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.

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

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

by Reign Manzano

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Patti Wahlberg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Odin Halvorson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Brittany Long

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Anita Olivia Koester

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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