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REVIEW: Books of the Dead

Author: Alan CatlinCvr_BooksDead

2014, Pure Heart Press/Main Street Rag

Filed Under: Poetry, Memoir

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

Alan Catlin’s poignant, grim memoir, Books of the Dead, is a two-part reflection on the death of his mother in 1985 (The New York City Book of the Dead) and his father and stepmother in 2004 (The Central Florida Book of the Dead).  The total effect is sobering. Both narratives, with verse, involve heartache and reflection on the ultimate destiny that faces us all.

Anybody familiar with the small press surely has read Alan Catlin’s work.  He’s all over the place with poems, stories, essays, reviews, chapbooks, etc.  Catlin’s memoir here feels like it could have been plucked straight out of The Chiron Review, and indeed, parts of this book were published in different forms elsewhere in the samizdat press.  Which may be a clue as to what to expect.
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REVIEW: Spectator

spectatorAuthor: Kara Candito

2014, University of Utah Press

Filed Under: Poetry

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

Kara Candito writes within the vast context of western poetic traditions.  Her poetry demands a familiarity with forms and an understanding of historical context.  Just as her first collection,  Taste of Cherry, requires an acquaintance with Baudelaire to be truly appreciated, so in her new collection, the Agha Shahid Ali prizewinner, Spectator,  Federico Garcia Lorca  is the Vergil to her Dante.  In short, Candito’s poetry is both intellectual and sensual, and while the subjects of the lyrics are intensely personal, the themes of identity and personal destiny are universal.

The poems in the first of the four parts involve Candito’s family – begin at the beginning, right? – in an almost mythic tone.  The titles suggest this feeling of fable – “Creation Myth, 1979 (Reappropriated),” “Family Elegy in a Late Style of Fire,” “A Genealogy of the Father,” among others.   “Initiative #4: Lorca” opens the collection; in an appropriately Lorcaesque surrealistic touch, the dead poet appears at the foot of Candito’s bed (Vergil leading Dante is not so farfetched at all). 
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REVIEW: Just Drive

Author: Robert CoopermanJustDrive_Cover_front

2014, Brick Road Poetry Press

Filed Under: Poetry

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

My main feeling when I finished Robert Cooperman’s collection of poems about driving a taxicab in 1970’s New York?  I wished it would go on; I wished the ride weren’t over.  Just drive, Bob!  These poems are full of humor and humanity, brimming with familiar characters and the sort of everyday street adventure you might find in a Malamud or Bellow novel.

Cooperman’s work is wide-ranging, from narrative poetry of the Old West to formal verse about ancient Greece, but when he writes about New York, he writes with a sweet nostalgia – though not necessarily a fondness – for temps perdu.  Born in Brooklyn, for the past forty years Cooperman has lived all around the country – in Denver for the last twenty – but still has roots in New York.  His previous collections, My Shtetl and The Words We Used, dredge up memories and scenes about growing up Jewish in the 1950/60’s.  This collection, which spans maybe a year in the 1970’s, similarly calls upon memories of his youth.  Indeed, the Cooperman character in these poems is usually called “kid” by his elders.

Cooperman sets the scene for us, describing “Why We Drove Cabs,” “Taking the Hack Test,” “The Order of March,” in which he describes a typical shift from picking up the cab at the garage on West 57th , then heading south, taking a left below 42nd, left again on Madison, trolling Fifth Avenue, stalking the Theater district, seeking out airport fares, and finally dinner and home.  “The Taxi Rules,” “Boxing Out,” “Here’s How It Worked,” “End of Shift” likewise get us through a day in the life.

This being the 1970’s, he invokes (and evokes) the Martin Scorsese movie, Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro plays a New York City cabdriver – a movie that dismays the old-timers for its depiction of a sleazy occupation.  As one venerable hack puts it in “The Belmore Cafeteria”:


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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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