July 16, 2016

Speak, Memory: A Review of Jill Kandel’s So Many Africas by Angele Ellis

Cover Credit: Autumn House Press
So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village by Jill Kandel
Autumn House Press (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Jill Kandel’s memoir encircles her life as her scarred wedding ring encircles her finger (along with her belated engagement ring, whose five small diamonds represent the five full years—nearly six—that Kandel lived in Zambia’s Kalabo District, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert). So Many Africas is as painstakingly faceted as a diamond, as dazzling, and as hard.

Winner of the 2014 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize, So Many Africas contains two parallel stories: the journey of a privileged and idealistic young white American woman, trained as a nurse, into the isolated and alien culture of rural Zambia; and her equally isolated and alien journey into full-time wifehood and motherhood. Both aspects were propelled by Kandel’s 1981 marriage to Dutch agricultural specialist Johan Kandel, who was as passionate about increasing crop yields in Zambia as about making a life with Jill. Unfortunately, Johan’s eyes (a shining blue, the first thing that attracted Kandel to this young man from yet another culture) were for the most part focused on his work, lacking the “peripheral vision” to perceive his wife’s struggles.

“There were five languages spoken in Kalabo District: SiLozi, Luvale, Nyengo, Mbunda, and Nkoya. I couldn’t tell the five of them apart,” Kandel said in a 2015 interview with Lisa Ohlen Harris for the literary journal Brevity.
Words have always been a very important part of my life and I was living in a village where the act of talking and communicating was a daily struggle. When you lose the ability to communicate with those living around you—really communicate—there is a sense of loss and isolation. And something odd happens: when you stop talking, you stop hearing yourself, too. You forget who you are. I wanted to be a good wife. I wanted to encourage my husband. So I didn’t talk about what it was really like for me.
Kandel, who did not start writing seriously until her forties, took fourteen years to craft this work of reclaimed memory and feeling, and to find a vivid and precise language in which to express herself, presenting the reader with sharp scenes from her circumscribed experiences. (Added to Kandel’s difficulties was the refusal of Zambian authorities to accept her American nursing credentials; she could not work outside her home, even as a volunteer.)

Everyday labors—with heat, sand, cockroaches, bats, snakes, scanty food, unpredictable transportation, unreliable electricity, and the demands placed on Kandel by her husband’s sense of duty as well as her own—are interposed with terrors and tragedies that, though far too common, never become commonplace. Foremost among these is the death of a Zambian girl who runs from behind a bus into the path of Johan’s Land Rover. There also are moments of grace. Kandel’s Christian faith is implied but never imposed on her narrative. When she expresses the belief that an unknown young Zambian man—whose calm advice after the tragic road accident saved her family from assault by an angry crowd—was an angel, even a secular mind admits the possibility.

She shares another such moment with Mr. Albert, a dignified and resourceful man who was proud to call himself a servant. His presence in Kandel’s life proved to be a major help and solace. She remembers:
        … I saw the ants fly every year we lived in Zambia. I came to look forward to it, that Ant Flying Day, waited for it, knowing it would come just before the rains.
        Mr. Albert would remind me. “Soon,” he would say. “Soon is Ant Day come.” And we would wait and watch together.
        When it comes, it is the birds that amaze me. Careening, plummeting, rising, plunging through the blue sky. They swirl above my head like freedom while they dip playfully, hungrily.
        And as I watch, I remember my youth and the birds [drunk on fermented berries] that fell from trees, and my father’s laughter.
        The sky is not falling, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky.
        The birds are not falling, Goosie Loosie, Turkey Lurkey, Foxy Woxy.
        In Africa, it is the ants that fall.
        But first they fly.
        If only for an instant.
As Kandel achieves release in ants that fly, she also attains it (at least once) in grief sent aloft. When Jos—a Dutch neighbor who, with his Zambian wife, Solie, had become a good friend—dies of a heart attack, Kandel is able to let go. She writes:
        …I sit beside Solie through a black night as the wind and fire carry our grief up into a darkened void. The night lasts forever, but it is not long.
        In a strange way it becomes one of the most comforting nights of my life. Everyone sits generously, without shame. No holding back and sniffling into Kleenex. No Valium or sweet music, just the rolling out of grief and the deep inhuman sound of wailing that comes unbidden and unhindered.
        I weep that night for Jos. And for the twelve-year-old girl whose life ebbed away months before, beside a rusting bus. I weep for myself and all that I miss of my family and friends and the life that I had once lived, so long ago and far away.
        And the very freedom to wail somehow salves the pain. It’s not hysterical or hopeless. Neither is it sanitized.
Neither is it sanitized when Kandel snaps, emotionally and physically. Deeply depressed, she tells Johan—who has received another offer of promotion—that she cannot go on living in Zambia. Ill with hepatitis and filled with drugs and IV fluids, Kandel hides her eyes (“the color of bananas”) from fellow airport passengers in Lusaka so that no one will complain that she is too sick to make her flight to the Netherlands with Johan and their children, Kristina and Joren. She never goes back.

