September 6, 2014

Beyond the World’s Rim: A Review of Edison Jennings’s Reckoning by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Jacar Press
Reckoning by Edison Jennings
Jacar Press (2013)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Edison Jennings’s chapbook, Reckoning, is a masterful elegy in multiple voices that is also by turns rough and tender, wry and devastating.

As a young aircrewman in the U.S. Navy, Jennings “… from a P-3s vantage point, / watch[ed] Beirut burn.” In “Flight,” he connects this wartime experience with a boyhood memory of shooting at buzzards above an American farm, an activity the thirteen-year-old narrator and his friends find futile and mesmerizing; the predatory birds prove to be impossible targets. In the following passage, the narrator’s frustration and wonder are palpable:
…if we could only hit one,
to blow a hole in any bird that fed on carrion.
                                                                        Still we wondered
silently, how they rode the breeze forever
as if sanctified.
As the poem progresses, the images of flesh-eating birds become more powerful, mystical, and foreboding—“great-winged vultures” that pharaohs “deified,” “Dante’s circling song to death”—until the now-adult narrator becomes one with them above a flaming foreign city, “…charmed / flying in circles, like an icon.”

A range of responses to tragedy is at the ravaged heart of Reckoning. As Jennings (who now chairs the Division of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Intermont College) reminds the reader by quoting Webster’s dictionary on the book’s dedication page, one of this resonant word’s multiple meanings is being called to account.

Reckoning is dedicated to Jennings’s daughter, Lucy (1989-2010), who passed from cancer. Lucy appears, both directly and indirectly, in many of these poems. In “Reckoning II,” the narrator totals his enormous personal grief as a bookkeeper might. However, minimizing Lucy with this method serves only to magnify her. The loss of even one child tips the balance between life and death, as demonstrated by the emotion that breaks through the dry tone of the following passage:
The law of small numbers
implies her entry will be lost
in the long ledger of the dead…
so small and unaccountable.
In “Litany,” the narrator, elderly and possibly suffering from dementia, kneels in nightly prayer and keeps a more personal list of losses, ranging from “Fred” to “Haitians… nurses… Sudan.” But this aide de memoire is not enough—“twofaced sexanddeath outpaced him.” His “confusion” over the growing list leads to emotional overload, a form of amnesia. To this good-hearted but befuddled man (as to the reader), this seems necessary, a shameful penance:
…one night he even forgot his daughter,
bald and sick from chemo—with so much need
his knees would hurt, with so much yet to plead.
And in “Brown Eyed Girl,” the narrator’s grief stretches to the beginning of human history, linking his Lucy to a “Denisovan fossil” of a hominid girl who lived 2.6 million years ago. Time seems to collapse as the first brown-eyed girl becomes not only an ancestor but also a sister to the one newly dead, bringing the narrator a strange sense of comfort. The twinning of the two girls in the following passage signifies not only kinship, but also completion:
…My short-lived daughter, too,
had brown eyes and hair.
That makes us kin:
she through me and me though you.
Reckoning is not without moments of humor. The spunky old woman who narrates “Durable Goods” disposes of her worldly possessions with devilish glee, spitting in the eye of the death that is about to overtake her. Her “will” is as tart and refreshing as the spirit Jennings captures in these lines:
…“The body’s estate?” she said, “just stuff to stuff,
amen. Burn it and be done…Give Louanne
the four-post bed now that she’s found a lover,
and dare her to wear it out, if she can.”
And in “Rainstorm,” death takes a holiday on a road trip to rural Georgia, reminding the reader that life’s little but satisfying pleasures can be found in a “…Caddy [that] shimmied in the curves / and fish-tailed down the straights” and in “…lunch[ing] on RCs, Scooter Pies, / and watch[ing] the wipers skim / momentary half-moon vistas / lush with peach and pecan groves.”

The reminders of loss, however, lurk in many places in Reckoning: in the corpse of a poisoned mouse in “Nuptials,” whose “…tail ringed my finger, / wedding me to death”; in an old house’s coal furnace in “Feeding the Fire,” as the narrator “wipe[s] the smudge / of pitch-black dust that seams the lifeline of my palm”; in an unhappy woman’s vacuum cleaner—a Hoover Vortex Master—in “The Sympathy of Dust,” which preserves rather than obliterates “…a diary of dross…fragments of a narrative / she tracks from room to room.”

