May 23, 2015

Thrilling and Heroic and Strange: A Review of Laura van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: Origami Zoo Press
There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Laura van den Berg
Origami Zoo Press (2012)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

In Laura van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights from Origami Zoo Press, readers get an intimate look into some very wondrous but strange lives. Each of Berg’s very short stories provides glimpses into miniscule moments within these characters’ lives, exploding the importance we place on the unusual.

The characters find meaning in weird moments: blaming a husband’s birds for marital problems, trying to escape fighting parents by building a spaceship, and seeing an enlarged photograph of a neighbor’s mouth as the tunnel to heaven for a woman’s deceased son and ex-husband. In the last example, the main character Lenore identifies with the strange photo hanging on her neighbor’s wall. In it, van den Berg explains:
It was, Lenore had realized after staring at the photograph for a while, the kind of boundless space she had pictured her son, and now her ex-husband, passing through during the moment their life turned to non-life, presence to absence, as though Mr. Masiki had photographed a hidden part of her consciousness and hung it on his living room wall… She imagined the night could stretch into eternity, the quiet, the watching, the ring of light.
As readers, we expect that there will be more after this connection to the photo. But, van den Berg ends the story here. She leaves us in the climax of the story with a resolution that only exists outside her pages.

The author redefines the typical narrative arc of fiction by sometimes stopping a story before the conflict. In “The Golden Dragon Express,” the story ends just after the narrator confronts her husband about his affair and his late-night phone calls. Specifically, it ends with: “Rick touched my knee, started to say something. In the kitchen, the phone rang.” It starts toward a resolution of separation or reconciliation, but suddenly stops by asking the reader to imagine the narrator’s response. The story “Reptiles” has the same movement when the narrator buries a turtle from a failed pet store venture. She remembers that you can “see the future in the markings on a turtle’s shell” and ends the story by looking at the shell before the burial. That’s it. In fact, the narrator describes it as she “started to look”—not even a completed look.

With each ending resembling the beginning of a longer story, the reader is forced to focus on moments just before a change occurs. This is how van den Berg’s characters are so brilliantly relatable. Instead of the reader relating to situations or the actions of a character, van den Berg finds a universal emotional space. When the narrator of “Lake” says, “she wanted so badly to reach him, she would have swum across the lake to meet him, if that’s what it took…” and that she wanted to “step off their usual path and run up one of the narrow trails that led into the forest and see what was there,” readers understand the need to reach someone. And when Sheila, in “Something Thrilling and Heroic and Strange,” desires change, “something radical” like changing her whole identity, readers get that feeling. The brave part of this is that van den Berg’s stories only concern themselves with these emotional shifts. They are not part of a larger story that attempts to explore themes of existence—they are existence. These shifts are what it means to be alive.

The stories also don’t shy away from the weird or unusual parts of life. The last story, “Cannibals,” starts with, “The cannibals loved music.” The rest of the story details the life two children have with the cannibals and whether they “were supposed to be in charge of the cannibals, of if the cannibals were in charge” of them. The plot is humorous and absurd, but van den Berg doesn’t settle for an eccentric, giggly story; she turns up the weird. The last paragraph of both the story and the book poses a series of questions from one of the children. She imagines her parents finally coming home by stating:
Did they notice the marks on our arms and legs from where we had bitten into ourselves, ever so gently? Did they try to console themselves with that old line about children being resilient? Did they notice that when they walked through the front door and dropped their suitcases and called for us, we raised our heads from the couch and looked at them like strangers? Did they realize that they were?
This paragraph suddenly allows the possibility that the whole story of cannibals could be a child’s fantasy. Or the children could be the cannibals. Or it really happened and… The choices can make any reader’s head swim.

All of van den Berg’s stories make the reader feel strange. The conciseness of each story and the layered understanding of human experience make each a gorgeous, hard-to-define cross of fiction and poetry. Her greatest accomplishment, though, is creating characters that readers cannot imagine themselves as, but can understand at a molecular level.

