A Review of Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin

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A Review of Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin

By Jennifer Dane Clements

We remember best that which haunts us. The memories or fears that we carry, percolate in our bloodstreams. As children, the unknown and unknowable facets of the world succumb to dreamscapes of mythical proportions, allowing us to be haunted by things ordinary and alive: the toothy jags of a broken window, an attic portrait with a traveling gaze, the gnarled witch and her warty moral to the story. As children, we await their instruction, understanding that which haunts us to have a strange and beguiling power.

It is with this in mind that Mary McMyne frames Wolf Skin, a chapbook of poems from the voice of a woman whose own childhood was steeped in the twists and vines of the old German fairy tales. Now, grown, the echoes of the tales return to her as commentary to her daily life and reminders from long ago.

The most harrowing of these echoes advises the woman to “Be not girl . . . but wolf.” Those who do not become wolves, speaks the memory of her mother, are little more than dolls, “dumb as porcelain.” As though one’s evolution through personhood is a journey built on unpleasant binaries: vicious or inert, brave or in need of rescue.

In the titular poem, we come to understand the huntsman from “Little Red Riding Hood” embellished his tale of heroism from something more closely approximating a sad act of butchery, his liberated victims still reeling from shock and too disoriented to mutter more than a few words. There were no great thanks or praise, no ceremonies, and the trophy he claimed to have taken from his heroic deed. The “wolf skin” of the poem and of the collection’s title speaks to the assumed persona, the larger-than-life fiction we cloak ourselves in to satisfy some notion of bravery, of gender, of morality.

Childhoods are fascinated with dark spaces and mystery, and lean with curiosity towards danger. In McMyne’s retelling of these familiar tales, we’re reminded of the darker themes lurking behind characters we’ve come to associate with youthful innocence: death, isolation, pain. And so we encounter the wolf lurking at the doorstep where a girl laps at her popsicle, the prince who’s been cursed to live as a hedgehog, the pregnant and yearning princess captive in her tower.

Indeed these reminders often deal in fierceness–how it can be assumed or appropriated, how growth and heroism seem intertwined. And, perhaps most importantly, how these values and lessons transcend and permeate into our time, today, where still we find what’s necessary at odds with what makes for a compelling hero’s tale.

The collection begins and ends with the image of a moth, from the mother’s collection, perfect and asphyxiated, pinned to a corkboard. As an expression of both the fairy tales she illustrates and of the book itself, this image carries acute resonance: delicate, inquisitive, and a tinge darker than people might expect.

Mary McMyne, Wolf Skin. Dancing Girl Press, 2014: $7.00

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Jennifer Clements is a writer of all sorts based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in publications including Barrelhouse, Hippocampus, WordRiot, Psychopomp, and on stages in DC and New York. She is a prose editor of ink&coda and writes regularly for Luna Luna Magazine and DC Theatre Scene. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Visit her online at www.jennifer-dane-clements.com.

A Review of Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City

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A Review of Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City

By J. Andrew Goodman

The Rusted City is an imaginative debut novella-in-poems by Rochelle Hurt, chosen as the 2014 installment of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, an imprint of White Pine Press. The collection follows a family living in the Rusted City where buildings, fauna, and people have corroded from disuse. Jobs and fathers are mythologized and ephemeral, leaving wives and daughters equally susceptible to corrosion. “[Rust], mothers would say to one another, will eat through anything.”

The collection follows a family of four–the Favorite Father, the Quiet Mother, the oldest Sister, and the Smallest Sister–similar to many families in the Rust Belt town amid the strife of unemployment and listlessness and their byproducts. However, Hurt’s vibrant prose animates rivers, turns scrap gardens into jewelry boxes, and rust and oils into something palatable. On one’s first tour, the city glints with old world glory.

The Rusted City subsumes color–patina and verdigris, rust and blood, snow and ash–as a metaphor seemingly changing as scenes and characters do. In one scene, the red of rust signifies the accumulation of secrets; in another, the physical redness of eyes after much weeping.

Through Hurt’s tight and deliberate language, rust, the consequence of the city’s halted production, corrodes the alloyed inhabitants. Such corrosion makes them stiff, opaque, lacking in reflection. Rust becomes a metaphor for callousness or numbness. The city’s many fathers are guilty of sexual abuse. The Favorite Father seeks reconciliation with the Quiet Mother, but she reacts as her moniker suggests:

Once you were silver,/ skin-tease and flash, // I could reach inside/ your chest, empty // as a tin canister, the air / thick with echo, I could stretch // my fingers out and tap / my nail against your heart, // which hung like a spoon / from your ribcage, // once I tapped too hard / and it clattered to the bottom // of your gut. I spent months / trying to hang it back up.

The Rusted City’s other women respond similarly, ossifying against their husband’s apologies, effectively becoming constructs. “In need of music, dancing women began to hum, // bus still refused to move their tongues. Their men resolved to hold them still until // some mouths softened with moss or crumbled.” All the citizens adopt such forms to conceal their trauma or distress. Rochelle Hurt’s clever rendering of bodies reveals the “impatient decay” of heavily tested love, how quickly silence becomes distance.

Silence exudes almost every page as a gift of reprieve, as a secret, and as a weapon. The Smallest Sister, whom the collection follows most closely, tries to recapture the language to speak of her own abuse, to give a name to her experience. She appropriates it one word at a time with help from the Oldest Sister.

