October 24, 2015

The Disembodied Voice Within: A Review of Liz Robbins’s Freaked by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Amazon.com
Freaked by Liz Robbins
Elixir Press (2015)

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

What is it about being a freak, or possessing freakishness, that summons public curiosity or our private fears of exposed peculiarity? The notion of being a “Freak”—outsider, misfit, against which others measure their merits or failures— rises from superstition or class snobbery. Our society has become a devoted audience to the broadcast lives of the dysfunctional rich and anonymous disenfranchised, those loudly or meekly suffering their private anomalies. The greater the lens on our own conflictual, alternate cravings for camouflage or celebrity, the more uncomfortable we grow within the skin of our own humanity.

Liz Robbins’s Freaked magnifies concern about how easily friends and intimates could be considered pathetic or profound by a simple twist of phrase. Where does eccentric and abnormal differ or intersect? What life styles (or circumstances) determine our value as citizens and intimates?

Divided into six sections that focus on different and intriguing themes to present the skewered human drama, Freaked unravels tales borne from rites of passage, wrong turns, well-intended but misbegotten gestures, and love’s confounding fickleness. These include horoscopes, tabloid curiosities, social and spiritual ritual, and Diane Arbus-captured portraits. Robbins’s prowess is in the language and rhythm of each narrative, creating a dream-like tension through phrasing that approaches incantation, as in “[the scorpion]:”
sooze, the radio jesus says our salvation must come
without body, i’m not willing to wait and you are,
the sax solo growing buttered layers as it complicates,
this explains all—
Or from “[the twins]:”
and mine’s no more a faux life than yours, it’s just you actually
get to the gym, your slept-with-list thinner than mine—
you go out in the day and i stay in, the apartment becomes
a shotgun shack teeming with bad-dream melting clocks
and skyscraper mice—
Poems in the section inspired by “News of the Weird” columns reveals Robbins’s talent for summoning personal tales from the odd reportage of ill-gestured wannabe heroes, benign offenders, and the spiritually afflicted, among others. These headlines-turned testimonies manage a dark humor along with the ridicule of each story. There’s “Drive-In Church,” where the daughter of a devout choir singer expresses her own approach to faith (“… you don’t even have to / get out of your car and therefore your pajamas, just tool / right up with your ciggy’s on the dash and a 12 pack / of Krispy Kremes, reggae on the tape deck…”) and “Man Chokes to Death on Pocket Bible,” a story of a young man’s fatal attempt to purge himself of the Devil, where the poet speaks on behalf of the demon (“For months now, / I’ve explored his brain’s gray maze, turned flowering/ girls to mean drunks and parents to shrieking crows…”). “Rebellion as Ice Floe,” inspired by the story of three teenage boys who commit a robbery and make a regrettable getaway, is an especially strong narrative musing on adolescent angst, and restlessness (“… what waited beyond the yard’s split-rail fences?”). An awkward attempt in escaping (“How / little I knew, stuck in the reach-out-and-grab delirium, assuming / a hard run would bring safety, not paralysis. Like when I backed / down our driveway’s hill, only to stall at the bottom.”) is followed not only by embarrassment but also parental forgiveness for foolish acts.

Robbins excels in ekphrastic interpretation, moving seamlessly from poems of elaborate statements and unfurling lines to a series of sonnets that are deftly connected by their last lines. She summons both the empathy and unease of Arbus’s photographic subjects, as when their confident posturing belies their personal crises. In “A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NY, 1968,” a couple relaxes on lawn chairs while their young son hovers over an inflatable pool caught by his own reflection. There are clues to their diminished passion— “(Dad covers / his eyes, tired from the sun, Mom’s in the mid- / life crisis bikini.)” —and the accoutrement of marital ennui, such as:
… their bodies turned away to smaller traces
of comfort: stuffed ashtray, the full glass
on the table in between. Their weekend bliss:
the country club tan. Their weekend pass:
him running the yard. They do not kiss
or touch, but once they did…

