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 http://writersconnectconference.com. We hope to see you there!

September 6, 2014

Beyond the World’s Rim: A Review of Edison Jennings’s Reckoning by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Jacar Press
Reckoning by Edison Jennings
Jacar Press (2013)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Edison Jennings’s chapbook, Reckoning, is a masterful elegy in multiple voices that is also by turns rough and tender, wry and devastating.

As a young aircrewman in the U.S. Navy, Jennings “… from a P-3s vantage point, / watch[ed] Beirut burn.” In “Flight,” he connects this wartime experience with a boyhood memory of shooting at buzzards above an American farm, an activity the thirteen-year-old narrator and his friends find futile and mesmerizing; the predatory birds prove to be impossible targets. In the following passage, the narrator’s frustration and wonder are palpable:
…if we could only hit one,
to blow a hole in any bird that fed on carrion.
                                                                        Still we wondered
silently, how they rode the breeze forever
as if sanctified.
As the poem progresses, the images of flesh-eating birds become more powerful, mystical, and foreboding—“great-winged vultures” that pharaohs “deified,” “Dante’s circling song to death”—until the now-adult narrator becomes one with them above a flaming foreign city, “…charmed / flying in circles, like an icon.”

A range of responses to tragedy is at the ravaged heart of Reckoning. As Jennings (who now chairs the Division of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Intermont College) reminds the reader by quoting Webster’s dictionary on the book’s dedication page, one of this resonant word’s multiple meanings is being called to account.

Reckoning is dedicated to Jennings’s daughter, Lucy (1989-2010), who passed from cancer. Lucy appears, both directly and indirectly, in many of these poems. In “Reckoning II,” the narrator totals his enormous personal grief as a bookkeeper might. However, minimizing Lucy with this method serves only to magnify her. The loss of even one child tips the balance between life and death, as demonstrated by the emotion that breaks through the dry tone of the following passage:
The law of small numbers
implies her entry will be lost
in the long ledger of the dead…
so small and unaccountable.
In “Litany,” the narrator, elderly and possibly suffering from dementia, kneels in nightly prayer and keeps a more personal list of losses, ranging from “Fred” to “Haitians… nurses… Sudan.” But this aide de memoire is not enough—“twofaced sexanddeath outpaced him.” His “confusion” over the growing list leads to emotional overload, a form of amnesia. To this good-hearted but befuddled man (as to the reader), this seems necessary, a shameful penance:
…one night he even forgot his daughter,
bald and sick from chemo—with so much need
his knees would hurt, with so much yet to plead.
And in “Brown Eyed Girl,” the narrator’s grief stretches to the beginning of human history, linking his Lucy to a “Denisovan fossil” of a hominid girl who lived 2.6 million years ago. Time seems to collapse as the first brown-eyed girl becomes not only an ancestor but also a sister to the one newly dead, bringing the narrator a strange sense of comfort. The twinning of the two girls in the following passage signifies not only kinship, but also completion:
…My short-lived daughter, too,
had brown eyes and hair.
That makes us kin:
she through me and me though you.
Reckoning is not without moments of humor. The spunky old woman who narrates “Durable Goods” disposes of her worldly possessions with devilish glee, spitting in the eye of the death that is about to overtake her. Her “will” is as tart and refreshing as the spirit Jennings captures in these lines:
…“The body’s estate?” she said, “just stuff to stuff,
amen. Burn it and be done…Give Louanne
the four-post bed now that she’s found a lover,
and dare her to wear it out, if she can.”
And in “Rainstorm,” death takes a holiday on a road trip to rural Georgia, reminding the reader that life’s little but satisfying pleasures can be found in a “…Caddy [that] shimmied in the curves / and fish-tailed down the straights” and in “…lunch[ing] on RCs, Scooter Pies, / and watch[ing] the wipers skim / momentary half-moon vistas / lush with peach and pecan groves.”

The reminders of loss, however, lurk in many places in Reckoning: in the corpse of a poisoned mouse in “Nuptials,” whose “…tail ringed my finger, / wedding me to death”; in an old house’s coal furnace in “Feeding the Fire,” as the narrator “wipe[s] the smudge / of pitch-black dust that seams the lifeline of my palm”; in an unhappy woman’s vacuum cleaner—a Hoover Vortex Master—in “The Sympathy of Dust,” which preserves rather than obliterates “…a diary of dross…fragments of a narrative / she tracks from room to room.”

