Book Review: Studies in the Hereafter by Sean Bernard

reviewed by Michael Chin

studies in the hereafter

Studies in the Hereafter
Sean Bernard
Red Hen Press, 2015

An old adage tells us that nothing is certain except for death and taxes. Yes, taxes suggest giving up a portion of our hard-earned income, but when April 15 occurs to me, I think less of money than of paperwork–filling in numbers on a series of forms and hoping for the best that I didn’t overlook anything. It’s this sense of bureaucracy, mundanity, and unending work that Sean Bernard captures with aplomb in Studies in the Hereafter, his debut novel which explores existence after death as equal parts tale of human emotion and saga of administrative headaches.

Studies in the Herafter splits time between an unnamed narrator who reviews files of humans for placement in the afterlife, and the odd couple of buttoned-up but eccentric Carmelo and more free-spirited Tetty, whom our narrator has been assigned to assess. Twists abound as the narrator abuses his privilege of “insertion” intended to allow him to observe his subjects close up, and winds up all but falling in love with Tetty, and can’t help himself from interacting (a big no-no). Meanwhile the narrator’s own after-life assigned wife is facing an existential crisis—an unhappy woman in heaven, which turns out to be a dangerous thing to be as unhappy people have been disappearing of late.

The balance between personal is very much at the heart of this novel. In applying the lessons from his research to his own administrative position, the narrator concludes, “Work matters: it’s responsible for at least half a person’s life contentment” (148). And so, while the narrator largely maintains a collected exterior, it’s also clear he’s not particularly happy himself, and we catch a hint that he might even envy his more emotionally transparent and vulnerable wife. When he watches her at rest, he comes to the melancholy observation that, “the grandest any person can be is in sleep—perfectly filled with potential. It’s only when we open our eyes, when we speak, that the magic falls away.” (173).

Indeed, the narrator’s wife never does seem to quite fit into this afterlife. Even when she aims to socialize, it’s with both excessive and misdirected effort, such as the theme party she decides to host, primarily for the narrator’s work friends. The party schematic is equal parts ambitious and convoluted, centered around guests wearing masks that represent different emotions that they’re unaware of. Other partygoers must treat them as if they really are experiencing the represented emotion until the wearer catches on and actually begins to act accordingly. The sad, she says, will jump out a window, and based on the rules of their afterlife, will land safely, only to take on another mask. Confronted with a party that might compel them all to face emotions, no one shows up (though this is, at least in part, on account of the narrator’s boss keeping folks in to work late).

Studies in the Hereafter is most remarkable when it rejects specific narrative in favor of the subversive suggestion that Bernard is writing to and about each and every one of us. In the closing movements of the novel, after the narrator’s wife has disappeared and after the narrator has found her, and as the two of them look upon Tetty and Carmelo together for the first time. The wife, newly at peace, gestures to the other pair and tells him, “That’s us. You and me. Right there” (250) and we the readers are left to speculate if this is metaphor, if this is pointing out commonalities between the two pairs of entities, if this this a broader suggestion that we are all Tetty and Carmelo. After all, the very dedication in the front matter of the book labels the novel “for us, you and me”—a note that might be so intimate to Bernard and his kin that it necessitates no further identifiers, or could just as easily suggest this book really is for and about each and every person on this plane of existence and the next.

Studies in the Hereafter succeeds as many things. It’s a cleanly written narrative that dares to speculate wildly about the infrastructure of the hereafter while grounding it in office politics and paperwork. It’s also a profoundly human story of two people who do and do not mesh, moving closer together and further apart in as nonlinear of a narrative as any connection between two thoughtful humans tends to be. Above all, it’s a book that celebrates existence, for all its flaws and complications. The afterlife may not be better than the one we’re living now, but in Bernard’s imagining of it, we’re happy to see through all varieties of being in all manner of worlds.


Michael ChinMichael Chin won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, the Prairie Schooner blog, and Word Riot!. He is a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

Book Review: Evergreen by Sarah Frances Moran

reviewed by Clara B. Jones

evergreen

Evergreen
Sarah Frances Moran
Weasel Press, 2016

Once, a decade or so ago, I was complaining about a boyfriend to a Hindu friend who replied, “Clara, everybody has a story.” Of course, I learned from that experience not to take myself too seriously; however, reading Sarah Frances Moran’s chapbook, Evergreen, convinces me that some stories are more urgent than others. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), An American is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes and a child is victimized every 8 minutes. Feminists and their activist counterparts are keenly aware of the socially-, politically-, and economically-sanctioned differentials between men and women pertaining to power and agency. Though the inequalities of Patriarchy and inequality are inherent to American society, it was not until my late thirties that I consciously realized that many men were not benign figures and that, except for their self-imposed or legally-imposed restraint, most men are capable of dominating me physically. As a result of this insight, I assess any man’s control over his aggressive potential.

