February 14, 2015

If They Would Touch Me: A Review of Robert Walicki’s A Room Full of Trees by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: Red Bird Chapbooks
A Room Full of Tress by Robert Walicki
Red Bird Chapbooks (2014)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Everything about Robert Walicki’s debut chapbook, A Room Full of Trees, is stunning. First, the reader is treated to a gorgeous, hand-bound cover from Red Bird Chapbooks. The cover art and drawings by Carl Huelsman complement the poems to create one, complete work of art. And Walicki’s words explode even brighter.

From the first poem, “Red,” Walicki introduces the complex way his narrators deal with distance and touch. The poem explores the speaker’s memory of his father watching his soccer games. The two never communicate, but even being as close as a player to the stands feels ominous and dangerous. The speaker states:
Every game he sat, top bleachers, always looking, no wedding ring,

never blinked. And I watched him too, till it was my turn,

till I was called for and had to turn, had to show him my back
Walicki’s use of caesuras makes the readers feel the suspicion and hesitation of turning their backs and letting someone creep closer to them. In fact, the hesitation toward physical contact runs throughout the book.

In “The Boy,” after seeing a kid get beaten up, the speaker comments, “What I saw taught me how to stand by, how to say nothing.” The fear of reprisal by the bullies in this line is immediately universal. Who didn’t witness some form of bullying or torment in school and kept quiet because they didn’t want to be next? Even later in “Touch,” the speaker suspects that the group of people seeing a friend off “knows I couldn’t bear it if they would touch me.” But when this space is breeched in other poems, the reader, like the speakers, is shut out or violated by it. The narrator in “When the Sunlight” explains:
When he touches you,
think of trees.
And when you say no,
he’ll say I’ll kill your parents if…
The lack of touch and the omnipresent distance is so expertly constructed by Walicki that the readers identify directly with the speakers, even if similar experiences are not shared. Together, the readers and speakers can only speculate what connection could feel like. This struggle is most clear in “The Way Back,” wherein a narrator tries to relive a memory of an old home by “draw[ing] the floor plan in the air.” While exploring this “house,” the narrator remembers going through his mother’s things:
I am downstairs when the last of her things are boxed up
In the photograph I ask to keep,
nothing moves.
It is 1933 and she is standing in a bread line.

And I am trying to remember the last time
I touched her.

I hold the photograph up to the light.
My thumb touches her face,
but she doesn’t notice.
The reader is not even given a memory of touch to experience, but is left with a thumb on an old picture. The lingering effects of loss, as well as striving to recreate past moments, is again felt when a speaker erects a scarecrow with his sister. While using his deceased father’s clothes as the scarecrow’s costume, he states that “She doesn’t know I’m building a man,” as if he is trying to rebuild the person with the leftover materials of memory.

Despite anxiety, distance, missed contacts, and loss, light plays a key role in keeping the collection from getting too dark. Even when recalling sexual abuse in “When The Sunlight,” there is a“… sliver of light through the gaps / reaching you, here, and now, and always.” Walicki’s poetic gift to readers is filling all the space that he has created between bodies. “What the Light Wants” starts by saying, “Not the tall branches above me rocking and breaking. / Not the dead branches over tree lines too high to touch.” The poem uses the title and the first two lines to state that light isn’t interested in the living or the dead. Instead, the light wants the rest of the poem: the struggle between a son and his deceased father.

Dealing with death and the seemingly unbridgeable distance between people can be immense and disorienting. For all the pain and darkness, though, light is always somewhere in Robert Walicki’s poems. There is still “sunlight flashing off the windshield” even if it’s sometimes a “broken light… moving through the space between the trees.” The ability to express this complexity while keeping his poems layered and inviting is nothing short of radiant.

January 31, 2015

Life Leaves Its Scars: A Review of Michael Gerhard Martin's Easiest If I Had a Gun by Michael Chin

cover credit: Braddock Avenue Books
Easiest If I Had a Gun by Michael Gerhard Martin
Braddock Avenue Books (2014)

Reviewed by Michael Chin

Easiest If I Had a Gun is a remarkable debut collection from Michael Gerhard Martin. The short stories tend to focus on young characters who stand on the precipice of life-shaping decisions. In some cases, the choices are obviously significant—a high schooler alternately contemplating a school shooting or suicide—while others are less evident but little less formative—a lying, bullying, and manipulating boy attends a fishing trip to compensate for the absence of a real relationship with his father. In his longer pieces, a young man spends a semester groping to understand the changing dynamics of his relationship when his girlfriend leaves for college, and a woman navigates adult waters all her own—sleeping with her music teacher and engaged in the constant ebb and flow of conflict with her alcoholic mother. In each case, Martin remains fiercely true to the thought processes of his characters.

