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Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: A Bad Penny Review

13 Oct

This past weekend I had the joy of reading in Athens with some folks at one of my top-five all-time favorite bookstores: Avid Bookshop. Janet Geddis and her team do a really wonderful job of carrying a varied and wallet-emptying selection of tomes. Mainstream stuff, graphic novels and oodles of small press and poetry titles. It’s here that I finally came across a copy of A Bad Penny Review, which also hails from Athens and is a total beauty to behold. The anthology is printed by Double Dutch Press, who does a really wonderful job on all-things-aesthetic: the type layout, print quality, paper choice and ink are all gorgeous. And since the collection itself is unbound, I have every intention of framing every page and displaying them proudly about my home – because these works aren’t just good literature, they’re art. I snapped this picture when I was reading and drinking my morning coffee on the front porch of our AirBNB – the makings of a completely dreamy morning. A Bad Penny Review

This piece was done by Claire Stephens and really made me swoon. The pacing of the whole thing is brilliant too – this specific piece was quickly followed by some pretty lustful counterpoints by Terri Witek, and the stark contrast in tone between them was provocative and jarring. Also of note? A diagram sentence poem by Amanda Dorsett titled, Sex Dream With Five Words, that tugged at my grammar-loving heart just as much as it did my love-loving heart. The whole thing is mesmerizing, I don’t want to rob you of the thrill of actually reading it yourself by giving you a blow-by-blow account. Just know that if you see a copy of A Bad Penny Review on a bookstore, you should go ahead and do yourself a favor and buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Range of Motion by Meagan Cass

10 Oct

rangeofmotion_cover

Meagan Cass’ chapbook, Range of Motion, is filled with quiet moments of indecision, small pains, and good but misguided intentions. The characters peopling her stories are trying, really trying to do right by the other people in their families—indeed, Lindsey Hauck’s review on The Collagist says as much—but there remains an undercurrent of fate. The world is working against these people.

Rooted in realism with a touch of the fantastic, Cass invites you into a small world but one full of high stakes: one where kids advancing into an upper-level soccer league can lead their parents astray, one where a family dog only pushes a mother deeper into depression, one where a new hot tub drives a wedge further between a husband and wife. Cass’ attention to detail throughout magnifies the depth of these everyday sadnesses. A father works away at his exercise machine, eschewing almost everything else: “My running shoes are un-scuffed by the craggy world outside the portholes.” He’s developed such tunnel vision, such devotion, that nothing else matters but mindlessly working out in the basement.

Many of Cass’ stories happen in basements, making me think of the many origin stories of the world, where humans emerge either from the sea or from the earth. It also reminds you of Hell, or Purgatory. Characters stuck in cycles of motions until someone from above calls them up, breaks the pattern: “It was summer…when our mother stood at the top of the stairs and told us to come on up, it was time to quit playing [ping-pong], time to pack our things, I was going to college and she was selling the house, buying a smaller one without a basement, without room for a ping-pong table.” Leaving the basement means facing the world and taking on responsibility, things many of Cass’ characters actively avoid. In “Greyhound,” the husband buys a greyhound under the mistaken assumption that the dog will pull his wife out of her depression. Rather than face facts and help her treat her illness head-on, he prefers to live in a fantasy world: “He imagined woman and dog coursing the trails of FDR Park in the blue-black mornings, her coming home flushed, downing a glass of orange juice, making them bacon and eggs. She’d laugh at his jokes. They’d make love. She’d finally get better.”

Each of Cass’ stories echo the title of the collection in that her characters have exhausted their abilities and have atrophied, are impeded, or fail to recognize their capabilities and take responsibility accordingly. They’re trying, Cass shows us, but is it enough? Nowhere else is this better illustrated than in the collection’s final story, “Portrait of My Father as a Foosball Man, 1972-2012.” Cass focuses on one figure on a foosball table, gets inside his imagined brain and his past, ultimately coming to rest when the foosball table is left abandoned in a basement: “It’s just that it’s been so long since anyone turned his metal spoke heart with purpose, so long since he’s shone his twitchy, hummingbird grace, so long since he’s listened to human players laugh and talk smack and howl in victory and defeat…” Life is passing this foosball figure by, a fear shared by many of the other characters in the collection, a fear we all share.

