[REVIEW] Fuego by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

Image result for fuego leslie contreras schwartz

Saint Julian Press, Inc.
March 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Jennifer Morales

 

FUEGO, Leslie Contreras Schwartz’s debut poetry collection, is, as its title (“fire” in Spanish) suggests, a sprawling and hungry force. The poems, like the flames of a well-fed fire, arc widely, touching many topics. Schwartz, a mother of young children, writes about the limits and wonders of the pregnant body, about the fruits of labor — whether it be a tomato from the garden, a baby, or a poem — and about the struggles of children to assimilate to the confining world of adults. Several of the poems are ekphrastic responses to the photography of Amy Blakemore, who uses cheap equipment and highly refined developing techniques to make portraits that are rich in palette but often hazy in form. Others celebrate the daring and lonely feats of legendary endurance swimmer Lynne Cox.

It was this latter set of poems that tipped me off to Contreras Schwartz’s theme of boundaries —of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, of unreachable shores, about the thick margin between being a writer and being a mother. “The Swim to Antarctica,” portrays Cox in her struggle to force herself to swim through 22-degree waters: “… her own voice breaking through to say what she/always/wanted to say to the body/you are owned, not owner …” In “Long-Distance Swimming,” the poet considers the teenaged Cox’s advance toward the unknowable land of adulthood: “… a lighthouse/rising to meet her on some continent,/some mainland she doesn’t have a name for yet.”

Contreras Schwartz’s poems alternately attempt to acknowledge and obliterate these boundaries, giving FUEGO a tug-of-war rhythm — fierce resistance followed by rest for the next hard pull. This struggle/rest rhythm feels apt for a book that includes many pregnancy and childbirth poems, mimicking as it does the pattern of labor contractions.

Even with all this back-and-forth, the threat of engulfing stillness is always present. One can sense a fear of inertia — a swimmer suddenly swallowed by the sea, a writer who loses the thread of a poem. In “The Falcon,” the life of a bird of prey is hemmed in by injuries, and the bird, in its flightlessness, has become a useful educational display for schoolchildren. Many poems deal with the stillness of the mother-body, while on bed rest or on the operating table during a c-section, or while endlessly breastfeeding a newborn.

The poet pushes back against that stillness in the title poem, “Fuego,” insisting that “This is not/a woman, sitting in a room/writing. It is a woman/whose hair has grown/wild fire, melting every/frozen moment in her house.” Later, in “Gardening,” one of my favorite poems in the book, she welcomes it: “… We all/need retreat, to rest, to feel/sometimes that it will come to us/by itself, a heavy plate that/says this is all yours.”

Contreras Schwartz celebrates the small triumphs of children against the strictures of adulthood. “My Daughter Sees Clouds” is one of the most powerful poems in the book, speaking of a child’s growing agency in the world as she gives names to the forms she sees in the sky. This self-granted authority to label the clouds is in high contrast to the rest of her day, a day governed by others: “… Everybody’s hands/pull and push her/into seats and halls, into lines and restrooms,/down to sleep and wakefulness. …”

She also quietly revels in women’s power to bring forth life while simultaneously bucking narrow world views that say that a woman’s value lies in her reproductive capacity. In “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby,” a found poem, she cleverly satirizes critiques of “Women who wish to run./Free-” levied by the plaintiffs in the infamous birth control coverage case.

Although the language in FUEGO is occasionally burdened with some unproductive repetition (e.g., many things in these poems“bloom” or are “tiny” or “deep”), there are moments of true transcendence. As a fellow mother/poet, I’m grateful for Contreras Schwartz’s passionate exploration of those opposing hemispheres of identity.

FUEGO is Contreras Schwartz’s debut. I hope more of her creative flame is going to burst out of the writer’s room soon.

 

 

Jennifer Morales is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. She is the author of Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 Book of the Year selection. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Glass Poetry Journal’s special edition, Pulsamos: LGBTQ Poets Respond to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Kenning Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Stoneboat, and is forthcoming in MAYDAY Magazine. Jennifer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles in 2011, and currently serves on the board of the Driftless Writing Center in rural Wisconsin.

[BOOK REVIEW] A Sky the Color of Chaos by MJ Fievre

Image result for a sky the color of chaos

Beating Windward Press
November 2015

 

[REVIEWED BY HOLLY HUITT]

MJ Fievre’s first English language book opens with a blast of swirling, sticky, language so descriptive and powerful you’ll break a sweat before you’re one paragraph in.

“Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where the sun burned, and the clouds didn’t break into rain. Collars melted against necks and Eskimo ice creams melted down hands. Grass withered. Madansara birds fell into parched silence. Taptap and kamyonèt shot by, honking, and the clouds of dust they stirred up took hours to settle.”

A Sky the Color of Chaos is the author’s own story, set in a politically unstable and dangerous Haiti where gunshots and power outages are a part of daily life. Fievre begins with seven-year-old Jessica (as she calls herself in the memoir) who lives in an apartment in the thick of Port-au-Prince where she wastes no time introducing the unpredictable violence both in the streets and in her home. Jessica’s abusive father is central to the book, and so much of her world revolves around him as she grows up in their middle class home, as a student in a strict but encouraging Catholic school, and later, as a rebellious teen in the rusted out cars of her teenage boyfriends. Jessica’s coming-of-age is darker than most, not only because it is set in the turbulent landscape of Haiti, but also because she grows from a child who both loves and needs love from her father, to a pre-teen who despises him and fears she is like him, to a young adult who realizes that, as her mother tells her early on, “Things are not always black and white.”

