Book Review: Eyes, Stones

Eyes, Stones
Written by Elana Bell
Louisiana State University Press, 2012
ISBN 9780807144640

Eyes StonesElana Bell’s debut book of poems, Eyes, Stoneswalks a hairline-tightrope between one side and another in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bell mines the depths of twentieth-century history, presenting persona poems in the voices of Jewish Holocaust survivors, Zionists, Palestinian refugees, and folk heroes from either side of the violent ongoing conflict. Reading Eyes, Stones is like rediscovering the poets Carolyn Forché and Ai; there’s a sense of joy and terror bleeding through the page. However, Eyes, Stones is wholly Bell’s achievement—a deeply personal collection of poems of witness, illuminated by compassion.

Bell, who descended from Holocaust survivors and has taught in both Israel and Palestine, has a deeply personal stake in this book; she depicts her ancestors’ struggles to reclaim their homeland in early to mid-twentieth century, while also depicting the struggles of “the enemy,” exiled in their own land, afflicted with poverty and extremism. Bell’s compassion leads into a painful conflict for the poet and these poems—rather than maintaining objectivity, Bell opts for subjective first-person speakers, placed side-by-side, at times difficult to differentiate. Perhaps the best example of this is her poem, “Naming Our Dead,” which is composed entirely of extinguished and displaced Palestinian and Israeli towns, villages, and settlements. The poem, which is difficult to reproduce here, is rendered as a long block of prose with names in alphabetical order, punctuated by periods and indents. In three different places, a gaping hole yawns across several lines as if missing chunks of prose; the holes resemble the crisp silhouettes of petals.

Another poem presenting the immediate conflict (of conscience and compassion) is “Language in the Mouth of the Enemy”: “I am afraid that this poem / will contribute to the destruction of Israel” (1-2). Motive is not what’s in question here, but consequence. Bell’s speaker, a teacher, fears that if she educates Palestinian women, she will arm them with yet another weapon:

if I teach the women of Nahalin poetry,
if I give voice to their rage,
what great-aunt of mine shot in the back
before an unmarked grave will have died then,
again for nothing? (7-11)

And if she expresses sympathy toward the plight of Palestinian refugees, she will automatically betray the Israeli state; she will betray decades of sacrifice and struggle:

If I love the suffering of the Palestinians—it is so bright–
more than the suffering of my own,
[. . .] then what have I done? What have I
done? What have
I done? (12-23)

The question, “What have I done?” is repeated over the last three lines; here, Bell carefully breaks the lines to impose short pauses, adding to the sense of gravity. Their syllabic lengths whittle down suggesting that the bulk of the poem balances uncertainly on two syllables, as if one single well-intended act will cause the whole destruction of Israel. The anaphoric, iambic “If I” directs us toward the speaker’s personality, motives, and empathy; the last line, “I done,” places the stress on her action, ignoring original intentions and focusing on the consequence.

Another standout (trio) of poems, each spoken in the voice of Yasser Arafat, are “How I Got My Name (Arafat),” “The Chairman,” and “Military Tactics.” Each poem occurs in each of the three sections composing Eyes, Stones, and each may serve as the closest reminder—along with the poems “How I Got My Name (Jabotinsky),” “Wolf,” and “Kishinev,” which are spoken in the voice of Zionist leader Jabotinsky—of the poet Ai. Bell’s abilities as a persona-poet (a bad label since arguably all poets are persona-poets) are impressive, given that much of the language she employs is consistently richly violent, stark, and rhythmic from poem to poem, with slight differentiation between speakers beyond context and tone:

We are inside the dream of a God who’s forgotten us. There is no other way to say it. Through the stippled glass I watch the neighbors hammer nails into the Jewish babies’ eyes. Mama pulls me to her breasts that smell of bread and smoke. I want to look. There are no windows from which I do not see the city burning. (“Kishinev”)