If there’s any drawback to Cass’ collection, it’s only a similarity of tone among the stories, but her economical and deft prose keeps the reader hooked, turning pages, wishing to delve deeper and deeper into this family, despite their problems and doubts. Cass’ chapbook is a funhouse mirror maze, flashes of yourself and other wanderers blurring together as you debate which way to turn. You try your best, but you’ll always get lost along the way.

Best Thing I Read This Week: Date and Time of Loss by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

3 Oct

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s essay “Date and Time of Loss” in Sundog Lit’s Road Issue combines the best of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” with upfront introspection cuts to the chase. Lee doesn’t mess around. She tells her story, unflinchingly, full knowing she’s picking at old scabs, tracing her fingers over old scars—literally and figuratively, we discover. From a car accident in Seattle to a few years later when her husband tells her, over the phone, that he wants a divorce, Lee’s essay knocks the wind out of you.

Opening with a police report that gives us just the facts, Lee then enters to explain and flesh things out, describing what exactly flashed before her eyes when she turned and saw a Mitsubishi hurtling toward her. Even though she lists everything she didn’t remember in a sequence recalling “Bullet in the Brain”—and if you’re gonna imitate, good choice—we still learn about Lee, her travels, her past, her husband, her family, her values, the things she holds dear. Her language in this section, while loaded with imagery, never tips into effusion or begs for pity. She simply states her case: “I remember vertigo and disorientation. I remember wind as I flew. If I were in Murakami novel, that would have been the moment cats began talking.” Clearly, this experience is for her like something out of magical realism, something she never imagined would happen to her, could happen.

In the wake of the accident, Lee searches the asphalt for her scattered lipstick tubes, clutching onto small things to avoid or to deal with the very big thing that just happened. The driver cries and apologizes over and over. Lee calls her husband, who’s in the middle of a business meeting, and, while in conversation, is astonished to see her shoe feet away from her, near the curb. She grapples with this, feels the rough asphalt beneath her, tells her husband she doesn’t know if she’s ok. An ambulance wails. Throughout the ordeal, Lee references movies (the EMT does not care for Love Actually), Space Mountain, her Chanel lipstick, as if it is these things that will pull her through, these things that will allow her to make sense of what’s happened, of her being struck by a car.

Lee is blindsided again, a few years after the car hit her in the Seattle crosswalk, and this figurative accident at first felt too pat, fit too neatly into the arc of the essay. But when you remove your hardened outer layer and compare the vulnerability Lee felt in crosswalks for years after her accident to the pain she feels after her husband says he wants a divorce, the piece balances like a Calder mobile, something that looks improbable but remains upright and works. On her blog, Lee writes about this piece: “Another event in my life intersected with this trauma; the end of my marriage. That the two feel the same…I didn’t begin writing Date and Time of Loss with the intention of intertwining the two events. But that is what the work wanted me to do.”

Some of Lee’s balanced imagery comes off as a little trite—the bruises and the lavender aura of invisibility—but it’s mostly forgivable. By combining these two events, comparing her bruises and the damage done, Lee hopes to use one event as a lens to deal with the other and vice versa, as a means to cope and move on. Lee’s honesty and attention to telling detail and imagery elevate her essay, inviting you in just enough, like a long-time friend finally sharing the secret of her scar.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: States of Grace by Steven Graham Jones

26 Sep

Stephen Graham Jones’s collection, States of Grace (Springgun Press) is spilling over with unique short-shorts that are compact, forceful and sharp, kind of like a razor blade you’d keep under your tongue. Similar to Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds, the stories are melancholy, bizarre, tender, and familial. As with any other collection of fierce short-shorts, the first sentences are barbed and laced with a noxious tonic that grab the reader by the scruff of the neck. Here are a few:

From “Modern Love”

My son’s first-grade teacher doesn’t shoot heroin any more.

