thechapbookreview

July 2009

From the Editor:

Referring to a “poetics of the Middle East,” Leonard Schwartz in Language as Responsibility (reviewed by Josh Maday in this issue) talks about an “endless co-mingling, parallel conversation, cross-conversation, and confusion.” And later in one of his poems he writes that “[t]he very being of language / implies an other with whom to speak. / Language is always the other spoken to.” While I’m not sure about the notion that language implies dialogue, I do think that co-mingling, parallel conversation, cross-conversation, and even a kind of confusion all strike me as worthy goals for The Chapbook Review. And one way we hope to achieve these goals is through close reading of literature, what John Olson at “the glade of theoric hermetica” calls “extreme” reading.  Here he writes at length about what careful reading actually entails, and also helps distinguish writing that solely entertains as opposed to writing that also illuminates, broadens knowledge, challenges preconceptions, disrupts formulas and convention. Here Olson quotes at length from Anthony Burgess:

“There is a kind of novelist,” observes Anthony Burgess, “usually popular, sometimes wealthy, in whose work language is a zero quantity, transparent, unseductive, the overtones of connotation and ambiguity totally damped.” The aim of this novelist “can only properly be fulfilled when the narrated action is transformed into represented action: content being more important than style, the referents ache to be free of their words and to be presented directly as sense-data.” This is not reading. This is watching television on paper.

As for the other kind of novelist, and here we have James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Edgar Allan Poe in mind, “it is important that the opacity of the language be exploited, so that the ambiguities, puns and centrifugal connotations are to be enjoyed rather than regretted, and whose books, made out of words as much as characters and incidents, lose a great deal when adapted to a visual medium.”

The word-intoxicated writer of opacity and centrifugal connotation to which Burgess refers requires true reading. Attentive reading. Fully absorbed reading. Creative reading. Alert and aware and alive and perceptive reading. Deep reading. Engaged reading. Extreme reading.

This month we look at a number of “word-intoxicated” writers by reviewers who imbibe to excess as well. Nicolle Elizabeth’s brief but meaty exchange with Shya Scanlon opens TCR’s July 2009 issue. Following this, is a review of Tina May Hall’s All the Day’s Sad Stories (winner of Caketrain’s 2008 chapbook competition) reviewed by J. A. Tyler. Matt DeBenedictis swoops in with an image-drenched review of James Iredell’s Before I Moved to Nevada. Andrew Borgstrom appears again with one of his trademark playful reviews, this time of Norman Fischer’s Charlotte’s Way. Tina Hall’s sober reflection on torture, death, and hope in Sarith Peou’s Corpse Watching follows.

Before John Dermot Woods told me, I didn’t know that there were mini-comics, what he calls the comic book world’s “answer to the poetry chapbook.” So it’s fitting that Woods reviews Go Home and Go to Bed! a comic by Mary Ruefle. Look out for more mini-comic reviews in forthcoming issues. Another prizewinner, that is, Geoffrey Forsyth’s In the Land of the Free (Winner of the Second Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest) gets the full-treatment by Matt Bell, a recent prizewinner himself. Josh Maday returns with another in-depth analysis, this time of the aforementioned Language as Responsibility, a work that “weaves the often black-and-white points of view of this ostensibly impassable conflict into the vibrant gray fabric of humanity, proving that the foundation for peace already exists and merely awaits labor and material.” J.R. Angelella navigates the reduced formal elements of and the trajectories of loneliness in Moths Mail the House. J.A. Tyler’s second review is of Thomas Cooper’s Phantasmagoria, a collection of stories that “as it unravels and climbs, creates in the reader a fantastic balance: nothing overly exposed and no parts under-whelmed.” Borgstrom conjures up another surprise with his review of Spider Vein Impasto, a collection from Blood Pudding Press.

And be sure to check out the news page to see some things that have appeared in The Chapbook Review’s mailbox in the past few weeks. More of same (or similar, i.e., drawings, paintings, found objects, etc.) is encouraged.

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An Insistence on Meaning: Nicolle Elizabeth in Conversation with Shya Scanlon

I asked Shya Scanlon to meet me at this unspeakably awful dive bar in New York City to talk about his chapbook Poolsaid which was put out online by The Literary Review. Poolsaid is an incredible work about a family dealing with their matriarch’s losing battle to cancer, and the narrative moves fluidly through the progression and turmoil of loss. I wanted to know where the project had come from, because I felt three things: it was a beautiful, grotesque depiction of a sick woman, Scanlon’s a poet, and I loved it.

“I was creating a space for myself,” he told me, over our $1.25 cans of beer. “I had been writing another project and this was an offshoot of that. Poolsaid is kind of like passing out after a breakdown.”
We continued to talk about how works can bloom from other pieces and inform new ones. “Again, the project was actually a side project. I was breaking apart language. Moving through this eating away within the story, and moving on.”

Scanlon has also made his novel Forecast available online, free and easily available to readers, which I applaud. He’s rather productive, it seems.

“There is freedom in shifting perspective,” he said and sipped.

We spoke a great deal about writing from a male/female perspective, which I sometimes hate the idea of: gendered writing. But in this case, the elegant way in which he deals with writing from a dying mother’s mind is so aptly drawn, it couldn’t be overlooked. “I was heavily influenced by some authors. Like Diane Williams,” he said. “Working on the piece slowed me. To pull apart the words and move from patterns I had seen myself making (lyrically).”

