December 6, 2014

Where The Wild Things Are: A Review of Sam Sax’s A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Button Poetry
A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax
Button Poetry/Exploding Pine Cone Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Each section of Sam Sax’s first poetry book—a runner-up in the 2013 Button Poetry/Exploding Pine Cone Contest—ends with a drawing of a monster undressing itself. Akiva Levi’s illustrations, reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, reveal the monster to be an ordinary boy—but a boy whose melancholy face is faded and incomplete, as if lost in the clouds of his own and the world’s making.

Like Sendak, Sax is a gay Jewish man haunted by his cultural and historical past, and seeking illumination and redemption in art. Unlike Sendak, the myths that Sax explores and recreates are not for children but for adults, and their wrenching transformations promise no resolution.

Variations and continuations of one poem, “Bestiary,” begin the five sections of A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters. The fabulous beasts that Sax catalogues become, in the poet’s intense and sometimes violent imagery, lovers whose intimacies are fraught with danger. Beware the lover/monster most when he is sleeping, as Sax seems to be saying in the following passage from the first “Bestiary” (his use of backslashes in these poems intensifies the warning), because of what may happen when he awakens:
werewolf—
… / go to sleep / beside the man you love
& wake up next to a dog / maybe the moon brought it out of him /
… / or maybe
it was there inside him / howling all along
The poems that follow each “Bestiary” are lyrics of sexual longing and initiation that carry, along with the urgency of desire, the knife’s edge of potential destruction and even disgust. In “When Researching Public Sex Theatres for a Poem,” the very seats of the theatre are repositories of viral guilt, as in Sax’s pungent description:
… who uses cloth seats anymore, anyway?
         you read they hold disease better than mosquitoes,
              feel the swarm beneath you as you sit,

each tiny needle sucking you down.



isn’t it funny how you once believed nothing
in this whole world could disgust you?
In “Fishing,” the knife is figurative and literal. Sax’s adolescent narrator and his friend Daniel, with whom he is infatuated, butcher still-living fish from the ocean as bait to catch more. The process is both seductive and brutal, as in this passage:
…fish don’t have throats to cut, so we stabbed
         wildly. my first knife, bright as a smile, sectioned their
seizing bodies. my smile, my knife.
That night, sleeping in Daniel’s mother’s house, the narrator “want[s] so badly / to be a knife… to take [Daniel] / apart in pieces” after he has “… in the dark… [run] my fingers through / his hair, brought them to my face and tasted salt.” “Fishing” becomes a vivid fantasy of lovemaking and completion in the final lines of the poem, as follows:
…or perhaps, i wanted to take him
        into my mouth, to feel something sharp
break inside of me,
        to be pulled up
                  into the screaming air
                                 somehow whole.
The fruitful consummation of love between men is woven into “Folktale,” a rich and humorous prose poem written after Marge Piercy, but also with the flavor of Issac Bashevis Singer. It is told in the voice of the narrator’s “zedee… from her creaking wood body buried in her creaking wood chair.” In the grandmother’s words, the proximity required by sleeping bodies in the bitter Ukrainian winter creates more than children:
… i don’t know if you know this sam but when two men make
love, they also make bread, the slow yeast and butter, yolks
breaking in the hand, sugar poured until it makes you sick…
you know the older the man the richer the bread, so hashem
rose the body temperature of these men until they all sang
like ovens. they labored indoors and birthed perfect loaves.
that winter, we ate how kings eat.
But consummation also can be cannibalistic and parasitic. In the Kafkaesque “The Hunger Artist,” the body that is devoured is so similar to the narrator’s as to fuse with it permanently. The horror of this union is demonstrated in the poem’s last stanzas:
… the job of any competent
parasite is to convince

its host of their relationship’s
symbiosis…

… & when i was at last inside him,
i couldn’t make a sound.
Silence is transformed into “shrieks” from both the screen and the movie audience in the prose poem “It’s Alive!” that unreels on the page like a strip of film. Told from “the point of view / of the [gay] monster,” the poem/movie’s inevitable narrative becomes a defiant cry of pain and protest, as in these lines:
                               … it’s not
till you love a boy & make him
like you         that   you’re   able
to  curse         the    civilization
that  assembled    your    fiction


                       … & audiences
in darkened   theatres   release
a  collective  sigh    of    relief
as you perish,   as credits  roll
back  like  eyes…
Sax ends A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters with a return to childhood in “Boys & Bridges.” Beneath a veneer of roughhouse and innocence, however, his boys are “gods” of “flame & melt.” The narrator knows not only where the matches are, but also where the bodies are buried. “[A] dog… below the corn. /… there because of us… once it opened / its mouth to howl & all of god’s green dirt / spilled in.” Another dead dog “spill[s] out” of a bag pulled from a river.

