(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel by Neil Shepard (A Review by Brian Fanelli)

 

Mid-List Press

$13/85 pgs

Neil Shepard’s latest collection of poems, (T)ravel/Un(Travel), takes the reader across the landscape of time and place, through crowded marketplaces of China to sacred temples in Bali that are home to secret burial chambers of monks. The poems crisscross the globe and are crafted with more than enough images and insight to make the reader feel part of the journey.

From the opening poem, “(T)ravel/Un(T)ravel: Monkey Forest Road,” Shepard’s book provides the fine detail and insight of an investigative reporter. Set in Bali, the poem is packed with colorful sensory imagery, including a bustling marketplace “where women smelling of raw fish, their breasts/burst from their shirts/and men hawking/and emptying their nostrils on the sidewalks, shout Mister, mister!” Throughout the collection, Shepard never romanticizes travel, but rather provides as much honest detail and observations as possible, no matter how gritty.

The opening poem and the rest of the collection push beyond well-crafted imagery to reach meditative reflections. In the same poem, the speaker asks himself, “How will I meet/those black eyes begging Mister, mister,” and a few lines later, when contemplating whether or not to visit a holy temple, he wonders, “How will I arrive there unscathed and prepared?/Or will I always arrive scarred and fearful/my meditations unraveling.”

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Blackwash Canal by Jason Labbe (A Review by Jana Wilson)

H_ngm_n Books

33 pgs

At first glance Jason Labbe’s new chapbook Blackwash Canalis a faulty play with form. In the first section entitled “Six Poems for X” Labbe’s exemplary language is lost in the over-reliance of form that it becomes almost tedious with its loose images and abstract substance. While “Six Poems for X” was a weak beginning, Labbe takes control embracing long lines in the section entitled “Bethany Dusk Radio” and easily redeems a chapbook that got off to a rocky start.

In “Bethany Dusk Radio”, Labbe immediately takes control in the first stanza:

“Static in the signal, cobalt dusk breaks up in branches

but only one of us believes it. It’s difficult

not to feel curious about the temperature

of a higher elevation. Or an estranged city at sea level.”

The change of tone is obvious, but it still intriguing with a touch of passion. He incorporates from different forms of artistic substances, varying from Walt Whitman to small moments of recognizable humanity, including my favorite stanza in the chapbook:

“I remember dinners on your fire escape.

I remember a pot of rice falling on the floor.

I remember us riding the subway with a video camera.

I remember us trying to predict the future.”

These small moments of memory that compose each poem are what makes the collection so enveloping.

As Blackwash Canal progresses, the transformation of the poems becomes obvious and reveals a hidden method behind the difference between the three sections, leaning slowly from the short, fragmented lines in “Six Poems for X” to the long, Whitman reminiscent lines of “Six Poems for Jackie”. This epiphany concludes with a brief, “I get it now,” from the reader, and makes Labbe an intriguing author that needs to be stuck with until the very end.

*

Jana Wilson currently lives in Greenwood, South Carolina, studying English at Lander University. Wilson is the former assistant fiction editor of Crashtest Literary Magazine and her work can be seen in “OVS Magazine” and “Arcadia”.

Etcetera’s Mistress by Thom Ward (A Review by Brian Fanelli)

Accents Publishing

57 pages, $10

Thom Ward’s latest collection of poems, Etcetera’s Mistress, isn’t a book to merely breeze through. Like all good poetry, Ward’s poems demand time and energy on behalf of the reader. The poems range in scope and form and include a mix of loose sonnets and dense prose poems that are at times philosophical forays and at times commentary on everything from war to the role of poetry. The book is marked with tender intelligence and clever insights that make navigating through the collection all the more worthwhile.

What’s common throughout the collection is Ward’s ability to mix philosophical statements with the personal. For instance, Ward opens the poem “Goldfinch, Cockroach” with the insight “Once in a while my soul exits this body/goes shopping for another house of flesh.” A few lines later, the speaker makes the observation that “Those with the most superfluous gadgets/cast the longest silhouettes, but not enough/to thwart ultraviolet rays.” He punctuates a poem filled with clever insights about consumerism and society with two lines that strike a more personal note: “What you didn’t do, what I did/at the end all we can hope for are the right regrets.”

Ward also offers some commentary on history and war.  The poem “A Few Precautions” speaks out against the money spent on war and how easily we forget about the victims.

Children we have forgotten play among the rubble,

run out into fields where mines are still wired.

Air strikes and ground offensives put on credit,

inflation that helium balloon that will not burst.

In the same poem, the apathetic are not spared from sharp criticism: “Take a magic pill, and another, throw back any/chaser, lie down in the numb summer grass.”

The collection also offers a few poems that comment on the role of poetry and language. In the poem “Don’t Presume,” poetry is reduced to a mere mortal role. The poem begins “Don’t presume this poem will advance pleasure or wisdom, glide/from surprise to surprise through a bevy of brilliant/ideas, succulent images that flow into some riveting epiphany.” And it ends with the lines “And the tiny/blue egg you thought would be revealed has vanished… Poems are like that/Lives are like that. Even gods.”  However, Ward does indeed challenge and surprise the reader, especially the reader’s expectations for poetry and what it can or can’t do.