Patterns attempted to be hidden aside: the fluidity with which the work moves is a deepening and thickening tributary in a bend, a river to find truth and sprays of unabashed vulnerability, and the attempt to break apart the language throughout the work is not lost. Lines cradling one word ring as hard-hitting as lines later making use of every device we writers have access to in our toolboxes. We talked a bit about the chapbook as a form for story telling. “To lead someone in a direction,” he said, “each word sort of aggregates and creates a trajectory. The sentence shifts the meaning.”

On our way down the block, I told Shya that while reading the work all along, a thought came to mind: that he was a poet. He didn’t get down with this sentiment, the distinction between the two, rather, so I put it another way: “Are your roots in poetry?”

“Well we all started out writing poems,” he said. “Right?”

Poolsaid can be read HERE and other works by Shya can be found at HERE.

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All the Day’s Sad Stories

A Novella by Tina May Hall
Caketrain Press,  2009
5 3/8 w × 8 5/16 h × 98 pp
Sixty-pound acid-free off-white text stock
Perfect-bound ten-point glossy cover
$8.00

Reviewed by J. A. Tyler

Let’s be upfront about this: I read Matt Bell’s The Collectors (runner-up in Caketrain’s 2008 chapbook competition that Tina May Hall won) first. And in full-disclosure, I loved Bell’s book. It’s a sparkling short text of tunnels and trash, fallen brothers, the sinking down of familial ships, the end of people. So if Bell’s fantastic effort was the runner-up, I had understandably high expectations for the winning novella, Hall’s All the Day’s Sad Stories.

And isn’t it lovely when everything turns out as it should?

All the Day’s Sad Stories is Jake and Mercy and x’s on doors, x’s and o’s in an ovulation calendar, a dead dog wrapped in a parka, Mercy’s womb the ground they till where nothing springs, hail coming going and the leaves pelted, their lives a shattered album of glass.

Written in flash sections, Hall strikes a perfect balance between emotional digging and a flowing, generous, easy pace prying at the reader while simultaneously letting it all go, moving on within a page or two, creating a rhythm that is pleasantly absorbing and delightfully tangling. Hall moves us in and out of character moments and movements like a symphony, where the tone changes subtly but the overall thought continues—a wonderful layering of words and living:

“Late August. The things they planted have grown and been plucked or eaten or given away. No more Xs bloom on their siding. Jake builds a bonfire of vines and tree branches in the backyard. The charred ring that results is as solid as the moon. Mercy chews hard lozenges of gum and spits them into the garden or swallows them. Seven years, she thinks, but maybe that is bad luck and mirrors or growing a new skin.”

And that is how Hall’s writing works, how it staggers out of these pages: full of light but still dainty and weightless. All the Day’s Sad Stories offers a driving plot without burdensome exposition, without massive explanatory dialogue, and yet heavy with beautiful symmetry and grace, a brand of caring that is often missed in flash collections or novellas built with segmented parts. The progression in these marred efforts is often undermined by an ill-chosen brevity, their rhythm disrupted by constant breaks; but here, Hall maneuvers everything with real ease. There is no straggling, everything moves slickly forward. Her scenic descriptions, demonstrating her powerful command of language, her tremendous honesty, hit the canvas with just enough images, just enough serenity, just enough caustic turmoil:

“This is the year of overabundance. Storms saturate the desert into bloom and the Great Salt Lake rises and butterflies that no one has seen in fifty year unfurl. And the stock market bulges slowly like a flooded river and the beef that Japan doesn’t want rots on refrigerated shelves…In California, botanists name new flowers after stepchildren and second cousins, grade-school teachers who smelled of cardamom and stale polyester.”

So while Matt Bell’s The Collectors is sold out, published in a single run of 100 copies, you can still lay hands on one of the 200 copies Caketrain made of Tina May Hall’s All the Day’s Sad Stories. A fast, smoldering read, this is a novella well-worth the time, money, and emotional purging it may instigate, well-worth the read to see writing that works, writing that challenges, writing that saturates while somehow remaining still gentle. Go. Go get.

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Before I Moved to Nevada

Before I Moved to Nevada

By James Iredell
Publishing Genius, 2009
$4.00

Reviewed by Matt DeBenedictis

On the cover is a deer. Look at it. It gazes as if knowing the chapbook Before I Moved to Nevada falls under its shadow. On the first page is a bear constructed out of words. Look at it. It’s in a kitchen, but no chaos comes to anyone.  Here James Iredell’s words are not ones of current action but of the past and breathe more space into the wide-open recollections of a small town, its sheriff, and local football teams.

Each page is tightly woven; James knows how to pull and stretch words, getting the most out of them without leaving them dry, chapped, hurting, and left to be pitied from overuse. He lets the words and stories unfold like the sky pushing the clouds away from each other. They have to live on their own. For instance, a character recalls, “Ike would end up dumping my sister, and I would want to beat him like any guy named Ike deserves to be pummeled. Eventually, though, I forgot about it. Until now.” Until Now is the pace, the stamina of Before I Moved to Nevada’s words. An almost forgotten life is revisited through geographical imagery where there is no talk of concrete, but the bitterness birthed in the city does make its way in the recollection making chilling lines like, “The creek had once slithered with brook trout. But they built hotels upstream. Instead of trout there are tourists, which are almost the same thing.”