From “Neither Heads Nor Tails”

My father lost his left nipple in a hunting-related accident.

From “Hatchery”

Martin once tried to shoot a fish he put in a barrel.

From “Seafood”

After examining the facts for eight-odd years, in which both his wife and his job fell away like a second, unnecessary skin he’d never even known he had, Rick finally decided that it had been obvious, really, and, being not just rational but bound by the smallest indicators, he had no choice but to admit that that day he’d taken his four-year old son to the beach it had, yes, been almost solely to have him dragged out by a shark.

From “Bulletproof”

When Ton and Ricky and the rest of them came to shoot my brother in the street in front of our house, I was eleven years old.

From “Easy Money”

All we had to do was record the sound of a wooden bat on a human skull.

Jones takes on a variety of techniques throughout the book, but he’s never guilty of displaying simple literary stunts. Instead, the pieces have been skillfully and precisely crafted, and flow at a feverish pace with rhythm and fluidity:

From “Faberge”

and then there was the day the week the year my mother found the magazine I had hidden in such a perfect place, shuffled in with the rest of my magazines, and I don’t think she even told me at first but thought about it for a week, maybe two, looked at herself in the mirror a little too long some mornings, was too polite to me about staring into the refrigerator for minutes on end, and she never told my dad, either, but that was just because he was dead already so maybe he knew anyway, in the way dead people know things, which makes our skulls into glass . . .

From “Seafood”

If there had been a painting of that day, he knew, then he and Danny would have been at the center of it, every brushstroke radiating out from them. But there had been no painting and he hadn’t even known then to be looking for the brushstrokes.

From “Matinee: A Love Affair”

In the darkness of the theatre we did it too, stretching our fingertips up just to be part of it, a brief shadow. Even walking home we would find ourselves silhouetted against a building by approaching headlights and smile, then cast our eyes down over it, trying to affect a forlorn posture before the car swept past.

From “Backsplash”

You can’t bleach everything, after all. At a certain point, the harsh smell starts to be the thing that gets you caught, not whatever it is you’re trying to erase.

Best Thing I’ve Heard This Week – Trains, Brains & Auto-Erotica: An Oral History of the Dingbats

23 Sep

The Dingbats may not be a real band, but Myke Johns really brings their history to full life – with  and with these readings from Nicholas Teckosy, Bobbin Wages, Adam Lowe, Myke Johns himself and Jeremy Maxwell they really come to life. The whole thing can be read in the latest issue of Deer Bear Wolf, but this performance is completely charming to the ear.

And if that tickles your fancy: in addition to his own written achievements and efforts with Write Club Atlanta, Myke Johns puts a lot of effort showcasing and championing the efforts of Atlanta’s literary scene through his podcast, LitCast, at WABE 90.1. There’s a bevy of goodness to be heard. (We Atlantans really owe Myke a lot – so much heartfelt effort goes into these recordings.)

Single Sentence Review: Easter Rabbit

22 Sep

ER-Cover1

Easter Rabbit by Joseph Young
Publishing Genius Press
104 pg // $10

These are images without context, dialogues without voices – but they are not withholding: feel them in the palm of your hand, then hold them to the light.

Uterus Poems by Jessica Dyer

22 Jun

Uterus Poems (The New Megaphone, 2014) is a chapbook you’ll happily read in one sitting. A series of blocky prose poems, Dyer casts her uterus as something different on each page. Here it’s a toolbox, there it’s a bread machine, now it’s “as dirty as a Ron Jeremy porno.” Sometimes it’s a rare gem; at others, it’s a rancid dump. In exploring all the roles and identities of her uterus, Dyer lays out how it feels to be a woman, a human. That’s how I read it, and while such a tactic may be rather obvious, I don’t care. Women feel pressure from so many outlets to be a certain way that a response as funny and straightforward as this is necessary.

