To Carry and To Care: A Review of The Carrying By Ada Limón

Milkweed Editions. 95 Pages. ISBN 978-1-57131-512-0

By Sarah LaFleur

Ada Limón’s newest collection of poems, The Carrying, is at once a personal account and universal exploration of what it means to be human: to hurt, want, mourn, and discover life, hopeful and still bent toward the sun, in the moments in between. Limón tackles topics as heavy as death and infertility while describing moments as mundane as taking out the recycling. She overlaps these themes in the same manner that she juxtaposes sparse, confessional language with striking metaphors, creating a tension that reflects the complexity of the human experience.

Some days there is a violent sister inside of me, and a red ladder / that wants to go elsewhere.

Limón’s poems possess a grounded quality through her descriptions of the daily, insignificant moments, but they also attain a higher wisdom in her rich contemplations of the mundane. The poems reflect snapshots of Limón’s life, such as a car drive, conversation with her partner, or observation of nature. Written with casual candor, the poems prepare the reader for Limon’s higher-reaching insights because of the content’s believable and relatable nature. In “Bust,” for example, Limón boards a plane and considers unfinished items on her agenda. As her anxiety escalates, she pushes the reader to a resolution she can’t quite resolve, one that reflects the reality of being a human being with all of her to-dos and impossibilities. Limón writes:

 

“… Passport and boots that slip on and off,

a sleepy stream through the radiation

machine. A passive pat-down of my outline

and I’m heading somewhere else before

the world has even woken up. I’ve got shit

to do and I need to lose a little weight before

I turn older. There’s the email scan of the bank

statement showing barely enough, the IRS

check, the dentist that’ll have to wait until

payday next month. We do what we have

to do to not cleave the body too quickly.”

 

“We do what we have to do to not cleave the body too quickly.” Limón’s work encapsulates a visceral tension between the fight to be human and the fight to move beyond it, to “do what we have to do” but still survive - - and aren’t both tasks their own form of survival? Limón’s work forces the reader to grapple with such questions and accept resolutions that merely spiral back onto the questions themselves.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

In one particularly poignant poem, “Dead Stars,” Limón asks these questions again, contemplating existence as she rolls out the recycling bin. She writes,

 

“…Look, we are not unspectacular things.

We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.

No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,

if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big

people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?”

 

Although Limón asks questions that she and the reader can’t answer, her willingness to ask them suggests that a force of grace is at work, both in her poems and in the messiness of life itself, reaching for a reality bigger than what she and her companions in the common struggle survived. The poems in The Carrying offer a gritty, attainable hope for the whole of humanity: “we are not unspectacular things,” and maybe we can “survive more,” “love harder.”

The Carrying reveals the complexity that each human being carries, in both quiet moments such as planting a garden and in heavier experiences such as considering motherhood and the aging process.  In “The Vulture & The Body,” Limón asks:

 

“What if, instead of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?”

 

Her question expresses the weight every person carries, a weight riddled with the tension between trying and surviving, living and dying, being a human being and trying to reach for a higher purpose - - only to discover that we are still human in that process. The bravery of The Carrying helps lighten the load of the impossible questions, reminding the reader that at the heart of such complexity is resilience - - the willingness to live anyway, to try, to be honest, to stay patient with what we can’t reconcile. In “Trying,” Limón reminds us:

“…Even now, I don’t know much

about happiness. I still worry

and want an endless stream of more,

but some days I can see the point in growing something,

even if it’s just to say I cared enough.”

 

The Carrying reminds us that the willingness to carry and to care is enough.

OUT OF THE WOODS: A REVIEW OF ELMET BY FIONA MOZLEY

Algonquin Books. 312 Pages. ISBN 978-1-61620-842-4

By Chris May

Elmet

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel is a story of separateness. Of otherness and of family. The story’s narrator Daniel, his sister Cathy, and their father John Smythe live in the wooded “copse” outside town in the Yorkshire countryside as John builds their home stick by stick around them. He teaches them to hunt, trap, and skin, to build lives for themselves on the margins of society. The children run through the woods free, wild. When the serenity of their world is threatened by the landowner, Mister Price, John is forced to reckon with his violent tendencies, capabilities, and past in order to secure the rights to his family’s home.  It is at once a story of survival and a story of a familial bond that is threatened by property rights, land disputes, and class struggle. It is a story filled with love and ultimately with brutality. Mozley’s characters are drawn up beautifully from the page and the setting is vivid: crisp in the winter and sweltering in the summer. The dialogue is realistic and alive. And for a debut novel, the story itself is captivating.

The scope of the story is grand and while beautifully written in lyrical prose, Fiona Mozley stacks the events and the characters within the story like the turning over of playing cards. Characters are spotlit for a moment and then cast to the side only to dwindle and ultimately disappear, leaving the reader wondering what purpose they served other than to segue into the next plot point. It occurs again and again throughout and when all the pieces come together at the end, there is indeed a sense of completion but no sense of how the story got there. It lacks inevitability through loose ends and plot holes and leaves one thinking that somehow this entire fiasco could have been easily avoided. Despite this disorganization, Mozley provides no shortage of stunning prose in her descriptions of place:

“Spring came in earnest with clouds of pollen and dancing swifts. Little birds, back here to nest after a flight of a million miles, were buffeted by the wind, which blew hot then cold and clipped unripened catkins off the ash. The swifts were too light to charge at the gusts like gulls or crows, and through them I saw wind as sea. Thick, pillowy waves that rolled at earthen, wooded shores and threw tiny creatures at jutting rocks. The swifts  surfed and dived and cut through the invisible mass, which to them must have roared and wailed as loudy as any ocean on earth, only to catch the air again on the updraft and rise to the crest. They were experts. They knew how it was done. And they brought the true spring. Not the spring that sent timid green shoots through the compacted frostbitten soil but the Spring that came with a rush of colour, a blanket of light, unfurling insects and absent, missed, prodigal birds on this prevailing sou’westerly.”

Along with her beautiful descriptions of scene and setting and backdrop, her use of dialogue is spare and believable. There is never a question who is speaking and so there is not always a need to identify them, as with this bit between the narrator Daniel and the infamous Mr Price:

“What’s your surname, lad?”

“Oliver.”

“Daniel Oliver?”

“Yeah.”

“Daniel and Catherine Oliver.”

“Yeah. What of it?”

“What’s your Daddy’s surname?”

“Smythe.”

“Smythe?”

“Aye. You know that.”

Mr Price nodded. “I do know that. I just wanted to ask.”

Elmet is a unique and gorgeously written piece of fiction despite its loft. Mozley takes on a great task in Elmet, exploring themes of ownership and loss, isolation and family, sexuality and consent, workers’ rights, death, fear, belonging. Still, it is a struggle for the reader to grasp what is at the core of this novel. Daniel, through whose eyes the reader encounters it all, attains little change or growth. It is Cathy who drives the story. She gleams like fire reflected in Daniel’s eyes throughout the telling and leaves us wishing it was her who was telling the tale as she grows from young girl into something fierce, unknowable, and dangerous. But we are left only to speculate and wonder at the depths of her, as the existence of her soul wanders far beyond the page. Much like Jim Harrison’s Tristan in Legends of the Fall, Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, or Mary Anne Bell in Tim O’Brien’s short story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” in The Things They Carried, Cathy is a wildly captivating character. This book is worthwhile if only for the reader to spend some time watching her take her true form.

