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.

March 14, 2015

In Pursuit of Shenanigans: A Review of Dan Nowak's the hows and whys of my failures by Anthony Frame

Cover credit: Hyacinth Girl Press
the hows and whys of my failures, by Dan Nowak
Hyacinth Girl Press (2014)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

The bio note for Dan Nowak’s third chapbook, the hows and whys of my failures, concludes, “Dan takes his time to pursue worthwhile shenanigans with the love of his life.” The pursuit of shenanigans, often in the name of love, turns out to be an apt description of these fourteen short, stream of consciousness poems that race from curiosity to conclusion at a manic pace. Throughout, Nowak’s abrupt line breaks and his complex interplay between ideas and language strip away the artifice of the modern world and leave the reader staring, at times uncomfortably, at how these naked poems wrestle with the world in which they live.

The collection opens simply, plainly, and absurdly: “you’re beautiful like a dolphin.” This, according to the opening poem’s title, is “one of many failed pick-up lines.” This immediately extends the possibilities of what Nowak might do and where he might go over the next fourteen pages. The poem then jumps from the speaker’s failure to find dolphins attractive to a brief meditation on imaginary “future and science fiction children.” By the end, when the speaker decides truth is obnoxious (“almost like a dolphin”), Nowak has fully prepared us for the voice, the tone, and the style of his chapbook. But, perhaps more importantly, he has prepared us for the pace of these poems.

They are frenetic, so much that they push the limits of comfort. Take, for example, “this is my rifle.” Over the course of fourteen lines, Nowak writes about love as a gun, his lack of scholarly knowledge, his inability to talk to a girl, ruminations on how the girl might kiss, how much he has had to drink, a brief meditation on attraction, questions about how the night was supposed to go, a post-party cleanup, and waking up alone. And all of these are strung together without punctuation. But Nowak deftly holds these thoughts together through the rifle metaphor, which transforms from being about love to being about attraction to, finally, being about the speaker’s penis. This transformation coincides with the speaker daydreaming about the girl. As his fantasies intensify to the point of disintegration, so too does the rifle metaphor until all that is left is the speaker “alone again with my hand down my pants and drinks i meant to buy still in my pocket."

Each of these poems works in a similar way (see, especially, “what is implied,” “an option on how to replace church,” and “when it all goes sonic boom boom boom”), but the absurdism and the loose strings connecting each part of each poem prevents the collection from becoming predictable. Still, absurdity, irony and wit alone are not enough to hold a collection like this together. What makes Nowak’s poems work, and work wonderfully, is the intimacy and honesty behind all his surreal leaps. Most of these poems are about love and/or relationships. But connecting with another person is never easy in these pages. Take, for example, “names are like signs for yourself,” in which the author and a bartender discuss the commonality of names. Nowak wants desperately to engage in this conversation but the overactive mind, the one responsible for all these poetic leaps, is unable. Instead, he writes:
i politely sip my beer and imagine
him with my name and how that would change him.
i think he wouldn’t be so judgmental or he would be more.
and i ask myself, how many more letters do i need
before i am someone completely different.
The love poems in this collection are similarly tough and tense and a bit nightmarish. In one poem, the speaker encourages his partner that “sex for money isn’t necessarily such a bad / idea as long as you’re safe” (“and just because i haven't encouraged”). In another, he questions his ability to write about his partner because “your story is boring” (“what is implied”). But strongest of all is the poem, “behind the pretty lights.” The lovers in this poem work desperately to come together while simultaneously pushing each other away. They hold hands and notice the empty spaces between the fingers. They insist on the silence of silence. And those pretty lights, the ones that make the lover dance, are ultimately used “to put the right amount of distance between my body and yours.”

Still, behind the angst, behind the speaker’s obsession with his failures, there is a tenderness. This is best seen in “why i am never really upset about you waking up with me.” Here, the speaker recognizes the selfishness of his desire to keep his lover with him, to make his bed “more home than home” for her. “you’ll see me for who i am,” Nowak writes:
you won’t picture
anything less, but push yourself against
my ribs. i will let you in. that isn’t a question.
It is this tenderness, this heightened awareness of the self and others, and of the relationship between the self and others, that keeps the collection approachable and relatable. It is this tenderness that earns the surreal moments where kissing leads to thoughts about leprosy and armadillos (“why i can never invite you over after i drink moscato all night”).

the hows and whys of my failures accomplishes something pretty spectacular. It smoothly and matter-of-factly blends postmodern dadaism with narrative lyricism. And, perhaps most importantly, it does so unapologetically. Nowak’s new chapbook leaves little doubt about his skill, his wit, and his devotion to honesty, about himself and his world. Indeed, if these poems contain any failures, they are beautiful failures. They are magical failures. Just like dolphins. And armadillos.

March 8, 2015

Weave Issue 12 Update

Dear Weave Magazine Readers, Subscribers, and Supporters,

Weave Magazine is in transition: we're expanding our team, looking for new ways to share our contributors' work, and other exciting changes. In order to accomplish these goals, we've decided to delay the publication of issue 12 and close submissions early this year.

Our reading period will end one week from today on Sunday, March 15th at 11:59 am PDT with plans to reopen in the fall. We apologize in advance to anyone who misses the window, and we hope you'll think of us again. Please sign up to receive our blog posts via email (right column, third box) to keep up with the latest Weavey developments.

Subscribers who are waiting on issue 12 - we're   sorry for the delay, but we promise this issue will be worth the wait. Feel free to email us about concerns, refunds, or any other questions.

As always, thank you for supporting Weave and independent publishing.

Be well,

Laura & the Weave Gang

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.