A few pages earlier, Ward does acknowledge the power of language. The poem “Petites Dents, Petites Pattes” begins with the confession “The language has always been smarter than us.” Furthermore, language is compared to a cat that “slinks,” “pounces on invisible mice,” and curls its tail “into a question mark.” What is especially impressive about Ward’s collection is the language play and the way he juxtaposes images to make them work against each other or introduce another thought.

Ward also successfully created an eccentric cast of characters for his new collection. The poem “Actually, However” features a mob informant who “fell, and fell hard” in the East River after his cover was blown due to his attraction for the “black-leather,” “blue-eyed mistress” of “Butch the Barracuda.” Ward even takes a foray into the female mind through the poem “Exhilaration, Fluidity,” a prose poem whose female character keeps “dozens of boots and heels in her closet, and inside these/she keeps the thoughts of shoes she’s yet to purchase.” A few lines later, she “watches how men try not to stare even/as they stare, and when caught shove their drink to their lips as if to/hide behind glass.”  But like some of the other characters in Ward’s poems, the female character wants more from life and ponders quitting her job to take up thinking full time.

Etcetera’s Mistress is a collection of poems that touch on the illogical and logical, poems that push and challenge language, while offering philosophical insights or commentary on consumerism, war, and other ills in our society. The characters found in Ward’s prose poems and the juxtaposed images and insights in his sonnets are fresh, innovative, and memorable.

*

Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man. His poetry has also been published by Yes Poetry, The Portland Review, San Pedro River Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Word Riot, Chiron Review, and other journals and websites. He has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University. Visit him at www.brianfanelli.com.

Mule & Pear by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (A Review by Kim Loomis-Bennett)

New Issues Poetry & Prose

97 pages/$15

Mule & Pear contains voices of black women literary ghosts and their creators, collected and collaged. This is poetry made by a reader for readers—not ordinary rush-to-get-to-the-end-readers, but for those readers whose intimacy with characters continues beyond the page. If characters from your favorite works populate your imagination, you will discover an affinity with Griffiths’ offering. With an ingenious format, characters have much to say beyond their “pages of origin” in Griffiths’ thirty-eight free-verse poems. The first poem of the collection, “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You,” begins with a series of images that incite engagement with the painful training ground of human emotion:

But say it is a body

with wounds

Say it is my father

bursting into tears alone

above his newspaper

*        *        *        *

Say it is four tongues

that puncture

a compass

& spin the points

of each season

towards a storm

Griffith continues the poem by capturing moments when crushing emotions overwhelm us with surprising self-awareness:

Say it is when our lips

finally touch after fighting

even though we are working

towards a type of kiss

that makes our teeth

click with ache

Say it is an elegy

for every hourglass

Toni Morrison’s novel, Jazz, centers on a love triangle between a young beauty, her married lover, and his fiercely offended wife.  Joe, Violet and Dorcus did not leave me when I finished Morrison’s novel. Meeting them again in Griffiths’ collection was surreal as it mirrored the strange sensation of when the characters “meet up with me” unexpectedly from time to time—Violet, before her life went wrong, early in her marriage, sleeping in a shack with a work boot on one foot, Dorcus’ mystified slide into death, and Joe’s unsettling self-loathing.

“Dorcas to Violet: The Photograph on the Mantle Speaks,” is dedicated to Ai, a poet invited into the conversation for her own unflinching exploration of the cruel acts humans inflict on each other. Griffith relies on an individual’s familiarity with Ai’s work—poems that get into the minds and soul of mad, lost souls.  Ai, who passed away in 2010, is essentially one of Griffiths’ literary ghosts. Griffith depends as well on a reader’s bond with Morrison’s Jazz characters. This is a big risk for Griffith to take, and in my case, it worked absolutely. While reading Griffiths’ Jazz conversation-poems, my familiarity with Ai settled over me—recalling my experience reading and re-reading Ai’s taboo-exploration in her collection, Vice, over a several week period. The day I learned that Ai died, I was in the process of composing a fan letter to her—never sent.  As I read Griffiths’ work, I had with me the ghosts of Violet and Joe Trace, Dorcus, and their creator, Toni Morrison. This is a lot of ask of a reader, but I was eager to engage—to be involved in a way a poetry collection has never asked me to be.

When Dorcus speaks to Violet in Griffiths’ poem, Dorcus has some tough words for her lover-murder’s wife:

Here you are trying to kill me again: a dead girl.

You & your raggedy husband taking

my slow dance away before the music

ended is what really hurt me in the end.

I was looking so goddamned good.

Death ain’t my song.

This is Dorcus’ say, a ruined black girl, beyond saving, so she takes care of herself by having her say, and she truly sounds like Morrison’s Dorcus within Griffiths’ verse. Griffith, haunted by the actions of fictional people, feels the same concern I do, yet she takes that concern and explores it, takes responsibility for it and creates out of it.

Dramatic monologues and personas in Mules & Pears rush over one another, interact, mirror and mimic, thwart and confront, as do authentic conversations. Griffiths’ aim for this collection, she tells us in the preface is that she “hopes that each voice would make its way towards other voices and [she] hoped [to create]—a space that is ideal, flawed, intuitive, and intellectual… clustered here are conversations, after-lives, interrogations, alternate endings, resurrections, bright detours, love-letters, rejections, desires, mid-wives, and what-ifs.”  I recommend sharing Mules & Pears with others who, through the intimacy of reading, have taken characters from the page into their lives.