In the Trenches & the Clenches: A review of Beautiful Exiles by Meg Waite Clayton

Lake Union Publishing, 2018.  pages. ISBN: 9781503900837

By Katheryne Mero

After just becoming Ernest Hemingway’s new wife in Beautiful Exiles, Meg Waite Clayton’s fictionalized version of writer Martha Gellhorn makes a very precise point when she says: “Martha G. Hemingway, that’s who it says I am. The real me reduced to a single letter and the most important bit of me is now that I am someone’s wife.” While Clayton’s Beautiful Exiles is a brilliantly fictionalized account of the nearly ten-year relationship between Gellhorn and her ex-husband Ernest Hemingway, it is also an exploration of a legacy of a woman that disappeared against the stature of her historically famous husband. Gellhorn, a war correspondent who smuggled herself onto a hospital ship and found a way to cover the allied invasion of Normandy, was already well-respected for her honest portrayal of war by the time she married Hemingway. Never as famous as her husband, Gellhorn found herself kicked to the side as the war in Europe began, but she didn’t let that stop her from getting the story. Through moving emotional insight twisted throughout the story, Clayton elaborates upon the complexities of two equally talented lovers who create a bevy of work while existing within their own chaos. At times incredibly funny, tragic, volatile, and heartbreaking, Clayton leads us through the beautiful mess of a marriage that contained too much ego to survive.

Clayton’s story begins with their first meeting: in a bar in Key West, Florida 1936, when Gellhorn was on vacation with her mother and brother. Having already published her first book, she is an impressionable writer attracted to Hemingway’s brilliance, while he is a star that attempts to offer guidance to the fledgling journalist. While their initial relationship is just as friends, their excitable conversation and witty banter playfully hint at the flirtation that eventually becomes romantic. The true excitement of the story doesn’t begin until their arrival in Spain, where Gellhorn first experiences a taste of war:

I lay hugging the muddy earth and praying to a god I wasn’t sure I’d ever believed in, tensing in readiness at the boy’s every twitch. I couldn’t think for the fear. I could only run when he ran, and flatten when he did, and try to keep from crying from the pain and exhaustion and fear.

The war description doesn’t spare any details, always remaining clear and honest in its attention to the downsides of war:

“An old woman and a terrified little boy hurried through the square toward the imagined safety of home one afternoon as a shell crashed into shards of hot, sharp steel that pierced the boy's neck. It happened, and because it could happen to any of us—anytime, anywhere—as long as it didn’t happen to us, we lived as best we could.”

Clayton’s language is gutsy, a voice one might expect of someone witnessing war in a personal way, but she also delivers vulnerability in the midst of explosions and death. The budding relationship between Gellhorn and Hemingway is written so delicately, with a painful shyness between them that goes almost beyond intimate.

“I suppose I might write about the boys in the hospital,’ I said, rolling over to face him, wanting to give back some of the attention he was forever giving me. He’d once been a wounded boy in the hospital. He could make readers feel that story. He was so like Bertrand, with such a thick crust of charm and success that no one looked more closely, no one saw the thin fissures which the real stuff he was made of oozed.”

As Gellhorn peels away Hemingway’s layers, Clayton explores the little pieces that made him so lovable but traumatic. 

While the story often focuses on Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway, Clayton also explores the relationships that build Gellhorn to the level of emotional maturity to exist within her marriage.

“Dad was dead a year by the time I danced with The Swede in Key West, but I carried his disapproval in my head like a tumor. If I led a man on, if I swam with him and danced with him and kissed him, well, I ought to be thinking of my reputation and be a better girl than that.”

These nagging criticisms haunt her. As a positive influence, Gellhorn’s mother, Edna, nicknamed Matie, is a true delight to read. Once a suffragette who lobbied for the woman’s vote, Matie’s influence is one that sounds too modern for a woman born in the 1900’s.  “She preferred a man who would believe her his equal in every way when men just didn’t, who would gather liberal minds of all races to his dining table and the devil be damned if a white man wasn’t supposed to invite a black one through the front door.” Matie’s interactions with the younger Gellhorn serve to challenge and invigorate, as she quotes her daughter’s own letters, suggesting her mistakes lay directly in front of her. In one pivotal scene, after making the trip to Idaho for the wedding, Matie tries one final time to discourage her daughter from what she feels is the wrong choice. “You’d rather I live in sin?” Gellhorn asks. Her mother’s response: “Yes, I would.” These parental viewpoints often bleed into the dialogue she has with Hemingway, and others, as she tries to build a confident impression of what kind of woman she is.

The story is a careful piecing together of intricate details and life-changing events that somehow made their lives. While Clayton’s research includes visiting the Hemingway homes and piecing together of Gellhorn’s written material, it also includes the perspectives of other correspondents and celebrities the pair interacted with. As Gellhorn and Hemingway bounce across the globe writing, drinking, and loving, Clayton’s prose breezes easily through wherever in the world they decide to go: leaving Key West as Hemingway’s marriage crumbles beneath him; family vacations in Idaho; the new home shared by Gellhorn and Hemingway in Cuba; business trips to New York, and Presidential dinners in Washington, to the eventual coverage of war: in Hong Kong, Helsinki. London, Paris, and Madrid. There is even a chapter in Texas, where the pair stop to enjoy a few daiquiris only to find out the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. In the middle of this globe-trotting are moments that are sensational celebrity antics: Hemingway’s fist fight with Orson Welles, having dinner with the Roosevelts, going on vacation with Gary Cooper and Howard Hawkes, or getting war credentials with the wrong name on them with Ginny Cowles in London. This stylish imagining offers the reader the fantastic possibility of adventure against a war-torn world of sadness and despair, hope and revival, friendship and love.

Martha Gellhorn's amazing life is a logical choice to be fleshed into reality by historical fiction. She was exactly the type of woman that the world doesn't see enough of, an impeccable balance of modern womanhood: valiant but vulnerable, intelligent and compassionate, resourceful and forgiving. This true beauty is expressed by Clayton's storytelling, as she attempts to capture two larger than life individuals with cohesive charm and style. Clayton's prose is in as delicate a balance as their entire relationship: always tempestuous, but vibrantly light and dark, full of love and hate, jealousy and admiration. And in the middle, a frailty that exists in all humanity, a deep-seated rejection that keeps us always leaving to avoid pain. As Clayton has Gellhorn explain:

"But there was no me in his magic, and the way the magic came to him wasn't the way magic came to me. I had to go out and find it. I had to live in the world, not holed up in a quiet corner with a cook and a pool and cats to rub against my legs."

Fundamentally, these two clashed, but for a little while they shared enough to produce unique magic. While history will always remember them for the period that they shared together, Beautiful Exiles validates how important that time really was to the careers of two powerhouse writers.

A Mask For Every Occasion: A Review of Every Mask I Tried On By Alina Stefanescu

Bright Horse Books, 2018. 254 pages. ISBN: 978-1-94467-08-1

By China Myers

Every Mask I Tried On reads like poetry, but within its rhythm there exists a collection of stories that candidly expose guilty pleasures, melancholy affairs, and mischievous thoughts. Stefanescu shows how different scenarios open a gateway for people to slip into their alter ego; hence, the mask. She writes an ode of how people don a mask for every occasion, some with or without intention. The reader begins to recognize the parade of situations that blindside the innocent and result in a form of masking. A sudden breakup, revenge, death, love, or any spontaneous moment that makes you wince or smile may have been a culprit of a sudden personality redo.