Robbins also effectively evokes the pained hopes and fears of a giant’s parents (“A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY 1970”). All the details in the title, taken, as with all of the poems in this section, directly from the photographs, are required to understand the complexity of ambition and disappointment in this family dynamic. The giant’s mother wishes for her son “movie contracts, straight spine, blond wife, fakes guns.” And he gains celebrity, a mixed blessing:
A great man he became, eight feet high.
Played in movies too: son of Frankenstein’s
monster. Looking at him, Father thinks, Why
me. Mother thinks, A nightmare, but he’s mine.
Eddie looks down on them, leans on a cane
(back hunched, shoes thick-soled), dying of bone disease.
Freaked taps into the confounding ways we live, longing for acceptance or denying dependence on others, rejecting convention yet regretting alienation. Robbins captures our attentions with carefully crafted vignettes of dismayed but determined souls striving to be human. It is our dilemma—or privilege—to recognize ourselves among them.

September 26, 2015

The Likeness of the Waves: A Review of Niki Koulouris’s “The sea with no one in it” by Anthony Frame

cover credit: The Porcupine's Quill
The sea with no one in it by Niki Koulouris
The Porcupine’s Quill (2013)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

Niki Koulouris is a poet of the ocean, of the sea with its wide blue horizon. Although the vast, expansive ocean may be intimidating to those born inland, with only rivers and lakes to dip their toes in, Koulouris’s debut collection of poems easily draws in readers. Perhaps it is the shared love for bodies of water; perhaps we can recognize the rhythms of water found deep in these lyrics. Certainly, Koulouris’s lines and images, tight and terse, flow with “the likeness of the waves” and create a remarkable and daring collection.

“I’m fond of ships,” writes Koulouris in the opening poem of The sea with no one in it:
their progress,
the turning weather
for they are never without alternatives
and they may contain the whole population of the mountains
Here we can see the rising tide of her book—the short lines slowly expanding, the pacing of the syllables, even the careful use of articles to control the rhythm. The lines creep up on readers, tentatively, only to suddenly crash into us. Like waves, they then slowly pull back into the poem’s body. This rhythm is fairly consistent, and even the few poems that play with form use the formal repetition to create a sense of water coming in and out. This consistency then binds the book’s two disparate sections.

Koulouris’s book is comprised of forty-four poems. Most are shorter than a page and contain barely a half dozen or so words per line. Each poem is numbered rather than titled and they are separated into two untitled sections. The poems rarely use punctuation or capitalization. When they do, they occur only when the lines’ structures are not enough to convey syntax. In the book’s first section, twenty poems create a catalogue of the sea. The second section, with twenty-four poems, is comprised mostly of ekphrastic poems with a few sea/water images scattered throughout. This changes with poem No. 39 when the sea returns as the dominant poetic vehicle.

At first glance, her poems are reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s most famous poems. They are crafted with short lines that use pitch-perfect and evocative descriptions. In poem No. 12, for example, she writes about “the steak of Africa / the broken comma / of New Zealand.” And in No. 8, she describes the Aegean Sea as “the colour of a stork.” A Whitman-esque poet might unpack that image, spending a handful of lines stretching the stork metaphor until it snaps. But Koulouris is confident enough to let it hover there, allowing the reader to ponder this rich and unique image. And it is an earned confidence.

But there is more to Koulouris’s work than the precision of the Imagist school of poetry. Throughout, she avoids description and offers a directive statement or an imposing question. In this way, the poems carry an air of the famous ending of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (“You must change your life.”). This is best seen in poem No. 3, during which Koulouris explains what we shouldn’t mention about the sea, “for her waves / will never be yours.” She ends the poem with three stunning couplets:
her heart is solid fire
her eyes are weak

if it is not the sea
it is the shores

where would you be
without regrets?
That final couplet seems to come from nowhere, but it is a remarkable conclusion. She evokes a regret of not fully knowing the sea because it can never be ours, a regret of not tasting her waters and not touching her shores.