May 9, 2015

What Makes Us Stronger: A Review of Christine Stroud’s The Buried Return by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Finishing Line Press
The Buried Return by Christine Stroud
Finishing Line Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Christine Stroud’s debut chapbook is a collection of poems that are each a cautionary tale. These disturbing but determined narratives face the harrowing realities of love (both carnal and familial), loss, and random rites of passage emerging from the domestic and feral realms. The adolescent bravado that begins this journey evolves into adult indignation and self-recognition with every vignette, and raw emotions are crafted with literary precision.

The first poem, “I Threw Your Shoes into the River,” is a provocative start. The poet claims not to regret the gesture (for an unnamed victim). Yet, in this passage, there remains a searing image of summer shoes thrown defiantly and disappearing from view:
… But I

stood at the end of the pier
and watched your Day-Glo orange
flip flops float down the White Oak
until they were nothing
but a burnt smear on the water.
Many of the poems in The Buried Return are encounters meant to haunt the reader, pull us out of a comfort zone that so many poets struggle to preserve. The way Stroud summons empathy and trepidation from visceral (and sometimes alarming) details recalls Theodore Roethke’s and Sharon Olds’s rending of personal violence into eloquent verse—the language sublimely releasing events that make us wince. The brutality of ignorance and bigotry and the complicated injustice of victimization is rendered in “Farmville High,” where a lesbian student is physically attacked by two boys after school. The tension begins before the violence, as her attackers position themselves (“One at each end of the hall. / Even before they yelled / dyke, you understood.”). The carnage that follows leaves us speechless:

They shattered you
under long fluorescent
bulbs running parallel
to the cobalt blue lockers.
Those lights always
too clear, too white.

In silence, the doctors
rearranged you, wrenching bones,
wiring your mouth shut.
Lessons of loss and mortality are poignantly demonstrated in two poems, “Knowing” and “On the Way Home from a Bar in Portland,” which take place respectively in childhood and adulthood. Focusing on a hunt for a lost cat and an encounter of another, horribly wounded, each deals with the uncomfortable urges of hope and bravery, survival and merciful death. In the first poem, configured as a prose narrative, the discovery disappoints: “I find him. Curled up like a roly poly, his mouth hanging open, blood on his / teeth. His tiger-striped fur looks soft and I bend down to stroke him. Dad / grabs my hand, No he could have diseases. …” In the second poem, a more formally constructed narrative that is built on self-doubt and ending suffering, the poet follows a “tar trail of blood” to a hedge where the animal appears:
… He was a pair of torn black pantyhose,
leaking thick pink mucus. I should’ve gone home. …

I envisioned snapping his neck bone.
Instead I scratched him between the ears, stilled
by his sticky, short breath. I got up, walked home.
There are several poems on family with their own brand of spirited, celebratory dynamic, as when a walk in a graveyard becomes a bonding session for mother and daughter (“Graves We’ve Shared”), a father-daughter fishing expedition that’s a lesson on “the patience of stillness” (“Fishers”), and a hammock nap recreating the loving tension between the practical grandmother and rebellious sprite (“Grandmother”). A complicated chasm between revelry and sobriety exists in poems on friends and lovers (particularly in four “Relapse Suites”), and even the most raucous scenes contain imagery and detail with a peculiar beauty—“as bullets fell into the snow / like awful inverted stars…” (“Relapse Suite, Ashville”) and “It was so cold in your room / the door handle sparkled / with frost.” (“Relapse Suite, Pittsburgh”).

The Buried Return is by turns tragic and tender, wild and disciplined. Stroud unearths what we fear and desire, and reminds us how poetry can haunt both our conscience and consciousness, chronicling and shaping the lives we choose for ourselves.