This bitterness wrapped in the past comes from the rest of the narrator’s journey that ends in the chapbook Atlanta (there is a second part of the story coming out via Grey Ghost at some point in the future). By the time the narrator makes it to Atlanta, life is different: there is no open sky, no bears in kitchen, no cabin; just regrets, mistakes, and lots of things to delight in, of the illegal and illicit variety. (And let me say, Atlanta contains the truest description of the famed Claremont Lounge where the strippers are the “senior citizen wing of the Betty Ford Clinic.”)

In Before I Moved to Nevada, James Iredell shows his command of word craft. There is bitterness, there is regret, but it is all something to be cherished in the dwelled thoughts of a simpler time: before the skyline became filled with buildings, where no clouds point the way during the day and no stars sing at night.

Consume the words of James Iredell’s outside. If you opt for the digital chapbook, take your computer outside. True air is needed to surround each sentence and carry them to you.


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charlotte's way

Charlotte’s Way
By Norman Fischer
TinFish Press, 2008

20 pages
Accordion style
$12
Design by Terri Wada

Reviewed by Andrew Borgstrom

This book is spineless. No shit. No spine. This book looks like something the think-tank at McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern could have invented. You can open every page of this book at the same time. Like a doped up circus lion, you can jump through the center of this book like it’s a ring on fire. This book is a feat. This book is twenty feet.

Questions I would like to ask Norman Fischer:
Is Charlotte’s Way a portmanteau of Charlotte’s Web and Carlito’s Way?
If Charlotte’s Web and Carlito’s Way had a child, what would the child’s first word be?
Have you listened to the audio book of Charlotte’s Web while watching Carlito’s Way on mute?
Does the book line up with the film like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz?
Have you listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz on mute?
Did you start the CD on the lion’s third roar?
Do you think the MGM lion could jump through your book without getting burnt?

A possible tongue twister found in Charlotte’s Way:
“The priceless paintings are priceless but more priceless is the precious person / puzzling over them.”

A possible allusion found in Charlotte’s Way to the title of a book by Dave Eggers:
“WHAT / is what.”

A possible Billy Collins-esque line found in Charlotte’s Way:
“As I write this line a leaf blows by.”

I read Fischer’s book in a hotel in Forks, Wa, with Twilight posters in every shop window. I could have got a Twilight room, the marquee claimed. The extent of my experience with Stephanie Meyer’s series involves picking up one of her books in a checkout stand at a grocery store, reading three lines, exclaiming “Oh my Fuck!” and putting the book back on the shelf, but upside down, and backwards.

Questions Norman Fischer might like to ask me:
When are you going to review my book?
Why exactly were you in Forks, Wa?
“Is there a state possible in which we can be / Without watching and judging simply awake?
Have you read Meyer’s book while watching the adapted film on mute?
“Why doesn’t this sound like / A Presidential campaign speech, newspaper article, or a poem?”
Did you know Charlotte’s Way is a house on the California coast?
“Of magnificent awareness, is this concrete enough?”
“How does the floor feel now?”
“And where is the world without you?”

Fischer’s text wants you to see the growth a day makes, a poem creates (tape measure provided). It wants to be pressed against the wall—careful to keep its feet flat—and measured. Fischer’s text keeps standing on its toes. The words want to be taller than they are. The last line of each stanza returns as the first line of the following stanza until the last line, which is “going nowhere,” instead of connecting back to the first line to cycle within like the chapbook’s construction does without. But maybe this is Charlotte’s way, maybe this is where she’s going, maybe nowhere leads to where we’ve been.
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corpse watching

Corpse Watching
By Sarith Peou
Tinfish Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9789929-1-0
Paperback, 48 pages

$12

Reviewed by Christina Hall

One of the most intriguing things about this book is the faces on its cover. Large, basic, almost ugly brackets bind the book. Its production makes it so that photocopied black-and-white mug shots of children and adults are almost hidden. Their faces are sad, distraught, angry, reserved, hopeless and completely blank. They are the faces of some victims of one of the largest genocides in the twentieth century: upwards of thirty thousand Cambodian prisoners were killed at Tuol Sleng in the 1970’s. The photographs were taken before the prisoners were killed, thus we are looking at faces of the now dead, as if we, like Sarith Peou, a surviving prisoner, are “corpse watching.”

Peou is the voice of all the faces. He is definitely not looking for recognition as an author. In fact, it was his writing instructor, Ed Bok Lee, at Peou’s correctional facility who picked through the hundreds of pages of therapeutic writing and subsequently had this book printed. Peou’s poetry and prose are revealing and insightful in a matter-of-fact way. Unlike Anne Frank’s revelations and musings on the holocaust, Peou does not philosophize or write for an imagined audience. His writing style is rarely artistic and is only unique because of the experiences he writes about, but considering the chaos he lived through the uncluttered clarity of his words is a miracle.

In the first poem, “The New Regime,” Peou vividly paints the reality of life in a prison camp, without inflated phrases or artistic flourish, but with no lack of insight. It is a simple list of phrases: “No human rights. No liberty. / No courts. No judges. / No laws. No attorneys.” He moves from lists like these almost clichéd, obvious losses to smaller, more subtle, and much more moving phrases:

No affection.