Although the boys burn the forest in anger, and return “home to our undrowned / dogs,” a forest of civilization rises to contain them. As Sax says in the book’s final sentence, “we’re still climbing out.”

November 29, 2014

The Intoxicating Risks of a Poet’s Painful Blossoming: A Review of Lisa Marie Basile's Apocryphal by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Noctuary Press
Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile
Noctuary Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

There is a solid, if not sometimes discomfiting, legacy of women poets taking ownership of victimization, familial or societal, within the larger sexual, emotional, and political playing fields of their generation. Sylvia Plath gave us the overbearing “Daddy,” Ann Sexton celebrated her body and moments of sensual reverie taken for madness, and Sharon Olds shared portraits of her family’s damaged and damaging patriarchs. How can we not admire Marie Howe’s “Mary Magdalene,” in a clever twist of self-declaration in citing the seven sins cast out of her (including: “The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong / to anyone. // Historians would assume my sin was sexual.”) or, in another poem, Magdalene’s ticking off the physical peculiarities and personalities of each male phallus she encounters.

In Apocryphal, the ambitious first full-length collection by Lisa Marie Basile, the poet creates a noirish tale against a surreal landscape that mingles (or perhaps blurs) memory and nostalgic illusion—a stylized series of personal and disturbing episodes. Before the larger narrative begins, an isolated section that serves as a preface provides clues to an evolving, pained history that precursors the narrator’s own flowering and debasement (“as a child his mother took an iron to him good, strangled / him in curtain cords.    so I’m your mother now // give it to me good.”). She states: “I am not like everyone else’s child, I learned early of toil & kink: little girl    bambi girl    sprawl for me / and I learned early all the men who want bambi…” But whether this transformation actually took place can be interpreted, like the title of the collection, as apocryphal in nature. She adds: “it might be the truth,    or not.   that is up to you.”

It is an intriguing, if not unsettling, start to a tale that often flickers across the page in vintage iconography (the douse of cologne, cabinets filled with booze, hands posed with cigarettes, scarved coiffures and boat-like sedans) and fragmented sexual encounters. It begins, Dali-like, with a dream-state of images:
When I sleep nude on sands, I open
my mouth so a whole man could get in, so you
could get in,
& stretching, I realize there is nothing but blackcoral,
          wrapping this body of me,

parts parting,

taken with you or taken by you. I wear the both of us,

as golden hoops in my ears.   the skin
is stretching all over the place, my hands are the hives,
& I smell of high valley fire.
o, it is very young of me to spill myself like this, a pearl
necklace snapped off by drunken blackness
     so dizzied
by the rotary tone of you.
There is a continual metamorphosis of the body, whether of the narrator’s or other female and male figures. These references approach the rhythms of spiritual service, a perversion of communion that can startle with violence (“my body of bark, my body of body // the salt, the sound of          hollow. // this legion, this inner summer. //I awake to you   my prayer  forcing me / with fists.”). In two other sequences:
our fathers and mothers make us holy
             in their form.

the form is       my fingers            inside myself
& then in your mouth.

you put them there, you did it.

you drink me, a little hair, a little salt.
my body tastes like the afternoon & I’m bent
in the shape of a woman, but I am not a woman.

you decide what I am. (p 35)



the small white dress I wear when the pain comes,
     with the stains on it.          this is my body.
this is my body.         this is my body. the sick
and the summer.        the air of a thousand men

blown up inside.        I live inside crates shipped
across the sea.         I venom good things. (p 85)
Although Apocryphal’s poems wander across the pages in a continuous release, without separate titles or standard formatting, there is a subtle application of style to break up or contain the book’s epic energies. This helps to “ground” the reader, temperamentally, as we experience the emotional interiors and exteriors of a life being revisited, shared, and self-investigated. On pages 26, 43, and 49 the narratives are presented as if boxed, like progressive, confessional pit-stops with the cinematic aplomb of capturing close-up monologues. In the first, we are told: “I keep growing & getting bigger, & my hair is soilblack now, … when you put your hands on my waist you say baby is this you?” and a remembered (or fantasized) night of shimmering light leads to an inflated sexuality but diminishing self and death of identity. In the second, we learn “I am afraid of photographs. I am ashamed they will show / where I really came from …” and again, intimacy is a force to be reckoned with from outside and within. The third is printed as two “boxes” separated by two lines that take us from “backstage” to the moment of her delivery to an on-screen persona, and that embodies the pageantry of rite (spiritual as well as theatrical). The narrator shares:
…                I have spent my entire life & all of its suffering
both as spectator and subject. a woman trapped eternally as a
child waiting for the holy father.