Sarah Frances Moran, Founder and Editor of the highly-regarded poetry journal, Yellow Chair Review, has experienced parental narcissism in the extreme. Confronted with a stepfather who is, at once, flawed and impotent, Sarah describes a complex relationship with a man who psychologists might describe as a person lacking empathy or the capacity for “Theory of Mind,” a person unable to view a situation from another person’s perspective. Raised Catholic, Sarah’s relationship with “Bebo” (or, “Dad”) is sufficient to seriously challenge her faith (“ What 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Says”—“They say this god will destroy him who destroys/ god’s temple./ They say this,/ but I don’t believe it.”); yet, despite her trauma, she is resilient enough (like an “evergreen”) to recognize her predicament as a complicated one (“The Child Is Gone”—“I wondered if there was something inside me you needed”) and to understand that her victimizer may be unable to appreciate Beauty (“The Child Is Gone”—“When you hear that songbird/ does it still rip you apart?”). Though some might say that Sarah is too forgiving of the man who sexually abused her, she refuses to allow the perpetrator’s moral and spiritual emptiness to define her own Truth. Furthermore, Sarah is on a path to discovery of wholeness that she invites us to accompany her on.

Evergreen is a beautifully-produced book with a haunting cover photo depicting a pine forest darkened by foreboding weather. The reader is aware from the outset that this is going to be a rough ride of expiation and “working through,” reminding me of other women artists who have used their practice in an attempt to come to terms with pain…psychic and/or physical. The visual artist, Käethe Kollwitz, comes first to mind for her many attempts to purge the distress of losing a beloved grandson in World War II. Indeed, the poet and critic, Harry Burke, reminds us that poets are like visual artists using the blank page upon which to record creative expressions, and Moran, like, Kollwitz, uses her talents to communicate strong feelings as well as their causes, effects, and (partial) resolutions (“Caution: Go Slow”—“I want my own cage/ and my own understanding”). Sarah’s narrative poems reside in the tradition of other “confessional” poets (e.g., Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds) for their deliberate attempts to draw the reader into the writer’s personal experience.

The organization of the book is effective, moving in sequence through the poet’s own stages of grief, in particular, feelings of betrayal, sadness, and anger (“This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid A Finger On Me”—“These are the cages I keep where I harbor/ all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.”). These sentiments are reinforced by the use of sarcasm, a defense mechanism protecting a wounded ego (“Every I Love You Lied Through Your Teeth”—“You’ll die thinking of me.”). Eventually, Sarah is forced to admit that the perpetrator is human (“The Child Is Gone”—“…pour into my inner sides and find/ what is it you lacked in yourself.”). The victim is not relieving the victimizer of responsibility but realizing that human beings can be, at the same time, evil and worthy of pity. In another stage, perhaps, still driven by anger, the poet stereotypes “Bebo” as in the poem, “Bebo The Broken”—“Very tall with tattoos on his arms/ and a busty Latina on his chest.” However, the reader would do a disservice to Moran by appropriating the description of the perpetrator. The characterization of “Bebo” and his failures, as well as his misdeeds, belongs to Moran, herself, and her stepfather’s characteristics are no laughing matter. The poet’s stereotyped description of her abuser is not an attempt to distance him but an attempt to highlight that he is a man as well as a buffoon.

Ultimately, aided by therapy and a loving partner, Sarah has been able to define and inhabit her own turf. She presents herself as wounded but healthier, wiser and grateful (“Salvation”—“A display/ of scars/ and wicked smiles/ whispered words/ and shouts that shatter fears.”). These beautiful and memorable poems reveal the poet’s journey toward enlightenment, which none of us completes, and they exhibit strong music and interpretive power, recording one woman’s path to a healthy relationship with herself and others. There is something in this chapbook for everyone, hetero-normative, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming (“An evening with Zoloft”—“It’s cotton candy kicked across the living room/ because I wanted chocolate.”). Reading these poems gave me insight about how to address my own experience with familial sexual abuse and, most important, reminded me of the importance of healthy self-care (see, for example, the poem, “If I Were Jane Gallagher”). Evergreen deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates the poetry of personal experience and should be recognized as an important poetic contribution to gender studies.


C Jones smallClara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, she writes about identity and power. Ofi Literary Magazine, WNC-Woman, Transnational, Bluestem, The Review Review, Mount Island, and 34th Parallel are among the venues her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in, and her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition. In the 1970s, Clara studied with Adrienne Rich and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.

Book Review: Violation, Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale

Reviewed by Joshua James Amberson

Violation

Violation: Collected Essays
Sallie Tisdale
Hawthorne Books, 2016

Sallie Tisdale’s thirty year career has been wildly varied. It spans from a history of salt to philosophies of sexuality, a sociological study of food to the lives of women Buddhist masters. Her books and essays are so wide-ranging that she should be mentioned in the same sentence, and as often, as writers like Rebecca Solnit or Geoff Dyer—as part of a group of modern writers who are willing to write about anything that captures their imagination and create work that exists just outside of the doors of classification. But usually Tisdale doesn’t come up in the same sentence, somehow hasn’t gained the same level of name recognition, the same reputation for risk-taking that Solnit, Dyer, and others have.