The most remarkable thing by far in Fievre’s memoir is the rich language, written with a poet’s ear and eye for description and rhythm. Fievre’s astonishing  similies and metaphors, heaped upon each other for paragraphs at a time are dazzling, like this passage about her sister, Soeur:

I looked a Soeur in the stutters and twitches of sleep, her arms in disarray like fish confused by waves. Her body flinched, and it clicked, and it dreamed. The flickering of eyelids, like moths that slowed their flight before landing.”

Even the most gruesome passages, where a young Jessica is confronting death—the burning of a man in the street, the stack of decomposing bodies in the morgue, are painful and lovely. The backdrops of Jessica’s life shine with incredible clarity and heart.

Fievre’s beautiful language is sadly absent from the lengthy footnotes that sometimes creep across multiple pages, informing the reader of historical facts in a professorial tone that seems at odds with the rest of the book. There is an obvious urge to cover a vast amount of information in a relatively short time, both in the footnotes and the way Fievre races through the years, sometimes devoting an entire few years to a single short-paged chapter. In particular, we speed by the moment when Jessica’s father goes from raging, controlling patriarch to indulgent, checked-out father who allows drinking, partying, and much free time with boys. Jessica the narrator is, rightfully so, caught up in the heightened drama of being a teenager in Haiti, where your love interest could also be a member of a deadly, torturous secret police force. But, it is still a shame that the core tension of the story—that of her relationship with her father—fizzles out so soundlessly.

The description of Jessica’s three boyfriends, each wonderful and threatening in their own way, come fast and indulgently, and they are a pleasure to experience. Fievre taps into the emotional and physical experience of being a teenager, with descriptions of Jessica’s inner turmoil that are both highly specific to her and universal at once. It is hard to read them and not feel tinges of recognition at the angst and attempts at self-realization that come with teenage years. She writes masterfully of emotion, giving concrete weight to words that are otherwise just floating, fluttering ideas.

Even if A Sky the Color of Chaos were only the story of a remarkable girl surviving and overcoming violent and overwhelming odds to reach her dream, it would be worth a read. But it is also an incredible portrait of Haiti in a time where much of the world only associates the country with its devastating earthquake. It is tough and wistful and empowering all at once. In other words, it’s the kind of book that you could (and should) read over and over again.

[REVIEW]: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

this-census-taker

Del Rey, 2016, 206 pp.

Reviewed by Giselda Aguiar

 

China Miéville’s novella, This Census-Taker, starts with the narrator retelling the story of when he, as a nine-year-old, ran away from his uphill home to the town below and announced to the gathered crowd: “‘My mother killed my father!’” All this within the first three pages of the book.

From the moment of that utterance to the end, Miéville crafts a story of shock after shock: disappearances, unexplained behaviors, murky pasts, and mystical elements.

Before continuing with the current narrative, Miéville (and the narrator) use(s) flashbacks to set up the boy’s relationships with his parents prior to the incident. The narrator tells of his father’s unusual and frightening behaviors concerning animals and, perhaps, humans; of his friendship with the town’s homeless children; of the oddities of the place and its inhabitants; and of snippets his mother tells him of his parents’ pasts.

Through these flashbacks the narrator establishes the setting and his personal history with some of the other main characters before returning the story to the present action.

After the boy readjusts his account of what he witnessed and after a brief investigation by the downhillers, no evidence of foul play is discovered and the young boy must stay with his remaining parent. The rest of the novella is of the weeks that followed.

Just as some of the towners dismissed the boy’s story, the reader starts to question how reliable the narrator is. He is a grown man looking back at his childhood. While the amount of time that has lapsed is not clear, years have passed, which might have muddled his memories. In addition, his nine-year-old self has all the confusions and misunderstandings of a child, making the retelling not completely dependable.

However, these uncertainties are what make the novella a compelling read that has one guessing what is true and trying to figure it out with the clues available: what the boy knew or thought he knew.

The book starts with a mystery and while it is “solved” in the boy’s mind, halfway through the reader might start doubting the boy’s explanation of what must have happened after he ran from home the first time. Perhaps the remaining parent is being honest or is indeed a psychopath. The introduction of a mysterious stranger adamant in completing his job, even though everyone in his position “‘were recalled,’” adds to the reader’s doubts and misgivings as to what really happened and where the adult narrator is now.

Many other unsolved mysteries abound and are not resolved by the end: the town’s history and certain people’s backgrounds, motives, and whereabouts. Readers are left thinking that something internationally horrible happened between several nations before the start of the story that has left the town in an almost post-apocalyptic world with orphan children running the streets and people forced to use candles for lighting.

The time it takes the narrative to return to the present action is a bit long for such a short book: about a third into the novella. After it returns to the boy telling the downhillers about the crime he supposedly witnessed, the narrative is easier to follow than the flashbacks that preceded it and the real interest is in this later two-thirds. Had the entire novella been organized in chronological order—starting with the events in the flashbacks instead of the boy running down the hill—it would have made a boring start and the reader might not have had the incentive to keep reading without the cliffhanger created by the insertion of the flashbacks into the present action.

A stylistic or narrative issue the reader will encounter may be the added hints concerning the narrator’s current whereabouts and situation. These hints—given throughout the book, starting first in the flashback section—might confuse readers with its vague indications and hard-to-follow timeline, and they include shifts in point of view from first to third or first to second. These switches might create confusion or an ephemeral feeling as the first-person narrator disconnects himself from his younger self.