when he approaches I am cinema, a conquering, validation,
revolver and good mascara. he says,  you are beautiful.
With its edgy cinematic qualities, cast of familial and possibly invented characters, and shadowy events, Apocryphal effectively integrates noirish imagery and lyricism (“this woman is / a despicable thing / on our glossy sofa… those lashes / that bouffant:    a cage // an apron / an earring / a man / & a briefcase, // dead face down,    olive oil thighs …”). Told through a Fellini-esque lens, this is a woman’s odyssey of desire, shame, assertion, and redemption through telling her story with her own words, the truth present even in distortion. After all, whoever promised that grief, rage, or the excruciating process of healing and survival could ever truly be decipherable?

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.

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,
                                                                        sky.

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.

May 24, 2014

Illuminating Wonders: A Review of Amy Leach’s Things That Are by Elizabeth Paul

cover credit: Milkweed Editions
Things That Are by Amy Leach
Milkweed Editions (2012)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Paul

Amy Leach’s essay collection, Things That Are, invites readers to a change of heart and perspective by exploring topics from the natural world that tend to fall outside the human radar. In the first section, “Things of the Earth,” she employs her curiosity like a macro lens and a pair of binoculars, bringing the mysterious marvels of animals, plants, and insects into view. In one essay, she examines how tendrils on a pea plant reach blindly for a lattice. In others, she observes how a beaver hauls sticks to quiet the river, how fainting goats collapse at the sound of predators, and how a warbler beats its way across the ocean in a non-stop, ninety-hour flight. In the second section, “Things of Heaven,” Leach turns a telescopic lens on the vast and remote, exploring topics such as the identities of stars and the rules of orbit. Things That Are reminds readers that they live in a natural world of wonders fully accessible to those with the eyes and heart to see it.

In addition to opening readers’ eyes to natural wonders, Leach gives them the feeling of experiencing such wonders first-hand through informed and detailed description. For example, in the following passage about the defense mechanisms of caterpillars, she writes:
The azalea caterpillar, a black-and-white plaid caterpillar with a cherry-red head and legs, when disturbed, arches up its head and thrusts it back, like a hairpin, and arches its tail up like an S. To be honest, it looks more electrocuted than scary when it does this. The yellow-necked caterpillar twists itself into the same shape, except that the yellow-neck vibrates as well, which really brings electric trauma to mind.
For all the scientific knowledge inherent in such descriptions, Things That Are has the feel of a children’s book or fairy tale. Leach’s humor, playful spirit, and love of language create a feeling of wonder. For example, in “Trooping with Trouble,” she begins a meditation on mortality and vulnerability with this playful paragraph: 
“To whom, then, does the Earth belong?” said the dragon as he was being slain. “Sometimes it seems to belong to dragons; at other times to dragon-gaggers. Sometimes it seems to belong to the harmattan wind, then to the doldrums. Sometimes to the slaves, when the sea parts to let them through, and sometimes to the sea when the sea does not part. Now to the siskin finch and sablefish; now to smitheries and smelteries. Perhaps the Earth is neutral, like a bridge between two cities, traveled on but possessed by no traveler.” Such are the behindhand ponderings of a doomed dragon.
Through alliteration, personification, and wordplay, the text speaks like a story-book, coaxing readers into a state of innocence and suspended disbelief, helping them to see magic even in mortality. A highlight of Leach’s humor is the book’s glossary that helps with earthy language such as “mouldywarp,” “crocodilopolis,” and “argle-bargle.” Of the latter, the glossary, in lieu of a definition, asks impertinently, “What, are professional bruisers like myrmidons going to argue with flowering vines, exchanging views, citing evidence, justifying positions? I don’t think so.” 

The book’s prelude, interlude, and postlude set these essays, and readers, in a period in history when humans have distanced themselves from nature. And these framing pieces provide subtle insights into why and how they have done it: a propensity to conquer, a fear of the unknown, and an absorption with their own technological creations. The book speaks a warning, but not in the words of gloom and doom characteristic of much environmental literature. Rather, the warning takes the form of an invitation to be more awake to the wonders of the natural world. In fact, Leach takes her readers by the hand to rediscover nature right now, between the covers of her book. In doing so, she reinitiates readers into their natural world of wonders. Things That Are baptizes readers in the book’s spirit by way of its epigraph by John Donne, from which the title is taken: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.”