For years afterward, Kandel—who makes her home with her family in Minnesota after sojourns in the Netherlands, England, and Indonesia—kept silent while Johan told his tales of Africa. The incomprehension of friends and neighbors added to her sense of unreality that she—despite palpable gains and losses—had lived in Zambia at all.

In the last quarter of So Many Africas, Kandel describes how she found her voice and the strength and support to write. One vignette encapsulates the long yet magical process of creation. In the depths of Minnesota winter, Kandel goes to her unheated garage to blow soap bubbles—as she did as a child and later with her children in Zambia. At thirty below zero, the frozen bubbles can be touched—delicately—without breaking. With existential wonderment, Kandel writes:
… I have held a bubble. I have held a lifetime. I have lived for ten years in lands so far away they do not exist. Come. Reach out your hand and I will blow a bubble for you. It will land barely perceptible. If you stand still enough, and do not pull away, the bubble will hold its crystalline shape. And if you look closely, beyond the surface, and into the bubble’s reflection, you will see the world upside down. A baobab tree standing with its roots to the sky.

June 19, 2016

Carnival of Conflicted Souls: A Review of Amorak Huey’s The Insomniac Circus by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Hyacinth Girl Press
The Insomniac Circus by Amorak Huey
Hyacinth Girl Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

What is it about the Big Top, its tented skirts rippling with a symphonic swell of Thunder & Blazes, parade of peculiar yet heroic characters who defy gravity, tame wild beasts, and its degradation of the body that fascinates, thrills, and sometimes repels us?

In The Insomniac Circus, Amorak Huey bestows humanity and humility in his cast of iconic and iron-clad performers, giving voice to those whose daring acts rouse cheers or gasps from an engaged yet distanced audience. Each poem is part noir-ish narrative and confessional, a collection of Diane Arbus images turned personal vignettes. The frustrations, desires, and interior tales of the clown, acrobat, contortionist, juggler, animal trainer, trapeze artist, and others are hinted at with clever poem titles that read like funny headlines: “The Sword Swallower Wonders What’s the Point,” “The Unicyclist Wonders if He’s Found the One,” “The Human Cannonball Takes His Best Shot at Redemption,” and “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High.” While not sparing the intimate details of each performer’s wistful story, the poet grants them ownership over their own series of foibles and frailty.

Our “entrance” to events begins with “The Ticket Taker Gives and Gives & No One Seems to Notice.” Alas, the anticipation and excitation of a circus’s promise for the exotic and daring experience push crowds past the gate keeper, who welcomes in others but must remain outside the transformative event, ignored. Almost as a spectator himself, Huey writes:
“…the gift of admittance. This is what you offer. In return
you are invisible. The world rushes past your stool

hungry for something more magnificent—
gold-paved redemption, spotlight on the impossible,

moment when a body’s limits no longer hold.
Such danger. Such promise. Such soaring.”
Echoes of loneliness and fear are carefully threaded through these poems with a wistful grace, and belie the glittering or seemingly proud visages of the men and women adorned in costume and on parade. In “The Ringmaster Answers the Phone,” we are warned “It’s never / good news, this time of night—someone dead / or arrested or worse: drunk & in the mood to reminisce.” What great things are there to be announced when one’s bedroom “…smells like feet & cat food—” and each season reminds “Your whole life is a series / of the moments just before other moments—?”

