The Art of One MC and One DJ : Marlowe : An Album Review


by Mat Clouser


For more than forty years Hip Hop and Rap music have driven art and culture on a global scale, yet rarely are they given their propers alongside artists in other genres. There have been some critical darlings to get play in the high-end art world, such as DJ Spooky or Saul Williams (oh yeah, and that Kendrick guy got a Pulitzer in 2018), but by and large Hip Hop is Hip Hop on its own terms, redefining what art can be from the margins. Hip Hop has always been an outsider. Its success has always been in spite of, and directly in the face of the establishment (not to mention the academy), and it has persevered despite the constant racial discrimination, economic abandonment and straight-up plot to destroy many of its creators. 

Yet, not only does Hip Hop endure—it presses forward. One of the main reasons for this is Hip Hop’s post-modern sensibility—the crate diggers endlessly chopping, looping and mixing so many different heard and unheard sounds from the past and present, across time and space, into something brand new, something bigger. In the past, it’s been said by many a stodgy critic that “Rap is Crap,” that it shouldn’t be considered real music since nobody’s playing any real instruments. Not many remain who would decry the musicianship inherent to turntablism, and most of the old (predominantly white) critics of this new-style have either wised up, croaked, or taken Q-Tip’s advice and pushed it along back to whatever cave they crawled out of in the first place.  Hip-Hop is a classic built from other classics, and despite many of its problems (real and perceived), Hip Hop is an inclusive form more so than an exclusive one. Everybody can get down. 

At the forefront of this is the cumulative power of words and music—the most essential pieces of a rap record—are beats and rhymes. Each have an energy all their own, but when combined, they activate a super-powered sound greater than its component pieces—and one that endures as an evocative, highly danceable narrative vehicle, as well. Old heads Pete Rock and Mad Skillz knew the power of one MC and one DJ, and so do L’Orange and Solemn Brigham—the duo who’ve combined their supersonic powers to create the sample-heavy, old-school leaning, post-modern narrative-boom bap that is their new project, Marlowe.

The album has an anachronistic feel to it thanks to a slew of L’Orange samples, deftly interwoven to create a tenebrous texture that helps propel the story. And its main character—the mysterious Marlowe—goes through the ups and downs of an artist, writer, even sometime hustler who feels the consequences of taking action in a world that is not built for everyone, especially himself. It’s hard to listen to Marlowe and not contemplate all that may or may not be in a name. The story has an almost Faustian vibe, and one wonders if the Marlowe in question might be Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus. The noir stylings of Raymond Chandler’s character, Phillip Marlowe, also come to mind, as does hustler extraordinaire, Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. L’Orange and Brigham have not gone so far as to explicitly state if any of those Marlo(we)s are what they had in mind, saying only that it was a character they wanted to use to tell a story. But more than any direct titular influence, Marlowe’s story is Hip Hop’s story, and the story of real and potential Hip Hoppers everywhere. It’s a human story of dedication, temptation, perseverance and loss. 

It’s all well and good to tell a story, of course, but in good music there has to be more substance than that.  As MC Shan once taught us, by way of Duke Ellington, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”  And so it goes with Marlowe. The beats are true to form for L’Orange, whose works with other MCs such as Kool Keith, Mr. Lif and Jerimiah Jae have earned him a reputation amongst crate diggers, producers and Hip Hop fans across generations. Marlowe’s production feels at home with most styles, featuring a mix of fuzzed out, tremolo soaked, electric jazz guitars, jaunty piano lines, epic horn breaks, abstracted backing vocals and bass and percussion both tight and loose as the story demands. The beats are a lesson in Music, Pop Culture and Hip Hop History, with L’Orange sampling everything from Marvel’s Mole Man to John Cacava’s “Agent Who.” The result feels like a straight line to the production of such luminaries as J-Swift, J-Dilla, Madlib, RZA, MF Grimm, DOOM and Count Bass-D among others. It’s safe to assume that any fans of the so-called golden era of Hip-Hop will feel right at home here—and there’s enough head nods for a dude like Busta Rhymes to get his neck into some real trouble.

