Book Reviews Published in MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews
This page contains book reviews that were originally published exclusively on The MadHat Drive-By Book Review website. The website was hacked and all of the published reviews disappeared with the site. I have reconstructed the original reviews as best I could from my personal files and published them here on Your Own Back Yard. There are still some minor formatting quirks that I will continue to try to resolve, but the content of the reviews is not affected. The photos and the links all appear to function. My purpose in doing this is to restore an online presence to these original reviews and to honor the writers and publishers who created these works.
Published Reviews by Michael Gillan Maxwell
(Not necessarily in the sequence they were originally published)
Three Works by Robert Vaughan If I Had Wings These Windmills Would Be Dead – by Chuck Howe Like a Beggar ~ by Ellen Bass Don’t Tease The Elephants ~ by Jen Knox Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku ~by Bill Yarrow Maybe Even Wanton ~ by Jeanne Holtzman Bound By Blue and Her Skin Is A Costume by Meg Tuite Cinéma Vérité: poems/sketches/parables by Sam Rasnake Tollbooth and Everything Neon by Bud Smith What Happened Here: a novella & stories by Bonnie ZoBell Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness by Heather Fowler We’ll See Who Seduces Whom: a graphic ekphrastic in verse Tom Bradley and David Aronson
Riding Off Into That Strange Technicolor Sunset by Kevin Ridgeway Guest Reviewer: Bud Smith Delicious Little Traitor: A Varian Pike Mystery by Jack DeWitt Guest Reviewer: AJ Sabatini The Burn Poems by Lynn Strongin Guest Reviewer: Sarah Lilius Audrey by Beate Sigriddaughter Guest Reviewer: Carol Reid
3 Reviews For The Enchanted Verses Michael Gillan Maxwell reviews
Waiting For Bluebeard by Helen Ivory
Belmont by Stephen Burt
Sputnik’s Cousin by Kent MacCarter
The Enchanted Verses book reviews are posted in
on this site
Book Review by Michael Gillan Maxwell
Three Works by Robert Vaughan
Microtones ~ Robert Vaughan Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction ~ 36 Pages Červená Barva Press 2013 ~ Gloria Mindock, Publisher
Diptychs+Triptychs+Lipsticks+Dipshits ~ Robert Vaughan Experimental Poetry and Flash Fiction ~ 59 Pages Deadly Chaps 2013, Joseph A. W. Quintella, Publisher
Addicts & Basements ~ Robert Vaughan Poetry, Flash Fiction, Prose ~ 137 Pages Civil Coping Mechanisms 2014 Michael J Seidlinger, Publisher
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. Henry David Thoreau
Robert Vaughan is a prolific writer with a unique voice and an unconventional brand of story telling. With work published in countless online and print publications, Vaughan is a peripatetic traveler, and he has hosted and participated in readings from coast to coast and in between; in places ranging from Boston and New York City to Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee, from Santa Fe to Seattle, to name a few. He generates work at a fever pitch and published three books within a relatively compact timeframe. Microtones is his debut chapbook, published by Červená Barva Press.
This was quickly followed by another chapbook, Diptychs+Triptychs+Lipsticks+Dipshits published by Deadly Chaps Press. His first full length collection, Addicts & Basements, published by Civil Coping Mechanisms followed in early 2014.
As 2014 winds down, I thought it might be an appropriate time to have a look at all three of these books before his new collection comes out in 2015.
Robert Vaughan’s Microtones from Červená Barva Press contains two dozen prose poems of varying lengths and a variety of rhythms and structures. From the shortest, just four lines, to the longest, going on two pages; Vaughan’s poems are like songs with a hook that make you want to hear them again. Microtones is like a hand carved box filled with little treasures, a leather album with photographs of people and places you want to know more about, or a double record on vinyl with 24 three minute songs you play over and over.
From the opening piece, The Outlaw, right through to Wrestling With Genetics, the poem that closes the book, the arc and flow keeps the reader moving from one poem to the next. However, you can also pick any poem at random and it shines just as brightly on its own.
Vaughan’s writing is deep and nuanced and evokes both a visual and a visceral response. The poems flow with an ease and grace that is musical and lyrical, in language rich with unexpected images and surprising passages that stop you in your tracks and make you slow down, go back, and read them again.
(From) The Upswing Of Falling
“You hang mid-air, arms akimbo, glance askance. Resigned. Jubilant.
As we are when any end is imminent.”
Robert Vaughan is a keen and compassionate observer of humanity; his writing, at times, tender, poignant and sad, yet unsentimental and tough when it needs to be. There’s also a healthy dose of irony and humor and a playfulness with language that is unique and refreshing.
(From) Wrestling With Genetics
“He’s the tetherball attached to my pole, the flying trapeze of my soul.”
I find myself sliding into each poem with so much ease, that, before I know it, I’m off and running. Microtones celebrates the predicaments of the human condition and the ephemeral quality of human relationships, and mourns their passing, while at the same time, still holding hope for the future.
Though Microtones is work from a seasoned author, it’s also fresh and exciting new work from a writer just really hitting his stride, an artist who speaks to us, in a clear and vibrant voice.
Microtones is available from Červená Barva Press
Diptychs+Triptychs+Lipsticks+Dipshits is Robert Vaughan’s second release with more on the way. This chapbook contains many of his best known pieces and is a little like a greatest hits album, in all the best possible ways. Notable pieces include “10,000 Dollar Pyramid” which was a finalist in the Micro Fiction awards 2012, “Ten Notes To The Guy Studying Jujitsu,” finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award 2013 and “Gauze, a Medical Dressing, a Scrim,” 2nd Place in the Flash Fiction Chronicles String-Of-10 Contest 2013. It also contains some of my personal favorites which include “Three For Carol,” (a tribute to the late Carol Novack) and “The Thief.”
(From: “Three For Carol”) “The dance has hands that reach into us like hunger. Where did you go after we burst against each other?”
(From: “The Thief”) “Purposeless, as if I could fly away, aim toward the crystal moon. A sliver awaiting my arrival in a pale, porous evening sky. This silent retreat gliding on speculation, the web of solace promises sleep if nothing more.”
Vaughan’s pieces are poignant and compassionate, but not in a Hallmark card kind of way. Any one of the segments of a diptych or triptych could easily serve as the foundation for its own expanded story. This marvelously crafted collection, is, at times deep and dark, then light, playful and mischievous, with an edge that keeps you on your toes. His prose is characterized by quirky wordplay and tongue in cheek references to icons, titles and phrases in the lexicon of popular culture. Capricious imagery and cleverly placed internal rhymes create rambunctious but gently subversive pieces that range from totally straight forward to abstract and cryptic. This energetic and experimental book challenged my perceptions and concepts about genre and structure and left me wanting more.
Diptychs+Triptychs+Lipsticks+Dipshits is available from Deadly Chaps at:
Addicts & Basements
Addicts & Basements is a full length collection of nearly 100 pieces. It’s a genre bending mash up of formally structured poetry, experimental prose and flash fiction. The book is organized into three sections: “Addicts,” “&,” and “Basements,” each with its own general themes and settings. Addicts & Basements is a subtly complex book of high density, cutting edge writing. Rather than speak in general terms, it feels more appropriate to single out some of my favorite individual pieces as touchstones that might offer an overview of the book.
The Femur is camp, crazy and funny and could be an episode of Dexter, Six Feet Under or True Blood.
I found Four Myths to be compelling and funny, adventurous and quirky. “Lit up at night, like my daddy was, mostly.”
Six Glimpses Of The Uncouth consists of six connected vignettes, although each one could easily stand on its own. A tragicomic piece with wonderful word play, lyrical language and manic imagery that depicts the futility of trying to recapture something that was shared a long time ago, but that just isn’t there anymore because there’s just too much water under the bridge. “What did I do to make you do the things you did.”
A Continental Drift is a piece of wonderful prose; poignant, sad, and sensual. Its brevity gives it power with so much potential lying in that which has been left unsaid.
Visitation is deep, dark, mysterious, and sinister. This poem conveys a connection to nature, in a beautiful but dark kind of landscape that conjures graves, deep woods, unknown danger and something being hidden. The brevity of this transcendent poem loads it with the potential energy of a coiled spring.
My New Perm Sad is a powerful and poignant story about coming of age and a survivor’s journey of experimentation and self discovery that offers a glimpse into infatuation, intoxication and domestic violence.
On The Wings Of A Dove, more of a “traditional” poem, is a heartbreaking and elegiac tribute to Matthew Wayne Shepard.
The Fallow Heart is a poignant and bittersweet triptych with lush language and vivid images carried along on a musical cadence. “The 101 jammed faster than a school of piranha on a deadly target. Traffic darted left and right of us,” “….the fog creeps up the Avenues like a spectator”
Seven Shades Of James is another favorite of mine, that builds slowly and deliberately with vague clues that foreshadow doom. This one hits me right in the solar plexus.
Memory Of The Bones could be a dystopian future, primitive past or current event. That it isn’t clearly linked to an actual historical event gives it a strong universal character and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
3 Questions To Ask Any Dentist is a quirky triptych with humor along the lines of David Sedaris.
Top Of The White Horse Trail is my favorite piece in all three collections, with evocative connections to nature, season, landscape and topography. An encounter with a native American Indian and his “his one-eyed, three-legged dog” is ambiguous, unsettling and vaguely menacing, but also spiritual.
Flip Of A Coin is a diptych about duality that depicts the archetypal conundrum of the character facing “the full catastrophe” and the complexities of family ties and obligations after he’s been such a free spirit.
I Always Believed I Would See Her Again is a gorgeous piece woven from heartbreaking images and words evocative of unrequited love, longing and regret. “We were endlessly ransacking the house, looking for evidence of each other.”
The Conundrum says so much with so little. The seed of disquiet is subtly planted as the character is almost sanctified by everyone’s perception that he is the paragon of a good and upstanding citizen in his community. However, things are not what they seem, and something is amiss here. He’s too perfect, too good. The story really only provides the setup and the rest created within the reader’s imagination.