Her collection of tales meander down life’s road, exposing the irony of disguises that people wear, the extensions of their characters – their many masks. Some masks parade around loving every minute of their disguise, while others hide the ugly or beg for forgiveness. Far funnier are the ones that have no idea they are masked at all.

Prize for most disconcerting masks goes to the ones in which a person hides everything except their eyes.

Stefanescu’s Every Mask I Tried On feels like a portrayal of bare honesty as her stories boldly draw the reader into a collage of circumstances – the good, the bad, the ugly – all presented without a filter as the reader vicariously lives through her words. Stefanescu uses one of her chapters to discuss the idiosyncrasies of a school carpool line – an environment where talk of family values reveal deep resentment and anger. We join the ride with her as she describes why her husband finds the carpool a sentence of torture and how some of the mothers are wickedly intriguing:

“If I weren’t happily married, I’d drive over to Marybell’s house with a bottle of Merlot, pull down her pants, and press my tongue deep into her sweeter side.”

Every Mask I Tried On is hard to put down because each story carries its own weight. Its compelling language intrigues the reader to continue to the next chronicle, not knowing what they may find. Reading her stories engage a multitude of emotions, leaving the reader wondering how someone could be so brave, so cruel, so composed. In one of Stefanescu’s more solemn chapters entitled "Rental Units," she talks about Vivi, a women who wears a mask of silence to ward off her memories and her bad husbands:

 “Her silence hides things including the sound of a voice asking for a towel. Her silence hides a polite please. The gurgle of running water hides her silence as well as whatever she asks when she isn’t going to talk about the husbands.”

Simultaneously, there is an ease of writing found as the reader flips through the stories and distinguishes her keen interpretations of how a mask can make one seem multi-dimensional. A mask can offer a way to shift into a new guise at any time, and while one may feel the slightest urge of hush-hush, in reality, the mask is an escape mechanism.  Stefanescu cleverly amuses the reader with a slew of characters and their countless traits and masks they may choose to wear, like the one of a mortician, in her chapter, "Mothers Who Die":

“His shirt was a lavender bloom straight from heaven’s finest arboretum. The business of death if bright colors and gaudy in person - but fancy on the next year’s tax return.”

She talks about a mask of reality for a woman who mourns her mother and realizes that death is the aftermath of life, in her chapter, "One of Those Single-Scene Fixer-Uppers":

“If I were a story, I’d be one of those single-scene fixer-uppers which appear fresh & mod but are actually as ancient as a woman alone in a room with nothing to iron.”

Another chapter describes the mask of youthfulness and the confusion of virginity in matters of  love or lust:

“To lose your virginity is like losing an investment – a value you only have once. A magic gold coin that gets you through a gate and then what?”

Throughout all the witty rhetoric and heartfelt stories, Every Mask I Tried On offers the reader a sense of true and false identities that people present to the world as they encounter their trials of life. We read their experiences of choices; how they lived, how love can be lost or renewed and when it is best to be silent. Each chapter mimics the movement of life, like a roller coaster; it elevates and descends in times of greatness and fragility and exposes which mask fits the occasion.

Expanding, With or Without You: A Review of Crumb-sized by Marlena Chertock

UNNAMED PRESS, 2017. 80 Pages. ISBN: 9781944700478

By Reign Manzano
 

“No one dares call Harriet Tubman / a disabled person, but why not. . .” Marlena Chertock asks in Crumb-sized (unnamed press). “The full truth? A disabled woman of color / led hundreds of slaves to freedom.” Using down-to-earth language and wit reminiscent of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, this “young woman with 80-year-old bonespasses us the telescope of scientific poetry so that we can observe the unseen details of her disability for ourselves. 

With its musings on elementary school bullies, burgeoning sexuality, and simplified explanations of planetary phenomena, Crumb-sized seems constrained to a specific audience. Nevertheless, Chertock’s poetry is accessible to those who have ever endured suffering, who have ever felt disconnected or alone among a majority. Implicit in the descriptions of “Life on exoplanets” is the isolation, loneliness, and harsh environment which might sprout resignation, or worse, resentment. But despite her disclosure of the 5,400 mph winds on HD189733b (where it “rains glass sideways”), the 500 light-year distance between Kepler-186f and Earth, or the obscurity of Proxima b, Chertock challenges readers to “keep magnifying the universe— / because it’s still expanding, with or without you.”

Bring food to the hill—you all rely on each other.
If you collapse or get stepped on, the others will
place you on their backs, return you home.

Yet, Chertock avoids challenging “the universe’s most feared unknowns” with naivety. Throughout Crumb-sized, she highlights the truths of skeletal dysplasia while assuring readers that they too can rise above victimization by confronting the black hole “absorbing . . . smile and confidence / and blasting out darkness.” Her greatest moments of triumph (against a competitive and hypercritical society) happen when she communicates self-awareness: a balance between acknowledging her limitations and preserving a conviction to realize “far-fetched dreams.” “Even if all the pain I’ve felt in my whole life doesn’t equal / the pressure an astronaut experiences in G-forces on reentry,” she writes in “Application to NASA,” “still I’m strong. I may be one of the strongest / candidates you’ve ever had.” Drawing from autobiographical memory, Chertock understands that the antidote to disability or disadvantage is less likely to be discovered in willful ignorance of her “misshapen hips” than in honest consideration of all the aspects which shape and structure her identity. In “It should be called womenstruate,” she writes of her feminine self:

This power socket of cum joules, 
this tingling triangle, this coaxing
cave, this primordial pomegranate
is not monstrous, is full of sap
and blood and ever-expanding, 
like the universe after its big bang.

“Rikkud,” a poem that invokes Chertock’s Jewish upbringing, explores the tension between her cultural identity and the reality of her disability: 

lit in amber. Moths and bats swoop overhead,
like us, congregating below on the dancefloor.
I’m part of the circle, hands clasped,

more Jewish in this two hours of folk
dancing every Friday night in the summer
than in a synagogue, ancient words
I don’t understand swirling in the air.

As the poem continues, the pain of exclusion is made as apparent as pain caused by skeletal dysplasia, and a pervasive sense of disassociation amid communal celebration draws attention to the limitations of both self and society: “the only bonfire dancing. / I watch the others dance / through every song. / Their bodies so fluid / filled with bones their age.”

Ultimately, trusting in one’s own internal foundation emerges as the theme of Chertock’s deeply introspective poetry. It’s how the outcast in At 13 I lived in the forest” reclaims her agency as a participant: “I shattered / my reflection in rivers and creeks. / At 18 I changed, / stood up on two paws.” This progression toward self-authorship is reinforced as she gains the confidence to pilot her own narrative:

I let my paws sink
as deep in the soil as they could.
I went to school with other wolves,
wrote down my life in the forest
to share in writing workshops.