Solemn Brigham, a heretofore little-known MC and longtime friend of L’Orange, is not here for any talk of nepotism. He’s not along for the ride, in fact, he’s downright despotic on tracks like “Demonstration,” “Medicated,” “Palm Readers,” and “Mayday,” among others. His style is both varied and consistently strong throughout, always harkening back to that golden-era vibe, though there are glimpses old-Kanye-esque flows and the occasional dabble into a more sing-song style. Brigham isn’t going to weigh you down with attempts to be overly verbose, nor will he kill you with too much attempted wit, and certainly not in any attempt to shock or belittle with vulgarity. There is no overt swag here, no weaponized sex or status. Take for example these lines from first verse of “Lost Arts:”

Revolution is knockin'
Resolution is knowledge
Get yo hand out my pocket
No weapon made can conquer my inner pain
I started my evolution of rhymin', persecuted, indicted
They instituted the violence that started my defiance
Give no respect or alliance
Less men get rich than ones who die tryin'
Less making commitments, dollars have no pious
Show you how to move in a den full of lions
If the dinner ain't cookin' you gotta know where to find it
Even if you paint pretty, you can't change the climate of my inner sanctum
My hard work is thankless, bold print the statement
I could show you somethin' that's suited for all ages
Back when I used to hide the heist in crawlspaces…

The rhymes are tightly crafted, in lock step with the beat, always moving the story ahead. There are no verbal fireworks here, per se, so much as an uncanny workmanship that might go overlooked on the first listen. If ever you need to explain what it is to ride a beat, then Brigham’s work on Marlowe would do nicely to show and prove. Solemn Brigham can flat out bust a flow.

It may never be that Brigham and L’Orange start booking gallery shows or start selling out museums. One imagines they’re okay with that—more to the point, it’s not the point of what they do—they’re content to be making music in the lab somewhere, content to put it out and watch other people bob their heads. Art is rarely defined by the critics so much as it is by the artists and their audience. Hip Hop has been telling us this story for its whole life. Hip Hop is a medium that touches on so much more than its five elements—Bboying, MCijng, DJing, Graffiti and Beatboxing—it’s a medium that can unite all kinds of people through a recontextualization of sounds that we’ve known before, through ideas that come from us all. Hip Hop can build a bigger love from all our smaller loves. Hip Hop is, and is about, triumph. Brigham and L’Orange understand this, it’s why they go to the lengths they do for their music, why they spend hours poring over samples and perfecting flawless sixteens instead of mashing synths and crooning auto-tune (though that too can slap). It’s why the success of an artist or an art form isn’t built from mainstream acceptance, nor should mainstream, establishment or academic acceptance be the primary goal of any artist.  Marlowe is a record that belongs to outsiders all over the world, and it’s a gift from L’Orange and Solemn Brigham. It’s their energy, their art. It’s dope. Enjoy it. 

A Heroic Ode to Life Observed: A Review of The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

Algonquin Books. 280 pages. ISBN: 978-1616207922

By China Myers


Just like the title, I expected to find ‘delightful’ musings of life - and I did, but with effortless injections of humor and devilish candor, Ross Gay delivered charming meaning to simple things.

Reading each entry almost feels naughty, like stumbling across someone’s private journal and encountering their very own rendering. Rummaging through these short stories - one by one – it’s easy to be intrigued, noticing the timestamp date of each occurrence, and folding down the tops of pages for future reference. It is hard to pick a favorite, for the stories are as varied as his life with moments of sadness, deep reflection, and others that are light, childlike or filled with comic relief.

A heroic ode to his life observed, digested and delivered into a non-fiction telltale - The Book of Delights piques our interest and shares how Gay finds some oddities delightful and how we might decide to exercise our right to find delight in the ordinary.

Gay explains the awkwardness of male bonding with an airport security employee during a lengthy security check. “I told him I was going to read poems in Syracuse, which made him look up from his work, which he was kneeling to do, and he said, enthusiastically… “You must be good at that if they fly you around to do it?”

Smiling and feeling a bit more vindicated after a groping session, Gay is finally released to collect his belongings and hears a ‘delightful’ detail. “I never believed in it myself, but I know some people do, he said, dismissing me at last, and I laughed and nodded, overhearing him say to one of his colleagues as I jogged toward my gate, “Hey, Mike, that guy’s being flown to Syracuse to read palms!”  Through a comical view, Gay spins an irksome experience into a laughing matter as the guard mistakes him ‘reading poems’ for ‘reading palms’. Such a delight!

Gay has a flair for frolicking with the intimate glimpses of his life.