Griffiths’ chance that readers might not relate to the literary heritage or influences upon her poems is one worth taking—if nothing else, readers will seek out the works that inspired Griffith. For a reader and poet, like me, Griffiths’ execution of Mule & Pear is an inspiring risk.

If you are looking for a genuine voice, not concerned with the self-conscious acrobatics of word play, open any page in Mule & Pear and find yourself captivated.  Whether you are a student-poet learning craft by reading fellow poets, or a reader ready to have his or her breath taken away for a moment—Griffiths’ enthusiasm and respect for the power of language is everywhere evident.

*

Kim Loomis-Bennett is the author of Soiled Doves: A Poetic Sequence published in the fall of 2011. Her work has appeared in The November 3rd Club Journal, The Legendary, and The Copperfield Review. Visit her at kimloomisbennett.tumblr.com.


Meat is All by Andrew Borgstrom (A Review by Sean Ulman)

Nephew

41 pages, $10.00

The opening line grants “the noise” knowledge and equates sound to smell (“noise like a scent”), and Meat Is All steadily metes out sensory guiding sensors for all five senses, but on my initial read my filter tilted toward taste.

My front Lit pallet chomped sumptuous scrumptious sentence spoonfuls while a barely traceable after-taste of plodding plot parts pooled up the tale’s unspooling. I gathered that the project’s machinery (cogs chords cables) was pounding efficiently – unexpected connections clicked cozily, 3 distinct narrative rhythms appeared to ribbon, and I was entertained (confirmed by audible chuckles) despite having a narrow sense of the story’s typical read-on engine – story.

Meat is All, the 2nd edition in the Nephew series of Mud Luscious Press, has the shape, feel and weight (in lbs & import) of a passport. Its tote-ability & sharp design suggest it be pocketed in this week’s pants, or if one happens to be roving, packaged w/ the batch of essential traveling papers. Like so many of these small artful books – chaps, novellas, poetic experiments, writing as art – Meat is All deserves to be read several times. Each 90 minute attempt to crack language patterns & unsnap story stitches is a more than fair deal in the reading hobby exchange: time for knowledge & fun. A steal?

But I had to switch things up regarding my reading style: you see Borgstrom’s Meat is All has an unorthodox arrangement. The paragraphs, like this one, employ variations in font boldness and caps or LOWER CASE encoding. An introductory narrative weaving/roving emboldened statement such as:  “My front Lit pallet chomped sumptuous scrumptious sentence spoonfuls”: will fade to a lighter regular type and attempt to continue accounting the tale. But the dialogue of 7 SCOUTS, a leader and a fisherman overtly overpower with interruptions and that makes…

SEAN as reviewer: On my 3rd read I will scrape for story scraps.

SEAN as writer/reader: Why? Let story slide, subtlety – work on the work that worked 1st & 2nd

SEAN as lawnmower: I need to get to work.

…for some humbling mental juggling. Early on I kept tracking back to read over clipped phrases.

These ongoing SCOUT conversations, which often intrude & lop-off narrative momentum mid-phrase, are only interrupted in between SCOUT speakers, and are (astutely of Borgstrom) printed in a flimsy gray type fit to fog off the page.

The paragraph conclusions are a few declarative often comical statements that sew each //-separated entry snugly. THESE QUIPS CONJURE FICTIONAL FORTUNE COOKIES. THEY ARE DIRECT ODD STATEMENTS THAT COLLECT ORIGINAL THOUGHT & SOUND COMPOUNDS. THIS 3RD FORMAT WAS MY FAVORITE CONTENT. Such effervescent aphorisms packed anticipatory punch as rewards for navigating an avant-garde-textured text fractured w/ SCOUT chatter.

To dodge a somewhat fragmented reception of matters on my 2nd read, I skipped over the SCOUTS’ dialogue and let the lower case telling flow, despite its masonry of prickly sound barbs nicking pearl words. THEN I READ THE SECTION CONCLUSION IN CAPS, OFTEN LAUGHED, and finally tracked back, per page, to check over what these SCOUTS were squabbling about.

While I couldn’t pin down any character motivations (none of the 7 scouts did much to distinguish themselves), I did glean some set-up clues that extended beyond the context contacts I naturally brought to a story about a scout troop – woodsy adventures, survival skills, coming of age, competition/cooperation.

The scouts often discuss a project – a play or film – that they are acting in or just made. My best guess was that they were screening the film which premieres in the descriptions of the accompanying text. The CAPS CAPSULES that close each section are referred to at one point as CLOSED CAPTIONING. That bit fit off the bat. I could see these messages typed on the screen, advising like peculiar public service announcements. For example:

“IT TAKES MORE MUSCLES TO FROWN THAN TO RELEASE SPERM. A BADGE IS SOMETHING A MOM CAN WEAR ABOVE HER BADGER. PLAYBOYS ARE NOT SCOUTS AND CANNOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BEAVER AND A BADGER.”