The writing in Addicts & Basements blurs the boundaries between poetry and flash fiction. It’s writing that gets to the crux quickly with lines that hit like a hammer. Larger stories are suggested by something that is like is like gesture drawing, or painting with broad strokes and swaths of watercolor. Addicts & Basements is a collection of sketches, narratives and reflections, word lists and found objects, desultory snippets of conversation behind closed doors, glimpses through peepholes into interior landscapes, relationships and scenarios that have been drawn from life, observation, experience, and inference. Edgy, spontaneous prose poems with rhythm and snap, and lyrical, internal rhymes that beg to be read aloud. Provocative, evocative and open ended stories that offer readers the opportunity to connect with their own experience. Addicts & Basements features much of Robert Vaughan’s very best writing to date and is a more comprehensive and fully realized collection. While I’m not here to choose favorites, I think I may have connected most intimately with Addicts & Basements. Although I honestly feel this is the case because I read the other two books on the way to this one.
If you are not yet familiar with the writing of Robert Vaughan, then any of these three books is the perfect place to start. The body of work represented here is indicative of art that is quickly growing, changing and evolving. His forthcoming book promises fresh explorations by an artist whose work defies conventional labels. His work is a unique hybrid; part poetry, part flash fiction, part descriptive prose, part one act play. Always surprising, it’s all part of a journey that takes you down roads you’ve never been down before.
Addicts & Basements is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms
Robert Vaughan is the author of three collections: Microtones (2013); Diptychs+Triptychs+Lipsticks+Dipshits (2013); and Addicts & Basements (2014). He also edited Flash Fiction Fridays (2011) and is senior editor at JMWW and Lost in Thought magazines. His awards include Micro-Fiction (2012), and Gertrude Stein Awards (2013, 2014). He leads roundtables at Red Oak Writing in Milwaukee, WI. Robert Vaughan is working on a new book published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2015. He writes weekly at http://www.robert-vaughan.com
If I Had Wings These Windmills Would Be Dead by Chuck Howe
Unknown Press 2013
If I Had Wings These Windmills Would Be Dead is a collection of 56 vignettes from Chuck Howe’s life. While the pieces are intertwined and sequenced chronologically, each one stands on its own as a self contained anecdote that can really can be read in any order. In fact, a number of pieces have been published on their own in various anthologies and journals and they work just fine that way.
This memoir owes a lot to the oral tradition of story telling. Written in down-to-earth, conversational style, it is approachable and accessible, warm and friendly and is as comfortable and easy to get into as your favorite pair of jeans. Rendered with a musician’s sensibility, Chuck Howe’s writing has a funky, homegrown vibe that is akin to a relaxed string band living room jam session. The result is a book with a loose feel but a tight rhythm and flow that carries the reader effortlessly downstream. Still, the writing itself is tight and compressed, unselfconscious, genuine, honest and unburdened by pretense.
If I Had Wings These Windmills Would Be Dead is a demonstration of Howe’s remarkable story telling ability. Events from early childhood, adolescence and young adulthood are reconstructed with vivid memory and brought to life with fertile imagination and command of language. Reflections shaped by the innocence of childhood, the emerging self awareness of adolescence and coming of age as a young man, are told with warmth, compassion, humor and wisdom from the perspective of a grown man and mature artist.
A kind of modern day “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” much of Howe’s memoir is about his development and emergence as a rock musician. I was particularly engaged by the colorful and vivid descriptive accounts of what it’s like to be a working musician in a bar band; the wild living, indulgence and experimentation with mind altering substances and the circus-like cast of characters that comes with that kind of a lifestyle. It takes a high degree of metacognition coupled with storytelling virtuosity to put the reader inside those experiences and Howe manages to do that with aplomb.
While this memoir is about a kid coming of age in late 20th century America, written in the informal, every-day parlance of our times, it’s also an “Everyman” story with recurring universal themes. Innocence, youthful rebellion, exploring one’s world, pushing boundaries and testing limits, questioning authority, personal creativity, love, loss and redemption are some of the strands that are the underpinnings of the work.
It’s a beautifully produced book and the cover art and book design by Erin McParland is a perfect complement to the author’s aesthetics and his free wheeling, relaxed approach to storytelling. This sparkling debut is an eminently readable memoir that feels like it ends too soon. But it’s also left in a way that there is no “end” per se and he might easily pick back up precisely where he left off. It left me wanting more but I have faith and hope that Chuck Howe will have more stories to tell and I look forward to it.
Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass
Poetry ~ Copper Canyon Press ~ 2014 ~ 70 pages
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”
“Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” Zen Saying
Ellen Bass is co-author of several best-selling books of nonfiction, a children’s book and several collections of poetry. Like a Beggar is Ellen Bass’s most recent collection. It is, hands down, the most engaging, compelling and emotionally moving collection of poems I’ve read this past year. Every so often, I have the good fortune to read poems that resonate so deeply, they are living things that leap right off the page and sing the language of my soul. Like a Beggar does that for me. It’s a book I read straight through and then started all over again from the beginning. When I was a kid, I did the same thing with albums I loved. Picked that needle up, dropped it right back in the groove of the first song, and let it play. This is that kind of book.
Like a Beggar invokes the spirit of one of my favorite Zen sayings: “Relax, Nothing is under control.” In fact, the first poem is titled “Relax.” I read it, and after I picked myself up off the floor, I read it again, and then again. I read it aloud as an invocation at a New Year’s Day gathering and as I reached the powerful conclusion, my voice choked up with emotion. This is the kick off poem to a life affirming collection about the “whole catastrophe,” the messiness and wonder of it all, the miracle of birth and the mysterious transition into death, contemplation of the sublime juxtaposed with the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty details of moment to moment physical existence, our toes in the mud and our heads in the stars. These are poems about blood and bone, the passage of time, persistence of memory, love and loss, the will to live and the resilience of the human spirit. Shit happens. Deal with it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on going. Nobody gets out of here alive. We’re all going to die. But at the same time, isn’t life beautiful? Pay heed to the clarion call to stop and smell the flowers.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
The 46 poems in this collection are written in a narrative, matter of fact style, most often in a straight ahead list format without regard or the need for stanzas. One of the things I really like about this collection is that it’s not full of arcane references and hidden meanings that leave me scratching my head and wondering “WTF?” It’s like Shaker furniture, a perfect marriage of form and function, elegant in its simplicity, yet still subtle and nuanced, but not muddied by artifice and pretension.
These are poems about self discovery and the celebration of small moments, forgiveness and the will to carry on in the face of absurdity. Written with empathy and compassion, courage and wisdom, humor and strength and the spirit of celebrating life and winking at death.
I start thinking maybe there’s hope.
Maybe his life could be like jazz
that starts out with a simple melody,
nothing complicated, nothing jittery or twisted,
and then breaks off, kisses it, waves goodbye,
ripens the notes, tears the tune to rags,
strips it, pokes out an eye, burns it
sends it up in smoky wreaths,
reaches inside and steals the honey….
I was swept along by vivid sensory reminiscences of her childhood, her mother and the liquor store her parents owned, and her own journey as a woman, a mother, a lover and a human being. (How I Became Miss America, Pleasantville New Jersey, 1955, The Muse of Work.) Mesmerized by her examination of the smallest details and the seemingly mundane elevated to miracles. (Looking at a Diadegma insulare Wasp under a Microscope, Moth Orchids, Ode to Repetition.) Moved to tears by the heartbreaking compassion and strength shown in the face of death. (Bottom Line, Moonlight, The Last Week, Their Naked Petals.)
Like a Beggar pays artistic homage to the aesthetic spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dorianne Laux and Mary Oliver. These poems are elegiac litanies, rock and roll anthems, eulogies, prayers, exaltations, tantra yoga, ecstatic dances, chakra clearing chants, existential manifestos, Zen koans and love letters.
Like a Beggar closes with a pair of tour de force love poems. “When You Return” and “Let’s” celebrate love as a magical force of nature, and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation over pride.
“Wouldn’t she be happy to know
death is feeding elsewhere tonight?
I’ll dust your eyelids with cinnamon
and braid those old feathers into your hair.
Morning will find us asleep on the roof,
our faces blank as the new day, just the mockingbird
in the neighbor’s tattered palm
whistling a tune that sounds like a Persian raga,
that twangy sitar, raising the sun.”
This book is written with the heart and soul of a virtuoso artist and the sensibilities of a highly skilled artisan. (Stealing an image from one of her poems) Ellen Bass uses plain language to create scintillating imagery that sparkles and shines in the way a blacksmith might pound glowing red, nearly molten metal into sturdy but beautiful wrought-iron implements that endure daily use and the test of time with grace.
Ellen Bass has published several award winning books of poetry, including The Human Line and Mules of Love. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, and many other journals. She coedited the groundbreaking anthology of women’s poetry No More Masks! and her nonfiction includes the best-selling The Courage to Heal. She teaches In the MFA program at Pacific University.
Like a Beggar is published by Copper Canyon Press http://www.coppercanyonpress.org _____________________________________________________________________
Don’t Tease The Elephants by Jen Knox
Jen Knox Monkey Puzzle Press 2014
Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku by Bill Yarrow
Červená Barva Press, 2013
Don’t Tease The Elephants by Jen Knox Monkey Puzzle Press 2014
Don’t Tease The Elephants is a slender chap book from Texas author Jen Knox consisting of just 5 very short stories. While I think the pieces in Don’t Tease The Elephants could technically be called “Flash Fiction,” they might more accurately be categorized as “Short Stories”. However, it’s not worth splitting hairs in an effort to pigeonhole this book with the “correct” genre label. Call it “cross genre.” In any case, this a collection of very fine stories, each with it’s own distinctive setting, arc and climax, sometimes interconnected by a recurring character “Rattle”, who happens to be my favorite character, appearing in “Nothing” and “Don’t Tease The Elephants.”