The Book of Delights does a grand job in amusing us. Gay has a flair for frolicking with the intimate glimpses of his life; anything and everything from his childhood to nature, tossing and mimicking all things from his years of living. He pokes fun at the civility of man, the ignorance of our society and the innocence of life itself.

“ look at the moonless black night being pierced by fireflies, or lightning bugs...I can feel my small hand in my dad’s big hand, mesmerized by this show, which I don’t think I knew was made by bugs. There is some profound lyric lesson in witnessing an unfathomably beautiful event in the dark night, an event illegible except for its unfathomable beauty while leaning your head into your father’s hip…”

Not afraid to bare his heart or soul with the bits of information that reflect the credo of a modern urban man alive with concepts of childhood atrocities, societal barriers, parenting flaws, the sad imprint of human loss, the joys of music, or the adventures of a tall man’s search for a New York City restroom - Gay makes you wince and smile.

. . . the tops of porta-potties have screens that you can look out of, which I did, like I was in a confessional, like I was a priest, watching the parishioners walk by as the noon bells to the nearby church started to ring.”

“...I was in Greenwich Village, again well hydrated, but this time from coffee, without a bathroom, and asked the barista where he might urinate if he couldn’t pee in the place where he just spent four and a half bucks for a short fucking Americano, he pointed to the park across the street, which had a porta-potty….the tops of porta-potties have screens that you can look out of, which I did, like I was in a confessional, like I was a priest, watching the parishioners walk by as the noon bells to the nearby church started to ring.” And there in the Big Apple, a city of endless possibilities, Gay shows us that there is a ‘lavatorial deprivation’ for those pesky human necessities.

With similar delight, Gay takes aim again on the subject matter of the functioning body temple and reminds us of an interesting geek fact long forgotten from the days of high school chemistry class, as he collects his ‘golden elixir’ for his garden. “I was peeing into the bottle so that I could discreetly pour it into my watering can to give my garden plants a shot of nitrogen, which the pee has in abundance.”

Some things funny, some things sweet, some things unusual, but in all of Gay’s entries, he is finding the inner child of his delight, and that alone makes it an intimate portrayal of his life. The Book of Delights is not typical - not the run of the mill essay explosion of thoughts - but it is indeed a great way to feel connected to the simplicities of how so many experiences can equate to a delightful memory. Thanks, Ross Gay for deciding to compile your life notes and give us a moment to reflect on your many treasured delights.

At the End of Love: A Review of Bridled, by Amy Meng

PLEIADES PRESS, 2018. 61 PGS. ISBN: 978-0-8071-6889-9

by M. A. Vizsolyi


If you happen to be walking down an old familiar street in an old familiar town, maybe a town that you’d left a long time ago, and you happen to hear a song coming from inside of a café, a song that you once danced to with a love long gone, I want you to recognize that feeling that takes hold in your chest, the “long solitude of your body,” which brings with it a memory of great joys and great pain. That is the feeling of reading the poems in Meng’s debut collection, Bridled.

How could one love so deeply and then stop loving all together? What am I without that love? These seem to be the central questions of the collection of poems—poems which demonstrate great formal diversity while exhibiting an awareness of the potential power of the lyric. Meng begins the collection by establishing the hope the speaker had for love:

I wanted love to be an end

to the days, which I kept
walking through door after door.

Though a love like that can feel all encompassing, it’s the small actions and objects we share with another that are the most difficult to bear when that other has gone, and Meng’s naming of the particulars surrounding the speaker’s experience with the lover allows the reader to feel the weight they bear:

Our mailbox with its tiny key. Your hand rising
to the low archway, unthinking. White noise
machine playing rain over rain
and warm thunder as humidity flattened us
into damp sleep. Beers ringed our shelves and outside:
bodegas lousy with swimming noodles
and steel wool.

Happening upon nouns in Meng’s poems is like playing musical chairs with the objects that make up her universe of the everyday.

Happening upon nouns in Meng’s poems is like playing musical chairs with the objects that make up her universe of the everyday. In this short excerpt we can see many of the musical and stylistic qualities that Meng employs throughout the book. Notice the sounds of “tiny key” with their lone ee sounds, mirroring the sound of the keys themselves. Notice, too, how Meng’s sentences often begin on strong nouns that set the tone and scene of the lines to follow. Finally, Meng’s use of conjunctions and connectors here create both a musical rhythm and a tonal pacing. I expect many of the salient features of Meng’s poetry to only get better as her career continues.

