October 24, 2015

The Disembodied Voice Within: A Review of Liz Robbins’s Freaked by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Amazon.com
Freaked by Liz Robbins
Elixir Press (2015)

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

What is it about being a freak, or possessing freakishness, that summons public curiosity or our private fears of exposed peculiarity? The notion of being a “Freak”—outsider, misfit, against which others measure their merits or failures— rises from superstition or class snobbery. Our society has become a devoted audience to the broadcast lives of the dysfunctional rich and anonymous disenfranchised, those loudly or meekly suffering their private anomalies. The greater the lens on our own conflictual, alternate cravings for camouflage or celebrity, the more uncomfortable we grow within the skin of our own humanity.

Liz Robbins’s Freaked magnifies concern about how easily friends and intimates could be considered pathetic or profound by a simple twist of phrase. Where does eccentric and abnormal differ or intersect? What life styles (or circumstances) determine our value as citizens and intimates?

Divided into six sections that focus on different and intriguing themes to present the skewered human drama, Freaked unravels tales borne from rites of passage, wrong turns, well-intended but misbegotten gestures, and love’s confounding fickleness. These include horoscopes, tabloid curiosities, social and spiritual ritual, and Diane Arbus-captured portraits. Robbins’s prowess is in the language and rhythm of each narrative, creating a dream-like tension through phrasing that approaches incantation, as in “[the scorpion]:”
sooze, the radio jesus says our salvation must come
without body, i’m not willing to wait and you are,
the sax solo growing buttered layers as it complicates,
this explains all—
Or from “[the twins]:”
and mine’s no more a faux life than yours, it’s just you actually
get to the gym, your slept-with-list thinner than mine—
you go out in the day and i stay in, the apartment becomes
a shotgun shack teeming with bad-dream melting clocks
and skyscraper mice—
Poems in the section inspired by “News of the Weird” columns reveals Robbins’s talent for summoning personal tales from the odd reportage of ill-gestured wannabe heroes, benign offenders, and the spiritually afflicted, among others. These headlines-turned testimonies manage a dark humor along with the ridicule of each story. There’s “Drive-In Church,” where the daughter of a devout choir singer expresses her own approach to faith (“… you don’t even have to / get out of your car and therefore your pajamas, just tool / right up with your ciggy’s on the dash and a 12 pack / of Krispy Kremes, reggae on the tape deck…”) and “Man Chokes to Death on Pocket Bible,” a story of a young man’s fatal attempt to purge himself of the Devil, where the poet speaks on behalf of the demon (“For months now, / I’ve explored his brain’s gray maze, turned flowering/ girls to mean drunks and parents to shrieking crows…”). “Rebellion as Ice Floe,” inspired by the story of three teenage boys who commit a robbery and make a regrettable getaway, is an especially strong narrative musing on adolescent angst, and restlessness (“… what waited beyond the yard’s split-rail fences?”). An awkward attempt in escaping (“How / little I knew, stuck in the reach-out-and-grab delirium, assuming / a hard run would bring safety, not paralysis. Like when I backed / down our driveway’s hill, only to stall at the bottom.”) is followed not only by embarrassment but also parental forgiveness for foolish acts.

Robbins excels in ekphrastic interpretation, moving seamlessly from poems of elaborate statements and unfurling lines to a series of sonnets that are deftly connected by their last lines. She summons both the empathy and unease of Arbus’s photographic subjects, as when their confident posturing belies their personal crises. In “A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NY, 1968,” a couple relaxes on lawn chairs while their young son hovers over an inflatable pool caught by his own reflection. There are clues to their diminished passion— “(Dad covers / his eyes, tired from the sun, Mom’s in the mid- / life crisis bikini.)” —and the accoutrement of marital ennui, such as:
… their bodies turned away to smaller traces
of comfort: stuffed ashtray, the full glass
on the table in between. Their weekend bliss:
the country club tan. Their weekend pass:
him running the yard. They do not kiss
or touch, but once they did…

