July 27, 2014

Who is Authored?: A Review of Sara Biggs Chaney's Precipice Fruit by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: ELJ Publications
Precipice Fruit by Sara Biggs Chaney
ELJ Publications (2013)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

The best place to start talking about Sara Biggs Chaney’s poetry chapbook, Precipice Fruit, is with the afterward. In a courageous and rarely seen (in poetry) break of the “fourth wall,” Chaney addresses the readers of her poems to provide an insight into some of the intentions behind her poems.

The two biggest insights into Chaney’s work are that “every child has a personhood” and that she is not writing a book about autism but “a work of imagination, grounded in experience.” This allows Chaney to provide a variety of voices to the subject because the poems are her own creations, not poetic representation of her experience. At the end, she asks three questions regarding this choice: “Who is Jenna,” “Who authors Jenna,” and “What should matter to us more? The institutional story of the child, or the child’s story of herself?”

Jenna is the autistic child whose presence ripples through each poem. Chaney balances three sets of voices that seek to define Jenna. The first set includes the doctors and teachers that refer to Jenna by a set of afflictions or to “normal” behavior. From the second poem in the collection that tells us there are “possible markers of genetic disorder” to the last poem, which provides a 5th grade report card, Chaney includes a variety of found material that portrays how the world outside views autistic children.

The outside world’s observations start many of the poems and allow Chaney to use Jenna’s mother as a balance or reaction. The two blason of Jenna are perfect examples of responses to the doctors’ jargon. In “Blason for Jenna (II),” Chaney presents a new way of understanding the technical terms of diagnosis. She explains:
Hydrocephalic—head—of water.
Your head is a fountain
held by tender skin.

 Hypotonic—low tone.
Your arms and legs
are the soft ending
of a nighttime song.

 Echolalic—echo voice.
Your mouth, a seashell
speaking the ocean’s story.

Chaney uses the mother’s voice to provide moments of absolute beauty with Jenna—“her mouth sings / easy sound, sweet innard / of a thousand little thunders”—to incredibly visual terror—“Jenna’s ribs arch & chase / a magnet to the ceiling. / Her joints do circus tricks.” With this second poetic voice, Jenna is less clinical and more human.

Readers also see a mother’s vulnerability as she imagines her child as “cliffside fruit” in the title poem “Precipice Fruit.” As the speaker metaphorically hangs onto the last vein of her previous life, she takes in the “one      tiny            beautiful thing” that hangs there with her: her daughter. Chaney writes, “Reach for it and fall. / Don’t reach for it, and fall.”
Jenna, in the beginning of the book, is not a real person, merely the subject of poems. Halfway through the book, the readers may expect a continuation of the mother’s voice and the clinical coldness of medical records. Although a fantastic way to construct a collection, Chaney does not stop there. She stretches her imagination further and gives voice to Jenna. She states, “Jenna teaches / another way / to be here”. Jenna’s voice is superbly constructed when she states, “I kiss the glass, / make it shiver. // I kiss outside.” Even when Jenna is “writing a script for a television show” or sitting on “a black leather couch next to Charley,” the voice is a child’s.

Giving Jenna the space to express herself through the latter half of the book emphasizes the problem with trying to represent someone else’s experiences who may not have the ability to do so themselves. A balance is created by giving Jenna a unique voice without making her a caricature of disability or childhood. Chaney allows the space for Jenna to be the author of her own story, not a subject in someone else’s.

Giving space to Jenna to tell the story of herself allows readers to see autism as another state of being and not just “an idea of a girl / dancing in a fountain.” Therefore, the mingling of different voices gives a balanced insight into the world of autism. With every experience represented—doctor, teacher, mother, child—we are left inhabiting the life Chaney has created instead of just reading about it.

Chaney takes a remarkable step toward allowing a deeper understanding of how another person, seemingly incredibly different from us, could be considering the world. As Jenna says at the end, “You might like to know: / I have my own strategies. / I am practicing every day”.