The collection opens with “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The story sees Josh Geringer—an overweight, acne-riddled high schooler—face all manners of torture. Bullies throw basketballs at his head, punch him, and shove their bare buttocks in his face in the locker room. Teachers and administrators are both oblivious and aggressive toward Josh for not trying harder to fit in. As Josh, the narrator, articulates:
I hate being a punching bag, especially in front of other kids. I hate his hands on me, pinching, flicking, poking. I hate his locker-room smell of sweat covered over with Right Guard. I hate being one of the weird ones, hate being the kind of kid that gets bullied by Burnout Brian McVey.
Because of his experiences, Josh contemplates suicide, threatening his antagonists with a knife, or shooting them with his grandfather’s gun. He goes so far as to bring the weapons to school, precipitating some form of disaster. The story takes a turn, however, when two good-hearted tough guys stick up for Josh and break the arm of the lead ruffian, McVey, in Josh’s defense. When one of McVey’s toadies, Billy, attempts to continue bullying, Josh handily pummels the smaller kid—then makes a habit out of it. Drunk with a new power, Josh starts calling Billy “Shit Weasel” and transforms into a bully in his own right. After inflicting one such bout of punishment on his victim, Josh ruminates, “I am sure he is going to tell, sure I will have to hang my head and pretend to be ashamed. The truth is, I do feel a little ashamed, but I hate Shit Weasel more.” Thus, the story defies saccharine resolutions or all but cliché scenes of the grotesque in favor of an entirely realistic shade of gray that allows readers to both sympathize with and recognize all of the ugliness within the adolescent tormenters.

Martin explores similar territory through a different lens in “Seventy-Two Pound Fish Story.” A boy, yearning for a better father-son relationship, places the weight of his aspirations on a fishing trip with his father’s friend and son, the Gormans. The boy lies about his relationship with his father, picks on Alec Gorman for struggling at school, acts out his jealousy toward his familial setup, and annoys everyone with his inexperience and preposterously boastful claims about his fishing skills and the fish he almost catches that day. In an artful moment, Alec’s father, who had at first insisted the boy call him Lute, retracts the offer, stating, “Why don’t you call me Mr. Gorman, okay?” The story proves to be a portrait of a boy who is desperate for connections of any kind, and who falls short with every attempt.

The collection also includes two longer stories that border on novellas: “Bridgeville” and “Dreamland.” Despite the strength of his shorter works, the longer form yields mixed results for Martin. “Bridgeville” maintains a tight arc of Jack’s coming of age during his senior year of high school, particularly through the lens of his relationship with Meaghan, who is one year older, college-bound, and alternately in love with, indifferent to, or actively manipulating Jack. Jack seems willfully oblivious to her shifts in attention, until he makes an ill-advised visit to her college, learns of her infidelities, and leaves in a huff. Weeks later, he succumbs to Meaghan’s charms all over again when she comes home for Thanksgiving. And though Jack can’t put his finger on it, Martin artfully paints a picture that their relationship has irrevocably changed at that point. In “Dreamland,” Martin is similarly true to his protagonist, Emilie, allowing her decision-making processes to dictate her path over a story arc that lasts for month. “Dreamland,” however, lacks the focus of “Bridgeville. It is, at first, the story of a teenage girl involved in a tryst with her teacher. However, it becomes a story about a fledgling artist who hopes to head to college, her relationship with her more adventurous best friend, and the ways in which her alcoholic mother’s lack of responsibility stunts her life. This all culminates in a suicide attempt. Taken as a whole, the story succeeds in capturing the confusion and multifaceted nature of a young woman’s life, but comes up short as a coherent narrative.

If there is one certainty to be taken from Easiest if I Had a Gun, it is that Martin knows his characters and follows them along their journeys to the fullest. The stories do not shy away from complex or ugly outcomes. At his best, Martin proves himself to be a master of a tightly contained form. Even the collection’s weaker stories hold true to a drive to explore every deep, dark crevice of the diverse characters’ psyches. Each one is haunted in unmistakable ways, and each gropes toward a better life. They rarely find lasting solace, but readers with a profoundly enriched insight into the human condition.

December 6, 2014

Where The Wild Things Are: A Review of Sam Sax’s A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Button Poetry
A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax
Button Poetry/Exploding Pine Cone Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Each section of Sam Sax’s first poetry book—a runner-up in the 2013 Button Poetry/Exploding Pine Cone Contest—ends with a drawing of a monster undressing itself. Akiva Levi’s illustrations, reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, reveal the monster to be an ordinary boy—but a boy whose melancholy face is faded and incomplete, as if lost in the clouds of his own and the world’s making.