Robbins also effectively evokes the pained hopes and fears of a giant’s parents (“A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY 1970”). All the details in the title, taken, as with all of the poems in this section, directly from the photographs, are required to understand the complexity of ambition and disappointment in this family dynamic. The giant’s mother wishes for her son “movie contracts, straight spine, blond wife, fakes guns.” And he gains celebrity, a mixed blessing:
A great man he became, eight feet high.
Played in movies too: son of Frankenstein’s
monster. Looking at him, Father thinks, Why
me. Mother thinks, A nightmare, but he’s mine.
Eddie looks down on them, leans on a cane
(back hunched, shoes thick-soled), dying of bone disease.
Freaked taps into the confounding ways we live, longing for acceptance or denying dependence on others, rejecting convention yet regretting alienation. Robbins captures our attentions with carefully crafted vignettes of dismayed but determined souls striving to be human. It is our dilemma—or privilege—to recognize ourselves among them.

September 26, 2015

The Likeness of the Waves: A Review of Niki Koulouris’s “The sea with no one in it” by Anthony Frame

cover credit: The Porcupine's Quill
The sea with no one in it by Niki Koulouris
The Porcupine’s Quill (2013)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

Niki Koulouris is a poet of the ocean, of the sea with its wide blue horizon. Although the vast, expansive ocean may be intimidating to those born inland, with only rivers and lakes to dip their toes in, Koulouris’s debut collection of poems easily draws in readers. Perhaps it is the shared love for bodies of water; perhaps we can recognize the rhythms of water found deep in these lyrics. Certainly, Koulouris’s lines and images, tight and terse, flow with “the likeness of the waves” and create a remarkable and daring collection.

“I’m fond of ships,” writes Koulouris in the opening poem of The sea with no one in it:
their progress,
the turning weather
for they are never without alternatives
and they may contain the whole population of the mountains
Here we can see the rising tide of her book—the short lines slowly expanding, the pacing of the syllables, even the careful use of articles to control the rhythm. The lines creep up on readers, tentatively, only to suddenly crash into us. Like waves, they then slowly pull back into the poem’s body. This rhythm is fairly consistent, and even the few poems that play with form use the formal repetition to create a sense of water coming in and out. This consistency then binds the book’s two disparate sections.

Koulouris’s book is comprised of forty-four poems. Most are shorter than a page and contain barely a half dozen or so words per line. Each poem is numbered rather than titled and they are separated into two untitled sections. The poems rarely use punctuation or capitalization. When they do, they occur only when the lines’ structures are not enough to convey syntax. In the book’s first section, twenty poems create a catalogue of the sea. The second section, with twenty-four poems, is comprised mostly of ekphrastic poems with a few sea/water images scattered throughout. This changes with poem No. 39 when the sea returns as the dominant poetic vehicle.

At first glance, her poems are reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s most famous poems. They are crafted with short lines that use pitch-perfect and evocative descriptions. In poem No. 12, for example, she writes about “the steak of Africa / the broken comma / of New Zealand.” And in No. 8, she describes the Aegean Sea as “the colour of a stork.” A Whitman-esque poet might unpack that image, spending a handful of lines stretching the stork metaphor until it snaps. But Koulouris is confident enough to let it hover there, allowing the reader to ponder this rich and unique image. And it is an earned confidence.

But there is more to Koulouris’s work than the precision of the Imagist school of poetry. Throughout, she avoids description and offers a directive statement or an imposing question. In this way, the poems carry an air of the famous ending of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (“You must change your life.”). This is best seen in poem No. 3, during which Koulouris explains what we shouldn’t mention about the sea, “for her waves / will never be yours.” She ends the poem with three stunning couplets:
her heart is solid fire
her eyes are weak

if it is not the sea
it is the shores

where would you be
without regrets?
That final couplet seems to come from nowhere, but it is a remarkable conclusion. She evokes a regret of not fully knowing the sea because it can never be ours, a regret of not tasting her waters and not touching her shores.

