June 20, 2015

Songs of the South: A Review of Beth Gilstrap’s I Am Barbarella by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Twelve Winters Press
I Am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap
Twelve Winters Press (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Beth Gilstrap’s composite collection of short stories and flash fiction begins like a wild drum solo and ends like a sweet refrain—the kind in which the singers fade softly into silence.

From the title piece, “I Am Barbarella,” to the final story, “B-Sides,” Gilstrap’s tough lyricism, in a medley of first-person voices, wraps mystery and heartbreak around her characters’ grooved lives. No wonder Gilstrap has included a playlist for this debut collection, drawn from fifty years of popular music (the Spotify playlist is available at her website, bethgilstrap.com).

In “I Am Barbarella,” Gilstrap’s nameless narrator, egged on by a friend and her own conflicted desires, transforms herself from wife to bar-show sex queen and back again—in five hundred words. As the narrator of the following story, “Yard Sale,” says: “It ain’t garbage if you turn it into something.”

At the heart of this book are ten interconnected short stories that trace the lives of three generations of southerners—solid Sue and William; their dutiful son Hardy and his runaway wife, Loretta; and Hardy and Loretta’s pained yet loyal daughter, Janine. (Neighbors Lucille and Rachel—whom this reader imagines as a gritty alto and a shrill soprano—also add their voices to the mix.)

Gilstrap, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is editor-in-chief of Atticus Review, has a gift for describing place and nature as palpable as her love of music. In “Paper Fans,” Janine and her best friend Maddie hang at a local bar:
Janine tosses her and Maddie’s coats up in the corner like some black heap of animal carcass… The burned out letters BBQ hanging on the opposite wall look their age. Janine’s mind felt the same, like charred paint flakes on metal shells. This is the Diamond’s second life, but it’s been open in some fashion since the ’50s. It smells like burnt tomato sauce, fryer grease, and cigarettes. […] She orders fried pickles. Two junior blocks with chili. Pitcher of Pabst.
And in “Getting by with Sound,” Hardy ruminates on the rural pleasures of his late father, William:
Those were the things he liked to do. Listen to stories, walk, and admire the scent of his gardenias, the feel of their waxy leaves and petals. He used to pick them for my mother, and she always kept them on the windowsill in the kitchen. They were beautiful until the petals turned brown, but then the smell just grew sweeter.
In an interview with Twelve Winters Press, Gilstrap describes her use of place and her attachment to the South as follows:
For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s [Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, where Gilstrap earned an MFA in fiction writing] emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.
The ghosts in I Am Barbarella propel its living characters away from intimacy as much as they root them in the land—including a child lost in an accident, a father eaten away by cancer, a husband who completes suicide, and a lover who “smelled like bug spray and honeysuckle.” When Hardy and Loretta—who’s back in town after years on the road with a boyfriend’s band, but still restless—visit William’s grave, Loretta insists on bringing a bag of Red Man tobacco to place on William’s headstone. But when Loretta reaches out in compassion to the still grieving Hardy, the result is solitary tears, not renewal of long lost togetherness.

Giving away too much of the characters’ skipping lives seems like revealing the punch line of a joke—even one told many times, as a favorite song is played into infinity. But it is not cheating to say that in I Am Barbarella, Gilstrap creates a vital world in which friendship is as strong as betrayal; beauty endures not only in the landscape, but also in objects as small as a leftover Christmas package or a perfect chocolate pie; and there may be time for tentative second chances.

June 6, 2015

Creation Stories: A Review of Lori Jakiela’s, Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by R. A. Voss

cover credit: Atticus Books
Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela
Atticus Books (2015)

Reviewed by R. A. Voss

Belief. Beliefs are opinions unsupportable by proof. Truth. Truths are facts supported by proof. Indeed, a recent New York Times article decries this curriculum commonly taught to our nation’s youth because those simple definitions belie the reality that sometimes things are both. It’s those places—where belief and truth intersect—that Lori Jakiela probes in her latest memoir, Belief Is Its Own Kind Of Truth, Maybe.