Once inhabited by silence, Hurt’s characters are inert machines: cold and interchangeable cogs, the mothers are indefatigable and quiet in their “sweeping” of the past. “Often, mothers caught one another / by the river at night, eyes wide, / arms locked to brooms. Often, // they agreed to make another secret / of their sweeping, and no one knew // how much of the city’s past / the water had swallowed.” More and more, the citizens and their pasts are enveloped in rust. In concerted effort, Rochelle Hurt reveals the nature of pain: infectious and ubiquitous.

The Rusted City is a product of collective labor. An entire city works to conceal its past before younger generations may rediscover it. In the process, one wonders if the intense corruption begins in the atmosphere or whether it is internal, spreading outward.

The Rusted City is an intimate examination of familial strife. Rochelle Hurt’s use of metaphor compounds the affect of language and implication. Her imagery is smart and wondrous, while her insights remind us that reconciliation is precipitous and piecemeal.

Rochelle Hurt, The Rusted City. White Pine Press, 2014: $16.00

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J. Andrew Goodman is the Managing Book Review Editor for As It Ought To Be, a Library Page for the Louisville Free Public Library, and a former marketing and editorial intern for White Pine Press. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Murray State University.

A Review of Agustin Aguilar’s Leonora Come Down

 leonora come down cover

A Review of Agustin Aguilar’s Leonora Come Down

By Nate Ragolia

Where lies the line between myth, falsehood, and reality? That is one of the central questions buried amid, gorgeous, poetic prose in Agustin Aguilar’s novella Leonora Comes Down, recently published by We Heard You Like Books. This work of fiction, elegant and lush in its descriptions, its mythos, and the world it creates revolving around small town  Wiskatchekwa is a challenging yet intimate read. Focusing on a boy named Arturo who one day finds and befriends a pyramid that is simultaneously his shadow, a chalice of lore and history, and a living entity (perhaps a goddess), Leonora Come Down invites readers to observe, absorb, and untangle an otherworldly puzzle.

Aguilar’s writing style finds a comfortable footing somewhere between William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, and Harper Lee. His xenophobic, conservative hamlet of Wiskatchekwa is as fully imagined and populated by quirky characters as Maycomb or the small, gossipy town from “A Rose for Emily.” The novella requires intense reading, which may not work for everyone, but those who choose to will find the long, river-like sentences to be short poems themselves:

Sand was a fearful thing, like bobbleheads of the high school’s mascot, Red the Warrior, but they felt secure, they could sleep over a shapeless ghost of the past–though townspeople did not go in for flowery comparisons–because it wasn’t as if Wiskatchekwa were waves of drift, they also had silt and clay, great ingredients for growth, and the restrictive feature wasn’t far below.

Such sentences are frequent in Leonora Come Down and they typify the novella’s pleasures and pains. Though short, parsing through the many details in a single sentence may be challenging.

When I asked Agustin Aguilar about his influences, he replied, “The writer most on my mind when I began this story was Leonora Carrington, who of course lends her name. She is somewhat of a spiritual presence, a companion, in all of this. I’d count her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, as a particular influence. Stylistically, the influences vary. I wanted the language, at the line level, to read sort of effortlessly (though I realize some might take more than a little effort!). To be fairly simple, in terms of the imagery, the sentiment, the action. This is the fairy and folklore influence. And yet many sentences have a run-on quality, this sense of uncertainty and unnerving forward momentum. So there is tension in the narrative voice. This is also due to the task of weaving extraordinary events into a seemingly mundane setting–it was important that I keep the story rooted in a semi-recognizable place.”

Aguilar’s story deals primarily in the ways people doubt the new, fear change, but eventually come together. The town, Wiskatchekwa, wishes to remain small, fears the South and the people of the nearby lake. It is a world couched in revisionist history and superstition. Wiskatchekwa is less a setting than a character itself–reminiscent of Harper Lee or William Faulkner’s places. Aguilar’s fictional berg is a lively, opinionated, and occasionally antagonistic place. Wiskatchekwa resists change, while making revisions to its own history. Wiskatchekwa is pan-optic in the way small towns are: nothing escapes its gaze and no issue goes on without comment. The book’s main characters, Arturo and Leonora, are scrutinized, labeled, and qualified by the town’s magical collective consciousness. Wiskatchekwa is a character ripped from time, misplaced, but also stone-set, serving as both lens and parrot for common and universal fears and superstitions. Arturo’s worldview is motivated and limited by what the town and townspeople think. The town’s perception is a primary source of conflict.

Magical realism is also prominent in Aguilar’s world. Only Arturo remains consistent, serving as an innocent but knowing proxy for the reader; he takes the world at its face. Arturo is a vessel, willing to learn, repeating the prejudices and fears of the other townsfolk as a conveyance for sharing them with us.

Leonora Comes Down is about humanity and community, about what we choose to believe and the things we choose to deny. Aguilar’s novella is an exploration of truth, pondering the impacts of gossip, misinformation, and xenophobia. Readers will explore the ways we build our egos–and the egos of our communities–on believable, repeatable fictions, and the way that we often blindly trust whatever culture is handed down to us from generations prior.

Leonora Comes Down is also a self-reflexive study of myth and storytelling. The novella often focuses on the ways that we use stories to control each other, to change reality, and even to improve this world. Much of culture comprises the ways we look at the world and the stories we tell ourselves to try and understand it.

Suffice to say, Leonora Come Down is a brilliant work of magical realism, poetic prose, pseudo-Gothic fiction, and epistemological philosophy. The journey from page one to its satisfying and poignant ending will leave the reader with much to think about. Aguilar’s work is stunning, beautiful, with its own elaborate and believable mythos. His is a story of stories and storytellers, and despite its intricate, challenging form, one of the most rewarding books you may ever read.