“The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth” has our whip-wielding, big cat trainer (who has not quite faced up to the failings of his former marriage) promising to reveal his feelings “to a certain woman in a certain city” that he’s never forgotten. He reminisces:
…that Y-shaped scar on her lower lip,
summernight warmth of her breath,
skittery touch of her fingernails.

It is her name I whisper each night
on bended knee, my neck bowed,

teeth almost tender against flesh—
the secret is pretending you are not vulnerable.
The reader is also introduced to the daring performances of those who explode and spin in the ring, and what lay beneath the bravado of the spotlight. The “Human Canonball” admits, “The only thing I had ever had going for me / was lack of fear. Violence // is a forwarding address, the next place / anyone calls home, confessional booth, // springloaded tube.” In “The Bareback Rider Gets Dressed (After a Night of Horsing Around With a Townie),” the young, restless equestrian with an “unending quest for the unbuttoned life,” comes to believe “...The best thing in her life / is this headpiece. She holds it with both hands, / careful not to crush the peacock feathers, // iridescent & impossible in the morning sun.” And the daredevil of “The Acrobat Bawls” implores:
Go ahead, tell me you know all about me,
my narrow world, my glittering costume,

the absent net beneath my feet. I am all
too familiar, pitiful as pearls, tourist

in my own skin. Insist you’ve heard this story
before. You don’t even know

my middle name. Surprised
to see me in such prosaic terms? Pretend

you could forget this moment—we know better,
this night already ripples in the breeze

& keeps a million strangers awake.
I offer myself to you, knowing you

will not resist my naked heart.
Interestingly, there’s a poem representing the audience, “The Father Sits in the Front Row with His Family & Convinces Himself That He Takes a Back Seat to No One.” Our patriarch, who suffers from his own threatened sense of masculinity, understands that “What matters is how they see you. // Everything is performance—life in the round...” and “For better or for purse, this entertainment’s costing $600.00 / & there’s nothing you can do about any of it.” This “jack of all masquerades” is reminded that “everything in front of you exists / for your pleasure. If you never turn around // you never see what lies behind.” The grand visions and thrilling performances that we seek on such a large scale may be costly to witness, but “the greatest show on earth,” is surely that of human drama. The Insomniac Circus brings this point home in each poem or “act” of this intimate and oddly-poignant collection. With its skillful combination of glittering revelry and wistful narrative, it continues to haunt the reader’s imagination.

June 4, 2016

Again, Desire: A Review of Flower Conroy’s The Awful Suicidal Swans by Michael VanCalbergh

Cover Credit: Headmistress Press
The Awful Suicidal Swans by Flower Conroy
Headmistress Press

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Desire is the only way to describe the dominate subject of Flower Conroy’s The Awful Suicidal Swans. Words like “lust” and “craving” are too layered with judgement, which these poems quickly do away with, while “love” or “adoration” seem devoid of the physicality that connects all of them. Desire ends up the only adequate idea when considering how Conroy’s book confronts the violence and the unabashed joy of wanting another and being wanted by that person.

“In the Wolf’s Den * Gentlemen’s Club” starts the book by balancing the explicitly sexual and deeply emotional layers of desire. Conroy’s speaker ogles a woman stripping, even referring to her as “lamblike,” but immediately complicates this sexualizing by stating:
… You, in love,
on the playground, spinning April on the merry-
go-round, untamed laugh, poppy field of freckles,

head thrown back as the sky turned… They panted,
howled, wagged
By setting up the panting and howling of the crowd next to the image of a girl on a playground, Conroy challenges her readers to see these emotions as layered. Her poems explore more forbidden or out-of-reach aspects of desire in “Your Body the Unnameable Body.” This speaker imagines: “If I were on the other side of that steam-cloaked glass / with you, I would touch your edges” but states shortly afterward, “I am almost afraid of you.”