One poem features Dyer’s uterus as “a mine where dirty men dig out crags–those poky things where I cultivate all my crystal pretties.” The rest of the poem gives the reader rose quartz, pyrite, agate–beautiful gemstones–but the end of the poem whispers of something less aesthetically beautiful: “Deep in my mine there is coal. It keeps me going.” You can certainly read this to mean Dyer needs to call on something darker and deeper than superficial gemstone beauty to get through the day. Men mine women for beauty, and when their beauty is gone, what’s left? What else can society wring from them?

Dyer isn’t hopeless. That’s important to say. Even if in one poem she unkindly characterizes her uterus as being smart as a box of rocks–which is to say, not at all–there are other poems where her uterus “is on fire…It’s basically the center of the universe…it’s the power and the glory.” Instead of usually sappy exhortations or pieces of artwork that encourage women to see their sex as nothing but precious, fragile, and beautiful, Dyer focuses on the diversity of women, on the multiple identities women can take on and inhabit. Today, the uterus feels lame and embarrassing, but tomorrow, the uterus will feel powerful. And maybe on Saturday, it won’t feel like much at all, actually, but thanks for asking. Dyer accomplishes all of this with humor and honesty. In one poem, her uterus has gone viral and racked up a ton of followers on social media. In another poem, her uterus abstains from attending its high school reunion, because who really likes reunions anyway, geez?

The uterus may be the organ where fetuses grow, where uterine lining turns to blood, where fertilization can happen, but Dyer uses the uterus–her uterus–as shorthand for much more. Her uterus is a repository for memories, feelings, triumphs, and disappointments. She claims ownership of her body with short, humorous sentences that demonstrate how well she knows her uterus, her life. Her uterus is uniquely hers.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Dear Corporation

7 May

 

Adam Fell’s second collection, Dear Corporation (H_NGM_N Books, 2013), is written to the gods of the twenty first  century, those entities capable of bending the course of history that are simultaneously indifferent to the lives of people who will live through it. Fell’s epistles are survey responses given as manifestos, comment cards in the form of maltov cocktails.

Fell’s Dear Corporation is a call to riot. It screams in the face of welling indifference and easy neo-liberalism that characterizes the opening of our new millennium. He writes:

Politicians never counted on us. Wall Street never counted on us. The cadaverous yuppies and their screaming vegan babies never counted on us. Investment bankers swear they keep finding our faces burned into their zeroes and ones like belligerent, binary Marys. They feel our fingers down the throats of their housing bubbles, our teeth foreclosing on the napes of their uninsured necks. To put it more delicately: I want you to fuck the fiscal responsibility out of me. I want you to fuck me until universal health care. We are the only thing that is too big to fail, so put down the briefcase and come skin the rabbit with me.  (22)

Fell wants to stain the immaculate corporate surfaces over which we crawl like ants looking for spilled Coke. He strips out the eggshell-painted drywall, pulls up the laminate flooring made to look like real wood grain to show us the chaos a corporation is trying to cover with its flattening of human experience. Fell states:

[S]o let me get my wolf cub teeth right into the deer heart of our matter: there is a brimming and braveness and feral intelligence to you that I’m taken with. Where I suspect a wilderness may be, a wilderness usually is, and I can’t help but explore. My dear Corporation, you are the PJ Harvey of the investment banking world, the Margaret Atwood of subprime mortgage lenders. You say you are unfamiliar with the taste of man, but I know a dive bar in Red Hook that proves you a liar.  (54)

Fell uses the corporation to represent everything that isn’t corporeal. Just as the word no longer contains the human body, the corporation Fell addresses is one that has moved past the human experience, and the letters Fell writes could be as easily addressed to Target as the US government.

In Dear Corporation Fell wants to anchor humanity in people instead of the illusory capital, both economic and cultural, held in corporations. Fell writes:

Adam and Eve with the apple unbit never had to un-coin their eyes to imbalance, inequity, the ingenuity and ignorance and incessant allure of the world. To wake in the dark of the woods and realize we have been created at all is to realize we have not always been, that we will not always be. We are not born to stake a claim, but to claim a stake in each other, to burn alive if needed in the pure resurrection of our simultaneous decay. (27)

Fell locates himself with people. Fell is like a human submarine sending out waves of noise in the hopes of having someone give him a signal as to where he is. Ultimately, Dear Corporation is a letter asking us to write back.