July 5, 2014

Rough Beasts: A Review of Lisa Mangini’s Slouching Towards Entropy by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Finishing Line Press

Rough Beasts: A Review of Lisa Mangini’s Slouching Towards Entropy by Angele Ellis

Slouching Towards Entropy by Lisa Mangini
Finishing Line Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Lisa Mangini imagines the slow but inevitable destruction of the world in poems whose small but stunning revelations recall both the foreboding of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In Mangini’s work as in Didion’s, “… drifting, inarticulate children… take on… an almost allegorical significance. They are the pitiful casualties of an immense and perhaps inexplicable social change—an ‘atomization’ prophesied by Yeats” (as Joyce Carol Oates said of Didion’s essays in a 1977 New York Times Book Review).

Mangini—a poetry and fiction writer, as well as founding editor of the journal Paper Nautilus—begins Slouching Toward Entropy with a whimper that has the force of a bang. In “A Bird in the Hand,” the speaker transforms the fall of a sparrow into a portent of doom observed not by any god, but by a child whose innocence is drowned by the experience:
… I was ten; I did not know
names of birds or even painters—I couldn’t spot

the angle of her neck and call it “Picasso-esque”
as I might now. I could hardly feel
the weight of her in my hand, her hollow bones,
matted feathers, light as a Styrofoam cup.
Throughout this book, Mangini’s beasts—children and adults, bees, and recurrently, birds—are continually degraded by contact with the detritus of civilization, both high and low. In this poetic landscape, the animate and the inanimate are irrevocably connected—all are fungible objects; “[L]ight as Styrofoam cup” is as haunting an image as the “Picasso-esque” angle of the dead sparrow’s neck. And Mangini’s harrowing “The Statement” follows two young women who have been celebrating Halloween in a club (“…doused in sweat and glitter… feather boas / shedding and sticking to our skin”) as they are subjected to a rape that, in Mangini’s description, is a brutal consequence of our decaying cosmos. The “spare electron” in the following passage recalls Yeats’s “atomization”:
… both of us thrashed to a sandpaper
sidewalk, separated by thirty feet
       of space and a ring of men: three
       to each girl, and one that floated
between us, like a spare electron, like a dog
torn between two bones.
The poem ends with the speaker whose sternum has been broken, giving a “statement” for herself and the friend who has sustained a shattered jaw. But the terse last lines (“… She won’t be talking / for a long time. / Yes, we / were the only witnesses”) describe the damage done to both women, and beyond them to all victims of rape.

A rape that culminates in murder is the subject of “Matthew,” a meditation on Matthew Shepard in which the poet transforms Shepard’s infamous, grotesque death into a stark, contemporary “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Mangini’s use of lower-case staccato phrases separated by white space like tombstones and her bell-like repetition of the word “think” emphasize the poem’s elegiac quality:
think breath,    contagious             as breath itself,
cascading through tissue       since birth,
think passage through fissure of flesh,
like you.

while i’m strung up in confessions
of the last sunset              while i wonder
what will they think when they write my eulogy?
In a sense, Mangini herself is writing a eulogy for what it is to be human—including philosophy, in which the poet finds no consolation. “The Museum of Philosophy” references the speaker’s collection of Kant, Schopenhauer, Camus, and de Beauvoir, only to conclude that “… there is no wise passage waiting to keep me company… all of this, and not one / of these things capable of welcoming me home.” And in “Letter to Descartes,” the speaker—with wry, ironic sympathy—chides the philosopher for believing only in the reality of the mind. The voice that imagines Descartes’s grief over the death of his young daughter, Francine, encompasses both philosopher and poet, and tests his limitations along with her own:
…But that’s all corporeal stuff, Rene,
and it’s ok if you counted over and over again
the twenty-four right angles of her tiny casket
to convince yourself that you were uncertain

