Book Review: Money Money Money Water Water Water

Money Money Money Water Water Water

Written by Jane Mead

Alice James Books, 2014

ISBN 9781938584046

Money Money Money Water Water Water Jane Mead’s assured hand has snipped exquisite holes in her poems, allowing the unsaid to rise, waver and haunt every line. In her fourth collection, the poet has removed every non-essential word, a mastery of distillation, to create a work of pure potency.

In tercets, mostly (three line stanzas), roaming through lean sections of natural shocks, Mead contemplates environmental and existential immensities in a liminal subtext and never puts a foot wrong. On the left, single tercets with monostich gesture to the right hand poems in language as urgent, wistful and primary as   How much how much where going     and you know exactly what she means.

What can’t be said speaks wholly through absence; connections are deepened through asyndeton (no connectors). Gone, most of a sentence; the word going is allowed to remain, to reappear like the repetitions of the title, or ghosts. Going, going, gone.

Questions don’t need question marks, nether states like “the can-be / and the want” “primitive stalks of might-be / and aftermath” tell all. Known by the spirits of deer, and the dead. Ag reports, pesticides. The effect is transfiguring in a transfigured terroir. Something changes into something else in the space between the going and the aftermath, and in us, as Mead asks her last question.

How much can you subtract now 

How much and still get by

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Home Burial

Home Burial

Written by Michael McGriff

Copper Canyon Press, 2012

ISBN 9781556593840

Home Burial coverHome Burial (Copper Canyon Press,  2012) exposes the Pacific Northwest poet Michael McGriff knows inside out with a stunning forensic lyricism. His knowledge of the backwoods, the quarries, the bay “shaped like a rabbit / hanging limp / from the jaws of the landscape” is downright chthonic, haunted by spirits of place, the departed, and the old junkers they left behind. His poems track movement shapeshifting through his rural routes/roots, personifying Midwinter as a woman who “lets the darkness / sit down beside her” here, pointing to glimpses of reeds–or is it human hair– waving from the bottom of the pond in another abandoned wreck there. His unflinching reports are detailed with a poetic grace that does not betray the bleak realities of life, as, say, a four-legged predator, an obese dead man removed by a crane through a shattered chimney,  his grandfather’s will found on the back of an invoice in the shed, a woman about to die on the job at the mill.

McGriff presents the hardscrabble vignettes in forms as natural as weather, in language at once harsh and beautiful, shitkicking and prayerful, but never off pitch. This, his second full-length collection, is a Lannan Literary Selection. In its thirty-one poems, the poet’s response to the natural world and the ultimate fragility of all its inhabitants hardened by necessity ties these cautionary tales, remembrances and elegies together like #50 Heavy Cougar Genuine Leather Logger Laces. Imagining McGriff creating his poetry in the tough guy settings of his titles: the break room, the Oyster Bar, or sitting – like Midwinter – at the kitchen table, is grainy, cinematic. Anyone who knows this heartbreaking country knows Home Burial  nails it; anyone unfamiliar is shown its beating heart, the lay of the land, and what lies beneath.

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2013, 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: Happy Life

Happy Life
Written by David Budbill
Copper Canyon Press, 2011
ISBN 9781556593741

Happy LifeLike a knock on the noggin from a Zen master’s cane, David Budbill’s “Happy Life” hits home with a clarity that made me laugh out loud – ah, truth! He captures the essence of the seasons, chopping wood, carrying water, before and after enlightenment. In this, his ninth poetry collection, the poet, playwright, novelist, short story and children’s book writer reflects on forty years of a ‘happy life’ with one eye on the Tao and an honesty that admits to being, like the beautiful women he sees on trips to the city, ‘preoccupied with sex and ambition.’ But not so much so as to disturb his concentration on a candle flame in the dark, a tiny flower in the woods, or the feel of wet leaves on the path. Shortest of many masterfully spare poems is the four word (six counting title) “Cynical Capitalists” : ‘Privatize profit. / Socialize loss.’ which pretty much sums it up, leaving very little else to be said about all that. In one of his wry reflections on ageing, he looks at his wrinkled skin, sitting down, wearing shorts and wonders “What Happened to Me?” as we all do, or will. Like the classical Zen poet Hanshan, writing of his Cold Mountain life in 8th century Tang dynasty China, Budbill’s contemplations of this human life from his Vermont mountain are timeless.
Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: “A Tale of Two Chapbooks”

The Pulpit vs. The Hole
Written by Jay Shearer
Gold Line Press, 2012
ISBN 9781105543647

Memory Future
Written by Heather Aimee O’Neill
Gold Line Press, 2011
ISBN 9781932800869

A Tale of Two Chapbooks

Back when Dickens created Madame Defarge knitting up a revolution in a quiet cafe corner, publishers sewed together ephemera and called it a chapbook, after the chapmen or street dealers who peddled them for cheap.  Before magazine ads or tweets, it was a quick way to get the latest in print out on the street.  At Oxford a few years back, I sat in the rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera researching a chapbook from 17something, stitched by hand, that included both the poet I’d found and some derogatory essays about the Duchess of Devonshire.  Since then, chapbooks have become a way for emerging authors to show their work before having a full-length collection or novel to print, or for authors to preview upcoming work; it is a stepping stone on the publishing path.  There are many chapbook contests, helping both authors and small presses grow.  This is a tale of two winners, in fiction (2011) and poetry (2010), of the Gold Line Press Chapbook Contest.  The press is associated with USC’s Ph.D in Literature and Creative Writing Department.  I was interested in what, in my view, made these two selections winners.