And that’s what I found so successful about this book, it’s willingness to be human, to say anything to get us to connect with it as a human document. Dear Corporation is prosaic. It digresses. It writes vaguely inappropriate postcards. It sings with the radio when it’s drunk. It may, at times, lack artifice, but never art.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: The Rusted City

13 Apr

If Michel Gondry and William Faulkner were to team up and write a book about Cleveland, you might wind up with something akin to Rochelle Hurt’s debut collection The Rusted City (White Pine Press, 2014). Hurt’s collection is about not only a city collapsing in on itself, but also a family.

Hurt’s collection is decadent in the truest sense of the word. We watch as the rusted city eats itself alive. In one poem, Hurt writes:

The City Swallows/ falling scraps like a dog at a dinner table, it’s river tongue-lapping  them in from the lip of the shore. It jostles them down its throat, shaking an old tune out as the scraps rub and clash their way underground, groaning into beds of dirt. This is the din that’s rattled centuries of the city’s floorboards. But as far as the smallest sister knows, it is only the cymbal hymn the earth has always been humming— (18)

But through its erosion, the city gains a quiet dignity, a kind of aura. Like snow, the rust that covers this city makes everything beautiful, even as it erases it.

Of course, the city isn’t the only thing falling apart. Conjoined with the rusted metropolis’ fate is a family. There is a mother who pines for a lost father, a man who works at the one surviving mill. Hurt writes:

 The Quiet Mother Smiles/ as she tells her two daughters of the favorite father. ‘He’ll be your favorite too,’ she says, smoothing her hair with her palm. The smallest watches as red dust brushed loose falls from her mother’s head and collects on the kitchen tile, already stained a dull orange… The quiet mother tugs a gold ring form one of her fingers and hands it to the smallest sister. The ring is heavy as a marble in the smallest sister’s hand, and heavier every minute—a rock, anxious to be let go. The quiet mother picks up chips of rust from where the ring had hugged her finger and blows on it like something too hot, sending a storm of red to the floor.  (16)

However, if the father’s absence has left the family to slowly decompose, his presence is no less destructive. The father is obsessed with the spectacle of destruction. In one poem, Hurt writes:

The Roller Coaster is Burning, the Favorite/ father tells his daughters, buttoning their chin and ear flaps. ‘We go to get pictures,’ he says…

When they arrive swathed in ash, the roller coaster is folded in half, a writhing lattice of ruptured tracks, gangly as a giant insect. Hugging an arched belly of metal cars, its corroded arms are crossed already—the death pose, the smallest sister knows.  (41)

The father’s speciation of disaster is far from uninterested though, and later we will see that his desire to watch is as destructive as the spectacle itself. Hurt writes:

 The Favorite Father Chases a Tornado/ through the river with his camera. A layer of rust floating like algae on the water begins to break up. As he wades, his legs part one red island, making another. Soon there are too many tiny rust islands to count, and the river is a mottled red-brown.  (75)

The corrosion and collapse of the collection also belies a subtle violence. The city, once a capital of industry that consumed the world around it, has now in turn become oxidized and is being consumed by the air it breathes. The violence in Hurt’s collection is atmospheric and structures that once sustained have now turned against themselves to victimize what they once nurtured. Hurt writes:

Spring-Cleaning, the Quiet Mother/ discovers the habit of touching that’s begun in her kitchen. It wafts like a sulfur perfume through all of her rooms. She finds burnt sugar cubes of touching stashed under beds and salt mounds of touching collected on tabletops.  (49)

Narrating the collection is the youngest daughter, who must make a life in this dying city. Ultimately, it is her ability to move between the two meanings of decadence that allows her to survive. She sees not only the decay, but also the ways in which decay creates, the way even rust can be embroidery if looked at in the right way. Ultimately, this is what allows the smallest sister to survive—her ability to see the transformative power of decay, the way obsolesce makes something new. Hurt writes:

The City Opens/ along its river-seam like a swollen belly, expelling antiques. The smallest sister makes a list of what she finds on the banks… Every night she finds more, so she begins to build herself a home from them. Every night another wall, every week another room, every month another house—her new city birthed form the refuse.  (82)

In the interest of full disclosure, I grew up in the rust belt. I spent the first two decades of my life in Dayton, a city as notable for its lost industry as its contribution to aviation. And maybe this is why Hurt’s collection resonates so well with me. It is a eulogy for places that only become notable once they have lost themselves.

