April 19, 2012

Chapbook Roundup: Wendel, Mennies, Wiseman, Scarff

Every so often, the Weave Reviews staff will highlight several chapbooks that have caught our collective eye. We believe that some of the best and most interesting poetry is being published by independent presses in non-traditional formats, and while the chapbook is hardly non-traditional, it can also be passed over in favor of the flashier full-length collections.

In our first Chapbook Roundup, Janet Edwards reviews Monica Wendel's Call It a Window, Laura E. Davis reviews Rachel Mennies' No Silence in the Fields, Mindy Kronenberg reviews Laura Madeline Wiseman's Branding Girls, and Thom Dawkins reviews Kelly Scarff's I Fall in Love with Strangers.


The Human Condition in Miniature: Monica Wendel’s Call It a Window

Imagine looking through a series of windows, or even looking through the same window, multiple times a day, over the course of a few days or weeks or even years. Imagine how much you would see and learn in your time as voyeur; and how, with each new piece of information, you might change your mind about the people and things at which you’ve been looking—and even change your mind about yourself. Monica Wendel’s chapbook, Call It a Window, embodies this experience, as it inhabits and examines the generally conflicted state of humanity in thoughtfully wrought poems.

Wendel accomplishes this examination without sticking to necessarily “poetic” material, which gives the poems a relatable verisimilitude. She writes beautifully, but she isn’t afraid to get down in the grime of the day-to-day, because isn’t that where we are all, anyway? Wendel knows society’s faults (“Sexual Assault Awareness Week,” a found poem from jezebel.com, is a whip-smart, fantastic piece) as well as her speaker’s, and she calls attention to them. Among so many other things, readers encounter what it means to want to make a difference but be unable to help (“I wanted to be a pioneer woman – scrappy, strong, petite, with a poultice or herb to put on your hand. But I had nothing”); to find a place to call home but sacrifice parts of yourself to exist within it (“Sometimes it’s like/I come from a foreign country/where the only person who speaks the language is myself); to have principles but stray from them (“A question of what we own/and what we are willing to sell”); to develop a sense of self and then realize it might have compromised you somehow (“My problem is that I used to fuck/ like I was in love when I really wasn’t, and now I don’t know how/to fuck at all anymore”); and to be unsure of which version of yourself makes you happiest or most whole, if that’s ever the case at all (“I wish I could be the same in all of these places,/a singular self propelled forward – but I am like a river/that forks around land, becomes smaller or larger or more salty,/and then reunites, on the other side, with itself”).

With these various and illuminating views, the poems echo the title of the collection. One by one, the tiny windows of these poems become mirrors into which readers do not merely look, but become a part. The reader joins with the speaker and her subject matter, as they experience their own juxtaposing ideals and identities from Wendel’s perspective. In the collection’s last poem, “Summer,” for example, Wendel calls herself out explicitly: (“I want you to look at me. I’m a vegan/who sneaks banana bread without asking the ingredients/and who doesn’t stop the waiter who adds baba ghanoush to my falafel./I want to say I’ve already done my part, but that’s never true…Now I’ve sobered up./Now I’m waiting for a phone call from someone who I hurt”). In doing so, Wendel’s readers may feel their own shortcomings and pretenses wash over them, but at least they’ll have the poet’s company.

Reviewed by Janet Edwards

Call It a Window by Monica Wendel
Midwest Writing Center Press, 2012

The Messy Business of Bodies: Rachel Mennies' No Silence in the Fields

Rachel Mennies’ debut e-chapbook collection No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012) is a heartbreaking narrative of a couple’s love that breaks beneath the cold realities of winter. The scene is set in the first poem, “The Barn,” which wonders, “Whose red shoebox, whose poisoned apple.” This list-poem first catalogues meaningless objects as if anthropologists were excavating them years later. It then turns from the tangible to recall events and emotions contained within the walls of the barn, asking “Whose constant uphill, whose flame from the stove, / whose lost child, whose tired body?”

Bodies are a central topic of No Silence; the fragility and rawness of people and animals: a cluster of cancerous cells, the delicate rib of a dead cat, a calf freezing to death. Loss surrounds the ill-fated story of the books main characters, M and V, a couple who sets up house in the aforementioned barn for the winter. Their story is told in multiple voices that alternate between M, V, and an omniscient speaker. Why they have come to the barn for winter is never addressed directly, but a simple guess is that they have no other place. The details leading up to their circumstances are less important than where they find themselves, however, as Mennies’ vivid images and lyricism weave a desperate tone through each poem, keeping the action in the present.

What we do know is that work is scarce for M, a salt-of-the-earth, hardworking man: “I slough the dusty skin / of horses; I listen to the hearts of dogs.” V is depicted by M in the same poem, “M Introduces Himself,” as, “the woman I love” who “makes coffee from water / and grounds. In the earth, the sleeping perennials / are hers.” An old-fashioned, gendered division of labor exists between them; these partners operate separately, each in their own domain, tending to their own needs. It is soon revealed that V is expecting a child, but she is also sick. The first time V speaks, she says, “Hello, lump—size of a million / curious atoms, soft against my hand,” as she finds a tumor in her upper thigh. Later, the inevitable miscarriage is personified in the haunting title, “Miscarriage is Like a Large, Hungry Gull.” Throughout the narrative, V and M are reminded again and again of their own mortality and the realities of being a human animal.