Reckoning circles back to Lucy in the book’s final poem, “Saudade” (in Portuguese, a feeling of intense melancholy or longing, a word with no English equivalent). Despite the narrator’s commitment to “commonsense things” to “keep the cold out” of his “ramshackle house,” saudade “…seeps through the floorboards, / pools in the corners, and laps up the stairs.” His diligent housework becomes irrelevant. Through the narrator, Jennings is drawn to examine—not for the first or the last time—the “vacuum” left by his daughter’s death, the icy center that connects existence and non-existence:
…I retreat to the wreck of your room
and wonder—the closest I come to prayer—
are you warm out there, beyond the world’s rim?

August 23, 2014

Seasonal Revelations of the Self: A Review of Mary Meriam's Girlie Calendar by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Headmistress Press
Girlie Calendar by Mary Meriam
Headmistress Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Co-founded by Mary Meriam and Risa Denenberg in 2013, Headmistress Press is an independent publisher of books of poetry by lesbians. As stated on its website, it is “dedicated to honoring lesbian existence, discovering a range of lesbian voices, and promoting lesbian representation in the arts.” Girlie Calendar is the last volume in the “Lillian Trilogy” (the first two books were Word Hot and Conjuring My Leafy Muse) and dedicated to the poet’s creative mentor, scholar, and educator, Lillian Faderman. Mary Meriam’s voice joins an established and recognized canon of gay female writers (Marilyn Hacker, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, June Jordan, and Joan Larkin among them) with her own brand of self-declaration and exuberant chutzpa.

The visions conjured by the phrase “Girlie Calendar” rouse images of sirens posed in risqué postures, sultry but coy, beckoning and somewhat vulnerable, teasing an audience with the promise of carnal conquest and unimagined sexual pleasure. Meriam cleverly plays on the clichéd and misogynistic notions of this familiar cultural artifact by creating a catalog of poems that cross a decade and address the desires, promises, gifts, and, occasionally, disappointments of each month.

In the May section, “Hot Spell” opens with a glimmer of optimism: “This sonnet holds the hope of something hot: / a summer night with soft cicada din, / a sultry rush of fingers on the skin, / a tender lightning bolt that hits the spot.” So much of the magic in Meriam’s verse lay in her deft use of language, often like a sleight of hand as she uses rhyme that subtly rears its head in elongated lines. For example, from “Beginning with a Line by Robert Frost” in the January section, she writes:
The pile of rotten branches and gold leaves lies there dead and swirled.
It would take every court in the countryside to count the fallen leaves.
The judges must number themselves among the dirt-thirsty thieves.
I live in a room of cold-toed winter glowing with no relief.
Wandering silent, muttered about, I move from grief to grief.
Some poems reach for words to celebrate sensuality or express a quixotic sense of joy or despair. In the July section, the poems “The Romance of Middle Age” and “Lingua Lesbian” are back to back, the first articulating the realities of an aging body, and the second softly expressing a memory of blooming libido. From the first, the warning signs: “…It’s strange / how people look away who once would look. / I didn’t know I’d undergo this change / and be the unseen cover of a book / whose plot, though swift, just keeps on getting thicker. / One reaches for the pleasures of the mind / and heart to counteract the loss of quicker / knowledge…” From the second, we learn of the “language that was hidden,” passionate gestures that bring the poet and her lover together, beyond the use of words. Meriam describes:
Her curls of silky sunny light,
blond blooming in my hand
entangle me and turn the night
gentle where we stand.

Her Russian babbles in my ear,
mon francais sways her hips,
we laugh, go quiet, I draw near
and kiss her rosy lips.
Meriam can be skillfully playful and witty, as in “Workshop Romance” (…I like your smile, I like your frown, / but darling, must you always shun / my adjectives? Are you a nun? / Am I a silly, sorry clown? / I like your verb! I like your noun!”). She sloughs off modest success and minor defeat with good humor and an eloquent kvetching in “The Loser’s Lament,” where the poet extols the virtues and prized lives of “The winning wealthy poets” whose coveted works “dribble from their mouths.” Of herself and her creative labors, which answer to a different authority, she states:
But I’m a poet of a single table.
I wash my dishes at the kitchen sink.
I have nowhere to go, and so I think
I’ll sit and write a poem at the table.
The price I pay for every line I write
is measured by the gods in bloody light.
With its periodic bravado and good natured posturing, sexual dynamism and moments of vulnerability and isolation, Meriam’s seasonal catalogue of poems is an honest and honorable series of rites of passage. Girlie Calendar is a robust collection of free verse and formalist work that explores a seasonal spectrum of a gay woman’s emotional and physical experience—aching, wistful, hungry, indignant, and determinedly satisfied.

