[REVIEW] The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi


Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017


Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is one of those rare poetry collections that simultaneously serves as a manifesto of Otherness, a heartfelt and brutally honest journal of the most crucial moments of the poet’s life, and a celebration of the feelings, moments, and places that great poetry can invoke even when the writing itself is rooted in earthy, memory-tinged simplicity. As if that wasn’t enough, the collection is also an enjoyable recounting of how Choi found himself; a surprisingly cinematic series of vignettes that present the reader with loss, love, desire, friendship, family, and the city of Los Angeles.

The Yellow House opens with a simple three-line declaration that manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection while also proving themselves contradictory:

i chose poetry
over honesty
then lived this unremarkable life.

On one hand, Choi lets us know that there was a point in the journey of his life where a decision had to be made, and poetry won. However, the second line attempts to extract honesty from the process, and the poems that follow it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Choi’s writing is very personal and honest. Furthermore, the word unremarkable is the exact opposite of what’s presented in this collection; poems filled with the agonies of every coming-of-age tale, the magic of a childhood spent navigating different cultures, and nights spent in a massive, violent, strange city that tends to become part of those who spend enough time in it. After reading the book, coming back to those three lines is crucial because they reveal the playful man behind the poems and let us know that we were on a sad, humorous, carefully constructed trip from the very first page.

Choi’s style is a mixture of sincere sharing and words being used to deal with certain memories. However, more important than his approachable, enjoyable style is the vulnerability Choi brings to the page. From dealing with death to plucking pieces of life that were happening in 1980, Choi treats his subjects and his writing with the same openness, and that candor translates into beautiful poetry:

this is stupid and emotional
and not poetic at all,
but life is so weird and beautiful
and i can’t tell whether it’s slipping away
or if it’s drowning me.
i can’t get out of bed
and if there was skin next to me
i would bury all the feelings in it
to some 80s soundtrack
like a non-stop loop
of the best of the church.

There is a yellow house in The Yellow House, and its appearances are just one of the many elements of cohesion that make this a very complete collection. The other cohesive elements are love, loss, memory, dreams, the role of parents, and the equal importance of things said and things left unsaid. Ultimately, the beauty of The Yellow House is that is personal and universal, and that allows the reader to recognize Choi for what he is: a survivor who’s seen many things, a son, and a man concerned with recognizing the things that came before and made him who he is now:

on the porch
drinking barley tea so my legs won’t fail
(that’s what mother says)
and, for a moment,
looking at my hand.
it is still.
sometimes it shakes,
sometimes it holds
the world.

On the most basic level, The Yellow House works because it is, simply put, beautiful poetry. Devastatingly beautiful. However, for those who care about the details of the genre, Choi also demonstrates a unique understanding of the way blank space can affect his message as well as a sense of rhythm that gives his work a particular flavor. These last elements make this collection a must read for fans of language and poetry and a superb addition to the Civil Coping Mechanisms catalog, which already includes some of the best contemporary poetry collections: There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke, to name a few.


[REVIEW] This Must Be The Place, by Sean H. Doyle


Civil Coping Mechanisms

102 pages, $13.95


Review by Nicholas Rys


Sean H. Doyle is a seeker. His gasoline-soaked debut, This Must Be the Place, begins with a quote by legendary American Mystic, Edgar Cayce, “…at any time, in any world, a soul will give off through vibrations the story of itself and the condition in which it now exists.” Throughout the book, both parts at the end of that quote prove to be important, as Doyle summons up not only the vibrations of the story itself, but also the condition in which it now exists.

The book presented itself to me unusually. I was half drunk on a Thursday night and for some reason, eager to start something new. The explosive and deceptively playful cotton-candy-meets-Jackson-Pollock cover art was too loud to ignore, even strewn across my living room floor next to a handful of other 2015 books I had recently ordered. Despite my better efforts to call it quits after the first vignette. This is heavy stuff, I thought. I should wait until tomorrow. I read the first half in one feverish sitting. Continue reading

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses (A Review by Jonathan Crowl)

Civil Coping Mechanisms

138 pgs/$13.95

Most humans I know can’t regrow a lost limb, but the same adaptive limitations don’t extend to our minds and souls. Shattered hearts, broken spirits can be stitched and rebuilt given the proper conditions, and, of course, time. Such regeneration plays out among the nameless central figures of Matthew Salesses’ I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, a novel told in flash fictions. Each of the 115 titled chapters reveals a moment in the shaping of a thrown-together family, its members straddling borders between their respective pasts and futures. The stripped-down structure of this story confronts readers with deep-set, trembling emotions so often expressed erratically on the surface. It is a novel that manages, in few words, to devastate with its honesty and fearlessness.

