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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: Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy

Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy
Written by Natalie Peeterse
Gold Line Press, 2012
ISBN 9781105543609

Black Birds Blue HorseNatalie Peeterse’s first chapbook, Black Birds : Blue Horseis a poetic sequence, an elegy, dedicated to Nicole Dial, who was gunned down, with three others, in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Taliban fighters. Dial had dedicated her life to helping children, opening schools in Afghanistan as a member of the International Rescue Committee. It is thus proper to commemorate this chapbook to Dial, and to invoke, in two epigraphs, the spirit of Lorca (shamelessly and brutally stolen from us in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War) and of Czeslaw Milosz, that recently late, great poet of witness. Peeterse’s Black Birds : Blue Horse, features the dense surrealist imagery of Lorca and the urgent, intimate sense of purpose of Milosz—however, she also channels the emotional and poetic dexterity of Muriel Rukeyser and June Jordan. The ample spacings mid-line and sudden line-breaks are in keeping with these latter two poets’ similar verse styles. (They, too, are poets of witness). Peeterse’s chapbook is thus historical, raw, context-heavy, and incisive. Her subject is multifold: not just Dial, not just the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, but also the conflicts at home, in Washington, D.C., which partly comprises this sequence in several brief, but intimate (and world-weary) fragments of the speaker’s journey through that city.

The poem opens with Peeterse’s speaker being informed of a young woman’s sudden death. We can assume that the speaker is the poet, her addressee—the dead girl—is Dial. The poet-speaker wakes to gunfire:

One two : three four:  then two more :
gunshots.         I wake to some kind of tactical
counter-terrorism exercise, or some kind
of national emergency or
the dead body of a girl on the glittering road.
Either way, wind outside.       In waves.
The heat blasts on       and
off. I roll over and answer the phone : hello?

Dial initiates us into a steady beat of gunshots—which are not unusual for the setting—“tactical / counter-terrorism exercise . . . national emergency”. The familiarity of the sounds, eventually linked to the hot winds outside, indicating summertime, deflates any sense of danger or fear begotten from these “gunshots”. The confusion of the source of sounds—the “gunshots” are not really gunshots—emphasizes the speaker’s disorientation, having just woken from sleep to gunfire-wind-the phone ringing . . . “hello?”

Peeterse, through these opening lines and throughout the rest of the sequence, achieves the feat of incorporating sensory experience into commentary—the dead girl on “the glittering road,” for example, alludes to the nature of the phone call, and the nature of this elegy. This command of sensory presence and commentary (as woven together intimately) extends and culminates at certain points, such as the poem midway through this sequence:

At the equinox of a stranger and the self
day and night are everywhere of equal length, it seems–
and so things are possible
and so              precarious the ghetto doors
blown open in the running wind.
Plywood thumps and booms all day here
and all these baby girls–
their voices like swallows. The tiny hinges
of a thousand shoes and precious ankles
move forward :           to the windows of our fear.
Press your face to the glass like a girl does
when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings.

The first line, “At the equinox . . .”, sounds so much like a line out of Lorca. Things are possible. And is not that the entire statement of this elegy? That things are happening, and can happen, at any moment. In keeping with Rukeyser’s influence (assuming, and hoping, Peeterse has read her), the elegy resembles somewhat one of Rukeyser’s masterworks, Waterlily Fire, about the fiery destruction of one of Monet’s waterlily panels: “Who will not believe a waterlily fire. / Whatever can happen in a city of stone, / What can come to a wall can come to this wall.” As if answering this earlier work, Peeterse’s command, “move forward :  to the windows of our fear. . . . when she can’t sleep : the clap of so many wings,” brims with fright and possibility—the voices of swallows, the children (Dial’s purpose in life), the refusal to look away at the window of fear, all call us to look with eyes leveled at the impossible, at our fears, those palpable “thumps and booms.”

Black Birds : Blue Horse is an intimate sequence, that takes great leaps and firmly centers the reader in the immediate experience—Dial’s presence in Afghanistan, the speaker-poet’s mundane walks through D.C. (“Tonight, though, the streets are shiny and unencumbered by your eyes— / slicked over with doubt : that cruel biology of the spirit.”) Peeterse calls us to (peaceful) arms against alienation, against our fears, against turning away, and against silence. “At the equinox of a stranger and the self,” any thing is possible.

Review by Tristan Beach
© 2012, All Rights Reserved