While her early poems address this tenuous area of wanting but not having, she also introduces the dangerous side of desire. In one poem, a shirtless man is on top of a woman in an abandoned meat factory with “Upside-down / ? hooks dangled / from the ceiling,” while in another a prostitute enters a man’s car and “Fetches from the gaping linen, the planted // squid & milks it, warm, aglow udder.” These poems don’t ignore the dark or disturbing side of sex. Instead, they refuse to look away, examining these moments just as deftly as the poems that come before.

Conroy’s goal is to give voice to all sides of desire instead of highlighting just one perspective, which includes the beautiful and simple. Her poems start this shift with “How Did the Everlasting Begin?” where she states, “There was nothing spectacular about the fire…” between two lovers. She ends the poem with:
There was everything spectacular about the fire
because it was ordinary.
Because it was contained
& then it was not.
Conroy maintains this exploration of beautiful simplicity in “Of Exaltations,” wherein she imagines two lovers spending all their time together. By asking “do you never wonder / who will feed the chickens?” she allows the moment to speak for the loss of time one can feel with another. Similarly, in “Granting Passage,” her speaker describes wanting a lover’s mouth:
… To your blessing
bestowing mouth.

Therefore I am: crucified—
open, starfish-splayed.
Begging for drink. Begging

for fountain.
Conroy describes these sexual encounters as need being fulfilled. A speaker says to a lover, “You suckle the hollow” of a shoulder; has another told, “Now; let me siphon that bite for you…” and another stating, “Without her narcotic sweat, her voodoo breath / breathing down my neck, how did I survive?” These moments build upon each other to present a clearer image of desire as a whole. These poems both watch and touch closely, allowing readers to have tactile and visual connections with the speakers. In this way, Conroy transforms readers into the desired and the one who desires, never making us comfortable enough to feel completely in control.

Conroy’s penultimate poem, “The Morning After,” provides the perfect metaphor for her book. The speaker describes a lover who, while making her breakfast, gets so close that she thinks, “you’d singe me / with the coffee press.” Then the lover touches her and makes a command: “You pushed my bangs / from my eyes, put a cup in my hands / & commanded, sip.” Conroy’s poems offer themselves as the loving act of making breakfast, but they’re also demanding more. They demand that you, not only, face the desire laid in front of you but also “sip” and experience everything that is bitter, warm, and delicious.

May 15, 2016

A Particular Time and Place: A Review of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Third Edition, by Anthony Frame

Cover Credit: Autumn House Press
The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Third Edition, edited by Michael Simms, Giuliana Certo, and Christine Stroud
Autumn House Press (2015)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

In his introduction to The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Michael Simms writes, “Poetry is just like people talking.” He further explains the ways it goes beyond common speech, saying poetry, “has something special or amazing about it, something that makes us think, wonder, or marvel.” It is this idea of everyday language, heightened and crafted to give the reader a sense of amazement, that defines the aesthetic choices made by editors Michael Simms, Giullana Certo, and Christine Stroud as they curated this collection of poems by 106 American poets. The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry offers a snapshot of the poetry landscape at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. These poems contain contemporary poetry’s celebration of American life and language as well as its concerns about inclusion and varied voices.