Like Sendak, Sax is a gay Jewish man haunted by his cultural and historical past, and seeking illumination and redemption in art. Unlike Sendak, the myths that Sax explores and recreates are not for children but for adults, and their wrenching transformations promise no resolution.

Variations and continuations of one poem, “Bestiary,” begin the five sections of A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters. The fabulous beasts that Sax catalogues become, in the poet’s intense and sometimes violent imagery, lovers whose intimacies are fraught with danger. Beware the lover/monster most when he is sleeping, as Sax seems to be saying in the following passage from the first “Bestiary” (his use of backslashes in these poems intensifies the warning), because of what may happen when he awakens:
… / go to sleep / beside the man you love
& wake up next to a dog / maybe the moon brought it out of him /
… / or maybe
it was there inside him / howling all along
The poems that follow each “Bestiary” are lyrics of sexual longing and initiation that carry, along with the urgency of desire, the knife’s edge of potential destruction and even disgust. In “When Researching Public Sex Theatres for a Poem,” the very seats of the theatre are repositories of viral guilt, as in Sax’s pungent description:
… who uses cloth seats anymore, anyway?
         you read they hold disease better than mosquitoes,
              feel the swarm beneath you as you sit,

each tiny needle sucking you down.

isn’t it funny how you once believed nothing
in this whole world could disgust you?
In “Fishing,” the knife is figurative and literal. Sax’s adolescent narrator and his friend Daniel, with whom he is infatuated, butcher still-living fish from the ocean as bait to catch more. The process is both seductive and brutal, as in this passage:
…fish don’t have throats to cut, so we stabbed
         wildly. my first knife, bright as a smile, sectioned their
seizing bodies. my smile, my knife.
That night, sleeping in Daniel’s mother’s house, the narrator “want[s] so badly / to be a knife… to take [Daniel] / apart in pieces” after he has “… in the dark… [run] my fingers through / his hair, brought them to my face and tasted salt.” “Fishing” becomes a vivid fantasy of lovemaking and completion in the final lines of the poem, as follows:
…or perhaps, i wanted to take him
        into my mouth, to feel something sharp
break inside of me,
        to be pulled up
                  into the screaming air
                                 somehow whole.
The fruitful consummation of love between men is woven into “Folktale,” a rich and humorous prose poem written after Marge Piercy, but also with the flavor of Issac Bashevis Singer. It is told in the voice of the narrator’s “zedee… from her creaking wood body buried in her creaking wood chair.” In the grandmother’s words, the proximity required by sleeping bodies in the bitter Ukrainian winter creates more than children:
… i don’t know if you know this sam but when two men make
love, they also make bread, the slow yeast and butter, yolks
breaking in the hand, sugar poured until it makes you sick…
you know the older the man the richer the bread, so hashem
rose the body temperature of these men until they all sang
like ovens. they labored indoors and birthed perfect loaves.
that winter, we ate how kings eat.
But consummation also can be cannibalistic and parasitic. In the Kafkaesque “The Hunger Artist,” the body that is devoured is so similar to the narrator’s as to fuse with it permanently. The horror of this union is demonstrated in the poem’s last stanzas:
… the job of any competent
parasite is to convince

its host of their relationship’s

… & when i was at last inside him,
i couldn’t make a sound.
Silence is transformed into “shrieks” from both the screen and the movie audience in the prose poem “It’s Alive!” that unreels on the page like a strip of film. Told from “the point of view / of the [gay] monster,” the poem/movie’s inevitable narrative becomes a defiant cry of pain and protest, as in these lines:
                               … it’s not
till you love a boy & make him
like you         that   you’re   able
to  curse         the    civilization
that  assembled    your    fiction

                       … & audiences
in darkened   theatres   release
a  collective  sigh    of    relief
as you perish,   as credits  roll
back  like  eyes…
Sax ends A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters with a return to childhood in “Boys & Bridges.” Beneath a veneer of roughhouse and innocence, however, his boys are “gods” of “flame & melt.” The narrator knows not only where the matches are, but also where the bodies are buried. “[A] dog… below the corn. /… there because of us… once it opened / its mouth to howl & all of god’s green dirt / spilled in.” Another dead dog “spill[s] out” of a bag pulled from a river.

Although the boys burn the forest in anger, and return “home to our undrowned / dogs,” a forest of civilization rises to contain them. As Sax says in the book’s final sentence, “we’re still climbing out.”