if you even cried at all.
Science, on the other hand, provides Mangini with a weirdly joyous companion on the path to entropy. In “Einstein’s Prophecy Loosely Penetrates My Nightmare,” Einstein’s prediction that the extinction of bees would soon result in the extinction of humans merges with a nightmare of lost teeth and angry wasps. The speaker’s unnamed friend or lover manages to convince her that the threat is, for the time being, imaginary through a rare gesture of release and some comforting words:
…You opened my window,
easy as a fortune cookie, knowing to discard
whatever hidden wisdom buzzed
inside. At my distress, you offered:
They’re not bees. Useless. They’ll never
yield a drop of honey.
And in “I Must Have Been Nikola Tesla in Another Life,” the speaker is positively giddy. She moves from “want[ing] to be surrounded in yellow” to “Central Europe, Eastern Europe, where-ever / someplace Slavic calls for me” to the jolt of an electrical high that approaches the ecstasy she imagines Tesla to have experienced. Her enthusiasm runs like direct current through the following passage:
…I am tempted
to lick the wall socket, to taste the blue light. This is not
synesthesia; you are simply not understanding me.
I touch everything in grocery stores with wonder.
But the high does not last. At its core, Slouching Towards Entropy is an exquisitely muted meditation on death—spiritual and physical—as well as the relentless winding down of existence. Mangini is compelling when describing the cessation of everything—as when poet and reader become one with the dwindling, solitary observer in “Bird Watching at the End of the World (ii),” which contains the book’s title phrase:
… It is upon us. I was expecting a short fuse
and a loud bang. Of course: it is this very lack
of vigor in all things that informs me of this ending.
It is this slow wilt, this calm unlacing of the corset
that holds the world together—that we have always
been slouching towards entropy, without noticing.

June 29, 2014

Turning Life into Art: A Review of Adam Patric Miller’s A Greater Monster by Elizabeth Paul

cover credit: Autumn House Press
A Greater Monster by Adam Patric Miller
Autumn House Press (2014)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Paul

The title of Adam Patric Miller’s essay collection A Greater Monster comes from an epigraph by Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Montaigne writes: “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.” In Montaigne’s tradition, Miller liberally quotes others in his essays, which are penetrating ruminations that embrace a range of topics from classical music and teaching high school to memory and suicide. Also like Montaigne, Miller examines his own experience in ways that help readers to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, Phillip Lopate selected A Greater Monster as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize, noting that Miller “demonstrates all the necessary assets of a first-rate personal essayist.” Although Miller carries on the personal essay tradition, he also makes it his own by drawing on traditions of musical, visual, and literary arts to create compositions that work in non-traditional, innovative ways.

Miller’s essays are composed of segments that are numbered or separated by white space. Often, he employs poly-vocal juxtaposition; his own words are interwoven with those of others: his father, his biological father, Kurt Vonnegut, Vincent Van Gogh, and Webster’s Dictionary, to name just a few. For example, “Blessing the New Moon” is an essay of thirty-two parts including autobiographical vignettes, quotes of musicians and artists, and transcripts of Miller’s father discussing WWII. It incorporates various recurring topics, beginning with Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gould appears in eleven of the thirty-two parts, including part three, which is this brilliant description.
Gould imbues Variation 15 with sorrow—not the sorrow of regret or nostalgia, but the sorrow of resignation. He reaches, sonically, for something that can no longer be touched. Gould is Orpheus reaching for Eurydice as she is swept back to the land of the dead. Tones repeat. A slow walk, exhausted, shoulders hunched. Tones rise, step by step.
Like the tones of Variation 15, topics repeat and themes emerge, including fathers and sons, art, redemption, revision, creativity, numbers, war, death, pills, puzzles, and the moon. The essay does not argue a point or elucidate an idea, but reveals relationships between seemingly disparate topics. It invites connections, stirs feelings, and cultivates insight. As much as any theme, it is composition itself that Miller explores in his book. Again and again, he interweaves voices, contrasts dark and light, and lets patterns emerge in essays that range from a two-and-a-half-page meditation on his father to a sixty-three-page fugue encompassing insanity, divorce, and suicide. The latter lives up to the definition of fugue because of being both a composition of interweaving voice parts and a disturbed state of consciousness.

In keeping with his book’s title, Miller explores what might be called monstrous in himself and the world around him. The America in A Greater Monster is often callous and crass, artificial and superficial, violent and unjust. For example, in vivid first-hand accounts, Miller illustrates the violence that pervades the urban school where he teaches. In one essay, he describes breaking up a gang fight: “I tried to pry Bub’s fingers from [Andre’s] throat. I could see blood where Bub’s fingernails dug in. The security guard arrived, and he and I pushed Bub down the hall like football players pushing a tackling sled upfield.” Just as troubling is the surreal picture Miller paints of suburbia as a place where a union official compares improving education to giving an extreme makeover, where too-thin girls wear revealing clothes that shout “HOT PROPERTY” and a dinner-party conversation turns glibly to people needing organ transplants: “What if they all agreed to draw lots, and for the winners to harvest the loser’s organs? Would that be OK?”