No marrying. No divorcing.
No marital conflicts. No fighting.
No profanity. No cursing.

No romance. No flirting.
No fornication. No dating.
No wet dreaming.
No masturbation.
No naked sleepers.
No bathers.
No nakedness in showers.
No love songs. No love letters.

Through a kind of bittersweet sense of freedom, Peou takes generally un-beautiful things and makes them beautiful. He shows us that there was nothing in “the new regime,” even the freedom of emotion was slowly being stripped away.

Peou never says, “no innocence,” but it is there, in the rest of the book, sadly woven through his poems and his words. In “My Favorite Cousin,” he writes of his cousin’s execution for speaking English. “What did she do wrong? The innocent soul.” But he can’t remember her innocence or cheerfulness anymore, he says, “Twenty years later, / I still her see her that way. / Lost and distraught / As she was on that day.” The poem “My Sister Rachana” is one of the saddest in the collection. At the beginning, she is seven, crying for her mother and wetting the bed, as a frightened, innocent child would. She was beaten, starved, locked in the dark alone. When she was finally released, she couldn’t speak. Peou speaks of post-traumatic stress disorder, without ever calling it that, saying his sister can no longer have a normal, happy life. “She handles bad news / Better than good news,” he writes. Two fourteen year old boys with “mysterious” names and voices are the heart wrenching subjects of the concluding poem, “The Unfitted.” They are both brought into the “TMC: Traditional Medicine Center” ill and mute. While there, one boy begins speaking through disturbing drawings of weaponry and corpses, while the other eventually begins to sing and dance and smile, but before either are “fully recover[ed]” they are sent back to war as soldiers.

Sarith Peou evokes a sickening sinking feeling as well as strong sympathy from his readers. His words and images stick with us, much like the visions and voices that he cannot rid from his mind. Repeatedly, he speaks of being “reborn,” and says, “it is good to be normal again,” but through his poetry it is clear that the past still plagues him. The pain inflicted on Peou and more than 30,000 others is not one that can be forgotten or washed away. In “Scars,” Peou says literally, but with an obvious deeper meaning, “Our wounds are sprinkled with human ashes”—an image that will never leave my mind.
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Go Home and Go to Bed

Go Home and Go to Bed!
A comic by Mary Ruefle
Orange Table Comics/Pilot Books 2007
Edition of 500
$6 (plus $2 for shipping costs)

Reviewed by John Dermot Woods

This debut mini-comic from famed poet (and unknown cartoonist) Mary Ruefle is a promising first step towards a long and fruitful comics career. Ruefle has a talent for language, writing graceful poems that still manage to rub and abrade the reader. But a good poet is not necessarily an able cartoonist. So, did Ruefle choose to create a comic because she can draw really well? No, her technical abilities are limited to a second grader’s concept of perspective, show no care for composition, and she even makes use of tacky computer coloring to highlight (muddy) her book’s cover. Her work is not even created in the “bad-good” style pioneered by John Porcellino and practiced by talented cartoonists like Jeffrey Brown and David Heatley: visual poetry demanding to be judged on its own terms. Nevertheless, Ruefle’s comic, her interpolation of scribbled words and doodles, works.

Despite, and because of, Ruefle’s attempts to discredit her own depression in this autobio piece (yes, yet another autobio cartoonist has been born!), to trivialize her pain, the book is droningly painful to read, as it taps into that constant, low-level ache we feel at the tail end of anxiety; it’s a truthful and uninsulated encounter with quotidian failure, failure that will be waiting for us tomorrow – by definition. Ruefle can’t control her lines. Not even her handwriting is easily legible. Here, we see a poet physically losing control of her words. And her images are even further beyond her grasp. On the fifth page, she admits to her total “lack of perspective”—no further specification needed or given. It was at this moment when I understood why this lifelong poet turned to the comic medium for this little book.

This is a book about the limits of self-control. Her struggle is not a crisis of repression, but a game of chicken with a looming sense of defeat. When do we give in to the urge to be defeated? When do we lose control and stop fighting entropy? Or are our stupid attempts at personal order (Ruefle depicts her little apartment’s neat bookshelves and furniture arrangement, and even recreates a two-dimensional sketch she drew as a child of her grandmother standing on a brick patio—represented here as a neat grid of black rectangles—a precursor perhaps to Ruefle’s comic created almost half a century later) a self-defeating practice in themselves?

It’s a good thing Mary Ruefle decided to draw a comic. She’s given us another example of a story that can only be told using both words and pictures. Her work is not groaning under the weight of either genre expectations or the need to showcase an artist’s ability to shake those expectations, like the work of so many cartoonists who create ‘literary comics.’ This is not the work of a poet who wants to get in on this cool new “graphic novel” thing. Instead, Ruefle reveals her doubts about her ability to remain fresh, to say anything new with her poems. In Go Home and Go to Bed!, a well-respected writer and confident manipulator of language decides to tell her story in a medium over which she has little control, and as a result creates a quietly volatile little book that threatens to sink its reader along with its author.