Loss. For adoptees like this author, life begins with loss. Loss of a birth family and the genetic guidance that cues infants in regarding their place in the world, sets them on a quest for the truth surrounding their identity and how they came to be. Although all writers begin a story with an empty page, the task is even more daunting for people like Jakiela, as she notes:
“All first pages are blank, of course, but for adopted people more so.”
So as not to seem ungrateful to her adoptive parents, for most of her life, Jakiela sublimated her sense of something missing. This happened until, in middle-age, another seminal loss—her adoptive mother, who raised her and taught her how to love and nurture her own children—propels it back into her awareness. She acknowledges this in the book’s opening revelation:
“When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one.”
The author’s use of the phrase “real mother” to describe her adoptive mother clues readers that her search generates no Dr. Phil reunion. Her description of the Catholic Charities counselor and office sets the tone for her bare-roots tale:
“The Catholic Charities counselor’s word for this other mother I want after decades to find is biological. Illegitimate is another word for people who end up like me. It’s what I feel now, unlawful, unauthorized, unwarranted here in this office that smells like antiseptic and rubber gloves, hot teeth drilled down to the bone.”
Jakiela’s attempts at prying truth from an organization founded on secrecy and sealed records proves largely unyielding. Forced to settle for “non-identifying information,” she’s denied access even to the medical history she alleges is all she seeks. Yet, readers see through this self-deception to realize she wants more—she wants what all children ask of their moms: Please see me, acknowledge me, accept me, love me.

Throughout her life, the author has imagined and been told personal creation stories by her adoptive family, but the versions are incomplete—partial fabrications that leave her unprepared for encounters that come later. In the absence of facts, memoir crosses into fiction that attempts to restore “…certain lost and key moments that affected [her] life, but for which [she] was not present.” Those parts conjure a birth mother who is a more sympathetic character. But though they provide juxtaposition, Jakiela is at her most powerful in memoir mode when she narrates her experiences and thoughts with scalpel-precision that debrides primal wounds.

Jakiela examines her birth and upbringing through her consciousness of her own strong motherly love and marital ties. She sorts through myriad ambiguities in messages heard from her “real” parents, shifting notions about what is true and what is false, acknowledges what is real in all of it, and squares it with her beliefs. She recognizes one reason that some beliefs become necessary truths for people compelled by their situations to invent their own creation stories. She explains:
“There are so many versions of the truth. All of them would hurt someone, I think.”
But needing to believe in goodness in the face of facts that reveal otherwise, she writes:
“I need to believe in my mother’s buried softness the way I need to know I and my children haven’t inherited a terrible disease. If paranoia and cruelty run like cancer in my birth mother’s bloodline, I’m hoping something else will show up to provide balance.”
This is a book about the lies we are told, the lies we tell ourselves, and the things we just believe without proof. It searches out the authenticity in all of it and illuminates how beliefs sometimes persist because we need both the truth and the lies to make life livable—to keep loving ourselves and each other. Further, it’s about leaving behind the life one inherits in favor of the life one chooses in response to everything sensed since leaving the womb, and having it be better than enough. The story is at times doleful, but the author is always self-sentient and honest.

“I never had a voice in any of this,” Jakiela writes of her conception and adoption, but in this book her voice is strong and her emotion finds expression. Forty-five episodic chapters of varying lengths form a staccato rhythm that echoes Jakiela’s disjointedness as she grieves and strives for wholeness. Yet, by the close, the book becomes legato as all the parts smoothly bond like the city of Pittsburgh, where the author was raised near, “All those rivers and bridges, connecting everything to everything.” Similarly, Jakiela recognizes that the life she has created for herself, deeply connected to her husband and children, is the one that matters, while readers recognize those places in themselves where belief and truth mingle.