April 25, 2015

Structures on Fire: A Review of Kristina Marie Darling's Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories by Julie Babcock

cover credit: BlazeVOX Press
Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories by Kristina Marie Darling
BlazeVOX Press (2015)

Reviewed by Julie Babcock

Kristina Marie Darling is an exciting voice in contemporary poetry. The seven-year span of this collection represents work from twelve different published books. It offers readers a chance to see a highly productive mind work through recurring concerns about genre and representation in an almost limitless ways. The core of Darling’s work centers on questions about whose stories last, why, and how that can be changed. She explores these questions through various forms that draw attention to the ways narratives both layer and erase. “What does a white dress not resemble?” Darling asks as her readers slip into a house and notice a man staring out a window, “Tell me what you see in him / A locked room, but what else—?”

Darling draws upon an evocative backdrop of Victorian images and associations to explore academic and political questions. Her writing, especially in the earlier selections, is filled with phonographs, exotic birds, silk gloves, and fancy dresses. Behind all this nostalgic glamour, though, is a terrifying sense of menace. As the title of one of her books asserts, “The body is a little gilded cage” and traps, poisons, and fires abound.

In some ways, Darling’s writing shares affinities with Mark Z. Danielewski’s, who plays with form and content but manages to create a highly charged tangible experience. House of Leaves is simultaneously a horror story, a love story, and a satire of academic criticism. Darling’s writing works on these multiple layers through an exciting feminist lens. Selections from Melancholia (An Essay) includes footnotes, a glossary, prose poems, and noctuaries: “She wanted to understand the innermost workings of this strange machine. Their courtship was a system of pulleys, levers, and strings.”

Darling’s writing simultaneously evokes the passage of time and refuses it. The women in her poems face the possibilities and devastations of love and power in unsettling ways that happen both two hundred years ago and now. Darling interrogates the structure of courtship and marriage—both its desire and dread—through women whose work, talents, and love have been dismissed or ignored by men. She demonstrates how much these dismissals have missed. In the earlier selections, courtship structures are presented as seductive acts of lyrical transcendence, such as in the prose poem “City Walk.” She describes:
When our taxi arrives, I brush the soot from my long white sleeves. Your gold
cigarette case flips open & I begin to notice the stains on your French silk cuffs.
In the later selections, attempts at lyrical transcendence are much more undercut inside each poem. For instance in “Landscape,” Darling writes:
You kept mentioning the other women, the way they would lie on their backs in the
grassy field. All around them were breadknives. The place settings for a picnic.
The fragmented sentences in this poem, combined with the deadpan humor of the breadknives and the more directly accusatory tone taken by the speaker, allow the reader to be in both a timeless and time-bound setting of this park. The poem continues:
But even before that we were quarreling. You told me, tilting your pretty head, how my pastoral elegy failed to move you.
Here, the reference to the pastoral elegy in a poem written in a 21st-century tone connects the ways the “you” trivializes both the death of a historic past and the death of their current relationship. Although the lines demonstrate the “you’s” dismissiveness, they also convey a delightful power shift. The speaker condescends the “you” by describing him in midst-quarrel as “tilting your pretty head.” From there, the action and imagination of the speaker builds in power. These power shifts occur frequently in Darling’s writing, and she seduces readers with sublime beauty, creeping terror, and possibilities to think and do otherwise. For instance, in her most recently excerpted book, The Arctic Circle, the woman in the prose poems may be freezing to death in her husband’s house, but unlike the husband, who can’t seem to make a distinction between repetition and difference, the speaker “understands why the boxes are empty, knows fact from fiction.” In “Your Only Wife” the same woman is:
… trying to warm the
endless rooms. You sense that what you had imagined is impossible: the faint
music, the chandeliers, and the bride’s mind gone pale with waiting.
These lines show the impossibility of a stereotypical romantic gender construction. The pale mind cannot be sustained, and this failure highlights the necessity to imagine in more constructive ways. To experience seven years of Darling’s prolific writing career is to witness the inexhaustibility of a compelling idea and a necessary set of interrogations. The poems in Scorched Altar are feeding a magnificent fire.