If you cannot handle a book that leaves unanswered questions, then perhaps this book is not for you as it will leave you with an unsatisfied curiosity. But if you want a puzzle that leaves you wondering days, weeks after finishing the book, then pick this novella up. It can lead to a great discussion with friends who also want to figure out the mysteries in This Census-Taker.

 

Giselda Aguiar has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. When she is not teaching English Composition to college freshmen, she is reading or writing in the mystery and fantasy genres. Her writing and photography has appeared in The Florida Book Review, MIami, TUami podcast, and AngryGOTFan.com.

 

[REVIEW] Deceit by Vanessa Hua

Image result for deceit vanessa hua

 

Willow Books, 2016

Reviewed by Jonathan Duckworth

“We were chop suey, orange chicken, egg foo yung, Chinese and yet not, American and yet not.” This quote from the collection’s opening story, “Line, Please,” perfectly and succinctly isolates the tension at the heart of the stories in Vanessa Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities. Be it “Chinese-American,” “Korean-American,” or “Mexican-American,” the stories all put into question what either side of such bifurcation really means and if a person can be both at once.

At first look it’s difficult to draw any kind of general conclusions about the stories in the collection. Most, but not all are set around the Bay Area of California. Most, but not all center on Chinese-American immigrants or the children of such immigrants. However while some of the stories drift from the Bay Area or follow the struggles of immigrants of different extractions, they all contain at the heart of them, as the title suggests, some element of deceit. In the first story, “Line, Please,” Kingsway the rapper’s many sex scandals have leaked and finished off his already floundering career, forcing him to flee back to the Bay Area where he grew up, where he can still hope to escape the truth. In the story that follows, “Loaves and Fishes,” the tables are turned on Kingsway when during a trans-Pacific flight another equally fulsome and equally down-and-out Chinese American rapper, Prophet Alex, performs every confidence trick he can think of in an effort to make a connection with Kingsway, his fellow “fallen man.” The most complicated pattern of deceit emerges in the story “The Older the Ginger” (my personal favorite), where not only has the main character, Old Wu, been deceived by his opportunistic old-country relations looking to marry off their daughters to him, who they wrongly believe to be an American millionaire, but by the later stages of the story he appears to succumb to lure of self-deception, to feel and act like the wealthy American his relations believe him to be.

Stylistically, the collection showcases a number of novel and effective storytelling flourishes. The most notable of these flourishes is what I would call “telescoped time.” On several occasions, such as in “The Responsibility of Deceit,” “Accepted,” and “The Shot,” Hua closes a story with the protagonist having either just done something momentous or disastrous or on the verge of doing it, and then a rapid slideshow of events across a long stretch of time that fully explores the consequences of that action, be it the consequences of coming out as gay to traditional Chinese parents or the legal and familial repercussions of felony arson. One thing that I wished to have seen more of in this collection was the recycling of characters between stories. Hua used Kingsway’s reappearance in “Loaves and Fishes” to great effect, putting a character we already have reason to care about into a new situation. Given how many of the stories are set in the same geographical area within the same immigrant population it wouldn’t have been too great a stretch for more such crossovers. But Hua’s skills as a story-crafter and narrator are showcased better than anywhere in the story “For What They Shared,” the story which more than any other explores the troublesome bifurcation inherent in the immigrant experience. In this story, Hua alternates between two viewpoint characters camping on opposite sides of a road, a Chinese-American who feels out of place in America and who is inexorably drawn by economic and filial circumstances back to China, and an American of Chinese descent who feels disconnected from her native culture. Here Hua manages to craft two characters both wholly-realized and simultaneously hopelessly fragmented, both on intersecting but divergent trajectories.

In parts, the collection reminded me of the best of Jhumpa Lahiri and Robert Olen Butler, but these are only incidental comparisons, and I have full confidence that in time Vanessa Hua will be a writer to whom up-and-coming storytellers are compared. My overall impression of Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities is that it feels less like a debut and more like the effort of a seasoned and well-established master.

 

 

Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a current MFA student at Florida International University in Miami, where he works as a teaching assistant. He also serves as a reader and copy-editor for the Gulf Stream Literary Magazine. His work appears in or is set to appear in Sliver of Stone Magazine, Mount Island Magazine,The Kudzu Review, andHermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal.

[INTERVIEW] Chloe Caldwell on I’ll Tell You In Person

Publisher: Coffee House Press in collaboration with Emily Books
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Number of pages: 184
Price: $16.95

 

REVIEW AND INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

With stories about growing up and fearing growing old, friendships and friend foibles, the intimacies of obsession and the intricacies of depression, I’ll Tell You In Person is an essay collection as vulnerable as it is blunt. Chloe Caldwell’s sharp wit and keen powers of observation are in full force in her newest book.

Caldwell takes readers on an odyssey through turbulent formative years of heroin, binge eating, Craigslist dating, the loss of a close friend, coming out, living in Europe, best friends, ex-friends, relationship blunders, encounters with celebrities, and all the experiences of youth that make us who we are. I inhaled Caldwell’s essays with unusual quickness—losing track of time, forgetting the presence of people around me, being fully present and absorbed in a way that only the words of a gifted essayist can produce.

I’ll Tell You In Person chronicles young adulthood with aplomb. Though it can feel as if the reader is meant to recall her own adolescent calamities and stack them up for comparison, this collection isn’t some righteous manifesto. There is no moral to the story because, as seasoned writers know, stories don’t need morals.