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Land of the Free

In the Land of the Free
By Geoffrey Forsyth
Winner of the Second Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest
With an introduction by contest judge Robert Shapard
Rose Metal Press, 2008

Paperback: 40 pages, letterpressed covers
ISBN: 978-0-9789848-4-6
$12

Reviewed by Matt Bell

“I was born onto a cutting board in my mother’s kitchen,” begins the first of ten spectacular stories making up Geoffrey Forsyth’s In the Land of the Free. “Breadcrumbs stuck in my hair and skin. Every time I moved I picked up more and more breadcrumbs.” And so it goes for several hundred words, as this breadcrumb-covered baby narrates his parents’ dinner party from a cutting board and later from his mother’s dark oven. Starting from this absurd, fantastical opening story, Forsyth continues to carve out a country of his own from within the aesthetic boundaries set by writers like James Tate and Etgar Keret, bringing his unique vision and extraordinary gift for fresh language to life in this ambitious collection of shorts.

The more fantastical stories, with their frequent associative leaps and non-realist turns, include “Coins,” where the narrator and his make out partner keep finding loose change mysteriously appearing in their mouth while they kiss, and the title story, where a recently unemployed man feeds lasagna to an escaped zoo rhinoceros while enjoying a short moment of happy friendship before reporters and zookeepers toting tranquilizer guns burst into his backyard. “You’ve got to hide your happiness in the land of the free, if you hope to fit in,” the narrator tells us, just moments before the rhino arrives. “The zoo probably had already built a wider moat,” he continues, correctly noting that the animal wouldn’t be allowed to remain free, just as he would eventually have to return to work, to give up his happiness for the acceptance of those around him.

While the above stories generate immediate enjoyment from the sheer joyful weirdness of their associations, it’s Forsyth’s more realistic stories that offer the most concrete characterizations in the chapbook, as well as some of its most affecting passages. In the stunning “Hunchbacks,” two teenagers, Art and Buzz, nurse a bottle of stolen scotch while leaning their pillow-stuffed humps against the graves, observing that “the pillows… made leaning on anything, even a tombstone, comfortable.” While in the graveyard, they see the Agostino twins—“sometimes their girlfriends”—pass through with two other boys on their way “to the reservoir to fool around,” a recreation of similar trips Art and Buzz had taken with the twins. The story ends with Art vomiting among the tombstones as the Agostino twins pass them by, followed by the kind of disillusionment and failed change that resonates at the heart of many of these stories:

When his nausea had passed, Art watched Buzz take a sip and wipe his mouth on his arm. His lump had fallen down his back in a way that made Art feel sorry for the both of them. He didn’t like looking at his friend that way. He wished Buzz would fix it, but he knew that he wouldn’t. He knew it would stay lopsided for the rest of the night, in a place too hard for him to reach.

Other stories offer characters shaken up by similarly off-kilter events, as in “Excalibur,” where a childhood friend threatens to slice the narrator’s throat beside a high school water fountain, or in “The Wall,” where a sloshed man buys a nearby wall based on a salesman’s smooth talk and manipulative touch “on the places… where invisible buttons lay waiting to be pushed.” Forsyth’s paragraphs are full of poignant, surprising phrases and events, but because the logic in these more realistic stories is more psychological than dreamlike or associative, they may be the stories that feel most inviting, at least on the first time through the book. Luckily, this is a book you’ll read more than once, and the hidden gifts of each of its stories will continue to reveal themselves on return visits to their pages.

“Mud,” the collection’s closing story, is perhaps its strongest, and also the one where Forsyth most successfully merges his surrealistic urges with realistic characterization. The narrator is about to leave for a big day at work, where he has an eight o’clock meeting, one important enough that his boss calls him to remind him to bring his “good sense and [his] good judgment and the right frame of mind,” in addition to the all important reports he’s supposed to present. On his way through his house to the door, the narrator finds his dead grandmother sitting at the kitchen table, asking for a glass of tomato juice:

She had been dead almost five years, but here she was now, sitting in my wife’s old seat, covered in mud. I almost did recognize her because the mud had flattened her hair and darkened her normally pale skin. She said it wasn’t easy digging her way out of the grave and that it took most of the night…. While alive, my grandmother’s biggest pet peeve was having to ask twice for something she wanted. It drove her crazy. I poured her the juice.

“Grandma,” I said. “I hate to say this, but today is not a good day. I have to be at the office early for a meeting, eight sharp. People are counting on me.”

As if that weren’t enough, he then finds his father sitting in his living room, also arriving from beyond the grave. As he speaks with his dead relatives—and without giving anything else away, there’s at least one more coming—he finds himself torn. On one hand, the narrator loves his lost family, and wants to talk to them and hug them, as this rare chance to see them again is unlikely to be repeated, but there is also the ticking clock’s torturous pressure pushing him forward, reminding the narrator that he needs to leave for work, that he has his own “life to think about, the life that was, any minute, going to start without [him].” It’s in moments like these where Forsyth’s ability to compromise his characters comes through most strongly, as he places them into fraught situations that wake them from whatever life it was they thought they were living. In the Land of the Free, nothing comes easily, and what does come might not be what anyone would ask for. These are stories as pocket universes, tiny refuges and tiny hells, cunningly crafted by Forsyth so that there can be no escape without change, no revelation without cost.

Geoffrey Forsyth’s In the Land of the Free was the winner of Rose Metal Press’ 2008 Short Short Chapbook Contest, and a fine example of what has made that press such a leader in the form. In addition, the chapbook is printed between a French Paper cover with a gorgeous Indian silk and straw endpaper, making it almost as impressive an object as it is a work of literature.