April 11, 2015

Humans and Animals: Connected at Heart: A Review of Ceridwen Dovey's Only the Animals by Tansy Bradshaw

cover credit: Penguin Australia
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Penguin Australia (2014)

Reviewed by Tansy Bradshaw

Winner of 2014’s Readings Bookstore New Australian Writing Award, Ceridwen Dovey’s second novel is best described as a variety of short stories and letters. Less than 250 pages, this book’s rich stories peak to everyone.

In Only the Animals, ten animals are caught in human conflict that ranges from a camel who was in the presence of Australian author Henry Lawson to a letter written to Sylvia Plath by a dolphin. With each story, readers glimpse into the hearts of the animals that stoically stood by their owners or, like their owners, dreamed of a better life. Giving a unique insight into the animal psyche, these stories reveal the raw suffering and joy that the real heroes experienced like losing a loved one or the fear of uncertainty.

The book also pays homage to writers who chose to write about animals. As well as Sylvia Plath and Henry Lawson, Dovey includes Kafka, Ted Hughes, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack Kerouac. In a story with a camel who is the animal accompanying Henry Lawson during a trek in Queensland, she writes with Lawson’s style as she creates images of Australia’s outback by drawing on the Australian bush and referencing its natives. This is evident in the passage, “The goanna was moving through the dry leaves, making them scrape against one another like cartilage.”

Dovey has a unique ability to make well-rounded and lifelike characters. For example, “Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat and I,” set on the Western Front, is a story about a cat reminiscing about her owner’s life in Paris. There, the actress was known for her theatrical antics, and the cat remarks, “… how entranced Collette would be by this little scene…” like walking her on a lead around town.

A more touching story in this collection is “Plautus: A Memoir Of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space,” in which a soul of a tortoise writes about Virginia Woolf’s life by replicating her essay A Room of One’s Own with one segment called “A Terrarium of One’s Own.” The tortoise remembers when Virginia discovered him in a box. The tortoise says that “she had done what she usually did when she encountered a new phenomenon … and went to literature.” This story provides an alternative look at a writer, who was living through social change at the time of writing her piece. A Room of One’s Own was her stating that she did not wish to be just known as a house wife, wanting a place where she could write and devote herself to her work. For the time where men hold the balance of power this was a stand for women’s rights.

Only the Animals is a beautiful piece of literature that makes readers ponder the lives that these animals and authors may and lived. Dovey seems to ask whether readers can understand an author better by looking at the symbolic use of animals within their work. For example, Kafka symbolised disability and the feeling of helplessness through the representation of being a cockroach that has fallen on his back and is unable to be righted. She also postulates whether animals can return feelings we wished we received from other humans: unconditional love? Only the Animals seeks out the empathy in everyone, whether it be for animals, humans, or for both. It all but hands a typewriter to a beloved pet.

March 28, 2015

Rust Never Sleeps: A Review of Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City by Angele Ellis

cover credit: White Pine Press
The Rusted City: a novel in poems by Rochelle Hurt
White Pine Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis
“…Using elements of surrealism and magic seemed like the best way for me to write a place like Youngstown into something new. A mythical approach allowed for this more than a documentary style would have, which is why I chose to call my city simply ‘The Rusted City’ and not Youngstown.” ~ Rochelle Hurt in an interview with Belt Magazine, December 2014
The reader enters Rochelle Hurt’s lost kingdom through an empty chair. Her cover illustration, Sharon Pazner’s “Throne,” is a doll-sized, kitchen-chair construction of concrete and bent, tarnished nails that might guard a parking space in any American Rust Belt city. Delicate and tough, homely and haunting, it is a near perfect metaphor for the world Hurt recreates from rough materials and memory.