Mennies fearlessly tackles the messy business of bodies, both living and decaying. When the vitality of spring and summer arrive, they offer only bitter pain for V as she faces her own barrenness. On a trip to the farmer’s market, she is fenced by an “avalanche of blueberries” and other ripened fruits: “Around me, everything reproduces recklessly” and she is left feeling “light / as a bag in the wind, alone.” While this image may seem overwrought, by now Mennies has earned it. The final poem comes full circle, again depicting the things that witnessed V and M’s familiar story of fading love. These objects are heavier now, weighed by the meaning we have now seen hidden inside. Mennies’ beautiful, solemn first collection of carefully crafted poems is filled with the bittersweet evidence of what’s abandoned after love is gone.

Reviewed by Laura E. Davis

No Silence in the Fields by Rachel Mennies
Blue Hour Press, 2012

The Doll-Like Beauty of the Brand: Laura Madeline Wiseman's Branding Girls

How apt that in the early part of an election year where women are being branded (and pushed to brand each other) to further polarize their population and serve political agenda, Branding Girls has landed on our cultural radar. For those of us Boomers who were drawn to the feminist sensibilities of Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir (yet succumbed to the 1960s Carnaby Street aesthetic of Twiggy and Go-Go boots), Laura Madeline Wiseman’s chapbook reminds us of the continual conflict and exploitation girls and women face in an aggressively consumer-driven society.

Using photographic essays by women photographers that capture the disturbing elements of “girl culture” for inspiration, Wiseman presents the reader with a series of evocative and sardonic female images—the “Elevator Girls” of Japan, whose doll-like beauty defies true identity:

Not geisha. Not madams.
Not hotel operators. Not
Mannequins. Not call girls
Or masseuses. Not school girls
In pleated skirts. Not angels
Or gods. Not accomplished
Grandmothers. Not stepford wives.

With their tailored and accessorized dress, they are posed and demurely poised, ready to “open doors to paradise, stories, worlds, dreams...”

In these fifteen poems we are introduced a variety of female “brands,” presented in language that is brutally beautiful, indignant and witty. There is the “Las Vegas Brand,” the show girl who adorns a stage or bomber planes, with “bottle blond locks” whose face is “a ruby ember at a cruising altitude/ of 35,000 feet…” The “Bridal Hand Brand,” where a severed appendage is both crime scene evidence and ceremonial artifact, and whose fingernails are “varnished red as tongues.” The “Good Wife Brand” echoes the discomfort of Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton (who has her own homage in this collection, “Dead Poet Brand”), lamenting the absorption of the self that women experience under the brand of marriage:

I introduce myself as Ms., but most hear Mrs.
The Wife sits matronly on my chest,

a large shelf of expired ointments,
skin pasty, veined, and sore.

It’s not that I’m not happy with Wife
as I once was with Date, Lover, Girl,

with arrows of silk stockings to late nights,
of sex in theaters, stairwells, interstate rest stops.

Branding Girls amuses, alarms, and ultimately affirms in its eloquent confrontation of female stereotypes.

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Branding Girls by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Finishing Line Press, 2011

Strange Empathies: Kelly Scarff’s I Fall in Love with Strangers

Kelly Scarff’s debut collection, I Fall in Love with Strangers, is pierced by loss: former partners and present loves are kept at a distance, family gatherings are vaguely remembered by those left behind, and characters appear only as shadows of who they wish to be.

To say that these poems are pierced by loss, though, is also to say they are built with a different material entirely – an earnest, admiring love for the Strangers, whether they began strange or became that way.

I Fall in Love with Strangers is clear, declarative, and anecdotal. While each of the poems seem to be in the stark, honest voice of the poet herself, each story still seems to be spoken with the haunting, haunted breath of their subjects. One of the speaker’s neighbors wants to visit Christ in Medjugorje, for example, though he has seemingly killed his family in a drunken car crash, and Medjugorje is known for the appearances of the Virgin Mary, not Christ.

Despite the simplicity and earnestness of this collection and its characters, or perhaps because of it, these poems still have the ability to surprise: a gunshot victim finds love at H&R Block, a pomegranate becomes “prolific” at mothering, a game of Yahtzee with a father accomplishes more than Dylan Thomas’s desperate pleading could ever do.

Scarff’s litany of strangers never grows tiresome. In fact, readers may find themselves harboring some small seed of desire for the characters, perhaps that is the single greatest accomplishment of this collection - Even as we know that a lover or a loved one will be lost, we stick around to see how they will be loved and remembered.

Reviewed by Thom Dawkins

I Fall in Love with Strangers by Kelly Scarff
Liquid Paper Press, 2012

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