More than just the objects the speaker associates with her lover are the sounds that accompanied the lover’s presence, such as the “white noise/ machine playing…” and the “warm thunder….” These sounds, typically associated with relaxation and safety, will begin to evolve in tone and severity throughout the collection. The soothing sound of the white noise machine later becomes the awful sound of glass breaking. “I could hammer and open and shatter/ glasses in without much changing,” she says. And, while the sound of thunder returns, it has become a sinister reminder of the lover’s former presence: “I heard you like thunder/ sounding between the channels of sleep.” And isn’t this the way love goes after all? Taking with it all of the bits of language and sound that brought joy, twisting into something melancholic and painful to recall.

“In the backroom of my mind/ a little movie I dim but can’t shut off.”

The speaker in Meng’s poems understands, however, that one cannot simply run away or escape from memory and trauma. Though one can push them away for a while, one must confront those things in all of their painful particulars. “In the backroom of my mind/ a little movie I dim but can’t shut off.” The book, then, becomes Meng’s screening of that “little movie” for the reader, who happily sits and watches like a voyeur of home movies. The goal, ultimately, of spinning the reels of her past seems to be to reclaim those scenes—to both rob of them a particular power of her and provide them with a new kind of power—one willed by the speaker, herself.

And you might be asking yourself whether you would want to follow the speaker in Meng’s poems down the painful road of memory, where

Each night at the loom
she picks apart the shroud gown
soft as milkweed.
All around behind shut doors
the men’s faces
look like boys’ catching
in the snare of sleep.

You do. Because at the end of it all, for Meng and hopefully for all of us, there is a lesson—a lesson made more beautiful by the painful experiences which informed its material, a lesson about who we are when looking at the face of love and who we are when looking away. These are poems that generously reveal in order to help us see our own true selves. For Meng, “a woman finds her true self/ only at the end of love.”

A Review of Little Fires Everywhere by Anita van de Ven

Penguin Press. 336 pages. ISBN 978-0-7352-2429-2

By Anita van de Ven

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, has been highly acclaimed, quickly becoming a New York Times Bestseller, for very good reason. Ng’s prose is impressive, visually tantalizing and imaginative, and her ability to weave a multitude of story lines together, masterful.

The story takes place in Shaker Heights, where the author herself grew up, a progressive and well-to-do suburb of Cleveland that was built in 1912 as one of the first planned communities in the nation. It describes in incredible, rich detail the lives of two very different types of families and the way each of their lives become intimately intertwined, impacting deeply on one another until the relationships become impossible to sustain.

On the one hand, there is the Richardson family, which consists of mother, father and four teenage children. Mrs. Richardson grew up in Shaker Heights, an orderly neighborhood designed for “the good life” where everything has its place and everyone knows the rules to abide by. She meets her husband at college, and upon graduation, returns to Shaker Heights to raise her family in exactly the matter she had planned. Mrs. Richardson has a strong, albeit rigid, sense of right and wrong, and is respected within her community. She holds the deep belief that everything in life is manageable, as long as it is properly planned for. She is proud of her children, Trip, Moody, and Lexie, who are popular and intelligent (as well as entitled and selfish at times) and well on their way to respected colleges. Her youngest daughter Isabel is the rebel of the family, constantly challenging the status quo, and is therefore a thorn in her mother’s side. On the other hand, there is Mia, an artist and single mother to teenage daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl have moved from place to place in Mia’s tiny beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit for the majority of Pearl’s life, never living anywhere for longer than a few months, and never owning much more than the clothes on their backs - - and Mia’s art supplies.

Pearl doesn’t question their lifestyle and accepts this as the way it has to be, since she and her mother live in service of Mia’s art: as soon as her mother is finished with a piece, they need to move once again so that she can be inspired to create her next artwork. Now that Pearl is fifteen, the moving has started weighing on the both of them, and Mia decides that it’s time to settle down for a while and let her daughter grow some roots. They rent the upstairs of a small duplex on the fringes of Shaker Heights, owned by the Richardson family. Mrs. Richardson sees the rental as a form of charity and, ever confident in her generous character, perpetuates the power dynamic by insisting Mia take a job cleaning her family home as well as cook a few dinners a week. By this time, her daughter has started becoming infatuated with the Richardson family, so different from her own, spending more and more time at their house. Mia decides to take the job not only for its steady income but to keep an eye on this family which seems to be adopting her daughter.

