Tag Archives: Reviews

Review: Normally Special by xTx

5 May



The phrase “big things come in small packages,” is normally cliché, but it’s completely true when it comes to Normally Special by xTx. Her collection of flash fiction fits snugly into any back pocket, but carries the weight of a ten-ton anvil. The pieces cover a broad range of topics; father/daughter relationships, standard relationships, abuse/neglect, regret, and stalkers. The writing and content doesn’t allow you to put the book down. I was in awe and instantly fell in love.

xTx’s writing style is simple but breathtaking. She pours herself every word to get that fire between the lines. Every sentence breaks you down and leaves you begging for more. xTx has the ability to lead the reader to the edge of something resembling an emotional epiphany and turns them away, but at the last second the dagger comes out and gets you. That’s especially how I felt when I read “Father’s Day”:

“He’d always be the opposite of melted and I’d never felt like a princess. Even when he’d call me princess soft and soft, then louder and louder as if he were trying to make it true.”

Those two lines forced me to set the book down and stop everything for five minutes while I pulled myself back together. xTx paints these terrifying pictures that haunt the reader, that remind me of a car crash whose image you can’t shake. It’s terrible but you just cannot stop looking. She creates this game of tug-of-war over the emotions of the reader. There is no buffer. xTx has clearly picked each and every word meticulously to wring out as much emotion as possible, like in “The Mill Pond”:

“Mister Dean watched and Mister Dean made me say please two more times. Later on the only please I would say would be followed by the word, ‘stop.’”

xTx doesn’t mess around when  there’s a point that she feels needs to be made. There’s no concern for what the readers may think. She is bold and not afraid of anything. I loved that as a reader. I felt closer to the prose; it made me connect more with writing, and it left an impression on me that I still cannot shake off. I got a better sense of who xTx is not only as a writer, but also as a person. She pours herself on every page, and encourages the reader to drink all of that up. All of that combines for one intense and emotionally draining read.

One of my favorite aspects about xTx’s writing style is her ability to make certain off-the-wall subjects drenched with emotions, just like her story “Because I Am Not a Monster.” The story talks about how the narrator is dealing with the end of a relationship. She constantly references all of the terrible things she could do, but she always finishes them up with: “Do not worry, I will never find you. You are safe.” The rest of the story follows suit. Narrator saying she could drive, bike, or walk to the person she is addressing until the very end. That’s when things get turned upside down. It turns into this grand scene between the narrator and their ex to meet for the final “confrontation,” and the narrator believes that their ex is egging them on and wants the narrator to find them. She then ends it with the chilling lines:

“But you and I both know I wouldn’t. You are safe. Do not worry. I will never find you. But I could. If I really wanted to.”

The only real issue that I found was the discrepancy between the emotional barrage and the reader’s ability to recuperate in the stories themselves. Each piece is designed to demolish the reader, but there is no time to catch your breath. The pieces are relentless. I found it slightly unbearable after reading a few pieces back to back. It left me wanting a bit more of a gap between each stab of the dagger. I started to leave my guard up; losing some of the “oh snap” effect of the pieces.

Beyond that one thing, I loved absolutely every aspect of this collection. She has a mastery over flash fiction and the gift to rip out your heart and make you ask for seconds. xTx is an unstoppable force, and there seems to be no signs of her slowing any time soon. Her new book, Today I Am A Book, is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Normally Special can be purchased here.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: A Review Of The First Four Books Of Sampson Starkweather by Kelin Loe and Caroline Cabrera

3 Jan

So, here’s a new year confession: I’ve never read The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather as a million of my friends and co-internet poetry travelers have. I have no doubt it’s wonderful–have seen Sampson read a time or two, have read his work on these interwebs, have been enthralled by the talk of others regarding this here book. And that right there is the hold-up I think; removed and ignorant from the book’s total glory, I’m chomping like a hog at the slop at the goodness others offer up about the book.starkweather

Then along comes that stellar combo of Kelin Loe and Caroline Cabrera in the new Octopus Magazine. There they go through the books of the book and inch their fingers at what makes these poems tickle. I don’t think I’ve ever presented a review here. But in the process, they capture what I love about reading, what I believe a good book does: the experience of living with a book inside your life, how it butts against your memories and feelings, your moments and your forests. In their letters, Kelin and Caroline exhume what makes these poems important to them–as Caroline says, “The one-line-to-the-next-ness and how I am always with them and always nodding my head yes yes. But not because they are obvious. Just intimately of our generation. Or our type of brainspeak, too.” But that “to them,” that bleed into the personal, the real, the pulsing “real-time,” is what makes this review vouchable–as Kelin says, “I bought this book for Michael as his AWP present. I’m not in love with Sampson. He’s letting me get more in love with Michael.”

A little bit of Kelin:

I got up early to start The Waters, and I think that’s where the day got off wrong. I was expecting childhood, romance and dark underbelly ha-ha’s, poems that spun magic while I sat on my porch and held the book. Poems that made me feel healthy. Like sessions when you tell your therapist about something brave you did. Instead, like you said, weighty and somber. Like when your therapist points out that most of your thoughts are rooted in anxiety and not in actual thinking and you thought you were just detail-oriented. I feel humbled by these poems. Not the kind of humble like getting a compliment, the kind of humbling that you get losing a rap battle. “RUN, SAM, RUN.” I’ll try to keep up. (I also marked a perfect poem, XXXIX).

A little bit of Caroline:

But now, after reading Self Help Poems, I don’t think it’s a gimmick. I think I’m convinced that this is one book. They certainly benefit by the closeness. If this whole book was CAMP SAMPSON, Self Help Poems was the fire circle on the last night where we tell each other that we know its okay to be who we want to be because our camp friends are all also being that way. (This actually happened to me at the end of a camp. It was a writing camp. We were all eighteen and everyone cried.

P.S. I think it’s time I finally read this damn book, am I right? No chatter about it is gonna be better than this.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Debacle Debacle

10 Jun

debacle2In February of this year, H_NGM_N Books released Matt Hart’s Debacle Debacle. In some sense, the book can be read as the experience of working through contradictory thoughts and feelings.

To this extent, poems near the beginning of book guide the reader by setting the conceptual and poetic framework for the rest of the collection. In “Upon Seeing Again The Thriving,” the speaker informs the audience that “Life is so messy,” and:

                                                               yes, I do feel

terrible at times, like a fuck-up descending a staircase,
woozy with nectar and too much trouble. Frustration

I get, and discouraged I get. (20)

Likewise, in the title poem, the speaker reiterates similar claims when he states: “Positivity these days // is difficult to come by” (14). But in the face of frustration and discouragement, when filtering the world through a positive lens can oftentimes be difficult, Hart’s poems seek to do just that.

Of course, the poems of Debacle Debacle don’t do this by embracing affirmation uncritically. Instead, they do so by meditating on complex emotional circumstances of our daily lives; or, as Hart writes at the conclusion of the title poem:

                                                                          Life happens;
it’s my job to say so. It’s our job to express it, expand it
to the edges. Essential it is to struggle, but struggle’s

merely tension, and tension can be a thing of balance
or irritation, confusion or song. I’m singing in tension
with the not singing. I’m living in tension with the forces

out to kill me. We’re living in tension because we’re
different human beings, and living in excitement
that we’re so much the same. (15)

Debacle Debacle, then, harnesses this tension between the joy and struggle to both sing and not-sing as an expression of a life lived poetically.

Hart’s poems succeed the most when they yoke these tensions of life so as to produce “an ambiguous noise” (30) wherein one cannot necessarily tell which feeling the poem expresses, or, to this extent, whether it’s song or not-song. The poem “Fang Face” echoes these sentiments in its closing lines:

                                    I hate the way stories
seem to love a conclusion. I love
the bird’s singing just before it gets eaten. (25)

The excerpt contains both “love” and “hate,” the song of a bird and its grizzly death, and a reproach of conclusions in its conclusion. By oscillating between these binary poles, Hart doesn’t offer didactic verse, but rather “expressive works… // …about the way the artist feels and thinks” (73). And this artist, it seems, thrives in the possibilities and tensions that a poem with open emotional and sonic registers offers us.