Agustin Aguilar, Leonora Come Down. We Heard You Like Books, 2016: $12.95

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Nate Ragolia is the author of the novella, There You Feel Free; Creator of the Illiterate Badger and Lark & Robin webcomics; and occasional chatterer on music, film, &c on Medium. He is also editor-in-chief of Boned: a collection of skeletal fiction, poetry, essays, and more.

A Review of Sarah Marcus’s Backcountry

Sarah Marcus Backcountry

A Review of Sarah Marcus’s Backcountry

by Karen Skolfield

In my review copy of Sarah Marcus’s chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Marcus includes a friendly, cheerful handwritten note to me which she signs “Love & Bears.” Love – a not-unusual sign off, and she knew my gender, so it’s the salutation between two women writers, but bears? And I look at the title: Backcountry. Of course. Where there are bears.

Turns out, in the backcountry there’s also plenty of love, so Marcus was giving me a succinct preview of her book. There’s love and its near-opposite, a couple we see struggling in their relationship, their lives. By placing the couple so often in the outdoors, the usual trappings of domesticity disappear: no one’s fixing the indoor plumbing as a sign the romance has gone out of the relationship, no one’s passive aggressively leaving dishes in the sink. Instead, they’re looking at maps, watching for storms, telling stories and dreaming, building a fire, building a fire again, that deep symbol of made and shared warmth, the collapse into coals, and is that good or bad? – Marcus lets us answer that question ourselves, even as this couple cycles through unhealthy behavior that may or may not be healthier than the lives they lived without each other.

The couple flashes in and out of the backcountry and a more urban and expected life, both offering their unique dangers. The way a simple rain can turn into a flash flood, “how water steals faces but leaves bodies.” A car rusting in a driveway as the woman contemplates the relationship. What a boat’s spinning propeller can do. When a coyote follows the woman and the couple take up a gun and bow, it’s clear this is not a real coyote but the specter of the relationship’s disintegration they’re warding off.

We hear that howl. We wish the couple well.

I should say: We sort of wish them well. This is a couple we sense shouldn’t be. Still, if this invented couple were all prairie paintbrush and squeaking marmots, all fireweed – the flower that blooms prolifically and purple after wildfire has scarred the landscape black – we’d be disappointed. We need their struggles and their troubles. We know those troubles, and hope we’re mostly beyond them, or won’t stumble into them again. We’ve been the man, telling her “not to make this more difficult than it needs to be.” We’ve been the woman saying everything’s fine, but “annoyed they’ve hiked all these miles to have the same conversation they’ve had at their kitchen table hundreds of times before.” We’re the looming need for rehab, the possibility of prison or a psych ward, the needle scars, the parent dying, the waste of looking for completion through another person instead of through the self.

Though I’m spending time telling the stories, that’s not to say it’s the only reason to keep reading. The narrative arc is pleasing, no doubt, but it’s the fineness of the poems and the finesse of language that makes each poem worthwhile. Like a tracker, I follow Marcus’s language, looking for the misstep in the mudbank – the classic mistake of a creature not wanting to be noticed – but there are no missteps here. Marcus’s chap is the literary equivalent of walking on rocks, each line firm and carefully placed. The endings are an absolute pleasure, never forced, and when I go back through and read them I notice that all but three or four of them end on the woman’s actions or point of view, and maybe this shouldn’t be surprising but I’m enormously pleased by this. Toward the end of the book, the softer third person switches to first person, the hammer of it – there’s been a major shift in the relationship – and it’s dizzying and perfect, both sad and triumphant.

And not to give too many spoilers, but there are bears, though not, perhaps, the bears you might expect. Take a woman and a man. Add some hardships and addiction. Have the adults deal with those things again and again. Now add bears – see how the wildest things go on and live or die without us, see how they move on, as in dreams? That’s how it is, Marcus tells us, for good or ill. That’s what happens in the backcountry.

Sarah Marcus, Backcountry. Finishing Line Press, 2013: $14

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Karen Skolfield is the author of FROST IN THE LOW AREAS (Zone 3 Press, 2013). She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two kids. She teaches technical writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she also earned her MFA. She is a contributing editor at Bateau Press and the literary magazine Stirring, and her poems have appeared in 2011 Best of the Net Anthology, Cave Wall, Memorious, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, Verse DailyWest Branch, and others.

 

 

A Review of Len Joy’s American Past Time

Len Joy's Novel, American Past Time

A Review of Len Joy’s American Past Time

by Jody Hobbs Hesler

Len Joy’s debut novel, American Past Time, is part time capsule and part baseball love affair. The title itself promises this (baseball is considered an America’s pastime, and this novel takes place in America’s past). It hearkens to the American hunger for the major leagues and the good life, spanning twenty years in the lives of the Stonemason family – from the post-war world of 1953 all the way to the summer of 1973.

Readers might expect such a nostalgic look at America to take a too-narrow, Mom-and-apple-pie approach, but Joy avoids this pitfall. What readers get instead is a steady-on account of a gifted ball player, Dancer Stonemason, first as he is poised on the brink of what might be a glorious career in the majors, next as he reckons with the more tortured day-in, day-out existence of a factory job in the 1950s American South, and beyond.