The sentence, “There is no other way to say it,” recalls a sentence from Forché’s “The Colonel”: “There is no other way to say this.” Perhaps Bell unconsciously intones the voice of Forché, whose definition of “poetry of witness” has pretty much shaped all consequential discourse on the genre. However, comparisons are easily drawn in any book; this is not to detract from Bell’s originality or discourage reading the volume through an autobiographical lens. Rather, calling forth these two poets help us locate Bell’s prescient, carefully and urgently crafted verse as among some of the most jarring and provocative poems of witness available. Unfortunately, aside from having the distinction of the Walt Whitman Award, Bell’s Eyes, Stones won’t place high on poetry bestsellers lists (yes, they exist!). But rest assured, the book will circulate among patrons of The Academy of American Poets, backdoor reading circles, and a few classrooms in years to come.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Fables

Fables
Written by Sarah Goldstein
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011
ISBN 9780982541661

Sarah Goldstein’s first book, Fables (Tarpaulin Sky Press) defies easy categorization. Marketed as “fiction,” Fables is formatted into five sections, each featuring short, numbered blocks of prose that depict a scene or relate a story in the fashion of Aesop. However, like Aesop, Golstein’s “fables” can just as easily be taken as (prose-) poems, each one containing a pronounced, concentrated rhythm and featuring familiar and strange images, while lacking proper nouns and specificity. Another thing lacking from these fables is a moral or encapsulating final phrase—something that comments on the preceding action. In the case of Fables, the minimal commentary renders these dark fables vague and cryptic. If there is a lesson to be learned amid the catastrophic misfortunes befalling the characters in these fables, human and animal alike, that lesson is found solely within the reader’s analysis.

FablesFor instance, in the very first piece in the section entitled “Fables,” Goldstein seems to bring in the very question of narrative, which is to explicate a series of events beyond simply ordering them into a digestible sequence. When a group of adults bring with them grief-stricken orphans on their next hunt (they heed an old myth: “take an orphan child hunting, you will return with threefold the bounty” [author’s italics]), the orphans vanish mysteriously from their party and the hunters return empty-handed. According to the fable, the children depart from the party, sensing the adults’ frustration, and wind up falling asleep in the underbrush of the forest, only to awake as birds: “When they cry, it is the sounds of the whippoorwills. The nightingales become their mothers, and pheasants usher them to winter quarters” (7). When the adults return to face the other villagers, “[everyone] grimaces, hearing only what they decide to understand” (7). There’s no clear alternative interpretation of the events that Goldstein presents to us. The children disappear and turn into birds. Birds and transformations figure greatly throughout this collection as recurring motifs, enabling these fables to feel interconnected, despite each one being both microcosmic and singular, without repeated characters or settings, yet still managing to recall Greek and Western European storytelling tradition. In the instance of this fable, Goldstein affords her readers the freedom to “decide to understand” what they read or how they read into Fables.

Rimbaud, in his famous prose poem, “Conte” (“Story”), utilizes then brutalizes the familiar fable form, depicting a restless prince who savagely slaughters his subjects, who in turn mysteriously emerge unharmed and compliant. “Conte” ends with a cryptic encapsulating sentence that has nothing to do with the preceding text. This is to illustrate that what Goldstein does with the fable, by reinvigorating or reinventing (or even calling attention to the form and structure of the fable) isn’t entirely new or untried—think: Donald Barthelme and many of his numerous narrative experiments here. However, Goldstein writes with the air of someone who simultaneously knows what she’s doing while not obsessing with encrypting or disclosing meaning. Fables is no flagrant assault on any literary movement, but a very poised, playful, and unpretentious collection of proses that challenges readers’ notions of what is a fable and to whom is the fable directed.

