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,

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.”

May 10, 2014

I Am the Eggplant: A Review of Lindsay Lusby's Imago by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: dancing girl press
Imago by Lindsay Lusby
dancing girl press (2014)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Lindsay Lusby’s debut chapbook Imago, from dancing girl press, is steeped in fairy tale and myth. In fact, her work has absorbed so much magic that readers could swear to have heard a version of this story before, but quickly find that this book fills what has been missing from contemporary mythology.

Lusby’s chapbook is comprised of only the title poem broken into sections. These sections—which include parts numbered 1 ½, 2 ½, and 4 ¾—immediately challenge established ideas of what a sectioned poem can be. Her sections allow readers to see separate parts of a larger poem, but also create an increased intimacy between the poems with the same base number. It is striking how brilliantly the first two poems (1 and 1 ½) stand completely apart, yet seem to naturally form from each other like conjoined twins.

Lusby’s book contains the classic myth of transformation with the unique twist of imago’s double meaning: the transformation to the adult stage in an insect’s life and a psychoanalysis in which the idealization of a loved one carries into adulthood. In the beginning of the book, readers experience the psychoanalysis concept of imago as the girl strokes an eggplant to sleep. Lusby writes:
It becomes the absence, she thinks.
Pulls the remnant of light from
every bedroom shadow
and buries it inside, condenses it.
The admiration expressed here sets up a reverence that the girl feels for the eggplant in lieu of an actual family member. Immediately afterward, she considers the “blasphemous” idea of eating the eggplant’s seeds and asks, “Would I be changed? Would I transform?” Lusby’s twist of the multiple meanings of imago implants the idealization of the eggplant and the transformation the girl yearns for into a brand new definition. The similarity to common myths not only makes this indistinguishable from the stories readers are familiar with, but grows a new garden in our imaginations perfect for cultivating eggplant.

The reason for the unlikely relationship between a vegetable and a girl becomes clearer as readers see the mother who “did not leave a note / or a casserole” replaced by the “smooth purple skin, blacker than black” of the eggplant in almost every way. The parent-child relationship starts with Lusby expertly inserting the eggplant as a base of knowledge:
The eggplant teaches the girl about the afterlife.

It says, When we die, we all go to
the great compost bucket, where we
experience the transcendence of
our own beautiful decomposition.
After the eggplant’s patience in sharing answers (it is hard not to imagine the girl asking these questions with the fury of a growing child), the girl quickly strives to imitate this stand-in parent when she decides to “dye her hair / a deep, deep purple” and even becomes a carnivore to avoid the eyes of her salad “accusing her of countless atrocities” committed to vegetable-kind.

Their relationship culminates in the only thing left that the eggplant can possibly teach the girl: metamorphosis. The connection between a parent ushering the child to adulthood and the literal preparations the girl makes are unmistakable:
The girl eats and eats to prepare herself. She
thinks of this as packing a suitcase.

The girl zips herself inside an aubergine
sleeping bag on the living room floor.
Counts back from one hundred and
closes her eyes.

The eggplant tells her a bedtime story.

It says, This is the beginning.
Imago’s transformation definition returns full-force as the girl literally acts out the part of an insect entering the pupa stage. For the girl, it is not merely a step into adulthood, but a Big Bang that creates a completely new understanding of the world and her place in it. As she transforms, the eggplant “begins to wilt and shrink” literally sacrificing itself and becoming “emptied, a deflated / black balloon on the living room floor.” This unconditional sacrifice leads to nothing short of the revolution readers have been promised from the very first page, as the girl emerges “asteroid and bright.”

Even with this understanding of transformation, it seems impossible to express the immensity of Lusby’s book. Reinventing the tale of a girl’s transformation into womanhood, commentary on traditional mythology, conflicts with sexual expression and a person’s relationship to an idealized self are only a handful of possibilities these poems explore. Lusby’s ability to create such intricate poems with apparent ease makes her poems become new with each reading and leaves readers wishing to return. Imagoachieves the adult stage that all poems strive for: It transforms readers into a “series of continuous atomic explosions / bright as hydrogen.”