2013 Springgun Press Releases

31 May

Last year, Springgun Press released its first offering of full-length collections: Lily Ladewig’s The Silhouettes, Adam Peterson’s The Flasher, and The Container Store, which is a collaborative text written by Joe Hall and Chad Hardy. For their second round of full-lengths, Springgun published three more solid collections: James Belflower’s The Posture of Contour: A Public Primier, Michael Flatt’s Absent Receiver, and Aby Kaupang’s Little “g” God Grows Tired of Me.

 photo MF1_zpsc9e4ef01.jpg  photo AK01_zps6d145db9.jpg

A conversation with Belflower discussing his Posture will appear on this site in the coming weeks; so I will focus my attention on the other two collections.

Flatt’s Absent Receiver opens, literally, with a microphone check: “check // check // check // check” (1); then proceeds to explore sound as both an object of study and as a form of study. Take, for instance, the following passage:

through the narcissism of reverb

we expect big things from small ones.

the propeller thrums the night

and electric light

brings blackground into relief.

in this space my open mouth

does not create a cavern. (32)

The excerpt begins with a meditation on the nature of reverb, and its ability transform “small” sounds into bigger ones. But there is more than meditation here; the form itself also contains a music in the hard rhyme of “night” and “light,” as well as the consonance of “create” and “cavern.” The reverb(eration) of phonemes in rhyme and alliteration, it would appear, propel the poem forward with their sonic thrums.

To this extent, then, Absent Receiver looks to travel “deep in the sound” of poetry in order to “deepen / the sound” (69) of the poems. In doing so, “the page” becomes “an amplifier” (47) through which Flatt sounds his songs; and the sounds, it would seem, are emotive:

the inside of a poem
isn’t anything
anyone needs to be shown.

the illiterate already know it
as the space between the
heartbeat and the heart. (46)

While Flatt’s preoccupations deal primarily with sound, Kaupang’s, Little “g” God Grows Tired of Me focuses mainly on the body and its various permutations. Take, for instance, the following segments from the poem “Scenic Fences”:

the body                    {that other body you
respond to—the one you reap}

refuses to wake
writes grieve

in the rainbed       the basalt       the mobile
choking over the baby’s crib (30)

return the body       {the one you
resound to}       lose it       once

and leave

be sad at the demolition of house (37)


the bodies beside
the body       {you
sometimes}       and lying
there and trying
accidentally appear too

misaddress invitations for
other men’s pockets (43)

Over the course of these three passages, one body “refuses to wake,” calling into question our agency over the very thing we think we control; and “writes grieve,” thus undermining normative conceptions of Cartesian dualism, wherein the ability to write, think, or communicate resides, first and foremost, in the mind. Likewise, the body is a space to which we can return, we can lose or leave, or, like a house, be demolished. Kaupang’s collection contains a plethora of bodies that function in many different ways. Yes, this is the multiplicity of the body.

The proliferation of bodies, then, disassociates corporeal selves from the concept of identity and, more specifically, the pronoun “I.” As such, “I is useless in the dung / of words that name” (57), because “a name means nothing,” whether it be “I,” another pronoun, or a proper noun. But Little “g” God Grows Tired of Me is not a lament for a lost sense of self. Instead, the collection offers us an “exchange”: in place of a determinate “I” residing in a particular corporeal body, “I inhabit[s] innumerable houses // your “body / in jeopardy” (73). By placing the body and the self in jeopardy, though, we attain a fluidity heretofore unattained.

Profile: Russell Atkins

6 May

Here In TheA few months ago, I spoke with the conceptual poet, poetry scholar, and experimental musician Tom Orange about poets who currently live and write in the state of Ohio. Through the course of our discussion, Orange mentioned the little known poet, dramatist, and musician Russell Atkins. Born in Cleveland in 1926, Atkins still resides in the city today.