Enter Violation, a career-spanning essay collection out this month on Hawthorne Books which (one can presume) aims to change that. While it takes a moment to sink in to some of the early-in-her-career essays that begin the collection, once the book gains traction it becomes clear that this is a goldmine, a windfall of finely-tuned essays that manage to maintain a certain spontaneity. Each essay has layers beyond its ostensible subject matter, making connections that feel both surprising and strangely inevitable. The world’s seemingly-infinite variations of flies leads to her long relationship with Buddhism. The walls of her childhood home lead to a consideration of passion versus talent. Bad teeth lead into philosophies of pain. She looks at the allure of Disneyland, the chaos of the education system, and—again and again—at the complicated bonds of family.

The title essay, and the book’s centerpiece, is perhaps among the greatest essays about truth in nonfiction ever written. In an expansive braided form, Tisdale considers the ways writers violate the privacy of others—especially their loved ones—and what responsibilities this implies; what larger implications this has. “We fall between cowardice and kindness in our desire to be fair; between courage and cruelty in our need to tell the story,” she writes. “We are betrayed by our own amnesia, by the fact that one can never be sure.”

Tisdale likes considering grey areas like these, lingering in the in-between zones. “Long before I knew how to describe it,” she writes, “I liked ambivalence. Certainty has always seemed a bit dishonest to me.” And often her style of ambivalence feels almost subversive, somehow more radical than so-called radical writers. She’s open to possibility, to seeing life as complex, and is perpetually working toward finding a place where dogma ends and the daily lived reality can step into the light.

Even in essays about elephants in captivity or the work done in abortion clinics, she tries to make us feel the routine of it, the mundanity that comes from doing any one thing—even a highly-politicized thing—every day. The essays may have brief moments where they’re flashy, sweeping, making big, broad statements. But she always pulls back, provides a counterbalance, reminds us that every issue is more complicated than its surface, that reality doesn’t often match up with political rhetoric.

In the book’s introduction, Tisdale writes that the questions she comes back to are “about the nature of the self, what it means to live in a body, why we are all lonely, [and] how to use language to say what can’t be said.” It’s in the final essay—an almost lyrical, structurally loose piece called “So Long as I am With Others”—that we best see these themes melding together, becoming part of a larger whole. The essay doesn’t spend much time reflecting on when she was younger and didn’t have life figured out, but instead focuses on life as a middle-aged woman, with full grown children, still having daily existential dilemmas. It’s a raw, emotionally complex piece; a meditation on the inherent loneliness of being human. “A beloved friend tells me that I hold myself apart,” she writes, “and it feels like a death sentence. It doesn’t matter that she’s right.” The essay is odd and unruly—largely philosophical, fluidly darting between sadness and celebration—and at the same time a perfect distillation of everything that came before it.

At her recent book release at Powell’s Books, she said that this final essay was the one she couldn’t find a home for—the one all the editors she had worked with in the past said was, in different ways, “too weird.” She also said that it’s an example of the direction she’s going in, which suggests (to me anyway) that—as great as the essays in Violation are—the best Sallie Tisdale essays are still to come.


Joshua_AmbersonJoshua James Amberson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and creative writing teacher. His essays, short prose, and reviews have appeared in The Portland Mercury, Broken Pencil, and The Rumpus

Book Review: Becoming the Sound of Bees by Marc Vincenz

Reviewed by Thaddeus Rutkowski
becoming-the-sound-of-bees-mark-vincenz
Becoming the Sound of Bees
Ampersand Books
June, 2015

I read this collection of poems in fits and starts, mostly while I rode the subway to and from my class. I took in every word, however, and I appreciated Vincenz’s large, clear-eyed, often profound vision of the world.

One of the poems, “Amelia’s Orange Grove,” kept bringing me back. This poem is not typical of the book, in that it is about a romance, or a romance almost gone wrong. It is about a relationship between a man named Juan and a woman named Amelia. There is love between them, but there is also distrust, and probably infidelity. The poem begins:

Juan doesn’t dare ask, but knows Amelia has others—
in dark cities, in the dust of autumn, pictures her
winding down dwindling alleys where windows
slam shut at noon; sometimes he smells them
emerging from Amelia’s pores at night
when she sleeps and he turns, watching streetlight
flickering forgiving forgetting

The character Juan is suspicious of Amelia; he imagines her in alleys “in dark cities” (cities without light, or cities of dark people?) and he can smell other presumed partners emanating from her skin. And yet, there is a sense that this couple will stay together, because there is an element of “forgiving” and “forgetting.” There is also the suggestion that Amelia’s wanderings are only in Juan’s mind, because he doesn’t have the nerve to ask her about them, and thus he has no confirmation.

In the middle of the poem, Juan looks up at the sky and tries to identify constellations (he tries “to remember Sagittarius from Capricorn, searching for the virgin and the sky’s dangling umbilical cord”). It is not just an astronomical exercise, because he seeks the stars that symbolize purity and birth—qualities prized by many, in a wife. In this way the poet connects the universe with our own experience of life—something he does repeatedly and well throughout the book.

At the end of this poem, Amelia seems to promise a life for herself and her partner, in a house next to an orange grove, and Juan tastes the fruit of that grove as he eats an orange with the “skin, flesh, pips” and “swallows it all.” It is as if he is consuming the sweetness, bitterness—and seediness—of a relationship all at once.