It also runs parallel to Robert Nash’s conception of “the scholarly personal narrative,” a form of confessional academic writing which frames intimate experience within a larger social context such that reader (as well as writer) may gain insight on how to better engage with and make meaning of the world. Bridging science and spirituality, Crumb-sized succeeds not simply in its subjective interpretation of objective reality, but also in its consideration of how individual interpretations interact therefore impact one another—perhaps this type of reflection is how moral relativism reconciles with universal truth—perhaps Chertock never intended to comment on moral relativism or universal truth. Regardless, Chertock’s voice is vital to creating a higher resolution image of our human condition.

Unfold me gently, I’m brittle
calcified stardust. Me, mineral dense

Collagen quirky. Unravel the cartilage
from my joints, throw my bones

to the unloved dogs.

By the end of my journey across the pages of Chertock’s cosmos, I began to visualize moons of resilience in orbit, applying gravitational pull on an ungrounded species. If planetary hardship catalyzes universal growth, Crumb-sized embodies it: for Marlena Chertock, it is the turning of her experience, her disability, her pain on its axis to reveal the reflection of light we secretly wish for—and when it arrives, upon. In these poems of movement, self discovery, and transformation, a space-traversing poet informs us that the light of faraway objects sometimes must travel billions of years just to be seen, but not without reminding us that it is on its way.

AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT: A REVIEW OF A LUCKY MAN BY JAMEL BRINKLEY

GRAYWOLF PRESS, 2018. 264 Pages. ISBN: 978-1555978051

By Robert Hunsberger

41HtwhDvrcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Told in nine vivid short stories, Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, A Lucky Man, tugs sharply at the tender threads of intimacy, race, and masculinity. Brinkley’s prose, as fierce in its vigilance as it is in its empathy, casts new light on the delicate and heartbreaking truisms of American manhood. The black men and boys that populate Brinkley’s stories find themselves struggling to reconcile their hopes and expectations with the indistinct gloom of their realities.

In the first story of the collection, “No More than A Bubble,” two college-age friends, Ben and Claudius, tramp through a party in search of girls. The narrator, Ben, is eager to make use of the condom his father gave him to spend specifically on a wild woman. His father told him to:

“Use this with the most delicious woman you can find, una pazza. Let her screw your brains out, once and never again. Then marry a nice, boring, fat girl with hands and thighs like old milk.”

When the opportunity presents for Claudius and Ben to walk two women back to their Brooklyn apartment, they seize their moment. Before allowing the two men to join them, the women have Claudius and Ben undress and stare at each other, demanding they be “fully present.” Ben writes, “I did, however, get to use my father’s condom. I’d intended to use it, had become fanatical about doing so, and finally did, just as Claudius—perhaps another true son of another confused father—got to use the use the condom he carried around in his pocket.” The two men played their roles in the masculine production of sexual conquest, but still there was a disconnect between their expectation of the moment and the reality they were faced with. Their idea of intimacy and sex had proved itself inadequate, and the young men were ill-equipped to cope with the experience. Brinkley offers an achingly somber insight into their shame and disillusionment as Ben and Claudius wake the following morning:

“All at once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within his face, and he must have seen it within mine too. It has been that way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, a rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.”

In “I Happy Am,” a young boy named Freddy who imagines himself as a robot or an angel or a wizard, takes his first trip to the suburbs with his friends at St. Rita’s Day Camp. Freddy pictures the suburban house in his mind, large and well-appointed with a pool, a garden, and an angelic white woman named Mrs. Johnson. He is disappointed to arrive at an unremarkable house owned by a black woman. It reminds him of his usual life and surroundings. He remarks that "Nothing's what it's supposed to be like." The story becomes an especially poignant glimpse into the burgeoning mind of a young boy as he wrestles with his first feelings of disillusionment, his first, bitter brush with privilege, and his first taste of hopelessness. The woman who owns the home, middle-aged and lonely, asks Freddy to touch her pregnant belly for good luck.

Need a lot of luck in this terrible world.

Lincoln Murray, the protagonist of the collection’s title story, struggles to cope with resentment stemming from his wife leaving him. On the subway, he takes a photo of an unsuspecting woman. He describes her face as, “Something like a scowl, the expression seemed different on women of a certain beauty, like they had never had to justify their use of it—they just assumed they had the right.” There is an unsettling aspect to this description, an underlying anger. Lincoln is both enamored with and threatened by beauty. The subway woman reminds Lincoln of his wife, who doesn’t show the same signs of aging that he does. Lincoln admires his wife’s beauty, “Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it.” Brinkley carefully uses Lincoln to highlight the emotional shortcomings of a culture obsessed with superficiality. These shortcomings isolate Lincoln from his loved ones, and the world at large. Brinkley writes, “maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the little strength it took to hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.”

Each of Brinkley’s true-to-life stories offers the reader marvelous depth and insight into the complex emotional landscapes of America’s wayward sons. His characters boil beneath the surface, desperate for a surer emotional foothold, struggling to communicate and reconcile their vulnerabilities with their worlds, and forced to settle for the life that luck has handed them.

An Unnatural Divide: A Review of The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

Riverhead Books, 2018. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-0735217713

By Robert Hunsberger

 

“I want to be on the ground,” Francisco Cantú explained to his mother. “Out in the field, I want to see the realities of the border day in and day out. I know it might be ugly, I know it might be dangerous, but I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.”

His mother, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, would resist his rationale, arguing there were better ways to learn about a place than by patrolling it. Seeing that Francisco had his mind made up, she offered a word of warning to her son. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. But you must understand you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.”

Francisco Cantú’s timely memoir, The Line Becomes a River, recounts Cantú’s time as a Border Patrol Agent working in the vast and varied expanse that divides the United States from Mexico.

Told in three parts, Cantú’s memoir examines the moral and psychological toll exacted by his work on the Border Patrol. He writes in sharply focused vignettes, piecing together his memories and his dreams with the history of the border to build a kind of personal mythology that pits migrant against machine in an unforgiving desert landscape. His writing is straightforward and unflinching with the occasional lyrical swell. His recollections are honest and raw. Cantú passes no judgement, makes no excuses, and manages to avoid political rhetoric. Instead, his treatment of the complex issues in The Line Becomes a River is notably and refreshingly human.

The first part of The Line Becomes a River focuses on Cantú’s training and field work. He learns how to read the landscape, how to track people down. He recalls slashing water bottles, tearing through stockpiles of food and belongings, and leaving them to be “crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.” He describes the intention of those acts, “And Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue.” Cantú’s candor, especially in these uglier moments, is what makes this memoir so valuable. 

And Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue.

In part two, Cantú has transferred out of the field and into an intelligence position where he combs through daily reports, emails, and photos of bodies brutalized by the desert, as well as by the cartels. He wrote extensive reports on the illegal border traffic, and at the request of his boss, he was careful to distinguish between real criminals and “plain old wets,” an ethnic epithet primarily used to describe undocumented migrants from Central and South America. It is in this second part that Cantú’s moral crisis begins to truly surface. In one vignette, a prairie falcon is staring into the lens of a surveillance camera, Cantú recalls the bird’s “interrogating gaze.” It seemed to ask, “What cowardice has caused you to retreat from the desert? Why not return to the border’s smoldering edges, why not inhabit the quiet chaos churning in your mind?” Cantú approaches the bird on the screen. “I’m afraid to come any closer, I wanted to whisper. I’m afraid the violence will no longer shake me.”