But Miller is true to the entire epigraph by Montaigne and reveals the miraculous even while examining the monstrous. In an essay exploring his father as monster, Miller concludes tenderly that he was always the son “who loved monster movies, even though they gave him nightmares.” In an exploration of his biological father’s mental instability, Miller traces the idealism of an artist, beginning the essay with an epigraph from Ahmad Jamal: “The goal of every musician is to be free, but freedom is rare.” And throughout the book, Miller reiterates the redemptive power of art.

Miller’s writing is a kind of antidote to the monstrosities of postmodern America. With courageous empathy, he looks tragedy, mortality, and indifference in the eye. With poise, he searches their meaning in a broader composition of living, never raising his voice in the shrill tones of today’s media but allowing things to speak for themselves, especially through artful repetitions. He is critical but not judgmental, and turns his eye for monstrosity on himself as much as others. His acute observation expresses the attention of a father or teacher sensitive to the signs of need from individuals and society.  Montaigne once said, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces but order and tranquility in our conduct.” As for Montaigne, there is much at stake for Miller in writing. It is part and parcel of living with inspiration and compassion. Through an ear for voice, sensitivity to tone, deftness with language, and fearless curiosity, Miller shares this inspiration and compassion with his readers along with the possibilities of composition.

May 31, 2014

Remedies in Songs and Silences: A Review of Toadlily Press's Mend & Hone by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Toadlily Press
Mend & Hone by Elizabeth Howort, Dawn Gorman, Leslie LaChance, Janlori Goldman
Toadlily Press (2013)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

I first became acquainted with Toadlily’s quartet series back in 2008, when I reviewed their third collection, Edge by Edge. Each book in the series brings together four poets in separate sections that are essentially “joined” chapbooks of 13-14 poems each that find common ground within differing styles and approaches. It’s a marvelous idea that increases by number and literary style the experiences of discovery and transition, and Mend & Hone proudly continues this tradition.

The volume begins with Elizabeth Howort’s section, “Turning the Forest Fertile.” These prose-like, untitled pieces float on the page, dream-like, referencing the silences we need to immerse ourselves in experience, to turn inward. They also beckon the reader to listen for music that rises through an unfurling leaf or the calamitous pulse in a city of pedestrians and traffic. “I looked in the shops and cafes, bars and museums, but silence was nowhere. / Who hears her breath amid sirens?” Howort asks in the third piece.

Silence and sound—the pastoral and urban—intertwine, blend, and evade. Howort presents this in a Zen-like series of statements (“What sound does a fruit make when falling? // A branch upon release?” “My breath is a foyer that moans with entrance, exit.” “When we hold silence we do not answer.”) and psalm-like passages, as we learn how elusive and profound silence is. She explains:
Out of silence, light:
a blessing on your eyes,          acres.

Out of the silence, space:
A place to inhabit:                   field,

You invite me into the garden.
A third pulse.

You invite me into silence and say

We are drawn, weightless, into a world of diminishing wilderness and overgrown urban landscape, hovering and anchored by the music and libretto of our hopefulness.

Dawn Gorman’s imagistic, lyrical poems in “This Meeting of Tracks” find fascination with time, memory, and the juxtapositions that can encourage longing, regret, or denial. In “Stiletto,” a nearly surreal appearance of the shoe “on top / of the spiny winter twigs” causes no discussion in a rural place that readers are told has no secrets or unturned stones. “The rain has warped the insides, but the toe still lines up hail clouds / like a stealth bomber. // They keep their eye on it, though; / farmers, mothers, priests / all remember a shoe like that.”  In “Buried,” an act of love outdoors is roused in memory by the images of trees: “The beeches silenced us, / their sudden amphitheatre / spread brown / with last year’s empty nut shells.” The hard evidence, a condom, was buried, according to the poet “under the crushed shells / where nothing would grow. I imagine it there now, re-routing nature / still.”