Reckoning circles back to Lucy in the book’s final poem, “Saudade” (in Portuguese, a feeling of intense melancholy or longing, a word with no English equivalent). Despite the narrator’s commitment to “commonsense things” to “keep the cold out” of his “ramshackle house,” saudade “…seeps through the floorboards, / pools in the corners, and laps up the stairs.” His diligent housework becomes irrelevant. Through the narrator, Jennings is drawn to examine—not for the first or the last time—the “vacuum” left by his daughter’s death, the icy center that connects existence and non-existence:
…I retreat to the wreck of your room
and wonder—the closest I come to prayer—
are you warm out there, beyond the world’s rim?

August 23, 2014

Seasonal Revelations of the Self: A Review of Mary Meriam's Girlie Calendar by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Headmistress Press
Girlie Calendar by Mary Meriam
Headmistress Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Co-founded by Mary Meriam and Risa Denenberg in 2013, Headmistress Press is an independent publisher of books of poetry by lesbians. As stated on its website, it is “dedicated to honoring lesbian existence, discovering a range of lesbian voices, and promoting lesbian representation in the arts.” Girlie Calendar is the last volume in the “Lillian Trilogy” (the first two books were Word Hot and Conjuring My Leafy Muse) and dedicated to the poet’s creative mentor, scholar, and educator, Lillian Faderman. Mary Meriam’s voice joins an established and recognized canon of gay female writers (Marilyn Hacker, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, June Jordan, and Joan Larkin among them) with her own brand of self-declaration and exuberant chutzpa.

The visions conjured by the phrase “Girlie Calendar” rouse images of sirens posed in risqué postures, sultry but coy, beckoning and somewhat vulnerable, teasing an audience with the promise of carnal conquest and unimagined sexual pleasure. Meriam cleverly plays on the clichéd and misogynistic notions of this familiar cultural artifact by creating a catalog of poems that cross a decade and address the desires, promises, gifts, and, occasionally, disappointments of each month.

In the May section, “Hot Spell” opens with a glimmer of optimism: “This sonnet holds the hope of something hot: / a summer night with soft cicada din, / a sultry rush of fingers on the skin, / a tender lightning bolt that hits the spot.” So much of the magic in Meriam’s verse lay in her deft use of language, often like a sleight of hand as she uses rhyme that subtly rears its head in elongated lines. For example, from “Beginning with a Line by Robert Frost” in the January section, she writes:
The pile of rotten branches and gold leaves lies there dead and swirled.
It would take every court in the countryside to count the fallen leaves.
The judges must number themselves among the dirt-thirsty thieves.
I live in a room of cold-toed winter glowing with no relief.
Wandering silent, muttered about, I move from grief to grief.
Some poems reach for words to celebrate sensuality or express a quixotic sense of joy or despair. In the July section, the poems “The Romance of Middle Age” and “Lingua Lesbian” are back to back, the first articulating the realities of an aging body, and the second softly expressing a memory of blooming libido. From the first, the warning signs: “…It’s strange / how people look away who once would look. / I didn’t know I’d undergo this change / and be the unseen cover of a book / whose plot, though swift, just keeps on getting thicker. / One reaches for the pleasures of the mind / and heart to counteract the loss of quicker / knowledge…” From the second, we learn of the “language that was hidden,” passionate gestures that bring the poet and her lover together, beyond the use of words. Meriam describes:
Her curls of silky sunny light,
blond blooming in my hand
entangle me and turn the night
gentle where we stand.

Her Russian babbles in my ear,
mon francais sways her hips,
we laugh, go quiet, I draw near
and kiss her rosy lips.
Meriam can be skillfully playful and witty, as in “Workshop Romance” (…I like your smile, I like your frown, / but darling, must you always shun / my adjectives? Are you a nun? / Am I a silly, sorry clown? / I like your verb! I like your noun!”). She sloughs off modest success and minor defeat with good humor and an eloquent kvetching in “The Loser’s Lament,” where the poet extols the virtues and prized lives of “The winning wealthy poets” whose coveted works “dribble from their mouths.” Of herself and her creative labors, which answer to a different authority, she states:
But I’m a poet of a single table.
I wash my dishes at the kitchen sink.
I have nowhere to go, and so I think
I’ll sit and write a poem at the table.
The price I pay for every line I write
is measured by the gods in bloody light.
With its periodic bravado and good natured posturing, sexual dynamism and moments of vulnerability and isolation, Meriam’s seasonal catalogue of poems is an honest and honorable series of rites of passage. Girlie Calendar is a robust collection of free verse and formalist work that explores a seasonal spectrum of a gay woman’s emotional and physical experience—aching, wistful, hungry, indignant, and determinedly satisfied.