Narrative poetry dominates this anthology, which is clear from the first poem: “Collapsing Poem” by Kim Addonizio. This meta-Ars Poetica begins with a man and a woman arguing. It then discusses what it needs to do in order to give this moment meaning to the reader. Addonizio masterfully places the reader within this scene, writing, “And by now, if you’ve been moved, it’s because / you’re thinking with regret of the person / this poem set out to remind you of.” But even with audience interaction, the poem never leaves the story of the couple fighting. She ends by accepting that she cannot leave the narrative unless she is taken from it:
this poem won’t get finished unless
you drag me from it, away from that man;
for Christ’s sake, hurry, just pull up and keep
the motor running and take me wherever you’re going.
The ending of “Collapsing Poem” seems an apt metaphor for The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Although the editors, according to the introduction, value a variety of styles, they continue to return to narrative-heavy or narrative-influenced poems. Even poets whose works usually push far beyond the narrative mode are represented by their most narrative-influenced poems. Larry Levis’s lyric elegies, for example, are omitted in favor of two personal narratives, “The Poet at Seventeen” and “My Story in a Late Style of Fire.” Similarly, master of lyric meditation Li-Young Lee’s three selections are dependent on narrative techniques. For example, “The Hammock” opens:
When I lay my head in my mother’s lap
I think how day hides the stars,
the way I lay hidden once, waiting
inside my mother’s singing to herself. And I remember
how she carried me on her back
between home and kindergarten,
once each morning and once each afternoon.
Here, Lee presents his trademark language leaps in deep imagery with the boy hiding in his mother’s singing. Interspersed through these images, though, is a structure that relies on interactions between character, place, and action. “The Hammock” needs the relationship of the boy and his mother for an image like “day hides stars” to carry weight beyond its music. Compare this to opening of “The Sleepless,” from Lee’s collection Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001):
Like any ready fruit, I woke
falling toward beginning and

welcome, all of night
the only safe place.
This poem lacks any narrative devices to pull the reader into the poem. Instead, Lee uses the language of the lines (the repeated “a” sounds) and the oddness of the imagery (such as the comparison of the speaker to a “ready fruit”) to engage his audience. The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry only represents this different style in a few lines in various poems, and it’s rarely on display in an entire poem.

The anthology does contain a few non-narrative poems. These are best represented by the multi-page works of Michael and Matthew Dickman. Matthew’s “All-American Poem,” though it does have a narrative backdrop, is structured as an address to the speaker’s lover. Its tangents and associative leaps tear the narrative into a surreal journey through the speaker’s psyche. “Let’s live downtown,” he writes, “and go clubbing. / God save hip-hop and famous mixed drinks.” This type of stream of consciousness continues for six pages. His brother, Michael, destroys traditional narrative techniques even more in his poem, “The New Green,” which includes lines like, “I left a note in my brain in red Sharpie it says Don’t forget the matches.”

Beyond the emphasis on narrative, the poets selected for this anthology represent a range of well-known, highly recognizable names in the poetic world, including Alicia Ostriker, Rita Dive, Dean Young, and Jane Kenyon. Similarly, these pages include poets who were, at the time of publication, on the precipice of fame. Ada Limón, for example, was selected prior to the publication of her celebrated fourth book, Bright Dead Things. Four poems by Ross Gay were chosen a year before he won the prestigious Kingsly Tuffs Poetry Award. The anthology also serves as a useful introduction to a number of poets who may not yet be quite as known but who certainly should be, such as Dawn Potter and Yona Harvey. “We’ve selected poems based on their importance to us,” Simms writes in his introduction, “not on the fame of their authors.” The variety of poets at varied stages of their careers represents the editors’ commitment to poetry rather than the writers, and the editors should be celebrated for that.

The anthology should also be celebrated for its commitment to equity in publishing. Of the 106 poets in the anthology, sixty are female. Compare this with the most recently released VIDA counts and Autumn House’s anthology ranks near the top in terms of gender parity. However, there is still a continued problem of racial parity in the contemporary literary world. Of the 106 poets, only 22 are poets of color and only 11 are women of color. Simms’s introduction discusses a number of aesthetic considerations the editors used while making their selections. Although he does not discuss gender or racial parity as being an active part of the selection process, this anthology can stand as a symbol for growing social progress.