November 29, 2014

The Intoxicating Risks of a Poet’s Painful Blossoming: A Review of Lisa Marie Basile's Apocryphal by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Noctuary Press
Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile
Noctuary Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

There is a solid, if not sometimes discomfiting, legacy of women poets taking ownership of victimization, familial or societal, within the larger sexual, emotional, and political playing fields of their generation. Sylvia Plath gave us the overbearing “Daddy,” Ann Sexton celebrated her body and moments of sensual reverie taken for madness, and Sharon Olds shared portraits of her family’s damaged and damaging patriarchs. How can we not admire Marie Howe’s “Mary Magdalene,” in a clever twist of self-declaration in citing the seven sins cast out of her (including: “The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong / to anyone. // Historians would assume my sin was sexual.”) or, in another poem, Magdalene’s ticking off the physical peculiarities and personalities of each male phallus she encounters.

In Apocryphal, the ambitious first full-length collection by Lisa Marie Basile, the poet creates a noirish tale against a surreal landscape that mingles (or perhaps blurs) memory and nostalgic illusion—a stylized series of personal and disturbing episodes. Before the larger narrative begins, an isolated section that serves as a preface provides clues to an evolving, pained history that precursors the narrator’s own flowering and debasement (“as a child his mother took an iron to him good, strangled / him in curtain cords.    so I’m your mother now // give it to me good.”). She states: “I am not like everyone else’s child, I learned early of toil & kink: little girl    bambi girl    sprawl for me / and I learned early all the men who want bambi…” But whether this transformation actually took place can be interpreted, like the title of the collection, as apocryphal in nature. She adds: “it might be the truth,    or not.   that is up to you.”

It is an intriguing, if not unsettling, start to a tale that often flickers across the page in vintage iconography (the douse of cologne, cabinets filled with booze, hands posed with cigarettes, scarved coiffures and boat-like sedans) and fragmented sexual encounters. It begins, Dali-like, with a dream-state of images:
When I sleep nude on sands, I open
my mouth so a whole man could get in, so you
could get in,
& stretching, I realize there is nothing but blackcoral,
          wrapping this body of me,

parts parting,

taken with you or taken by you. I wear the both of us,

as golden hoops in my ears.   the skin
is stretching all over the place, my hands are the hives,
& I smell of high valley fire.
o, it is very young of me to spill myself like this, a pearl
necklace snapped off by drunken blackness
     so dizzied
by the rotary tone of you.
There is a continual metamorphosis of the body, whether of the narrator’s or other female and male figures. These references approach the rhythms of spiritual service, a perversion of communion that can startle with violence (“my body of bark, my body of body // the salt, the sound of          hollow. // this legion, this inner summer. //I awake to you   my prayer  forcing me / with fists.”). In two other sequences:
our fathers and mothers make us holy
             in their form.

the form is       my fingers            inside myself
& then in your mouth.

you put them there, you did it.

you drink me, a little hair, a little salt.
my body tastes like the afternoon & I’m bent
in the shape of a woman, but I am not a woman.

you decide what I am. (p 35)

the small white dress I wear when the pain comes,
     with the stains on it.          this is my body.
this is my body.         this is my body. the sick
and the summer.        the air of a thousand men

blown up inside.        I live inside crates shipped
across the sea.         I venom good things. (p 85)
Although Apocryphal’s poems wander across the pages in a continuous release, without separate titles or standard formatting, there is a subtle application of style to break up or contain the book’s epic energies. This helps to “ground” the reader, temperamentally, as we experience the emotional interiors and exteriors of a life being revisited, shared, and self-investigated. On pages 26, 43, and 49 the narratives are presented as if boxed, like progressive, confessional pit-stops with the cinematic aplomb of capturing close-up monologues. In the first, we are told: “I keep growing & getting bigger, & my hair is soilblack now, … when you put your hands on my waist you say baby is this you?” and a remembered (or fantasized) night of shimmering light leads to an inflated sexuality but diminishing self and death of identity. In the second, we learn “I am afraid of photographs. I am ashamed they will show / where I really came from …” and again, intimacy is a force to be reckoned with from outside and within. The third is printed as two “boxes” separated by two lines that take us from “backstage” to the moment of her delivery to an on-screen persona, and that embodies the pageantry of rite (spiritual as well as theatrical). The narrator shares:
…                I have spent my entire life & all of its suffering
both as spectator and subject. a woman trapped eternally as a
child waiting for the holy father.

when he approaches I am cinema, a conquering, validation,
revolver and good mascara. he says,  you are beautiful.
With its edgy cinematic qualities, cast of familial and possibly invented characters, and shadowy events, Apocryphal effectively integrates noirish imagery and lyricism (“this woman is / a despicable thing / on our glossy sofa… those lashes / that bouffant:    a cage // an apron / an earring / a man / & a briefcase, // dead face down,    olive oil thighs …”). Told through a Fellini-esque lens, this is a woman’s odyssey of desire, shame, assertion, and redemption through telling her story with her own words, the truth present even in distortion. After all, whoever promised that grief, rage, or the excruciating process of healing and survival could ever truly be decipherable?