I do recommend this jumpy method as the best way to make ends meet in grounding matters in the absurdist, surprise-loaded cut of  Meat is All. This smoother read enabled my appreciation for Borgstrom’s word gaming & gambling to gain thrust. All along the uneven crag-crusted trail of this adventurous read are chunky crumbs that display a pro author at play. For example:

“The clouds shaped like moss puddles: the shape of mud in the shape of cloud, the potential circus animals covered in it, the moss of it, the bright green pool of it, the reversal of one eye being sky and one eye being earth.”

Borgstrom’s verbal recreation, which empowers calibrated repetition and reminds of words’ resourcefulness  – multiple dictionary definitions and pliable parts of speech – is never reckless. Each 3-segmented page-long section has a gristle-sticky cohesiveness. Images, arguments, and phrases broached in the intro are often discussed by scouts and revisited in each section’s closing CLOSED CAPTIONING. Here’s the corresponding wrap to the above excerpt:

“A CIRCUS IS NOT A CIRCUS WITHOUT DIRT CLODS. THE EARTH IS A BONE CALLED JOINT. THE CHEST OF THE EARTH PROTECTS THE SUN INSIDE.”

The unusual earns accessibility when words and ideas brush, lock, entrap… in short interact.

On my 3rd read, I skipped over all the SCOUT dialogue and whipped through that play-like script after as a post read. A narrator started to emerge. I typically announce the POV to myself after reading the opening of any book so I’m clear on my processing. I think due to the original and challenging layout of  Meat is All, I didn’t start picking up on the sporadic ‘I’ deliveries until the middle of my 3rd read. I suspect this first person (SCOUT? perhaps the LEADER?) jangling the story’s keys, should be monitored minutely in my ongoing mission to decipher a roundabout plotted arc or expose faded efforts by the telling character to assert his stamp on the story.

During my 4th go at it, I’m going to keep my eye on that variably-disguised yet ever-present ‘I’. And I’m going to read it straight (I mean jagged) like it was intended, w/ disrupting SCOUT (actor) dialogue and jig-sawed sections glued by a necessary consistency.

At times the three rhythms diverge and even obstruct, but it’s clear that the sourcing comes entirely from a single author’s polished verbal provisions.  As long as there is a material (adj, synonym: significant) belonging to the material (noun, synonym: stuff) I’ll gladly turn up slim findings on story searches every time. Other readers might want plot to drive their bookish escapes. And I don’t doubt that they will find footholds, a trail of tension, obvious ornamental cairns, and even a climactic summit in Meat is All, – certainly by their 3rd or 4th read. I read language 1st (2nd, and 3rd) so I’ll blithely take the same limited English words deftly left in one of their boundless original orderings, every time, even, I anticipate, on my 5th and 6th trip through.

*

Sean Ulman is writing a novel about Seward (& Art) in Seward (AK). His other review is in elimae (oct).

Bring Down the Chandeliers by Tara Hardy (A Review by Brian Fanelli)

Write Bloody Press

85 pages, $15

Bring Down the Chandeliers is not a collection of poetry for the faint of heart, prude, or squeamish. At times, Tara Hardy’s poems can be unsettling, as they address rape and incest, using raw, forceful language to do so. But in telling such a story and using poetry as the vehicle to do so, Hardy has crafted a collection that highlights how important having a voice is after surviving a tragedy.

Family is at the center of Hardy’s poems, specifically the father who raped the central female speaker. The reader is introduced to the father immediately in the opening poem “Hummingbird.” Here, the father is presented as villainous, as he tries to silence his daughter’s voice.

In the orphanage of my voice box

my father sits, fork and knife upright

on the table before him. He’s already cut

off my hummingbird and fed it

to our dog.

Despite the unsettling language and haunting image, there is hope by the conclusion of the poem because the young woman finds her voice and realizes “all the children I ever/wasn’t but was meant to be/break open the roof, take wing/and I speak/speak.”

One impressive aspect of the collection is the multi-dimensional character Hardy created in the father. In the poem “Daughter,” the father takes on several layers. The speaker, while talking to her own daughter, admits that her father “burned his name into me,” but that he also “did the dishes, cooked; taught me how to fish.” Still, though, the speaker’s pain is evident, especially toward the end of the poem.

Six years ago, crossing the state’s line

caused my body to clutch itself so completely

I couldn’t pee for three days.

Except in a long thin terrified stream.

The poem concludes with one final confession, that the speaker is not “the road of tar,” but was only “stuck to it” and was “a wingless, but determined beast.” The hope that punctuates the end of the poem is similar to the conclusion of the poem “Hummingbird” in the sense that the speaker is going to break free and find her voice, no matter the circumstances.

Hardy also addresses several other social and political issues throughout the collection. In the poem “Sand,” she takes on the persona of sand to speak out against the U.S.-led wars in the Middle East. The sand confesses that in some nations, it is not much more than a “partially closed mass grave,” and it was meant to be something else. The sand persona also wishes that it could “open my mouth and swallow” when soldiers rest their guns on it. Hardy’s decision to write about war from the point of view of sand is a fresh, innovative way to present an anti-war poem.