July 27, 2014

Who is Authored?: A Review of Sara Biggs Chaney's Precipice Fruit by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: ELJ Publications
Precipice Fruit by Sara Biggs Chaney
ELJ Publications (2013)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

The best place to start talking about Sara Biggs Chaney’s poetry chapbook, Precipice Fruit, is with the afterward. In a courageous and rarely seen (in poetry) break of the “fourth wall,” Chaney addresses the readers of her poems to provide an insight into some of the intentions behind her poems.

The two biggest insights into Chaney’s work are that “every child has a personhood” and that she is not writing a book about autism but “a work of imagination, grounded in experience.” This allows Chaney to provide a variety of voices to the subject because the poems are her own creations, not poetic representation of her experience. At the end, she asks three questions regarding this choice: “Who is Jenna,” “Who authors Jenna,” and “What should matter to us more? The institutional story of the child, or the child’s story of herself?”

Jenna is the autistic child whose presence ripples through each poem. Chaney balances three sets of voices that seek to define Jenna. The first set includes the doctors and teachers that refer to Jenna by a set of afflictions or to “normal” behavior. From the second poem in the collection that tells us there are “possible markers of genetic disorder” to the last poem, which provides a 5th grade report card, Chaney includes a variety of found material that portrays how the world outside views autistic children.

The outside world’s observations start many of the poems and allow Chaney to use Jenna’s mother as a balance or reaction. The two blason of Jenna are perfect examples of responses to the doctors’ jargon. In “Blason for Jenna (II),” Chaney presents a new way of understanding the technical terms of diagnosis. She explains:
Hydrocephalic—head—of water.
Your head is a fountain
held by tender skin.

 Hypotonic—low tone.
Your arms and legs
are the soft ending
of a nighttime song.

 Echolalic—echo voice.
Your mouth, a seashell
speaking the ocean’s story.

Chaney uses the mother’s voice to provide moments of absolute beauty with Jenna—“her mouth sings / easy sound, sweet innard / of a thousand little thunders”—to incredibly visual terror—“Jenna’s ribs arch & chase / a magnet to the ceiling. / Her joints do circus tricks.” With this second poetic voice, Jenna is less clinical and more human.

Readers also see a mother’s vulnerability as she imagines her child as “cliffside fruit” in the title poem “Precipice Fruit.” As the speaker metaphorically hangs onto the last vein of her previous life, she takes in the “one      tiny            beautiful thing” that hangs there with her: her daughter. Chaney writes, “Reach for it and fall. / Don’t reach for it, and fall.”
Jenna, in the beginning of the book, is not a real person, merely the subject of poems. Halfway through the book, the readers may expect a continuation of the mother’s voice and the clinical coldness of medical records. Although a fantastic way to construct a collection, Chaney does not stop there. She stretches her imagination further and gives voice to Jenna. She states, “Jenna teaches / another way / to be here”. Jenna’s voice is superbly constructed when she states, “I kiss the glass, / make it shiver. // I kiss outside.” Even when Jenna is “writing a script for a television show” or sitting on “a black leather couch next to Charley,” the voice is a child’s.

Giving Jenna the space to express herself through the latter half of the book emphasizes the problem with trying to represent someone else’s experiences who may not have the ability to do so themselves. A balance is created by giving Jenna a unique voice without making her a caricature of disability or childhood. Chaney allows the space for Jenna to be the author of her own story, not a subject in someone else’s.

Giving space to Jenna to tell the story of herself allows readers to see autism as another state of being and not just “an idea of a girl / dancing in a fountain.” Therefore, the mingling of different voices gives a balanced insight into the world of autism. With every experience represented—doctor, teacher, mother, child—we are left inhabiting the life Chaney has created instead of just reading about it.

Chaney takes a remarkable step toward allowing a deeper understanding of how another person, seemingly incredibly different from us, could be considering the world. As Jenna says at the end, “You might like to know: / I have my own strategies. / I am practicing every day”.

July 5, 2014

Rough Beasts: A Review of Lisa Mangini’s Slouching Towards Entropy by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Finishing Line Press

Rough Beasts: A Review of Lisa Mangini’s Slouching Towards Entropy by Angele Ellis

Slouching Towards Entropy by Lisa Mangini
Finishing Line Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Lisa Mangini imagines the slow but inevitable destruction of the world in poems whose small but stunning revelations recall both the foreboding of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In Mangini’s work as in Didion’s, “… drifting, inarticulate children… take on… an almost allegorical significance. They are the pitiful casualties of an immense and perhaps inexplicable social change—an ‘atomization’ prophesied by Yeats” (as Joyce Carol Oates said of Didion’s essays in a 1977 New York Times Book Review).