In the third part, Francisco has left the Border Patrol in favor of continuing his education. He works at a coffee shop, where he quickly befriends an undocumented maintenance worker named José. When José’s mother falls ill, he travels to Mexico to be with her and is picked up by the Border Patrol attempting to re-enter the country. Now, Cantú is able to glimpse life from the other side of the badge. He works with José’s wife and children to build a case for his friend, but the task seems impossibly large and the odds hopelessly long. He writes, “It’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.”

The last several pages of Cantú’s memoir are told from José’s perspective. José is able to represent himself as he shares his fears and his hopes and his motivations with the reader. Coming from a system that works so diligently to dehumanize migrants, Cantú’s decision to inhabit José’s voice is a significant gesture. It is, perhaps, his only suggestion as to how to combat this dehumanization moving forward. These final pages serve to pull José out of that abstract dimension where he is one face among countless others, a single digit in an infinite sum; here he can be seen as José Martínez from Oaxaca, Mexico— a father, a son, a husband, a friend.

It’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.

The Line Becomes a River grants access and insight into one man’s experience working along the border. Cantú’s frank tone and earnest exploration paint a poignant picture of a profoundly broken system. This memoir is a glimpse into a moral conflict, one that blurs the line between duty and culpability. It is a somber study of the exposure to, and normalization of violence on an individual, institutional, and societal level. And, ultimately, The Line Becomes a River is a lamentation over a system designed to wrest the humanity from the chests of millions.

A Spiritual Musing on Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Random House, 2017. 343 Pages. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9534-3

by Reign Manzano

 

On February 20, 1862, President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, succumbed to typhoid fever. George Saunders’ first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, imagines the ghosts of Oak Hill cemetery, where the young boy was buried and a place President Lincoln visited while leading his nation through one of its most brutal wars. Taking inspiration from the state between life and death known in Tibetan Buddhism as the bardo, the voices of Saunder’s supernatural tale reveal the cultural atmosphere of a somber, death-ridden time.

As implied by the title, President Lincoln is one of the Bardo’s leading characters. Attempts to capture not just compelling but also insightful sketches of (arguably) one of the most renowned US presidents have been made before—and, unsurprisingly, they are not met without harsh criticism. Whether shown in good, bad, murky light, a writer’s conception of Lincoln’s image rarely eludes piercing, whether by the disgruntled cries of obstinate patriots or the white-hot spurn of politically-charged multiculturalists. Saunders, who has established his authority as a writer with several critically-acclaimed short-story collections (Pastoralia, Tenth of December), however, is well-prepared, if not qualified, to give readers a compelling impression of Lincoln. Saunders is most notably known for his treatment of moral and philosophical issues with sharp satire as well as for the tragicomic elements that permeate his work. Moreover, Saunders has already proved himself as a historical interpreter and commentator of the 19th century, in his rendering of a run-down theme-park set in the dystopian future whose characters are tinged—fatally equipped, rather—with faults we, as a society, have still not resolved despite having addressed them, time and time again, as faults which threaten our humanity: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. With Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders zones in on the American Civil War, consulting Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, among other books, to conjure the voices of his ghosts and the landscape they might have inhabited.

At first, Saunders’ experimental tale feels unwieldy, intercutting between the imagined rhapsody of Oak Hill cemetery dwellers and accounts of Civil War America culled from historical sources—some real, others fabricated. Dialogue, as well as exposition, is divided among and formatted within the excerpts that comprise each chapter. The characters to whom each excerpt belongs to are later referenced as in-text citations; so it is not immediately evident, for example, that hans vollman’s and roger bevins iii’s initial passages are intertextual. Chapters, furthermore, are as brief as one line or span across several pages, consisting of one character’s monologue or stringing together a congregation of memories detailed in and extracted from independent journals, letters, or literary works. But as the story progresses and readers become attuned to the medley of America’s bygone mouthpieces, Lincoln in the Bardo materializes as a harmony of winsome banter counterpointed by a revelatory review of the past. 

It’s worth noting that civil war is only alluded to, remaining a backdrop to the bawdy cemetery antics which account for most of Saunders’ narrative. Still, Saunders makes the gravity of war apparent at the start of his novel with interspersed chapters that catalogue the subjective judgements of those who attended a frivolous state party Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln had hosted; civil war had just erupted and their son lay sick and suffering just upstairs:

This, it occurred to me, this was the undisciplined human community that, fired by its dull collective wit, now drove the armed nation towards it knew-not-what sort of epic martial cataclysm: a massive flailing organism with all the rectitude and foresight of an untrained puppy.

In the private letters of Albert Sloan, by permission of the Sloane Family

Ostensibly biographical, Saunders’ New York Yimes bestselling performance stands out, not for its delightful poetic illustration (which readers might find isn’t uncommon throughout the novel), but more so for its mashup of fricative personalities, timbres, and moods in which recollections of the past are widely varied. In its totality, the book is a quirky read; each excerpt’s echo interferes with the next excerpt’s echo, and the result is, quite humorously, reminiscent of a yelp! review page.

Hans Vollman, a printer struck down by a compromised structural beam in his house, and Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay who commits suicide, are the principal narrators of Saunders’ macabre ensemble. Both Vollman and Bevins, along with every other hospital-yard apparition, are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and characterized accordingly with an ironic afterlife form. Vollman, who died before he could consummate his marriage, appears naked and with an eternally engorged member. Bevins’ multiple sets of eyes and hands, by contrast, “seem to represent the sensuous appetites that, as a closeted gay youth, he failed to fully explore before he committed suicide,” Caleb Crain points out in his review of the Bardo for The Atlantic. When I think back on my reading of Lincoln in the Bardo, I imagine a stage play of graveyard soliloquies. The ghosts of Oak Hill cemetery are a reactive, if disparate, collective, and they play off each other’s temperaments to charming effect: 

      Bored, we swarmed and entered that couple, and through the combined forced of our concentrated wishfulness, we were able to effect

hans vollman

      This much is true:
      They were overcome with sudden passion and retreated behind one of the stone homes.

roger bevins iii

      To act upon said passion.

hans vollman

      While we watched.

roger bevins iii

      I have misgivings about that. The watching.

hans vollman

      Well, you had no misgivings on that day, my dear fellow. Your member was swollen to an astonishing size. And even on a normal day, it is swollen to

roger bevins iii

      I seem to remember you watching as well. I do not recall the slightest aversion to any of your many, many—

hans vollman

      Truly, it was invigorating to see such passion.
      The fury of their embraces was remarkable.

roger bevins iii

Considering the fantastical elements of the Bardo, there is a burden placed upon readers to suspend their disbelief, trusting, then, in Saunders’ ability to create an internally consistent fictional world. The ghosts of Saunders’ Bardo are able to enter the living, transmuting their spectral forms to match, for example, Lincoln’s corporal form, gaining access to his sense and feeling. This might seem absurd to some, but I urge readers to just go with it. Doing so is necessary to understanding the abstract emotion (remorse, self-doubt, denial) Saunders’ conceptualizes in the Bardo—not to mention rewarding. Via Hans Vollman, nonetheless, we enter Lincoln’s psyche, feel seep into our stomachs what has seeped into his:

      He is just one.
      