There are forces to be reckoned with—nature and intimacy—that Gorman summons with drama, as in “Wave” where a storm whirls beneath the surface, prompted by “a passing thought…” Yet, she writes, it:

…builds, rises, coming unstoppably,
turns darker blue, green, triumphant turquoise
then ruffles and tumbles and wallops forwards
huge, heavy, froth leaping, flying. …

Or conjures quietly, as intense but fleeting desire in “Blue,” where a chance encounter at an airport summons longing amidst short, polite conversation (“…I have precious minutes/to watch the hands / I ache for.”).

Leslie LaChance’s poems in “How She Got That Way” endear with their wit, cleverness, and celebratory air—even as she allows poignancy to effortlessly emerge from between the lines. In “Strange Little Enthusiasms” LaChance extolls the virtues of indefinite articles, “…so small, so full / of possibility and yet complete?” She continues:

…We go
For a walk. I tell you a secret; we make a pact. See how easy it is

with just a few little words? A mouth, a breath, a long
kiss, and then another. …

In “Literary Landmark: A Valentine” a hangover after a drunken declaration of love in an Irish pub is immortalized in a photo taken the day after the carnage. Speaking directly to her beloved (“You proved your love with one hand / holding my hair back, and the other tilting the ice bucket to my chin…”) she recounts standing with him “on the Great Dead Writer’s front porch with a pair / of headaches, a camera, and go figure, a future.” “Nocturne” possesses a wistful beauty, visually and emotionally stunning, inspired by the simple act of removing one’s—and rousing the memory of removing another’s—glasses. LaChance describes:

I took my glasses off and set them
open on an open book. Later
when I came back into the room,
they looked so melancholy in the lamplight—
there on the dining room table
trying to read Tolstoy by themselves.

Janlori Goldman’s “Akhmatova’s Egg” rounds out Mend & Hone with poems that are personally inspired yet have the confident stride and linguistic grace of domestic parables. These poems deal with mortality, love, and the pain in living that fuels indignation that sometimes fuels hope. In “Yom Kippur,” the poet is in synagogue and begins:

Today everything hurts, and I’m as close to

god as I’ll ever come
or want to be. I try to forgive myself, fist knocking at the chest,

a door that forgot how to open. The prayer book’s spine
against my palms, I sing loudly to drown out the dandruff

flaked on the suit in the next row, sing as if I do believe…

Even after her mind wanders to the spiritual disappointments of the past and back, she eventually “thinks of the woman asleep in the window well on my block, blonde / wisping out of a hoodie, sneakers on the sidewalk like slippers by a bed” and wonders about her own ability to reconnect to faith.

In “At the Cubbyhole Bar” the reader is an invisible guest as the poet and her friend, a First Responder (the dedication reads “for Donna Bianco, retired NYPD sergeant”) share the small and large horrors of family dysfunction and global disaster. The discussion leads from a father dead from AIDS, to a dinner fight between mother and daughter, to the unimaginable, as Goldman writes:

That morning, after the buildings buckled,
a brown skirt of cloud billowed up.
            You saw her, a bleached blonde
in purple satin shirt, no body
            Below the waist, thought how a human head
Weighs 8 pounds, lifted that weight
            Of a newborn, zipped the bag.

The startling imagery of these poems also presents the forces of nature, as in “Cyclone” (“The twister lifts a home’s petticoats, / holds its skirts/high over the pasture, …”) and “The Bear” (“A grizzly crawls into the station wagon— / its left leg mangled—finds a plastic soldier / and red dinosaur on the backseat.”) and ultimately, the force of life itself, as in “baking in the 8th month.” She recalls “rosemary-soaked olives and sea salt, my mouth / in licked delirium from this warm bread. // yeast swells, opens the well of yearn and ache/ for the grain at its start. dark under the cheekbones, // darker from the navel straight down, this rise / a sign of life inside, my acre swollen to the brim.”

Mend & Hone is a fine collection of distinctive voices that brings pleasure in the discovery of what ails and heals us. Each poet captures the confounding and consistent challenges of being human with language that seeks emotional detent with its subject matter.  It is a welcome addition to Toadlily’s quartet series.