Throughout the collection, Jen Knox demonstrates a chameleon-like facility to write from widely divergent points of view in a totally believable fashion, often shifting the POV within the story. Dialogue flows naturally in stories told from the perspective of an adolescent who is drawn to an older girl (When Pretty People Disappoint); a middle aged business man with a pregnant teen aged daughter who worked illegally in a strip club and another man named “Rattle” a 40 year old male bouncer in that strip club (Nothing); adolescent girls who have been left homeless after a house fire (We Would Come Back As Rats); a middle-aged, alcoholic mother struggling to maintain her footing on life’s slippery slope, and from the point of view of her adult daughter who cares deeply for her mother, but is in the process of moving on with her own life. (Getting There); and a little boy at a safari park with his little brother, his Mom and her boyfriend. (Don’t Tease The Elephants)
The pieces in Don’t Tease The Elephants are poignant and compelling. Rendered with compassion, empathy and humanity, the stories are populated by characters who inhabit the gritty fringes of society’s main stream, each one struggling in his or her own way just to make their way in the world.
Each of the stories in Don’t Tease The Elephants evokes a visceral emotional response, while raising one or more moral and ethical questions to which the answers are in nuanced shades of gray rather than black and white. Even as the characters in these stories grapple with conundrums that their lives present, things are never completely resolved and Jen Knox deftly engages the reader to make their own meaning of each situation and to find their own answers.
Jen Knox’s short collection is about characters I care about and each story left me wanting more. I could easily see this chap book serving as a foundation for an expanded full collection of short stories, or any of these pieces serving as a jumping off point for a novella or novel. I hope we’ll be seeing more from Jen Knox in the near future.
Jen Knox works as a creative writing professor and editor in San Antonio Texas. For more, visit her website at: http://www.jenknox.com
Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku by Bill Yarrow Červená Barva Press, 2013 http://www.thelostbookshelf.com/poetrychapbooks.html
Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku is a poetry chap book from widely published Illinois poet Bill Yarrow. Spoiler alert! Having read his other recent chap book, The Lice of Christ ( MadHat Press), and his full length collection, Pointed Sentences (BlazeVox ), I should have known better than to expect a book of actual scholarly translations and haiku poetry written in classical 17 syllable, 3 line, 5-7-5 form. I hope I’m not giving away too much, other than revealing the extent of my own naïveté, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me a while to realize the joke was on me and that this chap book is no such thing.
Each of the twenty seven poems in this chap book convey a message with a light hearted sense of ironic humor without being trite or overly jocular. I would not categorize Bill Yarrow as a “satirist” per se. However, he certainly has a wicked eye for irony and for seeing humor in the absurd, and finds a way to convey that through poetry, as he has done with a wink and a wry smile in this chap book. Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku is a romp through comparative poetics and an exploration of classical theme, form, tone, style and convention. At the same time, Yarrow manages to playfully poke fun at pretension without being mean spirited or overly pedantic. Don’t get me wrong. Bill Yarrow does write serious poetry in this collection and as a poet, he is the real deal. However, one of his gifts is the ability to compose poems with a serious message, but delivered with deadpan humor.
Bill Yarrow’s raucous send up of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” (“Le Bateau ivre”) is worth the price of admission. My understanding of the French language leaves much to be desired, but I know enough to enjoy the comedy he makes of his “incompetent translation” from a revered poet who has been over romanticized to the degree that Rimbaud himself would be embarrassed by his pop icon status. At the very least, he’d find this translation subversively amusing. His treatment of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” ~“Song of Unself” (“Translations from The English”) is absolutely hilarious.
Other poems are wonderful narrative reflections on childhood, (Playing Pinochle In Your Snout) clutter and decay, (The Basement Of Desire) and his own poetry ( What The Hell Am I Doing?) And then there’s a character named Cranshaw who recurs in several poems. Cranshaw is audacious, flamboyant and outrageous and seems a little dangerous to hang out with. But I want more of him.
All that aside, it’s not ALL tongue in cheek. Light hearted does not mean light weight. This chap book sneaks through the back door to examine and celebrate the importance of language, syntax, interpretation and the gravity of imagery in poetry. It is a chap book of real poetry from a real poet who just reminds me that good art doesn’t have to always be somber and serious to successfully convey a message. Among other things, this often rollicking and playful chap book is, at times, just plain fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Bill Yarrow is a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film. He is the author of Pointed Sentences (BlazeVOX, 2012) and The Lice of Christ MadHat Press 2014
Maybe Even Wanton by Jeanne Holtzman
Flash Fiction Red Bird Chapbooks ~ 2014
Jeanne Holtzman’s collection of really short stories, Maybe Even Wanton is pretty darn close to being the “perfect flash fiction chapbook.” Comprised of fifteen pieces of flash fiction, the stories are told from a female point of view and arranged chronologically, from a preteen girl discovering her sexuality to a woman living in a nursing home regretting her stifled passion. Maybe Even Wanton’s stories examine many of life’s often messy issues that we all eventually confront; including the bloom of youth fading to middle age, sex, love, marriage, health, aging parents, relationships, loss, and the search for connection. Some of these stories venture into the realm of subjects almost too personal to discuss in public. I think Maybe Even Wanton could be described as transgressive literature. While not an extreme example of this genre, the stories do explore some subject matter that could be considered taboo and feature characters who feel confined by societal norms and deal with this in unusual ways.
“Brevity is power” is a phrase that might be used to describe one of the characteristics of these stories, each one a beautiful little gem. While the average length is between 2-3 pages, the stories range in length from a couple of really, really short pieces (one consisting of a single sentence) taking up less than a page, to a couple of pieces that are just under 5 pages. I’m guessing the word counts range from about 350 words, which could even be labeled micro fiction to just over 1000 words.
In any case these are wonderful pieces of flash fiction that contain all of the classic story elements: a protagonist, some sort of conflict, encountering obstacles and coming to resolution. One of the things I like about good flash fiction is that, more often than not, questions may be raised, but are often left unanswered. Something may be tacitly implied, but left unwritten. This allows readers to make their own inferences and draw their own conclusions. Because the reader is more actively engaged, the story is much more interactive and, in some way, becomes the reader’s own story. The stories in Maybe Even Wanton do this for me.
These stories are intimate and compelling glimpses into the internal landscapes of the characters. I felt almost voyeuristic at times. Million Dollar Movie and One of Them are stories that approach the subject of cancer in middle age, which is something I can relate to on a personal level. Million Dollar Movie takes a peek at the subject from a point of connection between two women whose friendship dates back to childhood, both of whom have been diagnosed with breast cancer. One of Them tackles the subject from the point of view of somebody who resists the idea of joining a support group and who refuses to be labeled or pigeonholed as a “survivor.” Cancer casts a long, dark shadow that never really goes away. “I don’t know if I will survive my cancer until I die of something else.” She then continues with a brilliant manifesto that totally rocked my world. You’ll really have to get the book to read this one yourself.
Other stories deal with the subject of sex in its many different guises as a transformative power: Better Than Chocolate, (coming of age, teenage curiosity and lust) You Don’t Unfriend Them, (loss, separation, revenge and social media) I Know My Love Can Save The World, (mania) Waiting For Mr. Goodman, (repressed sexuality, obsession, the need for connection) (Com)Passion (isolation, emptiness, searching for connection, picking up a random stranger in the checkout line of the grocery store).
Mother Love is a riveting story with a supernatural twist that would give Stephen King a run for his money. It gave me the absolute willies.
Watching Stanley Kowalski in the TV Room of Bell Haven is a heart wrenching story of old age in a nursing home and looking back with some regets, and Cry of the Loon Lodge is a poignant glimpse of somebody confronting their own aging and the pain and sorrow of watching a loved one disappear from the ravages of Alzheimer’s.
No Dysfunctional Lovers is a story about a broken relationship, but also about writing and writers’ groups, and the kind of intimacy that is sometimes engendered by writers’ circles. It also contains some passages that resonate with me on an intensely personal level.
(From: No Dysfunctional Lovers)
“Words like emerging and quirky and edgy. Edgy. My edge has bumped against life so long, it’s smooth as river stone. When I write, I swat away Lawrence Welk bubbles that circle my prose like vultures.”
Wow. I just think that’s just downright amazing prose!
Maybe Even Wanton is a very beautifully designed and executed book from Red Bird Chapbooks. I have two chapbooks from Red Bird and they’re both gorgeous pieces of book art. Maybe Even Wanton is written in stripped down, minimalist, but highly effective, “straight from the gut” prose. You won’t find any adverb or adjective abuse in these pages and every word counts. It’s unabashedly honest, confessional and compelling; a wonderfully engaging chapbook that left me wanting more of Jeanne Holtzman’s writing.
Jeanne Holtzman was born and raised in The Bronx, lives in Massachusetts, but wishes she still lived in Vermont. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. She’s an aging hippie, gardener, physician assistant, mother and wife who is once again letting her freak flag fly.
Available from Red Bird Chapbooks
Bound By Blue and Her Skin Is A Costume by Meg Tuite
Bound By Blue
Meg Tuite’s stories in Bound By Blue are dark, tough, beautifully written and skillfully wrought. The 13 pieces in this brilliant collection are inhabited by wanderers, wonderers and seekers, lost and broken souls, parents and children estranged and searching for connection, people looking for meaning and characters dancing on the fringes of society and the edges of reality.
Bound By Blue may very well be unlike anything else you’ve ever read. Meg Tuite’s writing is raw-boned and edgy. She tells stories in a strong and grounded narrative voice that is unique, totally original and very much all her own.
Each story, from the opening “The F Word,” to the piece that serves as the book’s keystone, “Bound By Blue”, to the final (and my favorite) piece “The Healer” bristles with fulminating energy that simmers just beneath the surface, before exploding in your face, leaving you stunned and reeling. These stories are written in prose that is rendered with the sensibilities of a visual artist and the soul of a poet.