In a later poem, “Fossil,” the personal world meets the natural world again as the speaker (presumably the poet) walks along a beach with a man named Ivan (presumably a friend). The poem begins:

He comes alive again & calls them
ancient crabs & I don’t correct him

though I know they’re trilobites,
he reaches down and feels their smooth

ossified shells, running his finger
along their ridges & appendages,

their sharp protrusions, moves his
thumb across their compound eyes.

I tell him, like us they could see
in stereo, complex eyes that caught

light into far distances, the first
complex eyes on our planet

Here, the poet makes a connection between the present and the distance past—hundreds of millions of years ago. He points to a similarity between our eyes and “their” eyes, suggesting that just as we see across eons, these ancient creatures could see “light into far distances.” And in the part of the poem not quoted here, there is another hint of romance as Ivan “looks sad again like when he thinks of Tatjana and the creatures vanish.” It is as if a loved one is going the way of extinction, as the trilobites did.

Becoming the Sound of Bees is filled with references to the natural, the ageless and the elemental. The cover art shows beekeepers, both male and female, dancing next to movable comb hives in an apiary, smoke jars in hand. Perhaps the message is that if we listen hard enough, that droning, buzzing sound will draw us back into something more primal, more durable, than what we experience every day.


 

CREDIT: Tony Cenicola
CREDIT: Tony Cenicola

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

 

Book Review: Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 6, Edited by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and Gerald Maa

Reviewed by Jenna Lê

AALR_v6i2-FallW2015-COVER_v5-1024x720

Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 6
Edited by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and Gerald Maa, with Guest Editors Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Sylvia Shin Huey Chong
Asian American Literary Review, 2015

As a child growing up in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1980s, I was struck by the apparent fact that all English-language media about the Vietnam War—history textbooks, novels, movies, documentaries, television programs, newspaper and magazine articles, and poems—were exclusively concerned with portraying the war from a U.S. military perspective. Both of my parents were South Vietnamese immigrants who—in the liminal, unnaturally-lit hour just windward of my 9 PM bedtime—would sometimes fall to regaling me with spellbinding oral accounts of their perilous maritime escape from a war-fractured Saigon in 1975, and therefore I was faintly aware that other perspectives on the war besides the U.S. military perspective enshrined in the history textbooks must exist. However, until fairly recently, I never had the validating experience of seeing such alternate perspectives on the war reflected on the printed page. Certainly, I never saw the full range of such perspectives explored via essays, poems, and visual art until I read the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, a special issue subtitled “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War.”

“(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” ought to be required reading for anybody with an interest in the Vietnam War, and especially for any American writers writing about the Vietnam War. Yes, the issue gathers prose and poetry from many of the first-generation and second-generation Vietnamese American writers who have made a splash on the U.S. literary scene in the past couple decades: Monkey Bridge novelist Lan Cao, The Book of Salt raconteur Monique Truong, laureled author of The Sympathizer Viet Thanh Nguyen, bard of Burnings Ocean Vuong, phoenix-like poet of trauma Cathy Linh Che (Split), and spoken word phenom Bao Phi (Sông I Sing). Given the obscurity in which such voices once languished, this encyclopedic marshaling of Vietnamese American voices, in and of itself, is a worthy achievement.

However, the accomplishments of “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” go far beyond this. The issue is also noteworthy for highlighting many writers and artists from mixed racial backgrounds. The issue includes Korean American artist Yong Soon Min’s photographic documentations of the unjustly-sometimes-forgotten role that Republic of Korea soldiers played in the war. The issue gives ample room to writers and artists with Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, Khmer, and Thai roots (many of whom, like myself, hail from the snowy climes of Minnesota: e.g., poets Soul Vang and Bryan Thao Worra). The issue gives consideration to the impact the war had on Guam and other far-flung territories. The issue features Muslim voices and Buddhist voices, exclusively English-speaking voices and bilingual voices, gay voices, transnational voices, environmentalist voices, veteran voices and refugee voices. Some pieces in the issue, such as poet Bao Phi’s, persuasively argue that Vietnamese Americans do not live in a vacuum but are linked by various affinities to other Asian American communities as well as to Native American communities and Black communities, that the circle is unending. As Yến Lê Espiritu writes in her prose piece on the Vietnam War’s “collateral damage” in Guam and elsewhere: “When I started my research…I was intent on documenting the war’s costs borne by the Vietnamese because I wanted to accord Vietnamese bodies the same humanity and dignity given to American bodies. I conceptualized the Vietnam War as a dyadic war between the United States and Vietnam — an asymmetric dyad to be sure, but a dyad nevertheless. What I came to realize was that the war…involved a constellation of U.S. former and current colonial territories…”

This issue of the Asian American Literary Review achieves a constellation-like complexity worthy of its subject not only via a thoughtfully curated polyphony of voices but via other means as well. The issue seriously explores and questions the significance of ethnic identity for displaced persons and families today (in a prose piece, scholar Mariam B. Lam astutely describes her lengthy response to the vexingly omnipresent question “Where are you from?” as “an old familiar story… that now feels like a requirement, a license, and a justification of some sort”). The issue directly engages with problematic representations of Southeast Asia in movies that once almost exclusively defined how Americans think of Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians (Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Gran Torino, The King and I, and others). It is worth noting that this issue is reading material for adults only (one piece, combining prose and very explicit visuals, considers the legacy of the pornographic movie Brothers), but what reading material for adults it is! Virginia Woolf once described the classic novel Middlemarch as “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” I wonder: would Woolf call “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” one of the few English books written for grown-up people about the Vietnam War? Maybe. In any case, it sets a new bar for Vietnam War scholarship and literature.