 

 

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Larissa Szporluk

11 Apr

traffic225For final event of this season’s Poets of Ohio reading series, Larissa Szporluk visited Case Western Reserve University from Bowling Green, OH to read and discuss her poetry. Below is an excerpt from my introduction to the event, as well as a video clip of her reading one of her poems:

I first became aware of Larissa Szporluk’s poetry in 2004, when one of my graduate school professors, the late-Jake Adam York, mentioned her as someone he considered to be one of the premier, contemporary poets writing at the time. Specifically, he directed me to her third, full-length collection of poetry, The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind (Alice James Books, 2003).

While reading the book, I was struck by the ability of Szporluk’s poems to challenge not only the manner in which we use language, but their capacity to fundamentally alter the way in which we view the world; or, as she herself wrote in the poem “Death of Magellan”:

Heaven was lost

when up and down
lost meaning. (5)

Yes, just as Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe altered humanity’s spatial relationship to/of the world during the sixteenth century–literally changing our notion of what “up and down” meant–Szporluk’s poems changed the manner in which I conceived of both language and poetry at a time when I was primarily familiar with the canonical and anthologized poems taught in literature courses. More than a decade ago, then, her poems acted as a literary and poetic passage that was theretofore uncharted for me.

This semester, though, my students and I read her most recent book, Traffic with MacBeth (Tupelo Press, 2011), which, among other things, explores what happens when “violence takes over” (26) both the natural and human worlds. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the poem “Mouth Horror”:

Five male crickets
sing and fight.
The loudest wins,

the softest dies (38)

The poem presents the reader with the seemingly benign image of crickets chirping on a summer evening; but the moment quickly transforms it into a Darwinian struggle, wherein the “loudest” crickets “win,” such that their “chirp[s]” become “swords” that leave the “loser[s to] rot”:

into the sweet black gore
of cricket joy
expressed to death

in one dumb glop (38)

Such violence manifests itself again and again throughout Traffic’s representations of the natural world, as seen in the wind that “leaves a deep pocket / of dusk in your scalp” (3), a ladybird “carcass / on a snow-white beach” (7), or the image of an “eye of the cat-torn mouse” (41).

The violence that permeates natural world, though, does not remain within its bounds; rather, it overflows into the human realm by way story and myth. For example, in the opening stanza of the poem “Baba Yaga”; the poem’s namesake, who is a sorceress from Slavic folklore, tells us that:

I cooked my little children in the sun.
I threw grass on them and then they died.
I sit here and wonder what I’ve done. (47)

While, no doubt, this moment of infanticide demonstrates most evidently the violence inherent to the human world, there are also minor violences, often self-inflicted, that occur throughout the collection. In the poem “Accordion,” the speaker notes:

When the blood leaves my arm at night,
my arm is independent.
I hold it up, my own dead arm,
and flap it at the sleepers
in adjoining rooms around me.
Beating time, like being dead, is easy. (41)

Indeed, something as mundane as sleeping on one’s arm so as to cut-off circulation, thus inducing that “pins-and-needles” feeling, offers us a meditation on death that confers upon us the understanding that “being dead, is easy”—at least to the extent that its specter is ever-present and always near.

To this end, I think, the purpose of Traffic with MacBeth’s violence is to provide us with a heightened awareness of the fragility of life; and, thus, instills within us a greater appreciation for our brevity.

Here’s a video clip of Szporluk reading her poem “Flight of the Mice” from her first collection Dark Sky Question (Beacon Press, 1998):