Another issue Hardy addresses is eating disorders, and in the poem “Hunger,” the poet presents a speaker who tries to justify having an eating disorder. “Thin is power. Hunger is/but a way to keep razors from/my wrists,” the speaker confesses, adding later that “Hunger is a way to get over him.” The constant use of enjambment adds to the unsettling effect created by some of the rationale the speaker gives for starving herself.

Hardy also offers sound advice for anyone who tries to date a trauma survivor.  In “Advice to Anyone Loving a Trauma Survivor,” she refers to some people as tourists and imagines they “press palms up to the glass, despite the zookeeper’s/’Warning!’ Don’t feed the G-Spot or she’s likely to/rip your arm off!” The poem is filled with some other funny and absurd lines, but by the second stanza, the speaker advises anyone loving a trauma survivor to “stay still” and “do not approach until she beckons.”

Hardy has a knack for developing an extended metaphor, such as a hummingbird, as a statement for finding one’s voice after surviving a tragedy. She also successfully crafts different voices and personas to address a slew of political and social issues. A few of the collection’s other poems could have benefited from stronger poetic techniques, such as extended metaphors or well-crafted personas, to prove a point more tactfully than blunt language. But like a lot of other slam/performance poets, Hardy uses direct, forceful language and stark images to convey her points. The language may come across as offensive or too raw to some readers, but Hardy does make clear how important it is to find one’s voice after surviving a tragedy. And at times, some of her lines will draw a laugh or two from readers.

*

Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man, published in late 2010 by Big Table Publishing. His poems have also been published by The Portland Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Word Riot, Blood Lotus,Chiron Review, and they are forthcoming in Yes, Poetry, San Pedro River Review, andEvening Street Review. He has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Wikes University, and currently resides in Pennsylvania. Visit him at www.brianfanelli.com.

Four Books of Poetry by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (A Review by Alicia Kennedy)

Write Bloody Press

Various page counts, $15 each

The titles drew me to Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s first four books of poetry: Dear Future Boyfriend, Hot Teen Slut, Working Class Represent, and Oh Terrible Youth. They promised tales of the all-important suburban childhood and adolescence, the boy obsession and histrionics and silliness of girl teendom; they suggested a deadpan exploration of the shittiness of working reality. These things are the most prevalent preoccupations of my current 25-year-old life, so I wanted to rummage through someone else’s memories. I’d been growing bored of mine.

Aptowicz is the perfect poet to turn to if you’re looking for nostalgia. She’s a storyteller, and her writing didn’t conform to my poetic expectations. Initially, this put me off a bit—why couldn’t these just be fleshed out into essays? But they’re poems simply because she’s a poet, and as I moved through these books the style and wit she brings to the form became more clear. She wins you over by being conversational and funny, earnest and accessible. She can turn a phrase that knocks you out, but for the most part it’s like you’re hanging out with someone especially articulate.

Her first collection, Dear Future Boyfriend, begins with three poems that introduce her parents, fittingly titled “Mother,” “Father,” and “My Parents.” They’re precise and loving, and set up as idyllic a working-class life as is possible. The suburban is further established in “Ode to the Person Who Stole My Family’s Lawn Gnome,” which is rich with references to a very specific kind of youth (“Did you not notice that brand-spanking new/”Fat Women Bending Over” cut-out two doors down?). The rest of the book is filled with love poems, alternately heartsick desperate and self-aware desperate. These are best when restrained, such as in “Europe”:

When I went to Paris,
I collected one pebble
for every time I thought
of you.

She was going to present them: “my love for you,/for once, was going to be something tangible: a big rattling bottle of thought.” But instead, she scattered them in his driveway.

And now I feel so stupid,
treading on top of their meaning
as I find my way to your porch
for yet another platonic breakfast.

Reading her work in chronological order makes the move from this innocence to her second collection, Hot Teen Slut, about her first post-college job as an erotica writer and editor at a dot-com start-up, more fascinating. Slut covers the adjustment to a full-time job, how weird it is when that job is looking at porn when you’re a virgin, and being a feminist who looks at porn all day. It’s quite a bit of material to work with, and Aptowicz molds it into something much more cohesive than Boyfriend.

While the trajectory of job ad to interview to first meeting all your new co-workers could be anyone’s, Aptowicz has a great eye for the humor and heart of matters. In “New Millennial Badass” she ironically boasts about the faux power being “the porn girl” gives her, the party anecdotes and ability to have ex-boyfriends inserted “into an all ‘leather daddy’ gay erotica story” before recognizing how “anti-badass” it is to not be working on her own writing “eight hours a day, forty hours a week.” It’s the struggle of all creative people with a day job, but she can bring “mangina” and “buttgasm” into it, and conclude that one day she’ll be writing:

Poetry so hardcore, that when it finally breaks
through that hot white wall of Academia,
all my readers are going to cum in unison
and only in iambic pentameter.

This absurd rally cry of the porn girl poet stuck in a 9-to-5 sets up a more excellent poem that juxtaposes porn and poetry, “Understanding the Cum Shot.” “It’s disgusting, / but necessary” she begins, eventually recognizing:

Porn
without a cum shot
is like a sestina
without a BE/DC/FA
concluding stanza.

When she is finally laid off in “Getting Off Early” (nice double entendre!), she’s on her way to Australia to give a reading. The porn girl poet, who’s so good-humoredly struggled, is now just a poet.