Jenna_Le-Jenna_Le_-_author_photo Jenna Lê is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor and Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

Book Review: The Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani

reviewed by Safia Moore

perception

The Perception of Meaning
Hisham Bustani
Syracuse University Press, 2015

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
– George Orwell

Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani labels the epigraphs for his bi-lingual publication, The Perception of Meaning, as “entrypoints,” and the quotes from Al-Hallaj and Tagore contain two words that define this challenging collection of prose poems: see and vision. But the doorkeeper of these often brutal, occasionally terrifying pieces (the publisher classifies them as short stories) does not welcome so much as grab the reader, forcing him/her to witness the colossal mess mankind has produced. Nightmarish imagery is rife although not all twelve pieces are surreal, and whilst Bustani often refers to particular places, people, and incidents in the Middle East, his outlook is unflinchingly global.

Recurring tropes such as evaporation, disappearance, people and objects dissolving like mirages, are in keeping with the book’s title: meaning itself can only be perceived, and as Descartes observed, perception has its limits. Most pieces do not so much warn in the prophetic sense, as blame: humankind is hastening its own demise and hope is invariably absent. In “The Book of Meaning,” man is portrayed as an actor with no shadow, on a stage with no audience: “It’s pointless,” he thought to himself, deciding to step down. Three poets “hurling poems at the opposite wall” demonstrate Art is no solution: “the poets have died, taking with them the similes and metaphors.” The intellectuals, the couple posting selfies online, the rich man, the beggar, all are alone, the world a mere backdrop to their pointlessness which is magnified by technology.

Comparisons with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land are inevitable, but Bustani’s work is born of the online generation, portrayed here as victims rather than masters of technology. Humour creeps into an otherwise pessimistic (some might say depressing) volume of work via Bustani’s take on social media and the effects of computer technology. In “Laila and the Wolf” (the Arabic version of Little Red Riding Hood) the legend is subverted with the grandmother sexually abusing the wolf and the voyeuristic hunter posting a video on Youtube. The killer line is, “a child threw his story book in the trash, and walked out of the library into the street.” I was reminded of W. B. Yeats’s “All changed, changed utterly.” Similarly, “A Game of the Senses” with its reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, suggests that technology and man’s devotion to it, have forced the five senses to “commit mass suicide,” the imagination destroyed, the mind “penned in by tall fences made of wires and high-speed microprocessors.”

I felt the most successful of these anti-tech pieces was “This Deluge of Emotion is Going to Make Me Vomit,” perhaps because I sensed a more honest poetic voice at play as opposed to the one in weightier poems requiring multiple footnotes. A series of confused questions, simply put, reveal the insincerity of online versus real relationships – the edges are blurred, do we know what is real and what is fake anymore? Human interaction, love, “has become a passing line that quickly disappears behind the top frame of the chat screen” and meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire, saying, “I have to defile you.” Technology caters to man’s base desires and clouds his ability to discern what is valuable and what is mere trivia.

The first piece, “Apocalypse Now,” directly references the Coppola film and sets the scene for the whole collection with effective images spawned by modern warfare and commercial greed. The focus here is on victims: human, animal and vegetable. While Nature cries, man responds with, “I will bottle your sorrow and sell it” and feeds more dead trees into photocopying machines. Environmental concerns are more specifically addressed in “Requiem for the Aral Sea” which also rues the catastrophic results of man playing god. But is there any hope in Bustani’s perception of the modern world? The title of the final piece in the book, “Salvation,” is apparently ironic with its reference to Jesus’s last words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The most arresting image in “Salvation” is the “small blue bead” (Earth) that “knows it roams in a wide, wide, wide space without purpose, without much consequence.” Optimism is an illness, cured by current affairs: “He swallowed the news broadcast twice a day, and wrapped himself up in newspaper before going to sleep.” “Salvation” ends by addressing the reader in the second person, describing post-apocalyptic man’s suffering as “endless,” a repeated word which fades away. It is a powerful, melancholic signing-off.

The translator of The Perception of Meaning, Thoraya El-Rayyes, has produced a work which comfortably embraces the English idiom and never sounds like a cover version of the original. This is fitting for a book with international influences and universal vision. Clearly, Bustani is not mired by roots or attachment to the Middle East; his world is your world too. The often surreal imagery can be shocking but the more realistic pieces stayed with me longer, perhaps because they felt more emotionally true. For example, “History Will Not Be Made On This Couch” depicts a man torn between holding on to his perception of normality (symbolised by his television remote control) or risking his life to join the Egyptian uprising in 2011. In this piece, the context is clear and the message unadulterated by metaphor or esoteric references.