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Language as Responsibility
Chapbook by Leonard Schwartz
TinFish Press, 2007
Design by Lian Lederman
Hand-sewn binding
34 pages
ISBN10: 978-0-9789929-0-3
ISBN13: 0-9789929-0-3
$12

Reviewed by Josh Maday

Leonard Schwartz describes Language as Responsibility as an “exercise in poetics, in which contemporary Israeli, Levantine, and Jewish-American texts are asked to speak to one another” where “Responsibility [is] the ability to respond.” Schwartz’s chapbook is divided into three parts, namely, interview (with a poet), an essay on the poetics of publishing, and an essay in the form of a poem, but Language as Responsibility essentially reflects the “endless co-mingling” of language and life—despite all efforts against it—among cultures with supposedly qualitative differences. With what we see and hear reported about the Middle East conflict, Schwartz’s project, while certainly denouncing terror and acknowledging suffering, ultimately stands apart in its optimism for better days, maybe even peace.

Language as Responsibility opens with a transcription of Schwartz’s interview with Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai on Schwartz’s radio show Cross-Cultural Poetics. We are reminded that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not, as it is so often portrayed by mainstream American media, black and white, but is gray, rather like the paper on which Schwartz’s chapbook is printed.

According to Wikipedia, Shabtai has been criticized for his refusal to continue writing in any one particular style or voice, of resisting the either/or dichotomy and the pressure to stick with one form, but opting instead to move within the gray of multiple expressive forms, as a way of mirroring real life. Schwartz ties this in with the notion of “The Levant” as defined in the second part of the exercise, his essay “Ibis”:

A poetics of the Middle East, or a poetics of “The Levant,” that older and broader geographical term, from “levare” (to raise) applied to the East for the rising of the sun? Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, French, Aramaic, Ladino, and Greek all figure, among others, as the rising sun’s languages, a list which bespeaks an endless co-mingling, parallel conversation, cross conversation, and confusion . . .

Here Schwartz, a Jewish-American, continues and elaborates on Shabtai’s demythologizing of the Middle East Conflict: “For ‘The Middle East,’ a modern political term, is most associated for us [Americans] with political realities far less polyglot, where languages and those that speak them i.e. with one another, and often kill each other, as opposed to speaking or assuming their place in the collage.” For Schwartz, a large part of the American failure of “response-ability” is the publishing industry’s woeful ignorance of translated work (see 2008 Nobel Prize controversy HERE). However, he focuses on one example of a publisher doing its part to counter this ignorance—Ibis Editions, based in Jerusalem, Israel:

Since 1998 Ibis has published ten books in English translation that in their unlikely juxtapositioning provide a glimpse into a Levantine reality that offers something other than the images from Baghdad we see televised for our benefit on a daily basis: explosions, technical gadgetry, the eclipsing of one flag by another, war as the basic standard of communication and expression. For the very reason that English is the triumphant language on the world stage—as well as the language hijacked by the warmongers in the Bush administration—these Ibis juxtapositions become crucial.

The third part of this exercise in poetics is a poem by Schwartz that reflects the way he, as a Jewish-American, embodies the entirety of this endless conflict, seeing from all sides as humanity tears itself apart for denying its response-ability to the speech of the other.

7) Helicopters empty their fire, tanks roll, writers write,
as Jenin takes place, echoing Shatila.
From the Negev to New York
my tribe is going mad.
In my distress, I call upon a Lord
I don’t believe in (7)
But the Jewish Arab
from Baghdad, writing in a language
his new land despises
dreams for seven nights
is real . . .

The very being of language
implies an other with whom to speak.
Language is always the other spoken to.

The first stanza above is the seventh number seven, and the seven in the stanza’s text, being the seventh (the number seven representing the number of God), demonstrates how saturated the cultures are with theology, which speaks to an earlier line (the fifth number seven: “7) geology is theology is fence”) and the suggestion of the time-hardened barrier that theological differences present. And even though Schwartz lives and works in America, he is not untouched by this deep conflict (“From the Negev to New York, / my tribe is going mad.”):

Memory passes into formal knowledge; knowledge begets
capacity and power; power permits forgetfulness.

[. . .]

Amongst all the atrocities
I shrug,
motoring in my new car
up the causeway, out past
Indulgence Farm – that robust enterprise-
far from the light of the little lighthouse
of First Anger.

Schwartz’s internal conflict is apparent. He expresses the entropic tendency toward forgetfulness when the actual suffering seems so far away, the attempts to shrug off the stinging awareness of the atrocities taking place. And yet, while that “First Anger” fades into memory into knowledge, where the power of distance allows one to detach and grow numb, he still cannot entirely forget. He cannot shrug his consciousness clean of concern.

Through his discussion of an Ibis edition of the poems of Ibn ‘Arabi, a 13th Century Arabic poet, Schwartz demonstrates how effectively this “juxtapositioning” can create rich unity out of diversity without any one viewpoint nullifying or subjugating the other. Ibn ‘Arabi wrote that “In every moment . . . the heart must change or the beloved is lost,” making Shabtai a modern day Ibn ‘Arabi, which should not be possible in the cut-and-dried world so often portrayed. Schwartz’s essay focuses on two books published by Ibis within three years, one a collection of ‘Arabi’s poems and the other a poetry collection by 20th Century Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem. “These two books offer a portal into the poetics of publishing as practiced by Americans in Jerusalem.” Schwartz shows how similar these two distant thinkers were; distant in time and culture, but certainly not in their common humanity and passionate concern with one’s relation with and responsibility to the beloved, the other. In Language as Responsibility, Schwartz weaves the often black-and-white points of view of this ostensibly impassable conflict into the vibrant gray fabric of humanity, proving that the foundation for peace already exists and merely awaits labor and material.