May 23, 2015

Thrilling and Heroic and Strange: A Review of Laura van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: Origami Zoo Press
There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Laura van den Berg
Origami Zoo Press (2012)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

In Laura van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights from Origami Zoo Press, readers get an intimate look into some very wondrous but strange lives. Each of Berg’s very short stories provides glimpses into miniscule moments within these characters’ lives, exploding the importance we place on the unusual.

The characters find meaning in weird moments: blaming a husband’s birds for marital problems, trying to escape fighting parents by building a spaceship, and seeing an enlarged photograph of a neighbor’s mouth as the tunnel to heaven for a woman’s deceased son and ex-husband. In the last example, the main character Lenore identifies with the strange photo hanging on her neighbor’s wall. In it, van den Berg explains:
It was, Lenore had realized after staring at the photograph for a while, the kind of boundless space she had pictured her son, and now her ex-husband, passing through during the moment their life turned to non-life, presence to absence, as though Mr. Masiki had photographed a hidden part of her consciousness and hung it on his living room wall… She imagined the night could stretch into eternity, the quiet, the watching, the ring of light.
As readers, we expect that there will be more after this connection to the photo. But, van den Berg ends the story here. She leaves us in the climax of the story with a resolution that only exists outside her pages.

The author redefines the typical narrative arc of fiction by sometimes stopping a story before the conflict. In “The Golden Dragon Express,” the story ends just after the narrator confronts her husband about his affair and his late-night phone calls. Specifically, it ends with: “Rick touched my knee, started to say something. In the kitchen, the phone rang.” It starts toward a resolution of separation or reconciliation, but suddenly stops by asking the reader to imagine the narrator’s response. The story “Reptiles” has the same movement when the narrator buries a turtle from a failed pet store venture. She remembers that you can “see the future in the markings on a turtle’s shell” and ends the story by looking at the shell before the burial. That’s it. In fact, the narrator describes it as she “started to look”—not even a completed look.

With each ending resembling the beginning of a longer story, the reader is forced to focus on moments just before a change occurs. This is how van den Berg’s characters are so brilliantly relatable. Instead of the reader relating to situations or the actions of a character, van den Berg finds a universal emotional space. When the narrator of “Lake” says, “she wanted so badly to reach him, she would have swum across the lake to meet him, if that’s what it took…” and that she wanted to “step off their usual path and run up one of the narrow trails that led into the forest and see what was there,” readers understand the need to reach someone. And when Sheila, in “Something Thrilling and Heroic and Strange,” desires change, “something radical” like changing her whole identity, readers get that feeling. The brave part of this is that van den Berg’s stories only concern themselves with these emotional shifts. They are not part of a larger story that attempts to explore themes of existence—they are existence. These shifts are what it means to be alive.

The stories also don’t shy away from the weird or unusual parts of life. The last story, “Cannibals,” starts with, “The cannibals loved music.” The rest of the story details the life two children have with the cannibals and whether they “were supposed to be in charge of the cannibals, of if the cannibals were in charge” of them. The plot is humorous and absurd, but van den Berg doesn’t settle for an eccentric, giggly story; she turns up the weird. The last paragraph of both the story and the book poses a series of questions from one of the children. She imagines her parents finally coming home by stating:
Did they notice the marks on our arms and legs from where we had bitten into ourselves, ever so gently? Did they try to console themselves with that old line about children being resilient? Did they notice that when they walked through the front door and dropped their suitcases and called for us, we raised our heads from the couch and looked at them like strangers? Did they realize that they were?
This paragraph suddenly allows the possibility that the whole story of cannibals could be a child’s fantasy. Or the children could be the cannibals. Or it really happened and… The choices can make any reader’s head swim.

All of van den Berg’s stories make the reader feel strange. The conciseness of each story and the layered understanding of human experience make each a gorgeous, hard-to-define cross of fiction and poetry. Her greatest accomplishment, though, is creating characters that readers cannot imagine themselves as, but can understand at a molecular level.