More than anything, though, what is perhaps most admirable about Koulouris’s poetry is her subtle irony and humor. This is especially true in the second section of the book, which adopts a darker tone. Many of these poems, inspired by artists and writers like Philip Guston and Maurice Sendak, address mortality. In No. 21, for the German Expresionist artist Anselm Kiefer, she describes “a landscape razed for battle.” Later, she responds to Picasso’s Guernica in No. 28. But rather than focusing on the destruction shown in the painting, she finds a voice of bitter irony. “the band is / paid to screech,” she writes, and “to my surprise / there were wares / outside.” But through this, she doesn’t ignore the horror of Guernica, as seen in this tercet: “a formidable horse / drinks from tinted water / strikes oil.” Earlier poems also contain this biting humor, but none more so than No. 13, which is a catalogue of what the sea does not need, including:
all of Alabama or the NYPD
and I am sure the sea does
not need Jack Kerouac
to take a stab at it
There is something entrancing about Koulouris’s poetry. It makes readers want to dive deep within it, to drown. Its rhythms are intoxicating and, like a riptide, refuse to let go. The surface appearance of simplicity belies the poems’ complex and daunting depth. “It is always midnight / in the river / between two poems,” Koulouris writes in No. 44, the final poem. There may be rivers between her poems, but they are, indeed, oceans.

June 20, 2015

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

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

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 6, 2015

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

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

Reviewed by R. A. Voss

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

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2015

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

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

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 9, 2015

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

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

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 25, 2015

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

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

Reviewed by Julie Babcock

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

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

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

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

April 11, 2015

Humans and Animals: Connected at Heart: A Review of Ceridwen Dovey's Only the Animals by Tansy Bradshaw

cover credit: Penguin Australia
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Penguin Australia (2014)

Reviewed by Tansy Bradshaw

Winner of 2014’s Readings Bookstore New Australian Writing Award, Ceridwen Dovey’s second novel is best described as a variety of short stories and letters. Less than 250 pages, this book’s rich stories peak to everyone.

In Only the Animals, ten animals are caught in human conflict that ranges from a camel who was in the presence of Australian author Henry Lawson to a letter written to Sylvia Plath by a dolphin. With each story, readers glimpse into the hearts of the animals that stoically stood by their owners or, like their owners, dreamed of a better life. Giving a unique insight into the animal psyche, these stories reveal the raw suffering and joy that the real heroes experienced like losing a loved one or the fear of uncertainty.

The book also pays homage to writers who chose to write about animals. As well as Sylvia Plath and Henry Lawson, Dovey includes Kafka, Ted Hughes, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack Kerouac. In a story with a camel who is the animal accompanying Henry Lawson during a trek in Queensland, she writes with Lawson’s style as she creates images of Australia’s outback by drawing on the Australian bush and referencing its natives. This is evident in the passage, “The goanna was moving through the dry leaves, making them scrape against one another like cartilage.”

Dovey has a unique ability to make well-rounded and lifelike characters. For example, “Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat and I,” set on the Western Front, is a story about a cat reminiscing about her owner’s life in Paris. There, the actress was known for her theatrical antics, and the cat remarks, “… how entranced Collette would be by this little scene…” like walking her on a lead around town.

A more touching story in this collection is “Plautus: A Memoir Of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space,” in which a soul of a tortoise writes about Virginia Woolf’s life by replicating her essay A Room of One’s Own with one segment called “A Terrarium of One’s Own.” The tortoise remembers when Virginia discovered him in a box. The tortoise says that “she had done what she usually did when she encountered a new phenomenon … and went to literature.” This story provides an alternative look at a writer, who was living through social change at the time of writing her piece. A Room of One’s Own was her stating that she did not wish to be just known as a house wife, wanting a place where she could write and devote herself to her work. For the time where men hold the balance of power this was a stand for women’s rights.