The first section of the book belongs to Dancer. The point of view shifts to his wife, Dede, in the next section, and finally to that of their two sons, Jimmy and Clayton, in the third and final section of the novel. Joy chose a pivotal twenty years to cover in his work. His characters reckon with pressures at the workplace from the Ku Klux Klan, the shocking (especially at the time) discovery of a wife’s lesbian lover, stories of the Civil Rights Movement,= and evidence of the slow changes it brings, a son going off to Vietnam, cancer, and more.

The Stonemasons’ many struggles, failures, and triumphs parallel the challenges and changes of the nation throughout these same times. But we start simply, with Dancer’s pure love of baseball: “He had a hand built for pitching – a pancake-sized palm and long, tapered fingers that hid the ball from the batter for that extra heartbeat” (2).

One bright day in Maple Springs, Missouri – a week before Dancer is scheduled to sub for a major league pitcher and get his chance at the big leagues – his wife and son come to watch him pitch. Everything he loves is in one place. Even the weather cooperates with Dancer’s optimism: “The sky was great-to-be-alive blue” (18).

Before the game, Rolla Rebel team owner, Doc, advises Dancer to go easy on his arm to keep it fresh for next week, and they plan to pull him after a few innings. But as the game promises to become legendary, fellow Rebel and veteran catcher, Billy Pardue, tells him, “You want to stay up in the Bigs, remember this – respect the goddam game. Play every game like it’s your last” (17), echoing Dancer’s own desire to honor his love for the game and continue.

As the innings progress toward what will become Dancer’s one perfect game, the community watching seems to unite in awe of him: “As he walked out to the mound for the seventh inning the crowd was eerily quiet, as if they were afraid the cheering might upset the baseball gods” (20-21).

Afterward, clouds roll into that “great-to-be-alive blue” sky. Doc lets Dancer know he can’t fill in for the major league pitcher anymore because he exhausted his arm, but surely he would get another chance. And Dancer takes heart. “It was a perfect game. No one could take that from him. … No matter what else happened they would always have that game. That moment. And Doc was right. He was young. He’d get another chance” (27). That innocent trust in the future sets up the disappointment and aching nostalgia that follow Dancer, and really all of us, after a peak moment we never know will be the last of its kind.

Dancer’s legendary game buys him a few years of low-level local fame, but we learn soon afterward that “the problem with his arm had developed the spring after the perfect game” (29). Dancer takes a better-paying job, pouring steel at the Caterpillar foundry, and the weight he gains in muscle mass, according to Doc, “might have thrown off his mechanics” (29). Whatever the cause, clearly nothing will be the same for Dancer again.

Soon Dancer is nobody’s hero anymore, and the work is hard and unrelenting. On the job, Dancer faces pressure from the owner’s son to attend Ku Klux Klan meetings. At home, his wife and two sons need more than he seems able to provide. He starts drinking with his best friend, staying out later and later. Everything starts slipping. Eventually, his wife Dede fears, “Things were never going to be normal in Maple Springs. Dancer was broken. … [E]very time she got a little bit ahead, Dancer would end up knocking that rock back down the hill” (199). All evidence seems to doom Dancer to ultimate failure. But sometimes, when second chances happen, they don’t look a thing like what you would expect.

This novel is a paean to the American Dream, not the showy upmarket commercial full-of-promises version, but the sort of dream you gain through trial, error, toil, and endurance. In Len Joy’s American Past Time, Dancer Stonemason rebuilds his dreams against the backdrop of a country doing the same thing.

Len Joy, American Past Time. Hark! New Era Publishing, LLC, 2014: $5.99

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Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, Charlottesville Family Magazine, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, and others. You can follow her at jodyhobbshesler.com or on her Facebook writer page: Jody Hobbs Hesler – Writer.

A Review of Simi Linton’s My Body Politic

A Review of Simi Linton’s My Body Politic

by Kate Grisim

 

Simi Linton’s My Body Politic takes readers through the aftermath of a road trip as a young adult to join a protest demonstration against the then-current war in Vietnam. The setting is a spring day in 1971; three youngsters (the protagonist, her husband, and her best friend) innocently stick their thumbs out to hitch a ride. They were en route to support a cause all three of them believed in, but by the end of the day, Linton’s life was derailed in a way she hadn’t conceived possible. Her story, however, only starts here.

The deaths of John (Linton’s first husband) and Carol (her best friend), seemingly the most traumatic situation that a person could imagine, take a back seat in Linton’s story to the trauma she endured in becoming a woman disabled by society and circumstance. This transition from loss to gain is the essential arc of Linton’s story. She does not soften her situation with flowery epithets of hope but instead mourns the life she once had as she “reconstructs […] the life I grew into.” Linton does not do this arrogantly, portraying herself as a rather naive, passive shell of a person in the first half of her memoir. For example, Linton is forced to take on the role of the “good patient” in the hospital, where ironically “[i]t wasn’t until the third or fourth week that a doctor came to tell me that my legs were paralyzed [….] I must have known it on some level, but kept the thought at bay.” Her further encounters with both medical professionals and friends and family members only add to this affect, even to the extent of having her sister travel to Linton’s late husband’s funeral to absorb the shock for her.

This is not merely circumstantial; it is clear that Linton sets up her dependency on people within the pages of her memoir in order to achieve a harsh portrayal of herself and the state of her body both before and after the accident. Perhaps the most harrowing image, one that has stayed with me well after finishing Linton’s story, is the description of a flashback to a photo shoot for a New York underground newspaper, in which Linton is posed under the headline “SLUM GODDESS:”

…had it been just a couple of years before [the accident] that I had stood tall on the roof of my apartment building in the East Village, with the New York City skyline rising up behind me? [I was] dressed in John’s black v-neck sweater and tattered jeans, [….] costumed as an ethereal symbol of the counterculture. I stood in profile, my face tilted upward, my long wavy hair blowing out behind me.