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MothsMail

Moths Mail the House
Poems by Michael Kriesel
sunnyoutside, 2008
28 pages. 5″ x 5″, silk-screened cover, hand-stitched
First edition of 300
$10
ISBN 978-1-934513-13-2

Reviewed by J.R. Angelella

Choose-Your-Own-Destiny in Moths Mail the House

In Michael Kriesel’s chapbook Moths Mail the House, the poetic form dictates the narrative.  When I first read through the collection, I was unsure of its aesthetic.  Each line is stripped of punctuation and divided into columns, forcing the reader to approach from multiple angles.  The poems can be read like a tic-tac-toe board, words pieced together from left to right, diagonally, or from top to bottom.  The collection’s title poem is a fine example of the capacity and capabilities of Kriesel’s chosen form.

Every light’s on           I’m drinking and         writing all night

tan moths cover           the black windows      like crooked stamps

all the windows           are covered with         dozens of moths

like blank stamps         dozens of moths          mail the house

Here, the meaning of each line bends at different angles, burns at different intensities, and sounds at different frequencies.  Essentially, the notion of desperation and darkness are explored, but depending on the angle and sum, the magnitude of the words changes.  Without punctuation, each line has a questionable beginning and end, an unidentifiable birth and death.  Some readers may read each poem as a long sentence, whereas others may insert mental punctuation, divide the carefully crafted words, and allow them to accrete in meaning.  Set into columns, the words corrupt the white space and stretch the fabric of intention into a thin linguistic skin.

The poems appear aesthetically simplistic, easily broken into groups.  Launching a critical cannonball into its depths though, the narrative structure changes posture and position.  Most of the poems in the collection are three-column poems, but a few have four columns, a difference that, on the surface, seems merely an aesthetic choice.  The form is an invertible choose your own destiny poem.  There are no indicators directing traffic on the page, so while one may default to reading from left to right, one may just as easily veer off in different directions. The four-column poems only use one word per line per column.  Even the titles are one word: “Silo,” “Souls,” and “Charm.” From “Silo”:

Wood              slowly              becomes          light

silo                   tilts                  toward             dawn

at                     first                  dawn               silver

dawn               light                 silver                wood

As mentioned before, the four-column poems break from a strictly linear narrative to explore a kind of abstract florescence, littering words across the page like shattered mirror glass.  A literal meaning is buried beneath an almost intangible poetic language, simultaneously exploring both the superficial and subterranean linguistic terrain.  In addition, a lovely repetition beats about the poem and suggests multiple possible phrasings.  The first word in every traditional “left to right” line can be replaced by the word below it.  Or a different word can be selected in every column to make a new sentence.  “Wood / light / becomes / dawn.”  “Silo / slowly / silver / light.”  “Dawn / first / dawn / dawn.”  The possibilities are endless and beautiful, which may very well be the point.

How does one exit a maze of possibilities when the possibilities are devoid of direction and defined space?

When faced with the use of three-versus four-columns, nailing down some kind of formal rule becomes difficult, if not confusing.  With so much authorial premeditation in the design of these poems, there needs to be an explanation for “Defrost,” an oddity that doesn’t fit between the two forms; it defies all explicability.  As I flipped through the book’s grainy brown and beige pages, all the open space jumped out at me.  Its beginning and end weigh heavy and wide with words.  However, the middle poems, starting with “Defrost,” thin out.

scraping           windshield      wasp

sunlit               frost                 thaws

frost                 melts                moves

Here, the collection pumps the breaks and signals a turn off of the paved path towards an unfamiliar dirt road.  This collection’s mission is to explore the desperate and tragic effects of loneliness.  It allows a reader to choose his or her own path for a poem and, if unsatisfied with its trajectory, allows for another attempt to be made, another path to be chosen, another outcome sought.  The poems stack images and words like bales of hay in a maze—bound cubes of identical product, arranged to form different designs.  And, somehow, I kept coming back to the first poem, “Poetry Vending Machine.” Everything needed to navigate Kriesel’s work reveals itself here:

Last night                    Last night                    Last night

I was so                       I was so                       I was so

drunk                           depressed                    lonely

I tried                          I couldn’t                    that I

to call                          even call                      tried to

you but                        you                              call you

the phone                    so I                              on the

was                              just got                         broken

broken                         drunk                           phone

so I                              and                              you left

wrote this                    wrote this                    behind

poem                           poem

Which destiny will you choose?
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phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria
By Thomas Cooper
Keyhole Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9821512-3-5
44 pages
$6.99

Reviewed by J. A. Tyler

Robert Olen Butler says that Thomas Cooper’s Phantasmagoria “is, to put it simply, one of the three or four finest collections of flash fiction I’ve ever read.” And Michael Martone calls these “stunning stories.” So there you have it: two fantastic writers touting a work with the utmost respect and admiration, a feat not easily achievable by any standards. Or is it? But whether you believe in the blurb-game or not, the questions remain: are these remarks about the book true? Does it deserve the praise?