Only the Animals is a beautiful piece of literature that makes readers ponder the lives that these animals and authors may and lived. Dovey seems to ask whether readers can understand an author better by looking at the symbolic use of animals within their work. For example, Kafka symbolised disability and the feeling of helplessness through the representation of being a cockroach that has fallen on his back and is unable to be righted. She also postulates whether animals can return feelings we wished we received from other humans: unconditional love? Only the Animals seeks out the empathy in everyone, whether it be for animals, humans, or for both. It all but hands a typewriter to a beloved pet.

March 28, 2015

Rust Never Sleeps: A Review of Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City by Angele Ellis

cover credit: White Pine Press
The Rusted City: a novel in poems by Rochelle Hurt
White Pine Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis
“…Using elements of surrealism and magic seemed like the best way for me to write a place like Youngstown into something new. A mythical approach allowed for this more than a documentary style would have, which is why I chose to call my city simply ‘The Rusted City’ and not Youngstown.” ~ Rochelle Hurt in an interview with Belt Magazine, December 2014
The reader enters Rochelle Hurt’s lost kingdom through an empty chair. Her cover illustration, Sharon Pazner’s “Throne,” is a doll-sized, kitchen-chair construction of concrete and bent, tarnished nails that might guard a parking space in any American Rust Belt city. Delicate and tough, homely and haunting, it is a near perfect metaphor for the world Hurt recreates from rough materials and memory.

Hurt’s impressive debut is a full-length collection of prose poems mixed with free verse (the eighteenth volume in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series). It reads like an extended fairy tale, a modern version of an old-fashioned story in which rust/blood, fear, and pain leave trails on the road to rebirth. Her recurring characters—The Quiet Mother, The Favorite Father, The Oldest Sister, and The Smallest Sister—are archetypes into which the poet breathes harsh individual life.

In “The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red,” this child character “often” takes into herself relics of the rusted city. “… She strings corroded washers into a necklace. She dresses her lips in the sanguine water and sucks the stain from the pipes behind the aluminum plant…” As in a fairy tale, these rituals age The Smallest Sister beyond even The Favorite Father’s reach, as demonstrated by the following punch line:
… When he touches her, she is as old as the city that closes around them like a fist.
The Favorite Father is a photographer as well as a mill worker. In “The Roller Coaster is Burning, the Favorite,” “father tells his daughters, buttoning their chin and ear flaps. ‘We’ve got to get pictures.’” But the family, walking in “a line of red caps… a lit fuse,” is too late for the burning but not the death. Hurt describes the grotesque scene:
… the roller coaster is folded in half, a writhing lattice… gangly as a giant insect… its corroded arms are crossed already—the death pose, the smallest sister knows.
In “The Favorite Father Chases a Tornado,” his daughters’ attention is not on “[t]he sky [that] troubles and fills with orange funnels” but on the way the father “ruined” the rust-coated river while “getting his shot.” Hurt writes in this striking sequence:
… A layer of rust floating like algae on the water begins to break up. As he wades, his legs part one red island, making another. Soon there are too many rust islands to count, and the river is a mottled red-brown.
The Rusted City often turns moments of creation into destruction. In “The Quiet Mother Smiles,” the house crumbles around the mother as she cleans her wedding ring in anticipation of the father’s return. The reader feels the chill of ill omen:
… The ring is heavy as a marble in the smallest sister’s hand, and heavier every minute… The quiet mother picks chips of rust from where the ring had hugged her finger and blows on it like something too hot, sending a storm of red to the floor.
The titles of poems in the second and fourth sections of this five-part collection begin “In the Century of…,” bringing the weight of history to bear on subjects as small as lunch pails, dusty hallways, and dirty water, and as large as records, research, and silences. In Belt Magazine, Hurt says:
“Using ‘In the Century of’ was my way of avoiding the constraints of literal time, which seem irrelevant to history in terms of how it’s told between family members and how it affects the lives of individuals. When history is remembered through our own experiences, it always gets warped and mythologized. There are so many centuries in this book that by the end, the city is thousands of years old. In this way it becomes larger than real life.”
“In the Century of Birthmarks” is a startling example of how Hurt positions the rusted city as an eternal city, as demonstrated by the poem’s opening stanza:
parents held their newborns up
to the sun and read the shadows
cast through them like runes.
And “In the Century of Lunch Pails,” the industrial city becomes a noisy, all-consuming monster: “… Everywhere the chew of pipes branching / through copper soil could be heard.” It leeches life from the lunch pail-carrying fathers even as it provides their livelihood, as in its eerily beautiful closing stanzas:
Everywhere the whisper ticks of fingers,
every hand a clock. And every evening,