This is one of those books that not only took courage to write but also takes courage to read. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s rough, tough and in your face, unflinching yet poignant and compassionate, but certainly not without humor and redemption.
It’s a beautifully designed book, published by Sententia Books, and the cover art alone, a reproduction of a painting by Goro Endow, would be reason enough for me to buy it.
Her Skin Is A Costume
I think Fish Pants may be my favorite piece in the chap book. In fact, it my be my favorite piece of Meg Tuite’s writing. Period. A warmly remembered story about a little brother named Knuckle, not unlike the character “Pigpen” in the Peanuts cartoon, as seen through the eyes of an older sister in a busy houseful of energetic kids. Fish Pants is thoroughly compelling story telling; rich, poignant, tender and full of love and humor. References to Elton John, Joe Pepitone and Madonna nail the sense of the times. When I was a kid, I idolized pro baseball players, and I really relate to Knuckle’s adoption of Joe Pepitone’s mannerisms. “Scrunched his eyes and looked sour all the time.” Also, his take on Elton’s lyrics just kill me. A passage describing Knuckle’s “fish pants” which serve as the story’s title, is a great example of writing chock full of evocative sensory references. “They billowed out a chicken-of-the-sea stench.”
Chicken or Beef is all about language and imagery. It’s powerful and even brutal, like the subject matter it describes. Part II is evocative of Caligula and Hannibal Lechter all at the same time. “the Hooter waitress carries off in his fantasies of smothering himself in her cleavage, racking up the hanging sacs of flesh that cover her ribcage.” All parts offer a dark shift between the physical/seen/visible reality and unseen invisible psychological reality, but Part III shifts back and forth between these perspectives in the most stark and shocking manner. I often draw parallels between writing and visual art and this piece evokes the paintings of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Willem deKooning and Chaïm Soutine whose expressionistic work could be shocking, savage, brutal, grotesque yet strangely beautiful and compelling at the same time. With this story, Meg Tuite hit a grand slam home run; while ripping the hide right off the baseball and shattering the bat in the process.
Match is a surprising piece in which humor comes through in the most understated and unexpected ways. I think the language, flow and imagery works beautifully. It’s really thought provoking and I found it immensely enjoyable to read.
Her Skin Is a Costume is the titular piece. An intense, heart breaking, elegiac tour de force, a song, a painting, a symphony. It’s pure poetry, dense, rich prose constructed from lyrical language and lush imagery that begs to be read again and again.It took me straight to the core of my own heart. Gorgeous work and a loving and poignant portrait that depicts the deeper insights of one’s life and times in ways the photograph alone is incapable of doing. Why do we write? That’s why. Right there!
Cinéma Vérité: poems/sketches/parables by Sam Rasnake
Poetry 86 pages A-Minor Press 2013
Cinéma Vérité, is Sam Rasnake’s fifth collection, and the third book in the series, Tales of Brave Ulysses. It consists of 46 ekphrastic poems in three different sections. These poems are rendered with the sensibility of a film maker, the eye of a photographer and the ear of a songwriter. The pieces in this book pay homage to films, directors, artists, musicians, and songs that have inspired or informed his work. However, while his poetry owes much to the disciplines of visual art, photography, film and music, the pieces in Cinéma Vérité exist totally on their own terms as poems, for as Charles Bukowski said: “Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.”
Cinéma Vérité reflects the qualities of the poems’ subject matter. The language is restrained and spare, at times, even austere; conjuring up tableaus rendered in black and white and sepia tones. With words, phrases, lines and enjambments carefully measured, Cinéma Vérité is a study in economy of motion. There are no wasted words, no extraneous images. However, this does not detract from the poems’ power to evoke powerful emotions and rich imagery.
(from:) Lines Written Under The Influence
The rhythm of bone and soup and wind,
a hawk landing on rocks, newspaper
along asphalt, the whistle of fence line
and railroad tracks to divide the waking
from the dream and a seamless blue
over desert high country. This is
the solitude of happy. The right car
and music, the highway. No borders.
Each piece is a slice of life, a moment in time, a meditation, reflection, a journey or a snapshot resulting in an organic composition. From the opening “Lines Written Under The Influence” to the closing “This is not my testament:” Sam Rasnake leads the reader through a landscape that bubbles forth with imagery, settings and characters that seem as though they are part of a classic movie.
As a practicing visual artist, I’m wired to view things through the filters of the elements of art: line, space, shape, form, color and texture; and the principles of design: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety and unity. This book has it all. Sam Rasnake is not afraid to experiment with the formal aspects of poetry and demonstrates his fluid virtuosity with poetic form, while respecting the symbiotic relationship between form and function. One poem may be written in couplets, the next in stanzas while the next is a solid block of unbroken text, followed by a piece presented in prose paragraphs. The result is a meticulously designed and masterfully crafted book that has a rhythmic visual appeal and reads beautifully off the page.
Reading ekphrastic poetry is an opportunity to view art through the eyes of another, and it’s like looking through a keyhole into another room, another world. Just as metacognition is “thinking about thinking” ekphrastic poetry could be called “art about art.” While I am not familiar with all of his references to classic, seminal films, the poems in Cinéma Vérité expand my appreciation for the films and directors I am already familiar with, and serve as impetus to familiarize myself with the others. Reading Sam Rasnake’s ekphrastic poems is like having an expert guide on a journey, a knowledgeable docent in a museum, or an inspiring teacher in film class.
(from) “Something to do with death”
with deafening cracks of gunfire, eyes in extreme
close-up, the body of a woman’s perfect resolve.
The face as landscape that needs no word.
Flapping dusters, an old windmill screeching,
one fly buzzing, water dripping to a hat’s brim.
Everything expendable. Everyone. An unbearable
wait for the train’s scream of steel on steel.
Nothing is as it seems. Greed, vengeance, hope.
Discordant rattles, duello finale, all sweat and swoon.
A man rides away. A woman brings water.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Sergio Leone, dir.
Perhaps it sounds trite, but Cinéma Vérité is filled with pieces that make me want to say: “Damn! I wish I’d written that ~ it feels like I could write that!” This observation, might sound like envy, but it’s more about the actual magic of cinéma vérité, as it applies to film making. As cinéma vérité, puts the viewer inside the film by the successful depiction of reality without any staging for the camera, Sam Rasnake’s poems somehow put the reader inside the poem. This is master work from a poet in full bloom and in full voice. Cinéma Vérité leads me to see things in a different way, and reminds me that there are untapped sources of inspiration to be mined for poetry and art. In that sense, the poems in Cinéma Vérité have done their job.
Sam Rasnake has authored four previous collections, and his work has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has appeared in countless publications and anthologies. He is chapbook editor for Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and served as editor of Blue Fifth Review from 2001-2010. Since 2011 he has edited, along with Michelle Elvy, the Blue Five Notebook Series from BFR.
Tollbooth and Everything Neon by Bud Smith
I’ve decided to veer from my “schedule” a bit and post another double header review of recently released books from an author who usually does more to promote the work of other writers than his own. This installment of MadHat’s Drive-By Book reviews features the work of Bud Smith, who is one of the most prolific writers I know. Not only does he write his own books nonstop, but he also collaborates with other artists and writers and features their work through his indie press, Unknown Press and anthologies such as the recent Excess and Uno Kudo IV. He also organizes readings and hosts a radio talk show called The Unknown Show on Blog Talk Radio, where he interviews writers about their work and their creative process. His novel Tollbooth was released in 2013 and his full length poetry collection Everything Neon was released in 2014. With his new novel F250, just released, I just felt like these two recent books, deserved a little more time in the spotlight before F250 starts hogging all the glory.
Tollbooth by Bud Smith Piscataway House Publications ~ 2013 ~ Fiction ~307 pages
Bud Smith’s 2013 release Tollbooth is one of the most entertaining, refreshing and compelling novels I’ve read in a long time. The protagonist, Jimmy Saare is a toll collector on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. It opens with Jimmy saving the lives of a mother and daughter by pulling them to safety from the flaming wreckage of their vehicle after a horrific accident. It’s Jimmy’s second day on the job. Although this is a real event in the life of Jimmy Saare, toll collector, it’s also an important piece of metaphorical foreshadowing.
The story takes off from there like a bull exploding out of the chute at a rodeo, twisting, turning, bucking wildly and it doesn’t stop until it’s over. Tollbooth takes the reader on a wild ride through the interior psychological landscape of Jimmy, his hallucinatory break with reality, a marriage in the midst of crashing and burning, an impossible obsession with a nineteen year old sales clerk and his involvement with a bizarre cult and the exterior physical landscape of the Garden State Parkway, coastal New Jersey, strip malls, Iceland, and a commercial fishing trawler all the way to the gates of Hell and back again on an unexpected path to redemption.
I think Tollbooth is a wonderful book. The voice and writing set the stage for an effortless and compelling read. It’s also totally original and just plain brilliant. There’s humor, mystery, eroticism, the good, bad and ugly of human nature, mysticism, magic realism, characters I care about and “diamonds in the rough” passages of absolutely gorgeous, lyrical, poetic prose.
Although the book is an acrobatic mash-up of different genres including realism, magic realism, absurdist black humor and surrealism, none of those labels really do justice in accurately describing Tollbooth. For all of the twists and turns and forays into other worldly realities, it’s also a classic love story and solid, old school storytelling. But don’t just take my word for it. You really should see for yourself.
Everything Neon by Bud Smith Marginalia Press 2014 Poetry ~ 167 Pages
Everything Neon is the most enjoyable book of poetry I’ve read this year. Bud Smith unleashes his keen powers of observation and ability to describe contemporary life in narrative prose that takes the reader on a stream of consciousness magical mystery tour.