In her section entitled “Ghosts,” Goldstein shifts attention to the familiar, universal ghost story—haunted folklore that has seeped through the centuries. The third fable of this section unexpectedly brings the reader into another cryptic, ominous scene:

She shudders along the roadside with her limbs deciphered. You are close enough to hear them clattering. A windshield held her indent but the driver has already taken a sledgehammer to it: her backbone a plaintiff pounded into dust. Her sightlines narrow to a dreary hallway of open doors with see-saw voices sobbing into amputated handkerchiefs. (43)

The “you” may be taken in the figurative sense; however, would it not be more delightful and insidious to assume we bear witness to this violent aftermath which despite its vividness (deciphered, clattering limbs and a road compared to a hallway of sawing, creaking doors) is still quite puzzling? Goldstein infers the driver has hit a tree, whose shape has left an indent in his windshield. Another way we could interpret this—this, with its free associations!—is that gendered tree is in fact a woman, shuddering along the roadside as the man who hit her with his car is obliterating the evidence. Again, no comment illuminates or firmly directs our thinking, which is refreshing to say the least.

Perhaps one of Goldstein’s greatest achievements in this slim, provocative (and beautifully designed) collection of proses is her consistent, dark and at times terrifying tone (terror as suggestive; horror as explicit—according to Anne Radcliffe’s “On the Supernatural in Poetry”), sustained through a consistent pattern of narration—no exposition, a sequence of action with or without a climax, and overshadowed by dodgy yet curiously vivid, heavily auditory-based depictions. Goldstein’s tone, along with these violent, intelligent, and suggestive yet playful and inventive little stories make Fables an outstanding candidate for any poetry/prose lover’s bookshelf.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: The Sensualist

The Sensualist
Written by Daniel Torday
Nouvella, 2012
ISBN 9780983658542

The SensualistI should start by talking about the title. I’ve been walking around for the past two weeks with this book in my hand, and everyone who sees it gives me a look that hovers somewhere in the middle of mild shock, illicit curiosity, and outright envy. After all, I’m not normally one to read books that skew especially blue, at least not in public, and with a title like The Sensualist, it’s natural to assume that Daniel Torday’s debut novella is perhaps a more literary version of that book about fifty shades of something or other that was all the rage earlier this year.As it turns out, however, the sensualist at the heart of Torday’s novella is about as far removed as possible from anything E.L. James could ever imagine, and we’re all the better for it. Indeed, by focusing on a young Russian immigrant who imagines himself a sensualist in the style of Dmitri Karamazov—i.e., someone who says what he feels when he feels it and does what he likes to do—Torday gives his coming of age novel a center of gravity that speaks directly to the headstrong yet interstitial nature of the teenage years.

The novella tracks the relationship between the aforementioned sensualist, Dmitri Zilber, and narrator Samuel Gerson as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of young adulthood in the early 1990s. What draws Samuel to Dmitri is the latter’s uncompromising nature. Where Samuel is occasionally cowed by his overbearing gym teacher, Dmitri pays no respect to anyone who hasn’t, in his eyes, earned it. It also helps that Dmitri has a beautiful sister named Yelizaveta, who catches Samuel’s eye and eventually steals heart.In love, or so he believes, with Yelizaveta, Samuel begins to see the world as Dmitri does: as a series of black and white propositions: right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains. Consequently, when Samuel learns that Yelizaveta has eyes for a popular jock, the jock becomes a villain from Samuel’s perspective, and much of the remaining narrative revolves around the narrator’s gradual realization that life rarely offers such cut-and-dried distinctions.

Ultimately, it’s this gradual realization that makes The Sensualist so effective. As he struggles to understand his relationships with Yelazaveta and Dmitri, Samuel must also deal with a grandfather whose delusions of persecution put a heavy strain on the family. Likewise, the delusions of grandeur that Samuel’s growing circle of friends tends to entertain place them in increasingly precarious positions. Through it all, what Samuel needs most is to grow comfortable with uncertainty, of occupying the spaces between good and bad, of appreciating (dare I say it?) the shades of gray that complicate human experience—and Torday leads his narrator through the winding maze of young adulthood with the deft and sensitive heart of someone who’s thoroughly explored its many twists and turns.