And the weight of it about to kill me.
      Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys…here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I—
      May not have the heart for it.
      What to do. Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing fool, king of indecision, laughing-stock for the ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout?
      It is out of control. Who is doing it. Who caused it. Whose arrival on the scene began it.
      What am I doing.
      What am I doing here. 

The true mark of an effective satirist is an awareness of when to pull back from exaggeration, parody, and criticism, which Saunders does by supposing the intimate musing which might have coursed through President Lincoln’s mind during his solitary strolls through Oak Hill cemetery. These spiritual dialogues (which are not limited to Lincoln) are the hinges that add dimension to Saunders’ satire, turning it away from an external commentary on society and toward a more profound nature of commentary, commentary which aims at the fundamental, the metaphysical. Besides, the imposition of slavery is a symptom of human nature, but it is the cause we must confront, if we are to remedy people of a debilitating symptom. Bardo, then, is not so much concerned with constructing a moral critique on slavery itself (today, a wickedness decisively agreed upon) as it is with capturing a nation’s internal struggle to mature in an environment satiated with grave conflict and pubescent unrest.

At its most compelling moments—Lincoln’s visits to his son’s tomb—crowds (of ghosts) literally form, as if Saunders means to say this is important; this is important because it is a matter of humanity. The ghosts are captivated by the affection Lincoln shows toward his son’s dead body when he takes it out of its “sick-box,” both appalled and envious that someone from “that other place” would dare touch, much less caress, the boy’s “sick-form.” These visits, furthermore, place the struggle over Willie’s spirit in juxtaposition with the intensifying war. 

In my contemplation of Willie’s death and the American Civil War happening in coincidence, I recognize a president’s duty, both to his family and the nation; and then I can’t help but weigh the difference between family and nation. Immediately, I recall a minor yet though-provoking scene from Mindhunter, a netflix exclusive set in the 1970s which explores the coining of the term serial killer during the infancy of research on criminal profiling and psychology. Over a beer, enthusiastic FBI agent Holden Ford (based on real-life agent John E. Douglas) and lecturer Peter Rathman try to make sense of the psychological unrest plaguing America, going so far as to question deviant behavior as it relates to childhood upbringing and parental guidance, a line of thinking in opposition with the prevailing notion among law enforcement that a criminal and motive could almost always be attributed with a straightforward profile: the jilted lover, the ex-business partner. Holden points out how crime has changed, almost as if in response to unprecedented events happening during America’s modern era: Kent State, Vietnam, Watergate. Rathman, on the same wavelength, interjects, “The democracy is vanishing into…what?” They shrug. They don’t know. Then the young protegé asks, “Is that what this is all about? Just a response to turmoil?” Rathman concludes, “the government used to be, symbolically, a parental institution…now it’s a free-for-all.” 

What if they were on to something? 

For me, the role of president has always extended past politics. Specifically, I hold the president accountable for having to counsel a nation during its darkest trials, for inspiring confidence during stretches of self-doubt, for being, at times, the last example of strength a young person has to emulate—even when a president faces the same, if not greater, magnitude of struggle as his people, that is what I expect. Mother or father, father or mother, the president is a parent in every sense of the word, bearing all responsibilities, all failures, all qualities which come with the venture. George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, for me, upholds this sentiment in its paralleling of a parent’s grief at his son’s premature death and the disparagement of a president tasked with assuaging a nation in the fever of war.

THE POET’S PARADOX: A REVIEW OF OF SILENCE AND SONG BY DAN BEACHY-QUICK

Milkweed Editions, 2017. 353 Pages. ISBN-13: 978-1571313621

by Sarah LaFleur

 

“The mind of Man is framed even like the breath

And harmony of music; there is a dark

Invisible workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, and makes them move

In one mystery, some song no one can sing

Because the song sings us.”

Of Silence and Song examines the power of language to make and un-make meaning. Dan Beachy-Quick considers how silence expresses itself in song and how song dissolves back into silence; essentially, the relationship between the infinite vastness of the un-said and the finite sweetness of the spoken word. While the two exist simultaneously, how they interact is a mystery, the quest for poets. The chasm between them only widens when the poet considers the silence his or her song both hails from or disappears into.

For a work that boldly declares its pursuit of the poet’s paradox with the title alone, I must admit I opened the first page with skepticism. Even if a writer is honest that his book is an examination of an eternal question, there is an assumption for an answer; or if not an answer, at least a testament worthy of attention, something my energies—which burn with the same pressing curiosity—can hold onto. Beachy-Quick articulates his task and confirms my assumptions early, on page 7:

 I want to ask a question about silence.

         *

The answer is in the disappearance of the question.

From the beginning, Beachy-Quick offers warning and invitation, smoke that disguises as much as it signals: language cannot traverse itself and yet language is midwife to the un-said. Answers actualize only when the seeker forgets the question.

If the question to know what cannot be said must disappear to understand the answer, why not stop reading on page 7?

The realist in me scoffed but the poet stirred.

The mind of Man is framed even like the breath
And harmony of music

Life thrives between the tensions of what can never be fully reconciled, and Beachy-Quick’s 353-page memoir celebrates the chasm between dichotomous forces like silence and song, un-known and known, infinite and finite as he shouts with different voices across the divide: poet, father, scholar, husband, teacher. Beachy-Quick dances between poetry and prose, short musing and stalwart essay, Greek myth and personal memory so smoothly that the reader cannot help but be swept up by his spell-binding circles. His generous sprinkling of excerpts and quotes from writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Keats, and Dickinson only deepens the work’s rosy, dream-like effect; it’s nearly impossible to not go starry-eyed over the rich breadth of literature he covers in his consideration of the question about silence.

Beachy-Quick’s work possesses startling depth as much as it contains impressive breadth.

While several essays have a magnanimous character, interweaving Greek myth with historical event, or work of literature with personal memory, much of his work also takes on a distinctly personal tone more characteristic of Dan Beachy-Quick, the poet. “Confessions,” for example, offers ten short poems, or musings, on Beachy-Quick’s struggle to make sense of the question he poses at the start of Of Silence and Song. He writes:

Cannot wear light as a garment.

Cannot say the names that existed before the sun.

Cannot see my children as ears of corn patient for the reaping.

Cannot see my death as a fig ripe on the fig tree.

Cannot find the measuring reed.

Cannot build with darkness, water, wind, and the deep.

Cannot feel the toothache in another’s mouth, but I can sing another mouth’s song.

Not the cornerstone. Not the stone the builders cast away.

Not the burnt-offering. Not the meal-offering. Not the peace-offering.

Find the law of the comet precedent over the fact of the sun.

Beachy-Quick’s essays and poems are divided by asterisks and numbered sections that have the effect of reading like a set of prayers or contemplations. His question about silence unfolds in a circular rather than linear fashion, so that the reader can turn to any page and still be overcome by the sweetness of Beachy-Quick’s song, the nature of which is the scope of this book. In this sense, what struck me as most powerful about Beachy-Quick’s work was his ability to thrust me into the dilemma of song and silence that he lays on the page at the beginning of the book. I found myself repeatedly in a state of re-reading his words, savoring his luminous descriptions while thirsting for more, but then needing to put the book down and think. But not quite think. Maybe consider. Or contemplate. Pray, perhaps, if prayer is a state of believing God to be the silence in myself that words humble me to and yet fall short of completely reaching for.