***

I talked to Chloe about her book and the challenges of writing personal essays. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: I have to start off by congratulating you because I read I’ll Tell You In Person faster than any book in recent memory. One of the elements I most adored about the book is that you’re deeply self-deprecating without being overly critical or judgmental of yourself, and without apologizing. I got the sense that writing about your past heroin addiction, binge eating, masturbation, job woes, and nearly over-drafting your bank account to impress a millionaire celebrity was cathartic. Tell me more about your writing process and the emotional pilgrimage of writing this book.

Chloe Caldwell: Thank you! I’m touched you felt that way. The essays all came to be in different ways and times. “Yodels” I wrote back in 2013 for The Rumpus. “Soul Killer” I sent to Salon that same year because I had no money and $150 was a lot for me. Same with “The Laziest Coming Out Story.” So half of the book was already written without being considered a book. I began putting the essays together and then added five new ones over the course of 2014-2016.

I don’t know if it gives me any sort of relief or catharsis at all. The tough thing about this book was I was super broke during the process of putting it together, and submitting it to publishers. It’s stressful to work on a book without money, because to have time, you need money. It was difficult for me to sit and work on essays when I knew I should be working at my dad’s music store for money or catering or finding more teaching jobs.

MS: With I’ll Tell You In Person being your second collection of essays, how did you find yourself evolving as you explored more facets of what it means to grow up?

CC: It’s hard to talk about this stuff, it’s so ephemeral. I’ve always been smart in spite of my stupid choices and have been hyper-aware enough to know I could only make ridiculous decisions before I got older. And now I am older. It’s a creepily acute feeling I have at thirty, both like a child and a grown woman. My life is unconventional in the sense that I documented my wilder years. It’s not that I did anything more interesting than anyone else, it’s just that I have it out there in the form of a book. I feel myself evolving in many ways—I’ve always been into growth and therapy, etc., but I like to keep some of my evolving private.

MS: You share very openly in your work, though it sounds like people are always wanting more. What’s that like? How do you separate yourself from your work and maintain a personal life as a personal essay writer?

CC: I share openly in my work and in my life as well, mostly. But my essays are by no means my life story. There’s a ton I haven’t written about. The essays are just what I thought would be entertaining or enjoyable for a reader, what I had ideas for. People are definitely always wanting more and it’s a slippery slope. Luckily, I have an awesome therapist who used to work in publishing in NYC and knows a lot about the writer lifestyle, reads my books, and is familiar with the “scene” and the authors and books I mention. She’s helped me create clear boundaries around a lot of this stuff.

As Maggie Nelson says, “I don’t worry about people who ‘think they know me’ because, not to sound flip, they just literally don’t.” I’m paraphrasing, but I feel the same way. I have a private life just like everyone. I just write about certain “slices of life” if you will excuse that horrendous expression. “Prime Meats,” for example, is about something I did ten years ago. So I don’t feel super close to a lot of the essays in the collection.

MS: You seem at peace with your younger self, and I get the feeling that’s something a lot of people wish they could do. How did you get to that point? Was it a difficult place to reach when, as a writer of personal essays, you’re inevitably reaching into the past?

CC: Well, I don’t think I thought of it as a point to get to or a place to reach, which helps. I guess it’s just part of my make up, and comes naturally to me, which is why I ended up being a personal nonfiction writer—a lifestyle most certainly not for everyone. I did some weird shit in my youth, but who doesn’t? Plus, it got me to where I am: healthy, with books published, a job I love. My life is filled with the classes I teach, so I’m constantly reading personal essays of other people’s mistakes, so to me, it’s the new normal.

MS: The title harkens an intimacy that’s present on every page. Considering how I inhaled the book it almost feels strange that you’re not actually my real life best friend telling me these stories in person. Are these essays stories you did tell people in person before writing them down?

CC: No, they weren’t. I was just texting that phrase to my friends/family all the time about small things, like what I felt about a movie I’d just seen or whatever. I felt limited on text message and email and many of my close girl friends live in cities across the country from me, so I liked saving up anecdotes until I saw them in person and we could chat over glasses of wine. I liked the conversational tone of it for a book title, so it stuck. None of the essays aside from “Hungry Ghost” are exactly riveting stories or anecdotes. That’s why I say in the opener that I don’t necessarily have “good stories.” I’m more the kind of writer who tries to make narrative out of nothing.

 

 

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

[REVIEW] Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow by Fabienne Josaphat

 

 

The Unnamed Press
256 pages
Released February 23, 2016

REVIEWED BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

Good historical fiction requires a subtle balance: enough research to animate the historical subject, but not so much emphasis on factual detail that character, action and other elements of story are sidelined. Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Fabienne Josaphat’s fast-paced debut about two brothers trying to survive the brutality of Haiti under François Duvalier, is the sort of historical novel that moves more like an action film than a costume drama. Josaphat expertly projects event after event onto a well-imagined historical backdrop which reflects, I suspect, an immense amount of time spent reading and interviewing. Still, her novel runs along at a breathless pace, its tight plot never appearing to labor under the weight of so much research.

Some of the book’s tension derives from the setting Josaphat has chosen for her tale: Port-au-Prince in 1965. This is the Haiti of François Duvalier, a.k.a. Papa Doc, who was responsible for murdering between 30,000 and 60,000 people with the help of his militia, the Tonton Macoute, as well as infusions of anti-Communist aid money from the United States. We never meet Duvalier directly in this novel, but the influence of this US-educated-medical-doctor-turned-dictator pervades every aspect of life in Port-au-Prince. There’s an undercurrent of dread in each scene, and even the workaday conversations early in the novel are colored with the possibility that the Tonton Macoute is watching.