Any anthology trying to cover all of contemporary American poetry will, by definition, fail. The American poetry landscape is vast and multitudinous. This is, perhaps, why so many anthologies choose to focus on a specific type of poet or subject. But The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry succeeds as well as any anthology can, limited as it is by its 384 pages and the aesthetic preferences of its three editors. “Poetry,” Michael Simms writes in his introduction, “captures the essence of what it is to be alive at a particular time and place.” If this is the goal of the poem, it is also the goal of the poetry anthology, which Autumn House Press has reached.

March 19, 2016

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Review of Sandra Marchetti’s Confluence by Angele Ellis

Cover Credit: Sundress Publications
Confluence by Sandra Marchetti
Sundress Publications (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Reading Sandra Marchetti’s first full-length book of poetry is like being immersed in a series of works in an art gallery. Each scene of unfolding—in rich brushstrokes of language—pulls the viewer/reader in, and doesn’t quite let go. Like paintings, Marchetti’s mostly brief but lush lines convey both miracles of beauty and intimations of strain and mortality. (Confluence’s cover is a detail from early 18th century Dutch painter Jan van Huysum, in which a rose and peony are captured on the cusp of over-ripeness, and a zinnia’s stem already has fallen.)

This artist’s view of the world is made explicit in some of Marchetti’s poems. In “Saints,” the poet’s eye glides from the “stars” of the Virgin of Guadalupe to an evocation of the techniques of such classic Dutch painters as van Huysum, as in these lines:
…They say
a glass of water
is the very hardest thing…

… The Dutch could do this—
hold water in their eyes—
inside the painter

a glass would become full,
a flower fresh
with drops of dew,
insects on the petals.
And “Sur l’herbe” is a direct allusion to 19th century painter Édouard Manet’s erotic shocker “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Addressing a lover, perhaps, the poem’s speaker directs her own scene like a master:
… Don’t move:
you can’t see
you are a strange

Like Manet,
I strain each stroke
of cup and nape
to show I can…
These excerpts demonstrate Marchetti’s command of not only the images but also the music of poetry—including alliteration, enjambment, rhyme and near rhyme, and the punch of the spondee (a metrical foot in which both syllables are stressed—DUM-DUM—as in “Don’t move”). Marchetti is frank about her poetic influences and the ways in which they haunt her work. This is particularly evident in this passage from her essay “Rhyming with the Dead” (The Turnip Trucks, 1-28-2016):
… My influences include the confessionals, Bishop, Hopkins, Dickinson, and others. I have done it both intentionally and unintentionally; indeed, this is very common in contemporary poetry… I have found all of my poems are part of this interconnected web and that is why certain lines ring in my head—they are not wholly mine; they chime with other voices. In short, I rhyme with the dead.
Later in this essay, Marchetti compares her poem “Lunch” to Anne Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know,” a mid-20th century classic that Marchetti has learned by heart. She reflects:
… When Sexton says “June” on the Poetry Speaks recording, she gives such weight to word. I remember my initial reaction to its heavy vowel jab. I have never forgotten it. “Lunch,” another poem of mine, incorporates the same syntactical maneuver of Sexton’s “It is June…” line. The second stanza of “Lunch” reads:
Sorting the demands of red-orange,
pink, cream, I flick stems on the bank,
watch them wash downstream. It is noon,
the bees are circling for somewhere to land.
(Marchetti, “Rhyming with the Dead.”)
Nourishment, sex, art—and the ultimate inability of these things to hold back destruction—make every object in Confluence (animal, vegetable, mineral, the very landscape) a precious yet vulnerable body. In “Orange Bouquet,” one garden-harvested cauliflower encompasses a world of meaning, from “loos[ing]” to “snap,” as in these lines:
… The dark farm in diorama
crams between each branch.

I brush caterpillars into the sink
and geese wink out, smatter

dirt on my hands
in their landing.
Again and again in Confluence, the speaker uses smooth and sharp turns of language to meld with her subject. In “Borderland,” an ordinary fenced-in swimming pool becomes the center of a mystery, with something “… gnawing at your waters.” When the poet asks the pool “What are you?” the answer is “A country.”

