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REVIEW: The White Rail

Author: Clarinda Harriss

2014, Half Moon Editions

Filed Under: Literary

white rail

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

Reading Clarinda Harriss’s fiction is like reading another version of Laura Lippman’s and Anne Tyler’s Baltimores mixed up together, from the genteel dilapidation of old Baltimore to the dangerous underbelly of the city’s streets. The White Rail is a slender volume, precious as a poetry collection, consisting of six stories, all set in Baltimore or nearby.

Harriss is first and foremost a poet, and her stories brim with a love of language, the sound of it, spoken by her characters (“Sista, you got some junk in yo trunk,” a random voice says in “The Vinegar Drunker.); the sounds of words together (“…lesbian sex poems whose I’s and S’s send the readers’ tongues licking and lapping like lascivious lovers.”); she wallows gleefully in their rhymes, their rhythms, the derivation and evolution of words.  Indeed, two of the stories, “In the House” and “Bone to Bone,” might accurately be said to be about poetry.  In both, Harriss considers the tension between the everyday street rhythms of spoken language and the metric requirements of formal verse.  “Bone to Bone,” a weird tale of “identity theft” regarding a Pulitzer Prize-winning black female poet, highlights the tension between vernacular poetry, its jazz rhythms, off-rhymes, and the formal verse structures of the traditions of English literature, Elizabethan sonnets, Metaphysical poetry, etc.  “In the House” might be characterized as doing the same, but with regard to Emily Dickinson and African-American poets.
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REVIEW: Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy

Author: David Herrlesharon tate and the daughters of joy

2014, Time Being Books

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 10

To say David Herrle’s new book, Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, is about obsession is a real understatement, but it’s a good enough place to begin.  Herrle portrays and examines the excesses of violence to which lust drives men and the extremes of depravity that our zeal is used to justify.  The deaths of three beautiful women – Marie Antoinette, killed by the peasant mobs in the French Revolution, Mary Jane Kelly, the most comely of Jack the Ripper’s prostitute victims, and Sharon Tate, Manson’s gorgeous moviestar victim – are the focal point of these meditations.  Along the way, Herrle analyzes the nature of beauty and the aesthetics underlying beauty’s effects on our behavior.

But to describe Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy in this way makes the book sound dry and academic when the verse is related in a manic, lyrical speed-freak intense voice and generously laced with Joycean wordplay.   Moreover, the noir superhero ending gives the collection the quality of a dreamlike divine comedy.

But make no mistake, this is an impressively researched effort.  Each of the six sections is prefaced with a handful of quotations, serving as epigraphs, ranging from Moby-Dick to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, from Doctor Zhivago to W.H. Auden, and there’s a three-page list of suggested readings at the end that includes Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (Remember Saul?  The guy Sarah Palin called a terrorist, accused Obama of “paling around” with?), Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Blake, Jacques Lacan and a laundry list of other famous thinkers.  Indeed, some of the poems address these people directly.  “President ‘Pontius Pilate’ Truman” addresses Carl Sagan, “Bhagavad Rita” is spoken to Rita Hayworth, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Princess de Lamballe”  is addressed to Marie Antoinette’s friend, who was executed by guillotine.
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REVIEW: Imperial

Author: George Bilgereimperial

2014, University of Pittsburgh Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

In her backcover blurb, poet Dorrianne Laux succinctly nails George Bilgere’s new collection (in fact, pretty much all of his poetry), when she writes, “Tracing the arc of the Baby Boomer generation from cradle to grave, Bilgere’s poems paint a picture of American life that is equal parts sadness, matter-of-factness and hilarity….they tackle subjects such as aging, suburban routine, and the rise and subsequent fall of post-WWII America.” Bilgere’s poems are full of nostalgia and regret, but without a scintilla of self-pity or self-delusion.  All experiences in life are fleeting, full of a mix of emotions, from triumph to shame, exultation to repentance, valuable even as they may be ultimately without any real significance.

In “Attic Shapes,” a poem in which he is explaining to his wife (but really asking himself) why he bothers to hold onto the three cardboard boxes full of his dissertation notes, notes he knows he will never consult again, he likens these to other relics of the past, bound for the attic, his boxes of LPs, symbols of yet another period in his life (“my rebel period/of complicated post-adolescent unhappiness”); Bilgere observes that they represent a time “too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,/either to hear again or ever throw away.”  Closely observed, like amoeba under a microscope that blossom into dinosaurs, the ordinary experiences in an average lifetime represent so much more than their simple everydayness.

Take this reflection from “Journal,” a poem lamenting the slow relentlessness of aging, when he remembers a time he rented a golf cart, at age 58, noting it in his journal, “recognizing the enormity of this, the sorrow,/the hugeness of the moment in all its beautiful ordinariness/as it leaned so temporally/so irrecoverably against the void.”  This is at once elegiac and comic; he is talking about renting a golf cart, after all!
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REVIEW: All the Heat We Could Carry

Author: Charlie Bondhusbondhus

2013, Main Street Rag Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

Winner of the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, Charlie Bondhus’ All the Heat We Could Carry is a meditation on war, the effects of war, particularly on gay soldiers, specifically with regard to the endless war in Afghanistan in the 21st century.  Shifting scenes from the home front in America to Afghanistan and back again, these poems expose the emotions and perspectives of soldiers, in the midst of conflict in the strange, alien terrain of  war and in the familiar, but now no less alien, environs of home.