Orange also mentioned that he recently wrote an essay for a forthcoming anthology showcasing the poetry of Atkins. The collection, titled Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of a 20th Century American Master and edited by Michael Dumanis and Kevin Prufer, will be released later this year on Pleiades Press as part of their Unsung Masters Series. The series puts out one new collection a year that contains work by, and five-to-six essays about, a neglected American poet or fiction writer. In addition to Atkins’ own writing, the book will feature essays by Aldon Nielsen, Tom Orange, Evie Shockley, Sean Singer, and Tyrone Williams.

In an anticipation of the collection, I found a relatively inexpensive version of Atkins’ 1976 full-length Here In The (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) at an online book retailer. The author’s bio in the back of the book states that he was “one of the first concrete poets in the country and an innovator in poetic drama”; moreover, established poets such as Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore read his poems and championed his work. But more than the literary mythos surrounding the author, I found the book compelling because of the strange and beautiful voice within. Take, for instance, the second stanza of the poem “School Demolition”:

so silently
about the rooms
the autopsy
the moon coroner
          late (29)

This brief and enigmatic image offers us a vision of moonlight slicing through an abandon school that’s being readied for demolition. The moon transforms into a coroner, the building a body, and the city a morgue. To this extent, Atkins addresses the decay of a once great city and foretells the Rust Belt’s continual decline as a result of the difficult economic effects of moving our country’s manufacturing and industrial jobs overseas.

Everywhere through Here In The, the poet surveys the city, its residents, and surroundings, noting how even traditionally beatific images, such as a sunset, can transform into something less gorgeous in the crumbling urban cityscapes. For example, section six of “Irritable Songs” reads in its entirety:

horror of sunset stealths
through the boughs of birch:
sunk in a sigh the whole nauseous red:
the sun’s hideous liquid
fills gutters        frantic
the twigs at the window—
away goes through the air,
old cans abject        by-ways whimper
          —the night sky’s
at its death-fall (27)

Of course, in these “hideous” and “abject” images, Atkins creates a singular, Cleveland-based beauty in his language and the sounds it produces. Yes, while his content focuses on the death of a city, he enlivens that very same material through his poetic technique. Through an aestheticized vision of Cleveland, then, perhaps writers and artists living here (and other cities along the Great Lakes) can find an answer to the manner in which we engage our troubled city: acknowledging its decline, but doing so in a way that honors its inherent beauty.

For more information on Russell Atkins, visit his page at Deep Cleveland or read his work at the Eclipse archive.

continual decline

Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan

29 Apr

We really just can’t get our fill of Scott McClanahan. You recall Layne’s review here at Vouched. I’ve got my own spin on the book up at Sundog Literature:

Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio

“Scott McClanahan is not fearful. He does not live in the shadow of death or shy away from the hazards of poverty. Sickness, mistakes, his origins, his past, his flawed memory — he does not yield to their threats. He takes them by the horns and gives them a bear hug. Crapalachia is a book that takes guts. It takes guts to have written it. It takes guts to read.” 

Read the rest at Sundog Literature.

Gina Myers: Hold It Down

16 Apr

Hold_it_down_frontGina Myers’ second full-length collection of poems, Hold It Down (Coconut Books, 2013), centers itself around the two long poems “False Spring” and “Behind the R,” both of which explore the terrain of the speaker’s consciousness as she lives, works, and writes in a particular city.

I’ve written at length before about “False Spring” and its dual intent to “explore both the city of Saginaw, Michigan and a poetic consciousness that shifts with the seasons,” while simultaneously expanding its vision through our “modern information systems” so that it cannot be pigeonholed as “a placed-based text that estranges readers not from Saginaw or similar Michigan cities.” As such, I’d like to focus my attention on “Behind the R.”

In 1883, Emma Lazarus immortalized the Statue of Liberty in her sonnet “The New Colossus.” She envisioned the statue as a monument to “world-wide freedom” that welcomed the tired, poor, and huddled masses who yearned “to breathe free” in the United States and make a better life for themselves.