Rarely do I want to go back and start rereading a book right after finishing it, but I did with Everything Neon. For me it was like listening to one of my favorite vinyl albums that left me wanting to immediately flip it over, lay that needle right back in the groove of the first song, and do it all again
.Bud Smith writes poems that I wish I had written. He makes it look easy. Maybe it is for him, but these are poems that only Bud Smith can write. Bud Smith is a total original who is as comfortable in his own skin as he is with his own authentic voice. He exhibits a high degree of self awareness, but writes with a Zen-like unselfconsciousness. The poems in Everything Neon are rendered with unstudied freshness and spontaneity and are never over-worked. It’s like he’s on your living room couch and you’re just having a laid back, casual conversation.
Everything Neon is a collection of epistolary love poems and reflections on people and a sense of place. Smith’s poems somehow have a meandering way that manages to transform the everyday mundane into a transcendental experience. Everything Neon contains personal reflections on human intimacy integrated with, and somehow juxtaposed to, the ebbs and flows of living in a present day New York City neighborhood. Bud Smith ruminates on the day-to-day of urban living in the way that nature poets might describe the natural environment.
Intimacies shared with his lover are interwoven with reflections on finding and keeping a parking place or remembering where his car is parked, impressions of living in a pre-war Manhattan apartment building with all its noises and quirks and the idiosyncratic behavior of neighbors in close quarters. It’s also about the interaction of nature with his city; with references to the “moon scraping the tops of buildings”, the “silver river”, the storms of winter, the heat of summer and passing of the seasons.
However, don’t be fooled by what might, at first glance, appear to be minimalism or even simplicity. While Everything Neon may feel as comfortable as your favorite pair of jeans, the poems reveal hidden depth and subtle layers of nuance. Everything Neon is a celebration of being alive and fully present and the work resonates with me for the same reasons as the work of Gary Snyder, and (Hell yeah!) Walt Whitman. The poems in Everything Neon have a funky feel and a songwriter’s soul.
Smith writes with the sensibilities of a photographer and a film maker. Bud Smith’s narrative prose manages to take us inside his head so we can see through his eyes. Everything Neon is also about compassion, humility, humanity, ironic humor, a keen sense of the absurd, and a sense of optimism with hope for redemption. Smith is a prolific writer and a ball of fire with multiple collaborative projects in the works at any given time. You can expect a lot more from Bud Smith, but Everything Neon is as good a place to start as any.
Bud Smith grew up in New Jersey and currently lives in Washington Heights, NYC with a metric ton of vinyl records he bought at Englishtown Flea Market for a dollar. He is the author of the short story collection Or Something Like That (2012), and Lightning Box (Kleft Jaw Press, 2013). He hosts the interview program The Unknown Show, edits at jmww and Red Fez, and is a union boilermaker in power plants and refineries. His most recent novel F-250 was published in 2015 by Piscataway House Publications.
What Happened Here: a novella & stories by Bonnie ZoBell Press 53, 2014 ~ 174 Pages
I just finished reading Bonnie ZoBell’s enthralling book What Happened Here. It took me a long time to read, but not because it’s difficult, slow moving or ponderous. On the contrary. The seamlessly flowing, poetic descriptive prose and engaging dialogue are woven together in a compelling read with fascinating characters. These are people I really care about and personally relate to, and want to get to know more intimately. It’s the kind of book I really wanted to savor and didn’t want to end. It’s a book that makes me want to take a short break before starting another one, because I just want to live in that world a little longer.
What Happened Here is a novella and 10 linked short stories. The main setting is the historic, bohemian North Park neighborhood of San Diego that was the site of a horrific plane wreck. On September 25, 1978, commercial airliner, PSA Flight 182 collided with a private Cessna 172 resulting in the death of 144 people, injuries to other people and the destruction of a large swath of the neighborhood. It is the deadliest aircraft disaster in California history.
Coincidentally, one of the most haunting episodes of the popular television show Breaking Dad centered around a fictional plane wreck over Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the effect it had on the neighborhood. I had not yet read What Happened Here when I saw that episode, but, looking back, the events bear a spooky resemblance to the PSA Flight 182 disaster in North Park. There is also a chilling prescience in regard to actual current events.
The opening titular novella, What Happened Here, begins with a vivid first-person account of the horrific crash and devastation of the neighborhood.
“A few neighbors who happened to look up when they heard a loud crunching sound saw the out-of-control jet careening to the right, fire and smoke shooting out from behind, before the plane slammed into the earth at 300 miles per hour just behind my house. The explosion was instantaneous – an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris.”
The story then drops us into the present as the neighborhood prepares for a memorial on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. It sets the tone for the stories that follow, and it is here that we are introduced to the North Park neighborhood and many of the characters in the book. Some of the recurring characters actually lived in North Park at the time of the accident and were eyewitnesses, while others had not yet been born and experience it as a historic event. Nevertheless, their lives are all intertwined and bound by the tragedy of the plane wreck that leaves the kind of enduring psychic scars found on battlefields and ancient burial grounds.
“That the monster 727 had skidded along the street behind us, taking our houses, destroying streets, blowing the whole neighborhood up in flames, was unthinkable.”
After setting the stage, the book turns away from the story of the wreck and becomes the stories of the people who live in North Park, while the tragedy, now a quarter century past, endures as a historic and psychological backdrop. Bonnie ZoBell masterfully breathes life into a diverse cast of colorful characters of various ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. She skillfully depicts the interior landscapes of the characters within the context of the physical landscape of Southern California; a place where desert and mountains meet the sea, and the Spanish influences of old Mexico blend in with the car, surf, skateboarding and strip mall culture of 21st century West Coast America.
Many of the characters, some only peripherally connected, reappear in subsequent stories. These connections link the stories and give the book an episodic quality that carries the reader along in a steady current. While the novella and each of stories easily stands on its own, the way the characters circle back and reconnect with one another from story to story, gives the book the integral “whole” of a novel. I’m not going to take up each story separately in this review, because I want you to buy the book, read it and see for yourself, but I will touch on a few of my favorites to give you a taste.
“Uncle Rempt” is the second piece and features an eccentric, iconoclastic “black-sheep-of-the-family” by the same name. Uncle Rempt is one of my favorite recurring characters. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Uncle Rempt but the more significant importance of his role serves as a catalyst for the development of other characters.
“Sea Life” is a story of young people coming of age. The protagonist Sean is a North Park kid on a fling after finishing college and before going out on his first job interview. He and his friends are partying and surfing, but they are literally “fish out of water” amongst the genuine hard core surfers whom he admires. He has done all the right things to prepare for a traditional life that he now realizes will slowly bludgeon all the curiosity and passion out of him. Drifting far from shore on his surf board serves as a metaphor for the existential decision of what to do with his life, and his fear of sharks and his interaction with dolphins are deeply symbolic. It is a beautifully-wrought tale of someone at a crossroads in life and summoning up the courage to follow his gut instincts and go his own way instead of mindlessly doing what is expected of him.
“Dear Sam” is the shortest piece in the book, coming in at just a little over 3 pages. However it packs a real punch for such a short piece. It is an epistolary story, a letter from one old friend to another, both of whom lived in North Park when the crash occurred. Sam has moved away, but Edgar still lives there. In his letter, Edgar painfully recalls the events of that fateful day and the psychological grip it still has on him. He poignantly describes all the changes that have taken place since Sam left and how he, too, might leave North Park if he had the means and some place else to go.
Animals are an important recurring theme in What Happened Here. Almost every one of the pieces has some reference to the flock of feral macaws that have escaped from the zoo or flown from homes where they were kept as pets. These exotic and regal tropical birds appear like animal totems and spirit guides and serve as a powerful and mystical symbolic image running through the stories. The front cover art for the book is a macaw gorgeously rendered in red, green and yellow by artist Sandy Tweed. The imaginary sharks and the actual dolphins in “Sea Life” are real, but, at the same time, metaphorical and symbolic. “Nimbus Cumulus“ is a heartbreaking story of a young couple struggling to find their way, although, for me, the story is as much about their dog, Nimbus Cumulus, as it is about them.
In “A Black Sea,” Bonnie ZoBell takes a hard turn off the path and into the realm of the paranormal. This piece could easily go toe-to-toe with anything written by Stephen King or any episode of the X-Files or The Twilight Zone. This story is also about a couple struggling to find their way who find themselves stuck in the sandy dunes of the Baja wilderness pursued by the mythical beast, the chupacabra.
Particularly endearing is the story of Ramón and Lucinda, whom we meet separately as individual characters in the opening novella and who come back to us in the closing story, “Lucinda’s Song.” Ramón is in his 70’s and Lucinda in her 80’s, but both remain fiercely independent. “Lucinda’s Song” is the story of their surprising and unlikely, but passionate romance. “Lucinda’s Song” touches on almost all of the recurring characters, makes peace with the past and brings the book to a most satisfying and peaceful resolution.
“Sometimes when she and Ramón took their neighborhood walks in the evening, they stopped, hushed, when they reached the site of the plane crash, and Ramón would leave a bouquet of zinnias at the stop sign. Words were suddenly unavailable when standing at such a bleak crossroad. All those people.”
Bonnie ZoBell’s keen sense of observation, her wisdom and knowledge of what makes us tick as human beings, and her command of language makes her a master story teller with the ability to create cinemagraphic and compelling interior and exterior universes with words alone. What Happened Here is a book well worth reading with stories that will stay with you for a long time.
Bonnie ZoBell’s linked collection, What Happened Here: a novella & stories, was published by Press 53 on May 3, 2014. Her chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in March of 2013. She has won an NEA and other awards for her fiction, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College, and is working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.
Available from Press 53
Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness by Heather Fowler
Fiction ~ Queen’s Ferry Press 2014 ~ 265 pages
Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness is Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of short stories. I didn’t even know about her three earlier books, but after reading this one, I see that I have some backtracking to do. After reading this collection, I am convinced that Heather Fowler is a master of the short story in the same league as two of my favorite short story writers, Amy Hempel and Ann Beattie.