Yes, I believe so.

Phantasmagoria begins by bringing the reader into a closet, where a tiny woman lives. Her life mirrors the narrator’s own attempt at getting a grip on things. In “The Old-Fashioned Way,” we find two men at odds in a cemetery, both putting flowers on the same grave. Shopping catalogues arrive for a dead woman in “Bounty.” A husband and his son in “Holes” dig up dirt searching for his dead wife’s “time capsule.”

From “Bounty”:

The silky paper beneath his fingers, so like her skin when he slicked her shoulders with suntan lotion long ago, and that smell of vanilla and lavender and nutmeg when he tips his nose closer, so familiar he can’t help but think, My god, Charlotte, is that you?

It’s a meaty beginning, one ripe with twisted language. Picture the vine weeds that crawl fences, the ones that take over when no one is looking, and no matter how much they are pulled they grow back, longer and thicker, strangling all the things we want to see flourish. This is Thomas Cooper’s wonderful flash collection from Keyhole Press.

From “Tricks”:

I want to slap some sense into this fifty-year-old woman, tell her this is no time for her tricks, but I would never dare. Instead I pick a hand. Sis unfurls her fingers and shows me the antique fob watch. For a second it doesn’t even feel like everything has changed.

But it is not all death and life gambles either. Phantasmagoria is also full of clever and smarting stories built on the same subtle, evolving language. There is a who’s who in America, a tornado martini topped with an affair confession, an object a receptionist cannot rid herself of, and an “M” laden baby-spoon that attaches itself to no one. Wit and bravado brim over in these stories.

From “Sir Montague”:

His mother sleeps late into the morning and he can hear her snoring from the kitchen as he makes himself banana and chocolate syrup sandwiches. Occasionally his mother is in such a deep sleep that she lets him stick pennies on her face. His record is thirty-seven, and he likes the sound they make when she gets up and they chime to the floor.

Each story, as it unravels and climbs, creates in the reader a fantastic balance: nothing overly exposed and no parts under-whelmed. And I would venture that this balance, this timed and smooth mixture, is what draws heavy-hitters like Martone and Butler to pen such kind and true compliments. Thomas Cooper’s stories are stunning indeed and this is a book, as Robert Olen Butler writes, “reveling brilliantly in the challenges of its compression.”

Whether blurbing is art or artifice is, in this case, irrelevant. Thomas Cooper’s Phantasmagoria is a startlingly well-oiled flash collection and deserves its readership. If the lovely and brilliant Keyhole Press has any of these left, chase one down and hang on to it until it shakes loose all of its language.

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Spider Vein Impasto

Spider Vein Impasto
A multi-writer project
Edited and designed by Juliet Cook
Blood Pudding Press, 2009
$8

Reviewed by Andrew Borgstrom

I thought Spider Vein Impasto was a restaurant. I opened the front cover and asked, Do I seat myself? The hostess said, Suit yourself. I looked down and noticed I was wearing a suit. I looked up and noticed I was sitting down. Someone misplaced my comfort zone, and my index finger twirled Juliet Cook’s pink hair in confused delight. Since I shave my head every Thursday, I was glad Juliet Cook had bound the chapbook I thought was a restaurant in pink string I thought was her hair.

I met Juliet Cook a week prior at the Pig Trough. She agreed to show me her words if I would show her mine, or something. I just remember resembling a puddle of blood pudding, or eating a pile of blood pudding, or both. I remember being called a cannibal. Before Juliet left, she whispered into my ear, I make body parts from food…and food from body parts. I tried to say I love you, but just drooled into myself instead.

At the Spider Vein, Juliet told me she had recently made eighteen friends. I wondered if she meant physically or socially. I smiled at both, two different smiles that made a new smile on my face, a smile that understood what she had made.  One of her friends named Jenny Sadre-Orafai said, “This isn’t going to be what you want it to be.” I said, I’m going to use that line for my own purposes in the future. Jenny said, “No, not on my watch.”

I looked down at my watch. No watch. I think Jenny stole my watch. Sharon Zetter accused me: “You tried to slick a straw in her ass, the red and yellow; the pink yelp.” I yelped. I noticed Nathan Logan had built a metropolis out of Arby’s food. I yelped louder. Melissa Culbertson calmed me down by telling me about Christian Bale and her ex-boyfriend. I could have listened to Melissa forever. And when she finished speaking, I could have watched Christian Bale movies with her.

I sat at the bar with John Rocco and did double shots. I asked him if he came here often. “I’m in a bar,” he said. The shots made it difficult to tell if this was a question or a statement… “inside my head,” he finished. So, often then? I asked. “Right you are, Viking witch, right you are,” he replied. I waited for someone to say I was taking things out of context, probably Jenny. But instead, Juliet Cook said, “May I recommend the red raspberry hot glue gun.” I yelped again. I yelped all the way home.

I sat wide awake in bed, thinking of the Spider Vein Impasto. I would return tomorrow for lunch, with friends. I would have to make some friends. I would ask Juliet Cook if she had any leftovers. “The procedure involves a 3-way mirror and a milking machine,” she will tell me. “I’m hooked…”

P.S. I took home a take-out menu. At home, I took out the menu:

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