The third collection, Working Class Represent, is the strongest. Unlike Slut, it’s not focused on one job but is about the general struggle to make it through the days and convince yourself everything’s okay when you have no safety net to fall on. Coffee and its attendant stains are recurring images, its necessity to this grind made explicit in “Ode to My Morning Cup of Coffee.”  There’s also “Rules of Slack,” which outlines when it’s okay to not do work and to what degree. The series of poems titled “Day Job” are exquisite, the tone a perfect blend of resignation and desperation. From “Day Job II”:

Sometimes I think I just need to get away,
break schedule, shake things up,
but other times I remember:

that’s exactly what people say
when they are trying to avoid work.

Her poor fashion sense and the general poverty that causes it are points of self-mockery throughout Aptowicz’s work, best rendered in “Spring and Broadway,” about “the perils of working in SoHo”:

Fashion Week is like an M.C. Escher
drawing, with an endless line of models
cat-walking down the sidewalk, identical
black binders, Avant-garde jackets, and
those thin, thin thighs. Those weeks, I feel
like a troll, short and disheveled, hurrying
down the street in my urchin’s clothes.

In “Notes on Rejection(s)” she compiles lines from editors about her writing, where I found my own initial critique: “Focus more on language, less on story!” She combines them both wonderfully in “9/11,” though, perfectly capturing the alien nature of that day. Her own experience of eating with her roommate, watching TV like everyone else, when all anyone could do was “watch / the dust people run from the rumble.”

There are a few poems about poets themselves—“Jim,” “Sexton and Plath”—that also combine her talent for storytelling with linguistic beauty. These are breathless in their reverence; the writing itself seems to kneel, the titular working classness leaving her in awe of the fact that she’s allowed to pursue this vocation.

Oh Terrible Youth, the fourth collection, is a return to the material of Dear Future Boyfriend, examined with more focus. Again, there’s story and careful language. There are also painfully recognizable adolescent moments, told with her characteristic humor. From “Literal Portrait of the Writer As a Twelve-Year-Old”:

When you are twelve, which I was, and you are a straight girl, which
I also was, the entire populations of males from two years younger
than you to several years older proffer themselves to your hear
unwittingly. Men who read this, please know: no mater how you
may have felt you looked in middle school, I guarantee that you were
the object of several crushes—albeit some as brief as a math period.

“Benediction for Prom Night,” “The Unreachable End of High School,” and “Ignition” are wonderfully distilled portraits of the most universal high school experiences that, at the time, felt wholly personal and new.

And it’s her ability to write at this level, where personal and universal meet, that makes her memories fun and moving to rummage through, from childhood to first cohabitation. They live up to their irresistible titles.

World Tree by David Wojahn (A Review by Brian Fanelli)

University of Pittsburg Press

134 pages. $16

David Wojahn’s latest collection of poems, World Tree, is a book in which the dead come alive on the page. His poems are filled with voices of the past, including spirits from the caves of Altamira and modern departed musical icons that include everyone from Johnny Cash to Joe Strummer. World Tree is an ambitious look at the scope of human history, and a book in which Wojahn continues to address the personal and the political.

As early as the first poem, “Scribal: My Mother in the Voting Booth,” Wojahn draws a connection between the ancient past and contemporary American politics by comparing his mother’s vote for Nixon to “some scribe in Lagash piercing wet clay slabs for the palace records.” Wojahn takes this comparison a step further and also compares Nixon to a fascist priest king of old, but what makes the poem more than a commentary on contemporary American politics is Wojahn’s ability to inject personal narrative into the poem. As a result of waiting in the “wet November snow of Minnesota” to vote for Nixon, the mother in the poem suffers from pneumonia. All the son can do is watch and hopes she survives, which she does. The personal narrative adds another layer and makes the poem more than a diatribe against Nixon-era politics.

Wojahn’s collection is filled with other poems that address contemporary political and social issues. In “For the Honorable Wayne LaPierre, President, National Rifle Association,” Wojahn takes on the issue of gun violence, specifically how Howard Reed Scott III, a 17-year-old, shot Tyler Binsted, a 19-year-old, in 2008 at a tennis court in Virginia, due to a robbery gone afoul. Wojahn points out that as a young man killed another young man, the NRA president had the luxury of sleeping in a gated community and probably paid little attention to the story, or others like it. Wojahn again draws connections between the past and present by evoking Italian poet Dante and imagining that he would have placed LaPierre all the way down in the seventh circle of The Inferno— a river of boiling blood where “the damned cannot rise above the singing waters” and cannot speak.

By writing the poem, Wojahn also made Howard Reed Scott and Tyler Binsted’s names live on, repeating them a few times in the poem, a technique Wojahn’s uses throughout World Tree as a way to allow the dead to speak, to rise up and warn us about some of our contemporary flaws.

Another more recent issue Wojahn addresses is Hurricane Katrina, both its mishandling by top government officials and its aftermath. In the poem “In the Domed Stadium,” Wojahn gives voice to the thousands of residents that were packed in the Louisiana Superdome after the tragedy. The poem is one of the most memorable in the collection because of its stark images that serve as reminder of the tragedy. Wojahn writes:

Children sleep two & three

to a cot & the old have folded up their walkers, wallets & dentures

gripped in their fingers

to protect them from theft. There are crutches, wheelchairs,

rusted yellow tanks of oxygen

& always the black plastic trashbags, overflowing with clothes,

& toiletries, Gameboys,

Pop Tarts, photo albums of the dead in polyester.