Bustani tackles the “big issues” of modern life with imagination and originality. He is duly recognised as an important voice in Arab literature and his work is starting to appear on academic reading lists. However, to reach the general reader, perhaps Richard Price’s advice, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write,” is salient. There is evidence here that Bustani does this very well, but personally, I would have liked more of it. Having spent some time with this collection however, I am sure Bustani will find a niche readership that appreciates the magnitude of what he sets out to achieve in The Perception of Meaning. It will be interesting to see what he produces next.

 


 

Safia_Moore-Safia_Moore_BnW_PhotoSafia Moore is a writer and editor from Northern Ireland with a PhD in Irish poetry in English. Safia has published fiction, reviews, interviews, and criticism in various journals including The Incubator, Haverthorn Magazine, Severine, and The Honest Ulsterman. She is the 2015 winner of the Bath Short Story Award.

Book Review: Jackson vs. Matheson

HauntingOfHillHouse

I’ve been on a bit of a bender recently, reading all kinds of horror – an anthology of monster stories edited by Ellen Datlow, Rosemary’s Baby, and two (sort of) related books that have both been made into movies, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Viking/Penguin 1959) and Richard Matheson’s Hell House (Viking Press 1971). After having read both Hill House and Hell House, I realized that Matheson’s book was nothing more than a remake of Jackson’s book done by Michael Bay.

Although Jackson’s book is widely admired for being a ghost story, I think that’s inaccurate. Jackson’s finely-tuned story is told from the point of view of Eleanor Vance, the most emotionally and mentally vulnerable of the four people who go to Hill House for a summer to secure documented proof of the supernatural. While there are objective incidents that point to something strange about the house – the husband and wife contracted to bring meals and care for the place will not come at night, doors open or close themselves, writing appears on the walls – as the story progresses, it’s easy to chalk all the “haunting” up to superstition, poor construction, and neuroses. As the events of the story unfold, their interpretation depends entirely on whether the reader believes Eleanor to be sane or insane, and if Eleanor is insane, was that insanity incipient from the beginning, or did the house somehow produce this effect in her? The fact that the story is being told from Eleanor’s point of view means that we have only her word for many of the things that happen, including the incident where she is shrouded in darkness in Theodora’s room and extends her hand for comfort, only to find when she can see again that Theodora was nowhere near her.

The two stories have much in common: four people come to a house that is shunned by locals in order to study supernatural phenomena. One is an older male researcher; one is a psychically sensitive, attractive woman; one is less-attractive, younger woman; one is a younger man with a previous connection to the house. Given that there is a twelve-year span of time between them, it’s impossible to deny that Hell House is solidly based on Shirley Jackson’s earlier, in my opinion better, book.

The departures, though, are deeply troubling. Where Jackson depends on a nuanced, subtle painting of Eleanor’s inner mental state, Matheson instead adds a depraved, malevolent ghost who doesn’t just torment the inhabitants of the house, but whose sexual sadism particularly targets the women in the group. Matheson’s depictions of women in his other books, including I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, is decidedly hostile. Women’s sexual appetites are seen as threatening and emasculating, their desires are portrayed as unnatural and the product of a controlling, otherworldly force. Edith, the much younger wife of Dr. Lionel Barrett, is particularly targeted: at first, she is resentful at the fact that her husband, who suffered from polio as a young man and who is either impotent or afraid of sex, is not satisfying her sexual needs. Later, she seeks out first Benjamin Fischer and then Florence Tanner, becoming aggressively and inappropriately sexual with each. The nature of the activities that earned the house the name “Hell House” seemed to be mainly sexual – people would come to have sex in various ways and combinations, and the priapic nature of the house’s owner, combined with his own physical limitations, supposedly corrupted him so much that he continued his manipulation from beyond the grave.

It’s as though Matheson couldn’t let a young woman’s own emotional instability and fragile nature stand as its own source of disquiet, but had to invent a male character that would control the women by shaming and humiliating them.

I wouldn’t say that Matheson’s contributions to the horror and supernatural genres haven’t been impressive. I guess what I’m saying is that Shirley Jackson’s fiction was perfect as it was, and rather than up the volume to eleven, Matheson could have left this one alone and turned his fertile imagination elsewhere.


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. Her fiction can be found at Drunk Monkeys, Red Fez, Extract(s), and other fine literary journals.

Book Review: Slouching Towards Entropy by Lisa Mangini

reviewed by Allie Marini

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Slouching Towards Entropy
Lisa Mangini
Finishing Line Press, 2014

Lisa Mangini’s poetic voice is absolutely one-of-a-kind—my first introduction to Mangini’s work was while working at Lunch Ticket (No One Ever Told Me, poetry, finalist for 2013 Best of the Net award) and then later, Mojave River Review (Undressing, Childhood Logic, Phone Call to a Long Distance Lover, Annotated with Kierkegaard’s Diary, flash fiction) .

Mangini is one of those rare birds who works cross-genre and is equally adept in both: her poetry and prose are masterful, powerful, and command the attention of the reader in a way that’s seductive and cerebral. Slouching Towards Entropy, Mangini’s 3rd poetry collection, is immediately recognizable as her distinctive voice, but the subject matter of this collection (to this reader) steers her work into new territory. While the body of Mangini’s work is defined by a raw vulnerability and an intimate, confessional quality expressed in unconventional, memorable imagery, Slouching Towards Entropy takes these qualities even deeper, mining childhood experiences and memories for adult revelations. The main theme explored in these poems in not necessarily the experiences themselves, but the speaker’s having survived these things and how they have come out on the other side, changed.