Although Linton describes instances in which she attempts to distance herself from the passivity her condition seems to require by demanding her newly disabled body be taken seriously (especially by an “unassuming” salesman trying to take advantage of fitting her for a prosthesis), it is not until one hundred pages in that readers might begin to get the feeling Linton is finally approaching the real crux of her story. This is not to say that the text before this point is trite or inconsequential; on the contrary, as after her hospital stay she writes about exposing herself to a new world where she is a curious entity, moving to California to attend college only to find they have already discovered “the disability movement” and she does not quite fit into their image of it just yet, and situating the disabled body against “normative” notions such as travel, dance, sex, intimacy, and celebrity. It is precisely in this section’s substantiality that Linton is at last able to reach a crucial narrative point, revealing a poignant and pivotal moment in her life’s bumpy journey.

At the beginning of chapter nine, Linton writes, “I have become a disabled woman over time.” In that one sentence, she recognizes the importance of not being “made invisible by the label [of disability]” but instead by embracing it not only as an individual but also through forcing herself to recognize her position within a community. This is where the title of her memoir, My Body Politic, really hits the mark, as readers are let into the realization that her story is not just a personal one but is also a political one as well. Linton describes this argument in a circumstance where she relates her experiences to someone who “doesn’t seem so much rude as misinformed [….] the man will nod and commiserate and act as if now he knows what is important about disability – its genesis.” She continues, describing how she found the act of writing a political “release” as well:

I did not have the precise language to describe the other parts of the disability experience – the kinds of obstacles or the intrusive people I encountered every day – nor had I found a way to talk about my new situation as a natural state, my wheelchair as a convenience, or my experiences in ways that would be interesting to anyone besides myself and a few like-minded people.

Linton uses her memoir’s final pages to further describe situations in which she and others take a political stance by using their personal lives as impetus for change or response. For example, there is little room to argue with a political statement describing how friends of Linton’s were denied the ability to get married because it would drastically decrease their allowances for life-saving medical equipment, only to then have a mere two years together once their request was finally approved. Writes Linton of this tragedy: “That this nation made it so hard for them to marry and live comfortably in the time they had is the shame of this nation.” At this point, readers should truly appreciate how Linton’s narrative and personal stance have changed and evolved in order to use such circumstances to point out damning political paradigms that prevent disabled persons from living the lives they clearly deserve.

However, such a reading within a disability framework is not necessary for Linton’s story to effectively reach her audience, and perhaps this is where the true beauty of her story lies. Linton’s talent on the page enables her to have written a compelling narrative evoking important questions about humanity, including whether and why one deserves to undergo such emotional turmoil at the same time they must experience intense physical turmoil as well.

 

Simi Linton, My Body Politic. The University of Michigan Press, 2006: $30.95 (hardcover), $21.95 (paperback)

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Kate Grisim is currently a second-year Master’s student in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. She is a recent convert to the blogosphere at mylittlecrippledheart.wordpress.com and is currently halfway through a writer-in-residency position at a not-for-profit arts organization. 

A Review of Carrie Oeding’s Our List of Solutions

Carrie Oeding Our List of SolutionsA Review of Carrie Oeding’s Our List of Solutions

by Angie Mazakis

In a January 2010 blog post at HTMLGIANT, Elisa Gabbert, with the help of Mike Young*, cataloged popular “moves” in contemporary poetry, and the list, which is singular and far-reaching, is veracious in its deconstruction of the recent (and nearly-recent) ways in which poets’ work has attempted a unique voice. The list was undoubtedly welcomed by poetry’s readers and writers, corroborating our suspicions that certain repeated current devices may have become gimmick, especially if they are vulnerable to a collection of several examples and labeled as “moves.” At the same time, the list is somewhat dispiriting―all our word tricks exposed in one bill of misfare. (See #34 on Gabbert’s list: “Clipping or altering a cliché.”)

Carrie Oeding’s poems in Our List of Solutions, winner of the inaugural 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, transcend reliance on any of the devices delineated in Gabbert’s list, which, even to a minor extent, can be found in most current poetry. Oeding has achieved an exceptionally distinct voice that stands out among the assemblage of blossoming contemporary camps and persuasions by creating personae in her poems that illuminate the incidental, that offer hyper-awareness through witty, appealingly and truly unique voices. Oeding’s poems are a refreshing shift from imposture or imitation.

Though readers may find the speakers in Our List of Solutions alone on a dance floor or navigating a barbeque in a way that is more meditative and remote than social, they aren’t easily categorized as the standard introvert and socially isolated ingenues they may seem to represent at first glance; they belong to a social category of cool outside observers that has transcended the vagrant cynic; they’ve replaced aloofness with sensitive observation, have deflected incuriosity with perspicacity. They’re appealing because readers will want to participate in their unique perceptions, in the exclusivity of their rare appreciations (their own nice ears, for example). We feel their anxiety and envy it for its accuracy.

Their intimations of detachment often seem either accepted or self-invoked–they know too much about social normalcy (“Don’t wait for me to point out how people work”; “They all do what they’re only made to”). They are furtive and unbending at once, deliberate introverts who make directive statements while retaining their vulnerability. They are the solitary who do not want/need to be found (“Someone find someone who wants to find anyone/ and tell them no one wants to be found”). They are speakers who’ve resolutely jilted the stars (“Sandy Says No More! To Just About Everything”). They seem less anxious about their aloneness than they do about their advertent observations of the world and the people living in it. In “Sandy’s Beauty,” the speaker’s exposure of the social obligation of flattery creates a response that is both hilarious and touching at once:

One of my neighbors said, You’re beautiful!
As if she discovered Beautiful for me…

Hello Beautiful.
What do you like? It’s almost winter.