the clinking, ever nearer the doorstep, of coins
inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked.
Hurt ends The Rusted City with two poems of death and rebirth. In “The City Opens” (like a corpse, or a Caesarian section) the smallest sister rebuilds from its amazing array of “expelling antiques.” “… Every night another wall, every week another room, every month another house—her new city birthed from the refuse.” And in “The Smallest Sister is Radiant,” the smallest sister imagines her death as “… a grenade of rust, fool’s gold… She can’t say why she / swallows the word, but when she does she knows it will burst in her / throat one day.” However, death cannot destroy the city that words have immortalized, as shown in the book’s last lines:
… but she knows that at the moment of death, she
will be brilliant. Her body will shine like a city inside.

March 14, 2015

In Pursuit of Shenanigans: A Review of Dan Nowak's the hows and whys of my failures by Anthony Frame

Cover credit: Hyacinth Girl Press
the hows and whys of my failures, by Dan Nowak
Hyacinth Girl Press (2014)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

The bio note for Dan Nowak’s third chapbook, the hows and whys of my failures, concludes, “Dan takes his time to pursue worthwhile shenanigans with the love of his life.” The pursuit of shenanigans, often in the name of love, turns out to be an apt description of these fourteen short, stream of consciousness poems that race from curiosity to conclusion at a manic pace. Throughout, Nowak’s abrupt line breaks and his complex interplay between ideas and language strip away the artifice of the modern world and leave the reader staring, at times uncomfortably, at how these naked poems wrestle with the world in which they live.

The collection opens simply, plainly, and absurdly: “you’re beautiful like a dolphin.” This, according to the opening poem’s title, is “one of many failed pick-up lines.” This immediately extends the possibilities of what Nowak might do and where he might go over the next fourteen pages. The poem then jumps from the speaker’s failure to find dolphins attractive to a brief meditation on imaginary “future and science fiction children.” By the end, when the speaker decides truth is obnoxious (“almost like a dolphin”), Nowak has fully prepared us for the voice, the tone, and the style of his chapbook. But, perhaps more importantly, he has prepared us for the pace of these poems.

They are frenetic, so much that they push the limits of comfort. Take, for example, “this is my rifle.” Over the course of fourteen lines, Nowak writes about love as a gun, his lack of scholarly knowledge, his inability to talk to a girl, ruminations on how the girl might kiss, how much he has had to drink, a brief meditation on attraction, questions about how the night was supposed to go, a post-party cleanup, and waking up alone. And all of these are strung together without punctuation. But Nowak deftly holds these thoughts together through the rifle metaphor, which transforms from being about love to being about attraction to, finally, being about the speaker’s penis. This transformation coincides with the speaker daydreaming about the girl. As his fantasies intensify to the point of disintegration, so too does the rifle metaphor until all that is left is the speaker “alone again with my hand down my pants and drinks i meant to buy still in my pocket."