Beachy-Quick demonstrates the exquisite power of words to un-veil meaning and the powerlessness language reduces us to as we are led in our dreamy stupor to a chilling (or exhilarating?) no-words land. “#68” reads,

Heidegger says: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” But how do you guard it while living inside it? is a question I often ask myself, thinking there in the hut of my thinking.

How can you guard what you inhabit?

Beachy-Quick muses further:

Somewhere, while I’m sitting in the hut thinking, that distracted field of blankness grows wild and extends just a little the ragged edge of the world. It labors for itself, as the tendril is a solar principle, and the flower a star’s distant delegate, when my labors break down, when all by itself the edifice of my pride comes apart — and if I can see the wild carrot and the amaranth only through the chink in a board, and if I find, having built my hut around me, that I forgot to add a door or even a window, and all this effort to be in the world has removed me from it, it’s a cost I’ll pay, this ostracism, to see through the knot in the board of pine a bee cast her vote by packing her legs with pollen.

A bee cast her vote by packing her legs with pollen.

A reader casts her vote by reading on, insisting on entering the same foolhardy hut to which Beachy-Quick retreats to only realize, upon closing the book, or closing her eyes, that language is a structure that can only house what it divides itself from: silence’s vastness, where wisdom circulates without mortal edges. Language can only shelter to the extent it segregates.

[A]ll this effort to be in the world has removed me from it

In this sense, Beachy-Quick answers the question he poses at the beginning of Of Silence and Song by humbling the reader to the silence his work both heralds from and resolves back into; while it may be impossible to make sense of silence and song’s inverse relationship, it’s the “cost I’ll pay” to be alive enough to consider the question.

Offbeat intimacies: A Review of Fleshgraphs by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Nightboat Books, 2016. 104 pgs. ISBN: 978-1-937658-54-0

by Reign Manzano

 

She wanted to make me scream, a screw-driver, a curling iron, three jars of preserves and a lighter. "This is how we love now." Electric grid my thighs.

Fleshgraphs, Brynne Rebele-Henry’s debut collection of prose poetry constructs a powerful mosaic of queer love, ravenous love, love in general; love which comprises shavings of abrasive sexual encounters, self-imposed savagery, offbeat intimacies, ruined innocence.

I use the word love, but I’m not sure if love is what Fleshgraphs intends to convey, considering its sardonic narration and often vicious explorations of the body—personal and interpersonal. It is lust that emits from much of the text. Rebele-Henry undercuts this sexual proclivity with vignettes that admit, “I flinch during needles and sex scenes.” At first, I wasn’t sure of what to make of this self-aware irony born out of the teenage writer's persistent depiction of sexual experimentation juxtaposed with the discomfort of seeing it on screen, done by other people. And then I considered how the rise of pornography could be warping the way our Internet generation views sex. Even Hollywood rarely gets it right. 

Her body washes in, a tangle of seaweed and her grandmother’s fake sapphires. He is disappointed about the way her body is shaped. ‘I thought she was a whale.’ We watch her arching her back, her eyes sand-coated magnifying glasses.

Fleshgraphs interprets burgeoning sexuality in the absence of good example and tries to resolve issues our parents might be too coy to address. As a result, Rebele-Henry’s rendering of culture today is paradoxical in nature; she continuously dares to subvert traditional and cultural norms. In one vignette the speaker imagines getting high before her wedding in order to see through “a stained window lens” and another poem notes, “She snorted the last of my coke then sang ‘The Star-spangled Banner.’” Rebele-Henry also writes unconventionally on childbirth:

The birth was a slick of fluids I never knew existed…My baby’s face looks like a burned cat and I don’t want to name this cartilage watermelon, this alien kitten…Instead I let it bite my torn nipples and sing lullabies in the language of my mother that I never bothered to know.

In the absence of a mother, a nurturing archetype, maturation becomes a procedure of trial and error, of hardship, and in the most extreme cases stagnation of self occurs. The prevalence of unfulfilling relationships in Fleshgraphs, moreover, intimates an unsatisfied desire for connection. Moreover, its characters seem to reject emotional intimacy, "The junkyard is a sleet of rusted metal, he tears his knee on the fence and asks for warm milk. I wrap the remnants of a couch around his mouth so he can’t speak."

But maybe it’s coddling which it refuses to entertain, especially since Fleshgraphs bears the load of a discussion on rape, mental health, and casual drug use. Brynne Rebele-Henry reveals how, in some instances, physical trauma is subordinate, paling in comparison to psychological trauma. Freckled across its darkly comic skin are blunt protrusions of people mutilating themselves; people treating symptoms instead of causes; people living in dysfunction.

In Rebele-Henry’s wrangling of confessional poetics, sex is mostly pitiful and violent; those who’ve been deprived of intimacy find intimacy with those who’ve also been deprived of intimacy, and conventional romance is treated with satire. We are reminded that the issue is no longer just sexual animosity between men and women, it’s also sexual animosity between women, between men—it’s sexual animosity between people.
 

The junkyard is a sleet of rusted metal, he tears his knee on the fence and asks for warm milk. I wrap the remnants of a couch around his mouth so he can’t speak.

Fleshgraphs boldly creates an uncut reality of a lonely, brutal culture, and explores with eyes wide open a sadistic notion of intimacy. Rebele-Henry writes, “She asked me to choke her, to make her orgasm better, twenty-five and her eyeballs tripping out of their mascara sockets. My hands a question and then a vise. Before her neck turned blue and snapped in my hands, a bird appeared on her chest.” Though at times I too felt as if I was being choked by this voice, I empathize—identify even—with Rebele-Henry’s confrontation of a societal landscape where a generation has been forced to lead itself.

She asked me to choke her, to make her orgasm better, twenty-five and her eyeballs tripping out of their mascara sockets. My hands a question and then a vise. Before her neck turned blue and snapped in my hands, a bird appeared on her chest.

During our Internet age, people have the freedom to curate their image, their profiles, so that they may let others see only their most attractive, civilized selves. Through evocative language, however, Rebele-Henry shares the shadow desires of the unconscious mind. In this manner, what is presented in Fleshgraphs is not contrived or filtered, it is genuine.

Fleshgraphs, above all, demonstrates a strikingly expressive command of language; it’s as if Rebele-Henry took a stroll down a melting pot city and surveyed people who were willing to recount their greatest, their darkest, their most crude exploits. What she ends up with is a multifaceted account of sexuality, which continually shifts between first-person and third-person; from she to he to Cherry to Baby Jones to Cookie Monster Rob; from lesbian to straight to curious to confused to undetermined to fuck it, here's everything—because Fleshgraphs can't be pared down; it's vignettes work in synergy. 

Brynne Rebele-Henry's body of work, then, is greater than the sum of its slices.

IN SEARCH OF FOG: A REVIEW OF THE BEAUTIFUL UNSEEN, BY KYLE BOELTE

COUNTERPOINT PRESS, 2015. 156 PGS. ISBN: 978-1-61902-458-8

by Patti Wahlberg

 

I stand atop the hill and survey the scene. I’m thirty years old. My childhood memories are fading. I’m hunting for remnants of eroding memories. I’m walking around the city in search of fog. I’m trying to figure out what I can see and what is obscured.

