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.