Each of these poems works in a similar way (see, especially, “what is implied,” “an option on how to replace church,” and “when it all goes sonic boom boom boom”), but the absurdism and the loose strings connecting each part of each poem prevents the collection from becoming predictable. Still, absurdity, irony and wit alone are not enough to hold a collection like this together. What makes Nowak’s poems work, and work wonderfully, is the intimacy and honesty behind all his surreal leaps. Most of these poems are about love and/or relationships. But connecting with another person is never easy in these pages. Take, for example, “names are like signs for yourself,” in which the author and a bartender discuss the commonality of names. Nowak wants desperately to engage in this conversation but the overactive mind, the one responsible for all these poetic leaps, is unable. Instead, he writes:
i politely sip my beer and imagine
him with my name and how that would change him.
i think he wouldn’t be so judgmental or he would be more.
and i ask myself, how many more letters do i need
before i am someone completely different.
The love poems in this collection are similarly tough and tense and a bit nightmarish. In one poem, the speaker encourages his partner that “sex for money isn’t necessarily such a bad / idea as long as you’re safe” (“and just because i haven't encouraged”). In another, he questions his ability to write about his partner because “your story is boring” (“what is implied”). But strongest of all is the poem, “behind the pretty lights.” The lovers in this poem work desperately to come together while simultaneously pushing each other away. They hold hands and notice the empty spaces between the fingers. They insist on the silence of silence. And those pretty lights, the ones that make the lover dance, are ultimately used “to put the right amount of distance between my body and yours.”

Still, behind the angst, behind the speaker’s obsession with his failures, there is a tenderness. This is best seen in “why i am never really upset about you waking up with me.” Here, the speaker recognizes the selfishness of his desire to keep his lover with him, to make his bed “more home than home” for her. “you’ll see me for who i am,” Nowak writes:
you won’t picture
anything less, but push yourself against
my ribs. i will let you in. that isn’t a question.
It is this tenderness, this heightened awareness of the self and others, and of the relationship between the self and others, that keeps the collection approachable and relatable. It is this tenderness that earns the surreal moments where kissing leads to thoughts about leprosy and armadillos (“why i can never invite you over after i drink moscato all night”).

the hows and whys of my failures accomplishes something pretty spectacular. It smoothly and matter-of-factly blends postmodern dadaism with narrative lyricism. And, perhaps most importantly, it does so unapologetically. Nowak’s new chapbook leaves little doubt about his skill, his wit, and his devotion to honesty, about himself and his world. Indeed, if these poems contain any failures, they are beautiful failures. They are magical failures. Just like dolphins. And armadillos.

March 8, 2015

Weave Issue 12 Update

Dear Weave Magazine Readers, Subscribers, and Supporters,

Weave Magazine is in transition: we're expanding our team, looking for new ways to share our contributors' work, and other exciting changes. In order to accomplish these goals, we've decided to delay the publication of issue 12 and close submissions early this year.

Our reading period will end one week from today on Sunday, March 15th at 11:59 am PDT with plans to reopen in the fall. We apologize in advance to anyone who misses the window, and we hope you'll think of us again. Please sign up to receive our blog posts via email (right column, third box) to keep up with the latest Weavey developments.

Subscribers who are waiting on issue 12 - we're   sorry for the delay, but we promise this issue will be worth the wait. Feel free to email us about concerns, refunds, or any other questions.

As always, thank you for supporting Weave and independent publishing.

Be well,

Laura & the Weave Gang

February 14, 2015

If They Would Touch Me: A Review of Robert Walicki’s A Room Full of Trees by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: Red Bird Chapbooks
A Room Full of Tress by Robert Walicki
Red Bird Chapbooks (2014)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Everything about Robert Walicki’s debut chapbook, A Room Full of Trees, is stunning. First, the reader is treated to a gorgeous, hand-bound cover from Red Bird Chapbooks. The cover art and drawings by Carl Huelsman complement the poems to create one, complete work of art. And Walicki’s words explode even brighter.

From the first poem, “Red,” Walicki introduces the complex way his narrators deal with distance and touch. The poem explores the speaker’s memory of his father watching his soccer games. The two never communicate, but even being as close as a player to the stands feels ominous and dangerous. The speaker states:
Every game he sat, top bleachers, always looking, no wedding ring,

never blinked. And I watched him too, till it was my turn,

till I was called for and had to turn, had to show him my back
Walicki’s use of caesuras makes the readers feel the suspicion and hesitation of turning their backs and letting someone creep closer to them. In fact, the hesitation toward physical contact runs throughout the book.

