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.

October 18, 2014

The Martians Have Landed: A Review of Laura Madeline Wiseman's American Galactic by Susana H. Case

cover credit: Martian Lit
American Galactic by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Martian Lit (2014)

Reviewed by Susana H. Case

The Martians are everywhere, including the crevices of Laura Madeline Wiseman’s teeth in her sci-fi poetry collection, American Galactic, inspired by strange happenings around a real Nebraska storm. Around it, Wiseman constructs her imaginings of Martian personality, and what that reveals about human personality. Playfulness and creativity abound in this well-rendered visitation. For example, in “Warning” she writes:
Even now I watch the trees gutter
and the wind tongues the house.
I can almost hear the words, something like
The Martians have landed. You’re free.
It’s not just storms that ramp up the atmosphere in this collection, but the oddities of social experience and human behavior. We are all aliens, Wiseman says in “The Tabloids.” Our social and physical world is made unfamiliar by destructive practices—police brutality as quotidian policy and environmental depredations that have altered the planet, disrupting routines. And of course, she writes in “Getting Out of Here:”
...down the street,
          NASA plants lettuce in a lunar greenhouse
to practice gardening in outer-space
In “The Left Boob of Largeness,” when the left breast of the poem’s speaker begins to get inexplicably bigger, it’s the Martians who drive her to the clinic and pat her hand for support. In this exploration of tribal affiliation and strangeness versus family, lines are crossed. Oddities happen. Nothing, not even a visit to the doctor, is routine. By seeing the social world she lives in through the eyes of Martians, that world becomes an object of study and suddenly not taken for granted. Thus, the poet becomes sociologist. As the Martians drive her home past fields of genetically modified crops, they are:
…quiet in the small space
until I say, I’m normal. The engine revs.
The nurse said some boobs just continue to grow.
There is a quirky humor to this collection, despite the political context, that is reminiscent of Wiseman’s premier full-length collection, Sprung. American Galactic reflects upon an otherness that can be non-threatening and somewhat familiar, as with gender. The Martians are tourists in Wiseman’s social milieu, and that setup is ripe for the ironic voice. In “After Watching a Martian Marathon on Cable, she supposes:
...If they called,

I’d probably not answer because of the number,
thinking it was that automated voice

to tell me again, my warrantee is about to expire,
when I know my 1991 car doesn’t even start.
Other than calling, Wiseman speculates on the ways that Martians might try to make contact. In the final analysis, “The Trouble with Martians is they Don’t Fit In,” they’re annoying when they eat comforters and dust ruffles without apology, and puzzling when they kneel to worship daffodils or go to the beach still dressed in spacesuits. For some reason, they don’t masturbate, Wiseman tells us, though they are sexual in their own way. For example, in “Making Up,” she explains:
I said, how was your day? and kissed
the tip of each green finger. Kissing me
back, they whispered in my ear,
It just got better. How was yours?
Wiseman takes this a step further in “Epithalamion: An Undetected Life.” When the Martians attempt to get married, they buy bridal magazines and go to the mall to browse wedding clothes, but don’t quite get the rest of the normative practices. She explains:
They all fill out an application to officiate
because they can’t decide who gets to

wear the veil or sprinkle rose petals
and who will be allowed to kiss whom.

They decorate the backyard with tulle,
fairy lights, and rows of folding chairs.

Everyone arrives, but the Martians.
In other words, the Martians want to be a part of American society, but truly don’t recognize how. Still, they make attempts and Wiseman imagines the ways in which those attempts rupture her everyday social world. What would it be like to clean the house with Martians to help, for example? What does it mean for them to long to be part of the group? After all, Martian is just one other partially divisive minority category. Perhaps they want the same things as the midwestern Earthlings that Wiseman knows. Perhaps they want the same things that Wiseman wants and has but, being strangers, don’t know how to attain those things.
Maybe that they can settle here
in a suburban neighborhood—
everyone gets a PC, a green lawn,
a veggie patch out back to tend.

Maybe that when they line up
at the elementary in November
their vote will be counted.
They would not need to stage a crashed spaceship, or an alien autopsy, as in Roswell, Wiseman suggests, if they could somehow blend in. The fantasy myth of alien abduction is touched upon in “Abduction Dream,” in which Wiseman fantasizes being rescued from Midwestern winter. Perhaps she suspects we’re all transplants from somewhere else, and what could possibly be more bizarre than Planet Earth? Martians are the objective correlatives of outsider status; in a way, the eccentric cousins of the speaker. We can see ourselves in their practices, which are odd, but not odd enough to make them frightening.

The cleverness in Wiseman’s collection is in the essential humanness of these exotic creatures, which leads the reader to wonder: which of us is stranger? They, too, go to museums (for the amphibian and mammoth exhibits) and watch movies, shaking at death scenes and crash landings. They, too, slurp hot chocolate and get tattoos. They, too, play dress-up with boots, hats, and scarves. Even Martians are willing to walk the dog around the block. They, too, miss home.

October 3, 2014

Weave Magazine at Conversations and Connections with Roxane Gay

We are pleased to announce that Weave Magazine's Managing Editor, Rachel Ann Brickner, and Fiction Editor, Sarah Shotland, will be at Barrelhouse's Conversations and Connections writing conference in Pittsburgh, PA on October 18, 2014. A little about the conference:
Conversations and Connections is a one-day writer's conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment. The conference is organized by Barrelhouse magazine, and has been held for the past 8 years in DC, and the past 2 in Philadelphia. All proceeds go to Barrelhouse and participating small presses and literary magazines.
The keynote speaker this year is New York Times bestselling author and former Weave Magazine contributor, Roxane Gay. Cost of admission is $70 and it includes a featured book, lit journal subscription, boxed wine social hour, and litmag speed dating session. 

Find out more at We hope to see you there!