I’ve always felt that titles are important for visual art, movies, songs, poems and books. I think titles are little bits of poetry unto themselves. So I was especially drawn to the fanciful title of this book and the individual titles of each story. Once again, call me naïve, but with titles like Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness, The Hand-Licker, Speak To Me With Tenderness, Howard Sun, and Giant Balloon Animal Tragedies, I actually expected stories laced with an undercurrent of quirky, off-beat black humor and kind of a manic giddiness. What I found instead is a collection of stories that explores the darker side of human nature and experience; including several sinister and foreboding tales of Gothic horror that rank right up there with the very best in the tradition of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Fowler uses lush, lyrical and detailed descriptive prose punctuated by intense, stark imagery to render cinemagraphic portraits of vulnerable and fractured characters in dystopian settings. Her ability to write about dark subject matter in beautifully detailed prose is astounding and reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
The characters in these stories are damaged, tortured, and befallen by shadows across their paths, yet persistent in the face of all odds. If I had to choose favorites, I’d have to go with two historical “period” pieces, Blood, Hunger, Child, set during the French Revolution and Mother’s Angels which takes place in fourteenth century Florence during an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
Blood, Hunger, Child is as dark and chilling a tale as anything I’ve ever read. Set in the years during the French Revolution the story graphically depicts the horrific social conditions and oppression, abject poverty and starvation that precipitated the Revolution; which in turn led to a complete cultural upheaval and devastation of the old order. Told from the point of view of a former prostitute who was rescued by a damaged man named Natan and who is pregnant with their child, the story depicts their struggles with desperation and starvation against the backdrop of beheadings by guillotine right outside their window. Written in beautiful descriptive prose, the story creates a “fascination with abomination” from which I could not look away.
Mother’s Angels is a heartbreaking story about a mother and daughter struggling desperately to survive the chaos and complete social collapse caused by the plague, and it’s every bit as haunting as Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Even though set in times gone by, these two stories contain universal themes and are really about the end of the world as we know it.
Every one of these stories is a spellbinding page turner; each one in some way about the darker side of the human psyche. The stories explore obsession, fetishes, compulsion, desperation, desire, neurosis, sociopaths, psychopaths, stalkers, boogeymen, supernatural beings and narcissists. Don’t let that scare you away. Reduced to the simplest common denominator, the stories are reflections on the classic duality of human nature, light juxtaposed with dark, and good versus evil. Even in the face of absurdity, defeat and desperation the characters possess the strength of human spirit to persist and keep trying to prevail in spite of it all.
The book is illustrated throughout with absolutely stunning art work by Pablo Vision, whose very name is prescient because his art work is, indeed, visionary. He draws inspiration and imagery from sources as varied as old anatomical charts and illustrations, 19th century snake oil advertisements, and engravings from old masters like Ingres, Albrecht Dürer, and Hokusai. The results are elaborate, multi-layered, symbolist images that serve as the book cover and front pieces for each of the stories. He also contributed detailed descriptions of each piece as it relates to the story and a fully annotated appendix of sources for his work. Pablo Vision is an accomplished graphic artist and illustrator and his art work and appendices in this book deserve more attention than space allows in this brief review. I have focused primarily on Heather Fowler’s writing here, but Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness is a true collaboration between two master artists.
I could go on and on, but I’ve already gone on too long and veered into gushing effusively. In my opinion, as a writer, Heather Fowler is an artist in full voice and an absolute virtuoso with language. This is a complex book of real substance on many levels. But don’t just take my word for it. Buy the book, read the stories and soak in the richness of the artwork. You won’t be sorry.
Heather Fowler is a widely published, award winning author of four short story collections. See more at: http://www.heatherfowler.com
Pablo Vision is an accomplished and widely published graphic artist, illustrator and writer. You can see more of Pablo Visions work at: http://pablovision.blogspot.com and at: http://pablovision.tumblr.com
Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness is available from Queen’s Ferry Press at: http://www.queensferrypress.com
We’ll See Who Seduces Whom: a graphic ekphrastic in verse Tom Bradley and David Aronson
Poetry and Visual Art Unlikely Books ~ 2013 ~ 125 pages
“And the good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On desolation row”
Bob Dylan from “Desolation Row” 1965
Writer/poet and scholar Tom Bradley and visual artist, David Aronson are prolific artists, both known for their own prodigious bodies of work, but perhaps, just as well, for their groundbreaking collaborations with other artists. Tom Bradley, author of more than 20 books, recently collaborated with poet Marc Vincenz to produce the forthcoming book This Wasted Land And Its Chymical Illuminations. One of David Aronson’s notable collaborations is The Alchemical Wedding Tarot with Adam McLean, the well known authority on alchemical texts and symbolism, author and publisher of over 50 books on alchemical and Hermetic ideas. Aronson has collaborated with Bradley before with illustrations for Bradley’s novel, Elmer Crowley. It’s like these guys were made for each other and share a brain. Their collaboration in this project reminds me of Surrealist artists, Yves Tanguy and Andre Breton, creating a synergistic marriage of text and images by playing the game “Exquisite Corpse” wherein each artist essentially riffs off of what the other has previously done. In this way it becomes ekphrastic art.
In this book the ekphrasis is Tom Bradley’s poetic response to David Aronson’s visual art. As stated on the cover, David Aronson supplies the “visuals” and Bradley the “verbals.” With each one a master of his art and craft, at the height of his creative powers, they could be the rock-solid rhythm section anchoring a band. One on drums, the other on bass. It’s like watching a red hot guitar player “cuttin’ heads” in a contest with the Devil. Only, which one is the Devil?
Bradley’s verse is presented in 8 cantos, or sections, supplemented with an appendix and intertwined with Aronson’s brilliant and seductive, but deeply disturbing illustrations. Both the text and visual art are multi-layered, heavily symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical. On more than one occasion I was sent scurrying for a dictionary and diving into research on classical, esoteric, and occult references and symbols. Let’s be honest. I don’t really even know what the Hell these guys are trying to say half the time. But what does that really matter in the end? I’m a slow study but I always seem to get there eventually. I never knew where John Coltrane was going with his stratospheric solos either, but he always led me back to the melody. This book requires a very attentive read, and covers ground you’ll need to tread upon more than once to really connect with it. Reading this book is like a van just pulled up beside you as you’re walking down the sidewalk minding your own business. The window slides down, there’s a unicorn at the wheel who says: “No time to explain. Just get in!” You get in the van, and before you know it, you’re careening through the streets of Never-Never Land with no idea where you’re going, or where you’ll end up. But hang on to your hat because it’s one hellava ride.
We’ll See Who Seduces Whom actually gives me the creeps on many levels and is evocative of Wes Craven’s 1991 horror classic People Under The Stairs. This book could be described as shocking, yet seductive; irreverent, even blasphemous. Some might call it erotic, some would even say it’s pornographic. All of this may be true. In any case, it’s a skillfully crafted, dark and disturbing fascination with abomination from which I could not look away.
Aronson is a brilliant technician and a multi-faceted visionary whose visual art is a mash-up of classical fine art, illustration and lowbrow proto-punk, underground comics art. His lineage can be traced from Robert Crumb to Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Levine and Salvador Dali all the way back to Albrecht Durer and Hieronymus Bosch. Aronson’s other interests and qualifications are widely varied and his resume includes experience as a teacher, certified hypnotherapist, holistic healer, professional astrologer, and published poet. His art explores some of the darker regions of mythology, psychology and the subconscious. His website features this salient and revelatory quote from Carl Jung, which sheds some light on his philosophy and approach to making art: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable, and therefore, not popular.”
Bradley’s writing is heavily steeped in classical roots, with metaphysical and occult underpinnings but owes as much to Charles Bukowski, James Tate, Charles Simic, and the Beat writers, as it does to Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Dante Alighieri. Bradley demonstrates a stunning, virtuosic command of the English language and draws from an encyclopedic knowledge of history, religion, metaphysics and the occult. His free-wheeling prose passages combine with Aronson’s impeccably rendered images to create a fever-dream phantasmagoria that is every bit as startling and hallucinatory as William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. However, it should be noted that the book is also laced with off beat humor and a quirky sense of playfulness throughout. Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily wrote: “Tom Bradley is one of the most exasperating, offensive, pleasurable, and brilliant writers I know. I recommend his work to anyone with spiritual fortitude and a taste for something so strange that it might well be genius.” I love that quote because it captures some of my own emotional and intellectual responses to this work. Bradley’s writing is meteoric, acrobatic, and often vexing and there are times when I’m not quite sure if he’s winking and putting us all on. But, for me, that’s part of the attraction.
It’s also important to acknowledge the work of publisher Jonathan Penton in bringing these two artists together to produce a unique and very high quality contribution to contemporary book art. The end result is a rich and vibrant, genre-busting collaboration and transgressive art form that challenges preconceived notions about Art and Literature. While not a light and breezy read, and certainly not for the impatient, prudish, or faint of heart; if you’re willing to exert the effort and surrender to the flow, you’ll fire up enough synapses to stave off Alzheimer’s and find it’s well worth the investigation and experience.
David Aronson lives and works in the Philadelphia area. His quirky, offbeat drawings, paintings and illustration combine traditional media such as watercolor, ink, graphite and colored pencil with digital media and digital collage. His work ranges from whimsical to fantastic, from highly stylized to realistically rendered, and has been called unique and highly imaginative. It mixes lowbrow with fine art elements and often employs unusual juxtapositions. Thematically, David often delves into the realms of mythology and psychology. He has created art for CD covers, music posters and tour t-shirts. David is also an oil painter and has completed several public and private commissions. His digital animation has been featured on MTV2 and Fuse and his drawings were featured regularly in BigNews, the New York journal of art and literature, as well as being exhibited nationally in galleries and museum shows. He is an art teacher, working with both children and adults and teaching several different media. He is also a certified hypnotherapist and a published poet. His work can be found at: http://www.alchemicalwedding.com
Tom Bradley has published 26 volumes of fiction, essays, screenplays and poetry. His prose shares the legendary pages of London’s AMBIT Magazine with those proto-bizarros, J.G. Ballard and Ralph Steadman. His first nonfiction book is Fission Among the Fanatics (Spuyten Duyvil Press, NYC, 2007). Various of his novels have been nominated for the Editor’s Book Award and the New York University Bobst Prize, and one was a finalist in the AWP Award Series in the Novel. He recently collaborated with poet Marc Vincenz to produce the forthcoming book This Wasted Land And Its Chymical Illuminations. Reviews and excerpts, a couple hours of recorded readings, plus links to Tom’s essays in Salon.com and other such high-tone swanky magazines, are at http://www.tombradley.org.
