages. Omnidawn Publishing, 2015.

by Anita Olivia Koester

 

Dan Beachy-Quick has always been interested in words as objects, and poems as works of art that communicate with other works of art. His chapbook, Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs, is no exception. Here that communication is internal-- seven poems communicate with one another through four forms-- the shield, the shard, the stitch, and the song.

The original seven poems assume the shapes of shields as they are each constructed of eight dense lines within a single stanza. The shields cover various themes-- poetry, memory, loss, God, death, love, nothingness/endings. In the opening poem, which is essentially about the act of writing poetry, Beachy-Quick tells the poem to--

Take root in the broken and bloom.

This is the central theme guiding this journey, as this chapbook is not only a book, but a form of passage. This poem also sets the initial tone of the book, there is blood, trouble, rubble and ruin, writing poetry is a bitter business and yet he rallies the poet to--

Mark it in bronze, poet. Grab the tool. Beat it.

In these closing words of the poem, we also hear the echo of the first word, “be”. As the poet must utilize violence to write the poem, but the poet should also “be… it”, as in, be the poem. The poem as a shield is an extension of the self, a way to protect the interior self from the exterior world. It is also an object that makes proclamations about where one’s loyalties lie.

The shield poems are constructed mainly of nouns and therefore have a kind of hardness to them. The second shield harbors many nouns-- sword, words, memory, cloud, bee, fragment, field, mower, seeds, shrouds, deeds, shadows, cords. Amongst all these nouns there is precious little breathing space within the poem, which exhibits the brutality of the connection between a poem’s words and the memories they strive to embody. A shield is typically adorned with a family crest, therefore the nouns chosen here can be considered symbols of what is important to the poet and to the poem. Consider the second shield--

“Sword words

Clash in the memory cloud.

Hectic bee amazed by the fragment

field the mower left uncut.

Shut it down, what only yields

Fragrant blades, lunatic

Seeds in downy shrouds. Lash

Deeds to shadows. Use these cords.”

The poem begins with words sharp as swords clashing within the one’s own memory, cutting down, or mowing down what was once a reality-- a field of grass. Here the poet is like the bee, bringing pollen from the memory to the paper in hopes that the words will fertilize, and the poem bloom. But there is a darker tone to this poem. The seeds are lunatics for wanting to grow into blades only to be cut down. And finally deeds are forced to become memories, so the cycle can repeat.

However the poem does not end here, the shield is only the first stage of the poem’s metamorphosis. Next, the shield will break into shards, and the resulting poem will be a fragmented erasure of the original shield. In the transformation, much is lost. The words have broken apart, within them there are letters that can be put to new use, but for now they lie exhausted on the page, unable to muster themselves into much meaning–

"wo    wo

                                                                          the                 cloud

                                                                 bee a    a

                                                             field

shut     down, wh           y

grant blades

                                                           see                      shroud . Lash

to    a      .Use"

It is up to the reader now to attempt to make sense of the words and to figure out how they connect, if they connect at all. “wo     wo” seems to be the sound the “cloud bee” makes as it buzzes around the field. As in the original poem there is a field of grass, and a bee buzzing around it, but the field is “shut down”, and the blades of grass seem to see their own impending death or mutilation in the shroud.

Beachy-Quick wants the reader to juxtapose the word shard with shroud, he wants us to hear the similarities in the words, as it is only the vowels that have altered, the framing of the word remains largely the same. Embedded in a ‘whole’ poem the reader probably would not have noticed how similar the words shard and shroud are, but in this scattering of words and letters we can become more familiar with the construction of the words themselves, something Beach-Quick has explored throughout his work. Since Whitman, grass has become a beloved symbol of the American poet to denote poetry itself. Here the glades have been used perhaps against their own will; the poem has been cut down, and is offered to us in a state of brokenness. The poet invites us to engage with that which is broken, to discover the shape and make use of fragments. This is why he ends the poem with the word use, as letters and fragmented words are the tools of the poet.

Out of this brokenness is born the stitch. The stitch is made up of words from the shards. These words are sutured back into meaning and wholeness. Many of the stitch poems are beautiful in themselves:

On love… no hinge… all home.
A tone… O moan… O poet.

The stitches also bring meaning to the shield poems, the poem that was originally about love becomes “we await you… you ark of rescue." Here love is a kind of rescue, a savior, but also a ship that protects one as it sails forward. Another example would be the poem about death which becomes, “O yes… you make it lack breath,” this unfortunately is exactly what death does to the body. The themes of the original poems are often distilled into the sutures, some more carefully than others. But there is still a final stage of metamorphosis for the poem, out of every suture blossoms a song.

Every letter and word in a stitch is used to build a song, the songs complete the journey of the poem as well as the journey of the poet, who started off as a literary soldier holding a paper shield. In antiquity, great battles were memorialized in song, and poetry and song were often one and the same. Beachy-Quick reinvigorates this tradition by having the poems’ transformations complete in song. The songs are the longest, most robust poems in the book-- their lines stretch out, their nouns and images are still strong and many are recycled form the original shield, but they are allowed more breath, more music, as well as verbs to move within.

The second shield which became the second shard, which then became the second stitch, completes within the second song, which begins, “The wars are everywhere, o even within”. The bee makes another appearance, though instead of drawing attention to the bee’s ability to pollinate, the poet focuses in on the bee’s stinger--

Even the heart,/ Keeps the sting sharp: art stings thought, thought stings art.

Because of the language lessons throughout this chapbook we quickly see how the word “art” is embedded in “heart”, the two words are immediately married, one cannot exist without the other, how can one love without art? How can one create art without using the heart? Beachy-Quick then inquires, “are there other ways to learn how to sing?”

In every song, no matter how celebratory, there remains the echo of a wail, in this chapbook the creation of poetry is pain-filled act, and yet the poet must use that pain to create something of value. Here again two similarly constructed words, sting and sing, go hand in hand. When all the wars are won and/or lost, when the dead are laid to rest, when the survivors have been given succor, what is left is something that lasts beyond defenses and offenses- poetry, art, and song.  And inside of that song are tucked the remnants of the journey, the song must “take root in the broken” in order to bloom.