Pearl is the same age as Moody, the Richardson’s middle son, and they quickly become close friends, Pearl enjoying her time at his house, watching television with her newly adopted siblings, something she hasn’t before experienced in her life. Interestingly, as Pearl starts spending more and more time at the Richardson’s house, Isabel, the youngest Richardson’s daughter, finds a home at the little rental house with Mia. Each day after school she walks to Mia’s house to help her make art, while Pearl watches television with her siblings. Both girls adopt the kind of family home they have always longed for: for Pearl, one of stability, and for Izzy, one that encourages creativity, intimate conversation, as well as the courage to stand up for what you believe in. There are crushes, virginities lost, and lots of secrets, the reader swiftly becoming invested in each and every character of the book.

The book suddenly takes an interesting turn when Mrs. Richardson’s oldest friend, who has tried and failed for many years to have children with her husband, announces that she and her husband have adopted a Chinese baby. It appears that Mia knows something about this particular child, and sets in motion a major disruption to the order that the neighborhood is so accustomed to, not to mention the lives of the newly adoptive parents. We learn the real reason why Mia has moved so much, why Pearl has never known her father, and the many flaws that are exposed within the Richardson family, such as those of the seemingly perfect mother and her daughter Lexie who she has always put on a pedestal (often as leverage against her youngest daughter Izzy, whom she has a tendency to criticize).

For the rest of her life Mia would wonder what her life would have been like if she had not gone to the restaurant that day. At the time it seemed like a lark: just a way to satisfy her curiosity, and get a nice meal in the bargain. Later, of course, she would realize it had changed everything forever.

Little Fires Everywhere is a delightful and moving exploration of humanity and family dynamics, of the flaws we all have, the motives for the things we do and how the decisions we make impact on others, both intentionally and unintentionally. The book is also about the pulls and responsibilities of motherhood, and each mother’s wildly different interpretations of what falls within her maternal responsibilities, as well as the profound complications of multi-culturalism.

The ending of the book was surprising, not through shock value but more in the way that a wonderful summer’s day event is concluded with a surprise show of fireworks, endlessly rich in color and surprising in shape, leaving the reader slack-jawed and in awe of Ng’s mastery of language. But it wasn’t just the literary marvels that moved me as the reader, it was the tenderness that Mia’s character held for the Richardson family, regardless of all that happened, not in the least the fact that the families had to go their separate ways. She shows this tenderness and gratitude in the best and only way she can, by creating an individual portrait for each family member of the Richardson family, left on the kitchen table in the rented apartment that she and her daughter have left for good.

“There was each of them. Mia had stacked them neatly inside: half portraits, half wishes, caught on paper. Each of the Richardsons, as Mrs. Richardson carefully laid out the photos out on the table in a line, knew which was meant for them, recognized it instantly, as they might have recognized their own faces. To the others it was just another photo, but to them it was unbearably intimate, like catching a glimpse of your own naked body in a mirror.”

Ng’s language is so rich in its description, the art coming alive in my imagination, which was deeply enjoyable. Little Fires Everywhere was a joy to read.

A flock of miniature origami birds taking flight, the largest the size of an open palm, the smallest the size of a fingernail, all faintly striped with notepaper lines. Moody recognized them at once, even before he saw the faint crinkles that textured each one: the pages from Pearl’s little notebook, which he had given her and then taken back, which he had destroyed and crumpled and thrown away. Although Mia had flattened the pages, the wrinkles still rippled across the birds’ wings as if the wind was ruffling their feathers. The birds lay over a photograph of sky like a scattering of petals, soaring away from a pebbled leather ground toward higher and better things. You will, too, Mia had thought as she set the birds one by one up in their paper sky.

Power Within Adversity: A Review of Biddy Mason Speaks Up by Arisa White and Laura Atkins

Heydey. 105 pages. ISBN-13:978-1-59714-403-2

By China Myers

Biddy Mason Speaks Up strikes a balance between vibrant storytelling and harsh historical depiction as it reflects on the cultural and social conditions of mid-1800s slavery era in America. A captivating children’s book, Biddy Mason Speaks Up presents an account of history that is inspirational, sorrowful, and educational. History is not always easy to digest, but understanding the good and the bad is the basis of truth. Authors Arisa White and Laura Atkins bring the reader into the thorny past to witness moments in time where Biddy Mason, a young slave girl, experiences first-hand loss, separation, sorrow and the many elements of an enslaved life, all while holding dear to her inspirational upbringing.