Frankly Beautiful,
I have always had a feeling about myself.

Sandy personifies the superfluous “beauty,” sits it down and deconstructs and talks to it, having been given something she already had.

Despite the shy authority of these voices, the solitary inwardness of many of the speakers does not lose its moving, heartbreaking quality:

and I’ll make my own table too.
Better, without chairs.

—from “Amy Wears Blue Shirts Every Day, Too”

The voice of “we” weaves in and out of the book, dispensing instruction or exerting a warning (“We all know what happened to Dean”) or acting as a collective speaker of the poem (“Do you whisper, I can do this better,/ Susanna? Funny how we knew that. / We’ve already done better.”) Though it seems that the voice of “we” in Oeding’s poems is caricatured, the collective voice has desires or tastes that act so singularly readers will feel as though the we’s assertion is something they should have already felt or considered along with them. The voice is so convincing that we’re left wishing we were part of the group. It is also another avenue through which humor is used in the collection. (“We’re going to stop. We have a date. You understand.”)

When we think Oeding’s speakers are going to indulge in “description by negation,” (number 36 in Gabbert’s list of “moves”), even then they surprise by turning the negation further, so that there is still something unexpected around a corner we hadn’t anticipated.

After six whiskeys he can’t tell which neighbor can see through him.
Without seven he can’t tell the night what he doesn’t see.

—from “His List of Solutions”

Oeding does this another time as a kind of hyperbolic way of criticizing a prescriptive approach to finding love:

Don’t just like the lack of choice
in who you could really love, like all the choices
you could make to avoid love in hopes of finding love.

—from “We Like Steve and Louise’s Love”

The line break after “choices” creates an unexpected turn in the directive as well as in the negative indicators don’t, lack, and avoid, which oppose the positive could, could, and in hopes. This works to create surprise and subversion while deconstructing the meaning of the word “choice” and considering the various possibilities of choices.

Another way that Oeding impresses through the unexpected is by asking an ordinary question and then asking the relevant question readers likely wouldn’t think to ask—one that, in the following lines, makes up an inquiry concerning fundamental desire that beautifully, achingly resonates:

I wish it wasn’t dancing that gave me joy—

Can’t there be something besides dancing?
or maybe can’t there be something besides joy?
Oh, can’t there be something besides joy?

—from “Joy”

Another technical way Oeding uses language inventively is when she returns to a minor word, phrase, or idea soon after it has escaped the reader’s attention in a pleasing and unexpected reintroduction. This is done in a way that makes the reader surprised at the technique and surprised that he or she didn’t expect it. In “Storm’s A’Comin’,” we’re told there’s “a story about Dean and one about a funny hat, a favorite hat flying off in the wind.” Two lines later, when the wind seems to have ordinarily passed, “Someone’s mom has gout or goat―it’s hard to hear above the wind.” The phrase “asking for trouble” comes up again, wearing a new layer of meaning, as well as “pineapple”―just when we thought the case on the pineapple was closed.

One of the delights of Our List of Solutions is in the way that Oeding illuminates the minutiae. In “Lullaby for a Barrette,” the single act of pulling back hair is illuminated and examined, as is the act of sending a package in “Packages Under Our Control,” but illumination of the seemingly negligible and forgotten is a quiet strength throughout each of the poems, whether for its own sake or to create the rare, exquisite impressions that singularize unforgettable speakers. Carrie Oeding exposes the hidden sides―the felt but unexpressed, the loudly perceived but unsaid, and in the act of saying illuminates them, “each sequin getting its moment to be seen.”

Carrie Oeding, Our List of Solutions. 42 Mile Press, 2012: $14.25

*Correction: This review originally misattributed Elisa Gabbert’s article as being primarily written by Mike Young.

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Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken BoatNew Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.

 

A Review of Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine

Wicked + Divine

A Review of Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine

By Tini Howard

The Wicked + The Divine, written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie, has a lofty title. Convinced the phrase originated from Dante or Milton or maybe even Shakespeare, I googled it. What came back instead were just two things: the comic itself and a highly metaphysical hip-hop group that seems like it’s been defunct since 2011. Which is actually pretty fitting.

The comics I enjoy writing about for At the Margins and elsewhere aren’t solely selected for being my favorites. I choose them because there’s something literary about them, something universal in appeal. In the same way that many of our favorite speculative novels cross the line between literature and spec fiction, the comics I recommend are every bit as honest and mind-blowing as the literature we can’t put down.

A current comic’s run is everything we love about reading and TV combined – both an intense story, with its effects unburdened by budget and heightened by professional art, and all of the breath-baiting wonder of waiting for next week’s episode. Like great TV, only better.

WicDiv, as fans are calling it, is produced by dreamteam Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Marvel’s Young Avengers). The concept itself is engaging, beautiful commentary – what if some of humanity’s gods incarnated every ninety years as pop culture stars, incandescent and inspiring and dressed to the sacred nines. (Ninety years prior, their past incarnation occured during the Jazz Age. Lurhmann’s Gatsby, anyone?)