Fog as metaphor for the elusive workings of memory, fog as metaphor for remembering and forgetting; this is the canvas on which Kyle Boelte delicately paints The Beautiful Unseen. This haunting memoir documents Boelte’s struggle to come to terms with the suicide of his older brother Kris when they were both young teenagers growing up in Denver. Almost twenty years later, in soft, lyrical tones, Boelte begins a gentle exploration of the feelings he has suppressed, and the memories he has buried or lost since the tragic event.          

I’m walking around the city in search of fog. I’m trying to figure out what I can see and what is obscured.

The Beautiful Unseen is told in chapters that flutter between past and present. At the opening of the memoir, Boelte is living in San Francisco, obsessed with fog. Poring over maps of fog’s patterns in the San Francisco Bay, researching its history, he is compelled to explore its enigmatic ability to completely obscure, or suddenly reveal. He takes us over trails that wind up Twin Peaks, down to Ocean Beach, or through Golden Gate Park, on a literal journey through fog—the horizon, the ocean, the trees, the very path in front of us flickering in and out of perception. The literal journey parallels Boelte’s figurative journey through the fog of his brother’s death—the unanswered questions, the suppressed pain—some memories burn incandescent, others remain shrouded in the cool mist of the past.

One vividly striking chapter describes in detail a lucid memory of the day his brother hung himself:

You are in the basement and I am coming home. You are down there now and I am on the bus. You are moving boxes around the basement…Mom is at work and Dad is at work and you are in the basement…I am in front of the TV…you are in the basement.

The evocative repetition of “you are in the basement,” something the author knows in hindsight, conjures a horrific snapshot of a school boy eating snacks and watching TV, while his brother hangs from a rafter one story below. The use of present tense creates a gripping immediacy, and yet the author reminds us that memory is a slippery slope. “Where are you? I am thinking. You are in the basement but already you are a memory fading, photographs in boxes and binders, stories told over lunch.” Already the fog is obscuring.            

Later in the memoir, Boelte makes a trip home to Colorado, where he and his parents talk openly for the first time since his brother’s death. He leaves with a box of papers and memorabilia, and sifts through the fog of its contents in search of answers, a way to make sense of the seemingly senseless. What would compel a sixteen-year-old boy to tie a bed sheet to a basement rafter? Was it that Kris had gotten into trouble that day at school for dealing drugs? Did his adoption as an infant play a role? Could he have been harboring a deep-seated sense of having been abandoned? Or perhaps there was a genetic propensity towards depression or suicide. As Boelte continues his search, it becomes clearer that there is no one illuminating answer in the fog of why.           

In a passage earlier in the work, Boelte talks about the absurdity of the compulsion to videotape one’s entire life so as not to lose a single memory. He writes: “The more I watched the video, the more video there would be of me watching video…It was a scheme to capture potentially lost memories, but at the expense of living. Living requires some forgetting.” The Beautiful Unseen is ultimately a man’s journey to the realization that to live, one must let go. Like walking through the fog in San Francisco Bay, what is obscured, and what is revealed exist in tandem; they are part of the same story— what we cannot see still exists, it is simply hidden from view. 

It was a scheme to capture potentially lost memories, but at the expense of living. Living requires some forgetting.

Very near the end of the narrative there is a sense of approaching clarity as the author explores the chapter titled “Asphyxia” in the book Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigations of Death—Boelte’s attempt to embody the last moments of his brother’s life, and by embodying, finally “see.” The text describes in clinical detail what it is like to die by hanging. Pages of graphic photographs accompany the description. At the end of the chapter he quotes from the text: “‘Review of all relevant facts suggest that most hangings, whether accident or suicide, cause a gradual, subtle, painless death.’” In this moment, the reader senses a dark burden being lifted.

One of the last chapters consists of five blank pages, a strikingly inspired visual metaphor for Boelte’s acceptance of the fog that surrounds his brother’s death. There is a soothing hush as we turn the blank pages, a sense that the slate is clean. Boelte has at last found peace with the beautiful unseen. 

In the concluding chapter of The Beautiful Unseen, Kyle Boelte hikes up Eureka Peak in the fog with his girlfriend, who has stood by him through his fevered obsession with the workings of fog and memory. Standing in the opaque mist, Boelte makes a conscious decision to let go of the past, both the forgotten and the remembered, and step into the clarity of the here and now. 

I have seen enough. I have stood directly in the wind. I have faced the fog straight on, been enveloped by it, felt its magnificent embrace…This is enough, I think. This peak. This moment.

A Battle with Memory: A Review of Sweeping Changes by Mara Lynn Johnstone

REALITY COLLISION PUBLISHING (BOOKBABY), 2015. 196 PGS. ISBN: 9781943612017

by Odin Halvorson

 

An old man wakes up one day with no memory of his life, and the unshakable feeling that he is not who he is supposed to be. Mara Lynn Johnstone’s fantasy novel Sweeping Changes opens with this sense of mystery. Self-published through her own Reality Collision Publishing imprint, Johnstone’s excellent novel rises above the stigma often attached to self-published books.

Sweeping Changes takes place in Wayralia which recently transitioned from a monarchy to a democratic state. While Wayralia is at the brink of war with aggressive and powerful neighboring countries, an epidemic of memory loss sweeps the nation turning half the country’s leadership senile. Hope seems to rest on the shoulders of one old man, Hess, whose physical prowess and other abilities set him apart from his fellow citizens. Hess is a seemingly simple street sweeper who also experiences this sudden amnesia. As he frantically searches for clues to his identity, aided by his talking and snarky reflection, he inadvertently uncovers plots that could place Wayralia beneath a dark and oppressive regime. The main action revolves around Hess as he struggles to recover his memory and expose the threat to Wayralia.

At times the action in the novel unfolds too quickly, driven largely by the protagonist’s incredible displays of prowess. Relying on a hero who is so obviously competent is a risky choice as the reader might become frustrated with how easily the protagonist deals with trials and tribulations. However, Johnstone’s protagonist manages to be endearing in a way that shifts attention away from his extraordinary abilities, and as the mystery of those abilities unfolds, his entire role in the story transforms in such a way that his abilities become grounded within the internal laws of the book’s universe.

Also, there are points where Johnstone favors action in place of scenic description, choosing to move the plot forward in the most expedient manner possible, often at the cost of building the setting. However, the novel’s steady plot is seeded with consistent tidbits about the larger surrounding world, just enough so that the reader can render a crisp image of the landscape for themselves. 

Ultimately, Sweeping Changes creates a sense of modern fairy tale magic. Like all fairytales, dark themes are explored, yet themes of home and goodness are ever-present, especially as embodied by Hess. The old street sweeper is mysterious, but his internal psyche is one of moral fortitude and his intellect is plied solely in the service of the greatest good. As the mystery surrounding him is slowly unveiled, his role as a force for good is always present and powerful. I found myself rooting for Hess in a way that was at once surprising and familiar. Sweeping Changes enlivens and enlightens the reader’s inner child, and yet themes of identity loss appeal to the reader’s more mature sensibilities.

Sweeping Changes is a fast-paced wonder of a fantasy novel that builds an original and intriguing world. I can only hope Mara Lynn Johnstone will return to the world of Wayralia, and one day even bring it to a wider audience. 

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.