The word that provides Marchetti with this book’s title, confluence, has multiple meanings. Literally the merging of two bodies of water (as Pittsburgh’s Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge to form the Ohio River), it is figuratively any coming together—of factors, ideas, cultures, beings. At the point of confluence, something is both lost and gained. The book’s final poem, “One Secret” (perhaps echoing Elizabeth’s Bishop’s “One Art”), is both a love poem and an artistic credo. In the last lines of this poem, the speaker’s consciousness expands to embrace her lover’s body in the present, its inevitable demise, and the “rhythms” that define her art and world:
… Dusk flares the bones’ groan, so I rub your stomach
until you sleep. I neat my breath to yours,
as if you were a child; the confluence
of rhythms begins. It is only sound
and meaning. Sound and meaning.

March 5, 2016

A Personalized Americana: A Review of Bethany Reid’s Sparrow by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Writers & Books
Sparrow by Bethany Reid
Big Pencil Press (2012)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Bethany Reid’s poems come off the page like a mix of polite gossip and prayer. She writes with the quiet eloquence of Mary Oliver, the raw honesty of Sharon Olds, and shares details of her heartland childhood and coming of age as with Ted Kooser’s sacraments of the everyday. She begins the book with “My Country,” a detailed recounting of life events that, in youth, combine with faith to become a cautionary yet celebratory tale:
Life and death held hands and said grace
over my childhood, every cat that got into rat poison,
every dog hit by a logging truck on our creek road,
every calf with scours….

… Never a way to embrace
All that suffering arm and arm with all that joy,
That astonishing joy I knew as a child in my country.
These are often subtle but substantial poems, a tour of the rural and emotional landscape by a woman who takes nothing for granted and is unabashed in sharing her discoveries. Broken into three sections (Three Horses, Death Must be a Waitress, and What Tongue but My Own), Sparrow takes the reader through a litany of reveries and moments of ripening, rites-of-passage and emotional metamorphosis, and finally a sensually rendered meditation on mortality.

There is an earnest curiosity and humored cynicism where religion, a considerable force, is concerned, as in “What Broke Loose:”
What broke loose when all hell went?
I didn’t have that kind of childhood.
We kept buttoned up. We minded.

Somehow I learned
to experiment with possibility—
the earth crackling like a too-hot stove,
bones budding like exotic flowers.
The same goes for “Rapture,” where the poet remembers savoring the word as a girl, undaunted at the prospect (“A fervent child, I never feared I’d be left…) but wondering how life would be for those on earth, even the mild sinners (“My history teacher who had once / inserted a casual ‘goddamn’ into a lecture…”). Once the faithful were plucked from their everyday lives on the planet, the poet wonders about “…what chaos / we’d leave behind us, my dear, drunk uncles / with no one to fix their suppers, / our cows finding no one at the barn / to throw down their hay.” She also puzzles over the world continuing, unrepentant and unaffected by the absence of the righteous:
What if the world didn’t miss us,
but remained steady on its course,
one ear cocked to the susurrus
of a Pentecostal wind?
In “Prodigal,” we meet the girl-poet in the midst of her early rural life, awakened by birds in the garden, and where she “…chopped wood, / made beds, folded clothes / fresh from the line... picked strawberries, read books, dreamed.” A line that could be a slogan for Sparrow’s underlying sentiment is when the poet admits, after growing up and away from experiences that become cherished in adult memory, “…the smallest of things still beckons.” From the intimate ritual of a waitress undressing and unwrapping her inner selves (“Matyrouska”) to the mother shaking a thermometer like a wand to relieve a fevered daughter (“Pond Girl”), the private scenes in Sparrow echo with heartache, persistence, and joy in dream-like spurts— the totality of a lifetime pieced together in wondrous, ephemeral episodes.