The tone of this collection is planted as a seed in the first poem, “A Bird in the Hand,” where Mangini writes, “I was ten; I did not know/ names of birds or even painters—I couldn’t spot/ the angle of her neck and call it “Picasso-esque”/as I might now.” The juxtaposition of childhood innocence and adult comprehension is planted as a seed in the reader’s mind with this opening piece, a seed which grows, extending and unfurling from an idea to a unifying theme as each poem builds upon the one preceding it. The crescendo of this collection, is, to me, “Bird Watching at the End of the World (ii)”—the title of the collection, Slouching Towards Entropy, is taken from the last line of this poem, with a sly backwards nod to Yeats’s “Second Coming”, as well as Joan Didion: here, rough beasts can be birds, young girls, women in clubs, or the violence we experience and survive in nature or childhood, the effects of which only surface as understanding, years later. The final pieces in this collection, “The Last Meal” and “Boundary”, serve as a coda: a winding down, the calm following an emotional storm. The final poem, “Boundary,” re-zones the experiences, memories, and connections explored throughout the poetic arc and asks the reader to consider, “How far away is air before it is considered sky?”

Want another take on this collection? Read NonBinary Review contributor Angele Ellis’s review of Slouching Towards Entropy, Weave Magazine.


 

alliebattsAllie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems;  And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern WildThis Is How It EndsPictures From The Center Of The Universewingless, scorched & beautifulBefore Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless

Book Review: Refractions by Stephen Behrendt

reviewed by James Rovira

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Refractions
Stephen Behrendt
Shechem Press, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire presents a 999 line poem titled “Pale Fire,” written by the fictional poet John Shade, alongside annotations and commentary by a fictional scholar, Charles Kinbote. One of the more amusing features of this novel is the comparison readers make, intentionally or not, between some of the charming, everyday content of the poem and its scholarly interventions. As the poem broaches a wide range of subjects, real and imagined, it invites readers to engage with the beauty and mysticism of everyday life from baseball to our reading to light on a window pane.

Stephen Behrendt may well be a real incarnation of the fictional John Shade. He is, fortunately, very much alive and not in need of editorial intervention, so that the 90 pages or so of his poetry in Refractions, though punctuated by black and white art by Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, is presented to readers without annotations or other scholarly intervention. The poem is divided into five sections prefaced by a Prelude, “My Daughter Dances,” which is about the author’s adopted, eight-year old Chinese daughter and her public dance performance. It is a meditation on parental pride that remembers back to her adoption at eighteen months old and then thinks forward to the present moment of performance.

Section I, “Found/Lost,” primarily consists of flora and fauna poems that capture everyday interactions with the author’s immediate environment around Lincoln, Nebraska. Snakeskins, possums, birds, deer, snow, and ice dominate these poems, which in some ways are reminiscent of very traditional haiku – not in terms of length or form, but in terms of mood, tone, and subject matter. “Snakeskin” in many ways captures the mood and theme of many of the poems in this volume, describing how the author preserves traces and remnants of things past for his daughters to play with in the present.

The poems in Section II, “Little Mysteries,” are more questioning, engaging with the mysterious and the unknown. While they also describe encounters with nature, several poems are about encounters with other human beings and their losses, such as the death of loved ones or the loss of a job. “Dark Letter of Spring” is particularly moving as it describes another poet’s letter to the author describing how he has been unexpectedly fired, and how he is now “hunching his shoulders / against the winds of rejection” (p. 41).

Stephen Behrendt is a scholar currently serving as the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It isn’t surprising, then, that some of his poems engage his life as an academic, which are found in Section III, “The Archives.” This section consists of poems about poetry, art, and research. “Three Benton Pictures” is ekphrastic poetry about three paintings by Thomas Hart Benton: The Hailstorm (1940), Susanna and the Elders (1938), and Wreck of the Ole 97 (1943). The most amusing poem in this collection is found also in this section: “Seminar: Computers and the Humanities; or, An Academic Poem that Goes Astray.” This poem describes the narrator’s attendance of a digital humanities lecture that was entirely and pleasantly distracted by a young woman who arrived late and then started to eat out of a small bag of carrots: “We all try not to notice, try not to hear, / try to cancel out that sweet aroma…” (p. 54).

Section IV, “Places/Faces,” consists of travel poems. The first three are set in Arizona while the poem “Carolina,” sadly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s poems about death and loss, is about the daughter of an abusive and alcoholic father whose mother dies. All of these poems tend to be strongly characterized by death and loss: three animal poems describing death, estrangement, or distance between animals and the poem’s human narrator are followed by three poems about burning or clearing land. The final poem in this section, “Closing the Mill,” is about unemployed mill workers meeting at a bar for cheap beer.

The final section of this collection, “Harvest Time,” opens with a poem that compares waiting for a harvest to waiting for the dead to return from war. The second poem, “Garden,” is about a woman waiting for her husband to return from war and then receiving news of his death. Poems here often juxtapose images of dead fathers against images of death and dying in nature, such as leaves changing and smaller animals being hunted. This section ends with two poems about John Keats followed by a poem about coyotes. This final poem, “Coyotes at Midnight,” is about living on the border of wilderness and civilization and about the separation and misrecognition of wilderness, the wild, and of nature by civilization.

