October 13, 2008

Review: Flats and Riots by Michelle Stoner

Michelle Stoner’s first book Flats and Riots is a provocative journey that is both political and personal. A quick flip through the pages of this book and you’ll see that Stoner is most comfortable with a brief style, with most poems averaging less than ten lines. But it is her brevity that makes each poem so hearty; each word, phrase and line break is carefully crafted so the reader follows her through both the “flat” and the “depth” of each poem.

Each of the four sections includes snapshots of emotional experiences, wandering travel, and portraits of characters the narrator meets along the way. In the first section, Provocation, you get a feel of wanderlust, a fascination with movement and a curiosity of the role of a world traveler. In this section, an untitled poem showcases these themes through Stoner’s economy of language:

You whistle,
you eat fruit,
you go West, you try.

Stoner’s work also serves as political, both as a whole and as a more focused effort in certain poems. Throughout the book, the reader experiences the narrators growing desire for movement, both physically and socially. She often expresses the narrator’s frustration with seemingly fruitless attempts to use art for political and social change. This frustration is best showcased when Stoner comments on American culture. In her third section, Polimerica, Stoner’s words are a brief but biting commentary on Americans, like the line in her poem “Dirty Face”

dig at it
until it is just red and swollen and
empty, like an American.

This bubbling momentum builds to the fourth and final section called The Flagstaff Poems, written during Stoner’s experiences while living in Arizona. This focus does not signify a settling in the emotion or limit her subject matter but continues to build on her themes to demonstrate that the personal is political, that artistic expression can be activism. In the poem “Going for ice cream in an Arizona winter with the boys” Stoner comments on poverty,

We blew through the cop-proclaimed “crack” hoods;
ain’t no ghetto here

and also on the lifestyle choices of modern women;

“You live with these two guys?”
I sure do.

Flats and Riots is a powerful and moving book of people, places and things. Whether commenting on sexual politics or expressing homesickness, Michelle Stoner’s Flats and Riots delivers an emotional (and sometimes physical) punch-in-the-gut that will make you laugh, cry and think all at once.

Flats and Riots by Michelle Stoner was published by CustomWords in 2008 and can be purchased via their website.

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