In “The Boy,” after seeing a kid get beaten up, the speaker comments, “What I saw taught me how to stand by, how to say nothing.” The fear of reprisal by the bullies in this line is immediately universal. Who didn’t witness some form of bullying or torment in school and kept quiet because they didn’t want to be next? Even later in “Touch,” the speaker suspects that the group of people seeing a friend off “knows I couldn’t bear it if they would touch me.” But when this space is breeched in other poems, the reader, like the speakers, is shut out or violated by it. The narrator in “When the Sunlight” explains:
When he touches you,
think of trees.
And when you say no,
he’ll say I’ll kill your parents if…
The lack of touch and the omnipresent distance is so expertly constructed by Walicki that the readers identify directly with the speakers, even if similar experiences are not shared. Together, the readers and speakers can only speculate what connection could feel like. This struggle is most clear in “The Way Back,” wherein a narrator tries to relive a memory of an old home by “draw[ing] the floor plan in the air.” While exploring this “house,” the narrator remembers going through his mother’s things:
I am downstairs when the last of her things are boxed up
In the photograph I ask to keep,
nothing moves.
It is 1933 and she is standing in a bread line.

And I am trying to remember the last time
I touched her.

I hold the photograph up to the light.
My thumb touches her face,
but she doesn’t notice.
The reader is not even given a memory of touch to experience, but is left with a thumb on an old picture. The lingering effects of loss, as well as striving to recreate past moments, is again felt when a speaker erects a scarecrow with his sister. While using his deceased father’s clothes as the scarecrow’s costume, he states that “She doesn’t know I’m building a man,” as if he is trying to rebuild the person with the leftover materials of memory.

Despite anxiety, distance, missed contacts, and loss, light plays a key role in keeping the collection from getting too dark. Even when recalling sexual abuse in “When The Sunlight,” there is a“… sliver of light through the gaps / reaching you, here, and now, and always.” Walicki’s poetic gift to readers is filling all the space that he has created between bodies. “What the Light Wants” starts by saying, “Not the tall branches above me rocking and breaking. / Not the dead branches over tree lines too high to touch.” The poem uses the title and the first two lines to state that light isn’t interested in the living or the dead. Instead, the light wants the rest of the poem: the struggle between a son and his deceased father.

Dealing with death and the seemingly unbridgeable distance between people can be immense and disorienting. For all the pain and darkness, though, light is always somewhere in Robert Walicki’s poems. There is still “sunlight flashing off the windshield” even if it’s sometimes a “broken light… moving through the space between the trees.” The ability to express this complexity while keeping his poems layered and inviting is nothing short of radiant.

January 31, 2015

Life Leaves Its Scars: A Review of Michael Gerhard Martin's Easiest If I Had a Gun by Michael Chin

cover credit: Braddock Avenue Books
Easiest If I Had a Gun by Michael Gerhard Martin
Braddock Avenue Books (2014)

Reviewed by Michael Chin

Easiest If I Had a Gun is a remarkable debut collection from Michael Gerhard Martin. The short stories tend to focus on young characters who stand on the precipice of life-shaping decisions. In some cases, the choices are obviously significant—a high schooler alternately contemplating a school shooting or suicide—while others are less evident but little less formative—a lying, bullying, and manipulating boy attends a fishing trip to compensate for the absence of a real relationship with his father. In his longer pieces, a young man spends a semester groping to understand the changing dynamics of his relationship when his girlfriend leaves for college, and a woman navigates adult waters all her own—sleeping with her music teacher and engaged in the constant ebb and flow of conflict with her alcoholic mother. In each case, Martin remains fiercely true to the thought processes of his characters.