On a cool Sunday morning, seven-year-old Biddy and Granny Ellen tread carefully through the woods. “See those oval-shaped leaves?” Granny points. Biddy rubs the slippery leaves through her fingers.

“We use plantain to make a salve for cuts and slashes we get from work in the fields,” Granny says. She has taken care of Biddy since she was sold away from her mother as a baby.


In the first few sentences of the book, White and Atkins firmly deliver the full spectrum of distressing circumstances: seven-year-old Biddy begins life without her mother and learns from her Granny how to harvest plants for medicine due to stressful work conditions. Yet there is a delicate line of hope embedded in this glimpse into the nurturing relationship between Biddy and her Granny. Coupled with the use of colorful illustrations, this story captures and maintains the reader’s interest. Overall, Biddy Mason Speaks Up is an excellent read for families who want to introduce the history of slavery in the United States to their young children.

The story is masterfully crafted with a rich context of element such as personal strife, social context, and the political climate of the mid-1800s. Woven within each chapter are the micro stories of various people who were intricately connected to Biddy and endured similar misfortune. Readers will be captivated with each fascinating picture of Biddy, and empathize with her struggles and triumphs through each stop of her life.

The book masterfully tells a difficult story by giving the right dose of reality and sharing the intimate feelings of Biddy Mason. Throughout the story, we see traces of Granny’s wisdom and how it impacts and builds an enduring strength within her granddaughter Biddy, despite their status.

“Nature is like an open hand. It gives in abundance,” Granny explains.

We watch Biddy grow up with gripping lessons and enduring love from her Granny; she flourishes into a young woman who demonstrates the same great affection to many others. We feel the family foundation being torn away as we follow along and relive the time when Biddy and her young children are taken away from her Granny.

“It is like someone dies when Biddy and her two daughters are taken from Granny Ellen and the only family she’s known. Granny’s wails follow Biddy…”

This devastating separation is never reunited and the safe haven of Granny’s connection is forever lost. Biddy never forgets her love and often thinks of her Granny, but lives by her example each day. Biddy grows friendships and pours her lessons of healing and love into her own two daughters. Her new placement is a smaller home with a sickly woman who most likely chose Biddy because of her healing skills. Biddy and her family find themselves traveling West by foot to a new home.

“Biddy walks around the shrubs and encounters a Potawatomi woman digging up roots.

They speak through plants - with gestures and signs, with their open hands.

“Wapsepenik,” she says, and shows Biddy the roots and tells her to pound them into a pulp to heal the sores on her feet.”

As time passes, Biddy learns invaluable information about her rights from another slave woman who hears that both of their families may be moving to California – a free state.

“She wonders, Could this be the path to a free life for me and my girls?”

Once in California, Biddy is owned by the Smith Family along with her daughters and another family.

“For now, the freedom Biddy can give her daughters is a walk in the woodlands to pick juniper berries alongside the Santa Ana River.

Smith is still keeping them enslaved. Their labor makes him a successful cattle rancher.”

Biddy finds a connection to a few families who look just like her, but differ in the fact that they are free. One such family who purchased their freedom papers works with Biddy to help actualize her dreams. Her final quest for a life of independence is not easy -- the Smith family decides it would be best to leave California and move to Texas where slavery is legal. Biddy struggles to find a way out, but with help from friends, she brings her case to California court, where her case is recognized by an unbiased judge. In 1856, after a private deliberations between the Smiths and Biddy, Judge Benjamin Hayes grants in favor of Biddy and her entire family for freedom.

This touching story reads like a documentary, detailing harrowing experiences of people that were taken from their homeland of Africa, treated inhumanely and thrust into an unfair life of free labor, abuse, and family separation. It also shows the resilience and the bond developed between many enslaved people toward the youth, the elderly, and the needy. The word ‘family’ was a bond extending beyond blood relations; it resonated on a deeper level, one that united the many souls who needed each other. This family bond was greater than kinship and through it, many people found peace.

“After Judge Haye’s ruling Biddy immediately began working for herself as a midwife and nurse.