Thoroughly engaging and beautifully written, The Sensualist stands alongside such works as The Catcher in the Rye and The Basketball Diaries as that rare breed of book that perfectly captures the ambivalence of youth, a delicate balance of absolute certainty and uncertainty held together by the undeniable anxiety of looming adulthood. In short, an excellent read.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: On the Spectrum of Possible Death

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
Written by Lucia Perillo
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
ISBN 9781556593970

Lucia Perillo follows up her 2009 Copper Canyon Press collection, Inseminating the Elephant, a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Bobbitt Prize Winner, with another skein of tightly braided magical acts of mesmerizing creative force, beautifully bound. Critics never fail to mention this kaleidoscopic ability Perillo has to raddle the sacred and profane, the deeply personal and mythic universal, the Kotex and the ayahuasca. Raddling, in case you don’t know the word, is the art of weaving. The raddleman was the guy who went ‘round the English villages making those charming wicker fences as seen in Room With a View, although the word also references the quaint practice of tupping, having to do with marking the back end of a ewe after the ram’s done his duty. Perillo doesn’t neglect any reference. She raddles ‘riding the wacky noodles’ (those foam floats ‘old ladies’ use in swim class) with stark renderings of how many of them are shy about their mastectomies in the changing room. And then titles it Proximity of Meaningful Spectacle. She ruminates on her love-hate relationship with death while describing dahlias hit by a killing frost by way of a man looking up from his electric chair mid-execution to announce ‘This isn’t working.’ Raddling.

On the Spectrum of Possible DeathsIn forms exact, iambic here, indented there, slant rhymed, eye rhymed, she interrupts classical proportions with a perfectly placed ‘huh, you know’ and a ‘doesn’t that feel a little ostentatious?’ Only Perillo could have written “Freak-Out” – a three-pager in sectioned couplets, and trump the hefty line ‘what passes through the distillery of anguish…’ with ‘not the monster potion but the H Two…oh, forget it…’ She can wax lyrical with the best of the best, then suddenly grab you by the lapels and get in your face. Or in her own face.

In short, Perillo knows just where to go when and how to get back, like Odysseus, or Homer writing the Odyssey. In fact, he’s in here, or rather, his dog, as is Achilles, Carlos Casteneda and Perillo’s father. His shirt label, which she ‘sees is a haiku […]Traditionalist / one hundred percent cotton / made in Mauritius,’ inspires a raddle of Bashō, scungilli and her father’s ‘death poem,’ Soon I must cross / the icy sidewalk. / Help. There goes my shoe

This is a book to own, to touch, to treasure, to marvel at, to peek under the dust cover and appreciate how the juxtaposition of the cover art (Giotto’sThe Last Judgement), the  plain brown woven hard cover and the red end papers accurately mirrors the virtuosic braiding of Lucia Perillo. A poet who knows her raddle

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Goldfish Tears

Goldfish Tears
Written by Curtis Ackie
Pouting Bear, 2012
ISBN 9781471086861


Curtis AckieCurtis Ackie
’s short story collection, Goldfish Tears, transports readers into surrealist landscapes painted with mostly stunning detail.  While there are some nominal flubs that take the reader back to reality, most of the collection keeps the reader believing in Ackie’s world—a world where the sun forgets to rise one day, a husband builds a machine to “correct” his wife’s appearance, and a woman wakes to find that her stoop has dissolved into absolute nothingness.  The premises of Ackie’s stories are wrought with potential.  The climaxes aren’t always grand—which is a good choice that keeps the stories grounded, despite their bizarre beginnings.  The endings are not always as succinctly approached as I’d prefer, but they are satisfying nonetheless.  The book also contains a series of illustrations from Lorena Matić, complimenting the book’s tone with snapshots of individual scenes.