The title comes from a line in “April,” the final poem in the middle section, a poem about the beginning of the end of a romantic relationship.  For one of the storylines in this collection is about the break-up of two lovers affected by the war.
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REVIEW: For the Living Dead

Author: Eric Greinkebookcover_forthelivingdead

2014, Presa Press Books

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

Containing a selection of poems spanning five decades, Eric Greinke’s new book, For the Living Dead is a sort of “greatest hits” collection chosen by the poet himself.  Across the years, his work embraces many of the same themes, concerns and styles , a playful but serious meditation on the universe around us, both the natural and supernatural.  Take “The Insomniac,” written in 1973 when Greinke was twenty-five.

I lie awake

where the river bends:

the jams of logs,

the broken, confused

rocks, (heads of frightened

bathers), deep funeral places.

 

I breathe the murky shadows.

I float incessantly

above the weeds. I suck

the black muck. Every morning

I am killed by the hot passing sun.

 

Compare this with “Cold Oceans” written thirty-eight years later.

I sit by my open window.

A lake breeze brings the outside in.

The white pine tree makes its green stand

Between me & the foggy lake..

It grows taller with each season,

But I do not.

 

My height has eroded since my age increased.

Even the Rockies re half the size

Which they were a million years ago.

The wind brings the scent of the lake to me.

It blows my countless blessings

Beyond cold oceans.

Both poems have the same cadence, the same pace (“I lie awake…”; “I sit by my open window…”).  But more than that, both are solidly grounded in the natural world, the world we take in through our senses.  But equally we are taken beyond our perceptions to contemplate the “murky shadows’ and the “foggy lake,” what is hidden from us.  This dual action is present throughout Greinke’s work, at times flying off to post-apocalyptic speculation and surreal imagery.
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REVIEW: Looking for the Gulf Motel, One Today, and Boston Strong

Author: Richard Blancolooking-for-the-gulf-motel-blanco

2013, University of Pittsburgh Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 10

Best known for being one of only five poets to compose and read a poem for an American president’s inauguration – One Today – Richard Blanco has had three books published within the year by University of Pittsburgh Press, including another slender volume, an ode to Boston after the Boston Marathon tragedy entitled Boston Strong.   The two poems commemorating large occasions are like orations honoring certain admirable qualities of character.  Boston Strong reveres the resilience of the city in the wake of the terrorist attack; One Today celebrates the diversity and majesty of the nation.  Both are admirable poems but not so controversial, and why would they be?  They are ultimately meant to be triumphant.

But the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel are much more personal though no less universal, dealing with themes of identity, love, family and the effects of time on all of the above – heartbreak and loss.  Indeed, the eponymous poem, which serves as a sort of preface to the entire volume, a memory of family vacations to Marco Island on Florida’s west coast, concludes with the lines:
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REVIEW: Vulgar Remedies

Author: Anna JourneyCOVER-VULGAR-REMEDIES-194x300

2013, Louisiana State University Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

The cover of Anna Journey’s new collection of poems, Vulgar Remedies, is an apt metaphor for the kind of poetry she writes.  The cover image, “House #3,” by Francesca Woodman, seems to depict a young woman materializing in a sort of magical, alchemical process in an abandoned, dilapidated house.  In just this way, Journey’s poetry partakes of transformation, the magic of dreams, and a nostalgia for a past that may never have occurred.

Time, too, as in dreams in which a dead parent is alive again, and while you’re dreaming it, you believe it is so, is subject to the magic of transformation, alchemy.
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REVIEW: Little Houses

Author: Eleanor Swanson

2013, Stephen F. Austin University Press

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 9

It would be misleading to describe the stories in Eleanor Swanson’s new collection, Little Houses, as “gothic,” but they do involve some elements of the gothic tradition in terms of “other-worldly” manifestations, and an elusive, romantic tone.  But the ghosts that haunt these stories are as real as flesh and blood – more often than not they are brothers, sisters, parents, spouses.  Thus, the real haunting is usually something like the disturbance of the conscience, the challenge to our moral sense, echoing the epigraph to this collection, from Italo Calvino:  “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”

Take the first story, “The Ghost of Bertrand Russell.”  The father and daughter in a seemingly solid young family on a camping trip are gazing up at the stars, looking for meteors, when the ghost of the past rudely intervenes in the form of a memory of an incident involving the protagonist, Andy, and his college Philosophy professor from long ago, Dr. Annalisa Baillet, and a “haunted” farmhouse.   His best friend and roommate, Scot, subsequently killed in Vietnam, is also part of the memory, and by the end of the story both Andy and his wife Joan are haunted by these ghosts from the past – ghosts of their own devising.  The joke in the title, of course, is that Russell idealized reason, regarded religion as superstition and had no patience for such non-scientific phenomena as spirits.   But we’re not talking about “real” ghosts, after all, are we, the stuff of Poe and other authors of gothic romance?