Like other collections by Wojahn, World Tree also features music-based poems. What makes the new collection unique, however, is Wojahn’s decision to give voice to some lesser known musicians. One musician the poet decided to address is Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who Wojahn describes as “the hillbilly Keats of my father’s 78s.” He maintains the comparison to Keats throughout the poem, drawing parallels between the singer and poet’s lives because both died from tuberculosis. Wojahn also plays with the words written on Keats’ tombstone by stating Rodgers’ name is “writ on railroad ties.”

Wojahn does address more contemporary, popular musicians. In the sequence of poems entitled “World Tree,” Wojahn evokes Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, and Johnny Cash, just to name a few. Wojahn uses music in a number of ways in the sequence. In the part of the poem that focuses on Dylan, Wojahn mixes rock ‘n roll history with U.S. history. He juxtaposes the image of Dylan going electric and getting booed and jeered at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with images of Civil Rights activists getting hosed and clubbed.

By doing this, he manages to capture the turbulence of the 1960s. He also highlights the moment in music history when Dylan was labeled a sell-out and fans felt he betrayed the protest movement because he plugged in.

Wojahn also uses the poetic sequence as yet another way to draw connections between the past and present. In the poem’s final sequence, Wojahn paints an image of his sons dancing to The Ramones, and he compares his children to ancient people dancing and drumming, trying to summon the dead. The comparison works because the children in the poem are indeed evoking the dead by playing the music of a band in which three of its four members—Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee— are deceased. But they live on and speak whenever their music is played.

One of the last highlights of the collection is the long poetic sequence “Ochre,” which features a haunting series of drawings and photos of Neolithic art, mixed with random turn of the last century photographs. Wojahn shows off his poetic powers in this sequence and adopts the personas of some of the people in the photos and paintings, including former Vice President Dick Cheney wearing a gas mask.

World Tree proves that Wojahn is successfully able to connect the past to the present in his poems, while employing a wide range of poetic forms, including lyrics, free verse, and long poetic sequences. Like his other collections, especially Mystery Train, World Tree also has plenty of references to rock ‘n roll and pop culture. Through a wide range of poems that tackle a slew of issues, Wojahn reminds us how much the past influences the present, and how the deceased live on through art, photos, song, and stories. Just flip through the pages of World Tree and take a listen.

*

~Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man, published in late 2010 by Big Table Publishing. His poems have also been published by The Portland Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Word Riot, Blood Lotus,Chiron Review, and they are forthcoming in Yes, Poetry, San Pedro River Review, andEvening Street Review. He has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Wikes University, and currently resides in Pennsylvania. Visit him at www.brianfanelli.com.~

Compendium by Kristina Marie Darling (A Review by Brian Fanelli)

Cow Heavy Books

55 pages, $10

Like a jigsaw puzzle, Kristina Marie Darling’s Compendium asks to be pieced together. It is a collection of lyric poems, vignettes, erasures, glossaries, footnotes, and histories that present only bits and pieces of a story of two lovers. The reader has the pleasure of filling in the gaps, coloring in the blank pages, and imagining what is beneath the white space, the unspoken, and unsaid. It is part ghost story and part collage that weaves together different literary movements.

What’s especially fascinating about Compendium is the array of styles Darling features in a mere few dozen pages. The book opens with a few poetic vignettes that introduce the story of Madeleine and the connoisseur. Very little is known about either character, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. After the brief section of vignettes, Darling provides even less to the reader and offers only erasures of the previous vignettes, before shifting to glossaries, footnotes, and histories that create even greater mystery.

Though the forms in the book constantly shift and transition, there are some reoccurring themes and ideas. In the opening vignettes, there exists a tension between silence and music. And the two are often presented together on the same page, no matter how contradictory that may seem. In the poem “The Box,” the connoisseur gives Madeleine a jewelry box, and all is silent and still around her besides “the old piano’s most delicate song drifting from beneath the lid.” The images presented in the poem’s last few lines only enhance the tension between stillness and music:

“Around the box, a disconcerting stillness
Snow falling outside the great white
house as she danced and danced.”

This idea appears in other poems, including “The Blue Sonnets,” in which the connoisseur writes to Madeleine to tell her that the sonnets he’s writing require “both solitude and music,” and a few pages later, in the vignette “The Homage,” a “disconcerting stillness” exists between the connoisseur and Madeleine. The feeling of stillness and silence is also increased in the book because several of the pages are loaded with white space, and at times, there are whole blank pages between the writing.

As perhaps a contradiction to all of the white space and mysterious narrative and characters, Darling did create a heavy emphasis on color, especially in the section of vignettes. This makes her images stand out even more and sharpens the writing. The reader pays attention to the “dark green taffeta” of Madeleine’s dress and its “stiff white sleeves,” as well as “the blue wrapping” and “cluster of green ribbons” of the jewelry box. The connoisseur also has an obsessive eye for detail. He notices the creases in the sleeves of Madeleine’s dress and the silk ribbons “hanging above every doorway” in a music hall.

Besides presenting a fragmented, mysterious story of two lovers, Darling also presents a collage of literature, mostly through the footnotes, glossaries, and histories found toward the end of the book. Here, the author references various movements and styles of literature, including the Victorian novel, English Romanticism, sonnets, the lyric ode, and other forms and movements. Though Darling does not use any of these specific forms in the collection, she does acknowledge how the past influences the present and how these classical modes had an influence on the current literary landscape and all of its varied forms.

Overall, Compendium is a captivating collection of mixed forms that challenges the reader to fill in the blanks, to imagine what text could fill the pages of white space and complete the story of the connoisseur and Madeleine.  It is also a book that pays tribute to the past and opens a discussion about how the past has a direct influence on the present and how previous literary movements and modes impact what is written today. Above all, amidst all of the white spaces that fill the book are stark, well-crafted images that make the mysterious story of the lovers that much more fascinating and beg the reader to go back and fill in the missing details.

*

~Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man. His poetry has also been published by a number of journals and websites, including Young American Poets, Chiron Review, Word Riot, Boston Literary Magazine, Breadcrumb Scabs, Indigo Rising Magazine, and Blood Lotus. His work is also forthcoming in thePennsylvania Literary Journal. Visit him at www.brianfanelli.com.~

I Know When To Keep Quiet By Dawn Leas (A Review By Amye Archer)

Finishing Line Press

$12

I often lament that I have never lived anywhere else.  Sure, I’ve moved like a roulette wheel ticking around to different suburbs, but that center, the crumbling metropolis of Scranton, has always been within reach.   And I won’t lie, my husband and I have had many fantasies about picking up our children and moving wherever we want, settling where we think they will have a better life.   After reading Dawn Leas’ I know When to Keep Quiet, I must admit, this seems like a horrible idea.

The topography of I Know When to Keep Quiet is as vast as the Texas landscape where the speaker and her family eventually end up.  The poems begin in New Jersey, where the speaker is surrounded by family.  Most notably a grandmother whose backyard is “A stone-walled map of green and red peppers”.  There is a strong sense of unity in this family from New Jersey.  They go to mass together, they eat dinner at one another’s houses, and most importantly, they seem to simply surround one another.

But all is not as it seems.  In Ashes, Leas paints a terrifying portrait of an abusive, alcoholic father.  The poem is fraught with tension as she describes her father’s violent behavior:

My father was a volcano

spewing lava that night,

tables became timber–

curtains fell, walls crumbled.

While I have read my share of childhood abuse poems, there is something distinct in Ashes.  Leas doesn’t stop at the visual, she captures the visceral:

In the morning, we tiptoed over rocky

landscape, washed our hands in ashes.

We waited.

It’s that last line.  The waiting.  That really illuminates the rest of this collection with a sense of foreboding.  This family is going somewhere.  And you can believe it will indeed be a rocky landscape.

I Know When to Keep Quiet then becomes a story about the chase.  The chase for her father’s sobriety, his chase for a sense of normalcy.  The family picks up everything and moves through several different states, all of which Leas manages to capture the essence of with subtle and distinct images, all while letting us in on her reluctance to call these foreign places home.  In Assimilation, a poem from the family’s stop in New Orleans, she learns to eat crab from an aunt and uncle:

On the tabletop, covered

with soggy newspapers,

a collage of broken carcasses,

cracked claws, half-empty pony bottles

takes shape.  I study it, a transplanted

niece left behind, a culture not my own.

The family then flees New Orleans and heads for “the next exit, the new hometown, the cacti-sprinkled flatlands and prairies [of Texas].”  It is here that Leas learns to drive, comes of age, so to speak, and meets Miss Jean, whose drawl teaches “me how to be a Texan, a lady.”

Finally, just when we feel a sense of settling in on the part of the speaker, the family is uprooted once more and heads for their final destination: Pennsylvania.    Leas spends a lot of time in this section of the book showing us the struggles of belonging.  In Another School, 1982:

The teacher introduces us, asks

polite questions about Texas.

We answer with hybrid accents.

The boys stare, the girls smirk,

heads turning to whisper.

Suddenly, the reader is pulled from the comfortable chair in our living room to the uncomfortable task of standing in front of a classroom full of high school students.  Our heart aches for these sisters, our speaker and her twin.   We have followed her journey, we have watched her grow and overcome so much change and turmoil, and we want to know she will be okay.

And she is.  In the last, and in my opinion the strongest, poem in the collection, Slipping, Leas captures the raw tenderness of adolescence:

Back on the dock, words pause

in the air above us.  Hands glide

over skin smooth as the lake’s

first ice.

And then, in the poem’s final verse, the poets grasp of the figurative becomes apparent:

This is the way I fall back,

yes, dark water rolling the dock, yes

the weight of drowning on my chest.

We are left knowing that while Pennsylvania has become home for the speaker, she will never forget where she has been, a deep tide always rolling her back to the rocky landscape over which she has traversed.   And the reader is left thankful for such a beautiful collection, and for the fact that Dawn Leas doesn’t know when to keep quiet.  As for me, I will be staying put.  Allowing the roots under my small Pennsylvania house to grow deep and envelop my girls with a sense of permanence.