October 25, 2014

The Day of Fulfillment is Near: A Review of Tom Noyes's Come By Here by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: Autumn House Press
Come By Here by Tom Noyes
Autumn House Press (2013)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

There is something completely normal about Tom Noyes’s Come By Here. He presents characters that are often funny, periodically bored, insanely devout, and inexplicably sad. They buy houses, deal with loss, annoy the hell out of each other, lose dogs, and try to do what would be best for themselves and their families. They are prophets, lawyers, fishermen, reality TV stars, and members of the Fabulous 40s and 50s. Through these characters, Noyes captures the complexities and inconsistencies of being, well, human.

The novella and stories that compose Noyes’s book, the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize winner for 2013, inspect individual struggles that define so many people’s daily lives. His stories are often funny, though always tinged with very real issues. Even in the very first story, “Soul Patch,” which details the start of reality TV star Kingsley Carter’s downfall, environmental issues sneak in. When talking about birds affected by an oil spill near his most recent shoot, Carter says:
You want to explain the whole thing to the bird. You want to apologize for the mess it’s in, but then you also want to impress upon it how lucky it is to be receiving help. Of course, you can’t explain any of this to the bird, and there’s sadness in that communication gap, I think. That’s just one level of sadness, though.
Although amusing, this observation is reminiscent of the moments of over-analysis that is incredibly familiar to many people. Noyes maintains this subtle comedy throughout his book, from a father spending a lot of time thinking about the importance of his daughter’s scrunchie in “Devil’s Night” to the participants in “Safari Supper” noting minute details of the guests and hosts.

When Noyes’s characters are not over-analyzing, they typically see themselves or their lives reflected in the world. The most beautiful example is from “Per League Rules,” wherein Dom, the father and coach of a recently suspended softball player, Kat, is looking at the smoke stacks of a coke plant during a game-ending storm. He notices:
Thunder crashes miles away over the lake, and then seconds later another rumbling sounds like it’s coming from the south. Like there are two storms. Or one with two heads that’s disagreeing with itself… Like the argument’s over him. Like it’s none of his business. Either way, he’s going to wait this one out.
In fact, Noyes’s characters constantly reflect upon the world around them. This permits themes of environmental responsibility because his characters are intertwined with the world. Even if they don’t take direct action, their lives are affected by the natural world, making the reader feel the import of being environmentally responsible.

This theme is most tangible in the novella “Come By Here.” Throughout the story, a literal coal steam fire rages underneath a small real-life Pennsylvania town called Centralia. The fire started in 1962, and Noyes brings readers through four different time periods since then: 1969, when readers follow a self proclaimed prophet; 1976, when a family tries to make ends meet and heal from the loss of a son; 1984, when a lawyer and his secretary enter mutual affairs; and 1995, when a fresh high school graduate learns he is going to be a father.

The novella is split into three sections with bookends describing a highway that runs through the town before and after the fire has consumed the town. The first, “Old Route 61,” is one of the most splendid parts of this book. It follows a “carrier” and a “corpse” as they walk down the road trying to reach the end. As the carrier gets too tired to continue, the corpse gets up to take his place and continue the journey across the highway. This parable for the rest of the novella is expertly crafted. “At this point, of course, it would come to pass that the carrier and the corpse would become each the other” is a perfect example of the conflation between the literal action of two people seeking the new road’s safety and the representation of each character’s conflict.

In the novella’s three parts, a different character from each time period is given voice and Noyes delivers the three stages of being human: birth, life, and death. Birth follows the prophet finding his way toward worshipping the fire as he repeats his mantra, “The day of fulfillment is near” and introduces all the struggles in the other time periods. Life sees the fruition of incidents that define these characters. And death details the literal and metaphorical end of all the conflicts.

Readers see the true range of Noyes’s craft in this novella. From the mystical half sentences of the prophet to the exquisitely constructed sentences of a mourning mother, Noyes brings readers completely into each character. This is what is normal about Come By Here. The characters are so fully realized and constructed that they seem absolutely regular. This is Noyes’s greatest achievement in Come By Here because he captures the absurdity and complexity that is every single normal human life.