With Kanye West declaring “I am a God” and Lady Gaga making appearances in a seashell bikini as Venus, it’s perfect speculative writing – the one more step feeling that takes a metaphor, makes it a literal reality, and forces everyone to handle the consequences. The book is beautiful, and prior to reading I was concerned the story would fall apart in lieu of high-concept visual references and music in-jokes. Totally eating that fear now.

At the center of the story we have Laura (whose name, word-of-God confirmed by open-book writer Gillen, is inspired by the Bat for Lashes song of the same name). Laura is a young girl from London who follows the fandom of the Gods, a collection of pop stars who each claim to be incarnations from various mythologies. The midpoint of the first issue is a scene that cleverly puts to bed any fears of the reader – the obvious callouts that these kids have just spent too much time taking Buzzfeed quizzes – isn’t playing dress up as a bunch of gods a bit problematic?

Everyone just wants to be special, Wicked + Divine asserts. And then maybe one day you find out you really are.

There is more to the story here, however. And not one that the gods control. Much like its suspected inspiration, Neil Gaiman’s classic graphic novel, Sandman, the narrative seems to be shaping up as one about the myriad ways being real can be ruined for otherwise immortal beings. With just two years of life for every ninety spent in waiting, it appears the Devil is being framed for one of the few crimes she didn’t commit. Now she faces spending it locked up, without so much as a place to press the creases back into her Thin White Duke suit.

Some of the most passionate and clever writers of our time are writing comic books, and The Wicked + The Divine is one I’d count among them. Gillen himself is a great writer for any process junkies to follow – he kindly recounts his inspirations for the curious in everything from writer’s notes on his Tumblr account to WicDiv-inspired playlists on Spotify.

While the book has a few flaws (Sakhmet is almost distractingly a Rihanna clone, for example, and Laura’s involvement seems a bit unclear as of yet), Issue One is nearly a perfect opener to a bright new world that Gillen and McKelvie have created. It seems God is a DJ after all.

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine, Issue One. Image Comics, 2014: Print: $3.50, digital, $2.99.

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TINI HOWARD writes about comics when she’s not actually writing comics. A winner of the Top Cow Comics 2013 Talent Hunt, her work is forthcoming from Image/Top Cow this November. Talk comics with her all day on Twitter @tinihoward.

A Review of Leah Umansky’s Don Dreams and I Dream

Don Dreams and I Dream

A Review of Leah Umansky’s Don Dreams and I Dream 

by Sarah Marcus

As a binge watcher of the television show Mad Men and as a feminist reading through a feminist lens, I was interested to discover the manner in which Leah Umansky would address the main character of this AMC drama, Don Draper, a mysterious and not so mysterious cheating-hero. Umansky accomplishes the difficult task of both honoring this fictional man and exposing his distorted idealism and chauvinism in her compelling work, Don Dreams and I Dream. To begin with the end, in her final poem, “The Times,” Umansky admits, “I thought I’d hate Don, like everyone else, but I don’t. I long/ for him the way kids long for the turning of the Ice Cream Man.” Umansky’s pining for Don is matched by her insight and mastery of language as she navigates the boundaries between a public and private sense of past and present and of intimacy and distance.

While these poems absolutely can and do stand alone without knowledge of the show, the experience of this chapbook of 15 poems is much enhanced by understanding the intricacies of each character and relationship. As I entered the world of poet-advertising, I was most struck by how, at first glance, these poems seem to be concerned with the past but are in fact very much about the future. These poems not only look forward, they often exist in a landscape of fearing things to come. In the TV show and in our current lives, there is an ever-present anxiety that what we do will eventually be considered irrelevant, and that we are, perhaps, living too much in this moment. Much of this work touches the very core of our search for worldly permanence.

Love, although not necessarily romantic, is a strong narrative thread tying together each poem in this collection. In these pages, the reader finds love of work, love of self, love as “an advertisement,” and love as “sold and bought.” While considering the many ways in which love is made visible or tangible, Umansky makes sure to remind the reader that they are not in charge here. For example, in the very first poem, “Simple Enough For a Woman,” as if the title was not enough of an affront, the reader is uncomfortably directed to “be happy.” Here, we are also enabled to consider the notion of value. These poems give life to the decision of who and what is valuable and asks us to determine how value is measured. The model of worth and of knowing what we are worth, and to whom, is the cornerstone, the key, to entering this world of consumerism.

To be your “own engineer” is the goal, and to be able to accomplish this, as seen in the poem, “Days of Sterling/ Days of Yore,” one must “[live] the dream” like Don. In the poem, “In My Next Life, I Want to Be an Ad Man,” we receive another bold direction: “Make me look good; the world is dangerous.” Appearances are of the highest import and looking good is always preferable to safety.

The world is dangerous, but these poems inhabit a world of what feels like distant danger, as if there is an awareness of impending doom, but there is inherent fun to be had within this instability. The dangers include not only the extravagant lifestyles (of women, booze, and parties), but also the rise of physical and emotional manufacturing: the steel machinery and the coolness of selling an idea. Near the end of this manuscript, there is even a poem titled, “Beauty is in the Machinery,” where Umansky writes, “It is easy to get turned or turned on,” as if chaos is necessary to vulnerability and the threat of losing yourself is not only worth the risk but is sexy and desired, even mandatory.

Generous wordplay and insistent internal rhyme contribute to a feeling that these poems are flirtatious and lighthearted despite their focus on identity and personal significance. The reader is reminded in poems like “It’s the Selling,” that “[we] want to be told” what to think, what to do, and how to feel. We are essentially being asked to buy these poems and these ideas.  And again, in the poem “How Advertising Works,” we are told to be bold and confident (forceful, even), to “be a stallion.” One cannot walk away from this chapbook without considering what they are selling and what they are being sold.