May 9, 2015

What Makes Us Stronger: A Review of Christine Stroud’s The Buried Return by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Finishing Line Press
The Buried Return by Christine Stroud
Finishing Line Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Christine Stroud’s debut chapbook is a collection of poems that are each a cautionary tale. These disturbing but determined narratives face the harrowing realities of love (both carnal and familial), loss, and random rites of passage emerging from the domestic and feral realms. The adolescent bravado that begins this journey evolves into adult indignation and self-recognition with every vignette, and raw emotions are crafted with literary precision.

The first poem, “I Threw Your Shoes into the River,” is a provocative start. The poet claims not to regret the gesture (for an unnamed victim). Yet, in this passage, there remains a searing image of summer shoes thrown defiantly and disappearing from view:
… But I

stood at the end of the pier
and watched your Day-Glo orange
flip flops float down the White Oak
until they were nothing
but a burnt smear on the water.
Many of the poems in The Buried Return are encounters meant to haunt the reader, pull us out of a comfort zone that so many poets struggle to preserve. The way Stroud summons empathy and trepidation from visceral (and sometimes alarming) details recalls Theodore Roethke’s and Sharon Olds’s rending of personal violence into eloquent verse—the language sublimely releasing events that make us wince. The brutality of ignorance and bigotry and the complicated injustice of victimization is rendered in “Farmville High,” where a lesbian student is physically attacked by two boys after school. The tension begins before the violence, as her attackers position themselves (“One at each end of the hall. / Even before they yelled / dyke, you understood.”). The carnage that follows leaves us speechless:

They shattered you
under long fluorescent
bulbs running parallel
to the cobalt blue lockers.
Those lights always
too clear, too white.


In silence, the doctors
rearranged you, wrenching bones,
wiring your mouth shut.
Lessons of loss and mortality are poignantly demonstrated in two poems, “Knowing” and “On the Way Home from a Bar in Portland,” which take place respectively in childhood and adulthood. Focusing on a hunt for a lost cat and an encounter of another, horribly wounded, each deals with the uncomfortable urges of hope and bravery, survival and merciful death. In the first poem, configured as a prose narrative, the discovery disappoints: “I find him. Curled up like a roly poly, his mouth hanging open, blood on his / teeth. His tiger-striped fur looks soft and I bend down to stroke him. Dad / grabs my hand, No he could have diseases. …” In the second poem, a more formally constructed narrative that is built on self-doubt and ending suffering, the poet follows a “tar trail of blood” to a hedge where the animal appears:
… He was a pair of torn black pantyhose,
leaking thick pink mucus. I should’ve gone home. …

I envisioned snapping his neck bone.
Instead I scratched him between the ears, stilled
by his sticky, short breath. I got up, walked home.
There are several poems on family with their own brand of spirited, celebratory dynamic, as when a walk in a graveyard becomes a bonding session for mother and daughter (“Graves We’ve Shared”), a father-daughter fishing expedition that’s a lesson on “the patience of stillness” (“Fishers”), and a hammock nap recreating the loving tension between the practical grandmother and rebellious sprite (“Grandmother”). A complicated chasm between revelry and sobriety exists in poems on friends and lovers (particularly in four “Relapse Suites”), and even the most raucous scenes contain imagery and detail with a peculiar beauty—“as bullets fell into the snow / like awful inverted stars…” (“Relapse Suite, Ashville”) and “It was so cold in your room / the door handle sparkled / with frost.” (“Relapse Suite, Pittsburgh”).

The Buried Return is by turns tragic and tender, wild and disciplined. Stroud unearths what we fear and desire, and reminds us how poetry can haunt both our conscience and consciousness, chronicling and shaping the lives we choose for ourselves.