Hurt’s impressive debut is a full-length collection of prose poems mixed with free verse (the eighteenth volume in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series). It reads like an extended fairy tale, a modern version of an old-fashioned story in which rust/blood, fear, and pain leave trails on the road to rebirth. Her recurring characters—The Quiet Mother, The Favorite Father, The Oldest Sister, and The Smallest Sister—are archetypes into which the poet breathes harsh individual life.

In “The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red,” this child character “often” takes into herself relics of the rusted city. “… She strings corroded washers into a necklace. She dresses her lips in the sanguine water and sucks the stain from the pipes behind the aluminum plant…” As in a fairy tale, these rituals age The Smallest Sister beyond even The Favorite Father’s reach, as demonstrated by the following punch line:
… When he touches her, she is as old as the city that closes around them like a fist.
The Favorite Father is a photographer as well as a mill worker. In “The Roller Coaster is Burning, the Favorite,” “father tells his daughters, buttoning their chin and ear flaps. ‘We’ve got to get pictures.’” But the family, walking in “a line of red caps… a lit fuse,” is too late for the burning but not the death. Hurt describes the grotesque scene:
… the roller coaster is folded in half, a writhing lattice… gangly as a giant insect… its corroded arms are crossed already—the death pose, the smallest sister knows.
In “The Favorite Father Chases a Tornado,” his daughters’ attention is not on “[t]he sky [that] troubles and fills with orange funnels” but on the way the father “ruined” the rust-coated river while “getting his shot.” Hurt writes in this striking sequence:
… A layer of rust floating like algae on the water begins to break up. As he wades, his legs part one red island, making another. Soon there are too many rust islands to count, and the river is a mottled red-brown.
The Rusted City often turns moments of creation into destruction. In “The Quiet Mother Smiles,” the house crumbles around the mother as she cleans her wedding ring in anticipation of the father’s return. The reader feels the chill of ill omen:
… The ring is heavy as a marble in the smallest sister’s hand, and heavier every minute… The quiet mother picks chips of rust from where the ring had hugged her finger and blows on it like something too hot, sending a storm of red to the floor.
The titles of poems in the second and fourth sections of this five-part collection begin “In the Century of…,” bringing the weight of history to bear on subjects as small as lunch pails, dusty hallways, and dirty water, and as large as records, research, and silences. In Belt Magazine, Hurt says:
“Using ‘In the Century of’ was my way of avoiding the constraints of literal time, which seem irrelevant to history in terms of how it’s told between family members and how it affects the lives of individuals. When history is remembered through our own experiences, it always gets warped and mythologized. There are so many centuries in this book that by the end, the city is thousands of years old. In this way it becomes larger than real life.”
“In the Century of Birthmarks” is a startling example of how Hurt positions the rusted city as an eternal city, as demonstrated by the poem’s opening stanza:
parents held their newborns up
to the sun and read the shadows
cast through them like runes.
And “In the Century of Lunch Pails,” the industrial city becomes a noisy, all-consuming monster: “… Everywhere the chew of pipes branching / through copper soil could be heard.” It leeches life from the lunch pail-carrying fathers even as it provides their livelihood, as in its eerily beautiful closing stanzas:
Everywhere the whisper ticks of fingers,
every hand a clock. And every evening,

the clinking, ever nearer the doorstep, of coins
inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked.
Hurt ends The Rusted City with two poems of death and rebirth. In “The City Opens” (like a corpse, or a Caesarian section) the smallest sister rebuilds from its amazing array of “expelling antiques.” “… Every night another wall, every week another room, every month another house—her new city birthed from the refuse.” And in “The Smallest Sister is Radiant,” the smallest sister imagines her death as “… a grenade of rust, fool’s gold… She can’t say why she / swallows the word, but when she does she knows it will burst in her / throat one day.” However, death cannot destroy the city that words have immortalized, as shown in the book’s last lines:
… but she knows that at the moment of death, she
will be brilliant. Her body will shine like a city inside.