For her work, Biddy is now paid in cash, in vegetables or chickens. She saves every cent earned for the home she’ll call her own someday.”

As Biddy adjusts to a life of freedom, the reader watches Biddy’s strength and courage flourish. Biddy enjoys her new life as she works and buys two plots of land in Los Angeles. She becomes one of the first women to own property in Los Angeles and later goes on to be one of the wealthiest people in the city. She remains loyal to her lessons of love and healing from Granny – Biddy always extend an open heart. 


A work that possesses undertones of inspiration that finally bloom into empowerment and freedom, Biddy Mason Speaks Up is a great read for all ages. By reading the true story of Biddy, the reader can learn how great people overcome adversity and how this resilience showers goodness upon future generations.

A Review of I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Brynne Rebele-Henry

HarperCollins. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-231978-4

By Brynne Rebelle-Henry

“That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom. For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I’d retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities.”

Michelle McNamara was the one who came up with the name, Golden State Killer, for the serial killer who, for a decade, stalked middle class neighborhoods in California, sexually assaulting 50 victims and murdering 12. Before, he had been known by detectives working the case as the Night Stalker—slipping in and out of suburban homes, disabling their security alarms, the trail immediately running cold. These cases were relatively obscure until McNamara started covering them in her true crime website. Over the years she worked closely with officials and families involved with the case in an attempt to find the killer. In the end, she never saw her search fulfilled, as she passed away before finishing the book. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published posthumously; the manuscript was put together by her husband and those close to her and the case. The Golden State Killer was caught shortly after the book’s release.

McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark is a rare creation—at once, a true crime account, a mystery, and a searing look into the reality of unsolved murder cases in the justice system. But it is also a beautifully written and often funny memoir of one woman’s attempt to reconcile her life’s pursuit of darkness. In one especially personal chapter, she writes of the murder of her childhood neighbor, which inspired her to become a true crime writer.

At times, reading this, I wondered if McNamara felt she was writing a ghost story. The book does, in a way, read like a requiem both for the victims and for those haunted by these crimes, the detectives, the families of the victims and McNamara herself, spending her nights feverishly working in her daughter’s nursery. Her brilliance lies in the hushed urgency of her prose, her innovative research, and her uncanny ability to recapture and encapsulate the crime scenes 30-something years later, breathing life back into the stories of those who are gone. She gives a dimension to the victims, refusing to simply capture them in the manner of most victims of violent crimes, who are reduced to casualties or faceless statistics.

She writes about their lives, their sadness, their homes, the things they tried to be, and the things they weren’t, with a clear-eyed humanity. In her account of one of the murders, she preserves a moment between a fighting mother and daughter.

“What Debbi Domingo remembers the most about the last time she talked with her mother, Cheri, is that they didn’t talk. They screamed. It was Sunday, July 26, 1981, high summer in Santa Barbara. The coastal fog, with its smell of damp eucalyptus, was gone. The Pacific Ocean was warming up, an inviting churn of whitecaps making its way toward soft sand and an endless line of hundred foot palm trees.”

Perhaps the most striking part of this book is the beauty and grace of her writing, even while confronted with the violent acts of the killer she spent years searching for.

“He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight’s blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why?”

In the final chapter of the book, “Letter To An Old Man,” a letter to the killer she wrote in case she failed to catch him in her lifetime, she writes, “Blindfolded, the victims relied on smell and hearing. Floral talcum powder. Hint of cinnamon. Chimes on a curtain rod. Zipper opening on a duffel bag. Coins falling to the floor. A whimper, a sob. ‘Oh, Mom.’ A glimpse of royal blue brushed-leather tennis shoes. The barking of dogs fading away in a westerly direction. You were what you left behind: a four-inch vertical cut window screen at the ranch house on Montclair, in San Ramon. A green-handled hatchet on the hedges. A piece of cord hanging in a birch tree.”

The book ends with McNamara’s letter urging the killer to come forward.

“You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”

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.


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

By Chris May


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?”


“Daniel Oliver?”


“Daniel and Catherine Oliver.”

“Yeah. What of it?”

“What’s your Daddy’s surname?”



“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 , 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 the 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 the disadvantages she faces 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. Disassociation is pervasive even during communal celebration, and we are made aware of the limitations of both self and society: 

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. “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 our 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.


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

By Robert Hunsberger


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.


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.


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


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. 


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.