Yet even amid all this rich historical and political background, Dancing in the Barons Shadow is a personal story at its heart: a tale of two brothers whose different personalities and life choices bring them into repeated conflict with each other. When we first meet Raymond L’Eveillé, we learn that he is a Port-au-Prince taxi driver who is simply not able to make enough money to keep his family from starving because a statewide curfew cuts into what would normally have been his prime earning time. He waits anxiously outside a brothel for a client while curfew looms, hoping to make just a bit more cash before heading home. We hit the ground running a moment later, though, as Raymond is presented with a choice: to use his knowledge of the winding streets of Port-au-Prince to rescue a young family of three fleeing from the Tonton Macoute, or to do nothing and live with the fact that he might have prevented whatever awful fate awaits the family. “What kind of man was he?” Raymond wonders as he tries to ignore the father’s knocking on the taxi window. Yet his conscience wins, and he risks what little he has to help — learning only later that he has, in fact, saved the lives of a popular radio journalist and his family. He has also most likely landed in trouble himself; his white Datsun taxi isn’t difficult to identify, he knows.

Enter his brother Nicolas L’Eveillé, a law professor whose arrogance and bourgeois values hamstring him in a myriad of ways. Nicolas has a history of living well while his brother’s family starves, but now stoops to a new low by refusing to help with the cost of disguising and repairing Raymond’s taxi. Though Raymond is sure the Tonton Macoute will find him in short order, he is unwilling to listen to a high-minded lecture on his flawed life choices. Yet Nicolas, true to form, wants to lecture but not actually help his brother. He also lectures his students on human rights abuses, for example, without thinking about potential consequences. Worse still, he has been recently at work on a book manuscript in which he proves the regime murdered writer Jacques Stephen Alexis. Nicolas imagines that his manuscript will be published in secret and distributed widely outside of Haiti, displaying for the world the repression of the Duvalier regime. He also imagines that he and his family will be able to quietly escape Haiti, and that his colleagues can be trusted to help. Yet Nicolas, trusting as he is, underestimates the power of fear and intimidation on even the most rational of people. Like many in that time and place, Nicolas disappears into the dreaded Fort Dimanche, where some of the novel’s most harrowing of scenes take place. I don’t want to reveal much beyond this point, except to say that Josaphat prompts the reader to ask Raymond’s question of every character and at every step: What kind of man was he? Can Raymond still think of himself as a decent man if he isn’t helping those who need it? What kind of man is Nicolas, underneath the education, money and prestige? What kind of person can anyone be under such dire circumstances?

Josaphat keeps her storytelling lens trained on the brothers. This makes for a novel that is both intimate and tightly plotted, though I wondered often about the stories of those outside of the main action. There’s a compelling cast of characters whose stories I was eager to follow even further. Eve and Yvonne, for example, are the wives of the L’Eveillé brothers, and their own choices propel them far afield. Each probably warrants her own novel, but I wanted more here: more flesh and detail, and more than a quick sketch provided in the epilogue. In addition, readers should be aware that this book covers some emotionally challenging ground, particularly in the torture and interrogation scenes. Still Josaphat makes it worth the reader’s while in the end. Given the decades of brutal repression under Papa Doc and his son, it wasn’t difficult to imagine an ending to the story that obliterated hope. It speaks to Josaphat’s skill, however, that this story leads to a place of hope and reconciliation.

During his self-appointed tenure as President for Life, Duvalier affected the dress, voice and mannerisms associated with Baron Samedi, the loa of Haitian Vodou associated with death, and the baron referred to in the book’s title. This Duvalier — the one with the flair for the theatrical, who insisted bullets couldn’t hurt him because he was already an immaterial being, and who ordered that every black dog be killed based on a rumor that his enemy could transform into one — garners much attention in conversations about Duvalier. While Duvalier’s reputation is explored in detail in Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Josaphat doesn’t let the baron steal the show. Instead, she offers her readers a tightly-plotted historical drama firmly situated in the realities of surviving under Duvalier.

 

Melissa Oliveira grew up in central Connecticut and holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

[REVIEW] Nec(Romantic) by Cathleen Chambless

 

The Gorilla Press, 2016
100 pages

REVIEWED BY MADARI PENDAS

Cathleen Chambless’ debut poetry collection Nec(Romantic) makes you feel like you’ve entered a dream, and with each page you’re moving along the thoughts you rarely visit, perhaps avoid. A macabre simulacrum of the waking world.  It is a world where you are attracted to the things that would normally frighten and repulse you. This phantasmagoric book is not only a celebration of love, but of its equally magnificent counterpart, death. A love of the dead, a love for the dead, and love that brings death. It challenges our traditional notions of love and explores the idiosyncrasies that make each romance special.

In “44 Ways to Measure You and Me” all the unique encounters between two lovers is enumerated. The experiences that have endeared the lover to the speaker are also the same self-destructive qualities that drain and destroy the love: “17. I said yes, my head on your chest. 18. In poems I wrote you. 19. In songs you wrote me. 20. In secrets of cc’s. Syringes, and plastic baggies. 21. Hepatitis writhing 22. You said I would never find you, but I always did. 23. In parks. 24. On street corners. 25. In a cemetery.” Here is a love that avoids clichés, that is not a re-imagining of a John Keats Ode, but a gritty portrait of two flawed human beings, whose love is not measured in years, but by distinct shared experiences. The reader sees the totality of a relationship captured on a single page—from the first meeting “1.January 28, 2013,” to it’s conclusion, “44.When I leave before you die.” Despite the tragedies engendered by this love, the speaker still manages to find the beauty within the melancholy.