Swanson deliberately invokes Faulkner’s famous Southern gothic story, “A Rose for Emily,” in the story about a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s “secret” life, “A Still Volcano,” when the daughter, Chloe, travels to Arizona to close down her recently deceased mother’s home, pack things up and put the house on the market.  Only, there are no actual skeletons in the bed in this story of a marriage that is an oppressive disappointment.  Instead, there’s a message from mother to daughter that has a real impact on the daughter’s own marriage and how Chloe sees her relationship with her own husband.  Invoking another Emily – Dickinson – the message is contained in cryptic little anagrams, like dispatches from the afterlife that Chloe discovers hidden throughout the house as she sorts and disposes of her mother’s things.

In so many of these stories, the real drama involves the effects of the “weirdness” (not always ghosts, though they always seem somehow “not-of-this-world”) on the relationship between members of the nuclear family – brother and brother or sister and sister, husband and wife, parent and child.  Perhaps the most unsettling of these is a story called “The Hypnotist,” which doesn’t necessarily involve paranormal phenomena – ghosts – but focuses on a woman who marries a former CIA goon, who brainwashes her, feeding her false memories, manipulating her outlook.

At story’s end it’s obvious that the sisters, once as close as, well, “sisters,” will no longer have anything to do with one another.  Jenny, the narrator, has always recognized that her sister Lynne is flaky, but she’d never felt so estranged from her until Lynne became involved with the control freak, Frank, devoted to him as if a cult member.  At the story’s end, “I watched her walk down the concourse until she became smaller and smaller, then slipped away and disappeared into the crowd.”
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REVIEW: The Book of Life

Author: Alicia Suskin Ostriker

2013, University of Pittsburgh Press

Filed Under: Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 10

To be a Jew means different things to different people, perhaps especially to different Jews.  Is it the religion?  The history?  The ethnicity?  If the religion, what about it?  The belief system?  The holiday calendar?  In her Preface to The Book of Life, Alicia Ostriker asks these questions a little differently:  “What is it to be a Jewish poet?  What is it to be a Jewish woman poet?”  Jewishness, she tells us, “has grown on me like a taste for herring, like a needle in a sweatshop relentlessly stitching,” evoking Jewish cultural images.  Which is to say that it’s been a process of discovery for her, and continues to be.  These poems, culled from a third of a century of writing, track that process.  Her parents and grandparents were Marxists, for whom religion was opium.  The essence of Judaism for them was social activism.  We see those concerns in Ostriker’s verse but we also find a mystical, visionary, even prophetic thread as well.

The Book of Life is divided into six parts, which roughly cover the various aspects of her Jewishness, her Jewish anxieties and interests.  The first part consists of more personal poems, growing up Jewish in America and specifically the lower east side of Manhattan, poems about parents, grandparents, grandchildren.  An elegy for Allen Ginsberg.  These poems are very “haimish”  — homey, folksy, if not really nostalgic; they contain a certain angst.
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REVIEW: The Life and Death of Poetry

Author: Kelly Cherry

2013, Louisiana State University Press

Filed Under: Poetry 

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 10

Dedicated “For my students, then and now,” Kelly Cherry’s new collection, the 2013 L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award winner, The Life and Death of Poetry, is indeed in the lofty tradition of Ars Poetica, The Art of Poetry, or The Nature of Poetry, instructions and reflections from a master of the art.  Cherry writes with authority, and her deep philosophical involvement in the subject saturates the pages.  The reader feels from her tone that her audience of students (all of us) is squarely in mind.

This elegant collection consists of three parts, the first, “Learning the Language,” a sequence of meditations on poetry, the language, the rhythm, the speech, the voice, the sounds that precede the speech and the thought that comes before the voice. Without being didactic Cherry conveys her thoughts on the origins of poetry in human consciousness and how it ennobles human existence.  Indeed, she begins at the very beginning.  Take the second poem of the collection, a sonnet entitled “A Sunday in Scotland.”

I found a path that led me through the wood,

past fallen stone – a Roman wall in ruin –

and some felled trees, to where two horses stood

at pasture, and the nearest, a graceful roan,

drew close, and backed away again, and then

came partway back, and then decided to get on

with his own life in that field next to a fen.

I found a stump nearby – something to sit on

while catching my breath. Just to my right, a field

of poppies, post-impressionistically

spattered.  The sky was gray. The church bells pealed,

and I was thinking how it would be, to be

on earth as a horse or dog or cat or bird

or tree or flower, self-consciousness deferred.

I love that “poppies post-impressionistically spattered,” but the point is that poetry is human, a self-conscious creation.  The rest of “Creation,” or “Nature” is simply “the thing itself.” A sequence of poems involving animals in a field follows, with wonderful imagery that places them in speech and writing (from “Field Notes”: A shrew “with a tail as long as a tirade”; from “Seen but Not Heard”: “and trapped things pray/sotto voce.”  From “A Blue Jay in the Snow”: “A blue jay in the snow/is a text/that cannot be read/out of the context…”). And this entire poem:
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