These poems reveal a meticulous planning and careful stepping, where everything feels on purpose and orchestrated. Perfectly arranged in the poem, “Creation without Design,” Umansky writes, “I want the color/ to repeat itself/ down your neck;/ So you remember/ that lipstick/ wasn’t made for you,/ but for me;/ So that I can remember/ what a man does/ to his woman.” A stunning image, but moreover a statement that a system is already set-up and composed. Something already existed and was done for you and in spite of you.

The manuscript’s final line, “It’s a man’s world, but not for all of us,” references the act of a young woman, one of Don’s protégées, rising in the advertising ranks and accepting a job with a competitor company. She is leaving the nest, so to speak. For her, and for a moment in our solidarity with her (we can taste the us), the world feels wide open and possible—but, it is a man’s world, and Don Draper is the man, and Umansky, like the show’s writers, never lets us forget that we are very much at his patriarchal mercy. This last line of Don Dreams and I Dream reasserts ownership of our delusion in thinking that things could, in fact, ever be different from how they have been. We are dared to want this, but as Leah Umansky cautions us in “Don Discovered America,” “wanting and having/ are two different things.”

Leah Umansky, Don Dreams and I Dream. Kattywompus Press, 2014: $12

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Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, Finishing Line Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). She is also a Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and an editor of Gazing Grain Press. Read more at sarahannmarcus.com.

 

A Review of Mike James’s Elegy in Reverse

Mike James Elegy in Reverse

A Review of Mike James’s Elegy in Reverse

By J. Andrew Goodman

Elegy in Reverse is a tense poetry collection exploring how loss and absence manifest. Family, friends, lovers, talents, and faith are shadows made measurable by experience and reverence in Mike James’s eighth collection, released by Aldrich Press earlier this year. James’s verse reminds us that what we hold dear is perishable and that words are often not enough to hold these things accountable for leaving. His poetry is plainspoken but evocative, fully rendering the familiarity of longing and grief for that which has a propensity toward leaving. Amid such an exodus, James captivates readers with his rapturous voice.

The characters of James’s past are made tangible by his written memory. In the early pages of his collection, readers are introduced to his mother and his alcoholic father; the latter is deceased and the former presumably so. In “Jailbird,” his father invents a dance, “the prison shuffle,” that the son enjoys, but his mother refuses to join:

when i was with your father
i had enough dancing
to do me
until cows or jesus
came home

she always
laughed
when she said that
as if she were saying it
for the first time

In economic verse, James details the family situation of his childhood: His father goes or returns to prison. His mother hopes to prevent her son from making similar choices. She makes light of her husband’s antics, yet reveals in doses the continuity of the past, her worry refreshed.

His mother appears sparingly throughout the collection, despite James’s apparent fondness of her, while his father returns frequently. The collection contains a number of heartbreaking poems about his father’s alcoholism, which “cost him a sense of direction,” ultimately turning him away from his family. The son is left only with his memory, piecemeal and bitter. James seems to believe he has inherited such transience. Or, possibly, he recognizes this as a feature of human nature, the human condition. He expresses “a sad anger” toward most loss or abandonment, writing in a poem later in the collection that “an old friend says leaving is contagious.” This sets a precedent for the remainder of the book.

Despite his ability to make good use of them, James recognizes that words often escape or fail us as well. In “Message at Babel,” James alludes to the biblical account of God confounding the human language. As part of a short series of poems within the collection that questions the necessity of disparity in faith, James explores through a lens of mourning what it means that Eve was possibly judged “before she even chewed,” that Job’s wife was silenced by her children’s “faces / so stiff in death.”

Still, James shows us clearly that language and voice help diffuse the power of death and grief. Our memories become stories, become physical. “I don’t know what to make / of the language / of grace” James writes in a poem about refusing to offer a prayer before a meal with his wife. The litany and ritual of biblical language are not as significant or endearing to him as experience itself:

those words / don’t cling to me / the way a blanket does / on mid-winter / mornings / / or the way we cling / to one another / at night / as we swim / across the ocean of our bodies / past the edge of our wants / / the night sky full of stars / mariners used / for passage/ their breath filling sails / with a word / that can be a taunt / a promise / or something close to grace / / home

James’s refusal isn’t a rejection of faith, but of its language, poor in its appraisal of our desires and necessities. He suggests silence is its own grace in “However Bright the Sun” and “Wild Apples.” In labor, we work through our grief and unpleasantness. We forget our losses, even though their accumulation manifests into a shadow, “some days . . .  into a taste.”

The dichotomy of what is unreal as it exists in reality is essential to James’s collection. He is visited by his father’s ghost, and they converse. Eden’s inhabitants are capricious, envious of Eve’s taste. James even defines an elegy as “a love poem to an abstraction / once touched.” It seems, then, that with poetry James is enabled to seek the abstraction through language, to define absence by its bounty. The way the monk in “The Monk’s Dream” seeks God’s face during sleep or contemplation but can think only of hawk’s feathers and an empty bowl is how we, with James, seek the unreal through the limitations of the real.

More than a reconciliation of grief, Elegy in Reverse is a love poem to language and the surprising result of what happens when we’re able to say the right thing. Even when describing that which is fleeting, Mike James’s voice is nascent, emerging. He is never at a loss for words.

Mike James, Elegy in Reverse. Aldrich Press, 2014: $16.00

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J. Andrew Goodman is a graduate of Murray State University’s MFA program and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.