Mangini—a poetry and fiction writer, as well as founding editor of the journal Paper Nautilus—begins Slouching Toward Entropy with a whimper that has the force of a bang. In “A Bird in the Hand,” the speaker transforms the fall of a sparrow into a portent of doom observed not by any god, but by a child whose innocence is drowned by the experience:
… I was ten; I did not know
names of birds or even painters—I couldn’t spot

the angle of her neck and call it “Picasso-esque”
as I might now. I could hardly feel
the weight of her in my hand, her hollow bones,
matted feathers, light as a Styrofoam cup.
Throughout this book, Mangini’s beasts—children and adults, bees, and recurrently, birds—are continually degraded by contact with the detritus of civilization, both high and low. In this poetic landscape, the animate and the inanimate are irrevocably connected—all are fungible objects; “[L]ight as Styrofoam cup” is as haunting an image as the “Picasso-esque” angle of the dead sparrow’s neck. And Mangini’s harrowing “The Statement” follows two young women who have been celebrating Halloween in a club (“…doused in sweat and glitter… feather boas / shedding and sticking to our skin”) as they are subjected to a rape that, in Mangini’s description, is a brutal consequence of our decaying cosmos. The “spare electron” in the following passage recalls Yeats’s “atomization”:
… both of us thrashed to a sandpaper
sidewalk, separated by thirty feet
       of space and a ring of men: three
       to each girl, and one that floated
between us, like a spare electron, like a dog
torn between two bones.
The poem ends with the speaker whose sternum has been broken, giving a “statement” for herself and the friend who has sustained a shattered jaw. But the terse last lines (“… She won’t be talking / for a long time. / Yes, we / were the only witnesses”) describe the damage done to both women, and beyond them to all victims of rape.

A rape that culminates in murder is the subject of “Matthew,” a meditation on Matthew Shepard in which the poet transforms Shepard’s infamous, grotesque death into a stark, contemporary “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Mangini’s use of lower-case staccato phrases separated by white space like tombstones and her bell-like repetition of the word “think” emphasize the poem’s elegiac quality:
think breath,    contagious             as breath itself,
cascading through tissue       since birth,
think passage through fissure of flesh,
like you.

while i’m strung up in confessions
of the last sunset              while i wonder
what will they think when they write my eulogy?
In a sense, Mangini herself is writing a eulogy for what it is to be human—including philosophy, in which the poet finds no consolation. “The Museum of Philosophy” references the speaker’s collection of Kant, Schopenhauer, Camus, and de Beauvoir, only to conclude that “… there is no wise passage waiting to keep me company… all of this, and not one / of these things capable of welcoming me home.” And in “Letter to Descartes,” the speaker—with wry, ironic sympathy—chides the philosopher for believing only in the reality of the mind. The voice that imagines Descartes’s grief over the death of his young daughter, Francine, encompasses both philosopher and poet, and tests his limitations along with her own:
…But that’s all corporeal stuff, Rene,
and it’s ok if you counted over and over again
the twenty-four right angles of her tiny casket
to convince yourself that you were uncertain

if you even cried at all.
Science, on the other hand, provides Mangini with a weirdly joyous companion on the path to entropy. In “Einstein’s Prophecy Loosely Penetrates My Nightmare,” Einstein’s prediction that the extinction of bees would soon result in the extinction of humans merges with a nightmare of lost teeth and angry wasps. The speaker’s unnamed friend or lover manages to convince her that the threat is, for the time being, imaginary through a rare gesture of release and some comforting words:
…You opened my window,
easy as a fortune cookie, knowing to discard
whatever hidden wisdom buzzed
inside. At my distress, you offered:
They’re not bees. Useless. They’ll never
yield a drop of honey.
And in “I Must Have Been Nikola Tesla in Another Life,” the speaker is positively giddy. She moves from “want[ing] to be surrounded in yellow” to “Central Europe, Eastern Europe, where-ever / someplace Slavic calls for me” to the jolt of an electrical high that approaches the ecstasy she imagines Tesla to have experienced. Her enthusiasm runs like direct current through the following passage:
…I am tempted
to lick the wall socket, to taste the blue light. This is not
synesthesia; you are simply not understanding me.
I touch everything in grocery stores with wonder.
But the high does not last. At its core, Slouching Towards Entropy is an exquisitely muted meditation on death—spiritual and physical—as well as the relentless winding down of existence. Mangini is compelling when describing the cessation of everything—as when poet and reader become one with the dwindling, solitary observer in “Bird Watching at the End of the World (ii),” which contains the book’s title phrase:
… It is upon us. I was expecting a short fuse
and a loud bang. Of course: it is this very lack
of vigor in all things that informs me of this ending.
It is this slow wilt, this calm unlacing of the corset
that holds the world together—that we have always
been slouching towards entropy, without noticing.