April 25, 2015

Structures on Fire: A Review of Kristina Marie Darling's Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories by Julie Babcock

cover credit: BlazeVOX Press
Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories by Kristina Marie Darling
BlazeVOX Press (2015)

Reviewed by Julie Babcock

Kristina Marie Darling is an exciting voice in contemporary poetry. The seven-year span of this collection represents work from twelve different published books. It offers readers a chance to see a highly productive mind work through recurring concerns about genre and representation in an almost limitless ways. The core of Darling’s work centers on questions about whose stories last, why, and how that can be changed. She explores these questions through various forms that draw attention to the ways narratives both layer and erase. “What does a white dress not resemble?” Darling asks as her readers slip into a house and notice a man staring out a window, “Tell me what you see in him / A locked room, but what else—?”

Darling draws upon an evocative backdrop of Victorian images and associations to explore academic and political questions. Her writing, especially in the earlier selections, is filled with phonographs, exotic birds, silk gloves, and fancy dresses. Behind all this nostalgic glamour, though, is a terrifying sense of menace. As the title of one of her books asserts, “The body is a little gilded cage” and traps, poisons, and fires abound.

In some ways, Darling’s writing shares affinities with Mark Z. Danielewski’s, who plays with form and content but manages to create a highly charged tangible experience. House of Leaves is simultaneously a horror story, a love story, and a satire of academic criticism. Darling’s writing works on these multiple layers through an exciting feminist lens. Selections from Melancholia (An Essay) includes footnotes, a glossary, prose poems, and noctuaries: “She wanted to understand the innermost workings of this strange machine. Their courtship was a system of pulleys, levers, and strings.”

Darling’s writing simultaneously evokes the passage of time and refuses it. The women in her poems face the possibilities and devastations of love and power in unsettling ways that happen both two hundred years ago and now. Darling interrogates the structure of courtship and marriage—both its desire and dread—through women whose work, talents, and love have been dismissed or ignored by men. She demonstrates how much these dismissals have missed. In the earlier selections, courtship structures are presented as seductive acts of lyrical transcendence, such as in the prose poem “City Walk.” She describes:
When our taxi arrives, I brush the soot from my long white sleeves. Your gold
cigarette case flips open & I begin to notice the stains on your French silk cuffs.
In the later selections, attempts at lyrical transcendence are much more undercut inside each poem. For instance in “Landscape,” Darling writes:
You kept mentioning the other women, the way they would lie on their backs in the
grassy field. All around them were breadknives. The place settings for a picnic.
The fragmented sentences in this poem, combined with the deadpan humor of the breadknives and the more directly accusatory tone taken by the speaker, allow the reader to be in both a timeless and time-bound setting of this park. The poem continues:
But even before that we were quarreling. You told me, tilting your pretty head, how my pastoral elegy failed to move you.
Here, the reference to the pastoral elegy in a poem written in a 21st-century tone connects the ways the “you” trivializes both the death of a historic past and the death of their current relationship. Although the lines demonstrate the “you’s” dismissiveness, they also convey a delightful power shift. The speaker condescends the “you” by describing him in midst-quarrel as “tilting your pretty head.” From there, the action and imagination of the speaker builds in power. These power shifts occur frequently in Darling’s writing, and she seduces readers with sublime beauty, creeping terror, and possibilities to think and do otherwise. For instance, in her most recently excerpted book, The Arctic Circle, the woman in the prose poems may be freezing to death in her husband’s house, but unlike the husband, who can’t seem to make a distinction between repetition and difference, the speaker “understands why the boxes are empty, knows fact from fiction.” In “Your Only Wife” the same woman is:
… trying to warm the
endless rooms. You sense that what you had imagined is impossible: the faint
music, the chandeliers, and the bride’s mind gone pale with waiting.
These lines show the impossibility of a stereotypical romantic gender construction. The pale mind cannot be sustained, and this failure highlights the necessity to imagine in more constructive ways. To experience seven years of Darling’s prolific writing career is to witness the inexhaustibility of a compelling idea and a necessary set of interrogations. The poems in Scorched Altar are feeding a magnificent fire.