“Skeletons” is another poem that challenges the “happily-ever-after” notion of love we’ve been inculcated with. The whimsical piece depicts two skeletons relaxing in lounge chairs who symbolize a dishonest and feigned relationship, which is further implied by the final line, “That happens when you lock/ them [skeletons] in the closet for too long.” “Skeletons” demonstrates one of “Nec(Romantic)’s” most outstanding qualities, it’s pairing of outré visuals with humor and impactful conclusions. The amalgamation between realism and absurdity has a haunting and memorable effect, similar to a Joan Mirò painting.

The collection devotes itself to the macabre and the ways individuals interact with the paranormal and magical. The poems “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo” and “On Extracting a Human Heart” are written from the perspectives of fairies and deities, and explore humanity from an otherworldly perspective, thus providing a rare commentary on mankind.

In “On Extracting a Human Heart,” the speaker asks: “How do I extract a human heart?/ With time and trust./ Ask the gods why words will make humans peel open.” Here humankind is dissected from above, where language can be weaponized and used to “peel open their chests.” In “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo,” the fairies view humans from a lateral perspective, and provide insight from a quasi-contemporary standpoint.

The devotion to the painful, ritualistic, and otherness of existence inspires a deeper connection between reader and author. Shared traumatic experiences, whether real or re-imagined, bond the reader and the writer who converge on the page. The emotional intensity of each poem demonstrates to the reader that they are in fact getting more than just a collection of poetry, they are receiving a “gem out of her heart,” as is put in “Necromantic Glossary for the Practitioner.”

The book also examines the definitions and social constructs of womanhood. It challenges the current notions of femininity and deliberately chooses to spell woman with a ‘Y.’ These choices and statements offer another view of romance—love for oneself, inclusive of one’s gender and identity. In the emotive poem, “SHAVED PUSSY POETRY,” a vagina pleads against being shaved, and the pain of the act is viscerally recalled, “Stubble & skin snag between metal teeth/ bloody bubbles run down legs/ her pussy too sore to make love.” Here the organ that is essential for making love, receives none. It is tortured by its owner in order to comply with a modern conviction that women must be smooth and soft.

The poems that discuss feminism, like “MODERN DAY F*WORD,” and “Why I spell it with a Y,” highlight the need to love women not because they are extensions of men, or a means to glorify them, but because of the unique space they occupy in the universe. They are not men without penises, as Freud described them, but separate beings. The artwork in the book emphasizes this point by portraying the female form in nontraditional and startling ways. In one image a beclouded woman stands in the foreground while headlights shine behind, in her arms are sheets that create the illusion of wings. Here woman is ethereal and vague. In another tree branches sprout from her body and she stands centered. Here woman is an evolving being that grows farther from her origin.

If one dissects the title of the collection, “Nec(romantic),” it is syntactically obvious that romantic occupies greater space than the prefix “necro.” Such is the case with the subject matter. The book is greatly influenced by, and devoted to, death and the mysticism surrounding it; but more importantly this book is about love. Every iteration, every strange and confounding form love occupies, and the ways love can inhabit, and destroy us.

In “Little Boxes,” we explore a love that causes emptiness, instead of assuaging it—“even with a lover/how alone I was, how alone I still am.” We explore addiction, the most heightened form of love. An addiction is to be enamored. “Nec(romantic)” entwines the compulsions of addiction with those of love to demonstrate their similarities, and their shared abilities to ruin lives. In “Little Boxes,” the lover’s addiction leads to his demise, while the speaker’s love for the addict leads to hers. “A phantom wearing a person/ suit is what you became, with/all of that heroin in your veins./ At night I’d put my head/ on your chest and feel startled/ when I heard your heartbeat. I/ forgot you were a human being.”

I did not read this book the way I read other books, as a passive consumer, who has errant and irrelevant thoughts while reading. I was haunted. I felt the weight of the book on my life, as a specter in its own right. I was also overcome with a tenderness for the things in my own life which are strange and morbid, and which I fear writing about. I found Chambless’ fearlessness and audacity inspiring. She has turned her traumas and curiosities into a special universe within these pages. She frees the skeletons from her closet and props them up for all the world to see.

 

 

Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal and absurd aspects that accompany living in an exile community, and the inherited identity crisis of being a Latina in America. She has received literary awards from Florida International University, in the categories of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Accentos Review and the Miami New Times. 

[REVIEW] The Old Philosopher by Vi Khi Nao

The Old Philosopher
Nightboat Books, 2016
73 pages

REVIEWED BY LESLIE CATON

Body, earth, family, global politics, and God pushed thoughtfully through a meat grinder with memory and sex blades: this is the work inside The Old Philospher, winner of the 2014 Nightbooks Prize for Poetry, by Vi Khi Nao. Before I go on, I need to admit I’m not usually a poetry reader–I’m unsettled when I don’t have confident answers to the question what’s this about? The poetry I gravitate toward is concrete and essayistic, like Mary Ruefle’s “The Bench.” Khi Nao’s previous work, including her novella Swans in Half Mourning, retains a consistency in form that anchors readers and makes space for the imaginative. Philosopher, although packaged in a poetry casing, is anything but consistent. It reads like essay, fiction, or poetry by turns, but provocative images and themes pull even a reluctant reader from challenging poem to story to lyric essay and everything in between.