While Lady Liberty may have offered the promise of a better life for immigrants during the late-nineteenth century, the speaker of “Behind the R” views the statue much differently one hundred and fourteen years later:

still the abandoned streetcars at the end of Van Brunt
spider web windshield & slow rust
weeds bent through tracks
brick streets & eyes      cast to sea
over the      East River   sails & tugboats
water taxi tours past
the statue of liberty           dilapidated
crumbling into the water
small town Brooklyn
or anywhere (31)

Behind the R the sun is setting
on the statue of liberty
a cruise liner dock three blocks
from the projects
wild dogs roam the streets (33)

The “dilapidated” images of Brooklyn with which Myers surrounds the statue suggest that the city, our country, and the ideals of liberty and freedom have begun “crumbling into the water,” both physically and psychically. We rust. We are overgrown with weeds. We are hounded by wild dogs. We are lost in our own streets.

And the deteriorating cityscape affects the speaker’s well-being. No more clearly does the poem make this apparent as when Myers writes: “Sometimes your environment makes you hate yourself” (39); and it would appear that the self-hatred manifests itself in a list of fears both common and bizarre:

fear of voids or empty spaces
fear of time travel
fear of waves or wave-like motions
fear of hearing good news
fear of swallowing or being eaten
fear of the knee bending backwards
fear of nihilism
fear of rain or of being rained on (24)

fear of picnics
fear of taking tests
fear of being buried alive or of cemeteries
fear of symmetry
fear of the color red
fear of being tickled by feathers
fear of writing in public (37)

fear of crosses or of crucifixes
fear of the figure 8
fear of the color blue
fear of crowded rooms
fear of empty rooms
fear of dizziness or whirlpools
fear of dining or dinner conversation (43)

Yes, there is no shortage of fears that the city and its ruins can induced within the speaker. Moreover, these fears might be “the very language” needed “to articulate our unfreedom” (20), thus eradicating our false belief in the freedom we think we experience.

The combination of unfreedom, fear, and a crumbling surroundings, though, begs the question: Where is the hope? If everything fails, what is to stop us from sliding into the very nihilism the speaker mentions in her list of fears? The answer the poem offers is to turn “a blind eye / to the newspaper stand” (45) and disengage from the narratives forwarded by mainstream media and the like.

Yet, in the previously reviewed “False Spring,” the speaker seeks to engage with broader social, cultural, political, and artistic communities in order connect with other people outside of the worn landscape of Michigan. So what is one to do? On the one hand, retreat offers the comfort of ignorance, but the loneliness of disengagement; on the other hand, participation provides community, but also a heightened and debilitating fear. Myers’ second book might not be able to solve this conundrum, but it does thrive on the tension produced from it: the push and pull of the speaker’s desire both to engage the world around her and withdraw into her art. The best solution the book might offer resides in the title: Hold It Down. And while you’re at it, take some deep breaths, maybe move to Atlanta, and revel in the knowledge that:

Not every day
can be a good day
but this [could be] one
of them, one
of the best days (98)

Yes, things can be difficult, but the hope that today could be one “of the best days” keeps us going; or, as Lazarus wrote in “The New Colossus,” there might be “wretched refuse” along our “teeming shore,” but we remain hopeful for a better future wherein we “lift [our] lamp beside the golden door!”

Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan

28 Mar

At AWP last year I heard Scott McClanahan’s name and him reading for the first time. It was biblical. I talked about that here.