The collection opens with “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The story sees Josh Geringer—an overweight, acne-riddled high schooler—face all manners of torture. Bullies throw basketballs at his head, punch him, and shove their bare buttocks in his face in the locker room. Teachers and administrators are both oblivious and aggressive toward Josh for not trying harder to fit in. As Josh, the narrator, articulates:
I hate being a punching bag, especially in front of other kids. I hate his hands on me, pinching, flicking, poking. I hate his locker-room smell of sweat covered over with Right Guard. I hate being one of the weird ones, hate being the kind of kid that gets bullied by Burnout Brian McVey.
Because of his experiences, Josh contemplates suicide, threatening his antagonists with a knife, or shooting them with his grandfather’s gun. He goes so far as to bring the weapons to school, precipitating some form of disaster. The story takes a turn, however, when two good-hearted tough guys stick up for Josh and break the arm of the lead ruffian, McVey, in Josh’s defense. When one of McVey’s toadies, Billy, attempts to continue bullying, Josh handily pummels the smaller kid—then makes a habit out of it. Drunk with a new power, Josh starts calling Billy “Shit Weasel” and transforms into a bully in his own right. After inflicting one such bout of punishment on his victim, Josh ruminates, “I am sure he is going to tell, sure I will have to hang my head and pretend to be ashamed. The truth is, I do feel a little ashamed, but I hate Shit Weasel more.” Thus, the story defies saccharine resolutions or all but cliché scenes of the grotesque in favor of an entirely realistic shade of gray that allows readers to both sympathize with and recognize all of the ugliness within the adolescent tormenters.

Martin explores similar territory through a different lens in “Seventy-Two Pound Fish Story.” A boy, yearning for a better father-son relationship, places the weight of his aspirations on a fishing trip with his father’s friend and son, the Gormans. The boy lies about his relationship with his father, picks on Alec Gorman for struggling at school, acts out his jealousy toward his familial setup, and annoys everyone with his inexperience and preposterously boastful claims about his fishing skills and the fish he almost catches that day. In an artful moment, Alec’s father, who had at first insisted the boy call him Lute, retracts the offer, stating, “Why don’t you call me Mr. Gorman, okay?” The story proves to be a portrait of a boy who is desperate for connections of any kind, and who falls short with every attempt.

The collection also includes two longer stories that border on novellas: “Bridgeville” and “Dreamland.” Despite the strength of his shorter works, the longer form yields mixed results for Martin. “Bridgeville” maintains a tight arc of Jack’s coming of age during his senior year of high school, particularly through the lens of his relationship with Meaghan, who is one year older, college-bound, and alternately in love with, indifferent to, or actively manipulating Jack. Jack seems willfully oblivious to her shifts in attention, until he makes an ill-advised visit to her college, learns of her infidelities, and leaves in a huff. Weeks later, he succumbs to Meaghan’s charms all over again when she comes home for Thanksgiving. And though Jack can’t put his finger on it, Martin artfully paints a picture that their relationship has irrevocably changed at that point. In “Dreamland,” Martin is similarly true to his protagonist, Emilie, allowing her decision-making processes to dictate her path over a story arc that lasts for month. “Dreamland,” however, lacks the focus of “Bridgeville. It is, at first, the story of a teenage girl involved in a tryst with her teacher. However, it becomes a story about a fledgling artist who hopes to head to college, her relationship with her more adventurous best friend, and the ways in which her alcoholic mother’s lack of responsibility stunts her life. This all culminates in a suicide attempt. Taken as a whole, the story succeeds in capturing the confusion and multifaceted nature of a young woman’s life, but comes up short as a coherent narrative.

If there is one certainty to be taken from Easiest if I Had a Gun, it is that Martin knows his characters and follows them along their journeys to the fullest. The stories do not shy away from complex or ugly outcomes. At his best, Martin proves himself to be a master of a tightly contained form. Even the collection’s weaker stories hold true to a drive to explore every deep, dark crevice of the diverse characters’ psyches. Each one is haunted in unmistakable ways, and each gropes toward a better life. They rarely find lasting solace, but readers with a profoundly enriched insight into the human condition.