The book begins with a brief poetic meditation on identity and gender in “dear god I am god” then moves deeper into nature and the uncertainty of prayer as the sun is god as “a child / who pretends to pray” in “Fog,” then into the mind of rock itself as a fatalistic chunk of limestone with a working-class vernacular–“See ya around, pancake faces”–prepares to be turned into a retaining wall in “AA Meeting for A Limestone.” Though the subjects of these poems are dissimilar, thematic threads pull them together: in “dear god” the narrator is washing herself “in dew;” in “Fog,” god is a “daffodil twirling in dew;” in “AA Meeting” the limestone laments his last day “being drunk sitting by the river.” Water lets these unlike pieces flow; in the first two poems we dip our toes, by the third we are drenched, convinced we should suspend our disbelief and just read.

Language is cut and combined in startling ways, mixed into new forms as each piece builds on the next. Nao mixes all kinds of innovation from the literary charcuterie: experimenting with space, punctuation, narrative voice, line, meter; even prose that reads like short-short stories. While this kind of sometimes-jarring motion from one form to another could feel contrived, Nao deftly uses these stylistic leaps to keep the reader off-balance. She leaves a hand on our shoulder, though, by repeating and recombining themes and images: the concrete of body and earth, the uncertainty of memory and God, biblical stories as vivid as our own histories, dark human moments feeding the political, and the grounding pull of sex. This echoing is necessary to steady the reader as form, content, voice–almost everything–shift through the book.

The importance of the thematic and linguistic through-line is demonstrated in the move from “Biblical Flesh,” a three-page block of poetic prose about the betrayed lover to “Hay Bale & Asphalt,” one page of poetry spaced carefully from margin to margin about love or a woman being run over by a policeman outside a restroom (for me, an uncomfortable ambiguity):

and wait     for your 3rd lover to arrive     and read you back
the torturous verses    concealed in packages of salt inside you     Then you turn
to Lot’s wife and ask,     “Was      the view worth it? Is it      still gorgeous?”
(“Biblical Flesh”)

 

She is grass, legume, fodder drifting beneath the field      of
gametes
The man is a mixture                                                   of
bituminous
(“Hay Bale & Asphalt”)

Body and elemental earth exist in a liminal space in these poems, demanding that we consider what else is similar, what else transcends potentially imagined boundaries. As recurrence of theme, image, and language carries from piece to piece, a sense of continuity develops, earning the reader’s trust. And this trust is absolutely necessary by the time we get to “Pastoral Threshold,” where we are thrust into a supernatural political short-short story narrated by a leader of the United Arab Emirates in a modern take on the biblical story of Uriah the Hittite. The casual, patriarchal malevolence in this poem is stirring; after the narrator explains how he sent Uriah to Syria as a UN Inspector to die and to take his wife, the ruler tells us, “Days after his death or rather his assassination, she was squirming in my arms, under the opulent bed sheets of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where I housed my lust.” While this prose poem (or short-short) could easily stand on its own, as with the other disparate works in this book readers must trust Nao’s sure hand and take the time to reorient with each piece or be lost to confusion.

Nowhere do readers’ efforts pay off more richly than when Nao takes slices from her memory and shapes them with image, combining elements of previous poems that become revelatory. In “My Socialist Saliva,” the political is pressed into the personal through Nao’s childhood in Vietnam. Again the borders between nature and the physical is questioned. On the back of her mother’s motorcycle, breathing the “aromatic rain of rambutan and coffee beans,” she tells us:

My mother rode me on land coated with     rambutans
Rambutans were like little ball hearts growing red hair
The earth of Long Khann was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties
My little heart was a little engine
Of red earth–the streets of my childhood were walking to & fro

And then the violence of the Viet Cong carves into the narrative, surreally introducing the political into the body:

My grandmother’s body, a helicopter
ran through her in Saigon
Its heliocentric blades cutting through her skin & bleeding crimson fence wires
That demarcated the pastoral field of her elbow from the suburb of her bicep

The chopping up of convention, the blurring of form and genre, and the haunting resurgence of the deepest common themes resonate through this work. Like the way Nao grinds up poetic tradition, she butchers expectation to make something delicious. She makes us work, makes us think. I can’t say what, exactly, this book is about. But it reads like life often feels: confusing until we take the time to breathe and let meaning coalesce from the strangest places.

 

Leslie Caton is a freelance writer and essayist. Her essays have been named Notable in The Best American Essays and finalist for the Norman Mailer Two-Year Non-Fiction Prize.

[REVIEW] Dahlia Cassandra by Nathaniel Kressen

Dahlia Cassandra by Nathaniel Kressen

Second Skin Books
June 2016

REVIEWED BY DALLAS ATHENT

We know Nathaniel Kressen after his debut novel, Concrete Fever was released in 2011. Concrete Fever followed two deranged kids around New York City, looking for fantasy in teenage angst.

Kressen’s new novel, Dahlia Cassandra was released in June, and is not what you might expect. The novel enters the lives of two teens who have been abandoned by their parents on a farm in Idaho where nothing will grow. A predatory author who does “method writing” comes to the town with this younger girlfriend and turns their lives around–and not in a good way. Once again, we have two youths as our main character, but Y.A. this book is not! It holds some of the qualities we know Kressen for: fast dialogue and an entertaining and dark vibe, for example.