June 29, 2014

Turning Life into Art: A Review of Adam Patric Miller’s A Greater Monster by Elizabeth Paul

cover credit: Autumn House Press
A Greater Monster by Adam Patric Miller
Autumn House Press (2014)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Paul

The title of Adam Patric Miller’s essay collection A Greater Monster comes from an epigraph by Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Montaigne writes: “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.” In Montaigne’s tradition, Miller liberally quotes others in his essays, which are penetrating ruminations that embrace a range of topics from classical music and teaching high school to memory and suicide. Also like Montaigne, Miller examines his own experience in ways that help readers to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, Phillip Lopate selected A Greater Monster as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize, noting that Miller “demonstrates all the necessary assets of a first-rate personal essayist.” Although Miller carries on the personal essay tradition, he also makes it his own by drawing on traditions of musical, visual, and literary arts to create compositions that work in non-traditional, innovative ways.

Miller’s essays are composed of segments that are numbered or separated by white space. Often, he employs poly-vocal juxtaposition; his own words are interwoven with those of others: his father, his biological father, Kurt Vonnegut, Vincent Van Gogh, and Webster’s Dictionary, to name just a few. For example, “Blessing the New Moon” is an essay of thirty-two parts including autobiographical vignettes, quotes of musicians and artists, and transcripts of Miller’s father discussing WWII. It incorporates various recurring topics, beginning with Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gould appears in eleven of the thirty-two parts, including part three, which is this brilliant description.
Gould imbues Variation 15 with sorrow—not the sorrow of regret or nostalgia, but the sorrow of resignation. He reaches, sonically, for something that can no longer be touched. Gould is Orpheus reaching for Eurydice as she is swept back to the land of the dead. Tones repeat. A slow walk, exhausted, shoulders hunched. Tones rise, step by step.
Like the tones of Variation 15, topics repeat and themes emerge, including fathers and sons, art, redemption, revision, creativity, numbers, war, death, pills, puzzles, and the moon. The essay does not argue a point or elucidate an idea, but reveals relationships between seemingly disparate topics. It invites connections, stirs feelings, and cultivates insight. As much as any theme, it is composition itself that Miller explores in his book. Again and again, he interweaves voices, contrasts dark and light, and lets patterns emerge in essays that range from a two-and-a-half-page meditation on his father to a sixty-three-page fugue encompassing insanity, divorce, and suicide. The latter lives up to the definition of fugue because of being both a composition of interweaving voice parts and a disturbed state of consciousness.

In keeping with his book’s title, Miller explores what might be called monstrous in himself and the world around him. The America in A Greater Monster is often callous and crass, artificial and superficial, violent and unjust. For example, in vivid first-hand accounts, Miller illustrates the violence that pervades the urban school where he teaches. In one essay, he describes breaking up a gang fight: “I tried to pry Bub’s fingers from [Andre’s] throat. I could see blood where Bub’s fingernails dug in. The security guard arrived, and he and I pushed Bub down the hall like football players pushing a tackling sled upfield.” Just as troubling is the surreal picture Miller paints of suburbia as a place where a union official compares improving education to giving an extreme makeover, where too-thin girls wear revealing clothes that shout “HOT PROPERTY” and a dinner-party conversation turns glibly to people needing organ transplants: “What if they all agreed to draw lots, and for the winners to harvest the loser’s organs? Would that be OK?”

But Miller is true to the entire epigraph by Montaigne and reveals the miraculous even while examining the monstrous. In an essay exploring his father as monster, Miller concludes tenderly that he was always the son “who loved monster movies, even though they gave him nightmares.” In an exploration of his biological father’s mental instability, Miller traces the idealism of an artist, beginning the essay with an epigraph from Ahmad Jamal: “The goal of every musician is to be free, but freedom is rare.” And throughout the book, Miller reiterates the redemptive power of art.

Miller’s writing is a kind of antidote to the monstrosities of postmodern America. With courageous empathy, he looks tragedy, mortality, and indifference in the eye. With poise, he searches their meaning in a broader composition of living, never raising his voice in the shrill tones of today’s media but allowing things to speak for themselves, especially through artful repetitions. He is critical but not judgmental, and turns his eye for monstrosity on himself as much as others. His acute observation expresses the attention of a father or teacher sensitive to the signs of need from individuals and society.  Montaigne once said, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces but order and tranquility in our conduct.” As for Montaigne, there is much at stake for Miller in writing. It is part and parcel of living with inspiration and compassion. Through an ear for voice, sensitivity to tone, deftness with language, and fearless curiosity, Miller shares this inspiration and compassion with his readers along with the possibilities of composition.