Behrendt’s poems usually consist of four to eight stanzas that vary from three to eight lines in length, the most commonly repeated pattern being six to eight four-line stanzas, so that most poems are about a page in length or a little more. While these poems are best characterized as free verse, lines most often consist of unrhymed iambic pentameter punctuated with anapests. These poems are very accessible examples of contemporary Americana, engaging a tradition of American Romanticism descendent from Wordsworth and Emerson. These poems are fully grounded in an everyday life that is invested with significance through the poet’s feelings and perceptions, and they contribute significantly to a growing body of early twenty-first-century war poetry. The word “refractions” then becomes a trope for our different engagements with everyday life and the variety of effects that it has upon us. Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton’s black and white primitivist woodcuts represent images of the landscape, birds, or plant life described in Behrendt’s poetry. As is usual for collections of poetry by Shechem Press, the book is beautifully bound and typeset, and is worth the time of an afternoon’s reading or of further critical engagement.


 

James_Rovira-jimheadshot2Dr. James Rovira is Associate Professor of English at Tiffin University, where he teaches British Literature, Poetry, and Literary Theory. His book, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety was published by Continuum in 2010. His most recent scholarship extends Romanticism as a field to contemporary film and television in articles for edited anthologies forthcoming from the University of Mississippi Press and McFarland and to rock music in his current edited anthology, Rock and Romanticism. He is also at work on the edited anthology Interpretation: Theory: History.

Book Review: rel[am]ent by Jamison Crabtree

reviewed by Zeke Jarvis

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rel[am]ent
Jamison Crabtree
Word Works, 2015

It’s easy to see that rel[am]ent is a great idea. Writing lamentations for classic pop culture monsters as the core of a book of poetry is exactly the sort of thing that’s popular these days. Of course, there’s a problem with good ideas, and that is that the writing doesn’t always live up to the idea. Thankfully, Jamison Crabtree’s rel[am]ent does live up to that promise. Strong descriptions and a patient, confident tone help to set tone and draw the reader in. Take the opening lines from “lament for dr. frankenstein”: “There is no word for digging in the rain, / but it should have a wet sound to it. For us, / the act of creation is like doing the foxtrot with crutches / except I would not crush your toes, you’d crush mine, / and together we’d have a miserable sort of grace…” The combination of immediacy of imagery and natural tone give an enjoyable setup to the idiosyncratic details about plumcots and shopping at Piggly Wiggly later in the poem. This combination of immediacy and idiosyncrasy help to give these poems a personal feel that shift the subject matter away from bland references to the source material and more into the anxieties and frustrations put on display by the poet.

These aren’t the only lines to show Crabtree’s smart balance of the source material with being able to stand alone. A lesser poet might rely primarily (or exclusively) on in-jokes and meme-level referential humor and puns. Wisely, Crabtree brings in images and lines that work well for fans of both poetry and monsters. In “lament for freddy krueger,” these lines late in the poem clearly call out to the film franchise: “You, who replaced his fingers / with razors, will injure / whatever you try to protect” will make fans of the films look at Freddy Krueger in a different way, and yet, the image is vivid and striking enough that even those who are largely unfamiliar with the films will recognize the sentiment and the unsettling quality of the image.

Of course, many of the figures that Crabtree takes on are big figures in horror that anyone will recognize (the creature from the black lagoon, Dracula, and the blob, for instance), but there are a number of lesser-known creatures that give Crabtree room to play with, like the incredible melting man and the incredible shrinking man, both of which have the usual humor (the opening words of “lament for the incredible melting man” are: “Steve! No, Astro-Steve”) and original use of the everyday that help to make them enjoyable and memorable.

It’s also worth noting that not all of the poems follow the “lament for” format. The prose poem “to paint it closed, to hammer it shut” maintain the odd energy and wistful feel of the book but it does give a sense of distinction through its playful use of parenthetical insertions to add ambiguity to many of the lines. And “we have unlimited lives” is a clever spin on video games, competition and desire that has a very personal feel even if it does not situate itself in a specific character.

Near the center of the book is the string of numbered fragments “golem,” covering. This poem shows Crabtree’s careful use of rhythm and white space, knowing what to give and, more importantly, what to withhold. The simplicity and elegance of some lines (take the following from XII: “He once said to me / if you buy the bullets, we can / use my gun”) have all the more power for their understated delivery. “golem” lives in an interesting in-between space between the laments and nonlaments, and it’s easy to see why it takes such a central spot in the book.

Overall, the book does a good job of honoring the source material without being constrained or limited by it. Unlike some works that treat their source material in an overly reverent or literal way, rel[am]ent uses these figures for inspiration, but it moves beyond them, making them the poet’s own so that this work is inspired by the monsters that fascinate us, but it is really about we who are fascinated.


 

Zeke_Jarvis-Piano smallZeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His books include In a Family Way and So Anyway… His work has appeared in Bitter Oleander, Moon City Review and Thrice, among other places.