Dahlia Cassandra relies on ambiguities and instead illustrates the soul of the characters through their simple actions. Many of the descriptions are cinematic. You can picture the moonlight the landscape. Here’s an example of such a passage:

“He heard panting nearby. There in the baking sun was an old dog, its tongue hanging out. He approached with caution. He scratched its head. Bugs had already found the poor thing and some jumped onto Junior’s arms. He cupped fresh water from the spigot but the dog refused to drink. It rested its head on the ground, felt the heat, picked it back up. Junio tried again with the water. He poured a handful over the dog’s head. The wet fur dried within minutes. He watched the animal struggle to breathe.”

The most wonderful thing about the way Kressen writes is that he’s direct–digestible to many while still remaining literary. He has the classic skill of Salinger in this way. In his simplicity he calls on us to question our motives–are we good or evil? And he does so while keeping us entertained. Dahlia Cassandra explores the wrongdoing of predatory men in creative power and how they use that power to abuse others since their work will always allow them to be loved by the public despite their horrific acts. It forces us to question the media we consume and its intentions–what do we do to fill the holes within ourselves and the evil we forgive in doing so? While it manages to do all this, it does have its flaws.

I did not find one of the lead characters, Stoli, who plays the girlfriend of the writer, well developed enough to praise. Stoli is a beautiful alcoholic who follows the older writer around making him her purpose and disregards his predatory nature for her own sake while turning into a predator herself. If you’re thinking you’ve heard of this character before, it’s because you have. I don’t need all of my characters to be deep, perfect or even politically correct, powerfully written women, but I do need them to be fresh and real, and Stoli offered no new or honest characteristics for me as a reader. Luckily, she is only one of three main characters so her presence is only a minor thorn in what is otherwise a stunning novel’s side.

The real delight in Dahlia Cassandra is Tike, who starts out as the most banal and uninteresting character, but evolves into a fierce, unexpected being. At the start you almost want to skim through her parts, which is almost characteristic of how she is meant to exist in real life; forgotten. We see Tike grow in the way only adolescents can–rapidly and free. She shows Kressen still has strength in depicting teenagers, both in their angst and will. Tike also demonstrates Kressen’s abilities to write strong female characters–a contradiction to the outcome of Stoli. I’d go as far to say I’d like to see Tike resurface in her later years in a future novel of his.

Overall, I would recommend Dahlia Cassandra, especially to those who are annoyed with the necessary obscurity of modern literary fiction but also wish to reject the cheap thrills of a lot of commercial work. While it may not be a perfect novel, Dahlia Cassandra is a thrilling read full of thought provoking dialogue and beautiful images.

 

 

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist whose work has been profiled in Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine, Brooklyn Based and more. Her visual work has shows in Governor’s Island, Storefront Ten Eyck and to benefit the Rema Hort Mann Foundation. She lives in The Bronx with her hamster, Shelby.

[REVIEW] A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters by Cheena Marie Lo

Commune Editions
March 2016

REVIEWED BY HOLLYNN HUITT

A series of Un/Natural/Disasters is not the place to turn if you’re looking for levity, for beautiful language and pleasing rhythms. The collection of 39 poems bluntly beat a track around hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, asking us to take another look at the tragedy and absurdity of what happened in 2005, of what continues to happen today.

Lo’s poems are powerful and honest and they can be tough to read as Lo unflinchingly shows us the sights, sounds, and statistics of New Orleans. We catch some familiar and heartbreaking signs left behind after Katrina, like the neon X’s marked on houses, the creep of successive water lines. At other moments, the poems are hopelessly cryptic and unfamiliar (lists or scatterplots of numbers and symbols with no context) and we long for Lo to explain them to us. Lo withholds, working like a conductor, sunk beneath stage level, summoning thoughts and figures into formation, only occasionally stepping in to repeat something, as if to say “did you get it?.”

In “Because another tropical storm is coming,” snatches of sound bites march down the page, different voices making the same point. The sound clips in “Warning signs and signals” are clustered together, but you can almost hear Lo flipping through TV clips, the smooth, modulated voices of news anchors sounding increasingly bizarre as the poem progresses. Several poems, like “Poor,” beat out a dark chant, the word repeated so many times, it becomes a humming mantra about the wrongs of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. It is moving and numbing.

Lo doesn’t have all of the answers, here. There are moments where the poems are intentionally vague, like in “Something About Being Maddened by Hunger.” Consider that there is more to this situation than can be described in words, or covered in the news, they seem to say. Consider that, even as you read this collection, even as you feel sorrow, you will not ever fully understand. There will always be something eluding your grasp.

Despite this, the subtext to the collection feels clear. Who is to blame? Who is to blame for what happened to this city, the houses, and, most importantly, the poor black people who suffered the most? Reading this collection is not unlike going to a protest, one you might’ve stumbled into, so you stand near the back of the room and let the statistics, definitions and numbers, wash over you. But as you hear more and more, your anger and outrage grows, until you realize you’re no longer in the back, but you’re standing in the front of the room and the keynote speaker is stepping onto stage.

That’s when this collection solidifies, becomes unshakable. Lo’s voice seems to ring out for what feels like the first time toward the end, in short and skillfully pared down poems. They drop perfectly into place in the broader collection. In “We are alone” they ask, “Where has everyone gone?” making it clear, that they, too, are bewildered. There can be no resolution, no explanation that makes it easier to wrap the tentacles of our brain around all that has happened in New Orleans. Think about it, Lo seems to say. And don’t stop for a long time.