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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

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

Chapbook Review: Dream-Clung, Gone

Dream-Clung, Gone
Written by Lauren Russell
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012
ISBN 9781936767120

Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Gone spends many of its lines transporting the reader to specific instances in time, ruminating on the details and underscoring bizarre observations that still seem natural when paired with their realistic counterparts.  Her observations are uncanny and relatable—some on a general level and others on a region-specific level that speaks directly to New Yorkers.  But the dreamscape of Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Goneisn’t one of flowery ostentation; her tone is grungy, and her word choice flirts with the vernacular.  She uses lean images, opting for a swift uppercut of quick images rather than a drawn-out ballet fit only for a sesquipedalian.

Dream-Clung Gone

Some of Russell’s images are deliberately caught in the haze typical of post-dream remembrance, solidified as a theme early on with her poem “Fame,” wherein the speaker proclaims “Fame is to wake up and find your dream transcribed on Wikipedia.”  The poem continues to circle this hilarious thought, but her levity becomes stoic at the end, as the dreamer’s remembrance destroys its own core: “In the dream called Fame, there are a hundred and nine contributors. / If the dreamer weights in, it is always at the risk of awaking.— / OneHundredandTen 15:34, 11 Apr 2011 (UTC)”  And thus the poem ends, characteristic of Russell’s style: both witty and mundane, fun and bleak.

Other poems talk—or shout—at other recognizable moments from the life of every poet, or dreamer, or human being.  As aforementioned, you won’t find flowery bits with their lofty venerations: the other poems range from a clever look at the lover as “artifact,” to complaints about supposed-smooth-talking guys on the subway, to a prose poem that plumbs the depths of what black coffee can teach us about personality.

Lauren Russell has an eye for life; she sees little things throughout New York, finds their beating, oozy, sticky hearts, and renders them crisply.  Dream-Clung, Gone isn’t overdone, nor is it underdone.  Lauren Russell’s poems show us the sidewalk with as much uncommon wonder as the Ben Katchor’s drawings in Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, but she does it entirely with words.  Her writing provides a vivid, smart mock-up of 21st century urban life, complete with all its fraying edges and occasional non sequiturs.

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

Book Review: Iceberg

Written by Paul Kavanagh
Honest Publishing, 2012
ISBN 9780957142701

Iceburg Photo 2Paul Kavanagh’s writing is inimitable, and his novel Iceberg resists both summary and analogy, says David Rose in his review blurb on Honest Publishing’s website, which appears directly below the summary.  An enthused commenter suggests ‘hoovering’ is a neologism.  I disagree.  After I write this, I’m going to open red wine.  On page 62, Don removes his rucksack, leans it against the wall and searches for a bottle of wine.  This sentence is repeated as the next line of the next paragraph.  I wasn’t sure by that point if it was intentional.
I wasn’t sure by that point if it was intentional.Such is the hypnotic, laconic and somewhat stultifying style of the surrealistic travel adventure about Don and Phoebe’s escape from grim to grim in a changing world.  What I’m calling stultifying is the relentless sentence structure of subject, verb, {adjective}, object, such as the description of one of the tale’s wonderfully philosophic characters who give Don and Phoebe rides down Africa, on their way to claim the iceberg they won back in their grim Northern town.  “Youssef was small, had large ears, and a massive smile.  He drove a white van and chainsmoked.  Don climbed into the back and made a throne out of heavy wooden boxes.  Phoebe sat in the front.  Youssef was Tunisian and he was going to Rabat.”
Open to any random page, like where they get malaria and meet a doctor: “A Norwegian doctor visited them in their motel.  He was a tall man with lapis lazuli eyes and blond hair.  His soft voice was pleasant after the engines of lorries, cars and motorbikes. […] Phoebe started.  […] Don looked.”  I get the post-postmodernist juxtaposition of simple repetitive sentences against an increasingly dissociative plot, a style that attempts to avoid promoting good feelings and produces a trance-like state.  There’s quite a lot of it in print, my argument against the use of the word inimitable.  In Iceberg it predominates the changing landscape and colorful peripheral characters so as to make me curiously numb to Don and Phoebe’s kaleidoscopic equanimity timeline.  Is that how I’m supposed to feel?
Iceburg Cover 1Happily, Kavanagh peppers his diction with lexical swerves, in the form of funny dialogue, poetic descriptive microparagraphs – “Palm trees sprouted from pools of abandoned seawater” – and sudden vocabulary.  When Don goes to a wave-beaten bar in Elmina for three rounds of drinks, the bartender is first ‘rachitic’, then ‘hypnagogic’ and lastly feared to have narcolepsy, lashings of sesquipedalian loquaciousness I quite enjoyed.  Although, in the case of: “Don watched the virga over the buildings sway and hold the sunlight.  It was a soporific picture.  // Kristian sat down and sipped his coffee.” the device clangs loudly, and if I may say so, somewhat solipsistically.  But that’s just me.
The third section, about life on the iceberg itself, changes form to huge, unbroken paragraphs of dialogue and description – perhaps to mimic the cover illustration of the berg? It’s a perplexing choice.  Don and Phoebe’s denouement is original and charming enough, and certainly different enough from the grim Northern and grim African sections of the novel, to not need this distancing, textural shift.  I couldn’t tell if it was meant to slow the story down or speed it up.  Or what.  A lot happens in Iceberg.  In 116 small pages Don and Phoebe’s world changes, as do they while somehow sort of staying the same.  Maybe I should read it again.
Review by Susan Lynch
© 2012, All Rights Reserved