Riding Off Into That Strange Technicolor Sunset by Kevin Ridgeway Weekly Weird Monthly, Austin Texas 2015 www.weeklyweirdmonthly.com
Guest reviewer Bud Smith
There’s a drawing of Kevin Ridgeway on the cover, thick black magic marker, and he’s smoking a cigarette, its lit end pointing at us like the barrel of a gun. He has self-proclaimed Willy nelson hair and a Leon Russell beard. His eyes are hidden by sunglasses, we can’t see how trashed he is. He’s on vacation here though, but we can guess.
“Riding Off Into the Technicolor Sunset” is a series of linked poems, an excuse for an adventure in Texas as told by a Southern California native. But the truth of the trip is hard to take, for him, and for us, because the Hollywood Western John Wayne version of Texas is long gone.
The first poem, “North Plano Blues” has Ridgeway walking around Plano, searching for barbecue (easy enough, right?) with poet Travis Blair but the duo can’t even find barbecue in Plano anymore and have to settle for goat cheese flat bread from a chic eatery. Shiny high-rises are going up into the blue sky. A line of white cars stretches out of a drive thru Starbucks.
Ridgeway has the blues about this. It’s a point that’s driven home by the apparitions of dead musicians who keep singing from the great beyond about ‘that older, weirder America’ that Ridgeway is still searching for.
Here we have a California man, girl friend in tow, house sitting a condominium. And in the early pages, what I think I know about Texas is already shattered. There’s an ice storm that pelting down on a parking lot that Ridgeway and his girlfriend are looking out on.
In 2010, I drove cross country with my wife, so I can relate to much of the sentiment in Technicolor. We did our best to follow a Route 66 that does not exist anymore. What was left of the old highway snaked through an abandoned version of America that is long gone, replaced by rows of barren store fronts, plate glass windows smashed out, shells of buildings packed with newspaper and tumbleweeds. We passed countless gas stations, with signs that still had prices under a dollar, but the stations themselves were stripped of any metal that a scalper could rip from the structure and the pumps themselves.
When we got back to New York City, we uploaded our photos on our computer and by the next week, found them all eaten. Lost.
What we have in this collection are photos that won’t get eaten, won’t get lost. One poem is even labeled as a selfie, and what traveler these days doesn’t take a selfie while on the road, trying to discover themselves and their place in the shifting world. In “Runway Selfie,” Ridgeway is getting off an airplane and singing Rawhide! to the flight attendant, who of course, is not impressed. He shouts in a high pitched voice:
“Ridin’ em in Rawhide! Excited to be in the land of ‘Lyndon B. Johnson, Albert King, and Frito Lay”.
Right there you’ve got it all: President, Bluesman, Junk Food.
But as excited as he is getting off the plane, it hits hard when he discovers that the new Texas of is a ‘gentrified La-La Land’ full of shiny high rises and yuppies walking little dogs. The cattle are gone. The open ranch is elsewhere. Or nowhere. Just not in open view.
There is joy in the writing—a cool playfulness, as if John Belushi was a poet. It’s easy to picture Bluto from Animal House as the narrator of the poem Juliet Balcony, who says:
”I see an attractive woman on an adjacent baloney, herself smoking; I wave but she just glares at me, knowing already from my shoulder length hair and my Frank Zappa Titties n Beer t-shirt that I am a stranger in town looking around for what I saw in old western movies.”
Travel continues through the collection as a theme. A search for beer. A search for barbecue. A search for further clues of a vanished pre-9/11 Weird America. But just when it feels like Ridgeway is cursed and he will not find what he is looking for, Texas opens up a little as he rolls further into the state and we discover with relief:
“girls in cowboy boots begin struggling across a green lawn towards a honky tonk, a menu including Mac n Cheese in the vegetable section, twang that has gotten heavier in the voices of Dallas Zen Holy Men Tour Guides who don’t need maps. “
This begins to morph into the Texas we might see in a Coen Brothers movie, where the 1970s might never have ended, even if the entire bar is lit with LED screens and the mechanical bull itself has an Apple symbol on it.
The heart of the book is its fear that localized America is going poof and being replaced by franchised versions of the Los Angeles near where Ridgeway calls home, or the New York City that I do.
This comes up repeatedly in mood, but also explicitly in the poem That’ll Be The Day That I Die featuring this passage:
“… the strange lessons of a popular commercial
that aired during my childhood
for Pace Picante sauce that featured
campfire gunslingers with an opposition
to hot sauces from New York City
whose inauthentic ingredients
caused them to commit justifiable homicides”
Justifiable. Yeah, someone could get shot for something like dragging NYC into Texas.
Technicolor Sunset is a party chasing the ghosts of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Charles Bronson, Buddy Holly, and the mental state of a rosier late 70s, early 80s pre-Iraq War USA, pre-Bush (both of them)—before the fall of the Twin Towers and the following economic slump that set the stage for the glimmering makeover that the Dallas-Fort Worth area has seen in recent years, with oil money coming in even harder than before. The chase continues in a car careening through the city, pursuing a Giraffe float snaking its way through Dallas in celebration of Chinese New Year. When I think of Texas, I think of men in brimmed hats with guns slung at their side, chewing tobacco and hot sun. The reality is, World Culture has spread everywhere. We’re all connected under the same internet—and here in Dallas, today, there is not a rodeo, there is a Chinese New Year parade.
Most importantly in the chase, Ridgeway finds his perfect Margarita drunk at a diner called Taco Town, where he gets too loud with his liberal views in a conservative spot on the dial.
Noting drunken fights with his girlfriend and noting the disappointment his native Californians have expressed at the conclusion of his trip—the big error in the pursuit of the weird—not reaching the grand destination of Austin, TX before trip’s end:
But It Wasn’t Austin
“people say this nearly every time I make reference to my misadventures in Dallas FT Worth
the majority of them people I greatly respect
turning their noses to the California sky
in response to my horrible failure and I always quickly
change the subject with a cloud of shame …”
he ends the poem saying:
I will make it to Austin someday, and I will probably never want to leave
according to what every Texas friend of mine tells me as they describe what sounds
like a Heaven populated by progressive free spirits in cowboy hats armed with fine art degrees
and street smarts keeping it weird
in that elusive capitol city as part
of a new generation of renegades roaming its streets, all of it remaining a myth to me”
Available through: Weekly Weird Monthly, Austin Texas 2015 http://www.weeklyweirdmonthly.com
Kevin Ridgeway lives and writes in Southern California. Recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Chiron Review, Re)verb, LUMMOX, Bank-Heavy Press and the Bicycle Review. His latest chapbook, On the Burning Shore, is now available from Arroyo Seco Press.
Bud Smith is the author of the novel, F-250. He lives in NYC and makes Pace Picante hot sauce for a living. www.budsmithwrites.com
Delicious Little Traitor: A Varian Pike Mystery by Jack DeWitt Fiction ~ Black Opal Books, 2015 www.blackopalbooks.com
Guest Reviewer AJ Sabatini
The settings and landscapes of Jack Dewitt’s Varian Pike mystery, Delicious Little Traitor, range from the small cities and sparse back roads of Connecticut to New York City and the outskirts of Philadelphia, circa the winter of 1953. This was an era when most ordinary Americans were settling into ways of living after the trauma and disruption of World War II. But the country itself was changing politically with The Cold War underway. Its dark winds chilled the pursuit of comfort as power hungry politicians, federal agents and ambitious government bureaucrats schemed to take control of the government and make life miserable for those who they accused of being “Un-American.” Although Varian Pike doesn’t bargain for it, he is thrown into the muck of vicious political intrigue almost from the moment he tries find out who killed a nineteen-year-old University of Connecticut college student, Lara Greenbaum. And why.
Pike, basically a loner, is a combat vet from the European theater with an acute sense of pain and human self-deception. He also has a low attention span for bullshit and thinks of himself, he tells us, as being part of a larger world, He talks about politics, jazz and painting, but also plays cards with his buddies and keeps up with baseball and boxing. After a poker game one of friends approaches him about the disappearance of his niece over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. Daughter of a Jewish dentist, Lara Greenbaum had an independent, intellectual streak about her and she was also alluring and sexy and knew it.
Pike meets with Lara’s parents and immediately takes the case. It is near Christmas and he drives up to for grey, frigid college UConn campus in what was a farm town then, Storrs. Pike is pretty frustrated by what he hears from a boyfriend, campus cops, Lara’s roommates and an edgy English professor who is frightened that his relationship with Lara and his political opinions could put him in danger. Varian checks out Lara’s room and steals her diary, only to find out that it is written in code. What did she have to hide? Within days, her naked and apparently tortured body turns up outside of Philadelphia in Abington, Pennsylvania. No arrests were made.
Lara, it turns out, was deeply involved in politics and had done research on a right wing, Communist hunting U.S. Congressman, Lindzey Hall. Even before Pike can track him down, so called Federal Agents start tracking him and telling him to lay off. The official story is that Lara was a rape victim, but no one can tell him why she was near Philadelphia. As Christmas nears and Pike wants to avoid everything to do with good tidings and the endless Crosby and Sinatra tunes on the radio, so he makes his way to Abington. A Happy Holiday does not ensue.
It is cold and dreary in the Northeast and everything Pike uncovers entangles him further in a sordid conspiracy which eventually brings him in contact with a handful of cleanly drawn though mostly unsavory characters. Some of them are helpful, a few try to kill him, he sleeps with one and has long, in depth conversations with others. Most of them have too much ego and something to hide. Louis, a friend of his, seems to have ties to the Mob, or worse. He lives alone in a modern style house in the woods, drinks French wine and owns abstract geometric art works. As Varian learns more from him and tries to get a handle on everyone’s motives, suspicions rise that Lara is not innocent in the dealings that surround her.
With a sure knowledge of American life in the 1950s, DeWitt drives the narrative from city to country, from a private Boy’s School to college campuses, to law offices, police stations and hideaways. Everyone Varian talks to seems to know something, but the whole picture never coheres. He does his best to stick to his code and find out the truth, but the Congressman and his goons play hardball and are not afraid to spill blood. But, through it all Varian is haunted by death of smart, young woman and his obligation to her parents.
Varian drives a Chevy and finds radio stations that play his favorite Charlie Parker tunes, which give the reader the sense that the world is unpredictable and moving fast. His affair with a war widow throws light on women’s lives in post-war America. He and Louis ruminate about the real story behind ex-Nazis in America, spies and the Rosenberg trail and execution, the OSS, CDA, COS, FBI, Herbert Hoover and Joe McCarthy. What could being a “delicious little traitor” mean? Varian realizes he could care less about men in power, but is the murder of a young girl ever justified? And who knows the truth and who keeps secrets when it comes to historical and political machinations?
My guess is that DeWitt has more Varian Pike mysteries to write. The book has the feel of a serious novel of ideas, if not a movie. DeWitt, who has published several books of poetry and a study of hot rod culture (Cool Cars, High Art), knows the 1950s. I doubt Varian will start listening to rock and roll, though he might wind up reading Beat poetry and go on the road in a better car.
About Jack DeWitt
Jack DeWitt’s new novel, Delicious Little Traitor A Varian Pike Mystery (Black Opal Books), is the first in a series. His study of American hot rodding, Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture is included in the Street Rodder Hall of Fame. For three years he wrote the column, “Cars and Culture,” for the American Poetry Review. One of the columns was chosen as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2010. Almost Grown, his latest book of poems, is about growing up in Stamford, CT. For many years he taught in the Liberal Arts Division of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
About AJ Sabatini
AJ Sabatini is a Philadelphia –based writer and an Arizona State University Associate Professor of Performance Studies. For other reviews, see his entries at
The Burn Poems by Lynn Strongin Poetry Headmistress Press 2015 64 pages http://headmistresspress.blogspot.com/p/books.html
Guest Review by by Sarah Lilius
In Lynn Strongin’s The Burn Poems, Strongin separates the book into individual poems that flow into each other with theme and grace. Her emotional verse is not one of a novice poet but someone who has seen the world and knows how to interpret it. Strongin successfully merges words about the body and pain with themes of nature, childhood, and even love. This work is laced with the mysteries of life and the body. Strongin’s brilliance and wisdom taint her words and make the reader realize something about their own journey.
The book gains strength in emotion as the pages turn. Strongin no doubt suffered due to the polio she contracted at age 12, but she delves into the arena of her pain with a beautiful stoicism that many of us today would not understand. In the poem, “Unquestionably,” she writes:
“They put us over barrels to burn our spines
Into arrows in the curved positions…
Drive me with a stake
Hang me by a gallows
The grim remembrance of her treatment is intense and haunting but certainly not the voice of the weak. Strongin’s tone is solid and firm with just the right mix of tender moments, the things that make us human.
“Digging children’s open graves,” and
“We reach out our hands thru walls to hold the other’s fine-boned delicate
Details of just the commonplace allow the reader to relate to the speaker. Strongin uses images of clothes repeatedly: aprons, laces, coats, long johns, nightdresses, even braces—garments or things we use on our bodies. Strongin’s body is broken from the polio and the repeated imagery of things to cover the body is a way of mending herself, of reclaiming her own body.
In “Rummaging Thru Boxes of Old Laces,” Strongin ends the poem
“A hundred years
In the past century:
And that’s the end of the burning
Century, the unsung carol, the not mentioned, abided bone-deep pain.”
There is a strong sense of a dark childhood fraught with pain throughout the book. In “After the Year in Hell,” she writes:
“When I was a child, I drank a cup of cinders.
Swirl of ashes against the prison sky & walls: brick.”
This dark, intense metaphor suggests a person trapped by disease. She ends the same poem by stating:
“I looked up at the sky-ceiling imagining it the Sistine.”
Strongin always pivots back to a sense of loose and fragile hope. In “Recurrence,” she remembers being tucked into bed by her mother as “zipped into the dark cups of sleep.” Not often does Strongin mention her parents and that could be coincidental but it could be because of the crippling isolation she felt as a child.
Throughout the book is a strong development of the self. Towards the end of the book in the poem, “Has Trouble Broken Out in the Dollhouse Now?” it seems as though all of the speaker’s pain and triumph is coming to a head.
She ends the poem:
“All warmth no far-away places here:
Instead all the small windows of the soul are lit and burning warmth, which cannot ever
Tip extremes to flame: I am called. I waken to answer. I know my name.”
Strong voice takes over the speaker as she realizes her own soul, her own name.
Available from Headmistress Press
Lynn Strongin, born in 1939 in New York City into a middle-class Jewish family, contracted polio at age 12. She attended the Manhattan School of Music, Hunter College, and Stanford University, where she earned a Master of Arts in literature. In the 1960s, she lived in politically active Berkeley, collaborating with Denise Levertov, who described her as a “true poet.” Strongin has published more than a dozen books and her work appears in 30 anthologies. She has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, American Association of University Women, and PEN American Center. Countrywoman/Surgeon was nominated for the Elliston Award in 1979 and Spectral Freedom for a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. In 1979, Strongin moved to Canada for what was supposed to be a short stay. She remained and currently lives in British Columbia.
Sarah Lilius lives in Arlington, VA where she’s a poet and assistant editor for ELJ Publications. She has been published in numerous journals and is also the author of What Becomes Within (ELJ Publication, 2014). Her website is sarahlilius.com
Audrey by Beate Sigriddaughter
ELJ Publications 2015 Fiction: 316 pages
Guest Review: Carol Reid
Audrey is the work of a kaleidoscopic mind; every emotion and interaction is broken down, assembled and reassembled as its narrator chronicles four seasons of an almost endurable love.
Set in 1980 amid a loosely knit community of writers and artists, the narrative relates in minute detail the all-consuming relationship between the young poet Andrea and Audrey, a painter and self-professed healer more than twenty years her senior.
To Andrea, nothing is trivial. Her fervent wish is to live an exalted life in which she is part goddess and part angel, with time and opportunity to produce poetry and magic. Employment and men encroach regularly on her precious time. She attracts and enchants many male lovers, and loves them because, “if there is sex, there must be love”.
She came with a painted dragon and cinnamon hearts for Valentine’s. Her name was Audrey and I am hard pressed to remember what anyone else brought to the party.
Dragons are diverse in mythology. In this novel they are presented as a sort of spirit animal connected with Audrey, but which variety– malevolent or wise, fire-breathing or powerfully protective?
Their first important conversation is generated by the painting of “Serena”, described by Andrea as having “a timid fawn-like nose and forceful amber eyes”.
“I’m so glad you like Serena,” [Audrey] said, “some people are afraid of her.”
Before Andrea can devote herself fully to Audrey, she needs to close the door on her relationship with Joel, whose gentleness, wisdom and acceptance of Andrea linger at a distance throughout the story.
This scene takes place during a rafting trip after which Andrea intends to end the affair-
The raft hurled headlong into waves, stood almost upright, despite our forward weight. Then we were flat on the water again, rocking through turbulence. We were drenched with ice-cold water. But the sun was warm and there was hardly any wind to chill us.
I leaned back and shook water from my hair, my poncho. I watched Joel. He was still concentrating. His arms pressed into the oars. His eyes were filled with love and reverence for the water, full of attention….if it were possible for me to love a man, I would have loved him. But I no longer believed I could.
Audrey is in some ways a gender-free novel. Traditionally masculine and feminine traits are exhibited by both male and female characters. Andrea’s gender struck me as not yet fully formed. She is at her core a sort of pre-adolescent, or as a psychic says of her, late in the novel, “an innocent”. This innocence allows her to believe in the possibility of pure, perfect love but of course makes her prey to being manipulated up, down and sideways by the more experienced and perhaps more irrevocably damaged Audrey. Occasional glimpses into each woman’s real, painful history are just enough to reveal how and why they came to be the way they are, separately and together.
Andrea articulates every feeling involved in an ultimately poisoned and poisonous love- torment, elation, enthrallment, hopelessness, selfishness and self-abnegation. Luminous moments are eclipsed by moments of despair. Any reader with a similar episode at the back of her emotional closet will recognize both Andrea’s and Audrey’s experience very well. This passionate love between two women, although it exists as an ideal in Andrea’s heart and mind, is not idealized nor exempt from betrayal, possessiveness and violence.
No one can spend a year in the mouth of a dragon and emerge unchanged.
About the author:
Beate Sigriddaughter grew up in Nürnberg, Germany, not far from the castle where she sometimes sat in a corner to write poems or rewrite fairy tales. She now lives and writes in Silver City, NM, Land of Enchantment. The background to all this enchantment, though, is living as a witness and participant in a world that is steeped in misogyny, ranging from subtle avuncular belittlement to legal or vigilante execution for infractions of male entitlement. The background is a world where people are addicted to conflict and competition and where peace and partnership are simply not (yet) sexy enough. In all of this, she still hopes to one day fulfill her lifelong dream of creating a language of joy that will triumph over a language heavy with addiction to conflict and sorrow, no doubt created and sustained in an effort to gain love and attention that way.
Beate has a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Georgetown University. Her published works include two novels, a novella, and many stories and poems. Three of her stories received Pushcart Prize nominations. She has also created the Glass Woman Prize to honor other women’s stories.
Carol Reid is a writer and editor in British Columbia, Canada.