The Pulit vs The Hole
The fiction winner, selected by Percival Everett, is Jay Shearer’s The Pulpit vs. The Hole.  This long short story, of events at a Christian summer camp, is a tight little ball of yarn that unwinds from beginning to end with the pacing of a practiced storyteller.  Shearer knows exactly what story he’s telling and how to best go about it.   Well, there’s this pulpit and there’s this hole . . . immediately engaging nouns and yet their meaning is obscure, hooking with the easy-reading charm of a young dude telling you his summer camp story.   The insinuations of religion and sex are intentional, as befits a co-ed Bible study camp for waywardish youths, but you don’t really get it until the end.  Shearer’s characters are authentically teenaged–funny and challenging and angsty, with definite stuff to work out–from page one.  Teen stuff on the surface with a laconic subtext that hints of something about to go horribly wrong.  Suitably hooked by both premise and tone, the tale unfolds exactly as it needs to and does not falter.  No spoiler alerts here, but the “quiet kids” of Cabin 6 don’t spend all their time on Bible study.  And even when they do, it’s interesting.  Such a smooth ride on such a bumpy road in only 43 pages that you can see as if you’re watching a movie is why Percival Everett picked this one out of the pile.

Memory FutureMemory Future, selected by Carol Muske-Dukes, begins with an epigraph from Jeanette Winterson’sGut Symmetries (an extremely quotable and quoted author, as shown by a quick Google, and a book I must read immediately) and uses phrases from it as section titles.  As the chapbook title suggests, O’Neill’s poems are memory banks in time shifts, written in short two, three and four line forms mainly, until the middle section, “the spin of the earth that allows us to observe time” (Winterson’s line).  This section is one poem, “Winter in Spain,” consisting of seven numbered sonnets, and it was here I entered the chapbook more fully.  Particularly in II. with its opening line of “The flecks of red fade, not the hope.  There’s more  .” After reading this sonnet and appreciating its heightened nuances, feeling it to be the best in the book, I noticed a small pink dot had been affixed to that very page.  Apparently someone else felt the same way.  I was frankly relieved to see the last poem, the narrative “Second Grade Teachers Don’t Have Names Without Mr., Mrs., or Ms.  Attached” deviate from the controlled, even-tempered collection, and spin out a little.

What binds these two together is a consistency of tone in each author, an assured spareness in thoughtful, personal, circular narratives where, like a ball of yarn, or an orbit, the end takes you back to the beginning.  O’Neill studied with Marie Ponsot, among others she acknowledges, and it shows.  Less is more doesn’t quite nail it.  Another opening sonnet line of O’Neill’s–she writes killer first lines–better sums it up.  “Nostaliga is uneasy.  For so long” . . . it’s an enjambment, so no period.  The story goes on, like a circle.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec

When My Brother Was an Aztec
Written by Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
ISBN 9781556593833

            This 3am war bell, duende vision prison

Natalie DiazGot it? As seen in this randomly-chosen line from Natalie Diaz’s first collection of poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press  2012), there is a poetics-infused prosodic wonder at work here, wrangling her family mythos like a Homeric pro as they deal, home on the res in Needles, with her tweaked, Quetzacoatl’d, Geronimo bro, who shows up at restaurants, ‘a lamp cord knotted at his neck’, and steals all the lightbulbs.  That’s just the tame stuff.  There is much, much worse afoot.  And Diaz has a life too.

Diaz fills us in on all of it.  I defy anyone (else) to turn such circumstances into such enthralling poetry.  The title’s provocative (with accompanying cover photo), then you see she really means it.  Laying out long form after long form in original syntax that neither regrets nor defends, Diaz chronicles her brother’s meth-fueled ravages from an unsafe distance with tragicomic aplomb, direct lyricism and glistening irony.  “Downhill Triolets” renders a(nother) late night altercation on the lawn with tribal cops, Sappho, Jimi Hendrix, Geronimo, the tweaked brother, Sisyphus, Lionel Ritchie, and God, into three neat poetic sequences.  What?  Problem?  “Remember how long it took the Minotaur / to escape the labyrinth.

When My Brother was an AztecAnd then, read the prose poem about “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie.”  This first book from Natalie Diaz, an MFA-holding award-winner who works with tribal elders preserving the Mojave language, is a Lannan Literary Selection.  And yes, it’s all going to be on the quiz.  Every word.

Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved