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Chapbook Review: The Egg Mistress

The Egg Mistress
Written by Jessica Poli
Gold Line Press, 2013
ISBN 9781938900037

 
 
Jessica Poli’s The Egg Mistress (Gold Line Press, 2013) brims with delight, sensuality, and devastation, muted and estranged in poems and prose poems grappling with the various stages and eventual end of a romantic relationship. The chapbook cycles through a tight economy of symbols, including a barn, eggs, corn, a kitchen, salt, and cotton. These images, through their reappearance and repetition, work to create a pervading, unified rural-domestic sense of place. Much of the emotion of the chapbook—held at arms’ length (at times buckling, allowing it to take over even in the coolest of lines)—passes through this conspicuous frame. Rather than confining, these poems derive a wonderful, quick energy from Poli’s enigmatic, matter-of-fact wit. For example, the prose poem “The Naming of Things Kept Us Busy” notes with dry, bitter, disenchanted wit an exchange of vows:

landlocked deadbolt dust bowl house in the middle. We read the entire list at the ceremony. After all, we were so careful about getting everything right, stuck on the word love for a day—love, like the failure of the word lung, like mineral. A grassy kiss against teeth. Grinning badly by a cactus. The blood dog’s bite against your thigh. Finally we settled: a hand in a room full of hands.

The speaker relates the content of the vows in barren, claustrophobic terms in the first sentence. The poem then proceeds to convey a gentle yet disengaged (grassy) kiss and the obsession with the word “love,” which fails to adequately name what actually passes between the speaker and her addressee, just as “lung” and “mineral” fail. The nature of these words’ shortcomings is unclear; perhaps this is true for the speaker, attempting to articulate and define the intangible. The final sentence simultaneously evokes mundaneness and eroticism.

Another poem, particular in its dryness and absurd humor, is the eponymous “The Egg Mistress,” in which the speaker declares herself as existing as two selves:

In the morning, I fill the counter with crab legs.
Large white pots boil on the stovetop
ready for an afternoon feast.

I keep my hands full.

Pass your name with salt over burners.

In the kitchen, there are two of myself–
one cooking, stirring, sautéing,
one lying dead on the slick tile,
crabs crawling and tangling in her hair.

I step over her and fry an egg.

The image of crabs “crawling and tangling” in the hair of the dead self while the living self moves about, keeping her hands full, expresses a paradox: to balance the numb, assertive, and pragmatic self, there must necessarily be something dead and plain in sight. One cannot have it a single or solitary way. In order to work through grief (to do what must be done in the everyday), there must be a sort of active separation or detachment. In fact, this separation, resonating throughout the chapbook, lays bare pain and regret in a stark clarity. The matter of fact line, “I step over her and fry an egg,” shows the speaker both ignoring and accepting the lying form as part of her environment. There’s triumph in these lines, as well as dejection.

The Egg MistressAside from Poli’s effective use of a consistent system of symbols and place, The Egg Mistress contains multiple examples of deep, vivid imagery. The poem “I Hide the Core Heap Under the Bed” begins by describing traces of apple-flesh and peel: “Balsa hands and / red sugar on hot fingers: / you used to have a hold on me.” The third line reads like a line from a love song, transplanted and equated to the vestiges of the apple. The traces of the hold are still apparent. The speaker recalls making love “under black lights” with a sense of violence and shame; she recalls the tenderness in her lover’s brushing lint away from her mouth—no more. Finally, the poem ends with the speaker recalling an intimate line, “Let me melt, I always said. / You fed me apples in the morning. / You told me not to cry and fed me apples.” The inclusion of these lines, reminiscent of cliché, ring sincere in the face of the speaker’s bereaved state and Poli’s thorough depiction of gestures and images contained within the poem.

The Egg Mistress can be taken as a layered sequence; each poem and prose poem feels a fragment, part of the whole. The speaker’s consistent tone also unifies the chapbook (we assume these poems have a common speaker). Through several rereads, one gains an even clearer sense of Poli’s intent—to tell the complex story of a relationship, or relationships, through several complex poems, able to stand on their own while complementing one another. There’s also a renewing joy of discovery, of surprise, inherent in this collection, despite the despair and strangeness woven into this book. And part of this joy comes from poems that defy easy explanation or expectation—handled with a level of dexterity and intelligence and care, evident of Poli’s poetic maturity.

 
Review by Tristan Beach
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: States of Independence

States of Independence
Written by Michael Klein
Bloom Books, 2012
ISBN 9780983761150

Immediately preceding Michael Klein’s much-anticipated The Talking Day, Bloom Books released a chapbook of essays by Klein, States of Independence, selected by Rigoberto González as part of Bloom’s 2011 chapbook series. Check out Bloom Magazine, which publishes biannual issues featuring both established and emerging queer writers.

States of Independence is a thin, square-shaped, pocket-sized little book sporting wide clean white borders around its central image: a man walking his small dog on a sun-lit beach. The image reminds one of a miniature movie poster. Snow, sunlight, and rain all resonate with States, figuring in Klein’s personal semantics of loss, isolation, and love. The snowy borders around the cover of States do more than just provide padding; they accentuate the image’s isolating effects, while fortifying the sense of companionship and sobriety characteristic of much of States.

Klein’s prose often feels cinematic, as in the first essay of this sequence, “Movie Rain and Movie Snow”:

It was snowing in New York—and everywhere else, apparently—but especially in New York because that’s where I live and Fifth and Madison and Lexington Avenues all run down in the same direction of snow falling on awnings and doormen and cars and buses pulling people into jobs and schools all white morning.

This sweeping, kaleidoscopic sentence beginning the essay’s second section manages to stylistically integrate Van Gogh’s animated drops from “Rain,” the oppressive downpour at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the haunting snow-motif in Citizen Kane. (Klein comments on each of these in the essay.) Snow, rain, and sunlight can obscure or clarify, symbolize or punctuate depending on how they’re framed within a work of art.

One particularly impressive essay is “Airports and Funerals in Sobriety,” in which Klein likens sunlight falling in an airport corridor to new sobriety; later, he manages to link this sobriety to vulnerability when depicting a funeral scene:

I was holding a white chrysanthemum in the cold and Andrew was holding a yellow rose and when there were no flowers left among the living we walked away and my brother-in-law stood there alone in the cold sunlight and Andrew and I walked to the car and joined a line of more cars driving to the reception which was lovely with strangers on their way—as it always ceremonies—to the memory that gets fastened to everybody’s living.

Much like the long sentence from “Movie Rain and Movie Snow,” this sentence depicts a sequence—more linear and sequential in this instance. A logical flow of events holds this together without punctuation. The cold sunlight is painful and isolating—causing Klein’s brother-in-law to appear starkly as a solitary figure, naked and alone in his grief.

States of Independence touches upon many subjects characteristic of Klein’s poetry and prose. Some essays are short and feel more like prose poems than vignettes; the chapbook itself is hard to define as strictly memoir or creative nonfiction, given its diversity. But that’s the virtue of presenting these pieces as a chapbook, which has fewer restrictions and fewer, divisive expectations than a full collection. Hopefully, States will appear in a larger collection someday so as to gain a wider audience. As it is, States is a great introduction to Klein’s body of work, exemplifying his dexterity and diversity as a poet as well as the honest emotion (whether bitter, sweet, or humorous) inherent in his prose.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2013, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: The Snipe

The Snipe
Written by Matthew Derby
JR Vansant, 2010

The SnipeMatthew Derby’s The Snipe is a relatively short publication (28 pages—although that’s not-too-short considering it’s a chapbook), so here’s a relatively short review.  The chapbook tackles issues of infidelity, jealously, and the sprinkles of self-delusion that often accompany these themes.  The chapbook is a funny piece of work—light at first, gradually becoming dark humor later on.  And even as the principal character begins to enact revenge fantasies against a woman in her friend-circle, Derby keeps you laughing with musings on gender constructs—recalling a shopkeeper’s crack about her buying “the pink rifle as well as the pink magazine loaded with punk bullets that looked like glossy lipstick,” it’s noted that “at that moment she wanted nothing more than to fall into step with the legions of ladies who had come to the armory in search of pink rifles.  She imagined herself at a shooting range with the ladies, all of them standing in a perfect row, taking aim at the paper targets in unison” (22).I won’t spoil the climax of The Snipe, nor will I uncover the tangled mess of emotions that run through Derby’s characters, suffice to say that the “mess” comes into focus by the end.  It’s a chapbook with a sense of purpose that sharpens as its narrative arc progresses—providing social commentary alongside the lighter notes.  If the chapbook has a failing, I’d suggest that the reliance upon gender stereotypes to make its points doesn’t seem to work in a couple of situations—even as Derby obliterates others instances of stereotyping throughout the chapbook.  The juxtaposition of generalization and authenticity stops short of heightening the chapbook’s subtle ironies.  Regardless, potential sticking points are nominal, and Matthew Derby’s The Snipe is a fun romp that deserves a read.  The signed and numbered copies of this chapbook are sold out, but you can still order a copy of the second printing through JR Vansant’s website.
Review by James R. Gapinski
© 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

Chapbook Review: Visiting Writers

Visiting Writers
Written by Ravi Mangla
Uncanny Valley Press, 2011

Ravi Mangla’s chapbook, Visiting Writers (Uncanny Valley Press, 2011), consists of 23 pieces of flash fiction.  These pieces each describe a chance encounter with a famous writer—removed from the trappings of academia or pop-culture consumption, these slices of life peer into the characters of Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and other notables.  Mangla’s chapbook wants to provide fun little glimpses into humanizing moments—in the candid space, the writers behave in ways that give sly glances into the idiosyncratic quirks that may or may not have shaped their own writings.  It attempts to link art and artist.  Unfortunately, in many of the pieces, it comes off as too obvious.  I appreciate that each piece is resolute in its brevity, but ultimately these short visits into the lives of famous authors don’t use their few phrases to any advantage.  The journey comes off as somewhat contrived, as each reference to a new author reads more like a library manifest than a story.

That said, I also appreciate the way Mangla tries to keep things low-key despite the misplaced high-brow platitudes.  Bits of humor keep things light, such as the following two-sentence piece: “At the DMV I waited in line behind Gordon Lish.  He wanted a custom license plate but couldn’t settle on the right combination of letters.”  It’s a neat little nod to Lish’s reputation as a meticulous wordsmith.  The collection is full of these inside jokes for well-read audiences, but the end result of these little gems doesn’t have staying power—it just reads like a laundry list of winks from Mangla that become almost expected and anticipated by the end of the chapbook.

This first chapbook from Ravi Mangla has an ambitious premise, but it doesn’t meet expectations.  However, Visiting Writers represents a step toward a more cohesive authorial voice for Mangla.  There is evidence of Mangla’s attention to detail throughout the chapbook, and even if the chapbook fell flat for me, I imagine that some of Mangla’s stylistic choices will evolve and serve him better in his next collection.  All writers grow and learn as they revise their work, listen to critics (or ignore them as necessary), and reflect on past projects.  I sometimes wretch when looking back at my work from five years or even five minutes ago; Ravi Mangla’s piece is fine-tuned enough that it doesn’t force this gag reflect, but it still misses the mark.  So this brutal review aside, Mangla may be an author to watch.  Visiting Writers was contrived, and it almost used its premise as a crutch—hiding behind its literary references while failing to impress on its own merits—but when Mangla steps into his next project, the undercurrents of craft in Visiting Writers could come to the surface in an amazing way.

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