Most of the stories are written in present tense, hurtling the reader directly into the inciting incident.  From a linguistic standpoint, you can tell that Ackie is fresh off a poetry collection as he writes these stories, inserting a number of poetic devices into his prose—alliteration pops up everywhere and some pieces have a distinct lyrical quality.  His environments are clear and he finds precise ways to describe otherworldly occurrences.  For example, in handling the surrealist elements in “The Colour of Nothingness,” Ackie writes these vivid lines:Goldfish Tears“She runs her hand along the doorframe and then sticks the left one out.  Gobbled up by the colourless nothing, the digital pentad ghosts out of sight, but the sensation in her wrist suggests the invisible appendage still exists.  Unnerved, she pulls her hand back in and waggles her fingers about in front of her face to make sure all is in order; four and a thumb, normality.”

This simple scene helps depict that which is literally undepictable—Ackie describes the look of “nothing” through a character’s curiosity about the blank void on her porch.  Her sensation is captured by the description of a phantom limb, but it isn’t overdone.  And rather than bluntly describing her worry with some overused platitudes, Ackie shows the character’s somewhat vexed thoughts through her actions.  The character counts her fingers to make sure they are all there, and this simple action clues the reader into her state of mind.  Ackie does this all with active text and a keen awareness of how his character is behaving.  He lets his characters make choices within their worlds rather than simply having the worlds exist around them.

However, there are a few moments when this breaks down.  In some instances of character action, Ackie loses his bead on the character’s motives and they come off as detached character sketches.  The characters are occasionally said to “see” the environment or “hear” a sound in a generic, explanatory way.  This takes the reader back to a place of observance rather than engagement with the world.  These simple phrases tend to damage the beautiful language highlighted in “The Colour of Nothingness.”  In some settings, these descriptors are useful in conveying a character, but in Ackie’s surrealist realm, I think it pulls the reader too far out.  In these instances, the reader is aware that this is just a story on a page—it shatters Ackie’s otherwise adept world-building.  But that is a picky thing to gripe about, since a lot of the stories retain the active presence that Ackie’s tales demand.  The immediacy of his present tense POV and the penchant for lyricism across the book keeps Ackie’s stories connected to the reader.  Goldfish Tears is a solid collection of short stories from this poet and novelist.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Three Ways of the Saw

Three Ways of the Saw
Written by Matt Mullins
Atticus Books, 2012
ISBN 9780983208068

You know things are going to take a bad turn when a co-worker arrives at the company picnic with a pair of ATVs in tow. Three Ways of the Saw is, after all, a collection of short fiction in which nothing ever goes right for any of its protagonists. In the story in question, tellingly titled “The Braid,” all is going a little too well for a pair of would-be young lovers when the ATVs arrive like the second coming of Chekhov’s gun.

The carnage that ensues is gruesome and gut wrenching, but it also serves a larger purpose. Where a lesser writer might simply offer gore for the sake of gore, author Matt Mullins uses the opportunity to comment subtly and even sensitively upon the nature of adult relationships. Such relationships can be wonderful, he insists on every page of this collection, so full of potential, but also terrifyingly fragile.

Three Ways of the SawFor the most part, the stories in Three Ways of the Saw offer up characters who run the gamut from being adrift to circling the drain. There’s the boy who struggles with questions about his own sexuality in one story and watches his parents’ relationship crumble before his eyes on a road trip through the Great American West in another. There’s the creepy voyeur who trades places with his dog in order to get to know his shapely new neighbor. There’s the girl dreading the arrival of her first period as she reluctantly embarks upon a canoe trip led by an officious priest.

There are drunks, stoners, thieves, and ne’er-do-wells lurking in every corner of this collection, yet for all of the dead-ends they encounter, Mullins always offers his characters as well as his readers a ray of hope. We are, according to Three Ways of the Saw, a curious species—one wracked with all manner of pain, but also one capable of enduring it.

Review by Marc Schuster
© 2012, All Rights Reserved