This year at AWP I saw Scott read again and after he was done, in the black and dirty gold haze of a basement bar he handed me this:
He swirled into the crowd after without comment, though I found him again and thanked him for the book. I’m sorry if I took away from the lovely quietness of how you gave me the book, Scott. I just don’t do well without saying Thank You, though you shouldn’t doubt this is a thank you as well.
I saw scraps of what others have said about Crapalachia before reading it, which pretty much all said *This is about death* and yes, so much so. I’m introduced to Uncle Nathan then he dies. I’m introduced to Grandma Ruby then she dies. I’m introduced to Mrs. Powell and the girl in the pink dress and her mother and they all die, and so do Rhonda and Bill and Naked Joe but not where they need a grave. They fade out, or are cut out, from what happens, though we know they’ll need a grave sooner or later.
And it’s not just the sadness or dirtiness of death, but also when it’s hilarious, when we try to overload it with meaning how it can flip us the bird:
………“We’ll now release a dove which is a symbolic representation of Ruby’s soul flying home to heaven.”
………And so they opened up the bird box and nothing happened.
………We waited.
………And then this sleepy-looking dove just crawled out, except it didn’t even look like a dove really but just a fat pigeon that somebody had painted white.
………It had a look on its face like, What the fuck? Seriously, people. What the fuck? It’s way too old to be doing this today.
………So the Wallace and Wallace guy tried to shoo it but it wouldn’t shoo.
………So the preacher repeated:  “We’ll now release the dove.”
………The Wallace and Wallace guy shooed it again. Finally the dove shot high up into the air and out and over our heads, but instead of flying away it just landed on top of this chain-linked fence. And so the Wallace and Wallace guy tried shooting it again and everyone giggled and gathered around in a circle throwing up their arms and shouting “shoo-shoo” at the bird high above. I shouted, “Shoo.” We were all shooing.
………But it wouldn’t shoo.
………And so it was.
Along with death Crapalachia doesn’t let you forget what it is to be poor. How Scott writes about Danese, West Virginia reads like a love letter to  living and feeling in a place designated by everywhere else to be a place to use poor people to get done what you don’t want to do, take risks you don’t want to take. There’s a beauty lacking all bullshit in loving these places without patronization.
……….Then we read about how you build civilization. They built the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel by digging a big ass hole in the side of a mountain.  They used a bunch of poor people to dig it.  A poor person means either their skin was dark or their accents were thick.  That’s the best way to do anything–get a bunch of poor people to dig it. So they cut and cut into the mountain but there was a problem. They didn’t wet the dust from the cut limestone–so the men developed silicosis. The men started dying by the tens and then the twenties and then the hundreds and then–the thousands? Since they were poor the company just buried them. There was an investigation a few years later but no one cared. They were poor people.
More history lessons about mine explosions and failed efforts at economic fairness in West Virginia punctuate the story, make sure you remember how little poor people seem to be given a shit about except to each other. The book is subtitled “a Biography of a Place” and Scott is forthcoming with West Virginian pockmarks and their origins, blemishes that seem unfairly inflicted rather than earned.
Vital here is repetition of a biblical kind and degree. Who begat who begat who and us, right now, squished between begats and soon a dead name in a Deuteronomy being constantly revised and updated. And there are beautiful, prophetic exhortations beside piles of dogshit and mine explosions and photo albums of dead people, all the gross truth of lives that end.
Toward the book’s conclusion, Scott talks about a flood resulting from a dam break that plowed through Buffalo Creek, West Virginia in 1972. The flood kills 125 people and afterward it’s not like anybody gets to start all over, like God could do jack shit to clean even this tiny part of the earth. Men still have to pull up the little girl in the pink dress buried in the mud and her mother’s corpse sitting under a tree, mouth filled with sand. And Scott’s last holy plea to us is not to forget and start over, but remember the names of the loved, with all the mud and sweetness and misery and they drag along behind them.
Get Crapalachia here.

Animal Bodies by David Courtright

11 Mar

Animal Bodies

Animal Bodies
David Courtright
Two Steps Press
p.39 / $7
Those brave enough to follow David Courtright into his wilderness will get lost — in the fur, in a fury of bees, in the rings of a tree trunk, in the downy comfort of petalled flowers, in a mess of fallen leaves. His poetry is suspended in something mythic and strange to us now – tangled between the flora and fauna, in the ether.

Read the rest of the review at Fanzine.

SS Review: Poisonhorse by Brandi Wells

26 Feb


POISONHORSE by Brandi Wells

Nephew, 34 pgs., August 2012, $10

A literary eruption, is that a thing, if that’s a thing, it just happened over here, out comes a saddened–>tortured love cry, a near-epic struggle twisted forward and within and out of over a bitty 34 pages, the story of Poisonhorse shrieks, as the horse and the poison the narrator gives it and the bears and the rats and the lady in the cistern and etc. burrow their way into you, as you begin to see yourself as one of the severed heads in the bear’s belly, as what you thought to call love expands and then immediately bursts in your hands.

Check out pieces of Horse here and here. Get the Horse here.