More than anything, though, what is perhaps most admirable about Koulouris’s poetry is her subtle irony and humor. This is especially true in the second section of the book, which adopts a darker tone. Many of these poems, inspired by artists and writers like Philip Guston and Maurice Sendak, address mortality. In No. 21, for the German Expresionist artist Anselm Kiefer, she describes “a landscape razed for battle.” Later, she responds to Picasso’s Guernica in No. 28. But rather than focusing on the destruction shown in the painting, she finds a voice of bitter irony. “the band is / paid to screech,” she writes, and “to my surprise / there were wares / outside.” But through this, she doesn’t ignore the horror of Guernica, as seen in this tercet: “a formidable horse / drinks from tinted water / strikes oil.” Earlier poems also contain this biting humor, but none more so than No. 13, which is a catalogue of what the sea does not need, including:
all of Alabama or the NYPD
and I am sure the sea does
not need Jack Kerouac
to take a stab at it
There is something entrancing about Koulouris’s poetry. It makes readers want to dive deep within it, to drown. Its rhythms are intoxicating and, like a riptide, refuse to let go. The surface appearance of simplicity belies the poems’ complex and daunting depth. “It is always midnight / in the river / between two poems,” Koulouris writes in No. 44, the final poem. There may be rivers between her poems, but they are, indeed, oceans.

June 20, 2015

Songs of the South: A Review of Beth Gilstrap’s I Am Barbarella by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Twelve Winters Press
I Am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap
Twelve Winters Press (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Beth Gilstrap’s composite collection of short stories and flash fiction begins like a wild drum solo and ends like a sweet refrain—the kind in which the singers fade softly into silence.

From the title piece, “I Am Barbarella,” to the final story, “B-Sides,” Gilstrap’s tough lyricism, in a medley of first-person voices, wraps mystery and heartbreak around her characters’ grooved lives. No wonder Gilstrap has included a playlist for this debut collection, drawn from fifty years of popular music (the Spotify playlist is available at her website, bethgilstrap.com).

In “I Am Barbarella,” Gilstrap’s nameless narrator, egged on by a friend and her own conflicted desires, transforms herself from wife to bar-show sex queen and back again—in five hundred words. As the narrator of the following story, “Yard Sale,” says: “It ain’t garbage if you turn it into something.”

At the heart of this book are ten interconnected short stories that trace the lives of three generations of southerners—solid Sue and William; their dutiful son Hardy and his runaway wife, Loretta; and Hardy and Loretta’s pained yet loyal daughter, Janine. (Neighbors Lucille and Rachel—whom this reader imagines as a gritty alto and a shrill soprano—also add their voices to the mix.)

Gilstrap, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is editor-in-chief of Atticus Review, has a gift for describing place and nature as palpable as her love of music. In “Paper Fans,” Janine and her best friend Maddie hang at a local bar:
Janine tosses her and Maddie’s coats up in the corner like some black heap of animal carcass… The burned out letters BBQ hanging on the opposite wall look their age. Janine’s mind felt the same, like charred paint flakes on metal shells. This is the Diamond’s second life, but it’s been open in some fashion since the ’50s. It smells like burnt tomato sauce, fryer grease, and cigarettes. […] She orders fried pickles. Two junior blocks with chili. Pitcher of Pabst.
And in “Getting by with Sound,” Hardy ruminates on the rural pleasures of his late father, William:
Those were the things he liked to do. Listen to stories, walk, and admire the scent of his gardenias, the feel of their waxy leaves and petals. He used to pick them for my mother, and she always kept them on the windowsill in the kitchen. They were beautiful until the petals turned brown, but then the smell just grew sweeter.
In an interview with Twelve Winters Press, Gilstrap describes her use of place and her attachment to the South as follows:
For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s [Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, where Gilstrap earned an MFA in fiction writing] emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.
The ghosts in I Am Barbarella propel its living characters away from intimacy as much as they root them in the land—including a child lost in an accident, a father eaten away by cancer, a husband who completes suicide, and a lover who “smelled like bug spray and honeysuckle.” When Hardy and Loretta—who’s back in town after years on the road with a boyfriend’s band, but still restless—visit William’s grave, Loretta insists on bringing a bag of Red Man tobacco to place on William’s headstone. But when Loretta reaches out in compassion to the still grieving Hardy, the result is solitary tears, not renewal of long lost togetherness.

Giving away too much of the characters’ skipping lives seems like revealing the punch line of a joke—even one told many times, as a favorite song is played into infinity. But it is not cheating to say that in I Am Barbarella, Gilstrap creates a vital world in which friendship is as strong as betrayal; beauty endures not only in the landscape, but also in objects as small as a leftover Christmas package or a perfect chocolate pie; and there may be time for tentative second chances.

June 6, 2015

Creation Stories: A Review of Lori Jakiela’s, Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by R. A. Voss

cover credit: Atticus Books
Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela
Atticus Books (2015)

Reviewed by R. A. Voss

Belief. Beliefs are opinions unsupportable by proof. Truth. Truths are facts supported by proof. Indeed, a recent New York Times article decries this curriculum commonly taught to our nation’s youth because those simple definitions belie the reality that sometimes things are both. It’s those places—where belief and truth intersect—that Lori Jakiela probes in her latest memoir, Belief Is Its Own Kind Of Truth, Maybe.

Loss. For adoptees like this author, life begins with loss. Loss of a birth family and the genetic guidance that cues infants in regarding their place in the world, sets them on a quest for the truth surrounding their identity and how they came to be. Although all writers begin a story with an empty page, the task is even more daunting for people like Jakiela, as she notes:
“All first pages are blank, of course, but for adopted people more so.”
So as not to seem ungrateful to her adoptive parents, for most of her life, Jakiela sublimated her sense of something missing. This happened until, in middle-age, another seminal loss—her adoptive mother, who raised her and taught her how to love and nurture her own children—propels it back into her awareness. She acknowledges this in the book’s opening revelation:
“When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one.”
The author’s use of the phrase “real mother” to describe her adoptive mother clues readers that her search generates no Dr. Phil reunion. Her description of the Catholic Charities counselor and office sets the tone for her bare-roots tale:
“The Catholic Charities counselor’s word for this other mother I want after decades to find is biological. Illegitimate is another word for people who end up like me. It’s what I feel now, unlawful, unauthorized, unwarranted here in this office that smells like antiseptic and rubber gloves, hot teeth drilled down to the bone.”
Jakiela’s attempts at prying truth from an organization founded on secrecy and sealed records proves largely unyielding. Forced to settle for “non-identifying information,” she’s denied access even to the medical history she alleges is all she seeks. Yet, readers see through this self-deception to realize she wants more—she wants what all children ask of their moms: Please see me, acknowledge me, accept me, love me.

Throughout her life, the author has imagined and been told personal creation stories by her adoptive family, but the versions are incomplete—partial fabrications that leave her unprepared for encounters that come later. In the absence of facts, memoir crosses into fiction that attempts to restore “…certain lost and key moments that affected [her] life, but for which [she] was not present.” Those parts conjure a birth mother who is a more sympathetic character. But though they provide juxtaposition, Jakiela is at her most powerful in memoir mode when she narrates her experiences and thoughts with scalpel-precision that debrides primal wounds.

Jakiela examines her birth and upbringing through her consciousness of her own strong motherly love and marital ties. She sorts through myriad ambiguities in messages heard from her “real” parents, shifting notions about what is true and what is false, acknowledges what is real in all of it, and squares it with her beliefs. She recognizes one reason that some beliefs become necessary truths for people compelled by their situations to invent their own creation stories. She explains:
“There are so many versions of the truth. All of them would hurt someone, I think.”
But needing to believe in goodness in the face of facts that reveal otherwise, she writes:
“I need to believe in my mother’s buried softness the way I need to know I and my children haven’t inherited a terrible disease. If paranoia and cruelty run like cancer in my birth mother’s bloodline, I’m hoping something else will show up to provide balance.”
This is a book about the lies we are told, the lies we tell ourselves, and the things we just believe without proof. It searches out the authenticity in all of it and illuminates how beliefs sometimes persist because we need both the truth and the lies to make life livable—to keep loving ourselves and each other. Further, it’s about leaving behind the life one inherits in favor of the life one chooses in response to everything sensed since leaving the womb, and having it be better than enough. The story is at times doleful, but the author is always self-sentient and honest.

“I never had a voice in any of this,” Jakiela writes of her conception and adoption, but in this book her voice is strong and her emotion finds expression. Forty-five episodic chapters of varying lengths form a staccato rhythm that echoes Jakiela’s disjointedness as she grieves and strives for wholeness. Yet, by the close, the book becomes legato as all the parts smoothly bond like the city of Pittsburgh, where the author was raised near, “All those rivers and bridges, connecting everything to everything.” Similarly, Jakiela recognizes that the life she has created for herself, deeply connected to her husband and children, is the one that matters, while readers recognize those places in themselves where belief and truth mingle.

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.