February 6, 2016

Breathing With and Without Air: A Review of Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata by Anthony Frame

Cover Credit: Southern Illinois University Press
Errata by Lisa Fay Coutley
Southern Illinois University Press (2015)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

In her prize-winning full-length debut, Errata, Lisa Fay Coutley traces the life of a woman who embodies the roles of daughter, mother, and lover. She is lake and desert. She is the lapidary, the chisel, and the gemstone. She is both the trauma survivor and the language of the disaster. As Coutley writes in “Love & Squall,” “Mine are two / hands, reaching during a squall, brittle / enough to grasp at anything unseen.” Coutley’s poems are constantly grasping for air, water, and for the people who populate her lines. The question her poems pose is not whether any of these can be held, but how. 

Coutley’s poems tend to circle back to four central relationships—the speaker and her father, mother, sons, and lover—that are present in all four sections, rather than collected into one section. This allows these themes to grow and evolve throughout the book much in the way a single piece of music repeated throughout an entire symphony grows and gains new meaning. For example, in an early poem, “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” the father is a singularly violent force. He tries to drown the narrator’s pregnant mother and he forces the speaker to fill her mouth with M&Ms. Coutley writes, “before I took my first breath / … / I mastered a palpable fear of choking.” Later in the second section, in the poem “Goodbye in the Voice of My Father,” the father warns his daughter about tornadoes in the new state to where she is moving. The tension in the relationship remains (“A normal bird’ll nest near the nest / where it was born,” the father says), but there has been a shift. “He hates me / for leaving,” she writes. “Himself, for shoving me from the nest.”

A similar evolution occurs in the relationship with the speaker’s sons. Early in the book, in “On Home,” she writes, “in a wake of black mascara / mothers drive away.” But later, in “Driving Up-Canyon with My Two Teenage Sons,” she pulls her sons close as the three of them attempt to claim ownership over their lives:
This, kids, is the year we’ll write our history
        of black ice & snow. Here, each of you hold
                a wiper blade, & I'll accelerate, eyes closed.
Coutley not only evolves the tense relationship between mother and sons, but also the driving image. Earlier, a car that was once a source of distance becomes the binding force. Throughout, the relationships and the recurring images build and grow as the speaker searches for new, better ways to hold on to these people, even as she leaves them and as they leave her. Complementary to her fiercely etched narratives, Coutley’s brilliantly permits the lyric quality of her lines to drive the narratives. Her images are crisp and evocative. She mixes influences of narrative poetry and deep image poetry, allowing sounds of images to pull the reader deep into the poems. Take, for example, “Self-Portrait as Pyrocumulonimbus.” Here, she adopts the persona of a fire cloud, jumping from space to space. She follows the logic of language, of sound, as she traces the path of this storm. “I wander. I err,” she writes. “I lunge / into ductwork & become the bedroom.” The force of the poem comes less from following the storm’s journey than from those hard consonant sounds ringing through the lines. Coutley similarly accomplishes this in “Patentia,” a narrative in which the speaker’s lover has left. She writes:
                                                              She & I:
        whispering to an outline of a shadow. Because bodies,
                we know, are built for falling.
Here, once again, the narrative is allowed to fall to the background. The lover has disappeared, becoming an outline and leaving only the speaker’s divided self. The emotional punch of the poem is then controlled by the counterbalance of those soft sounds and the abruptness of the bodies falling. By heightening those repeated o-sounds, Coutley controls her reader’s ear, offering a blanket against the roughness of the b-sounds. As the images fall, her use of language safely catches the reader with those final words, “for falling,” which are full of breathless consonants.

Coutley’s collection is a masterful exercise in controlling both technique and subject matter. Her speaker moves from lakes to desert, carrying with her the ghosts of her past. And as the poems’ fears–of violence and of losing dear ones–grow, the controlling voice becomes more confident in her ability to carry the weight she bears. “I'll never stop talking,” Coutley writes in “Listen.” This ability to talk, to interpret, allows the speaker’s life, and Coutley’s book, to become an errata—a collection of a correction of errors. It allows Coutley to write a book obsessed with, among other things, psuedodysphagia—the fear of choking, of being without breath—all while crafting a series of poems that will leave her readers breathless.