At the center of the story is a Korean man living recklessly. He employs no self-restraint in taking on multiple lovers at once. His job is an obligation endured, and with little effort. He maintains friendships with people on the constant prowl for trouble. None of this changes when his life is disrupted by a five-year-old boy, half-Korean, their physical likeness irrefutable. The boy attaches to him after watching his mother slowly die in a hospital bed. With no other family claiming the boy, the man assumes a pseudo-guardianship, an interim solution as he troubleshoots his predicament. Death hangs over them like a cloud: An object of obsession for the boy, who craves obituaries and stories of gruesome death; an ongoing process for the man whose known life shrinks further into oblivion with each day the boy remains in his care. Early on in the book, he takes the boy to the beach, watching him play in the surf and reflecting on a life no longer carefree: “I hated to be reminded that I was on vacation, not life. … I wanted my wants to have nothing to do with anyone else’s. Now, as if in another life, a boy owned me.” This apprehension to fully embrace fatherhood is not overlooked by the boy, who the man admits is “a genius at context.” Continue reading

Self-Titled Debut by Andrew Farkas (A Review by J. A. Tyler)

What follows is the fifth in J. A. Tyler’s full-press of Subito Press, a series of reviews appearing at [PANK] over the course of 2012, covering every title available from Subito Press. J. A. Tyler’s previous full-press series have appeared at Big Other (a full-press of Calamari Press) and with Mud Luscious Press’s online quarterly (a full-press of Publishing Genius Press).

Fiction winner in the 2008 edition of Subito’s annual competition, Andrew Farkas’s story collection Self-Titled Debut is, on one hand, a book filled with intelligent and able-bodied stories, but on the other, a collection that unfortunately stops just shy of being a magnificent book, just short of delivering brilliance.

From the start, Farkas’s book reads as an exercise in obfuscation. The cover itself is a blurred image of a headless man, walking in an undeterminable landscape, bracketed in scars of unidentifiable light; and its title – ­Self-Titled Debut – is clearly mocking yet also latching onto this notion of indeterminacy. And while I’d love to say that there is value in this vagueness, that Farkas is using these motifs to talk about them, over the course of this eleven story collection I am not convinced.

Self-Titled Debut opens with ‘An Immaterial Message’, a flash piece where a message that we don’t know isn’t delivered to a person who is left constantly waiting – Farkas’s foray into Beckettian structures. And like a microcosm of the collection as a whole, this story is interesting and well-written, but I was instantly left wondering what it all meant, what it was for, where it was heading or where it wanted me to go. I was, like the recipient in the story, left waiting. In this way, Self-Titled Debut offers story after story that, each in their own way, offer up undeliverable messages, lost causes, conversations with one’s self, and other various modes of never-connections.

Farkas perhaps unintentionally describes this muddying best himself in ‘Oubliette’:

It had all begun so simply, so clearly. But from the outset of the evening the situation had become more and more inchoate, until now it was utterly entropic. It started innocently. There was the beautiful, symbolic night; the prospect of an adventure away from the norm; the vigor, the motility to pursue the adventure because of the night one hopes to wrap his mind around; the mystery of the alley (a mystery in a mystery); the deeper mystery of the hole (a mystery in a mystery in a mystery). But now the vigor was replaced with confusion. The confusion was represented by an intense yearning to burst forth in abstract rage, cursing the world for its ill-defined secrets.

In the end, this focus on the vague, on the indecipherable, makes Self-Titled Debut sound like a Poe fan’s wet dream, but the problem in Farkas’s collection is that the book never holds tightly enough to this theme, actually obscuring itself from it. So while this book could have been beautifully playful, Self-Titled Debut seems instead relinquished, at least in my mind, to be a book that is readable and smart, but that falls short of making the impact it had perhaps intended.

Self-Titled Debut is available from Subito Press.

Subito Press is a nonprofit literary publisher based in the Creative Writing Program of the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We look for innovative fiction and poetry that at once reflects and informs the contemporary human condition, and we promote new literary voices as well as work from previously published writers. Subito Press encourages and supports work that challenges already-accepted literary modes and devices.

J. A. Tyler is the author of the forthcoming novel Water (Civil Coping Mechanisms). His recent work appears with Caketrain, New York Tyrant, Redivider, and Fourteen Hills, and he reviews for The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus among other venues. For more, visit: chokeonthesewords.com.